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Embrace the dark side

The most compelling story in college football got even better on Saturday when Johnny Manziel dumped a barrel of gas on a still-burning fire. Joe Fortenbaugh

Print This September 02, 2013, 05:30 AM EST

An interesting development transpired at the turn of the millennium in Vince McMahon’s powerhouse World Wrestling Entertainment that saw the transition from a tried-and-true formula to a more controversial and progressive dynamic. Spearheaded by two of the company’s most popular and compelling characters in “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the “Good Guy vs. Bad Guy” storylines that had dominated professional wrestling for decades were relegated to the parking lot dumpster. People were no longer interested in rooting for a hero who preached the importance of vitamins and homework. The fans wanted something new, something edgier, something that meshed better with the country’s current landscape. “Good Guys” like Hulk Hogan were relics of a time gone by. The moment had arrived for a new generation of protagonists.

Stone Cold Steve AustinStone Cold Steve Austin, in all his glory.

What the fans got were a beer-pounding, anti-establishment redneck and a narcissistic, eyebrow-raising, elbow-dropping mouthpiece who ushered in a new epoch with a fresh dynamic. Good Guys vs. Bad Guys was for the 1980s. With degenerates like “Stone Cold” and “The Rock” serving as the face of the WWE, it was all about Bad Guys vs. Bad Guys.

The fans adored it, the ratings skyrocketed and, just like that, a new era of heroes was born.

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Texas A&M dual-threat quarterback Johnny Manziel had, fittingly, two options at his disposal for how to approach this past Saturday’s season-opener against Rice. Serving a first-half suspension for something that did or did not happen, but most definitely could not be proven, Manziel’s choices were simple: Perform at the highest possible level while demonstrating both class and humility in an effort to show the critics that an offseason rife with immaturity and bad decision making was a thing of the past, or, like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, flip the double bird to the world while doing what Johnny Football does best.

Manziel, in spectacular fashion, opted for the latter. And in the process, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner set the table for what will no doubt serve as this season’s most captivating and oft-debated college football campaign in recent memory.

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Johnny Manziel is a football player, but to label him as such would be to miss the point entirely. Like Austin and Johnson, Manziel is an entertainer. Disagree? Then Google his name and examine how many headlines appear featuring the three touchdowns the quarterback tossed in just eight passing attempts on Saturday. You won’t find any on the first page. Instead, words like “antics,” “childish,” “autographs” and “taunts” dominate the search results. Yeah, Manziel is a football player all right. But that’s not why the country is infatuated with his every move.

Roy Jones, Jr. was a brilliant fighter, but we didn’t tune in to HBO to see how the former champion would masterfully control the ring against his overmatched opponents. We watched Jones for the ring entrance spectacles and the showboat knockouts he employed to paste the canvas with inferior fighters. Jones was a boxer, and a great one at that, but many remember the antics just as well as they do the ring generalship.

Those who root for Johnny Manziel do so for the same reason as those who cheered on Austin and Johnson: Because he’s just so damn good at being bad. “Stone Cold” and “The Rock” weren’t supposed to be the ones we supported, but their flair for showmanship converted a nation of viewers in about as much time as it took Austin to shotgun a Coors Light.

Johnny ManzielJohnny Manziel turned heel during the second half of Saturday's game against Rice.

Manziel’s appeal lies not just in his ability to make opposing defenses look downright stupid trying to limit his athleticism, but in the way the Texas A&M signal-caller has divided a nation. You’re either with Manziel or you’re against him. It’s a simple as that.

This notion was set in stone on Saturday when Manziel turned the second half of the Aggies’ showdown with Rice into three-ring circus. There was the 12-yard scramble that immediately preceded the autograph taunt, the 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, the curt dismissal of head coach Kevin Sumlin. On Saturday, Manziel had the chance to put the “Summer of Johnny Football” behind him with a professional performance dedicated to showing the world a different side of the high profile quarterback. Instead, the 20-year-old sensation poured a barrel of gas on the still-burning fire, igniting a nation of college football fanatics in the process.

There’s no turning back now. After what happened on Saturday, you’re either with Manziel or you’re against him.

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Like all great entertainers, Manziel will encounter a worthy adversary that pits his legion of followers against his platoon of detractors. That showdown will come in exactly 12 days, when the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and his supporting cast play host to the reigning national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. The differences between the two sides wouldn’t make for a more perfect matchup if Hollywood scripted the story itself.

In one corner stands an Alabama team that doesn’t care much for talk. The Crimson Tide aren’t about style points, flash or storylines. Nick Saban’s crew simply shows up for work and pounds the body until the opposition says no mas.

In the other corner stands the swagger, defiance and pizzazz of the playmaking sensation known as Johnny Football. He’s beaten the Crimson Tide once and screw you if you don’t think he can do it again.

The country will be divided when Alabama and Texas A&M get together for the rematch we’ve all been waiting for in 12 day’s time. But we’ll be unified in one respect thanks to the man we’ve all come to either unabashedly love or so rigorously hate.

We’ll be entertained.

Hit me up on Twitter: @JoeFortenbaugh

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