Saturday, December 1, 2007

On Conference Championships, and How They Could be Made to Matter

You might think that since three of the big six conferences have a conference championship game, it might be obvious which three games I would pick this week.


In fact, I’m only picking one of the three, because two of the three don’t really have much of a larger impact. Virginia Tech-Boston College and Tennessee-LSU are good college football games, but here’s the deal: winner is in, loser is out, and none of them are going to make the championship game regardless without a lot of help.

You might think this would be a good time to talk about how these games would be more important and thus exciting if we had my four-team playoff format.


Let’s write out clinching playoff scenarios:

Ohio State is in.
Georgia and Kansas are out (cannot win conference title).
Missouri, West Virginia and LSU clinch with a win.
Virginia Tech clinches with a win and a Missouri, West Virginia or LSU loss.
Oklahoma clinches with a win and a West Virginia, LSU or Virginia Tech loss.
USC clinches with a win and losses by two of: West Virginia, LSU and Virginia Tech.
Boston College clinches with a win and losses by West Virginia and LSU, unless
West Virginia, LSU and VT lose, and Hawaii wins their game really convincingly.
Tennessee is out, but considering they were left for dead in September, an SEC title would have to be okay by them.

Now that’s interesting. Every team with a legitimate claim at #1 can prove it by continuing to win, the teams that need help have a good reason to need it (losing to Stanford, Colorado and by 41 to LSU in the cases of USC, Oklahoma and VT, respectively), and even BC and Hawaii have a prayer.

Hawaii advocates might say they deserve more than a prayer, but look at the schedule. They have close wins, as in one score, against Louisiana Tech, San Jose State, Fresno State AND Nevada. If they were playing as well as 2004 Utah or last year’s Boise State, they’d probably get in.

But that’s not the way things are now.

#1 Missouri vs. #9 Oklahoma. Mizzou, I’m sorry to say, played just about a perfect game against Kansas, at least until they went into kill the clock mode. However, Jeremy Maclin aside, it is clear their talent level isn’t quite as high as the Sooners’. They are good enough that they can win this game, but not good enough that they should. If Oklahoma had not lost to Texas Tech, they could be in the #1 spot right now, and this would probably be a national semifinal. Oh well.

Washington at #12 Hawaii. Everyone outside the BCS is pulling for the Warriors. Not only is this a probable win-and-in for a BCS berth, but a loss would be against the last place team in the Pac 10. For the “other” conferences trying to establish themselves, it would be pretty much the exact opposite of last year’s Boise State-Oklahoma game. And Washington is dangerous. They’ve beaten Boise State and Cal, and taken USC to the wire. Of course, they’ve also lost to Oregon State and Arizona.

Pitt at #2 West Virginia. The Mountaineers are in the BCS regardless, but a win puts them in the driver’s seat for the national title. They would draw either Missouri or Ohio State, and they are much better than either team. LSU would give them more trouble, but those Tigers can’t get in without a WV loss. They should send Arkansas a thank-you note.

Predictions: Chase Daniel and his O-line channeled their inner Patriots against Kansas. When KU brought pressure, Daniel made an immediate read and got the ball away. When they sat back, he moved in the pocket until someone came open. Kansas did the right things, but they weren’t athletic enough to hold out. Oklahoma doesn’t have that problem. Washington is dangerous, but as I learned during the Boise game, it’s generally not a good idea to pick against Hawaii on the island. Finally, WV-Pitt may be important, but it’s pretty much an important formality.

Picks: Oklahoma, Hawaii, West Virginia

Friday, November 16, 2007

On Week 12, in Brief

I'm out of town this weekend, so a quick preview:

#7 Ohio State at #21 Michigan. Lost a lot of luster thanks to upsets by Illinois and Wisconsin, but it's still a direct Rose Bowl play-in, not to mention the best rivalry outside of Army-Navy. Also, the Buckeyes retain a slight national championship hope with a win.

#17 Boston College at #15 Clemson. The first of two ACC semifinals. Clemson is playing better right now, but BC has been more highly ranked throughout the year. This is usually a close game.

#23 Kentucky at #9 Georgia. If Georgia loses, they are in serious trouble in the SEC East. If they win, Florida is out of the picture completely (but still in BCS at-large contention). Kentucky and Andre Woodson are out of the title race, but a win would put some attention back on their excellent season.

Predictions: Ohio State's loss should have them refocused and ready to win. Also, Tressel owns Carr. BC has lost two straight, but they are mentally tougher than Clemson. And we haven't seen bad-Georgia in a while. One gets the sense that sort of showing may be overdue.

Picks: OSU, BC, Kentucky

Saturday, November 10, 2007

On Hawaii, Conference Almost-Championship Games, and the SEC Again

Often, conference championship games are unofficial. At this point in the season, a number of conferences come down to one game. Alternatively, conferences with championship games often play de facto conference semifinals, as two division rivals play for the right to make the championship game.

This year, we are looking at several such games. Unfortunately, none of them are this week. This makes today a waiting action, a chance to look around and wait for the battles of the next two weeks—or a major upset that will change the landscape.

Basically, here’s where we stand now. Each conference/division—except one—has either the favorite who has already survived its main rivals, or else the decisive game to be played:

Pac-10: Oregon
Big 12 S: Oklahoma
Big 12 N: Kansas-Missouri
Big 10: Ohio State-Michigan
Big East: WV-Connecticut
ACC A: BC-Clemson
ACC C: Virginia-Virginia Tech
SEC E: ???

Not surprisingly, we’ll take two of our three games today from the SEC East.

#18 Auburn at #10 Georgia. For proof of the SEC’s depth, look at these two teams. Both were left for dead early. Auburn lost to South Florida before that was understandable and followed up by a loss to Mississippi State that still isn’t understandable. Since then, they’ve beaten Florida in the Swamp, almost beaten LSU in Death Valley, and cruised otherwise. Georgia lost an early game to Spurrier’s Gamecocks, rebounded with three wins that included the thriller over Alabama, then promptly got blown out of Neyland Stadium by Jekyll-and-Hyde Tennessee. Georgia then salvaged the season by taking out Florida, lifting them to their current place in the top 10 and tied for the SEC East lead. However, because they lost to UT, they lose the tiebreaker, despite the fact that they beat the teams (Florida and Alabama) that themselves beat the Volunteers by a combined 63 points. By the way, neither Georgia nor Tennessee has played Kentucky yet.

#15 Florida at South Carolina. Even though Tennessee is technically in the driver’s seat right now, and they also play a tough opponent this week in Arkansas, there’s a reason Georgia and Florida’s games are more important. If LSU were to win all the way into the national championship game, which is the likeliest scenario, Tennessee would almost surely not be ranked high enough after a loss to the Tigers to make a BCS bowl. But if Georgia wins the division instead and then loses a close game to LSU, they might earn a Sugar Bowl invite. Most interestingly, if Florida beats SC and Florida State, they could finish behind Georgia or Tennessee, miss the conference title game, but still be the second-highest rated team in the conference after an LSU win, backing into a BCS bid. Most fun of all, if all three said teams lose today, the six-way tie at 4-4 is still a possibility.

Fresno State at #16 Hawaii. Hawaii needs to break the top 12 of the BCS standings to earn an invitation, and so far their schedule hasn’t done them any favors. This is the first of their four toughest games, which should be enough to lift them there, provided of course none of these teams beat them. Fresno is a reasonable start, a tough team whose losses have come at Texas A&M and Oregon and at home to Boise State. If this game was on the mainland I’d like the upset. But at home, Hawaii is deadly. They have to be, because to climb the rankings, style points count.

Predictions: In the SEC, sometimes you just have to go with who has more left in the tank. Georgia’s last two weeks have been a big, emotional win over Florida and a surprisingly difficult test against Troy. Auburn has rolled over Tennessee Tech. Also, we know Auburn fears no road game. Florida drew Vandy after the Georgia matchup, while South Carolina dropped a heartbreaker to Tennessee and got steamrolled by Arkansas’ McFadden/Jones one-two punch. On Oahu, Boise or Washington might be able to pull one out, but I think Fresno doesn’t quite have enough.

Picks: Auburn, Florida, Hawaii

Saturday, November 3, 2007

On College Football Week 10 and a Playoff Proposal

The season is shaping up now. The list of conceivable national title game participants is down to eight, and even the eighth (Kansas) is a pretty big stretch.

At this point, I’d to propose my playoff system for college football. Especially since the BCS has added the national championship game the week after the other games, here’s my take:

Use the BCS standings to invite the four highest ranked conference champions (or independents). Two of the four BCS bowls host national semifinals, the other two get the other two conference winners plus at-larges. One of the semifinal hosts gets the title game the next week, and the one seed gets the same site for both games. Obviously, the bowls would work out a rotation policy for this ahead of time. The key here is that you have to win your league to get the invite, and while there are often three teams that claim a place in the BCS, there are rarely five. Obviously, this will never happen because two of the conferences would be left out every year, but it’s a nice thought and only adds one week. By the way, here’s who it would have taken the last four years:

2006: #1 Ohio State vs. #4 Louisville, #2 Florida vs. #3 USC
2005: #1 USC vs. #4 Notre Dame, #2 Texas vs. #3 Penn State
2004: #1 USC vs. #4 Utah, #2 Oklahoma vs. #3 Auburn
2003: #1 Oklahoma vs. #4 Michigan, #2 LSU vs. #3 USC

Now, I know some people will wonder about teams like 2006 Michigan, 2005 Ohio State and Oregon or 2004 Cal and Texas, who are higher ranked than teams in ahead of them. This doesn’t bother me. You should have beat the team who won your conference. College football is regional, and conference wins have to matter. The only conceivable problem is that in the Big Ten, you could have two teams go undefeated and not play each other (actually, if Wisconsin had beat Michigan, that would have happened last year, which might have broken the system entirely). However, that isn’t the BCS’ problem. That is the Big Ten’s problem.

I bring this up now because for the first time in ages, all six major conferences would be in play for a bid. Usually the ACC or Big East or both have lame duck champs, but no more. The four leaders would be Ohio State, BC, LSU and Arizona State right now, with Oregon, Oklahoma and West Virginia very much in play if they won out. I think that covers the best team claimants nicely.

Anyway, the three games of the week:

1. #4 Arizona State at #5 Oregon. Arizona State has to be the most anonymous elite team in the nation: at least KU has had a couple of ESPN games in a row. This week we’ll learn about them. On the other hand, we learned quite a bit about the Ducks after the USC win. They’re averaging 44 points a game.

