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Remember when Philip Rivers did a lot with a little a season ago? Where’s that Rivers been?
Hopefully, fantasy football players (at least the one with Rivers on their rosters) will see his re-emergence Monday night in Kansas City.
The San Diego stud is currently fantasy’s 18th best quarterback with 45.14 points. He has not scored above 21 points all season long and has had two sub 10-point performances. Rivers had no single-digit games last season and was plus-21 in nine of the first 15 games.
He had two multi-interception games a season ago, he already has four this season. Rivers has thrown two picks in four games, one against Denver and only came out of a game unscathed against Miami.
Last season, Rivers was without all-world tight end Antonio Gates for six games and without No. 1 receiver Vincent Jackson for the basically the first 14 weeks. Rivers still finished as the eighth best fantasy QB with a hodge-podge of receivers and just 1,400 yards rushing from the top two backs combined.
This season, Gates was completely shutdown by New England in Week 2 and has missed three games with the lingering foot issues he’s battled with. He has 13 catches for 128 yards and one TD. Jackson has been hobbled by a hamstring and has four games under 10 fantasy points. As a result, Gates is the 34th best fantasy TE and Jackson is the 16th best WR (thanks to a 34.2-point game against the Patriots).
The Chiefs are tied for 26th in the league with 12 passing touchdowns allowed, and after allowing eight touchdowns in the first two weeks, it has given up four in the last four weeks. They are also third in the league with 11 interceptions and are 10th in the league in completion percentage allowed (57.7). In a year in which 300-yard passing games have become the norm, Kansas City has not surrendered one yet.
This will be the second meeting of the season between the AFC West rivals. In Week 3, without Gates, Rivers threw for 266 yards on 24-of-38 passing with no scores and two picks.
Gates and Jackson appear to be healthy for Monday night’s game against a resurgent Kansas City squad.
So what Rivers are we going to get?
Probably the same one we’ve seen most of the season.
The Chiefs are surging. Their defense is playing well, just ask the Raiders’ quarterbacks. Their offense, although in flux most of the season, is playing adequate enough to keep them in the game. They are at Arrowhead in prime time.
It’s doubtful that you have many better options at quarterback on your roster. You drafted Rivers high. He is healthy (according to what he says) and he still has Gates, Jackson and a pass-catching back in Ryan Mathews. You go with Rivers this week, but I’m not expecting the Rivers of old to show up this week.
I sure am hoping I’m wrong, however.
By Corby Yarbrough, @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
No Hines Ward for the Pittsburgh Steelers may mean a bigger day for two of the talented wide receivers we liked in the fantasy preseason and hoped we would have heard more from by now -- Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
And their potential emergence as consistent receivers could not have come at a more perfect time as the Steelers draw the New England Patriots in Week 8.
Ward is looking doubtful to play in Sunday’s game after injuring his ankle in Week 7. Sanders would start in his place and Brown’s role would grow even more than it has.
Brown has been quite a favorite of QB Ben Roethlisberger this season. He is second behind Pittsburgh’s No. 1 WR, Mike Wallace, in targets, receptions and yards. Brown has 48 targets, 25 catches for 364 yards. Sanders has 27 targets, 13 catches for 173 yards and two scores. Wallace leads the way with 51 targets, 36 catches for 730 yards and five scores.
Brown has received eight-plus targets four times, including his best week of the season against Arizona last Sunday. He was targeted nine times, catching seven balls for 102 yards. Sanders received his highest target total of the season last week against Arizona and it produced his best week so far (5-46 and a TD).
Roethlisberger bounced back from a poor outing against Jacksonville by throwing for 361 and three scores against the Cardinals. He has thrown for eight touchdowns and just one interception in the last three games after throwing for three scores and five picks in the first four games.
Chances for a shootout this week are high.
The Patriots are last in the NFL in pass defense (322.2 YPG, which is 33.3 yards ahead of the next team), are giving up the fourth most points to fantasy quarterbacks and the most points allowed to fantasy receivers per game. However, New England is 11th best against fantasy running backs. The Pats also possess the best passing offense in the NFL and the Steelers are ninth. The Steelers do have the No. 2 pass defense in the league (171.9), but Tom Brady has had plenty of success against them in the past.
