Dec 20, 2011

Next Iron Chef: Finale

I'm in a giving mood this Christmas season.  And I feel like giving you some blog posts.  If you're interested in that kind of stuff, be looking for several posts on seasonal things, year end reviews, and Christmas thoughts.  But first, I wanted to give my final thoughts on what was a tremendous season of Next Iron Chef.

At the very beginning, I picked Geoffrey Zakarian to win the contest.  So, I had a major rooting interest in the finale.  In addition, as I expressed in my last recap, I felt that Elizabeth Falkner was getting unfair advantages due to her being "just a pastry chef" and being "a woman."  I know that reality shows - especially ones created to generate a new position within a network - are going to be somewhat rigged in favor of the demographic the network is desiring.  The fact is that on Iron Chef America, there are no female Iron Chefs any more.  I'm not sure what happened with Cat Cora, but she isn't pictured on the roster.  Food Network would, naturally, want a female back in the lineup.  And, watching the season, the females seemed to be getting advanced on less than their male counterparts.  But, the problem came when it got down to the final five.  Women had to be eliminated and it was impossible to keep them in without it being blatant.

I didn't think that Elizabeth Falkner should have been in the finale.  Michael Chiarello was clearly the right choice to compete against Zakarian.  Throughout the entire competition, those two were the top chefs.  Now, Falkner was incredible.  At times she was brilliant.  But it always felt like she was being graded on a curve.  Even in the finale, Bobby Flay made the "just a pastry chef" comment.  At this point, that shouldn't matter.

If you watched the show, this next summary was said about fifty times.  But it came down to technical mastery (Zakarian) against creativity (Falkner).  That isn't to say that Zakarian isn't creative or Falkner isn't technical gifted.  Both chefs are insanely good.  But it really did come down to the fact that Zakarian is a technical master and Falkner is one of the most creative chefs I have ever seen in these contests.  This kind of conflict made it very tough to decide who should win.  Both chefs did an extraordinary job.  They had to create a holiday feast and both of them crafted something truly amazing.  So, what do you pick?

Michael Symon and Bobby Flay are brilliant judges in addition to being great chefs.  In the finale, they both made some extremely insightful comment that really distilled the challenge of who to pick.  Symon said that Zakarian is really a chef at the top of his game, his peak.  Falkner is just scratching the surface of how great she can be.  The flip version of that is Zakarian is older and there is nowhere to go be down and that Falkner is still somewhat inexperienced.  We see the same battle in an NFL team when choosing a quarterback.  Do you pick someone like Peyton Manning (before the injury) or Tom Brady who are technical masters and absolutely brilliant RIGHT NOW - but who will be sliding down the charts before too long?  Or do you pick someone like Andrew Luck or Andy Dalton who has tremendous upside - but who will make some mistakes over the next few years?  If you take the older master, you get to enjoy their brilliance without suffering through the learning process - but their shelf life is shorter.  If you take the new superstar, you put up with a few years of rocky performance - but you get to enjoy their ENTIRE career of brilliance, once they get there.

Flay's good comment came when assessing the range of skills the two chefs offered.  He said that Zakarian is at the absolute top of what he does.  But with Falkner, she probably does MORE things and gives a wider range of skills - due to her pastry background.  But she doesn't do those things as well as Zakarian.  This seemed to be the prevailing opinion with the judges.  As they went around, they were asked to give their favorite single dish of the showdown.  They all said Falkner's cranberry sorbet dish.  Then they were asked who made the better meal.  All of them said Zakarian.  This really was a picture of the competition as a whole.  Falkner's highs were higher.  But the consistency was all Zakarian.  He never really DESERVED to be in the bottom two.  Once he got thrown in there due to a rule technicality.  Once it was dirty pool by Anne Burrell.  The judges never really had anything bad to say about his dishes the entire time.  In fact, the first really negative comments he got were from one judge about one meat dish in the finale.  But Falkner made several dishes that were just ridiculously good.

I think that if you broke down the finale, it was really even.  At first they were supposed to make three dishes.  Then the Chairman threw two more dishes and a cocktail at them.  So they had to make five total dishes and a drink.  The reviews were pretty even - lost of positives, very few negatives.  In a real twist, Falkner won the "main course" over Zakarian.  His restaurant specialize in meat dishes.  But her Beef Wellington seemed to be better than his "gifts" of beef and vegetables.  I think something very telling was the dessert round.  Falkner was naturally brilliant.  She made a chocolate cake with peppermint snow and peppermint ice cream.  This should have been where she blew Zakarian away.  If he had done a passable dessert, he would have lost.  But he came up with a buttermilk and peppermint ice cream thingee that wowed the judges (except one).  I think that gave him enough leverage that he didn't fall too far behind in her expert area.