2. #3 LSU at #17 Alabama. The Saban Bowl is all Bama fans could have asked for: the winner retains control of their destiny in the SEC West. Both teams have had a week off, LSU after a close win over Auburn and Alabama after a blowout of Tennessee, and have to be ready to put their best foot forward. I think Saban has the edge on Les Miles, but I think Miles’ players—many of them Saban’s—have a talent edge on the Crimson Tide.

3. #21 Wisconsin at #1 Ohio State. Another semi-test for the Buckeyes. Yes, Wisconsin is ranked, but their three road games so far have been an almost loss to UNLV, a close loss to Illinois and a terrible loss to Penn State. And with star RB PJ Hill either out or at least slowed down, they would need a huge upset. But stranger things have happened.

Predictions: Arizona State is talented, but Oregon is even better and at home. I think the Ducks take a close one. LSU will be pumped for Alabama and they have too much talent across the board to lose. Finally, Wisconsin is in serious trouble in Columbus. That should be the only blowout of the three.

Picks: Oregon, LSU, Ohio State

Saturday, October 27, 2007

On The 2007-08 NBA Season

Using age, health and previous seasons’ value scores, I projected ratings for all key players this season (for rookies, there’s more guesswork, although I did try to track the key ones against previous similar players). Then, I added up the scores, along with a constant bench modifier, to project all 30 teams’ records. These were distorted a little at the edges to add a “real season” feel to the projections (every team won’t be between 28-54 wins, although they may all project there), and the analysis is subjectively mine, but the order is completely unchanged from my numbers. And the system doesn’t care what name’s on the jersey, so some traditional powers better look out.

Also, at various points I comment on player ages. These are not always strictly correct, because the list I worked from had age as of 1/1/08. For example, LeBron has a December birthday. So I consider him to be 23, although that is not yet true.



Indiana Pacers. They failed to unload Jermaine O’Neal in the offseason, which is a shame for them because he’s declining and was never an A level star in the first place. I was really looking forward to watching him go to the Lakers for an Odom package, and then watch Kobe morph from giddy to horrified as he slowly realized his team had gotten even worse. Indiana could get a good year out of everyone on their entire team and still miss the playoffs. And they have exactly zero young players with genuine star potential—Danny Granger appears to be on the good support player arc, Ike Diogu scores when he plays, but doesn’t apparently ever shine enough to get consistent minutes, and that’s pretty much it for their youth movement. I don’t think a franchise could have accumulated a less inspiring roster on purpose.

Projected Record: 26-56

Philadelphia 76ers. In contrast, the 76ers are going about being bad the right way. In Andre Iguodala, they do have a budding star. Andre Miller probably has a few serviceable years left at PG, and Kyle Korver and Samuel Dalembert are great specialists. In Louis Williams, Rodney Carney and Thaddeus Young, they’ve found a high-potential young draftee three years running. This is the sort of roster that, with one good Ping-Pong ball next spring, would become an actual team again.

Projected Record: 32-50

Milwaukee Bucks. Michael Redd is a great scorer, but he’s not quite a superstar. Mo Williams is a nice player, but he’s not quite an elite point guard. Andrew Bogut is a solid presence inside, but he’s not quite a game changer. Charlie Villanueva is ultra-talented, but he’s not quite all there. Yi is an intriguing prospect, but they’re not quite sure if he’s really 19 or 22. I want to like Milwaukee’s roster, but I can’t quite justify it.

Projected Record: 33-49

Charlotte Bobcats. Although they still have a ways to go, the Bobcats have done a good job building their team slowly from the ground up. They have a young core; Matt Carroll and Jason Richardson, aged 27 and 26, are the oldest of Charlotte’s key players, and the two best players on the team (Emeka Okafor and Gerald Wallace) are 25. Throw in Raymond Felton and Matt Carroll, and the Bobcats have weapons. Next year, when Sean May and Adam Morrison return from injury and the others have had another year to improve and play together, they will probably be a playoff team. But not this year, I think.

Projected Record: 37-45

Detroit Pistons. The system is tough on aging players and conservative with rookies, and the Pistons are counting heavily on both. Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace are all past 30 and have started showing signs of decline already. Dumars is high on Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson, but there is limited evidence so far to judge them ready to step in and play, and of course Rodney Stuckey is jumping about fifteen degrees of difficulty coming from Eastern Washington. Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince are fine, but I think it was always Billups and the Wallaces that made the Pistons go. It isn’t sure by any means, and 50 seems likelier than 40, but this is a team that could drop quickly. You’ve been warned.

Projected Record: 40-42

New York Knicks. What, you thought I was going to put them in the playoffs? Come on. Isiah actually has put together some talent, though: Zach Randolph, while psycho, is a great post presence to add to David Lee and Eddy Curry, Jamal Crawford and Quentin Richardson are actually just 27, even though they seem to have been around forever, and Stephon Marbury could safely (and thankfully) be described as one-of-a-kind. Then there’s a whole slew of fringe players that other teams would be happy to have. Still, the Knicks don’t have a definite leader or a true point guard, and that’s enough to make them come up a little short again.

Projected Record: 40-42

Atlanta Hawks. Q: Why are Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Zaza Pachulia and Marvin Williams alike? If you answered, (1) they are the Hawks’ five best players, (2) they are all 26 or younger, (3) they were all better in 06-07 than 05-06, or (4) they all played fewer games in 06-07 than 05-06, you are correct. That’s a recipe for a team that could do a lot better this year. (By the way, if you answered (5) none of them is a point guard, or in any way resembles a point guard, you’re also right). Add in fellow youngsters Shelden Williams, Al Horford and Acie Law, and the Hawks have a lot of potential. Law especially will have to step up, because Atlanta needs point guard minutes somewhere. As improved as they should be, they may regret passing up Mike Conley.

Projected Record: 42-40


Toronto Raptors. The Raps are likely to spend this entire season victimized by expectations. They won 47 games and their division last year, but they were fortunate in close games and fortunate in performances by supporting players. Bosh is a star, and the Raptors should make the postseason, but they are likely to regress a little this season.

Projected Record: 42-40

Miami Heat. They weren’t all that good last year, and they’ve got injuries again. D-Wade is sidelined for at least the first 10 or so games of the season, and who wants to bet he’ll make it through the next 70 unscathed? And how many games can a 35 year old Shaq play? And when those two are out, the Heat aren’t going to scare anybody. Suffice to say 2007 isn’t really the year you want to see Shaq joined on your roster by Alonzo Mourning, Jason Williams and especially Penny Hardaway. The Ricky Davis trade was a good one, though. He gives them someone to score when Wade is out, he’ll be a good citizen on a team with established stars like Shaq and Wade, and best of all he isn’t Antoine Walker. Also, when healthy, Wade is one of the very best players in the league.

Projected Record: 42-40

Washington Wizards. This is a franchise that has to be very worried. Although he says it is only a business decision and he has every intention of re-signing, the fact is that Gilbert Arenas is opting out of his contract at the end of the year. I have no doubt he means it when he says he wants to come back, but consider that every other key Wizard (Jamison, Butler, Stevenson, Daniels, Haywood) is older than him. There’s no help coming. The only reason the Wizards can make the playoffs at all is Arenas himself; just go back and watch how easily the Hibachi-less Wiz were swept by the Cavs last year versus how intense the Gilbert/LeBron scorefests were the year before for evidence of this. Unless he wants to become a D.C. icon, which he might, there’s no rational reason for Arenas not to jump at a better situation next year. Enjoy him this year, Washington, because this might be it.

Projected Record: 44-38

New Jersey Nets. Vince re-signed, Kidd proved with USA basketball that he’s still one of the most valuable players in the NBA or anywhere else, and Jefferson and especially Krstic should be healthy again—I don’t think they’re really a title contender anymore, but they’re easily a playoff team.

Projected Record: 44-38

Orlando Magic. If you were picking a player to build your team around for the next decade, you couldn’t do much better than Dwight Howard. At 22, he’s one of the best low-post players, and probably the single best rebounder, in the NBA. Unfortunately, his supporting cast isn’t that strong, and even more unfortunately, it probably won’t be for quite some time, thanks to Rashard Lewis’ $118 million contract. A max contract for a 28-year-old wing who gives you 20 ppg and nothing else? They couldn’t have waited just one year and offered that money to Arenas? Apparently the Magic were eager to lock themselves into Eastern Conference also-ran status forever. Sorry, Dwight. You seem like such a nice kid, too.

Projected Record: 45-37

Boston Celtics. Now here’s an easy team to enjoy. What would happen if we sold our entire future for a couple of over-30 superstars to match with our own 30 year old superstar in hopes we can win a title in a two or three year window? And what if we can’t count on our coach, or anyone on the team that isn’t one of the three stars? Oh, and what if one of our three guys has entirely reconstructed knees? What then? I have no idea, and neither does anyone involved. Which is exactly why the Celtics will be so much fun to follow.

Projected Record: 48-34

Cleveland Cavaliers. My numbers indicate that LeBron should be easily the best player in the NBA this year. Shocking. Also, the likes of Hughes, Ilgauskas, Gooden and Varajeo aren’t really that bad of a supporting cast on an absolute scale, only compared to the other ensembles that make the conference or NBA finals. Obviously, they’d love to have a real #2 star, and they probably need one before they can expect to actually win the Finals, but the Cavs can compete as they are.

Projected Record: 51-31

Chicago Bulls. Paxson is taking some heat for not making a big move for KG, Kobe or even Pau Gasol, but he shouldn’t be. First of all, they had the best point differential in the conference last year, meaning they should improve a little bit just due to luck. They have tons of young talent on the perimeter in the form of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Chris Duhon and especially Luol Deng, who is developing into a true go-to scorer. They have veterans starting in the frontcourt (Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, and Andres Nocioni) supplemented by two dynamite defensive substitutes (Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah). In short, the Bulls are loaded. And there’s just something right about seeing Chicago at the top of the standings, don’t you think?

Projected Record: 59-23


This is weird. Of the top ten picks, five were awarded to Eastern Conference teams, but Boston and Charlotte traded theirs to the West, Horford and Noah both went to teams with four or five solid players in the frontcourt already, and Yi is a complete unknown. Indiana and Philly are definitely rebuilding, but the Pacers had no picks, and the Sixers went with projects (most notably Thaddeus Young) who probably aren’t polished enough to challenge for tons of minutes right away. Even the top Europeans went to places like Memphis, Houston, Golden State and Portland. One darkhorse ROY candidate is Sean Williams, who could get lots of minutes at the four for playoff team NJ if he stays out of trouble.