If you had given up on Brown or Sanders over the past few weeks, that is understandable. They have not necessarily been the most dependent. But the combination of Ward probably missing the game, the hot streak Roethlisberger has been on and the fact the Steelers are playing the Patriots’ defense makes this too appealing a match up to not have either of them on and active on your fantasy roster for Week 8.
By Corby Yarbrough, @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
Matthew Stafford has battled a sprained right ankle injury that he suffered on the final offensive play of last week’s loss to Atlanta. His status for Sunday’s game at Denver has been iffy all week long, but it looks like he will be a go for the Week 8 contest. He was a full participant in Friday’s practice after being limited the previous two days.
And even if he is a go, you might want to look somewhere else despite the Detroit Lions playing a Broncos pass defense that has been very friendly to opposing fantasy quarterbacks.
The Lions have a bye after Sunday’s game and they certainly need it to get some of the kinks worked out. Three of the last four weeks for Stafford have been sub par fantasy performances.
After having scored 23-plus fantasy points in the first three weeks, Stafford began a run of three out of four games at 16.5 points or less, including last week’s 11.32 effort at home against Atlanta.
The lack of a running game for the Lions has certainly hurt their offensive performance. They are 27th in the NFL at 92.7 yards per game with just three rushing scores. It’s pretty easy for defenses to key in on Stafford when they don’t have to respect the ground aspect of Detroit’s game.
Stafford is sixth the league in pass attempts per game at 38.4, and after having been sacked six times in the first five weeks (five coming in Week 3 against Minnesota), Stafford has been dropped eight times in the last two weeks.
Luckily for fantasy owners, Stafford has not turned the ball over the last two weeks, but you just wonder when it all will catch up with the Lions. The last two weeks, he has completed 56 and 46.9 percent of his passes, and four times altogether this season he has completed 59 percent or less.
He may get a reprieve this week vs. Denver‘s suspect pass D, but the Broncos are a different team when defensive back Champ Bailey is in the lineup.
The Broncos are 14th in the NFL with 16 sacks, but have just three interceptions. They are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 68 percent of their passes (ranking them 31st in the league), throw for 247.5 yards per game and are tied for 20th in the league with 11 touchdown passes allowed.
Then there’s Bailey.
He missed Weeks 2-4 with a hamstring injury. In that time, the Broncos allowed Cincinnati to have two double-digit fantasy receivers, Tennessee to have one and Green Bay to have three. San Diego No. 2 receiver Malcom Floyd caught three balls for 100 yards and a score in Week 5 while Vincent Jackson was held to 3-for-34.
With Bailey in the lineup, the Broncos allowed Jason Campbell to throw for 105 yards and a score in Week 1, Philip Rivers to throw for 250 yards and a score in Week 5 and Matt Moore to throw for 197 yards and a score in Week 7.
So is Stafford going to play like Campbell and Moore or like Rivers?
Well, the ankle injury, the lack of a running game, only one consistent threat at receiver in Calvin Johnson, a Broncos team which is also solid against tight ends (only two scores and 19 catches all season) and it being a road game, I would look away from Stafford and seek a better option if available.
Bye weeks may not make that possible, but Denver’s a different Denver with Bailey and Stafford’s a different Stafford then he was a few weeks ago.
By Corby Yarbrough, @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
Andre Johnson was supposed to play in Week 8. But things don't always play out the way they're supposed to for fantasy football owners.
After practicing on Wednesday and Thursday and looking like he was on pace to start this Sunday for the first time since week 4, Johnson suffered what seems to be a significant setback on Friday. Johnson was held out of practice and the general talk around the Texans' locker room was that his surgically-repaired hamstring is holding him back from getting onto the field.
Texans' coach Gary Kubiak tried to stay positive saying that Andre was "real close" to getting back to playing, but Johnson himself only deemed his hamstring at 70-75%.
What makes this news even worse is that the Texans have a bye in week 10. The smart move, no matter how great Johnson is feeling next week, would be to hold him out not only in week 8, but in week 9 as well, giving him a full three weeks to get back to 100%.