In the end, I was seriously worried that Falkner was going to win.  As I was watching with Heather, I told her as much.  "I really think Falkner is going to win.  Oh well, I just won't watch her episodes like I didn't watch Cat Cora."  It isn't because they were women.  It was because I hardly ever wanted to eat anything they made.  They weren't relatable.  Conversely, when Zakarian was presenting his food, Heather said to me, "I want to eat everything he makes."  We have actually talked about the fact that we will have to make sure we visit his restaurants when we finally get to go to NYC together.  That is the way I feel about Bobby Flay.  That is how I fell about Michael Symon.  And Guy Fieri.  I want to eat their food.  (And having eaten at Flay's Mesa Grill, I can attest that his food is absolutely amazing.)  I felt that way every week about Zakarian.  I rarely felt that way about Falkner.

When the results came in, Zakarian's picture was hanging on the wall as The Next Iron Chef.  I felt bad for Falkner.  She had put up a tremendous effort.  I was very impressed with her skills and resourcefulness.  But I had a hard time warming up to her, which is not a good quality for a network chef.  [On a side note, during the finale the Food Network announced a poll for viewers to vote on which Next Iron Chef contestants should get a shot at redemption.  Is this next year's theme?  I hope so.  I can only imagine Falkner, Anne Burrell, and last year's loser Marco Canora will be a part.  Sound great already.]  All in all, I thought the season was amazing.  The cooking was out of this world.  And it was fun to see these personalities that are all over the Food Network actually demonstrating WHY they are all over the network.  I look forward to Zakarian's first battle this Sunday.  Thanks to all for putting up with my thoughts on the series.

Dec 10, 2011

2011 in Review: The Year Sports Imploded

In the coming weeks, you will be inundated with Year in Review posts from every self-obsessed blogger out there, as well as every news, entertainment, and sports site.  So, far be it from me to avoid jumping on the bandwagon.  My seven followers demand no less.  I have always been a sucker for Year in Review stuff.  It was a fun way to go back through and revisit events and remember where I was.  Now that I am older, I often forget what happens on a day to day basis, let alone stuff that went on back in February.  So these recaps are useful for me.  "The Royal Wedding II was THIS year? Man it seems like forever ago."

As I go through these posts, though, I want to do something different than just a recap.  I am not qualified enough to give a thorough rundown of the importance of events.  And I am biased.  Things that don't interest me would not be included - even if the rest of the world think they are important.  Looking at Yahoo!'s top news stories of the year, they had the Casey Anthony trial and the death of Amy Winehouse.  Those may have been notable - but I never would have listed those.  I also don't know how many of these I'll do.  It's like Christmas - surprises around every turn.

I'm going to start with sports.  Again, I don't plan on just recapping who won the different titles.  If it isn't my teams (it's never my teams) then I really could care less once the event is over.  I had to think for a minute to even remember who the title winners were this year.  Instead, I want to look at how sports in general progressed (or regressed . . . mainly regressed) in my view.  This year will be forever remembered (by me) as the year the sports world lost its collective mind.  It also will be the year that, for the first time, my affection for sports was smaller than my disdain for sports.  If I were being polled on if I viewed sports favorably or unfavorably, it is definitely unfavorably.  Here are some of the biggest reasons.

NBA LOCKOUT: Personally, I was more irritated by the NFL labor situation than the NBA one.  But I am putting them in this order so that I can highlight some points.  The NBA lockout was frustrating on many levels.  The biggest is no matter how noble some of the points were, the basic concept of millionaires fighting with billionaires over money still is hard for most Americans to stomach.  But it didn't affect me that much.  I don't usually watch basketball until the All Star break anyway.  I'm too busy with football.  So the NBA starting late didn't bother me.  And the reasons FOR the lockout were somewhat understandable: player salaries are out of control, there needs to be some level of revenue sharing, fans of small teams need some hope.  So I could see that and realize something needed to be done.  What I hate about these labor situations, though, is that the people who get hurt the most aren't the players or owners.  They are the complementary industry people.  Living in Orlando, I was made more aware of stuff like this.  The city paid a LOT of money to open a new arena for the Magic.  There are tons of companies whose existence are completely dependent on the Magic playing.  The city itself was counting on the All Star game.  It was awarded because of the new arena.  And it was constantly threatened.  People lost their income; some lost their jobs.  And for what?  At the end of the day, nothing seemed to change.  Immediately after the new agreement was signed, owners started overpaying players, players in small markets started manipulating the new rules to escape to big cities, and the teams took the opportunity to cut staff.  The Magic had promised they would not cut positions during the lockout.  Immediately after the agreement was reached, the team laid off twenty employees and eliminated twelve seasonal positions that had not been opened yet this year.  Good job, guys.

