Week 5 Tiered Rankings: Who belongs in the middle of the pack?

Tiers after Week 5, with a few teams looking like real power players and some big mysteries after that.

Tier 1: The Alabama Tier

(1) – Alabama

As you might imagine, this tier is for teams that can beat Alabama. So far, I really only see one team that belongs.

Tier 2: Not-Quite Alabama Tier

(6) Ohio State, Penn State, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma, Notre Dame

None of these teams would be favored vs. Alabama on a neutral field. In fact, some might be close to a double-digit dog. That says more about Alabama than these guys though. And despite James Franklin’s protests, I’d actually argue Penn State looked fairly elite against the Buckeyes all except for the playcalling, which was pretty dang bad.

Tier 3: Ain’t Played Nobody Tier

(5) West Virginia, Oregon, UCF, Kentucky, Colorado

All three of these teams can make a solid case to be one group higher, but I’m just not sold. West Virginia’s best win was Saturday against Texas Tech (which also lost to Ole Miss). Oregon should be undefeated, but instead it folded in its only tough game. UCF has a 17-game winning streak, but this year’s slate hasn’t exactly been electrifying. And Kentucky actually looks like a legit team, and the combo of Terry Wilson and Benny Snell is really good. But I’m not sure Mississippi State, Florida and South Carolina victories prove anything other than the Wildcats are above average.

Tier 4: Flawed-With-Upside Tier

(7) LSU, Michigan, Washington, Miami, Wisconsin, Stanford, Auburn, Texas

You can make a pretty good case for any of these teams to be contenders, but I’m also not sure I’d be surprised if any one o them finished outside the final top 25. LSU has some big wins, but also some ugly offensive numbers (prior to last week, but Ole Miss), while Auburn looks like a really erratic team at best, and potentially not very good at all. Miami looked awful in Week 1, but has a new QB. Wisconsin has tons of talent, but that BYU game. Stanford is lucky it doesn’t have multiple losses, but if Bryce Love ever breaks out, who knows? Michigan stunk in the first half of the first game and really hasn’t played a good team since. Texas stunk in the first half of the first game and has been OK ever since. And Washington is Washington.

Tier 5: Participation Trophies

(26) Florida, Oklahoma State, Boise State, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, Iowa, NC State, South Carolina, Boston College, Maryland, Cincinnati, USF, Houston, Syracuse, Duke, TCU, Indiana, Fresno State, Washington State, Cal, USC, Missouri, Texas A&M, Troy, Michigan State, Arizona State

Here’s the real problem group. We know by now that these teams aren’t pushing for the playoff, but some may prove to be pretty good, while others may be complete frauds. We just don’t know. And while that’s not an issue with narrowing our field of contenders, it is a problem with judging what constitutes a quality win. Is beating Florida a real asset for Kentucky? How about West Virginia’s victory over Texas Tech? Or will the Gators and Red Raiders end up being 6-6 or 7-5 teams that really don’t matter much. As this group thins, we’ll have a much better idea of the resumes of Tiers 1-4.

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Typically what I like to do as we get a little further along is to look at the records and performances amongst these teams. So, for example, there are nine teams that have multiple victories over tiered programs: Texas, Texas Tech, Clemson, Kentucky, LSU, Georgia, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Stanford. Obviously we can point out some flaws with many of those teams, but they’ve largely shown they can play with the big boys. This is also a more apt way of reviewing programs than saying something like “LSU has two top-10 wins!” when Miami and Auburn haven’t exactly looked like top 10 programs. It’s also worth noting that a few teams own a victory over tiered programs that aren’t tiered themselves: San Diego State, Minnesota, Purdue, Ole Miss, Temple and Old Dominion. Should we alter our perception of those teams? Perhaps we’ve undervalued someone like Minnesota, but I also feel pretty comfortable eliminating these guys from conversation at the moment.

Again, all this can (and will) change, and like with last week’s more analytical approach, the small sample size makes the info a little less reliable. But it’s a starting point.

Week 5 picks with Julian Whigham

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This week’s guest picker is the always insightful Julian Whigham, a former Syracuse defensive back who now provides analysis for the Syracuse IMG network and ESPN Syracuse radio. If you’re not already following Julian on Twitter, we highly recommend. He’s genuinely one of the best Xs and Os follows out there.

