The Twelve: The Preseason Favorites For The Major Bowls

College football comes back on Thursday and the road to the premium “New Year’s Six” bowl games in general and the four-team College Football Playoff in particular begin. This post will focus on the teams the AP has designated as the favorites to reach the major bowl games.

The Playoff semifinals will be held in the Orange & Cotton Bowls, while the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Peach are the other marquee destinations over December 31-January 1. The same committee that creates the playoff matchups also sets the pairings for the other four bowl games.

That means we know up front that the top eleven teams in the final rankings are going to make big bowl games, with the highest-ranked team from the so-called “Little Five” conferences (Mountain West, American, Conference USA, MAC, Sun Belt) also qualifying.

While we won’t know what the committee is thinking until October, we can at least use the preseason AP poll as a reliable guide to the early favorites be in these games. Here’s a brief look at each team, with an emphasis on the negative—what challenges do they have to overcome to meet expectations, be it in the lineup or in the schedule?

Ohio State: They have to play Virginia Tech on Monday night on the road without suspended defensive end Joey Bosa one of the best in the country. While the Buckeyes can likely make it with one loss things will get interesting if someone can upset them prior to the season finale in Ann Arbor and giving Jim Harbaugh a chance to play spoiler.

TCU: The defensive back seven has a lot of personnel to replace and it’s also fair to wonder if TCU has the kind of program that can string together consecutive dominant seasons. I know they did it in 2009-10, but that was in the Mountain West, not against a nine-game Big 12 schedule.

Alabama: Nick Saban has major rebuilding to do on offense and it won’t be with experienced replacements—five projected starters are sophomores or freshmen. I know the Tide reloads, but the Playoff is still a high bar to reach. The good news is that most key SEC games are at home, with Auburn the only exception. The non-conference test with Wisconsin is in Dallas and the ultimate SEC champ will have at least one loss to give and stay in contention.

Baylor: Once again, the Bears’ non-conference schedule is awful, so we have to assume they need to go undefeated. The game with TCU is on the road and that nine-game league slate is a tough row to hoe without a margin for error. And turmoil has now descended on the program in light of reports that head coach Art Briles overlooked past criminal histories on the part of transfers.

Michigan State: Sparty has to visit both Michigan and Ohio State, meaning an upset of the Buckeyes isn’t likely and the Wolverines will be hungry to re-assert their “big brother” status with Harbaugh in town. Michigan State also needs to replace defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi who took the head job at Pitt.

Auburn: Another SEC West favorite with a lot of rebuilding to do on offense and I don’t think we can be as sure about the Tigers reloading as is the case with the Crimson Tide. The schedule sends them on the road to LSU and Alabama and includes a Saturday night neutral-site opener with Louisville.

Oregon: They need to win big road games to make the Playoff again or to win the conference. A road trip to Michigan State is on September 12 and the Ducks visit Stanford on November 14, a likely must-win game in the Pac-12 North. Oregon needs to win these games while replacing Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota.

USC: The Trojans have a feared passing game with Cody Kessler, but they had that last year and still lost four games. USC has road games at Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon. They could probably still make a major bowl by winning the other nine games (which still include UCLA, Arizona and Stanford), but need to go 11-1 to make the Playoff and might need 10-2 for the New Year’s Six.

Georgia: Past history is the biggest argument against Georgia. They generally seem to find a way to disappoint when the most is expected, and expectations are high this season. A new quarterback and very young defensive front. While the SEC East is the softer side of the conference, the Dawgs drew Alabama and Auburn in their cross-divisional games and have to play Georgia Tech outside the league.

Florida State: There are seven freshman and sophomores starting on the offensive side of the ball alone. One of them is running back Dalvin Cook, who became the latest FSU player to be on a police blotter, something that history suggests we’ll see more of before the season is out. The new quarterback is Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson, who will have to show he can avoid turnovers in a must-win road trip to Clemson.

Notre Dame: We need to see that starters returning to a questionable unit—in this case the defense—means improvement through experience and we need to see Malik Zaire show he can match Golson for making explosive plays while not matching the departed quarterback in turning the football over. Oh, and the schedule’s a bear with Georgia Tech, Clemson, Navy, USC, Stanford and a game with UMass the only real gimme.