All-Eastern Conference Team:

Arenas, Wade, James, Garnett, Howard

Seven Other Potential All-Stars:

Bosh, Kidd, Billups, Deng, Iguodala, Johnson, Carter

Rookie of the Year:

Yi Jianlian



Minnesota Timberwolves. Considering they had to make some sort of move, I think they made out pretty well in the Garnett deal—obviously trading Kevin Garnett isn’t going to make you better in the short run, but Al Jefferson is a really good get, Ryan Gomes is solid, Theo Ratliff helps with the cap, and there’s even a pretty good chance that either Gerald Green or Bassy Telfair will mature into a real basketball player someday. Matched up with Randy Foye, Craig Smith, and Corey Brewer, that’s a core that could make the edge of the playoffs in two or three years. In the meantime, they can have a couple seasons to grow and make lots more picks, including the one they just got for Ricky Davis, who would have been their best player.

Projected Record: 17-65

Portland Trail Blazers. There are two major problems that can come up in projecting seasons. The first is injury. If LeBron goes down, obviously you can throw out any guesses about the Cavs, but even if a secondary player like Gooden were to miss significant time, the estimates would shift noticeably. The second issue is the Leap. The system incorporates adjustments by age, but it cannot know which players are going to push themselves to an entirely different level. For example, Deron Williams last year could have been expected to be a very competent young point guard, but he really outdid himself. Stars are born every year, and it is difficult to guess their due dates.

The reason I bring this up now is that the Blazers, even without Oden, boast one of the densest collections of prospects in the NBA. After jettisoning Zach Randolph, no one on the current roster has ever posted even a “minor star” quality season, but it’s a safe bet that eventually at least one of these guys will. The question is will it be this season or later when Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jarrett Jack or whoever makes the Leap? And the other question is, how bad will the Blazers be if it isn’t? This was a 30 win team, they had a point differential suggesting they should have been even worse, they come in to 2007-08 without last year’s best player. However, since Portland is aiming for contention in 2010 or so anyway, there’s no rush. If their play this year gives them a chance to invite OJ Mayo, Eric Gordon, Derrick Rose or someone similar to join Oden, Aldridge, Roy, Jack and company into the future, well, I think everyone here could live with that.

Projected Record: 19-63

Los Angeles Clippers. In pro sports, everyone’s going to have injuries. But when you lose both of what you were planning on being the two most important players on your team, star power forward Elton Brand and hopeful star point guard Shaun Livingston, to long-term injuries even after which they may or may not ever be the same, that’s just cruel. And the Clips are on fate’s shortlist of franchises that this would ever happen to.

Projected Record: 30-52

Sacramento Kings. This franchise is sort of muddling around. They sort of lucked into having Kevin Martin, but it’s unclear how they’re building around him. They drafted tenth, right after the last three definite lottery picks (Brewer, B Wright and Noah) came off the board, and inducing them to take a big chance on Spencer Hawes. Maybe Brad Miller’s terrible season was just a blip and he’ll be an All-Star quality center again this year, but he might be done. He is 31. Mike Bibby’s injury didn’t do them any favors; he’s no superstar, but solid and consistent are always in short supply. And God only knows what Ron Artest has in store for us next.

Projected Record: 31-51

Golden State Warriors. The Mavericks can take hope that their nemeses will miss out on the postseason this year. Baron Davis and company overachieved last year in winning the eighth spot, and buffed up competition for that spot is likely to send them back down again—especially when any injury to the notoriously fragile Davis would pretty much seal their fate. With youngsters Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins improving, and rookies Brandon Wright and Mario Belinelli in the fold, Golden State will be heard from again, but I think 2007-08 is too soon.

Projected Record: 33-49

Memphis Grizzlies. Pau Gasol is a franchise player, and his friend Juan Carlos Navarro joins Mike Miller and Hakim Warrick as very solid role players. Darko, Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley are great prospects. If one of them develops into a second star—and it could happen very soon, especially with Conley—Memphis will be back in business. It will take a little time, but none of the listed players is over 27. They have some time.

Projected Record: 34-48

Seattle SuperSonics. The Sonics will get good exactly as fast as Durant can make them. In the meantime, they have an astounding number of players in that possible fourth or fifth starter, great to have in the rotation but you don’t really want to be featuring them class. That description fits Chris Wilcox, Earl Watson, Luke Ridnour, Wally Szczerbiak, Nick Collison and Delonte West perfectly, and potentially rookie Jeff Green too. That’s impressively mediocre. However, there’s two plusses to that method. First and foremost, it’s like having seven numbers on the roulette wheel: if anyone at any position starts to blossom, the Sonics can easily make more minutes for him (by the way, it’s really about six and a half numbers. Watson is 28 with a lot of experience; he is not particularly likely to make the Leap. Also, in case you were wondering, the reason Szczerbiak counts as a full number even though he’s 30 is the possibility he makes it through the whole season completely healthy, in which case he could in theory score twenty points a game). Another benefit to this method is that it makes Seattle less vulnerable to injury than most other teams. Everybody has at least one potential stand-in. Well, everyone except Durant.

Projected Record: 36-46


Los Angeles Lakers. Two things about Kobe. First, his trade demands are funny. He supposedly has three favored destinations: Phoenix, Dallas and Chicago. Really, Kobe? You’d like to go to any one of the three best teams in the league? The teams that are going to have no incentive in preseason to break up what they have now for the potentially implosive force that is Mr. Bryant? Nice try. Also, I have to take issue with the basic assertation made by other players, coaches and writers that Mr. Bryant is the best player in the league. The Lakers aren’t the Washington Generals here. Lamar Odom is good. Phil Jackson is supposed to be some sort of basketball Zen-Buddha-Jedi thing. Luke Walton being the third player on your team is not a good sign, granted, but what’s makes Kobe finishing just over .500 and losing in the first round of the playoffs so much different than when Tracy McGrady was doing pretty much the exact same thing with the Magic? Or Gilbert Arenas doing the same thing now? I know there’s an East/West thing, which explains some of it, but hey, one of those Orlando years T-Mac’s coach was Doc Rivers and his second-leading scorer was Pat Garrity. That’s not exactly Phil and Lamar. Yes, Kobe has rings, and yes, Shaq needed a dependable late-game scorer to get around the hack-a-Shaq and take over when he was tired or in foul trouble, but I can’t think of a single reason that scorer had to be Kobe in particular. In fact, Penny and Wade seem to be obvious counterexamples. People will tell me his greatness is self-evident, that I should watch Kobe take over games, but the standings are a “Scoreboard!” chant style trump card. If he’s so good, why doesn’t he take over seasons? Mr. Bryant is near the top, but he is not now and has never been the best player in the NBA.

Projected Record: 41-41

Denver Nuggets. Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and Marcus Camby are guaranteed production, which make Nene, JR Smith and especially Kenyon Martin the most important Nuggets. With big seasons from any or all of them, Denver could push through the first round of the playoffs. If not, it will be another wasted year, and the clock is ticking. AI and Camby aren’t getting any younger.

Projected Record: 44-38

New Orleans Hornets. The Saints aren’t living up to expectations this year, but that’s all right, because the most exciting young athlete in the Big Easy isn’t Reggie Bush. It’s point guard Chris Paul. Paul, who is quicker than any person has a right to be, followed up on the best rookie season in recent memory with similar ratios in an injury-shortened season last year. He has two gifted young colleagues in the frontcourt; David West is a great scorer, and Tyson Chandler was impressive enough on D and the glass to earn a Team USA invite this summer. On the wings, the Hornets have solid veterans Morris Peterson and Peja Stojakovic and talented rookie Julian Wright. Last year, they finished three games shy of the playoffs with Paul missing 18 games due to injury, West missing 30 games and Peja missing 69. With even average health this year, they’re in the playoffs, and if they stay completely healthy, they could be scary.

Projected Record: 44-38

San Antonio Spurs. I don’t doubt Duncan-Parker-Ginobili, but I certainly doubt everyone else. This year, Bruce Bowen and Brent Barry are 36. Michael Finley is 34. Francisco Elson, Fabricio Oberto, Jacque Vaughn: 31, 32, 32. And let’s not even bring up Robert Horry. Also, what happens if one of their stars does go down? This is a team that dropped the Mavs series two years ago and was arguably a clever hip check away from losing to the Suns last year. Now one year older, and without bringing in any fresh blood, I think the Spurs have been caught up.

Projected Record: 49-33

Utah Jazz. Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams are very good players, and it will be interesting to see if they were playing a little over their heads last year. If not, Utah is in really good shape. What may be even more interesting is to see how the Andrei Kirilenko situation works out. If he’s happy and fitting into the system, AK-47 is one of the brightest and most unique talents in the league. If he isn’t, the Jazz believe they can get by without him. That’s true against most teams, but against other West contenders, they can’t.

Projected Record: 49-33

Dallas Mavericks. Dallas will win a ton of games; Dallas always wins a ton of games. Other than Devin Harris, though, there’s no key Maverick that can really be expected to match his 2006-07 season. Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Josh Howard were all fantastic, and neither Jerry Stackhouse nor Erick Dampier can have too much left in the tank. This should be a fun season, because the three most established teams in the West are feeling time pressure, but the only teams who’ve taken out any of the Big Three since Shaq and Kobe were teammates (besides each other, of course) are Golden State and Miami, who could easily both miss the playoffs. For obvious reasons, this would make Dallas especially happy.

Projected Record: 55-27

Houston Rockets. In Tracy McGrady, Houston has a go-to scorer. In Argentine Luis Scola, Houston has a 27 year old two-time MVP of the Spanish league, considered the best league in Europe. In Rafer Alston, Shane Battier, Luther Head, Mike James, and maybe even Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Francis, Houston has a formidable supporting cast. In Yao, though, what does Houston have? Either a low-post monster who can’t be guarded and can’t be fouled (25 ppg, 86% FT last year), or, as in over one-third of their games over the last two years, the world’s largest cheerleader. If the former, the Rockets are a threat to win it all; if the latter, poor T-Mac may be looking at one and done again. Then again, with the talent around him, even besides Yao, maybe not.