Q. What do you make of the Syracuse defense? The end of last year was a train wreck, but they’ve certainly played better so far in 2018.

A. The reason we saw the breakdown last season, I felt like, was the unit faced better quarterbacks — Lamar Jackson, John Wolford – who picked out the zone gaps inside the coverages and were able to exploit that. I don’t think teams earlier in the season did that. Against Clemson, they managed to knock out Kelly Bryant, and they faced a backup who couldn’t make plays. After that, they faced good quarterbacks and things fell apart. This season, there’s an emphasis in the secondary on tighter coverages. That’s not necessarily man coverage, but maybe a man emphasis type of coverage, if they get past a certain depth, you start to buy your guy and not play off so far. I think that’s played better for this defense, especially with improved defensive line play. They’ve done a great job of pressure from the front and tighter coverages.

Q. Dino talks all the time about tempo, and it feels like this year, the offense has full command of how to use it. Is that what you’ve seen?

A. You could see in the last game with Eric Dungey telling Coach, ‘Let’s ramp it up, let’s go, let’s go.’ You can see the guys, Coach Babers talked about there would be a year or two to click and everyone would just get it. Last season, the injuries midyear pushed back that process. Now we’re seeing it, Game 3, 4 and going into Clemson, that click that Coach Babers talked about, where guys just get it. There’s definitely a progression.

Q. A Syracuse optimist might say that the win last year shows the Orange can win this game. The pessimist probably says that it ensures Syracuse has Clemson’s full attention now. How do you think last year’s game impacts Saturday’s performance?

A. That defense Clemson has, that front four, I don’t know how this offensive line for Syracuse will handle them. They’ve improved, certainly, from last year to this year. They seem to understand their responsibilities that much more. But I don’t know how they’ll respond to that defense. Last year, Coach Babers had a very good game plan for Clemson’s secondary. They play a lot of man and will let their corners and free safety roam with a guy over the top, and they were using a lot of motions and bunch formations to really open up their guys. You saw the long pass plays to Erv Phillips and such. I don’t know if that’ll be there this year. I think Clemson will be much more sound defensively against what Syracuse wants to do.

And then with Trevor Lawrence, I’m not sure what he can do. He hasn’t been hit yet. He’s been sacked once. And this defense is playing really well right now for Syracuse. The front four has been playing really well the past few weeks. So you never know what happens once Trevor Lawrence starts getting hit. At first I thought Clemson was the clear-cut favorite, but I think Syracuse has a chance to really make this a close one in the same manner that Texas A&M did.

Q. What do you think a win Saturday does for Syracuse’s program in the bigger picture?

A. For me, and I think for this program, it would complete the 180 degree cultural change they’ve tried to put in place here. It’d signify a complete overhaul of what they want this place to be. Eric Dungey talks about not wanting to be considered a basketball school anymore. If they were to win this Saturday, I think Syracuse puts themselves on the map. Beating Florida State, it was a brand name program, but to beat Clemson two years in a row, to have a 5-0 start, to be back into the top 25 — it would make this a team with credibility that’s a real player in the ACC. It’s an opportunity for a program changing win. This could change the tide of Syracuse football for a very long time.

Q. OK, your pick for the game?

A. I can’t be the homer this year. I have to go with Clemson at home. They have too many weapons. But even if they’re 4-1 after this game and keep it as close as Texas A&M did, I think they have a shot at 10 wins. They don’t need this one, but a nice showing would do them a lot of good.

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Week 4 tiered rankings: With stats!

For the sake of adding some data to these tiers, I went through a small exercise for every FBS teams, ranking them 1-130 in each of eight key categories: Explosiveness, efficiency, finishing drives and converting third and fourth downs, both on offense and defense. To do this, I used the following stats:

Explosiveness = explosive plays/total plays, with explosive play defined as a run of 12 yards or a pass of 16.
Efficiency = plays per point
Finishing drives = % of drives inside opponents’ 40 that resulted in TDs
Conversions = 3rd coversions + 4th down conversions/total chances

Again, we did this for each team on both sides of the ball and added up their rankings for a total score. So, the best you could get is an 8 (1st in all eight categories) and the worst is 1,040 (130th in all eight categories). For what it’s worth, the actual best score belonged to Alabama (82) and the worst to MTSU (907). We didn’t include FCS games, so this skews things a bit for a team like MTSU which has just two FBS games so far.

