Friday, August 27, 2010

Five NFL Predictions

1. The San Diego Chargers will finally be challenged in the AFC West by the Oakland Raiders.

The Chargers have won five of the last six AFC West championships.  Kansas City has been rebuilding, Denver has been in decline, and Oakland has been a laughing stock.  While the fates of Denver and Kansas City don't look much better this season, Oakland could be a surprise.

The biggest change will be Jason Campbell at quarterback.   Campbell is the anti-Jamarcus Russell. A squeaky clean, conservative player who weighs less than 300 lbs.  Campbell will have three talented young receivers and a proven pass-catching tight end to throw to.

Oakland's backfield includes Darren McFadden and Michael Bush who could both be ready for breakout seasons.  McFadden's injury issues have kept him off the field since turning pro, making this season very important in his progression.

Bush was a Heisman candidate before missing his senior year at Louisville with a broken leg.  He had to sit out his rookie season to heal, but looked good in minimal carries last year.  Running behind Robert Gallery, you never know what type of production Bush and McFadden are capable of.

Defensively, Oakland has lock down corner Nnamdi Asomugha, veteran leader Richard Seymour, and first round draft pick Rolando McClain at linebacker. The Raiders will have to learn to defend the run if they are going to improve this year.

San Diego is favored to win the division again, but they have concerns entering this season.  WR Vincent Jackson and OT Marcus Mcneil remain unsigned, and will most likely sit out the first half of the season. With TE Antonio Gates getting older, Jackson's absence will be noticed.  San Diego will need Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee to pick up the slack in Jackson's absence.

San Diego's run game begins the post-Ladainian era with rookie Ryan Mathews handling the bulk of the carries.  The Chargers were 31st in rushing last year, something the team has made their primary concern. They'll just have to improve without McNeil on the line.

The Chargers parted ways with defensive stalwarts Antonio Cromartie (da Babymaker) and Jamal Williams.  They will need to pay special attention to stopping the run.  A weakness that cost them against the Jets in the playoffs last season.

The Chargers have a 13 game winning streak against the Raiders which can't last forever.  They also have a history of slow starts and furious comebacks against weak divisional foes.  A slow start this year could give the Raiders never know.

2. The Houston Texans will finally make the playoffs.

Houston has been the hot pick as a "surprise team" the last three seasons by football gurus everywhere.  They have been a let down the last two seasons, but I think third times a charm for the Texans.  Here are my AFC playoff picks:

AFC West: San Diego Chargers
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens
AFC East: New York Jets
AFC South: Indianapolis Colts
WC: Houston Texans
WC: Miami Dolphins (maybe Pats)

The Texans will be in great shape if they can sweep Tennessee this year.  There is no reason to think the Colts won't be as tough as always, so it will come down to a Wild Card berth for the Texans.

Houston needs to find a reliable ball carrier with Steve Slaton fumbling enough to lose his starting position last year.  They do boast the best receiver in the league with Andre Johnson, and a very productive QB delivering him the ball in Matt Schaub.  In a weaker than normal AFC, the Texans should find themselves in the playoffs for the first time.

3. Sam Bradford will be compared to Tom Brady sometime this year.

I never gave Tom Brady credit for anything.  I never liked Brady. He irritated me, and his success seemed unearned.  Too effortless.  It wasn't until I watched Sam Bradford that I changed my mind.

Bradford's calm demeanor, pocket presence, and  smooth, accurate delivery are very reminiscent of Brady.  His keeps his composure and throws effortlessly and impossibly accurate.  When Bradford wins a couple games with the lowly Rams, his success should draw comparisons.  Let's face it, if he can win in St. Louis, there's reason to believe he will be the next Tom Brady.

4. Tim Tebow will start a game this season.

Question: Kyle Orton.  Brady Quinn.  Tim Tebow.  Besides being quarterbacks for the Denver Broncos, what do those guys have in common?

Answer: They're not good.

Not one of those QBs is good enough to win games for Denver, so why wouldn't they start Tebow at some point?  He commands Favre like fan interest, and he signed for first round money.  He will be profitable for the Broncos, win or lose, because the stadium will be filled wherever he plays.  The fan and media hassling will be enough motivation for the coaches to give him a shot.  He might start week 16 when Denver is out of contention.  Although by that logic he could start week 11.

5.  The Green Bay Packers will beat the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLV.

I think Baltimore will cruise through the AFC with the Colts providing the only competition.  Peyton Manning shows no signs of slowing down which makes it hard to pick against him, but a lack of a consistent running attack gives Baltimore the edge.

The Ravens have a balanced offense and a solid, physical defense.  RB Ray Rice is on the verge of stardom, and Joe Flacco has enough experience and pass catching weapons to have his best season.  If the offense struggles, the defense is good enough to keep them in the game.

Conference teams that improved (like the Dolphins) aren't quite as good as the Ravens, and the good teams (like the Chargers) did not improve.  I don't believe the Patriots defense is good enough to get them to the playoffs, and I'm really not sold on a Revisless Jets.  Ravens look good to me.

