Months before NFL players began league wide protests of the American flag to the disdain of many, a smaller series, yet with a possibly more passionate fan base, ended on an epic note proving the intensity and integrity of this oft-overlooked sport by mainstream enthusiasts.

Five years ago, I had no idea Ryan Dungey existed. Same with Eli Tomac. And Ricky Carmichael? What's the deal with the GOAT poster in my office? Charlie Brown was always the goat, and it wasn't a compliment. These guys were nobodies.

It didn't take long though and just more than four years later I made plans to watch the final round of the 2017 Monster Energy Supercross season. Actually, I cleared my schedule. It was fantastic and heart-pounding. As a lifelong fan of football and baseball, you know, the athletes everyone watches, I was hard-pressed to remember an event in either of those sports that left me on the edge of my seat, screaming at the television experiencing a thrill no ballgame ever offered.

On Saturday, the 2018 Monster Energy Supercross season opens in Anaheim while the NFL limps towards the playoffs, arguably that league's most exciting time of year. I'll watch Ken Roczen line-up at the gates on Saturday. The NFL playoffs? Not so much.

You see, my love for football waned last year when a fumbling quarterback decided to employ an admittedly brilliant marketing ploy. At risk of losing his job (and in spite of the facts - we could discuss those but who wants the political arena colliding with the wide world of sports?) he decided to protest the American flag. His visions of grandeur backfired but this cancer slowly metastasized and spread through the entire league this year.

More fans showed up at the Santa Clara Supercross in 2016 then the 49ers/Bucs game in October - Courtesy: CBS Sports

My dad also has cancer. Two forms. Doctors have told him it's possible (though no direct link confirmed) the result of Agent Orange exposure during his time in Vietnam. Don't worry, it's in check but I wonder if he'd rather have skipped what he calls a "stupid war" and avoid this possible fallout from serving his country especially with the ongoing disrespect to the flag occurring at NFL stadiums every week. He was never spit on after returning home but really what's the difference?

Now let me get this straight: You characterize my brother as a pig with your socks and tread on my father's military service by protesting the National Anthem? And expect me to watch? (Insert laugh emoji.) Actually, that's enough for me to call it quits. Besides, I found a new love which started in 2013 but "checked out" as they say, in 2014.

If I can embrace a new venture and replace an age-old sport with an unexplored but existing National Pastime for a large swath of America, so can you. It's time to park the NFL and stand-up for Supercross. It's the only sport that welcomes in the New Year. Think of it as a long extension for the holidays. Once Christmas ends and New Year's drops the ball what's left? The gate drop at A1!

Little else compares to the excitement and energy of the first round of Supercross

Let's get to it. The last eight years produced just two different winners, both named Ryan. Both now retired. Therefore, expect a new name lifting the 2018 Championship trophy but who is anyone's guess.

Also new this year is a change in racing format. Three rounds (Anaheim 2, Atlanta and Minneapolis) host the Triple Crown format for both 450 and 250 classes featuring three shortened Main Events instead of the usual single longer Main. Olympic style scoring (lowest combined score of the three races) determines the overall winner of those rounds. And, a new points system gives more points at the top (though the gap between first and third remains the same) and all 22 riders who line-up for the Main receive points. Finally, no more semi races, just two Heats with the Top 9 heading to the Main and a Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ) for the final four spots.

The timed races established last year (250 class races for 15 minutes plus one lap - instead of 15 laps - and the 450 class competes for 20 minutes plus one lap - instead of 20 laps) remain in effect. Check out the track map for Round 1:

Somehow, every year offers the most stacked field ever for Supercross and 2018 proves no different. We'll start with the 450 class contenders followed by the 250SX West class which also begins the season on Saturday in Anaheim.

450 Class Contenders

Ken Roczen - #94 (20th in 2017) offers the biggest storyline as he returns from a devastating arm injury that ended his season after two dominating wins to start the 2017 campaign in his first year on Honda. Expect all eyes on his repaired arm that was nearly amputated because of the compound fracture suffered. But enough of that, he's riding and by all reports, riding well and even if he doesn't cross the checkers first on Saturday, consider it a win.