The Texans play the lowly Jaguars in week 8 and the even lowlier (that's a word, right?) Cleveland Browns in Week 9. After destroying the Titans last week, it seems like the Texans could take care of the Jags and Browns without Johnson, giving him plenty of rest to come back fully refreshed.
While this is the smart move in real football terms, it's also a killer move for Johnson's fantasy owners. Those who spent a first round draft pick on Andrew will be without him for 6 weeks, basically half of a fantasy season.
If Johnson owners have been able to keep their heads above water and stay in the playoff hunt, they will also be the team no one wants to play as they get one of fantasy football's leading scorers back right in time for the playoffs.
The Big Ten has been known for elite running backs for years and years. From Mike Hart to Ron Dayne to Eddie George to Anthony Thompson to Archie Griffin to Alan Ameche and Howard Cassady in the '50s, the conference has produced some of college football’s top runners for generations. But what about this season? Montee Ball is a touchdown machine at Wisconsin; Rex Burkhead has been a star for Nebraska, while Penn State’s Silas Redd and Iowa’s Marcus Coker are putting up very respectable numbers. And the two best runners in the Big Ten might not even be running backs, as Michigan’s Denard Robinson and NU’s Taylor Martinez both rank in the top six of the league in rushing yards.
Who is the top runner in the B1G?
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Since the questions asks about the bets “runner” not “running back,” I think you have to go with Denard Robinson, Michigan’s dual-threat quarterback. Montee Ball is having a terrific season at tailback for Wisconsin, but I believe if you asked any coach in the league who is the more dangerous player with the ball in his hands, the answer would be Robinson. The man they call Shoelace is second in the league in rushing, just behind Ball, with 108.8 yards per game, and his 6.4 yards-per-carry average ranks first in the league for players with over 50 crushing attempts. Robinson has been clutch with the ball in his hands as well; 15 of his 27 rushing attempts on third down have resulted in a first down. He might not be a prototypical quarterback — or running back — but Robinson has to be considered the best pure runner in the Big Ten.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I think the answer has to be Wisconsin’s Montee Ball. He may score 30 touchdowns this season, and the Badgers limited him against their non-conference opponents (although Ball did have multiple scores in all four of those games). It’s easy to credit UW’s solid offensive line for his success, but a powerful back like Ball can make any line look good. He’s no more part of a “system” than Denard Robinson at Michigan or Taylor Martinez at Nebraska. While both of those quarterbacks deserve praise for their production and highlight-reel runs, I’m taking the big Badger when you really need a positive play. After scoring 18 TDs last year while sharing carries, Ball has continued his end zone onslaught this season with 17 rushing scores in seven games. And unlike Robinson, Ball’s numbers have improved in Big Ten play with 62 rushes for 408 yards (6.6 ypc) and eight scores in just three league games. While I think Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead and Penn State’s Silas Redd deserve consideration along with the two QBs, I’ll take my chances with Wisconsin’s Montee Ball.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The change in coaching staffs has limited his ability to run just a bit, but I’d take Michigan’s Denard Robinson as the best in the Big Ten. The junior has to be one of the best athletes playing college football, possessing dynamic all-around skills, speed and electric playmaking ability. Robinson finished 2010 with 1,702 rushing yards, but is likely to fall short of that mark in 2011. The junior has 716 yards and nine scores on the ground through six weeks, while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Also, Robinson has largely carried the offense, as Michigan has struggled to find a go-to running back. There’s the danger of Robinson taking too much of a beating as the year progresses, but the junior is far too dangerous on the ground to prevent Michigan from utilizing his skills. Robinson may not be the power back that Wisconsin has with Montee Ball or the shifty playmaker Nebraska has with Rex Burkhead, but he gets my vote for the Big Ten’s top runner.
Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)
Penn State's Silas Redd is leading the Big Ten in rushing at 852 yards and might be the most valuable tailback in the league considering he is the entire Nittany Lion offense (and they are 7-1). Michigan's Denard Robinson is likely the most explosive and electric runner of the football - with the bigger, more physical Taylor Martinez not too far behind him in that category. But Robinson touches the ball 60-80 times per game, has the option to gain yards on pass plays and could never run the football 20 times between the tackles without completely breaking down physically. Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead is the most complete, most underrated and possibly best all-around running back in the league. But Wisconsin's Montee Ball is leading the league in yards per game (108.1) and has scored nine more touchdowns than anyone else in the league. And if you needed any more proof of his value to UW, the Badgers outscored Michigan State 28-7 when Ball was in the game and were outscored 31-3 when he was not last weekend. Plus, his name is Ball after all.