Boise State: Boise’s a top-heavy favorite, but they do have to best the best among five conferences, so sheer numbers work against them. The non-conference schedule includes Washington, BYU and even Virginia won’t be a gimme. While there is experience up and down the lineup from last year’s Fiesta Bowl winner, Boise does have a new quarterback in Ryan Finley.

HOW WILL IT LOOK? Continue reading “The Twelve: The Preseason Favorites For The Major Bowls” »

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Assessing The Playoff Chances Of Notre Dame Football

There’s a wide range of expectations for Notre Dame football coming into the 2015 season. There’s a lot of talk about the Irish making the four-team College Football Playoff, as they bring back 17 starters from a team that beat LSU in a bowl game and was one controversial call from beating Florida State in Tallahassee. There’s also a lot of skepticism, given the team’s collapse at the end of last regular season and Notre Dame opens the season at #11 in the AP poll.

Offseason focus has centered on quarterback Malik Zaire. He took over for the LSU game after incumbent Everett Golston had been a microcosm of the team in 2014—a Heisman contender in the early going, then losing his job after a flood of turnovers. Golston transferred to Florida State where he will start. Zaire, a good package of mobility and throwing the ball is the man in the spotlight in South Bend.

Lou Holtz Notre Dame

What can’t be overlooked is that Notre Dame’s failure to run the ball effectively contributed mightily to increased pressure on Golston and the turnovers. The Irish have a good running back in Tarean Folston, but the development of the offensive line will be the single most important factor in this season. It’s the one area of the team not loaded with experience—even though three starters come back, there’s a redshirt freshman and sophomore stepping into jobs. With only two seniors, the line is likely a two-year project.

The question for the defense is simple—does experience lead to greater competence? Notre Dame gave up 44.5 points in its last four regular season games, and in the season finale against USC you got the impression the Trojans could have scored as many as they wanted. Even the LSU victory was still a 31-28 game. The Irish have ten starters back and they simply have to be better.

Notre Dame faces challenges, but they’re not impossible. If the offensive line and defense simply play average to above-average football, Zaire won’t have the weight of the world on him. He’ll still have to be the one who makes plays, but I like the kid’s talent and he’s got good receivers in Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Corey Robinson (David Robinson’s son).

In a college football landscape where everyone except Ohio State has its own mix of challenges to overcome, there’s no reason to exclude the Irish from the list of legitimate Playoff contenders.

Except for one big reason—the schedule. This is just one long road of constant challenges. Let’s break it into three categories—the easiest games, the ones that will be more difficult, but are still must-have, and the big tests…

Easiest: UMass, at Temple, Wake Forest, Boston College, at Virginia
Challenging: Texas, at Pitt, Navy
Big Tests: Georgia Tech, at Clemson, USC, at Stanford

Even the “easy” games really aren’t. UMass might have gone 3-9 last year but ESPN’s summer preview magazine tabs the Minuteman to win the MAC East. Temple went to a bowl game last year, and might belong on the “Challenging” tier. Boston College was a bowl team last season, though the Eagles have significant rebuilding. Virginia was one win from a bowl.

Notre Dame should be expected to sweep these games, but when they’re your cupcakes, it underscores how difficult the schedule is.  Continue reading “Assessing The Playoff Chances Of Notre Dame Football” »

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Patriots Face Three Key Personnel Losses On Defense

The New England Patriots’ offseason has been dominated by Deflategate, and most of the discussion about their on-field fortunes is tied to how many games Tom Brady will miss. That’s understandable, since they aren’t starting any better than 1-3 if Brady really misses four games. What’s even more pertinent over the long haul though, is how the Patriots are going to absorb key personnel losses on defense.

Darrelle Revis took his Super Bowl ring and went back to the Jets. How important was Revis for the Patriots? He gave the team a true lockdown corner and was 1-for-1 in Super Bowl trophies per season in Foxboro. Brandon Browner on the other corner is also gone, as is stalwart nose tackle Vince Wolfork.

New England played defense last season as well as they have since the Tedy Bruschi/Ty Law teams of the early ‘00s. Not coincidentally, last season was their first Super Bowl trophy since that period. Tom Brady’s greatness is undeniable, but that’s just enough to put the Patriots in the hunt. Whether they win it all depends on the caliber of the defense and this year there’s a big question mark by this unit.