The NFC has a lot of dangerous teams this season, but I think the Packers will score their way through the field.  I like QB Aaron Rodgers to win the MVP, and the Pack to be the highest scoring team in the league.  They probably have the best receiving corps in the NFL, and don't forget about RB Ryan Grant.  The defense is good enough to win games, similar to New Orleans last year.

Speaking of New Orleans, the Saints will be looking to defend their title.  They will be excellent again this year, but it's hard to repeat a Super Bowl run.

Dallas will also have a high-powered offense, and the motivation of hosting Super Bowl XLV.  QB Tony Romo's playoff resume keeps me from picking them for a deep playoff run although they should have a fine regular season.

Most importantly, Green Bay will have to beat Favre and Minnesota.  With the odds of Favre repeating anything close to what he did last year being very slim, Green Bay could beat them three times.  The only reason to doubt the Packers Super Bowl hopes is Aaron Rodgers' inexperience in the playoffs, but he was incredible in his playoff loss to Arizona last year.

Here's my NFC playoff picks:

NFC West: San Francisco 49ers
NFC North: Green Bay Packers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
NFC South: New Orleans Saints
WC: Minnesota Vikings
WC: Philadelphia Eagles

Green Bay wins the Super Bowl.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Blame ESPN, Not Favre

Was there ever a doubt he would come back?

We all knew Brett was coming back after the season he put together last year, right?

A year that he would have led the Vikings to the Super Bowl if Adrian Peterson could hold on to the ball.  A season that he was brought in to be a "game manager" and instead became the focal point of the offense.  After all the doubters said he was a washed up, primadonna, and he proved them all wrong by playing his best statistical football ever.

Of course he was coming back.

Or was he?  If you really think about it, it's not such an easy decision.  To play an NFL season as a quarterback at any age takes a physical toll unlike anything most ever experience.  To do so as a 40 year old after having arguably your best season in a 19 year career must be frightening.  What more could he do? Only a true competitor who loves the game would even consider such a risk.

So why are so many people upset at the manner in which he returned, again?   Isn't recovering from ankle surgery enough to give him a pass this year?  Doesn't the fact he turns 41 in October warrant some slack? Can't you admit the league would be less interesting without him?

A big reason for Favre's negative reputation is ESPN.  More troubling than Favre's consistent waffling is the way his antics are reported.  ESPN is little more than the National Enquirer in disguise, creating and exploiting Favre "drama" for the ensuing ratings spike.

Broaching the Favre topic is expertly preceded with boo hoos from the poor analysts that are forced to report on him.  They spend countless hours debating Favre's off-season with the common analysis being, "Favre just needs attention, the act is tired, and blah blah...we don't like it."

These are the same folks that recently turned an alleged Favre text message into a full day of coverage on his retirement.  A text message they never saw, just heard about from an anonymous "teammate" of Favre.  They never gave a second thought to the source's credibility, something you are literally taught the first day of Journalism 101.  The report was inaccurate but ESPN remained unapologetic, cleverly blaming Favre for the miscommunication, again.  "Let's chalk it up to Favre's indecision.  No one will notice."

Why is Favre always to blame for ESPN's shoddy reporting?

ESPN's popularity has allowed them to stretch the boundaries of ethical reporting.  In the age of social networking we now get reports via twitter accounts.  Can you imagine Walter Cronkite reporting on the latest Lebron tweet?

Tweet?!? Really?

Or how about reports on an athlete's Facebook page? The worst of it is ESPN legitimizing as a credible news source. Now reporters have carte blanche to cite any tabloid website they want.  Any paparazzi photo is fair game.  Only half of what is reported on ESPN is sports news, the rest is celebrity gossip.  There is no longer accountability, and rumors are reported as facts.

Analysts in studio claim they are "sick of the Favre drama."  ESPN is so sick of Favre they created an entire day dedicated to his retirement based off a text message they never saw.  So sick of Brett that once he truly decided to come back, they had a link to a live shot of his plane landing in Minnesota.  So sick of Farve that once again all programming is focused on his return.  Yes.  It's easy to see how sick of Favre they are.

Was there ever a reason for Farve to rush to camp other than to satisfy media criticism? Until very recently Farve received no pressure from his organization to make a decision. They were comfortable with his process.  Every year he plays requires serious analysis of his mind and body.  Even if he declared himself ready to play, he still shouldn't participate in pre-season workouts.  If any other NFL player starts for 250+ games consecutively over a 20 year career and can still play at an elite level, then they deserve an exemption also.

Preparing for the mental toll is just as difficult as preparing for the physical toll.  He is a relic in the NFL, a dinosaur.  He is the last remaining of his generation.  No one has done what Favre has in terms of durability and consistency.  Everyone else doubts him and his ability to play at 40, can you imagine the doubts he has?  Those are doubts that must addressed before deciding play again.