With respect to Big Ten running backs, the best pure runner in the conference is Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Over the past two seasons, Shoelace has scrambled 368 times for 2,418 yards (6.6 ypc) and 23 TDs in 19 games. That's an average of 127.3 rush yards and 1.2 TDs per game on the ground in 2010-11. No one in the country can top that. To put those numbers in perspective, Alabama's Trent Richardson (989 yards, 17 TDs in 8 games in 2011) is averaging 123.6 yards and 2.1 TDs per game this year. And all Richardson does is run; Robinson also plays quarterback — leading, play-calling and passing when he's not running at a feature back's workhorse pace. Hail to the Victor, Denard X is the best runner in the B1G.
Due to injuries and due to byes this week there are a number of fantasy owners scrambling to find a one-week waiver wire replacement in their lineups for Week 8. Nowhere does this seem as prevalent as at the running back position.
And just because they are out there, just because they are perhaps going to get the bulk of the work, there are plenty of running backs whose match ups this week just aren’t worth the headache.
Here’s a look at the names I left off of the Week 8 Waiver Wire story and why you should avoid them, too.
Montario Hardesty, Cleveland (at San Francisco)
There is still question as to whether Peyton Hillis and his bad hamstring will get the bulk of the work or whether it will be Hardesty. It took Hardesty 33 carries to get to 95 yards a week ago against Seattle. Now the Browns travel to face the top defense against fantasy running backs. The 49ers have not allowed more than 64 yards rushing to a single back this season (Cedric Benson 17-64), and have allowed no touchdowns to a running back. Cleveland has the 29th-ranked rushing offense in the NFL (91.2 YPG) with just two scores.
Advantage: San Francisco
Bernard Scott, Cincinnati (at Seattle)
Scott is not a workload back. He has averaged 4.5 touches per game and has just 98 yards of offense this season. Cincinnati is 21st in rushing offense (105.3 YPG) with four rushing scores. Now the Bengals travel to play a Seattle team that’s No. 11 in the NFL against the run and seventh best against fantasy running backs having allowed just four scores and no back to reach 100 yards.
Jackie Battle, Kansas City (vs. San Diego)
Despite having allowed two 100-yard rushers in the last two weeks, the Chargers are still No. 8 in the NFL against fantasy running backs. They are holding that position because they have allowed just two rushing touchdowns this season. This will be the second meeting against the Chiefs. In Week 3, Kansas City was limited to 80 yards and no scores on 26 carries from four backs. He is probably the safest of the replacement players you would need this week, but his small bit of success has come against a Colts and Raiders rush defense that has been generous to fantasy backs all season long.
Advantage: San Diego
Maurice Morris, Detroit (at Denver)
The Lions’ ground game has been non existent for pretty much all but one game. They are ranked 27th in the NFL at 92.7 yards per game and three rushing touchdowns. Morris still has Keiland Williams to contend with for carries, and neither will be focused on enough to be fantasy worthy this week. And now the Lions travel to play a Denver that has actually been pretty solid against fantasy running backs. The Broncos are X against fantasy running backs. They have surrendered 100-plus yards twice (Week 1 vs. Darren McFadden and Week 5 vs. Ryan Mathews) but have not allowed a rushing TD. Morris is no McFadden or Mathews.
