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

Sunday, September 2, 2007

On the Michigan Game (NCAAF)

At least one major sports website has already branded Appalachian State’s victory at Michigan one of the greatest upsets in college football history, and I have no doubt that is true. The fact that they are a I-AA team, the fact that it happened in the Big House, the fact that they stopped Michigan on two key two-point conversions, they fact that they squeezed a game-winning two-minute drive in between two blocked field goals—no question this game was special. But I got to wondering, how unlikely was it?

As you probably know by now, Appalachian State isn’t just any I-AA team. They’re a little I-AA dynasty, back-to-back national champions. This was the kind of David and Goliath matchup that reminds you David was already God’s anointed by the time of his most famous duel. (If you believe Jim Harbaugh, the Michigan players are all philistines, too.)

Now, I don’t know how you feel about computer rankings, but they’re one tool for measuring how well different groups of teams match up against each other. Jeff Sagarin’s ratings put I-A and I-AA teams into the same pool. Last year, Appalachian State finished 53rd in those rankings, ahead of quality teams like Houston, Alabama and Purdue. The year before, they finished 69th.

One way is to consider a direct analogy. Marshall was the I-AA dynasty of the mid-90s, and then made the leap to D-IA. They proceeded to lose only four games in three years, collecting wins over South Carolina, Louisville and Clemson along the way. By ’99, they had an undefeated season and cracked the top ten. Under current rules, they would’ve made the BCS. Now, that last team featured Randy Moss and eventually Chad Pennington, but the initial Marshall squad couldn’t have been too much better than App State, and they won the MAC. It’s not totally unreasonable to believe the numbers above.

However, these rankings are probably inflated at least a bit. The nature of a knockout playoff system is that, obviously, somebody wins a bunch of games in a row against good opponents. Since there is some luck involved with this method, this team will be ranked a little higher than they probably deserve. In his preseason ratings this year, Sagarin had Appalachian State at number 80, which is still ahead of Michigan’s conference opponents Indiana and Illinois. Although, considering that Appalachian State won the title twice in a row, then beat Michigan, maybe Sagarin had it right the first time.

Either way, they are comparable to some I-A teams, probably better than other Top 25 opponents Mississippi State, East Carolina or Baylor and certainly much better than anybody in the Sun Belt. If they’re really as good as Alabama or Purdue was last year, it is not at all out of the question for them to beat a Wolverines team that is still putting together a new defense. If they’re only an Indiana, they could still be dangerous. In the last five years, Indiana has three wins against ranked opponents, including one road win in 2004. Michigan has a history too. They had a close call against San Diego State three years ago, only winning 24-21 against a team that was less talented, less experienced, less well-coached and more frightened than the one they faced yesterday.

It was a crazy game, no question, and certainly deserves to be mentioned as one of the greatest upsets ever. But I’m still not sure it was one of the unlikeliest.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Mike, On Predicting College Football

Football is back in a big way once again, and as has been a tradition, both here and on my radio program, when a sport starts, I make predictions and tell you who will do what. Most of the time, I’m fairly accurate, so as another season of college football begins on Thursday, it’s time to take a look into the crystal ball. We’ll go in reverse order picking the winner of every conference, and then outline who will be playing in the BCS games.

Conference USA
This conference is slowly becoming a one team conference in both of the moneymaking sports. Memphis is obviously the dominant basketball power, and Southern Miss is making a push to assume the same position in football. They are the defending champs, and it doesn’t look like they’re all that eager to give up that title. Houston lost Kolb to the draft, and no one else really came close to touching the Golden Eagles last year. Because of a weak conference slate, Southern Miss will travel to both Tennessee and Boise State in September this year, which should toughen them up for conference play, despite the fact that I think they’ll lose both.
Biggest Game: Oct 28, Central Florida @ Southern Miss
Champ Southern Miss

This conference was rated above only the Sun Belt (which I’m not previewing because it’s not really a conference) last season. So how did they respond? By adding Temple! The only reason Temple even won a game last year is because they scheduled Duke, who has now lost 20 consecutive games. The rest of the conference is average at best. Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, Kent State, and Akron all have decent pieces in place, but I don’t see anyone in this conference that will be able to pull a big-time upset. If you push me to name a winner, I have to take Central Michigan because of their recent success and the return of Dan Lefevour, a personal favorite of my former radio show partner Chris Phelan, at quarterback. Also, make sure you tune in on September 8. If you thought Temple and Duke was fun, wait until you see Buffalo @ Temple. WaHoo!
Biggest Game: Sept 22, Kent State @ Akron
Champ: Central Michigan