NFL LOCKOUT: Basically, take the offensiveness of the NBA lockout, remove the legitimate concerns.  There's the NFL lockout.  Where the NBA one at least was somewhat about reconstructing a flawed system, the NFL was purely about money.  It was two sets of extremely wealthy individuals fighting over EIGHT BILLION DOLLARS.  Bill Simmons likened to Scarface, with the giant pile of coke on the table.  Except with this lockout it was a gigantic pile of dollar bills - and there was a gang war over who got the most.  Yes, there were some peripheral issues that were addressed.  But those could have been dealt with during a conference call or small meeting.  The lockout was strictly money.  I don't know about you, but that is extremely hard for me to accept.  The cities are the ones who built the stadiums, who provide the fans, who create the secondary companies.  And they are basically told to shut up and sit on the sidelines while the money is split up.  Lots of people have already forgotten the lockout and moved on.  I'm not like that.  I never really was interested in baseball after their last labor problem.  I can still enjoy a game, but I never have been as invested in.  I have a feeling this lockout (along with #8) will have a similar effect on me.  I rarely check my fantasy lineups.  I only watch games when I'm with my in-laws.  That's pretty bad for a guy whose favorite sport (by far) is football.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL SCANDALS: It seems like scandals have ben a part of college sports for as long as I can remember.  I very clearly recall SMU getting the "death penalty" in football back in the 1980s.  I remember when Florida won the SEC and couldn't take the title.  But this past year seems like it was one of the worst I can remember - not even including #4.  Ohio State sent Jim Tressel packing due to coverups.  USC can't play in a bowl game from numerous issues.  Miami penalized themselves to try to avoid bigger sanctions.  Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton was surrounded with controversy as he won the national title.  The national title game was jokingly referred to as the battle for which team would earn the right to forfeit the title in five years.  Even my beloved UCF was caught up in recruiting violations all over the place.  Throw in the inappropriate behavior by the Fiesta Bowl officials and the questionable movements by lying head coaches and you have a for a very rotten system.  Of course, that all pales in comparison to the next point.

PENN STATE and SYRACUSE SCANDALS: I wrote about the Penn State Jerry Sandusky scandal when it first surfaced.  And it just seems to get worse.  That is coupled by the accusations that emerged about the Syracuse men's basketball program.  Both schools have many similarities - a small city that is completely wrapped up with the university in question, a long time head coach who seems to transcend other authorities in the area, a long time assistant coach who has almost as much power as the head coach and is shielded by the head coach.  Both are heinous.  Due to the scope and detail of the Penn State case, it is worse.  It seems like just the tip of the iceberg has been discovered, too.  What happened to that D.A. who was investigating and disappeared?  How in the world can Sandusky be so adamant about his innocence?  How many more kids will come forward?  These were two of the "good programs" in college sports.  They didn't deal with the scandals and the negative garbage - or so it seemed.  Instead they were hiding horrific secrets.

NBA PLAYER MOVEMENT:  One of the biggest stories of last year was LeBron James stringing along the people of Cleveland (and New York) before bolting to Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a "super team." One of the biggest stories of this year was James choking the Finals as the Heat lost to the Mavericks for the NBA title.  At least, that is the story to average people.  To NBA stars, it showed that James' plan to bolt and partner with his buddies instead of making a career in one city worked.  Remember, this was the FIRST YEAR in Miami.  They didn't even figure out how to make all those egos work until half way through the year.  They will probably run roughshod over the league this year, now that they have had time to work together.  It was like the floodgates opened.  Now, big shot players started to force their owners' hands to allow them to leave for bigger markets.  Carmelo Anthony held Denver hostage until they sent him to New York to partner with Amare Stoudemire.  Deron Williams did the same thing in Utah, ending up in New Jersey.  So, one of the big sticking points in the NBA lockout was finding a way to keep these big name players tied to their teams - even if it was in a small market.  So, what happened?  The agents had figured out a way to circumvent the process before it was even started.  A player could sign for far more money with their current team than any other in free agency.  So, instead of playing out their contract, now these players are forcing trades a year early so they can resign with their dream team.  It is dirty pool.  Chris Paul did it the Hornets.  Then David Stern went completely bananas and voided the trade with NO GOOD CAUSE.  It was perfectly legal.  Stern was just ticked that the players were able to go around the rules so fast.  Now Dwight Howard is about to do it Orlando.  These guys all want to team up and, in effect, create a handful of "super teams."  You'll have superstar jammed teams in Boston, Miami, Chicago, L.A., New York (which includes the Nets now).  Then the other teams will basically be the farm system to the big teams.  It is going to turn into baseball.  The small teams draft and develop talent, get a few years out of those players, and watch them leave to win titles.  As a Magic fan, I detest this.  I know all the fans of big teams love it.  Yet another reason to not care a whit about basketball.