Team: Honda HRC

Eli Tomac - #3 (2nd) found 450 class success last year with the Motocross Championship. It's a monkey off his back as naysayers felt he couldn't seal the deal after grabbing the lead in Supercross then lost it a round later just a week before that big finale in Las Vegas. Tomac is fully healed from the 2015 shoulder injury that ended his undefeated Outdoor season and is now more than comfortable on the Kawasaki.

Team: Monster Energy Kawasaki

Marvin Musquin #25 (3rd) is the #1 rider with Red Bull KTM taking the vacant spot left by Ryan Dungey's retirement. Musquin has yet to win a 450 title but with so much success during the offseason, including the sweep at Monster Cup, he appears ready to fight for podiums, wins and keep KTM in the winner's circle.

Team: Red Bull KTM

Jason Anderson - #21 (4th) is a regular podium guy for Husqvarna but needs consistent wins to fight for the Championship. He didn't cross the checkers first last year until the final round when Tomac and Dungey played merry go-round but got his first win in 2016 at the opener in Anaheim. He finished fourth last year and third in 2016. Anderson has what it takes and now fully healed after removing a plate from his foot this summer, expect the wisdom gained after four years in the 450 class to provide some dividends.

Team: Rockstar Energy Husqvarna

Blake Baggett - #4 (6th) enters 2018 after a strong Motocross season where he took the points lead and out-paced Tomac several times. A thumb injury held him down but not out though he eventually dropped from first to third in points. He finished fifth for Supercross in 2015, was injury riddled in 2016 but finished sixth last year including five Top 5 finishes.

Team: Rocky Mountain ATV/MC-KTM-WPS

Flashes of Brilliance

Dean Wilson - #15 (8th) posted a break-out year in 2017 finishing eighth in Supercross but a solid fourth in a career Motocross year that included three straight third-place finishes and 20 straight Top 10 finishes and 22 overall a feat bested only by Baggett.

Team: Rockstar Energy Husqvarna

Cooper Webb's - #2 (13th) rather confident demeanor after 250 class success took a backseat last year and he enters his second year on the big bikes a bit under the radar. After winning back-to-back 250SX West Championships and the 2016 250 class Motocross Championship, Webb looked a shadow of himself in his rookie 450 season. He got one podium, a third place in Round 5, then got hurt and lost five rounds but never placed higher than eighth.

Team: Monster Energy/Knich/Factory Yamaha

Broc Tickle (11th) takes the #2 spot with Red Bull KTM behind Musquin and could further cement trainer Aldon Baker's program at producing Champions, or at least contenders. Tickle finished 11th last year, 19th in 2016 and eighth in 2015. Wins elude him in Supercross but not Motocross. He needs the necessary adjustments to compete upfront.

Team: Red Bull KTM

Cole Seely - #14 (7th) can win and step on the podium. He finished third in points for the 2015 season and was in the mix the last two years before injury ended his high hopes. He came on strong to end Motocross and embraced the invite to race in the Motocross of Nations but a bike malfunction in both Motos prevented his opportunity to shine overseas.

Team: Honda HRC

Davi Millsaps - #18 (5th) took fifth in 2017, his best year since 2013 when he led for much of the season before finishing second to Ryan Villopoto. However, a nasty crash during testing in October just days after signing with Yamaha Factory Racing resulted in a broken elbow and a significant concussion. He's not expected back for at least another month and whether he lines up at all this season is the bigger question.

Team: Monster Energy/Knich/Factory Yamaha

Chad Reed - #22 (9th) started out in the hole last year but rode reasonably well the rest of the season including a well fought second-place in Phoenix and he almost won Round 17 until Anderson bumped him out of the way. He turns 36 in March and is well past the age of what's considered prime time in Supercross but the fire burns bright.

Team: Privateer

250SX West Class

The 250SX West Class gets some holdovers, including a defending Champion, as well as a few transfers from last year's East challengers. The West and East face each other twice this year (Indianapolis and Las Vegas) in their nine round season with all points up for grabs in those contests.