Favre is one hit away from the end of his career, and unless he stops having success, that is the only thing that will get him off the field.  If that's not honorable, I really don't know what is.  I have never believed in walking away while you are still on top of your game.  If the fire of competition still burns, and someone is willing to pay you for your services, why not play? Age should never determine retirement for a professional athlete.  Loss of desire or ability should.  Favre's felt the physical pain and the mental strain, but never a loss of desire.

We all saw the NFC championship game against the Saints, specifically the beating Favre took.  Imagine throwing yourself down a flight of stairs 18 times a year.  You are going to have to think long and hard, and check your courage, before making that leap.

The catalyst to Favre's return was a visit from teammates Jared Allen, Ryan Longwell, and Steve Hutchison to find out where he stood. They were not there to beg.  They were there to let him know they wanted him on the team, and back in camp.  We knew Favre was coming back.  It just took some of his friends to help throw him down the stairs, and remind him they would be going down the same stairs with him.

Maybe deep down Favre needed to be coaxed.  I think that's okay.  He's earned it, and he's in a position where it's understandable.  In a league where you're old if you're 30, coming back to play at 40 is not an easy decision.  At 40 you probably need reassurance from your coach and teammates that they want you there.

In Green Bay there was a sense that he was holding up the franchise, and he probably was.  In Minnesota it is a much different story.  The hopes of the Vikings rely heavily on his arm, and they need him to play.  What's wrong with that, exactly?  He has not hurt his team by taking his time.  He actually reported to camp a day earlier than he did last year.

Who cares if he says one thing and does another?  If you don't listen to the ESPN rhetoric, it really is easy to ignore.  Realize that he has a history of indecision and accept it.  The Vikings have.  The only thing I find annoying about Favre is the way he is covered.  When ESPN sensationalizes everything about a topic, it becomes annoying.  When they can't wait to get a story so they just invent one, that is annoying.  I have learned over the last three years to believe half of what you see, and none of what you read with Favre.

So, will he be successful again this season?  After consulting the magic 8 ball, "signs point to no." It would be nearly impossible to recreate what he did last year, but no one thought he would do it then either.  For Minnesota and Favre to be successful this season, they must get back to running effectively and minimizing their reliance on Favre's arm.  Unfortunately, I don't believe his body can hold up another year.  Unless Minnesota can flawlessly pass protect, I see his season ending with an injury.  Isn't that what is captivating about the guy, though?  There is always heavy doubt surrounding him.  I can't wait to see if he can prove me wrong.

I can understand why teams in the NFC are sick of Favre after the career success he has enjoyed.  What I can't understand is fans getting sick of him.  It would make sense if he were Vinny Testaverde, but he's not.  If people really were fed up, teams wouldn't pay him, the media wouldn't report on him, and fans wouldn't talk about him.  That's when he should hang it up.  Until then, try a little empathy, and judge him for what he has been able to do with his career.  Not what ESPN reports.

Monday, August 16, 2010

USA Today Top 10

Are you ready for some football? I know you are. I am too. August is absolutely the slowest month of the year. When football is close enough to smell, suddenly time stops. Days feel like weeks. That is the reason I immerse myself in Major League Baseball every summer. I don't know how my friends and family can follow recruiting and talk football throughout the off-season. I have to pretend football doesn't exist until I can't stand it any longer. Well, I can't stand it any longer.

The USA Today poll starts the early season debates every year, and this year is no different. I toyed with the notion of doing my own top 10, but there is really no way to accurately rank teams before a new season starts, so what's the point. You can have an idea of what a team is expected to do, but until they start playing games, it's really just a guess. The only clear ranking is Alabama at #1. The returning national champions bringing back the Heisman Trophy winner pretty much ends that debate.

Here's my take on this year's USA Today Top 10

1. Alabama: No surprise here as the reigning national champions although they do lose nine starters on defense. Since Nick Saban took over the program, many believe Alabama has the best talent in the nation meaning their cupboard is not bare. The Tide return eight starters on offense including Heisman trophy winning RB Mark Ingram, QB Greg McElroy, and stud WR Julio Jones.

There isn't much in Alabama's schedule to suggest they won't win the SEC again, all but securing their spot in the BCS National Championship game. Three games to watch will be an early test against Penn State in Tuscaloosa, Florida also at home, and a game in Baton Rouge against LSU.

The only real roadblock I see for Alabama is the fact they will most likely have to beat Florida twice when they meet again in the SEC Championship. Not an easy thing to do. Ask Jason White about having to play Kansas State twice in the same season.

2. Ohio State: For the first time in many years, I actually believe the Buckeyes are worthy of their pre-season ranking. They got a huge boost from the Rose Bowl victory last year amidst speculation they couldn't win the big one. Of course the win came against Oregon and not USC, but it was an elusive BCS victory nonetheless.