MLB PLAYER MOVEMENT: For years, I have hated how the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, and Phillies poach big name free agents from the smaller teams.  I have learned to really like the Tampa Bay Rays.  They play in a division with the two richest, most loaded teams in the sport.  Yet, they still make the playoffs on a regular basis.  They have a payroll that is a third as big as the Red Sox, but they eliminated Boston from the playoffs last year.  The problem is, they can't keep up.  The Rays had an amazing team a few years back - one that easily could have won a World Series if it had five years to play together.  But they got one shot.  Then they got poached.  The thing is, those players that flee for bigger paychecks seem to be disappointing more often than not.  Take Carl Crawford.   On Tampa he was the big dog - making all the right plays.  He was a legend.  In Boston, he's getting booed.  He's just another overpaid player who isn't reaching the impossible to reach expectations.  It is the perpetual question for these superstar athletes.  If they stay with their original team, they will become legendary.  But they will probably leave money on the table and may only win one title (or they may never win one).  If they leave, they COULD become one of the biggest stars ever.  Chances are they won't, but they will at least be rich. Look at A-Rod.  If he had stayed in Seattle his whole career, he would have been seen as the greatest of all time.  He probably would have one ring at the end.  Now, though, he is seen as the flagship example of the overpaid athlete.  He's widely mocked and ridiculed.  He still could be the greatest of all time, but no one likes him.  And he still has just one ring.  My hope had been that things would be different with Albert Pujols.  He was so synonymous with the Cardinals.  He is such a nice guy and good model.  I hoped he would be willing to buck the trend.  Instead, he listened to his horrible jerk agent (seriously, go read about that guy) and signed with the Angels.  Now he's just another big name on a big team.  Another owner trying to outspend the rest for a title.  Pujols will be richer.  But he'll never be as loved or legendary as if he had stayed.

COLLEGE CONFERENCE INSANITY: Boise State is in the Big East.  That is all you really need to know to understand just how stupid this whole conference realignment process has been.  It was a mad scramble to consolidate power.  No one wanted to be left out of the big money.  And, like with the lockouts, no one wanted to share.  The big teams don't want to see other teams develop and enter their ranks.  They want to keep the other teams down.  If big schools had their way, they would pare down their own conferences and just have a mega conference with only the elite schools.  Instead, we had a massive reshuffling of the deck.  Syracuse and Pitt are in the ACC?  Nebraska is in the Big 10?  Colorado is in the Pac 12?  Rivalries, histories, allegiances.  All of those went out the window.  All that mattered was getting a piece of the pie.  Texas and Texas A&M aren't in the same conference any more.  Neither are Nebraska and Colorado.  Then the Big East, the weakest and most vulnerable of the BCS conferences, had to find some way to survive.  So they pulled in two Texas teams, one California team, probably one Colorado team, and Boise State.  It was all about getting Boise State.  And for the Broncos - the team with the best record in the nation over the last five years - they got tired of watching the big paydays from their dorm rooms.  So they needed a seat.  As a UCF fan, I'm not going to lie and say I'm not excited to be in the Big East.  I will now get to see a real rivalry with USF develop.  I will be able to watch some of the best college basketball teams in my own backyard.  And I'll have the chance to watch the incredible Boise State Broncos play my Knights.  I just hate the machinations that happened to get things there.  And I realize that for those teams left on the outside looking in, their hope to ever play for something significant is basically dead.

FOOTBALL CONCUSSION PROBLEMS: The concussion issue has been bubbling at the surface for a few years now.  The studies have been out there.  The arguments have been starting.  But it seems like in 2011, things accelerated.  The NFL had enacted measures last year to try to avoid concussions and help players who had suffered them.  But this year we watched as players who obviously had experienced a head trauma go back into the game.  We saw multiple retired players die unexpectedly and under suspicious circumstances.  We also saw college and (especially) high school players get seriously hurt - or even die - from head injuries.  Football has become a sport that is on the verge of improving itself to death.  The rules that were enacted decades ago do not take into account how fast and strong modern players have become.  The human body is not built to take that much damage.  And if we see athletes from the 80s dying due to complications from head injuries, how much worse is it going to be with modern players?  (The same thing goes for professional wrestling.  How many wrestlers have to die in their 40s or start to act completely irrationally before we realize there is a serious problem?)  I have not been able to enjoy football anywhere near as much since I started reading about concussions.  And with every story like Dave Duerson's, I get detached a little bit more.

There were some great sports moments.  But it seemed like this year had more than its share of negative ones:  Dan Whedon dying in a wreck and the Oklahoma State coaches dying in a plane crash, the idiotic riots in Vancouver when they lost the Stanley Cup, the attack by Dodger fans on the Giants fan.  It used to be that sports was an escape from the ugliness of the news.  Instead, it has become just another source of disappointment and stuff I don't want my kids to hear or see.  And I am less and less interested in it.  I think there is a larger divide between sports and the common person.  I can't relate.  I don't understand why it is necessary to squeeze every dollar out of a contract.  Isn't $220 million enough?  Why does it have to be $250 million?  I don't see how it benefits colleges to screw over other colleges.  I can't understand how you can turn a blind eye to children being abused or players knowingly getting seriously hurt or your own employees suffering.  There are certain qualities I find important in my own life.  And I find that those are less and less represented in the world of sports.  I know there are people out there who will cry, "You are so old fashioned!  You can't impose your values on other people!  Wouldn't you take a higher paying job if you could?!?"  I am old fashioned.  I miss being able to cheer for a player and know they will spend their career with one team.  I believe in loyalty.  I have taken less money (or no money) to work at a place I believed in.  More than anything, I guess my love affair with sports has ended because we just grew apart - like Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries did.  Sports and I don't want the same things.  We have irreconcilable differences.  It has been this way for a while.  I suppose this year was the one where I couldn't take it any more.  Sports just went too far.  It wasn't one moment; it was a lot of moments.  That's what I'll remember about 2011 when I think of sports.  It was the year it went nuts.