Justin Hill - (1st) returns to defend his title and make it two straight. Hill wrapped up the West early last year thanks to four wins and eight podiums. His Outdoor season didn't go so well but it's a new year and he carries the #1 plate.

Team: Autotrader.com/Yoshimura/JGR Factory Suzuki Racing

Shane McElrath - #28 (2nd) finished second in 2015 and appeared headed for the Championship last year with two straight wins to start before Hill caught fire then a broken bike at Arlington thoroughly ruined McElrath's chances. It could be the Hill and McElrath show this year assuming all cylinders stay firing.

Team: Troy Lee Designs KTM.

Adam Cianciarulo - #92 (2nd - East) was so close to the 250SX East Championship and was actually in line for a few laps based on the real-time placement of Joey Savatgy and Zach Osborne. He took the win in Las Vegas but Osborne snuck in and grabbed the title by two points. Cianciarulo also ended Motocross on a high note thus an injury free year unlike 2015 and 2016 makes him an immediate contender.

Team: Monster Pro Circuit Kawasaki

Aaron Plessinger - #23 (3rd) finished just a point behind McElrath last year and took second in 2016. He wins and regularly grabs podiums but seems to run into trouble in at least one round. Mistake free riding keeps him in the hunt and possibly a title to end his 250 career.

Team: Monster Energy/Yamalube/Star Racing

Joey Savatgy - #17 (3rd - East) returns to the West this year after placing third in the East last year with the title in-hand before Zach Osborne dropped him on the final lap and second in the West for 2016 losing to Webb by one point. Both title matches for Savatgy came down to the final round. He was expected back on the East for 2018 but an injury to Austin Forkner swaps the two.

Team: Monster Pro Circuit Kawasaki

Christian Craig - #32 (6th - East) was a title favorite last year until the first two rounds netted him nine total points. It was a forgetful year with just one podium unlike his third-place finish for 2016 in the West which included a win and five podiums. So, he's back where he perhaps he belongs.

Team: GEICO Honda

Mitchell Oldenburg - #52 (10th) didn't finish below fifth place last year unfortunately he also lost five rounds because of injury. Take his average of the four rounds he raced including those two podiums and add those points to the missing rounds he finishes with 171 points, good enough for second-place. A healthy Oldenburg equals a potent Oldenburg.

Team: Monster Energy/Yamalube/Star Racing

Alex Martin - #26 (12th - East) missed the second half of the season last year because of injury but managed a career high second-place in Round 2. The year prior wasn't much better despite racing every round and finishing 10th in the West without one podium. He contended for the 250 class Motocross Championship before a practice crash knocked him out but like his brother Jeremy Martin who lines up for the East this year, he needs to find the right adjustments to make it work.

Team: Troy Lee Designs KTM

Gates drop for the opening round of the 2018 Monster Energy Supercross season on Saturday at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, CA. Doors open at 12 p.m. (PST) and the Main Event starts at 6:30 p.m. FOX Sports 1 provides television coverage. Check out the full 2018 Supercross season schedule here.

In case you forgot:

2017 Supercross Season Standings

450 Class

  1. Ryan Dungey (359) - 2017 450 Class Supercross Champion
  2. Eli Tomac (354)
  3. Marvin Musquin (293)
  4. Jason Anderson (273)
  5. Davi Millsaps (221)
  6. Blake Baggett (220)
  7. Cole Seely (212)
  8. Dean Wilson (185)
  9. Chad Reed (182)
  10. Josh Grant (175)

250SX West Class

  1. Justin Hill (202) - 2017 250SX West Class Supercross Champion
  2. Shane McElrath (164)
  3. Aaron Plessinger (163)
  4. Martin Davalos (145)
  5. Jimmy Decotis (137)
  6. Austin Forkner (114)
  7. Dan Reardon (104)
  8. Kyle Chisholm (90)
  9. Cole Martinez (77)
  10. Mitchell Oldenburg (76)

Written By: AndrewT