Mountain West
Like Conference USA, this is starting to get a bit repetitive. Outside of Utah’s undefeated season under Alex Smith, BYU and TCU appear to be the only two teams capable of winning year in and year out. TCU has a great recruiting base and always seems to be able to run the ball well (think LaDanian Tomlinson). BYU lost John Beck, just as Houston lost Kolb, so the balance of power might shift back towards the Horned Frogs this year. Hopefully someone will come up and surprise this year to make the race interesting, but outside of Colorado State or Wyoming, I don’t see that happening. It’s a two horse race, and the game between the two will decide it all.
Biggest Game: Nov 8, TCU @ BYU
Champ: TCU

Western Athletic
If you’re looking for a non-BCS team to crash the party this year, once again the WAC has the best possible options. In fact, I think that this conference could potentially still have two undefeated teams after the third Saturday in November. Colt Brennan is simply phenomenal, and he has a great receiving corps back as well. Everyone hates making the trip to Hawaii, and their road games – La Tech, UNLV, Idaho, SJ St, and Nevada – don’t exactly scare anyone. Meanwhile, the blue SmurfTurf boys will be back at it once again, looking to continue the longest winning streak in Major College Football. Don’t think they can’t do it again – Ian Johnson is very good, and very few teams go to Boise and even keep it close, let alone win. Boise State does have a trip to Washington and a home date with Southern Miss in September, but two wins there sets up the winner-take-all showdown in Honolulu on November 23.
Biggest Game: Nov 23, Boise State @ Hawaii
Champ: Hawaii

Ok, so maybe that should read “Notre Dame,” but there’s still no better game in all of college football, for my money, than Army-Navy. That said, it appears Notre Dame will once again win the Commander-in-Chief trophy as the winner of the service academy series, which is good, because they might be the only games ND wins. They have a real possibility of starting 0-3, with a home game against Georgia Tech and road dates with Penn State and Michigan. And this year, you can’t even count on Michigan State falling apart now that John L. Smith is gone. Follow that with the alphabet soup of UCLA, BC, and USC, and I don’t see the golden domers in a bowl game this season. I guess it’s good that the last four games are Navy, Air Force, Duke, and Stanford. At least they might win four games this year.
Biggest Game: Dec 1, Navy vs. Army in Baltimore
Champ: Navy

Atlantic Coast
For the third consecutive year, this will be the worst BCS conference. I bet they’re glad they raided the Big East for their “good” football teams. Oops. The other intriguing storyline is that NC State and Boston College seem to be the front runners in the ACC Atlantic, and Tom O’Brien left the latter to coach the former in the offseason. While they will assume the spotlight, however, the old man down in Tallahassee will assemble the real champ, provided, of course, that Drew Weatherford can simply not make mistakes. I like Miami and Virginia Tech to rebound from tough seasons and compete for the Coastal championship, but in a fairly even conference with no clear favorite, seven or eight teams have a shot to win it. And maybe – just maybe – Duke might win a game… nah.
Biggest Game: Nov 17, Miami @ Virginia Tech
Champ: Florida State

Big 12
There really is no reason for two divisions in this conference. Just make it one big division and have the top two teams play. At least the championship game would be interesting. As it is, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech will beat each other up for the right to destroy Nebraska in the conference championship game. Every game between those four teams will be exciting and hotly-contested, and it’s quite possible that Nebraska will actually have a better conference record than whoever emerges from the South. Don’t let that fool you, however – the South team will be better and will win the Big 12 Championship. The only question is which of the four teams it will be. Somehow, Texas A&M always loses a game they should win, and Texas Tech simply doesn’t have enough talent to win all three of those games without any other stumbles, so it comes down to the Red River Shootout, and Oklahoma is due. That said, I’ll take Texas.
Biggest Game: Oct 6, Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas
Champ: Texas