Dec 7, 2011

Next Iron Chef: Final Four

I made sure that I didn't allow myself to write weekly recaps for Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs - even though I wanted to.  The series has solidified itself as one of my favorites during this fall season.  It has more drama than most shows on network television.  And some of it is funnier than any sitcom.  And, the way the judges blather on about the food, it is like some sort of romance....  That's just weird.  Anyway.  Let's really quick run a comparison of my picks to how things have panned out:


  1. Geoffrey Zakarian
  2. Robert Irvine
  3. Anne Burrell
  4. Marcus Samuelsson
  5. Michael Chiarello
  6. Alex Guarnaschelli
  7. Elizabeth Falkner
  8. Beau MacMillan
  9. Chuck Hughes
  10. Spike Mendelsohn
  1. ???
  2. ???
  3. ???
  4. ???
  5. Anne Burrell
  6. Marcus Samuelsson
  7. Beau MacMillan
  8. Chuck Hughes
  9. Robert Irvine
  10. Spike Mendelsohn
Yeah, I haven't done so well.  Only one of my final four is still left.  The thing about this show is that the level of cooking is so insane that on Sunday a guy almost got eliminated because he put powdered sugar on a souffle and one judge didn't like it.  Alton Brown (in a rare moment of non self aggrandizing clarity) asked him, "Are you seriously prepared to eliminate someone because you didn't like the fact they used a dusting of powdered sugar?!?"  The judge replied that in this competition something like that could actually send someone home.  And the crazy thing is that he's right.  So far, no one has had that classic train wreck day where they completely bombed something and got booted.  Every elimination was extremely difficult.  Anne Burrell summed it up best on her way out this week.  "Usually it is whoever sucks less stays.  But in this it has been who is less excellent."  I have a couple of observations before I do a quick evaluation of the remaining chefs.
  • Food Network is NOT rigging this competition.  My rankings were based partly on the cynical opinion that the Network was directing the judges (at least somewhat).  They were worried that an early exit could hurt the legitimacy of one of their "face" judges.  Or they were trying to push someone into a higher level of notoriety. Or that they were going to favor their own chefs over Top Chef contestants.  All of those were wrong.  One of the biggest faces of Food Network went out in the second show.  One of the biggest Top Chef contestants is still left - and probably the favorite at this point.  Aside from the slightly annoying way that the females have gotten more breaks, the show has been surprising fair.
  • The Females Have Gotten More Breaks.  At the halfway point, Anne Burrell noted that all the ladies were left in the competition and none had been in the bottom two.  Sadly, that isn't because they have done the best.  It seems like Food Network would REALLY love to have a second female Iron Chef.  Personally, I think Guarnaschelli should have been out a couple weeks ago.  And Falkner should have followed her out.  But they are still here.  And, at this point, they have as good of a shot as anyone - if not better.
  • I Was Really Wrong About Beau MacMillan.  When I first reviewed this show, I commented on how I didn't like Beau.  I thought he was arrogant and wished he went home early.  Well, I was wrong on that.  When he finally got eliminated, the judges all looked at each other and said how incredibly nice he was and how they hated to send him home.  And it was obvious on the show.  He was the most gracious of the contestants.  And his cooking was great.  It made me think that the reason he was SO bad on Worst Cooks in America was because it was so against his character, instead of because he was just bad on camera or a pompous turd.  
  • These Chefs Can Really Cook. Sometimes you have to wonder just how good a television chef is.  Are they really THAT amazing?  Or is it the huge test kitchen, the sous chefs, the infinite budget that makes them great.  That is one of the great things about this show - and shows like Iron Chef.  After watching Bobby Flay for years on Iron Chef and Throwdown (and eating at Mesa Grill twice in Vegas), there is no doubt this dude can cook.  Some of these celebrity chefs or tv judges - we've never seen them do anything.  So to see them on a show like this?  It shows you just how talented they are.  Geoffrey Zakarian is the best example of this.  For years on Chopped and 24 Hour Restaurant Battle, he was just this older judge.  Who the heck is this guy?  Then he competed on Celebrity Chopped and destroyed people.  The other chefs were terrified of him.  Then he gets on this show and has been heads and tails above the others - when it comes to technique and flavors.  Similar story with Michael Chiarello.  It makes you realize just how these chefs got to where they are. 