Anyway, what did we come up with?

Here’s how the tiers shape up using a rough breakdown of those points, looking for large gaps from one spot to the next.

Tier 1

Alabama (82) — They’re the only team with a score under 100, and the difference between Bama and No. 2 is 49 points. So yeah, they good.

Tier 2

Ohio State (131), Penn State (160), West Virginia (175), Clemson (203) — I fudged this a bit to include Clemson, which is closer to the next group than it is to West Virginia, but it’s my stat, so I can do what I want.

Tier 3

Mississippi State (214), NC State (220), Michigan (234), Kentucky (241), North Texas (247), Oklahoma (251), Colorado (264), Wisconsin (279), Georgia (280), Buffalo (281), Washington (289), Notre Dame (301) — Here’s where we see issues of sample size. One blowout or one close game can skew things quite a bit. So you see Mississippi State and Michigan ahead of teams they lost to head to head. That’s fine. It’s to be expected this early in the year.

Tier 4

Cincinnati (306), Michigan State (307), Oregon (311), South Carolina (316), Baylor (317), Stanford (324), UCF (334), Florida (335), Boise State (345), Memphis (347), Houston (348), Miami (357), Maryland (360), Vandy (364), Fresno State (368) — Again some very meh teams here mixed with a few we have ranked much higher by the eye test.

Tier 5

Virginia (390), Oklahoma State (392), Arizona State (396), BC (403), USF (406), Purdue (412), ECU (413), Minnesota (414), FIU (415), Temple (415), Auburn (417), Duke (420), Syracuse (434), TCU (435), Hawaii (444), Missouri (446), Iowa (446), Southern Miss (446). – A real mixed bag here, but what should be noteworthy here is that teams we think of as pretty darned good like Auburn and TCU are all the way down here in Tier 5, and some others like Washington, Texas, Texas Tech, Utah and BYU aren’t on any of these lists at all.

Again, sample size means a ton here, so there’s no need to take any of it too seriously at this point. But what we can say is that, through four weeks of games, it’s clear who the most dominant teams are (and the numbers really do match the eye test here), while some of the teams we think are playing really well based on the end results may have a few more question marks than what’s shown up in the standings.

For what it’s worth, if you’re interested in separating out offense and defense, here’s how we ranked them:

Top offenses

1. UCF
2. Alabama
3. Penn State
4. Oklahoma
5. Ohio State
6. Hawaii
7. Houston
8. Mississippi State
9. Memphis
10. Boise State

And on defense…

1. Alabama
2. Auburn
3. North Texas
4. Utah
5. Cincinnati
6. Cal
7. West Virginia
8. Ohio State
9. Iowa
10. Minnesota

Of note, Clemson was 11th on offense and Florida State was 11th on defense.

The purpose of professionalism

Not to rehash the issue, but I got into a bit of a debate Thursday night on Twitter regarding professionalism among journalists. The debate revolved around a young intern who, I think, made an honest mistake in handling a situation, and I genuinely hate the idea that anyone felt the need to berate her. She’s learning, and everyone deserves the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. But my frustration came not from the mistake, but from those trying to defend it rather than learn from it.

Perception in this business is everything, because beyond any skill at writing or reporting or talking on camera, the most important asset journalists have is their reputation, and it needs to be protected above all else.

In discussing all of this, a Twitter follower offered a query to me and a few others:

This is posed as an either/or question, but I wanted to expand on why it’s really not.

We live in a very different media landscape than the one I grew up in, and in some ways it’s better. There are more voices, more outlets, more information being shared, more of a feedback mechanism for readers and fans. All of that is great.

There’s a downside, too, though. With the proliferation of fan-run blogs and Web sites, there is a diminished level of professionalism on many beats. I do not say this as a critique of anyone individually or of fan-run sites in general, many of which are excellent, professional and assets to the larger conversation surrounding a team or sport.