QB Terrelle Pryor finally looked like he was in full command of the offense after two seasons of inconsistent play. The Buckeyes return lots of experience on offense and a host of several talented RBs to complement Pryor. They also return seven starters on defense which was ranked in the top five last year. And let's not forget the greatest strength of Ohio State is the fact they play in the Big Ten.

Games to watch will be an early test at home against Miami, a game on the road against reloaded Wisconsin, and another road test against Iowa at the end of the year. The Buckeyes will most likely have to go undefeated to reach the BCS National Championship game, and the lack of a conference championship game could bump them out of the top two at year's end.

3. Florida: No more Tebow. Words SEC coaches have been waiting to hear for four years. Unfortunately for them, the Gators have never been a one-man band under the watch of Urban Meyer. They consistently have elite recruiting classes and boast the best team speed in the country.

The Gators have a new look on offense with only six starters returning from last years team. Returning RB Jeff Demps will need to take pressure off of new QB John Brantley who has an inexperienced receiving unit.

Defensively the Gators return seven starters and have tons of talent and speed in the secondary. Like the offense you don't know what to expect, but what you do know is every player on the team is a blue chip recruit expected to be a big time player. It's just a matter of new names stepping up.

The Gators do not have a favorable schedule playing road games against Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida State.

4. Texas: If I wasn't superstitious I would say that this team is overrated. Without any notable RBs and a new QB, how this team is ranked fourth is beyond me. I guess it's that Texas charm that Mack Brown employs on the media.

You can't deny that UT has been one of the best programs in the country for a long time and always have a stable full of top recruits. There is no doubt they will be tough again, and likely post double digit wins en route to a National Championship run, if they beat Oklahoma.

Texas will have a lot of new faces with only five returning starters on offense. Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley were basically the whole offense last year, and they are gone. If Texas is unable to find a running game that was non-existent last year, they will not be a factor in the BCS.

Defensively the Longhorns will be excellent returning lots of experience in the secondary. This team will have to win with defense until they find their offensive stride. Texas does have a favorable schedule playing cupcakes for non-conference games and hosting Texas A&M. Of course the biggest game will be the Red River clash with Oklahoma, and they should be tested on the road against Nebraska.

5. Boise State: This one really bothers me. Based on the pre-season ranking, the Broncos have a very legitimate shot to play in the BCS National Championship. BSU returns nearly everyone from an undefeated team that beat TCU in the Fiesta Bowl last year.

Why does it bother me? Because they still won't have to earn their shot. They begin the year against Virginia Tech (in Maryland for some reason) then get Oregon State at home three weeks later. That's it.

Here's the rest of the garbage they play: Wyoming, New Mexico State, Toledo, San Jose State, Louisiana Tech, Hawaii, Idaho, Fresno State, Nevada, Utah State. Not exactly murderers row.

Can you imagine a one loss SEC or Big XII team being kept out of the title game because Boise runs the table against those losers? It simply isn't right. One loss for a power conference team will keep them out, thanks to the Smurfs. Really aggravating.

6. Virginia Tech: These guys always seem overrated to me. I will admit that I never follow the Hokies too close, but that's because they are not relevant in the national picture half way through the season, and they play in the ACC.

Tech is expected to have a potent offense returning QB Tyrod Taylor and experience all around him. Defensively the Hokies will be inexperienced and will probably get torched against Boise State in the opener.

The ACC hopes to be more competitive this year which could work in two different ways for the Hokies. They can dominate an overrated conference but still lose to Boise State, or once again post a multiple loss season in an improved conference. I don't see it working any other way for these guys. North Carolina could be the team to beat in the ACC.

7. TCU: I can buy into TCU being a perennial power much easier than other mid major schools. They have the luxury of recruiting in the most fertile area for football in the country. Granted, they have to compete against several top schools, but TCU has proven there is plenty of talent to go around. The Horned Frogs have made a name for themselves nationally and should continue to improve their talent.

Unfortunately, TCU still suffers from weak scheduling and this year is worse than others. "Tests" will include: Oregon St., Baylor, BYU, and Utah. Of those, only Utah is a road game. None of those teams would be considered marquee. Far from it, really. TCU returns 18 starters from a team that went to a BCS game last year. We could easily see TCU and Boise undefeated and playing each other again in the "Who Cares" bowl.

8. Oklahoma: It was always my assumption that pre-season polls were based on a mix of the previous and coming season. For that reason, I believed OU would be fairly ranked around 11 or 12 to start the season. If this ranking is only based on how strong the team is perceived to be starting the season, I like the Sooners at #4 or #5. Either just above, or just below Texas would make sense to me.

The Sooners had two major problems last year. Injuries and injuries. The offensive line was not elite to start the season, but they weren't hopeless. It just worked out that the weakest link on a team that started the year #1 or #2 (depending on poll) was hit the hardest by injuries. That lead to more injuries including Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford.

Eight wins is once again considered suffering in Norman. Memories of the John Blake era have washed away taking Howard Schnellenberger and Gary Gibbs with them. Bob Stoops has restored pride and consistency in OU football, but is coming off one of the toughest years in his coaching tenure.