  • Very Talented People are Often Arrogant Jerks.  I hate listening to some of the arrogant comments coming out of these contestants' mouths, though.  Anne Burrell has always been like that.  It is part of her, uh, "charm."  I hate it.  I have no doubt it my mind she is a crazy good chef.  But I hate her arrogance.  On this past episode, she had the chance to put one chef into the elimination round.  She was rude about every dish she tasted - far more critical than the real judges. (Falkner wondered if her taste buds were compromised from having just cooked three dishes with sardines.  Good question, in retrospect.)  Then SHE got voted into the elimination round and was sent home.  She had her arms crossed, had a rude look on her face the whole evaluation time, was very ungracious upon elimination.  It made me glad she was out.  I know that talent and arrogance often go hand in hand.  Doesn't mean I have to like it.
Okay, so there are just four chefs left: Geoffrey Zakarian, Michael Chiarello, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Elizabeth Falkner.  And I think two get eliminated this week, which will set us up for the final.  Below is my scouting report on the last four.  I'm going to include their highlight moment, what could send them home, and their odds on winning.  Of course, remember I didn't do so great predicting.  So don't blame me if you lose all your money betting on them in Vegas.
  1. Michael Chiarello  It is hard to decide what his best moment has been.  So far, he has been in the bottom two only once.  In that episode he made handmade pasta and a pesto using peanuts.  In thirty minutes.  The other chefs were incredulous.  Then on Sunday he made a lobster risotto.  In twenty-five minutes.  Risotto takes forty-five minutes.  He did it in almost half that time.  I don't know how.  Maybe he has a time turner.  He doesn't have a lot of flaws.  His biggest problem is that he does not listen to criticism AT ALL.  But, he doesn't get criticized a lot.  It is hard to see what he will do to get eliminated.  Odds: 2 to 1
  2. Elizabeth Falkner  She is a pastry chef, the underdog, underestimated by the others.  We know this because she says it EVERY EPISODE.  Frankly, I'm tired of her schtick.  And so are the other competitors.  She has made exemplary food.  BUT, it always seems to be more highly rated because "she's just a pastry chef."  It is like the judges are impressed, but more so due to her background.  That's not to say she doesn't do hard stuff and do it well.  Burrell made the comment, "She's made three ice creams and a souffle.  When is she going to make some real food?"  If the judges pick up on this, that could (and should) derail her.  But they seem to be oblivious so far, and blinded by her ability to do things outside of her comfort range - even when they aren't.  [Good example.  Sunday, she made a tuna jerky souffle.  (yeah, gross)  It was superb.  She got raves, again partly because "she's just a pastry chef."  Zakarian did some amazing, intricate, wonderful beef dish and it was like, "Well he runs a steakhouse.  Of course he did it well."  And then when he made a souffle for the elimination, no one made a big deal about his ability to make such a great dessert when "he's just a steak guy."]  Odds: 4 to 1
  3. Alex Guarnaschelli  She's good.  (Her sausage and peppers meal at the ballpark was phenomenal.)  And she's lucky.  And she the judges cut her too much slack.  Every time she has botched her meal (at least three), someone else botched theirs worse.  Or one element of hers was so good that it made up for the one that wasn't.  She's never been in the bottom two - and if she was, I think she would lose.  She gets panicky very quickly if something goes wrong and overwhelmed, but somehow finishes.  If she was to have two things go wrong, she would crack.  And with such a small set of contestants, it won't be as easy to hide her mistakes.  She would have been in the bottom two last week and probably gone home, if it wasn't for the fact that one spot was filled by Burrell's pick.  Like I said - lucky.  You can look at that two ways.  One, luck runs out.  Two, a run to a championship usually involves a little luck.  Odds: 7 to 1
  4. Geoffrey Zakarian  If this was a straight up cooking competition, he would have already won.  The other chefs would have quit.  Michael Symon said this the other day.  "Your technique is so consistently good that it makes me hate you sometimes."  He has never really misstepped on a meal.  Any grievances were tiny - and should have been dwarfed by other major miscues of other chefs.  Yet, somehow, he has been in the bottom two three times.  I think two things can derail him.  First, things come so easily to him that there isn't a "Wow Factor" for him.  Falkner impresses by being outside of her comfort zone.  To Zakarian, everything is in his comfort zone.  So they blow his errors out of proportion and minimize his successes.  Second, he doesn't follow the rules.  When they say, "Make one dish" he makes three.  When they put their goofy rules on a competition, if he doesn't like them, he doesn't do them.  He came the closest to elimination on the ballpark challenge because he refused to make ballpark food.  I can totally see him getting kicked out because he is stubborn.  And too good for his own good.  Odds: 3 to 1