Projected Record: 56-26

Phoenix Suns. The Suns are better than ever, and they’re backed against the wall. This makes them dangerous to everybody. Steve Nash is playing better than ever, but the threat of his back injury limits his window. Shawn Marion (who really is way more important to Phoenix than Stoudamire) feels underappreciated, and for pride and luxury tax purposes may be on his way out next year. Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell are perfect role players. Grant Hill brings his veteran presence and scoring to the team, and rookie DJ Strawberry is a fantastic athlete who loves to run the court, doesn’t need the ball to be effective, and plays great defense. With all the pieces in place, this is the best edition of these Suns yet, and with the Marion situation, it is probably the last. They’ll make it count.

Projected Record: 66-16


And the Western Conference gets even richer. Obviously winning Oden and Durant makes the conference better, but they also had picks that become Conley and Brewer, and traded for the rights to Green and (Brandon) Wright. They also picked up Julian Wright and Al Thornton in the late lottery and added top European prospects Marco Belinelli and Rudy Fernandez. Western teams also nabbed the best of the established foreign players in Navarro and Luis Scola, who is a rookie only in the sense that Ichiro was a rookie when he first signed with the Mariners. Most of these guys landed on teams with plenty of minutes for them right away. Brewer and Thornton especially could hang around the Rookie of the Year race just by having opportunities from the start, but I don’t think they’re really in the class of Durant or even Conley.


All Western Conference Team:

Paul, Bryant, Marion, Nowitzki, Duncan

Seven Other Potential All-Stars:

Nash, Gasol, Parker, McGrady, Boozer, Deron Williams, Yao

Rookie of the Year:

Kevin Durant

Thursday, October 25, 2007

On The Beginning of College Football Madness

This week is fun. There are tons of games with conference championship implications, meaning that West Virginia-Rutgers, South Florida-Connecticut, Florida-Georgia, Kansas-Texas A&M, Tennessee-South Carolina, and Cal-Arizona State didn’t make the cut. Also, the very fact that South Florida-Connecticut made that list and Nebraska-Texas didn’t tells you most of what you need to know about this season in general.

Also, this week is fun because this is the point in college football where it's officially one loss and out. No one at this point can lose and expect to be in the BCS Championship game: in the relatively weak Big 10 and ACC, Ohio State and BC can't afford not to go undefeated, and even LSU can't expect to get away with losing twice.

1. #12 USC at #5 Oregon. Despite the superior rankings in the next game, this is the top matchup of the week. First of all, no one brought this up at the time (who really wants to make excuses for USC) but Booty broke his finger in the second quarter of the Stanford game, and Carroll let him try to tough it out. Otherwise, those four picks and super upset don’t happen, and USC is comfortably the #1 team in the country. On the other hand, if Oregon hadn’t fumbled the game-tying touchdown into the end zone against California, they might well be undefeated and in the top two. Now it’s a Pac-10 elimination game. This is why college is great. Every week matters.

2. #2 Boston College at #8 Virginia Tech. These teams are a combined 13-1, and have played exactly one really good team combined (LSU, 48-7 loss by VT) and only two even okay teams (BC over Wake, VT over Clemson). Now they get to play the first game of two for conference supremacy (UVa is the only possible spoiler, which is pathetic), with national title implications for BC. Got to love ACC football.

3. #1 Ohio State at #25 Penn State. Two years ago, after Ohio State dropped the Texas game, my friend who is a die-hard Buckeye fan said the only team left on the schedule that scared him was Penn State, because of their team speed. Remember, this was still early in the year, well before sportswriters acknowledged that JoePa was still even alive. And Penn State won. Even last year, the 28-6 “blowout” was a one score game with Morelli having a chance to tie until the two straight INTs for touchdowns. This year, back in State College, the Lions will be scary again. And the Bucks’ offense hasn’t looked all that great against the only semi-decent defenses they’ve played.

Predictions: Oregon has outplayed everyone on their schedule badly, including themselves against Cal—and they almost pulled that one out. But USC’s talent level is really off the charts, and I think this might be the game they remind everybody. Everyone’s afraid to play in Blacksburg, but the secret is that this VT team isn’t really all that great. And I’d love to pick Penn State, but I won’t take Morelli against Ohio State’s D. I refuse.

Picks: USC, BC, OSU

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On Even More SEC Games, and South Florida

Well, LSU-Kentucky cemented this college football season as one of the craziest ever. Interestingly, most of this year’s big games (with Florida-LSU standing as a big exception) have been important only in retrospect. Nobody was circling Stanford or Appalachian State on the calendar. This logic holds in the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC—except BC/VT and Ohio State/Michigan, the (non-championship) games that matter in that league are whatever the remaining upsets are. The Pac 10 doesn’t have any Big Four matchups this week, so guess which two conferences are showing up again?

1. #17 Auburn at #4 LSU. Maybe writing Auburn off for losing to South Florida was a little premature. Still, the Tigers, er, Auburn version, have some red flags. They did lose to Mississippi State, and they did fail to score a TD against Arkansas, which is less than North Texas and UT-Chattanooga can say.

Meanwhile, it goes without saying the Tig—LSU Tigers—are going to be pissed. Also, somewhat desperate. They’ve gone from the no question #1 in the country to needing two straight wins (Auburn, at Alabama) to even stay atop the SEC West.

2. #15 Florida at #7 Kentucky. Yes, it is right back on the horse in this conference. Kentucky suffered a tough loss at South Carolina and got thrown back in against LSU, and now they have no time to enjoy that victory. Like everyone in the SEC East except Vanderbilt, both these teams are pretty close to in control of their own destinies and very much in contention. That ends for the loser of this game. By the way, if you don’t think Urban Meyer has some new wrinkles from his bye week, you are crazy.

3. #2 South Florida at Rutgers. USF drew an almost obscenely fortunate home schedule, getting West Virginia, Cincy and Louisville in Tampa. So this trip to New Jersey is their only visit to a Big East contender. Although, with their wins coming against Buffalo, Navy, Norfolk State and Syracuse, and with home losses to both Cincinnati and Maryland, is Rutgers really a contender? Someone will have to be, if they’re going to keep South Florida out of the national title game.

Predictions: LSU should come out angry and take advantage of Auburn’s offensive struggles. Last year they lost this one 7-3; this year it could be 30-7. Forcing Kentucky to face a rested Florida after the emotional LSU win is just about as unfair as forcing LSU to play a rested Kentucky after the emotional Florida win. Isn’t the SEC fun? And Rutgers has already been exposed; don’t expect South Florida to falter yet.

Picks: LSU, Florida, USF

Friday, October 12, 2007

On the National Championship Picture and Week 7

Well, one of the Big Teams lost last week, like I predicted. It just wasn’t LSU. USC’s loss, coupled with some writers’ claiming they aren’t out of it yet, got me thinking. Who is still in the national championship race? The way I see it, there are three such classes.

First are the major conference undefeateds. This includes LSU, Ohio State, Cal, Boston College, South Florida, Missouri, Arizona State, Cincinnati, Kansas, and Connecticut. You might argue the last teams on that list probably wouldn’t get in no matter what they do, and I’d guess you’d be right, but they would at least have a shot to get in by winning out.

Second are the high-profile one loss teams that could get back into the race with some statement wins and some luck. This group consists of USC, Oklahoma, Oregon, West Virginia and Virginia Tech.

The third group is Hawaii. They’ve already forfeited their chance by having close games and having a terrible schedule, but I would be interested to see how many #1 votes they would get if they managed to go undefeated and everybody else lost a game. In fact, I root for this to happen for the best non-BCS team almost every year.

Anyway, with that in mind, let’s look at the Big Three games this week.

1. #11 Missouri at #6 Oklahoma. With apologies to Andre Woodson, Tim Tebow, Colt Brennan and Matt Ryan, Chase Daniel is the #1 QB in college football right now. He has been nearly perfect for Missouri, and has played his best two games of the season in his two biggies: Illinois and Nebraska. That said, Missouri’s defense has given up a ton of points, against teams vastly inferior to Oklahoma.

As a side note, how great is it that the last two undefeated teams in the Big 12 are Missouri and Kansas? It’s a shame they don’t play earlier in the season; if they’ve both dropped from 5-0 to 8-3 or 7-4 by the time the finale rolls around, that will be too bad. In the meantime, keep an eye out for KU’s CB/WR Aqib Talib, who had a pick, a TD catch and the coolest name on the field against K-State last week. No one cares yet except NFL scouts, but like Daniel, you could make a case Talib is the best player in the Big 12.

2. #1 LSU at #17 Kentucky. That’s the sound of the clock striking midnight on the Wildcats. That’s okay; it just means time for basketball season, where Kentucky is no Cinderella.

Or is it? One of my friends called this one a big game to watch out for; LSU just had the draining win over Florida, and Kentucky is dangerous, coming off a loss and at home. Also, Woodson rarely gets picked, and that sort of decision-making is a necessity against a D like the Tigers’. As we’ve seen this year, it could happen.

3. Louisville at #15 Cincinnati. Cincy is one of those teams that we’re not yet quite sure if they’re for real. They have shown one classic signal of a really good team—they don’t just beat the teams they should beat, they destroy them. Their first five wins were by an average of five TDs. In the sixth game, they won at Rutgers.

Louisville missed out on an undefeated season last year by failing to do just that. And, as sad as they’ve been this year, only one of their three losses has been in conference. Sooner or later, the coach and team have to get onto the same page, and when they do, let’s not forget the Cardinals are still loaded with offensive talent. While the Cincinnati front seven has been fantastic, Mike Teel threw for 334 yards last week, but failed to capitalize due to three INTs. Brian Brohm, who is dropping behind Woodson and Ryan on draft boards pretty much entirely due to his defense’s inability to get a stop, probably won’t have the same problem. By the way, I should have apologized to him above. Sorry twice, Brian.

Predictions: Missouri-Oklahoma is going to be a shootout. Daniel will put up points, but Mizzou simply can’t bring the D they have into Norman and expect anything good to happen. Kentucky doesn’t have the athletes to hang with LSU. Woodson’s greatest strength is making good decisions and delivering the ball to open players: when no one is open and the pocket can’t hold, that won’t do him much good. Louisville’s offense will expose Cincy’s secondary, and sooner or later their D has to jell, right? I’m taking Louisville, and I love that it’s an upset pick. Who would have guessed?