That brings the conversation to the man who saved the Super Bowl last year. Malcolm Butler gets the luxury of beginning his career as a starter with his place in Boston sports lore already secure, off his interception of Russell Wilson in the closing seconds last February in Glendale.

Butler got as close to trial by fire as the preseason can offer. New England has played Green Bay and New Orleans thus far, and Butler has held in pretty well. I’ve watched the defense play in these games for as long as Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees were in, and Butler’s made some nice plays and just as important, the other quarterbacks seemed to be attacking the side he *wasn’t* on.

It’s not reasonable to expect Butler to be Revis, but the odds look good that Bill Belichick will have a reliable piece to work with his in secondary. Filling the other two spots is going to be a bigger challenge.

Logan Ryan was projected to start at the other corner. He hasn’t played well thus far, and Belichick is toying with moving an excellent free safety in Devin McCourty back to corner. That moves Duron Harmon into the lineup at safety, where he hasn’t played well. It’s looking like there will be a hole in the Patriot secondary, at least early on.

The burly Wolfork was a great run-stopper and over the years, New England has excelled in red-zone defense. One reason is that when a team can’t run up the middle, they’re going to have a tough time scoring in close. Even in years when the Patriot defense was generally terrible, notably 2011, red-zone execution turned their bottom line respectable.

It’s these personnel losses, along with the natural difficulty of repeating as champions that make me skeptical of New England doing any more than repeating as AFC East champs and probably getting out of the first-round (through either a bye or a playoff win).

The team, even if Brady plays all 16 games, has to get these defensive issues fixed. It’s not to say they can’t—it’s a long season and the head coach is a mastermind—but there’s serious work ahead for the Patriots.

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The Giants-Dodgers Rivalry Ready To Add Another Chapter

The Giants-Dodgers rivalry has always been the West Coast version of Red Sox-Yankees, two ancient foes with an abiding dislike for each other that have several great pennant race moments in their history. This year it’s even more so.

The Yankees are being more restrained with their money while the Dodgers freely flex their financial muscle. The Red Sox are a last-place team for the third time in four years while the Giants are the game’s gold standard when it comes to clutch performance.

Now the Giants and Dodgers come down the stretch in what looks to be baseball’s best division race in the final month-plus. Los Angeles holds a 1 ½ game lead. The wild-card is a longshot, with the Chicago Cubs seven games up on San Francisco. It looks like winner-take-all in the NL West.

To set the stage for the closing month, TheSportsNotebook is going to preview these teams with the same sort of comparison/contrast that this site uses for a postseason series preview. Let’s lay out how each team looks in the four areas that win or lose baseball games—hitting for power, getting men on base, starting pitching and the bullpen. Then close it out with a look at how Las Vegas views each team.

GETTING MEN ON BASE: Both teams have several players who excel at consistently keeping the basepaths full. For the Dodgers, it’s catcher Yasmani Grandal, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, leftfielder Andre Ethier and third baseman Justin Turner, all of whom have OBPs over .360.

Other contributors include second baseman Howie Kendrick—currently injured, but expected back in September. Rookie centerfielder Joc Pederson’s year-long numbers are good, but he’s slowed considerably since an electric first half of the season and has begun to lose playing time to Enrique Hernandez. Either way, manager Don Mattingly has someone who can get the job done.

The middle infield is what’s intriguing, as the Dodgers have re-united the veterans of the excellent Philadelphia Phillies teams from 2007-11, with Jimmy Rollins and the newly acquired Chase Utley, who will stand in for Kendrick at second base. Neither player is doing anything this year, but accomplished veterans in September fighting for perhaps one last October moment aren’t to be dismissed.

San Francisco’s lineup has a similar profile. Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Nori Aoki and Gregor Blanco all have OBPs ranging from .351 to .377. Second baseman Joe Panik sits at .374, one of the toughest outs in the game, although he’s injured right now.

The Giants, like the Dodgers, except their second baseman back in the first part of September. San Francisco is also missing Hunter Pence, whose .327 OBP isn’t great, but is above the league average.