Dec 6, 2011

Florida's Bowling Gutter Ball

What in the world has happened to college football in the state of Florida?  Once upon a time, there were three college football programs in the state that routinely challenged for the national title.  Then there was a boom of secondary programs that made waves and ended up in bowls at the end of the year.  But this year, well, this year is pathetic.
You have just three state schools in a bowl - UF, FSU, and FIU.  But that doesn't fairly represent the situation.  UF ended up 6-6, barely finishing bowl eligible.  They got a New Year's Day bowl bid.  But it was Jacksonville's Gator Bowl - and the possibility of filling the stadium with swarms of local fans combined with the tasty Ohio State matchup (Urban Meyer's former and future teams) was too much to pass up.  FSU is the Champs Bowl in Orlando against Notre Dame (another matchup that looks better due to history than to this year's performance).  And FIU...  Let's be honest no one cares about FIU.  They had the best record of any team in the state.  But I don't know anyone who gives a rip about them.

How did things fall so badly?  How did we get from national championships to barely .500?  This year was even more insulting because hopes started out so high.  FSU was nationally ranked.  UCF was predicted by some to run the table and challenge for a "real bowl" bid.  UF is UF, so they were expected to do well.  There were some promising players that showed flashes of brilliance last year.  You would think they would develop this year into something more special.  BJ Daniels, Jeffrey Godfrey, EJ Manuel.  All three of them seemingly regressed, rather than advanced in their development.  (Godfrey got benched by the end of the year and is now considering transferring, unhappy that he has to compete for the starting job again.)  What went wrong?

Florida is blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to high school and college football.  I would argue that Florida has the best high school football in the country.  At the very least it is on par with the other big states (Texas, California).  In addition, the colleges here have the reputation to also pull from other states like Georgia and Illinois and Alabama.  There is a consistent pipeline of talent to keep the big colleges full.  However, with the emergence of other schools, that pipeline is now diverted into other rosters.

It used to be that the best players would go to UF, FSU, and UM - with a few of the stars getting pilfered by Michigan State or Ohio State or Georgia.  These were the four and five star high school athletes.  After that class, you had the two and three star guys.  Now, they would also sign with UF, FSU, and UM to be backups.  There was always a chance that there would be an injury to a starter or academic problems.  Or these kids would bulk up and get better with better training and coaching.  So, by their junior and senior year, they would be in line for a starting spot - or at least good playing time.  The general mindset was that it was better to be second or third string at UF than starting at UCF.

As these secondary schools (UCF, USF, FIU, FAU) grew their programs that mindset started to change.  For a kid looking at schools, it wasn't so cut and dry any more.  You didn't have to be a Gator or a Nole to get national exposure.  UCF plays on some ESPN station four times a year.  Thanks to the Conference USA's willingness to play on Thursdays and Fridays, their colleges are on national television for half the season.  As a UCF fan, I was able to watch every one of their games on tv this year.  Four of those games were on Brighthouse Television (since they are the sponsor of the UCF stadium).  But the rest were on ESPN and CBS Sports.  The same goes for USF and FIU and FAU.  They get national exposure.  In addition, USF has crashed the national polls several times in the last few years.  They knocked off some big name teams (FSU, Notre Dame).  They got lots of airplay.  And, all four of those schools have received bowl bids.  (USF was in seven bowls straight before this year.)  The playing field wasn't so different now.

Some of those two and three star athletes started to think differently about that old belief.  It may NOT be better to be a backup at a BCS school.  You started to see guys like Godfrey and Daniels sign at other places than you might have expected.  Daniels was from Tallahassee.  His lifelong goal was to play for FSU.  But there he was as a freshman, knocking FSU off while wearing the Green and Gold of USF.  Daniels was a lock for UM.  They payed some good hookers to make sure of that.  Instead, he went to UCF and started as a freshman.  For those guys, the opportunities were better at a slightly smaller program.  They still would get national exposure, get bowl game experience, have an outside shot at the pros.  And they wouldn't have to wait until their junior year to get it.

So here's where you see the first issue - the dilution of talent.  UF, FSU, and UM don't have a stranglehold on recruiting any more.  The massive talent pool is being spread out to seven schools instead of three.  That obviously is going to affect things.  Sure, the big guys are still getting amazing recruiting classes.  They still are pulling in tons of big name kids.  The problem is that they aren't getting the high quality backups.  My friend Eddie, who is a major Gator fan and understand sports way better than me, once explained the different between UF and UCF baseball to me.  He said that in college baseball, pitching is the key.  UCF's first and second pitchers can match up with the 1/2 guys anywhere in the country.  The problem is that UF's 3-5 guys are also as good as UCF's 1/2 guys.  UCF's 3-5 guys are where the problem comes.  So UCF can win those regular season games against UM and UF because they are 1 vs 1 or 1 vs 5 with pitchers.  But in the playoffs, when the depth matters, UCF always gets drummed out.  (It has proven true every year.)

That same thing can be applied to football.  UCF and the others can always make a go at it when it is starters vs. starters.  You add in the fact that to a team like UCF, playing a BCS team is the biggest game of the season - and to that BCS team, UCF is just a speed bump to the "real" games.  So UCF will be amped up and prepared and the other team won't be.  So in the first half, UCF will stay tight and play hard and may even lead at halftime.  But as the emotional high wears down, and the depth begins to be the more important element, the big name school pulls away.  This happened so many times over the years that I could almost plot out the moments when each step would happen.  I watched UCF "play tough" against Nebraska, Georgia, FSU, Auburn, Virginia Tech, South Carolina and then ultimately lose.  Sure, they would sneak a win out against a big team when they were horrible (like Alabama in 1999).  But those big teams' depth would win out.

Lately, that hasn't happened.  USF doesn't wilt in the second half.  UCF doesn't always let the win slip away.  They beat the big teams more often.  In fact, they have problems winning the games they should win.  USF has no problem knocking off a top 25 team.  It is Rutgers and Cincinnati they can't beat.  UCF loses stupid games to Southern Miss and FIU - after they destroy Boston College.  You also see where UF, FSU, and UM doesn't have the depth they used to have any more.  They still have fabulous NFL-ready starters.  But when an injury happens, the cupboard is bare down the depth chart.  This was UF's big issue this year.  I think they started a ball boy at quarterback one game.  The talent is more distributed.