Picks: Oklahoma, LSU, Louisville

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Mike, On MLB's Toughest Places to Play

Now that the NFL previews have been written and posted and the season is underway, it’s time to begin another collection of features. This time, as you might have guessed by the title, we’re going to look at the most difficult venues that opposing teams have to face. As it is nearing the postseason, we’ll begin with baseball, and then move onto college and pro football, by which time we should be entering into the beginnings of hockey and basketball, so we’ll have every sport covered.

With these articles, I’ll rank the top 5 most difficult places to play, and give some honorable mentions as well. These rankings are, as is always the case, merely my opinion, but I will try to provide as much fact-oriented information as I can to support my decisions and rankings. So, with that in the background, and keeping in mind that I can actually claim to have watched a game at every one of these parks…

5. Petco Park, San Diego Padres – You’re probably already dismissing this list, but there’s a legitimate reason for this ballpark being at number 5 on this list. First off, everyday is absolutely beautiful in San Diego. As a visiting team, the allure of the beach and the wonderful scenery can be a bit distracting. The bigger reason, however, is the sheer size of the park itself. The dimensions are easily the largest in baseball, and with most of the new ballparks being built smaller than before (and, as is the case with Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park and Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, in such a way that the ball carries into left and right field, respectively, like a balloon on a windy day), the disparity between Petco and the rest of the league is rather large. It takes a completely different style of baseball to win games in SD, as evidenced by the fact that for most of the year Jake Peavy and Chris Young were 1-2 in the NL in ERA and no one on that team has had a 20 HR season since the park opened. It’s a totally different series for each and every road team than anywhere else, and it can play with your mind as a hitter (and a fielder) if you let it.

4. Wrigley Field, Chicago Cubs – This would be higher if everyone on the North Side wasn’t collectively waiting for the other foot to drop every single season. Outfielders for opposing teams risk having beer dropped on their heads, as happened to Ryan Spilborghs during the game I witnessed, and the bleacher seats in general produce some of the rowdiest fans in all of sports, period. The amenities are few and far between, the bullpens precariously close to the field (just ask the Phillies’ Michael Bourn), the walls are made of sheer brick, and ball carries well on a windy day, there’s very little foul ground – again, it’s just an entirely different ballpark than any other stadium around. The downside is the atmosphere, which feels more like a party than a baseball game. Plus, the aforementioned feeling of doom that lingers over the fans adds to the opponents’ confidence slightly (see: Florida Marlins, 2003). If the Cubs were to ever actually WIN a World Series, this place could easily become number 1 on the list.

3. Shea Stadium, New York Mets – Only at Shea Stadium could one fan call up a sports talk radio station and jokingly suggest having a John Rocker Battery Night for the first Mets-Braves game in 2000, after Rocker’s infamous Sports Illustrated interview, and over 55,000 people show up, batteries in hand, waiting for the first sight of the hated lefthander. Add to that unbelievable fan passion an extraordinarily loud PA and sound system, coupled with a decrepit and decaying structure, and you get a very difficult atmosphere for visitors. Again, this is a stadium that could easily be number 1, if not for the fact that when this team struggles, the fans leave in the seventh inning, and sometimes earlier. That detracts from the emotion in any sort of comeback scenario against the visitors, so it can’t be any higher than number 3.

2. Yankee Stadium, New York Yankees – If I have to explain this one to you, stop reading because you clearly know nothing about baseball. History, tradition, talent, passion, excitement – it’s all there. If you ever happen to go to a game and don’t feel goose bumps walking into and out of the same stadium as DiMaggio, Mantle, Ruth, Maris, Berra, Gehrig, Mattingly, Jeter, Jackson, Ford, Clemens, Martin, Larsen – the list is endless, and you simply can’t help get excited. Even a mid-August Yankees-Royals contest was electric. It’s an amazing ballpark in an amazing city with amazing fans and amazing tradition. It simply doesn’t get any better. Well, except for…

1. Fenway Park, Boston Red Sox – Sure, I love Yankee Stadium, but there are no better fans, no more passionate crowds, and no bigger homefield advantage in baseball than in “Bah-stahn.” The “Sawks,” and yes, you must pronounce those two words in that manner, constantly sell out homegames, and I believe they will one day soon pass the Cleveland Indians mark of consecutive sellouts that occurred back when the Indians mattered and Jacobs Field had just opened. The fans are knowledgeable and passionate, and they’re on their feet from the first pitch of the game. Couple that with some awkward outfield dimensions – namely, the deep crevice in centerfield, the absurdly low wall in right center, and the ridiculously short distance down the right field foul line – and that’s before you even get to the most distinctive feature in all of baseball, the Green Monster, and you get a really hard place for outfielders to play defense effectively. That thing is the single biggest producer of doubles in all of baseball history. For opponents to win in Fenway, they not only need talent to compete against the Red Sox, but they also need a strong-willed starting pitcher with good intestinal fortitude, a good center fielder who can cover lots of ground, and a good closer to prevent the now famous Boston Red Sox 9th-inning comeback. Oh, and they also have that thing called “tradition” too, just like NY. Pretty good home field, I’d say.

Honorable Mention: Angel Stadium, Los Angeles Angels – Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia Phillies – Coors Field, Colorado Rockies – Jacobs Field, Cleveland Indians – AT&T Park, San Francisco Giants

On College Football's Week After

I lost two of three games again last week, but I don’t feel too bad. Last week was insane. Everybody good lost or almost lost.

On the plus side, we now have a situation in which the #8 and #11 teams are playing each other in a game that probably doesn’t even have any BCS implications, because I don’t think either Kentucky or South Carolina is talented enough to beat out both Florida and Georgia. With Vandy playing well, and Tennessee still being Tennessee, either of them could even finish last. Or Georgia/UT, which is also this week, could be a basement battle. Who knows?

Anyway, let’s start with an SEC game that really does matter.

#9 Florida at #1 LSU. Not as big as we thought before Florida dropped the Auburn game, but in some ways even bigger. With a loss, Florida relinquishes control of its own destiny in the SEC East. LSU looked mortal against Tulane but still cruised. A win here pretty much solidifies their #1 ranking. If there’s one team that isn’t intimidated by all-everything DT Glenn Dorsey, though, it’s the Gators. They don’t run straight up the middle anyway.

#10 Oklahoma vs. #19 Texas. Another game that lost some luster last week. Colt McCoy and the Longhorns offense has been out of sync all year, and Oklahoma got ambushed by Colorado last week after winning their first four by 50 points a game. The key now is that it’s a knockout game. Let’s note a couple of things real quick before moving on. First of all, in Oklahoma’s favor, they actually played well in last year’s loss to Texas, but were undone by a -5 turnover ratio. Second, Texas gave up three return scores to K-State, and Colt McCoy likely played the second half concussed. That will cut short a comeback. Also, Limas Sweed looked back to full strength the week before.

#4 Ohio State at #23 Purdue. Big Ten undefeateds match up. Thanks to a terrible schedule (c’mon, Eastern Illinois and Notre Dame), Purdue joins Kansas, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Arizona State and Hawaii on the list of unbeaten teams we know nothing about. This will change. Meanwhile, Ohio State is busy giving up seven points a game, with a Washington away win on their resume and looking to add Purdue and take the inside track in the Big Ten.

Predictions: I thought Florida would take their first loss at LSU, but after last week I’m not so sure. All of a sudden, Florida really needs this win, and Urban Meyer tends to do well in must win games. Also, I feel like Oklahoma is a little bit overrated on offense, and that a healthy Colt-Sweed would be a big connection for Texas. I want to pick the upset here, and with a little faith in the Longhorn secondary I would, but I have to go with Oklahoma. And in the Big Ten, I think Ohio State’s defense is too much for Purdue, who isn’t ready for the three steps up in competition this week.

Picks: Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio State

Friday, September 28, 2007

On Week 5 Football

It’s a good thing I got my gloating in last week, because my latest picks were pretty bad. Although both games were at least close, I lost on favored Alabama and Penn State. Also, I thought South Carolina would give LSU more of a game than they did. Not good.

What we did learn, from both sides, is that the gap between LSU and the rest of the SEC West is indeed very large, considering Alabama and Arkansas both dropped their games.

Also, from Penn State’s loss to a 1-2 team, we learned that the Big Ten might be back down to Ohio State and Michigan. Or pretty close.

Now, this week’s games:

West Virginia at South Florida. Thanks to Louisville’s loss against Syracuse, at home, this game has gotten ten times bigger. West Virginia is clearly the most talented team in the conference, but they drew Rutgers, Cincy and USF on the road, and all look dangerous. Meanwhile, South Florida is undefeated, has beaten a top ten team in each of the last two seasons, and has a favorable schedule. And remember, if they win, it would take two losses for WV to catch them.

Also, as an aside, Louisville’s Brian Brohm is in line to follow in Matt Leinart and Brady Quinn’s footsteps and drop down draft boards for no better reason than his defense can’t get a stop. I can’t wait for the Bills to pass on him.

California at Oregon. Two of the nation’s most explosive offenses meet. Not only will the winner of this game have a shot at USC for the Pac 10 title, but, thanks to the strength of the Pac 10, the winner of this game has an inside track at a BCS at-large bid even if they don’t beat the Trojans. This would be especially big for Oregon, who gets USC and Arizona State at home later and could start legitimately dreaming about a national title if they win.

Michigan State at Wisconsin. Anytime two undefeated Big Ten teams play, it’s a big game. Wisconsin has somehow managed to lose only one game of the 17 Bret Bielema has coached without creating any buzz whatsoever; if they had Michigan helmets, they’d be in the top five right now. Part of the reason is they haven’t managed a statement win against a quality team. Now would be a good time.

Predictions: West Virginia is too fast for USF, plain and simple. That’s all you really need to know. I think Tennessee could have beat Cal if they’d had one or two more good possessions, and Oregon has had a good possession just about every time this season. I think they will win surprisingly easily. Also, I think Wisconsin will take Michigan State, but it won’t be the quite the big win the Badgers are hoping for.

Picks: WV, Oregon, Wisconsin

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mike, On Predicting the Playoffs (NFL)

The past four columns have previewed each of the eight divisions, and now it’s time to look at how the playoffs will shake out. First, a recap of my division picks.