Big East
What was a three horse league last year will once again be a three horse league this year. The same three schools – Rutgers, West Virginia, and Louisville – all beat each other last year, and this year will all look to redeem themselves by repaying those losses at home. The only three games that matter this season are Rutgers @ Louisville, West Virginia @ Rutgers, and Louisville @ West Virginia. It’s the last one that will really matter, because I think Rutgers, while they will still be good, will lose both of their two marquee games. With Steve Slaton and Pat White returning and the game in Morgantown, Steve Kragthorpe will be unable to return Louisville to the top of the Big East. The Cardinals could still easily pull off an 11-1 record, which might just be good enough for the BCS even without the automatic bid.
Biggest Game: Nov 8, Louisville @ West Virginia
Champ: West Virginia

The debate continues to rage – is the SEC better than the Big Ten? The answer is no. Neither conference is better than the other. Despite the BCS Championship Game last year, the top of the Big Ten is better than the top of the SEC. What the SEC does have, however, is depth. There are ten teams that have a shot at a bowl game this year, which is everyone in the conference that doesn’t play in the state of Mississippi. Alabama will be better, as will South Carolina, Georgia, and Vanderbilt. Kentucky has possibly the best player in the conference in Andre Woodson, and Florida is the defending national champion. Auburn and LSU have stellar defense each and every year, which is crucial in college football, and some even seem to the think that with JaMarcus Russell gone, LSU’s offense will be better, a sentiment I echo. All of these teams will fall just short, however, of the Volunteers in Rocky Top. Tennessee has two very difficult road games early on – California and Florida – but the rest of the schedule is extremely favorable, with Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas all at home and the terrible Tigers – both LSU and Auburn – off the schedule entirely. Even with one early loss, the conference is balanced enough for Tennessee to win the East and the conference championship.
Biggest Game: Sept 15, Tennessee @ Florida; Oct 20, Auburn @ LSU
Champ: Tennessee

Pacific 10
I could probably rename this conference the Pac-9 plus 1, because that’s pretty much what it is. Sure, USC has a pretty brutal schedule, with road games against Notre Dame and Nebraska to go along with their nine conference games, but the Trojans should win both of those games. This program is simply too deep and too good. The biggest trap for them is the road game against Arizona State and Dennis Erickson sandwiched between the trip to California and the rivalry (read: revenge) game against UCLA at the end of the season. Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, and Washington should all have decent teams and compete for bowl bids, but the race this year is for third behind USC and California. I don’t see another BCS team out of here unless USC is upset somewhere along the line, so the Rose Bowl will have to find another team.
Biggest Game: Nov 10, USC @ California
Champ: USC

Big Ten
Saving the best for last, the Big Ten should be a four team race this season, with Michigan as the odds-on favorite. Wisconsin has P.J. Hill back, but with the graduation of quarterback John Stocco, the leadership void might be too big to fill in one season. Penn State has an excellent defense, as always, with Justin King and Anthony Scirrotto leading the way, but questions still abound about Anthony Morrelli at QB and who will replace Tony Hunt. Ohio State is in a similar position, except with even more offensive pieces to replace. Meanwhile, Michigan has every major offensive weapon back, as QB Chad Henne, RB Mike Hart, and OT Jake Long all opted to return for their senior years. This is a program that has gone 0-6 combined between Ohio State and bowl games, including a 32-18 drubbing against USC last year. With a favorable schedule – Notre Dame, PSU, and OSU all at home and only 4 road games – expect Michigan to be atop the conference when November ends. Speaking of schedules, the trip to Ann Arbor is the only real test for Penn State, as they get Wisconsin, ND, and OSU at home as well, so two bids to the BCS is highly likely for the Big Ten.
Biggest Game: Sept 22, Penn State @ Michigan
Champ: Michigan

Rose: Oklahoma vs. Penn State
Sugar: Tennessee vs. Louisville
Orange: Florida State vs. West Virginia
Fiesta: Texas vs. LSU
Champ: USC vs. Michigan

Remember that 0-6 record for Michigan against Ohio State and in bowls? Well they’ll beat Ohio State, but you can make it 1-7 – USC is simply too good. Michigan will keep it closer than last year, but I see a 35-31 title win for the Trojans, the new college football dynasty.