But there are two other major issues, as I see it.  The first of those kind of mimics what was going on in the NBA a few years ago.  They had so many players jumping straight to the pros from high school that the league was suffering.  These kids have the talent to play in the NBA, but they don't have the strength, the discipline, the full body of skills.  If they would have gone to college, some coach would have developed that stuff.  Or they would have flamed out like so many playground legends before them.  The college level either enhanced what was there or exposed it.  When you took a player like Kwame Brown and threw him right into the pros, he flamed out.  Why?  Well, he probably shouldn't have been there.  If he had gone to college, he would have either gotten more coaching and training and entered the league as a better player.  Or he would have never been drafted because people would have realized he sucked.  (I voted for the second.)  Instead, he got into the league too early, had too many expectations on him, and bombed.  Yes, you are going to have some freaks like LeBron and Dwight Howard and Kobe who can make the jump and immediately be an All-Star at 18.  But you also have a lot of guys like Tyson Chandler and Sebastian Telfair who could have used more development.  And a lot of those players never were the same without that.

I think the same thing is happening with some of these guys like Godfrey and Daniels.  In the old days, they would have gone to FSU and UM and sat the bench for two years.  They would have learned, bulked up, gotten coached.  And then when they got their chance, they would have been ready for it.  Or they never would have because they were actually head cases and the coach realized that.  Instead, they went to a school where they could start right away.  Their insane talent made them successes.  When they made stupid mistakes, it was written off to "they are a true freshman and still learning."  But, in their second year, they still made a lot of stupid mistakes.  Opposing defenses were more prepared for them.  And the weight of expectations made them buckle.  I think with both players they never should have been starting. They weren't ready.  They still thought like a high schooler - improvising, relying on talent and dumb luck.  They never learned it is sometimes better to take a sack or throw it away than try to force something.  So they throw killer interceptions, fumble at the worst time, and get frustrated easily.

The same thing happened at the big schools.  They didn't have as deep of a roster to pull from so they were forced to start players too early.  And their quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs weren't really ready either.  Ten years ago, they wouldn't be playing at all as freshmen.  They would have been red shirted.  They would have rode the bench for two more years.  And then they would have busted out of the gate their junior year with all the frustration that comes from sitting for three years.  Instead, they were forced to play as freshmen and sophomores and weren't quite ready.

The other big issue comes from the turmoil this states has undergone lately.  Look at the coaching situations for the Florida schools in just the past three years:

  • UF - Urban Meyer quits, comes back, quits again.  His top assistants all leave to coach other schools.  Will Muschamp is a rookie coach.  Meyer gets hired by Ohio State.  UF also gets a lot of press for player arrests.
  • FSU - Bobby Bowden is forced out.  Jimbo Fisher comes in with a completely different attitude.  Instead of laid back, FSU, it is a clone of Nick Saban's corporate, prickly, jerkwad programs.  FSU, as usual, is in the news for players being arrested.
  • UM - Randy Shannon is fired.  Al Golden is hired.  (I had to look that up.)  In addition, the schools is wracked with scandal and kept themselves out of a bowl game.
  • UCF - Coaching is somewhat stable.  But the Athletic Director and WR coach are fired for illegal recruiting.  The school is going to face NCAA sanctions as a second time offender (already in trouble for problems just two years ago).  They lose a multi-million dollar case for basically running a player to death.  And the team fluctuates between winning and sucking every year.
  • USF - Founding coach Jim Leavitt is fired for physically assaulting a player.  Plus they are in the Big East, which is as stable as a fault line.
  • FIU - no one cares.
  • FAU - The team never had much traction.  But now, founding coach Howard Schnellenberger retired after the season.
NCAA sanctions, new coaches, conference upheaval.  Sounds like a great place to go to school, right?  Kids aren't stupid.  They will overlook those problems if the future looks bright.  But, for most of these schools, do you think they are the verge of righting the ship?  I have a feeling for all of these (except FIU) that things may get worse before they get better.  UCF is going to get slammed by the NCAA.  If they have another bad season, O'Leary is gone.  UM still hasn't heard the last of hooker-gate.  The Meyer Ohio State hiring may hurt UF with transfers and recruiting leaning up north.  FSU seems like they just can't get it together.  USF is the only school that never had a suitor in the Big East exodus earlier.  In addition, the schools surrounding the state of Florida keep getting stronger.  LSU and Alabama are in the national title game this year.  Georgia seems to be back on track.  Georgia Tech made a run at the conference title this year.  Auburn won the title last year.  If I was coming out of high school and had to pick between a school that may not be allowed to play in a bowl, one with coaching turmoil, or a stable program with national title hopes a few miles north - I would seriously have to consider those other places.  I think this is going to be a tough stretch for Florida college football.  How long that lasts remains to be seen.  For now, though, Florida sports fans will have to get used to being in an unfamiliar place - looking up at the pack.