North: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland

South: Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Houston

East: New England, New York, Buffalo, Miami

West: San Diego, Denver, Kansas City, Oakland


North: Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit, Minnesota

South: New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Atlanta

East: Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington, New York

West: Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona, Saint Louis

AFC Playoffs

I think Denver and Cincinnati will join the four division winners in the postseason. The critical game will be October 21, as I wrote in the East preview, as the Jets travel to Cincinnati, a game I think the Bengals will ultimately win and allow them the tiebraker over the Jets. Denver should cruise to somewhere between 10-12 wins, easily enough for the 5 seed. The playoffs will then shake out as follows:

5) Denver over 4) Baltimore

3) Indianapolis over 6) Cincinnati

1) New England over Denver

2) San Diego over Indianapolis

New England over San Diego

Face it, the Pats don’t lose at home in January. It simply doesn’t happen, and since I see them as a 14-2 team who will win in Week 2 over San Diego, they will have the tiebraker and home field throughout the playoffs. The Chargers will dethrone the former champs because the Colts D won’t be able to stop Tomlinson, but San Diego won’t have enough to go into Foxboro and escape with a win.

NFC Playoffs

The five givens for the playoffs are the four division winners and the second place team in the east. If either Dallas or Philadelphia misses the playoffs, I’ll be shocked. The final team is a sheer toss up. Green Bay, San Francisco, Carolina, Tampa Bay, and even Detroit could all make a push for that 6 seed. My heart says to go with Brett Favre, but my head says one of the South teams. Expect three or four teams to have a shot at the playoffs in the final week, but for me, I just can’t pick against the greatest franchise in football. Thus, the January results:

4) New Orleans over 5) Philadelphia

3) Dallas over 6) Green Bay

1) Seattle over New Orleans

2) Chicago over Dallas

Seattle over Chicago

So I’m uncreative and picked no upsets here. So what? Home field is crucial for football, especially since all six of these teams have very good home crowds and play well at home. Similarly to New England, I don’t think anyone can win on the road against either the Seahawks or Bears, and since Rex Grossman is prominently involved in this debate, Seattle gets the 1 seed and wins the NFC Championship at home.

Super Bowl

The nice part about my preview is that you don’t have two weeks worth of media coverage before the actual game. I just bring it to you straight up.

Seahawks 23, Patriots 21

Adam Vinatieri’s in Indianapolis. Patrick will finally have some company in his sorrow of “wide right” – NE’s last second field goal sails just outside the left goalpost, and the Seahawks win the first NFL title for the city of Seattle. And the best part about the whole thing – Bill Belichick’s cameraman will have the whole thing on tape from the Patriots sideline to replay over and over the entire offseason.

Mike, On the West Divisions (NFL)

Ok, so these are a little late. I promise that nothing that happened in the season altered these predictions in any way, as I had most of it written prior to the games being played. I just never sent it to Patrick, so they’re getting up a little late [Ed. note: and since they were already late, I did not hurry in posting them]. Either way, here we go with the final two divisions.

AFC West

This division will compete with the AFC East for the title of biggest top heavy/bottom heavy division. Like their eastern counterpart, this division has two very talented, capable teams and two teams who will compete for next year’s number 1 overall pick. The cream is clearly San Diego, who has assembled, in my opinion, a more talented team than anyone else in football, including the Patriots. Tomlinson is equal to Peyton Manning as the best player in the game, and the Charges D is top 5. The question mark is Norv Turner, who had a talented team in the past with the Redskins and never lived up to expectations. This is a 14-2 team, however, and I would be surprised if they didn’t win at least another 13 this year [Ed. note: This paragraph is proof he wrote this before the season started].

The challenger to SD will be Denver, who has one key element no other team has – offseason tragedy. The death of Darrent Williams is something that will unite this Broncos team, and Mike Shanahan will use it to the utmost in keeping his team focused and driven for 17 weeks. The running game should be solid with Travis Henry now in the backfield, and Invesco Field is right up there with the best as far as home field advantages are concerned (which will be a later column, in fact). The key for Denver is obviously the maturity of second year QB Jay Cutler, who will be expected to learn from a rough finish last season and guide this team into the postseason.

Kansas City is possibly the most one-dimensional football team going. Damon Huard at QB for a full season is just asking for trouble, Larry Johnson is pretty overworked already, and Herm is not the best game manager in the world. Yes, Arrowhead provides the Chiefs with a distinct homefield advantage, but they have a difficult schedule and two extremely talented teams in their own division that they simply won’t be able to beat. Look for a tough season from KC until they can find a QB capable of taking some pressure off the running game.

And then there’s Oakland, who, while being much improved over last season, will still be the joke of the AFC. There is no running attack for the Raiders, and Daunte Culpepper, while better than Aaron Brooks, will be the subject of a boatload of blitzes all season because no one will respect Oakland’s ability to run the ball. Atlanta will most likely have the top pick next season, but with a very deep running back class available in the upcoming draft, look for JaMarcus Russell to have Darren McFadden, Mike Hart, or Steve Slaton lining up in the backfield with him next year.

Pick: San Diego, Denver, Kansas City, Oakland

NFC West

The trendy “sleeper” pick for the entire NFL is the San Francisco 49’ers, which, by virtue of the definition of “sleeper,” makes them NOT a sleeper. Sure, they have a very talented running back and quarterback, but it’s still a young and extremely unproven team. They surged late last year when there was very little pressure on them, but with expectations heaped high at the start of this season, I’m not sold that they’ll be able to handle it. This is a team that’s one year away from reclaiming their throne atop the NFC West, but expect them to struggle to reach .500 this season.

While one former power is on its way up, another is clearly on its way down. Marc Bulger has never been an outstanding QB, and as Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt continue to age, Bulger and the Rams will have to rely more on Steven Jackson and will become less of the “Greatest Show on Turf” that built the reputation of Saint Louis at the start of the decade. The defense is suspect, and they seem to have some sort of mental block when it comes to beating the Seahawks. Add it all up and this team is primed for a 6-10 season.

Speaking of the Seahawks, they bucked the trend last season of the Super Bowl loss hangover and were within one made field goal at the end of regulation of making their second consecutive NFC Championship Game. People seem to forget how close they came to beating the Bears in that game. Shaun Alexander is still as talented a running back as you’ll find outside of LDT, and Matt Hasselback knows how to limit costly mistakes and give this team a chance to win. Combine that talent with Mike Holmgren’s ability to simply win football games (one of only two coaches ever to win 75 games with two teams) and it should be a fourth straight division crown in the Pacific Northwest.

Finally, perhaps the most pathetic franchise in all of sports – the Arizona Cardinals. Sure, the Lions are awful, but they’ve had Hall of Famers and even NFL Championships way back when. But go through the list of bad sports franchise – Royals, Knicks, Warriors, Coyotes, Pirates, LA Kings – and they’ve all had some sort of success within the last 20 years. The only other competition for worst professional sports franchise is the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and they have a built-in excuse of only having existed since 1997. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have no excuse. They have what should be an electric offense and a somewhat respectable defense, and finally two guys in head coach Ken Whisenhunt and assistant coach Russ Grimm who know what it takes to win. Even with all that, I can’t put this team any higher than 6-10… oh, why not, 7-9 and ahead of the Rams.

Pick: Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona, Saint Louis

On LSU and the Nittany Tide

Man, Kyle Wright is really making me look great. As I write this, he is in the middle of leading Miami to a complete destruction of Texas A&M, which means one of four things. Either they’re a completely different team with Wright, A&M is very overrated, UM should never leave the Orange Bowl, or else Oklahoma really is that terrifying. Probably some of everything.

In fact, since Georgia Tech’s eye-opening demolition of Notre Dame turned out not to be such a big deal after all, plus they got dominated by BC, and Virginia Tech hasn’t turned in a great performance yet, Miami might be the new favorite in the ACC Coastal. Maybe I should have made that the #3 game this week. Oh well.

1. #12 South Carolina at #2 LSU. This game could be closer than people think. Since he arrived in 2005, this is the season Spurrier expected to compete. His team’s talent and experience level has improved every year; this year’s edition boasts ten of the same defensive starters that held opponents under 19 ppg, and already won at Georgia.

Furthermore, since the Ol’ Ball Coach came to SC, he’s played four games against top 10 opponents. He hasn’t won one yet, but the loss margin has been two, seven, seven and one. Spurrier gets his teams ready to play in big games, and at 3-0 and having made the claim his team is ready to contend for the SEC title, this is his biggest yet.

That said, LSU has looked unstoppable in every aspect.

2. #10 Penn State at Michigan. Michigan’s season may have been considered over as soon as they lost to Apppalachian State, but now their focus has to be on their zero in the conference loss column. And as ESPN is eager to tell you, Michigan has eight straight wins against PSU, including the Nittany Lions’ only loss of the 2005 season last time they visited the Big House.

On the other hand, Penn State has more experience, hasn’t given up 34 points to a I-AA team or 600 yards to Oregon, and will have someone better than Mike Hart to try to stop Mike Hart (this would be LB Dan Connor). So there’s a case here too.

Either way, with Ohio State’s D impressing, and over half the conference undefeated, this game is important for both teams’ Big Ten title hopes.

3. #22 Georgia at #16 Alabama. Since my theme is import to the BCS, and Florida and LSU play in the SEC, I thought about putting the Miami game here. But when in doubt, go with GameDay. They are broadcasting from Tuscaloosa, so here we are.

After the win over Arkansas, in which the Crimson Tide managed to be both very impressive and then very lucky, Saban’s team is looking to become a contender ahead of schedule. And they might. They could be favored in all but one of their games from here on out, as they miss both Florida and South Carolina, Auburn has been awful, and they were lucky enough to draw Vanderbilt (already played) and both Mississippi schools on the road. This gives them their four best SEC opponents—Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and LSU—all at home. A win on Saturday, and the Alabama-LSU Saban Bowl gets even bigger.

On the other hand, Georgia’s in the same situation Tennessee was last week. They have talent, but they need a big road win to make up for an early loss. UT lost what amounted to an elimination game—they won’t be relevant for the rest of the season. Will Georgia?

Predictions: I do think Spurrier will outcoach Les Miles, but I don’t think it will be able to make up for the Tigers’ talent level. If Chad Henne were completely healthy, I would consider taking Michigan, but I don’t think they can afford to have him at less than 100%. If Mallett plays, I doubt the game will be close. Fifteen passes and ninety yards will cut it against Notre Dame this year, but more balance is needed against as high-caliber a defense as Penn State’s. In the nightcap, I think Alabama has the edge. Since I mentioned GameDay, I was going to make a joke here about channeling my inner Corso and putting on a mascot head for this one, but after I saw the commercial where he keeps the heads in his hotel bed with him, I was too creeped out.

Picks: LSU, Penn State, Alabama.