From suffering comes reward as QB Landry Jones will take the helm as an experienced starter rather than an inexperienced sophomore. There was never any doubt of Jones' physical tools, but he was inconsistent with decision making and accuracy which cost the Sooners in several close games. He basically played like a freshman. Jones continued to improve and showed flashes of brilliance against Stanford in the Sun Bowl, giving OU their first bowl win in three years. I would compare Jones as a freshman to Nate Hybl as a junior. The only difference being Jones improved during the season.

This year the offensive line starts with some experience and talent, but also healthy. Trent Williams is gone but tackle Donald Stephenson will get to play after being ineligible last year. He has already drawn comparisons to Williams (Trent Williams will most likely start for the Redskins next to former OU lineman Jammal Brown. What are the chances?).

Center Ben Habern is back from injury and if Cory Brandon and Jarvis Jones can avoid penalties, their size and experience should change the landscape of the line. OU also converted TEs Eric Mensik and Gabe Ikard to offensive lineman and both have gotten bigger and been praised for their transition.

If QB and offensive line play improve, the rest of the offense is talented enough to put up points against anybody. All purpose RB Demarco Murray returns for his senior season and had his first healthy off-season as a Sooner. Murray trimmed down to a more comfortable running weight but still combines power with speed. Murray's post surgery flexibility was a concern, but he has reportedly been doing yoga and a leaner frame will help quickness and shiftiness. Big things are expected out of Murray who looks to be one of the top all purpose backs in the country again, catching passes and handling kick off returns.

While Murray is expected to handle the bulk of the carries, OU has a stable full of blue chip RBs who are foaming at the mouth to get their hands on the ball. Former #1 high school recruit Jermie Calhoun will back up Murray with Jonathan Miller who averaged 7.2 yards a carry last year before being sidelined with injuries. The herd doesn't end there with two highly touted freshman (Brennan Clay and Roy Finch) expected to see time next year, mostly in special teams.

Ryan Broyles headlines a receiving corps that struggled early last season to catch the ball. WR Dejuan Miller emerged as a second pass catching threat with excellent size and power. Jaz Reynolds and Brandon Caleb are expected to step up after disappointing seasons. Freshman Kenny Stills has been turning heads this summer and might see significant time. The unit has potential to be one of the best in the country.

Special teams should be a strength if the Sooners find a reliable kicker. Last year OU struggled heavily putting the ball through the uprights. Kick and punt returns should be electrifying with Broyles and Murray providing big play capability. The special teams kick cover unit played much better than their 2008-2009 predecessors, but memories of Jordan Shipley returning a kick for a TD (along with 3 others) should keep them on their toes.

Defense has rarely been a concern with Bob Stoops' Sooners. Despite losing both starting corners and Gerald McCoy, OU looks to have another solid defense. DT Adrian Taylor needs to get healthy after breaking his ankle last year. The D-line should be formidable with DE Jeremy Beal receiving lots of pre-season attention. OU returns experience with Frank Alexander at the other end, and celebrated recruit Jamarkus McFarland is slated to start next to Taylor.

Although they will have a new look, the linebackers are exciting for the Sooners. All Big XII LB Travis Lewis is being mentioned with the best linebackers in the country. Next to him will be a combination of players including fan favorite Ronnell Lewis, nicknamed "the Hammer" from Stoops himself. Ronnell has been described as one of the most violent hitters of the Stoops era. His size and speed have drawn comparisons to Roy Williams which is high praise in Oklahoma. Austin Box has two years of experience under his belt, and talented freshman Tom Wort has impressed coaches since red shirting last year.

The secondary could be a concern depending on who lines up at DB. Former safety Jonathan Nelson was moved to DB and will likely to be joined by unproven Demontre Hurst. Free safety Quentin Carter is known for hitting on a team full of hitters.

OU has several hurdles they must clear before feeling National Championship caliber. They play a challenging non-conference schedule (unlike Texas) hosting Florida State followed by a solid Air Force team. They go on the road to play Cincinnati who still maintain lots of talent from former coach Brian Kelly.

No rest for the weary as the Sooners open conference play against Texas. The rest of the schedule is winnable but OU must travel to College Station which is always tough even when the Aggies aren't. A&M has become a dark horse pick out of the South with returning QB Jerrod Johnson.

And of course, should the Sooners clear all those hurdles, they finish off the year in Stillwater against a Cowboy team who never has anything to lose. It also looks like there might be a challenge out of the North in the conference championship with Bo Pelini and Nebraska.

If OU is to make the National Championship game it will be well earned. I believe this team can win every game on the schedule, but it is a very tough schedule.  Several areas must be addressed:

First, a reliable kicker must emerge. OU left a lot of points on the field with poor kicking last season, with no solution found yet for this season.

Second, the offensive line must create running lanes. The Sooners have to give their backs a chance to be successful. If they are, the passing game will open up and lots of pressure will be taken off Landry Jones. OU struggled to run block last season.

