Happy Friday and welcome back to our Culture Corner column. Today we continue our coverage of the 2023-2024 football season, and count down the five best individuals currently playing for bird teams.
But first, a quick editorial update. The last few weeks the wheels fell off the wagon and no posts went up on the site. Our Tuesday features are now caught up, but the Friday columns will simply resume from here. Going forward, there probably won’t be a column every single Friday, as they are meant to be timely and casual which makes it hard to bank in advance. I will focus on consistency with my Tuesday features, and getting columns out several times a month. They will still go live on Fridays.
Moving on to football updates. Several bird teams have gotten off to strong starts in college, with Oregon and Kansas both being undefeated and tied at the top of their respective conferences. Oregon just shut down the Colorado Buffaloes hype train off the back of their head coach Dan Lanning’s pep talk, in which he took direct shots at opposing coach Deieon Sanders. It’s earned them a week in the national conversation and an AP top 10 ranking. It won’t be an easy road to a farewell PAC title though, with highly ranked opponents coming in October in the form of Washington and Utah. Kansas has also joined the ranked ranks at #24 after beating Big 12 opponent BYU. They continue to look feisty and improved, and many eyes will be on them this Saturday as they take on #3 Texas Longhorns, who have been crowned national contenders after they took down the Alabama dynasty on the road a few weeks ago. Texas will be heavily favored and the crowd will be on their side, but Kansas’s last trip to Austin in 2021 ended in an overtime upset victory. If they manage to do it again, they’ll have turned the playoff conversation on its head.
Elsewhere in college, the Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens have gotten off to a strong start and are second in their conference. The University of Texas - San Antonio Roadrunners have gotten off to a not-strong start, with several losses to much larger schools. They’ve yet to play a conference game, but it ain’t looking great.
Turning our attention to the pros, the NFL season has been full of close games and surprises. One surprise has been to slow start of the Bengals, who will likely turn things around and rack up more wins before long, but are nevertheless at the bottom of the AFC North. This could open up the door for the Baltimore Ravens, our lone AFC bird team, who have started 2-1 after a close overtime defeat. It’s tight competition, with the Steelers being one of the most consistent franchises in the league and the Browns looking like perhaps the best defense in the world. But with one division win under their belt already, and two more division matchups looming, Baltimore will have their shot.
The NFC has been less surprising. The Arizona Cardinals pulled off an exciting upset win over the highly touted Dallas Cowboys, but are still seen as probable bottom feeders. The Seattle Seahawks have won a few games but are likely middling, and the Falcons are tied atop a strange weak division off their strong run game and the promising start of first rounder Bijan Robinson. Meanwhile the Philadelphia Eagles sit at a comfortable 3-0 start. In other words, the four NFC teams are in about the situation we expected them to be in. The Eagles will have to ward off the Cowboys if they want to be the first back to back champions the NFC East has seen in two decades, and the Atlanta Falcons will be an interesting team to watch as they race the Saints and Buccaneers for a playoff berth. These storylines won’t really heat up for another month or two, as we’re still in the season’s infancy. Late October is also when we get our first few Bird Bowls, with the Ravens defending their Nest Trophy from the Cardinals on the 29th. Expect the next update to come around then.
Before I let you go, I also wanted to take stock of some high level individual players across our bird teams. The following top five list is based on where these players and teams stand in September of 2023. The NBA and the NHL have lots of talented bird team players but none that I feel warrant a spot on this list, and it’s also very quarterback heavy. You can blame my personal biases and you can blame the outsized impact that quarterbacks have in modern day football and in the modern day sports media landscape. Lots of blame to go around.
5. Adley Rutschman, Baltimore Orioles
Look, I can’t really be bothered to care much about baseball. Sorry. There are quite a few notable players on the St. Louis Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays (even one or two I had heard of before writing this piece) but I’m giving the baseball spot to Rutschman, the budding star catcher for the Orioles who is coming off his first all-star season and was ranked by Bleacher Report as one of the best players to build a team around. His nickname is even “Rooster”, because as a kid he wanted to have a mustache just like the guy from Top Gun. If any slugger deserves a spot here, it’s Adley.
4. Bo Nix, Oregon Ducks
The best bird team in College Football is lead by Bo Nix, a QB transfer from Auburn who put together an excellent season last year for the Ducks and seems to be planning another for 2023. It’s early, but he’s considered to be a first round candidate for the coming NFL draft, and he has plenty of opportunities to improve his stock as he takes on Heisman candidates such as Penix and Williams in the PAC-12.
3. Caitlin Clark, Iowa Hawkeyes
Women’s college basketball is having a moment right now, with this past year’s final four drawing record viewership numbers and stirring up plenty of drama. The trophy went to LSU and its star player Angel Reese, but the best performance of the tournament was undoubtedly Caitlin Clark. A star sharpshooter for the Iowa Hawkeyes, Clark put up historic numbers and single handedly elevated her team to contention. They even upset reigning champions South Carolina, despite their coach Dawn Staley and star player Aliyah Boston being some of the biggest names in the sport. In fact, a year ago Boston would have made this list for her incredible play on the South Carolina Gamecocks, but now that she plays in the WNBA, Clark is the shoo-in.
2. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
A deadly and unique talent, Lamar Jackson is known for his success on the ground. In 2019, he set the single season record for QB rushing yards. He’s not a one dimensional player though, as he also threw the most passing touchdowns that year of any player. He hasn’t reached those heights since, but he’s played at a consistent high level when healthy and is a absolute superstar player for Baltimore. He earns bonus points for the fact that even in college he played for a bird team: the Louisville Cardinals. As of this writing, he’s listed at fifth in MVP betting odds. That seems a little generous to me, but he’s a high tier player for sure.
1. Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles
I’m not happy about this. I don’t like the Philadelphia Eagles or their continued success. But Jalen wins. A relatively overlooked prospect, Hurts was taken in the second round by a team that many assumed already had their franchise passer. Fast forward a few years and Hurts is a certified MVP contender, conference champion, and a growing name and face for the league. He has his own line of Hulu commercials! It’s well earned too: he’s deadly on the ground and through the air, and his physical strength makes him one of the most effective leaders in the NFL when it comes to pushing through for short yardage. That makes such a difference in a time when it seems like every football game comes down to the last five minutes. Some players seem to rest on their laurels after getting a big payday, but I think Hurts will continue to give Philly what they paid for. All that eludes him is a ring.
And that concludes our sports column. In about a month I’ll check back in on our teams and look ahead to other leagues! Hope you have an excellent weekend, go Jayhawks!