PS In case you have never received a classical education, the last part of the title of this article is a Simpsons' reference.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

On USC, Florida, and Yet Another ACC Game

Two weeks into the college football season, we’re starting to get a picture of how the season is going. The Pac 10 is dominating, the Big East really is that good after all, the SEC (duh) goes five or six deep, Michigan-Notre Dame is completely irrelevant, and the ACC still doesn’t have a marquee team.

In last week’s three games, some of the top teams created some separation between them and the pack. LSU deserves to be ranked #1 for now, and Texas-Oklahoma set themselves ahead of the pack in the Big 12, again. Also, like I said, Kyle Wright is now back in for Miami. Teams should play second-rate QBs against Oklahoma more often, so I can keep looking like I know what I’m talking about. Anyway, this week’s top 3 games:

1. #22 Tennessee at #5 Florida. I have a friend who loves Tennessee football, and for some reason, she hates Casey Clausen. I found this confusing because I always thought he did really well at UT. But here’s the thing: although I think it wasn’t his fault, the feeling probably comes from the fact that his teams failed to make the BCS while the window was open. When Clausen was an upperclassman, Spurrier was out and Zook was in. We didn’t yet know how good Mark Richt was—in retrospect, we can see that Georgia’s rise is almost perfectly invertible with Florida State’s decline, but that’s a whole different column. Now we can see Georgia is here to stay, Spurrier’s back around, Urban Meyer is bringing in enough talent to start USC East, and every SEC West team outside of Mississippi is better than they were five years ago. Tennessee’s window of opportunity has been closing ever since Casey’s days. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that a decisive Florida victory this week could shut it on Phil Fulmer permanently.

For their part, Florida will be looking to keep pace with LSU and keep themselves in the national title picture.

2. #21 Boston College at #15 Georgia Tech. ACC teams, if you’re keeping track, have now showed up on five of my nine big games so far. This is partly because they schedule early conference games, but mostly it is attributable to their status as the weakest BCS conference. Since no one has any clue who the best team in this conference might be, we have to keep watching to find out. Boston College, as noted before, is the most experienced team in the league, and boasts the best quarterback. They’ve been solid but unspectacular against Wake Forest and NC State. GT looked fabulous at Notre Dame and against Samford, but who knows what that’s worth? If they take care of BC, they could challenge for the top 10 next week. If BC wins, they will be 6-0 and Matt Ryan will be on the fringe of the Heisman race by mid-October.

3. #1 USC at #16 Nebraska. The Pac-10 has oozed quality so far, with Cal, Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington all posting solid wins and cruising to 2-0. Meanwhile, with LSU, Florida and Oklahoma all impressing, it has been easy to forget that USC is still the odds-on favorite in the conference and the country. They will be out to remind people.

They’ll be up against pretty much the entire city of Lincoln. Nebraska is a good team, and QB Sam Keller played the 2005 Trojans tough when he was at Arizona State. If Nebraska can win, or even stay close, it will establish them not only as the early Big 12 North favorite, but a legitimate concern to the Oklahoma/Texas winner in the championship game.

As a side note, I put the ACC game ahead of this because as a conference game, I felt it has slightly more importance. This game is the best of the week in terms of combined team ranking, and the result is important to both programs and their conferences, but it does not impact either team's ability to win said conferences. So it drops to 3rd.

Predictions: I just don’t see Fulmer having the defense to get it done in the Swamp. Even with Caldwell missing, the Gators have weapons everywhere, and keep in mind this is the first team EVER in the third straight year of Urban Meyer’s offense. Nebraska doesn’t have the talent to hang around with USC, but few teams do. In the ACC, I’m taking BC in a slight upset. GT hasn’t seen a defense that could slow down Tashard Choice, and I think Taylor Bennett will have a tough time if he needs to pass to be successful. BC is more balanced and should get the win.

Picks: Florida, BC, USC

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Mike, On the East Divisions (NFL)

After spending the past four years at a college in Ohio, I’ve become used to hearing many gripes about how the media has an East Coast bias, and how Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington run the country when it comes to big time sports. Look, I can’t help that we have bigger (and better) cities with older, more traditional sports teams and loads of disposable income. When you have a city of over 10 million people that has nine major professional sports teams in the four major sports (yes, hockey counts) with four – count ‘em, FOUR full-time sports television stations, then you can have a legitimate complaint. Anyway, my gift to all of you is holding off the East divisions until third. Sure, people on the left coast won’t be happy, but they’re not even awake to watch half these games, so who cares?

Now that that’s off my chest, the previews:

AFC East
It pains me to say that I don’t think my team will make the playoffs this year. If you want one date that could very well determine the final AFC wild card team, circle October 21. The New York Jets will head to Ohio and battle the Cincinnati Bengals. I think these will be the last two teams standing, and the winner here will most likely keep playing past Week 17. The Jets are better with the addition of Thomas Jones, but a second-place schedule could be their undoing (although Tennessee and Kansas City are easier games than Buffalo’s trade off of Jacksonville and Denver). Regardless, this has all the makings of a 9-7 team that will finish seventh overall in the conference.

The Bills, meanwhile, continue to dislike the idea of having good running backs on their teams. With McGahee gone to Baltimore, you might not find a happier Jets fan than me. Losman, however, appears to have turned a bit of a corner, and Lee Evans will always give opposing secondaries fits. If Buffalo wants to win, they’ll have to do it with defense and special teams, winning the turnover battles and consistently giving their offense, who won’t run the ball well, good field position. They will play on Monday Night Football for the first time since 2001, though, so at least there’s one positive to this season.

I sincerely hope Ted Ginn, Jr. has a good ROI, because Miami passed up a future franchise QB for a guy who runs really fast… and that’s about it. He’s never been a great route runner, and I think Ginn is closer to Dante Hall than Michael Irvin as far as playmaking abilities are concerned. You just don’t take a special teamer with the number 9 overall pick. This will severely hurt the Dolphins, Trent Green at QB or not, and they’ll finish the season looking up at three teams once again this year.

Oh, and I almost forgot – the Patriots are good. Really good. Really really good. Really really really… ok, you get the point. Actually, the Pats are vulnerable as the season begins because of Rodney Harrison’s admission to using HGH, which will sideline him 4 games. This comes on the heels of placing Richard Seymour on the PUP list, costing him at least the first 6 games. If you’re going to beat NE, you better do it before Columbus Day. After that, it’s the postseason express, taking all ticketed passengers (and bandwagoners) straight to January.

Pick: New England, New York, Buffalo, Miami

NFC East
I like to call this division “half-and-half.” There are two teams that could win the entire NFC, and there are two teams with an outside shot at the top overall pick come April. The losers first, and what better place to begin than the home of football’s most famous “retiree” (read: quitter) – New York. Yes, the Giants will be awful. The only reason the G-men were successful last year is that Tiki Barber ran through defenses like water through a sieve. When he stopped caring and announced his retirement midway through the season, the team went south, not because of the distraction but because Tiki wasn’t caring and producing like normal, so the pressure shifted to Eli Manning. This year? No Tiki at all. If you’d like to see the stereotypical “deer-in-headlights” look, check out Eli around Week 10.

Competing with the Giants for the “ultimate sucky NFC East football team” title this season – your 2007 Washington Redskins! Recently, one esteemed football publication commented that the Redskins have possibly the best two safeties in the league. That’s fantastic news, and it’ll be even better news when they find 20 other players to play along side them. Seriously though, this is an old football team offensively outside of Jason Campbell, they have very little O-line depth, and the front seven gets no pass rush, making the secondary vulnerable. Tough to win with that recipe.

Philadelphia’s won four of the last five division titles, and everyone seems to think they can do it again. The problem is the health (and also relative incompetence at times) of Donovan McNabb. Word is that it takes at least a full year, maybe more like 18 months, to recover the injury Donovan sustained last November. With no Jeff Garcia, the Eagles are pinning their hopes to what is quite frankly an overrated QB. Westbrook is a legitimate stud, but if they’re going to insist on throwing him the ball instead of handing it to him, they could wind up on the road come playoff time.

Dallas will suffer not having Bill Parcells on the sidelines. Every other team that’s watched Bill walk away has, so why should Dallas be different? The only key here is Tony Romo. If he recovers mentally from the dropped snap in Seattle last winter, this will be the team to beat in the East. If he’s shaky, new coach Wade Phillips might have some interesting decisions to make under a very large microscope named Jerry Jones. Texas takes their football seriously, and with large expectations, the Cowboys – Romo and Phillips in particular – will be expected to produce winning results.

Pick: Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington, New York

On a Big Week for the ACC Coastal and Big 12 South (NCAAF)

For most teams, this is the real opening week of college football season. The exhibition game is out of the way for traditional powerhouses: no more Youngstown State for Ohio State, Idaho for USC, or Michigan for Appalachian State.

Here are this week’s big three games:

1. #9 Virginia Tech at #2 LSU. This game replaces the Ohio State-Texas series as the only scheduled matchup between favorites of BCS conferences. These teams may have the best two defenses in the country. I would say we might have a repeat of LSU’s 7-3 game against Auburn last year, except that judging from LSU’s seven forced turnovers and VT’s pick six last week, the defenses themselves may score than ten points. VT’s O-line will have to be more convincing than they were against East Carolina (27 carries for 51 yards, 4 sacks) if they’re hoping to stop DT Glenn Dorsey, who could be starting in the NFL right now if he wanted to be.

2. #19 TCU at #7 Texas. Texas owes Oklahoma an onside kick. They needed a questionable penalty to nullify Arkansas State’s recovery late in their opener, which would have given the Indians (I bet you didn’t even know their mascot) a chance for a game-tying score. Oklahoma, as you may remember, lost out on a similar call at Oregon last season. Since Appalachian State is more than ten points better than Arkansas State, Texas probably really played the worst of any national title contender last week.

That won’t cut it this week. Along with the eventual winner of the Hawaii-Boise State game, TCU is the non-BCS team with the best shot at scoring an invite to one of the big bowls. This means their entire season is on the line against the Longhorns, and they know it. Two years ago, TCU knocked off #7 Oklahoma on the road in a similar game, and this year’s edition is even better than that one. They have nine defensive starters back from last year’s 11-2 squad, and pitched a shut out in the opener against Baylor. TCU is good enough to win, and good enough to be considered a legitimate statement game if Texas were to win convincingly.