Third, OU will have to cover. The Sooners play many teams with wide open passing attacks and will be breaking in some young players in the secondary.

Fourth, a TE stepping up would be nice. The Sooners will combine Trent Ratterree and James Hanna that saw time, but never became a threat last season. We all saw what a pass catching presence like Jermaine Gresham could do for a QB.

Fifth, stay injury free. After the wave of injuries sustained by OU players last year, one would think this year will be less destructive.

9. Nebraska: It's been a long time since Nebraska has played with a target on their backs, but it looks like they will this year. Nebraska almost won the conference without a QB thanks to their stellar defense last season. Ndamukong Suh is gone but Jared Crick is ready to get his name mentioned without Suh taking the attention. They also have one of the best DBs in the country in Prince Amukamara entering his senior season. Confidence levels are high in Lincoln with Bo Pelini declaring Nebraska will win the conference.

Offensively the Huskers season teeters on QB play. Last year saw inconsistent play from Zac Lee until the Holiday Bowl shellacking of Arizona. Lee underwent arm surgery missing Spring practice and giving backups Cody Green and Taylor Martinez a chance to compete for the starting job.

The running game is expected to be solid with a nice offensive line and experienced backs like Roy Helu. The Huskers never established much of a passing game last year and look to improve with returning WR Niles Paul and TE Mike McNeil.

If Lee is healthy he should start, and if Nebraska can put together an offense like the one that showed up for the Holiday Bowl, they will be very good. The Huskers shouldn't be challenged by any North teams, but do play Texas at home, and go on the road against Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. They will also face Jake Locker in Washington for an early non-conference test. It will be the only non-conference test since they play high school teams for their other three games.

Several analysts picked Nebraska to restore some balance to the Big XII just before they exit to the Big Ten. No one in the conference wants to see the Huskers walk away with the last Big XII championship.

My guess is Husker fans would have rather entered the season under the radar, but I'm sure they're happy with more media attention. Nebraska could be destined to meet Oklahoma in the conference championship. It would be a fitting way for the rivalry to end. By that I mean OU cementing their legacy as the dominate program in the OU-Neb tradition.

10. Iowa: Ohio State has owned the Big Ten for so long that it really is hard to take any Big Ten school seriously. Iowa has been a nice story the last several years, but really wasn't strong enough to rise to an elite status.

This year Iowa returns their entire defensive line which should be the strength of the team. QB Ricky Stanzi is starting his third season for the Hawkeyes. He is 18-4 as a starter, but has a 17-15 TD/INT ratio. Iowa has some good looking RBs but the offensive line will be inexperienced, especially after losing Brian Bulaga to the NFL. Iowa's defense and special teams should be good for second place in the Big Ten.

Iowa probably wouldn't have made the Top 10 if USC was eligible to be ranked. Isn't that some sweet justice? Looks like the Big Ten will have a chance in the Rose Bowl again this year. I guess we should congratulate Ohio State right now.

Pre-season predictions are about as scientific as a horse race, but here's some conference picks anyway:

SEC: Alabama

Big XII: Oklahoma

Pac 10: Oregon

ACC: North Carolina

Big Ten: Ohio State

Big East: Cincinnati

Mountain West: TCU

WAC: Boise State

Conference USA: Houston

MAC: Central Michigan

Sun Belt: 9 way tie for last place

Monday, August 9, 2010

How Was Your Summer? MLB

 The Year of the Pitcher

Dub it the year of the pitcher to spin this season in Major League Baseball in a polite fashion. Call it the year of the pitcher even though it's really just an average year in baseball without steroids.

The playing field is leveled and the change is enormous. Power hitters are once again coveted commodities with only one player in each league with 30 homers to date. It wasn't that long ago there were ten players with 30 before the All-Star break. Can you really imagine someone hitting 70+ home runs in a season? Did that really happen?

So far this season there have been five no-hitters, two of which were perfect games. And if Jim Joyce doesn't make the worst call in my lifetime, there would be three perfect games and six no-hitters. These aren't exactly household names either. Dallas Braden? Really? The guy has a losing record.

Doesn't matter.

The point is baseball has been cured of a terrible affliction. Once again hitting .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs is a terrific achievement worthy of MVP praise. Getting rid of steroids has enabled the San Diego Padres to post the best record in the NL with one of the worst offenses. Pitching, defense, base running, and execution are the ingredients to winning baseball, not four guys in the lineup with over 40 home runs.

 A-Rod Hits 600

Speaking of steroids...Alex Rodriguez recently joined what was once the most exclusive club in baseball after hitting his 600th career home run. For 30 years Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willy Mays were the only members of the 600 club. In the last eight years Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., and now Rodriguez joined the party.

A sport that has spent over a hundred years of stat worshiping has been irreparably damaged to the point that no one cares A-Rod became the youngest player to hit 600.