Kelby Tomlinson has been plugged into Panik’s spot and in a very short sample size, has a .341 OBP. And third baseman Matt Duffy has been the precise opposite of the Dodgers’ Peterson—a rookie who has come on in the second half rather than the first half. Duffy sits with a .345 OBP.

San Francisco’s biggest strength, when compared to Los Angeles, is that there are no obvious weak points in this lineup. The only current starter with an OBP under .300 is newly acquired Marlon Byrd, and he’ll take a seat when Pence comes back, hopefully early September.

HITTING FOR POWER: Here again, there’s consistency up and down the lineup for both teams. The Dodgers have seven starters (if you assume Kendrick rather than Utley at second base) whose slugging percentage exceeds the league average and in every case except Kendrick, it’s substantially above that line. The Giants have six starters (assuming Pence and Panik in the lineup) who do, with Blanco right on the line. When you consider that both teams play in pitcher’s parks, it’s obvious that these are teams really built on power, in spite of their pitching reputations that we’ll get to in a moment.

The impact power hitters—defined by slugging percentage rather than home runs—for the Dodgers would Gonzalez, Grandal, Turner, Ethier and Pederson. But the post-All Star break struggles of the latter have been mentioned. Pederson hasn’t been the same player since he entertained the nation at the Home Run Derby, making the finals and nearly derailing hometown favorite Todd Frazier in Cincinnati.

You might be surprised to learn that San Francisco’s best slugging percentage is owned by shortstop Brandon Crawford, who’s quietly transformed from a pure defensive SS to perhaps the game’s best all-around player at the position. That grand slam he hit in last year’s wild-card game at Pittsburgh was apparently his coming out party as a power guy. Crawford is joined by Buster Posey, Duffy and Pence, whom this team really needs back in the lineup.

STARTING PITCHING: The biggest names in baseball are right here in this rivalry. Continue reading “The Giants-Dodgers Rivalry Ready To Add Another Chapter” »

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Frank Beamer Faces A Must-Win Season At Virginia Tech

In 1987 Frank Beamer took over a Virginia Tech football program that had been to precisely six bowl games in a history that dates back to 1902, and none of those bowls were marquee invites. Virginia Tech was off the national radar, a lonely independent in the South, overshadowed by other independents like Miami, Florida State, Penn State and of course Notre Dame.

Beamer put the football team in Blacksburg on the map. They’ve gone to a bowl game every  year since 1993 and eight of those have been invites to a major. Beamer played for the national title in 1999 and led Florida State after three quarters, before it got away and he’s played in the Sugar Bowl as recently as 2011. But a run of three mediocre seasons, two of them 6-6 and other at 7-5, has put the head coach on the hot seat.

There’s a new administration in place at Virginia Tech and no one knows for certain what they’ll want to do. Normally I would find this outrageous and put Beamer in the “he’ll retire when he’s damn good and ready” category, in light of what he’s done for this program. But recent years have changed my thinking and undoubtedly emboldened more impatient administrators in light of what’s happened to other legends.

Florida State pushed Bobby Bowden out the door and ended up with a national championship under Jimbo Fischer. Penn State didn’t push Joe Paterno out the door and ended up with a scandal.

While I find the smearing of Paterno for the crimes of someone else to be rooted in ignorance, I’d also say this—leaving an 85-year-old head coach in charge of a collegiate program invites problems, and a great book by John Bacon, Fourth And Long, covers Penn State’s 2012 season (the year after Paterno) and says that the real cover-up taking place in Penn State was hiding just how disengaged an oft-fatigued Paterno was from everything.

That’s relevant in this case because Beamer is now 68-years-old and I would agree with the proposition that Virginia Tech can’t let him stay too long and sometimes in this circumstance, an AD or president has to play the bad guy. But before we jump the gun, let’s first ask if it’s necessary and what Virginia Tech needs to do this season to keep a future Hall of Fame coach in his job.

Las Vegas sets the Over/Under on Hokie wins this season to be an even 8. The odds for winning the conference championship place them fourth overall and second in the Coastal Division behind Georgia Tech (Florida State and Clemson are the top-heavy co-favorites). So let’s set a reasonable standard of 8-4 and a second-place divisional finish as the baseline season that Virginia Tech needs. Continue reading “Frank Beamer Faces A Must-Win Season At Virginia Tech” »

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