It’s just that, for those of us who went to journalism school, had mentors in the business, interned at big newspapers or TV stations, worked our way through the ranks — we learned something about how the job is done along the way. We learned how to deal with the incredibly difficult balancing act of building relationships and addressing reader demands while not sacrificing our objectivity, integrity or ability to be an adversarial voice when needed. This, I assure you, is not easy, and even the best of us still struggle with it routinely.

But if the barrier to entry into the marketplace of sports reporting is simply a keyboard and a Web site, there will be (and are) many folks on any given beat who don’t understand — or frankly, don’t care — about that balance. They are fans. And that’s fine. I love sports fans. I’m a sports fan. Sports fans are why I have a job. But when those fans enter a press conference or locker room or press box, they skew the perception of what our job is really about.

I know this sounds like a grumpy old man, “get off my lawn” type of oratory, and just another MSM complaining about independent voices and the loss of our gatekeeping power. I assure you, that’s not the case. I’m all for more people covering teams. I just want them to do the job the right way.

Imagine now that you’re a 19-year-old college football player. You’ve probably already been warned repeatedly about the dangers of interacting with the media. You work incredibly hard behind the scenes, and that work doesn’t always translate onto the field, and it certainly isn’t understood by reporters on the outside. You have a bad game. You do something silly off the field. You get hurt. Whatever it is, it invites some uncomfortable questions, and it’s our job to ask them.

But if there are fans on the beat, too, and they’re not asking tough questions, not writing unflattering things, creating excuses and suggesting bias from professional journalists — what’s that 19-year-old think? Which media members do you think he likes more — the guy who asks tough questions or the one who writes every loss into a win?

Imagine a  player — let’s call him, C. Newton. No, that’s too obvious. Cam N. Anyway, he spends a full season being lobbed softballs and sheltered from tough questions by the team’s handlers, then loses the Super Bowl. Two tough questions into the press conference, he walks off stage because he’s not used to being grilled. How does that help his reputation? How is it good for the reporters doing their jobs? How does it benefit the fans of that team? But it’s inevitable.

A coach has stories written about him by fawning media again and again, proclaiming him a hero, a builder of men, a truly virtuous member of society. Then a scandal breaks and suddenly every text message on his phone is deleted and an entire fan base wonders why that’s a big deal.

Again, it’s fine to be a fan. Fandom is why all of us started doing this in the first place. But you have to be able to check that emotion at the gates to the stadium and act as a professional, because when you don’t, it lowers the bar for everyone else there who is trying to do the job the right way.

Which gets us back to access.

There are certainly places that aren’t going to provide real access regardless of the professionalism of the beat corps. Kentucky basketball and Alabama football are just different animals, with coaches who have a very insular view of how their programs should be covered. I disagree with that view, and I think in the longterm it can be harmful to the organization and dangerous to the general public (see Ohio State, for example) but it’s simply a reality, and that’s fine.

But there’s also a reason many other schools are restrictive, and it’s because of the professionalism (or lack thereof) of the people wanting access.

A freshman says something dumb, as is apt to happen. Does the media follow up, ask if that’s how they intended to say it, offer them a chance to clarify? Or do they rush to tweet out the best sound bite possible? If even one “reporter” does the latter, there’s good reason for coaches to think freshmen shouldn’t be talking to the media.

A coach allows media to view practice. During 11-on-11 drills, they run a trick play. If even one “reporter” tweets that info out, why would that coach ever allow media at practice again?

A female “reporter” flirts with a player. It’s all harmless until that player thinks it’s OK to flirt with every female reporter.

A fan site offers to send all their questions for a one-on-one interview to the sports information staff to review in advance. That’s fine until that becomes the expectation for every outlet wanting a one-on-one.

After practice, players are made available for interviews. They’re surrounded by a scrum of reporters. A half-dozen of those reporters have their iphones or GoPro cameras out, recording every word of it, which will then be published, largely unedited, to their Web site. What’s my incentive to ask a good question that gets a good quote if it’s already being disseminated elsewhere? Suddenly there’s no good questions being asked.