So how should we feel about A-Rod? Should we throw out all of his accomplishments or ignore his admitted steroid use? I must admit I have mixed emotions. For as many dumb things that he has done and said, A-Rod has never bothered me the way he bothers most. He seems to be the focal point of so much anger that I tend to pull for him. He is sort of like that song you will only listen to if you're by yourself in the car. It's really not cool to be an A-Rod fan so you just don't admit it.

My disgust for steroids and steroid use is well documented, but I don't find A-Rod's use more appalling than any other player. I see it akin to Bonds' use. He was a Hall of Famer before steroids, he just bloated his stats and prolonged his career by cheating. Rodriguez has continued to be one of the best in the game after he was outed.

I hear people complain that he didn't need to take steroids. Neither did Bonds or Mark McGwire. For my money, players like Jose Canseco and Sammy Sosa are worse than A-Rod because they would have been average to below average without the steroids. Shouldn't A-Rod get the same pass that Andy Petite got? He's not spending time and money denying he did it. Yeah. He lied about it. They all lied about it.

Does that mean the number is tarnished? Of course it does, but 600 was tarnished the day Bonds joined the club. Once Sosa found his way there, home run stats had been cheapened forever. Nobody cared before A-Rod even got close to the number.  His fate was sealed.

Rodriguez is the most over analyzed player I have ever watched play, and often it seems unfair to me. Sports writers like to play psychologist every time they write about him. *Newsflash* An arrogant baseball player is nothing new and there are many players as full of themselves as Rodriguez. Some are just much better at hiding it from the media.

One thing that has to be admitted when talking about Rodriguez is that he has been incredible before, during, and after steroids. His steroid use has cheapened his stats and will most likely keep him out of the Hall of Fame which is a just punishment. But he is in a unique position to continue playing beyond the PED's. The careers of most steroid users ended when they couldn't continue using. A-Rod still has some good years which means more records to break without the aid of steroids. It is very hard to discredit his entire career when the majority of it was played clean.

 The NL Snaps a 13 Year All-Star Drought

For over a decade baseball fans and analysts have called the National League inferior to the American League. For over a decade the All-Star game has backed up that assertion. But just like any sports streak, the AL dominance over the All-Star game was snapped this year. The win gives the NL World Series representative home field advantage for the first time since that policy was implemented.

An accurate snapshot of the season, the NL won the game on pitching and defense. Does that mean that the NL is now superior to the AL? It might. While you have higher payrolls in the AL, there seems to be a greater distribution of premium players in the NL. Pitching is much more important than sluggers when determining a dominant league these days.  The NL has the upper hand, and if you need a tie breaker, I submit Albert Pujols.

Don't be surprised if the NL goes on a streak of their own. With free agency, anything can happen, but the All-Star game is no stranger to streaks. From 1963-1982, the NL was 19-1, followed shortly by a six year run for the AL.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How Was Your Summer? NBA

As football season draws close enough to get excited about, I decided it was time to for Screwball to end his summer vacation and catch up on all the exciting events of the summer. First up, the NBA.

Cleveland takes another shot to the groin:

In a one hour special dramatically titled "The Decision" LeBron James announced he would be, "taking his talents to South Beach." This after Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh announced they would be playing together in Miami. If the Celtics had the Big 3, Miami signed the Colossal 3 this summer.

Miami now has (without question) two of the three best players in the league. Adding Bosh to that equation creates an embarrassment of riches unlike anything seen in the last 25 years. If you watched the last USA Olympic basketball team, you saw the chemistry between James and Wade who were the two best players on the court even with Kobe on the team. With Kobe aging, Wade is probably the best pure scorer in the NBA and LeBron is the best athlete and overall player.

To say that their games won't be complimentary is a very short sided view of what James is capable of. The genius of his game is not his ability to score. He is an average outside shooter at best. His real value is the overall package of passing, rebounding, defense, and slashing to the basket which elevates the game of everyone around him. Give Wade a guy like that, throw in a power forward who shoots for an extremely high percentage in Bosh, add the myriad of talented role players that are volunteering their services (like Mike Miller), and Miami should win the championship next year. I don't believe a team with that many weapons will need a year to get used to each other. Boston didn't.

Playing with former NBA champion Wade will be a huge relief for James. LeBron might be the bigger name, but it will still be Wade's team. James has always wanted to be "one of the guys" as evidenced by his pre-game antics and clowning around. When Cleveland played well they were heralded as the loosest team in the NBA. Then the playoffs started and they were denigrated as immature.

What LeBron needs to win a championship is a strong coach and a teammate who will take over the leadership role. Miami head coach Eric Spoelstra might not be the Phil Jackson LeBron needs, but the ever present Pat Riley is right behind the ropes influencing what goes on with the Heat.

Cleveland, on the other hand, is left in ruins. Before "The Decision" the Cavs fired their GM and head coach despite posting the best regular season record in the NBA for two straight seasons. Without James, Cleveland could easily be the worst team in the NBA. Perhaps a reason James was compelled to leave, no?