3. Miami, FL at #5 Oklahoma. This is just a good college football game. These are two name-brand programs who smell blood in the water, as their conference favorites (see above) looked vulnerable last week and are at risk again this week. Meanwhile, these teams rolled. In beating North Texas 79-10, Oklahoma dominated their game about as much as is possible. In beating Marshall 31-3, though, Miami still played an incomplete game.

I wrote Miami in previously as a darkhorse title contender, but I would like to note that I withdrew that possibility the moment Kirby Freeman was announced the starter. Even with Kyle Wright under center, the Canes were probably in trouble this week, but with the less experienced Freeman, they’re just asking to lose. They dominated the line of scrimmage last week, with their two main backs combining for 200 rushing yards on 25 carries. This masked Freeman’s 9/21 for 86 yards. Oklahoma will expose it. I would not be surprised to see Wright finish this game, causing new coach Randy Shannon QB controversy headaches all season.

Predictions: Last week, I took a shot on two out of three underdogs, splitting those games, but this week I can’t see any. None of the three visitors have the passing offense to keep stronger, faster defenses honest and open up their running games. Texas is the most vulnerable favorite of the three, but they will be focused after their opening scare and ready to win.

Picks: LSU, Texas, Oklahoma

Mike, On the South Divisions (NFL)

Two divisions down, six more to go in this five-part NFL preview. We’ve got another two divisions to preview today, and for that, we’re heading south.

AFC South
This division is home to the defending Super Bowl champions, who will try to become the third team from the AFC to repeat as champions in the past ten years. A revamped defense will make this difficult, but as we saw last year, Indianapolis has enough talent offensively to make the playoffs on that alone, and then they’ll just have to hope that playing together for four months has helped the defense to gel enough to win in January. A team as loaded offensively as the Colts will win a ton of games, but that defense will need a repeat performance if they expect to hoist the Lombardi Trophy again.

As has been the case for the past three years, the biggest challenger to Indy will be Jacksonville. Despite Jack Del Rio’s somewhat surprising decision to trade or release Byron Leftwich with a week to go before the season starts, this is a team with a defense, which, like Indy’s offense, can win games regardless of how well the team plays on the other side of the ball. David Garrard will have to make plays, however, and with Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor in his backfield, he’ll have plenty of help. The biggest key for this team is not to lose games against teams they should beat.

Deep in the heart of Texas, Houston is quietly putting together a decent team. Gary Kubiak knows how to coach, and his team will always be well-prepared and willing to run through a wall for the coach and the team. The problem is that hard work will only do so much in covering up a lack of talent, which Houston clearly has. Matt Schaub isn’t exactly a franchise quarterback, and he’ll still have the same problem David Carr did – no O-line. The defense will be decent again, but this division is too top heavy to think playoff just yet.

And finally, a team that is possibly the biggest enigma in the entire NFL. The Tennessee Titans lost a lot of talent this offseason from a team that wasn’t exactly stacked last year. Add to that the off-field drama of Pacman Jones, and everyone would understand if this team went 4-12. This is the same team, however, that is coached by Jeff Fisher and lead at QB by the most explosive player not named LaDanian Tomlinson in Vince Young. Fisher and Young are two guys that, simply put, know how to win. I highly doubt the Titans will contend for a playoff berth, but I wouldn’t count them out in any of their 16 games, and I guarantee that they will beat someone down the stretch and cripple that team’s playoff hopes because of it.

Pick: Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Houston

NFC South
One cannot talk about the NFC South without first bringing up Michael Vick. And now that we’ve accomplished that, we’ll move on. The Falcons might actually be better off without Vick, because starting Joey Harrington will allow Bobby Petrino to run his offense his way, without trying to tailor it to the needs and talents of Vick. Brian Brohm is good, but his stats at Louisville are no better than Harrington’s were at Oregon, so there’s every reason to think Harrington will succeed under Petrino. The real question is whether Petrino will succeed in the NFL. The names Pete Carroll, Steve Spurrier, and Nick Saban should make Petrino just a little nervous, especially considering the Falcons didn’t have a playoff-caliber team before the Vick incident.

One of the biggest darkhorse teams this season could very well be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jon Gruden knows his job is on the line, and in what is still an inferior conference with no “great” teams, his crew could make a run for that final playoff berth on the back of their defense. Gruden was smart bringing in Jeff Garcia, fresh off his renaissance in Philly, to be his QB, because he may be the best in the league at running the West Coast Offense. The running game will be shaky, though, and Gruden’s tendency to overreact and implode might cost the Bucs at times. Still, a fourth place schedule in a favorable division could find this team still playing in January.

If the Titans are the biggest enigma, then the Carolina Panthers run a close second. This was a team that won two difficult road games (@NY Giants, @ Chicago) in 2005 before falling short in Seattle, and then proceeded to fall flat on their collective faces in 2006. This team certainly has the talent, especially on defense, to regain their ’05 status as a force in the NFC, but the inconsistency of Jake Delhomme and the piling up of injuries could leave them right where the finished last year. If they play like ’06, John Fox could be unemployed come New Year’s. That said, I could also see them playing in the Super Bowl this year. Go figure.

The honeymoon is over, the national media attention has waned slightly, and suddenly the New Orleans Saints have a division title to defend. It’s a very interesting position for the Saints, who suddenly find themselves loaded with expectations. The offense will score points, but don’t underestimate the loss of emotional leader Joe Horn from the receiving corps. The defense struggled at times last year, and it’s still not exceptional by any means, but it will most likely do enough to win the Saints another division title. The problem could come in the playoffs, where once again, NO will be expected to be better than last season. That could be a difficult proposition for the NFC runner-up, but it’s on the table either way.

Pick: New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Atlanta

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Mike, On the North Divisions (NFL)

I turned on my television Saturday afternoon, and there, right before my eyes, I saw a game we here in America like to call football. And all was right with the world.

Yes, college football began in earnest last weekend, and before I get to the people who get paid to play the sport, I will simply acknowledge that yes, Appalachian State just beat the school for which I root, which also happens to be the school I had losing to USC in the title game. Shows you how accurate I can be sometimes. Anyway, my interest will return to college football next Labor Day, as I have simply chalked this season up to a loss. All of it. Ok, now – moving on to the big fellas.

This will be a five part preview. Each day this week, I will preview one division in each conference, with the playoff picks coming the final day. The schedule will be as follows [Ed. note: if I can get them published in time]:

Monday – AFC & NFC North
Tuesday – AFC & NFC South
Wednesday – AFC & NFC East
Thursday – AFC & NFC West
Friday – Playoffs & Super Bowl

So, with the housekeeping complete, it’s time to cue Hank Williams and bring up division number one.

AFC North
I think this division will be highly competitive, if for no other reason than every team has some major holes to go along with their clear strengths. First off, while I believe the Browns will be improved and have a very outside chance at .500, they will most likely finish fourth once again. I truly hope this doesn’t cost Romeo Crennel his job, because he’s worked wonders with scraps for the past two years and should be given at least two years to develop Brady Quinn to work with Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. The offense is just one or two linemen short from being playoff caliber, so hopefully Romeo gets to see another year.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh will struggle to score points again, because quite frankly, Big Ben isn’t really that good, and new coach Mike Tomlin has apparently soured on Willie Parker. The loss of Joey Porter will hurt from a leadership standpoint, but I still think the defense is what will keep them afloat with an outside playoff shot. Their issue will be trying to score on Baltimore and stop Cincinnati, two things I don’t think they’ll be able to do enough of to win more than once in the four games against those two teams combined.

The Ravens still have an excellent defense, and if McNair can once again stay healthy, this team should win the division. Ed Reed is legitimately one of the five best safeties in all of football, and the scheme itself is perfectly designed to stop the run, pressure the quarterback, and let the athletes at linebacker and defensive back make the plays. Brian Billick just needs to get out of his own way and allow the offense to be creative, rather than stifling it to the point where you get last year’s Colts-Ravens postseason game, where neither team scored a TD. That can’t happen if Baltimore wants to win another championship.

Lost in the whole “Michael Vick/Pacman Jones” uproar is the fact that the Bengals could field an entire side of the ball just using team members who’ve been arrested in the past 18 months. Until Marvin Lewis (or someone above him) decides to clean up the act along the banks of the Ohio, a great offense featuring a top tier QB (Palmer) and two top tier WR’s (CJ & TJ) will continually be undermined by a lack of team cohesion. This is truly a great offense to watch, and it’s a shame they haven’t been able to play a full postseason game together. This could be the year – if the team shapes up and steers its attention towards on field play rather than off-field antics.

Pick: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland

NFC North
Only in the NFC North can John Kitna say that his team, arguably the worst franchise in the sport, could jump from 3-13 to 10-6 and no one considers putting him in an institution. Why? Because Rex Grossman led his team not only to a division championship, but a Super Bowl. So imagine what Kitna’s thinking when he sees Roy Williams on one side and Calvin Johnson on the other. Yes, the Lions offense will be better than the Bears. Will it be good enough to beat the Bears and win the division? I don’t think so, but it could be fun watching competitive football on Thanksgiving for the first time since I was born.

Meanwhile, the Monsters of the Midway have their own issues. Lance Briggs doesn’t really want to be there, Tank Johnson, thanks to the American judicial system, isn’t there, and I’m fairly confident my 12-year-old sister could at least be the backup QB. Couple that with a first place schedule and the loss of Thomas Jones, and things could get dicey in Chi-town. Soldier Field is still standing, though, and there isn’t another team that I can honestly say is better than the Bears in this division, so I guess they could wind up being the pick by default. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it does come with a home playoff game.

The wild card here is Green Bay. Favre wouldn’t keep coming back if he didn’t think his team could compete, and they showed at the end of last season that there definitely is some talent being assembled by the Pack. The big question is Donald Driver’s health, because if he can play a full season and be Brett’s go-to receiver, it would only increase the development of the younger players while giving Favre a reliable target with whom he is comfortable and familiar. Schedule is somewhat favorable, so game against Detroit and Chicago could be crucial.

Oh, and the Vikings still play football. Poor Adrian Peterson. When someone other than Tavaris Jackson is playing quarterback, let me know and I’ll consider taking a deeper look into this team. Winter is long in Minneapolis, and the Vikings will not be doing anything to ease the difficulties of the season this year. This is one of three teams, in my mind, that will contend for the top pick in next year’s draft, which is good because it should be a strong QB class. My only suggestion, after this weekend – don’t take Chad Henne.

Pick: Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit, Minnesota