The point is, professionalism should be the foundation, the benchmark by which we’re all judged. But when that bar gets lowered again and again, the perspective shifts significantly, and suddenly access is denied, glorification is required, and tough questions go unasked or unanswered.

My pal Chip Towers wrote about the draconian response Kirby Smart had to a story about an injured player and a completely fair question about how that injury occurred. In the piece, Chip pointed out the guidelines suggested by the Football Writers Association of America for access. You’ll not be surprised to learn most are not followed at UGA, and UGA is not unique. But it’s also true that, for us to expect professional treatment, we need to all act professionally. Indeed, the entire uproar at Georgia occurred because Smart blamed professional media for disseminating information that was actually being spread via fan message boards. Problem is, Kirby — and my guess is, lots of others — don’t know the difference.

So no, in the micro sense, it isn’t the end of the world if someone wears an actual cheerleader outfit into a press conference or if any fan with a GoPro can get a credential to practice. But in the macro sense, that stuff adds up over time, and it makes it harder for professionals to do their job, harder for players and coaches to separate the good reporters from the bad, and harder for fans to know who they can really trust.

And again, none of this is a call for credentials to be revoked or Web sites to be shut down. It’s just a request for all of us to do better.

How bad was it when Taggart arrived?

Sent out a number of tweets today trying to add some perspective to what exactly Willie Taggart inherited at FSU upon arrival. This was not meant to absolve Taggart of any blame for the Seminoles’ early struggles, but to add some perspective. We should’ve seen more of this coming. Is he struggling to find answers fast enough? Perhaps. But there were major problems before he arrived.

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Week 4 ACC picks with Wes Durham

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Our Week 4 guest picker is the great Wes Durham, who is one of the great ACC play-by-play voices of all time and was a member of the Georgia Tech broadcast team for nearly 20 years from 1995 through 2013. We talked with Wes about the current state of Yellow Jackets football and their chances of pulling the upset against Clemson this week.

Q. Georgia Tech has lost its first two FBS games of the year. Is it panic time or have you seen enough to be encouraged they can right the ship?

A. They have experienced players in areas where they can change the current slide. In some ways, they were their own worst enemy last Saturday at Pitt. I think better execution is the first step to being a better team. In my mind for Georgia Tech, it’s details more than a major issue in bouncing back.

Q. Obviously Clemson is really good. Do you see any matchups here though that GT could potentially take advantage of?

A. The challenge on Saturday is that in the last two years, Clemson has stymied what the Jackets do on offense. The advantage might not lie in the 1-on-1 matchup, as much as it might if Tech executes cleanly on Saturday. A step in that direction on offense would certainly help them.

Q. Expectations there are a little different than Florida State, of course, but if Georgia Tech were to miss a bowl game for the third time in four years, how big of a deal is that?

A. Georgia Tech is playing the 2nd most difficult schedule in the ACC this season (behind FSU in pre-season analytics). A second straight bowl miss would be frustrating to everyone involved on all levels. But not bad enough to scrap the process.

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Numbers vs luck in college football

I wrote a story over the summer on the never-ending debate between coaches, who think they can teach turnovers, and numbers folks, who believe turnovers are largely a matter of luck. You can read that HERE.

For the story, I chatted with Ed Feng, a brilliant numbers guy who runs a football betting site and produces the terrific Football Analytics podcast. He was kind enough to invite me on this week to talk more about the interplay of data and college football. Check it out HERE.

Week 3 Tiered Rankings

Tiered rankings after Week 3 don’t technically reflect my personal opinion. Pretty much all of Tier 2, for me, are teams that may not be as legit as their early records show. LSU’s offense is still a mess. Notre Dame has been extremely hit or miss. Penn State has had some huge second halves that disguise some uneven performances. But all have a ton of upside, too.