I don't blame James for leaving, although the manner in which he did was unsatisfying. He is a solid veteran after playing seven NBA seasons, but he is just 25 years old and has never been out of Ohio. There was no reason to believe he would ever get the support he needed from the Cavs, and the decision was clearly not about money. James had the weight of a lifetime of losing in Cleveland on his shoulders, and not just for basketball.

The worst decision James made was letting Cleveland wait to hear the disappointment on a TV special. I'm not sure who advised James that would be a good idea, but it came off as pompous and ungrateful and he has yet to properly thank Cleveland for their support.

He exacerbated tensions with comments indicating Cavs fans were spoiled by his presence. True as that may be, Cleveland sports fans needed something to believe in after a lifetime of disappointment. To have those hopes smashed in their faces with an hour TV special was a humiliating perpetuation of what it means to be a Cleveland sports fan.

As quickly as LeBron was being raked over the coals by the same media outlet that aired "The Decision," Cavs owner Dan Gilbert sent an emotional letter to Cavs fans that was so off-base it helped James recover sympathy (at least from fans outside of Cleveland). Aside from calling him a liar, traitor, coward, and narcissist, Gilbert vowed to win a championship before LeBron.

The Cavs are off to a bad start to that endeavor, and I'm not sure how the letter helped Gilbert attract free agents. LeBron elevated the Cavs to their best run in team history and gets called a coward by the owner when he leaves. Do you think other players took notice of that treatment? I bet they did. Good luck fielding a team over next several years. The good news is they will most likely have the number one draft pick for the next few years.

Both sides are wrong for the way they handled the break up, and both had an opportunity to handle it with respect and class. Determined to have the last act of stupidity, James sent a letter to his hometown of Akron thanking them, but conspicuously left out the city of Cleveland, the Cavs, or fans from any other region of the state or country.

LeBron is less like a King and more like a very talented Prince. He needs leadership. How many 18 year olds straight from high school are ready to shoulder an NBA franchise? He is young, free spirited, extremely talented, and has never had a strong leader in his life on or off the court. LeBron needs someone he respects to answer to and play with. He gets both in Miami.

Playing without the burden of having to win or lose by himself will allow James to flourish, something Cleveland could never give him. The real question might be if he can stay dedicated and hard working in South Beach, or if he will get caught up in celebrity and night life. If he can stay out of trouble, you can count on three straight NBA titles before Wade and James break up so LeBron can recover the money he has given up to play in Miami. Too bad Cleveland didn't handle his departure with more class, he might have come back after winning a few titles in Miami.

The hopes of USA Basketball rest on the OKC Thunder:

The last USA Olympic basketball team was the best collection of talent since the original Dream Team. Nicknamed the "Redeem Team," the U.S. sent every big name they had to China to reclaim the crown of best in the world.

But the international game is not just about the Olympics as we like to think here in the U.S. The 2010 World Championships are a bigger event than the Olympics for many competing countries. The same countries that now boast many NBA stars on their rosters, and until 2008 looked to have surpassed USA.

The effort of playing serious competitive basketball after a grueling NBA season took its toll with the stars of the Olympic team. The National Team has a much different look without any members of the Gold Medal Olympic team returning to play in the 2010 World Championships.

Headlining the team is 22 year old Kevin Durant, NBA scoring champ and star of the OKC Thunder. Going along with him is point guard Russell Westbrook and forward Jeff Green. The Thunder were a great story last year making the playoffs and quickly becoming one of the most exciting offensive teams in the league. The National Team experience should be a cohesive exercise for the three teammates which can only help the Thunder continue to grow into one of the better teams in the NBA.

But is it cause for concern that 20 percent of the National Team is made up of extremely young players from OKC, the most experienced being 22 year old Durant? Chauncey Billups and Lamar Odom are the only players on the team born before 1982, and if Odom is projected to be a factor this team could be in trouble.

The team is very rich in guards, but has a concern with size and inside presence. Durant is one of the tallest players on the team, but his game is more guard like which means they will have to run and score. A lot.

Thunder fans can rest easy that their representatives are young enough not to burn out for next year by playing on the National Team. The real concern would be injury, especially for Durant who figures to play as many minutes as possible.

This team can certainly win gold if they shoot up to their ability, but there will be little room for error against tougher teams. For those that prefer the more competitive international games rather than the U.S. blowing out their opponents, this is your event. 

Lakers defeat Celtics for NBA Championship:

Really not a surprise considering Boston was the 4 seed in the East. A team just two years removed from their last championship featuring the Big 3 (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen), the Celtics became the Big 1+3 with point guard Rajon Rondo elevating the play of his elder statesmen. The series went to game 7 (as did most of the Lakers series) but Kobe and co. prevailed in one of the more unspectacular NBA finals games ever played. Many still consider the Lakers the team to beat next year. Phil Jackson decided to come back to pursue his fourth 3 peat. Can anyone still make the argument Jackson only wins because of his players? Ask Kobe.


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