Tier 1: Legit: These guys are playoff contenders until they give us reason to believe otherwise.
(5) Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma

Tier 2: Trending Up: These guys are making their move, but still have more to prove.
(6) LSU, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Penn State, UCF

Tier 3: Hanging On: These guys are in the mix, but on the periphery.
(13) Auburn, BC, Iowa, Miami, Michigan, Oregon, Stanford, TCU, USF, Virginia Tech, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin

Tier 4: Resume Builders: These guys represent nice wins for the opposition, but have no real shot.
(19) Arizona State, Boise State, BYU, Colorado, Duke, Fresno State, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan State, Missouri, Memphis, NC State, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Utah, Vandy

Week 3 ACC picks with Ryan Janvion

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Our guest picker this week is the great Ryan Janvion, who starred at safety for Wake Forest for four years from 2013 through 2016, finishing his career with 328 tackles. These days, Janvion is a real estate broker in Boston, where he also serves as a consultant for a global education company that helps high school teachers develop educational travel programs for students. And, of course, he’s one of the Hall of Fame good interviews in recent ACC history. We talked with Ryan about this week’s showdown between Wake and BC.

Q. What’s it like, having been through the really lean years, to see where Wake is right now?

A. It’s incredible. You look, for me, literally coming in for the downfall, and having to live through going 3-9 back to back, I was fortunate to at least go to a bowl game. To look now and see my team on Saturday, and I know all the work they put in, I can know I had an impact on bringing the program back to where now we’re a challenger in the ACC.

Q. I’m not sure how much of the Clemson-A&M game you watched last week, but what do you think of the job your former DC, Mike Elko, is doing for the Aggies?

A. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had, and he’s probably the best coordinator in college football right now. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s done an incredible job. He did great at Notre Dame, and I think he’s going to do amazing things at Texas A&M. The defense he runs is pretty technical, so it takes a little time to master it. But when they get it, they’ll be a top defense, for sure.

Q. You live in Boston now, so I’m guessing you’ve seen a little of Boston College. What do you think of the matchup this week?

A. They’re definitely very improved. They’ve got probably one of the best running backs in college football in A.J. Dillon. He’s playing with confidence, and BC is known for just ground and pound. They’re hitting their stride. They’ve looked great the first two weeks. This will be their first test, and it’s going to be a tough game. People would’ve looked at this game a few years ago and said that it’s not a great game. But now, with these two programs that have done a great job of improving, it’s going to be a great matchup.

Q. As a defender, what’s it like trying to tackle a guy the size of A.J. Dillon?

A. What makes him different is he has a very low center of gravity. Some of the guys that are big, they run fairly high, so it can be easy to tackle them. With him, he continues to drive his legs after contact and he does so well at dropping his weight, which makes him so hard to bring down. And he’s got great speed, so he’s not just a ground and pound back. He can separate from defenders. And if you add that to the offensive line they have at BC, they play nasty football. They pin their ears back and play downhill football. Obviously the key to Wake Forest being able to win is being able to stop that run game and make them rely on the pass game.

Q. You played with John Wolford when he was thrown into the fire as a true freshman QB at Wake. Sam Hartman is doing that now. What do you think of how he’s handled himself?

A. He’s done good. I’ve talked to a few guys on the team and they’ve had nothing but good things to say. They say he’s thrown the best balls throughout camp and he’s been playing confident. The difference between him and John, John didn’t have a lot of weapons around him. Sam is able to step into an established, winning culture with guys making plays around him. You’ve got Greg Dortch, Alex Bachman, Cade Carney and Matt Colburn and Phil Haynes. I think Sam’s going to do a great job. Making those decisions on when to make a play or throw the ball away, that’ll come with time. But he’s a good QB, throws good balls, and for the most part, he’s making good decisions.

Q. OK, decision time: What’s your prediction for the game?

A. Personally, I’m predicting Wake Forest to win, but I think it’s going to be a high scoring game. I think I’m going 36-32 Wake Forest.

Last week’s picks:
Hale – 11-3
Andrea – 10-4
Jared Shanker – 10-4

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Burt Reynolds love affair with sports

Got assigned this story over the weekend and wasn’t quite sure where to start. Burt Reynolds spent a lifetime around sports, even though he hadn’t played since a knee injury in his college years at Florida State. He loved FSU football. He loved his former teammates, including our own Lee Corso. And he loved being around competitors. So, I just started making some calls and asking for folks’ favorite stories about Burt. They didn’t disappoint.

And, I must say, the highlight of all this is the Harry Gant footnote.

Enjoy… Burt Reynolds & Sports.