Donald Brown, Indianapolis (at Tennessee)
The Colts are ranked 25th in the NFL at 94.1 yards rushing per game with four rushing touchdowns and are 30th in points scored by fantasy backs per game. With Joseph Addai hobbled by a hamstring injury, Indianapolis has leaned on rookie Delone Carter more than Brown. His TD two weeks ago against Cincinnati is the only thing that made him a blip on the fantasy radar again. Yes, the Titans have been gashed the last two weeks by running backs. But that was the Texans and Steelers. The Colts do not possess the run game of either of those two teams. Advantage: Tennessee
LaRod Stephens-Howling, Arizona (at Baltimore)
Beanie Wells has been taking limited reps this week, but it’s still uncertain whether he and his knee will be healthy enough to play at the Ravens this week. Alfonso Smith will get the starting nod against the NFL‘s No. 3 rush defense (85.8 YPG). Baltimore is the No. 2 ranked fantasy defense against fantasy running backs; they have allowed just one touchdown rushing and only Maurice Jones-Drew last week, on 30 carries, has eclipsed 100 yards. The Cardinals are ranked 24th in the league in rushing (98.0 YPG) with seven scores. But Stephens-Howling gets his production through the air, and it’s too sporadic to be counted on. The 5-7 back has carried five times for 16 yards and has four catches for 87 yards and a score this season. Advantage: Baltimore
By Corby Yarbrough, @Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
Seven weeks into the NFL season, there are 22 teams with a record of .500 or better, which means they can claim to be in the thick of the playoff race as the NFL season nears its halfway point. But none of them are in the most interesting race – the one happening way down at the bottom of the league.
Like it or not, the race for Andrew Luck – better known in most places as “Suck for Luck” – began the moment the first NFL teams hit 0-3 this season.. The Stanford quarterback will almost certainly be the prize of the 2012 draft and some scouts consider him to be as safe a bet as Peyton Manning (1998) or John Elway (1983).
What down-on-their-luck – no pun intended – NFL team wouldn’t want that?
Given the number of truly miserable, pathetic teams near the bottom of the NFL standings this season, the race for the No. 1 overall pick figures to be fierce and it likely will be won by a 2-3-win team. So if a team has two wins through the first six or seven games of the season (like Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Denver and Carolina) they’re probably already out of it.
For the five winless or one-win teams that are in it, though, the “Suck for Luck” race could get real interesting down the stretch. Here’s how the race the teams don’t want to talk about shapes up … with a projected order of finish (in draft order) and what the team will likely do with their pick:
1. Indianapolis Colts (0-7)
Anyone who witnessed their 62-7 destruction at the hands of the Saints last Sunday night knows they have the special combination of horrible defense, terrible running game and bad quarterback to make everything click towards a winless season. WR Reggie Wayne looks done. RB Joseph Addai has been hurt and aside from a couple of big plays from QB Curtis Painter to WR Pierre Garcon, the passing game has no juice.
They have five division games left, plus games against the Falcons, Ravens and Patriots. Except for their Nov. 27 home game against the Panthers, what game do you expect them to win?
The pick: There has been some recent talk that the Colts would pass on a quarterback in next year’s draft because Peyton Manning has too many theoretical good years left. I don’t see that happening. I think they’ll need about seven seconds to write Luck’s name on the card and turn it in, and they’ll never seriously consider a trade offer. Manning’s neck injury makes him a question mark for the future. Besides, he’s 35 anyway. Even if returns for a couple of years, then the second-best quarterback of this generation could have a hand in grooming the best quarterback of the next one.
2. Miami Dolphins (0-6)
Based solely on talent, this is the worst team in the NFL and their coach, Tony Sparano, has known he’s on borrowed time since the Dolphins owner, Steven Ross, made a run at Jim Harbaugh during the offseason. They just became the first team since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 merger to blow a 15-point lead in the final three minutes of a game. They do have some winnable games, though (Washington, Oakland at home) and they’ve played some close ones. They’ll find a way to screw up getting the No. 1 overall pick.
The pick: It would be just their luck that they can’t suck enough to finally replace Dan Marino. They need a quarterback, though, and will have no choice but to use this pick on the second best one in the draft – maybe Oklahoma’s Landry Jones? Then they’ll have to keep their fingers crossed that whoever it is doesn’t turn into Akili Smith or Ryan Leaf.
3. Arizona Cardinals (1-5)
They are riding a five-game losing streak, QB Kevin Kolb is struggling to adjust to life as a starter, and RB Beanie Wells has been in and out with injuries. Their schedule also features the NFC East, where four teams may be in the race right until the end. If Wells is healthy, they should drop down this list, but without him teams can concentrate too much on Kolb and WR Larry Fitzgerald..
The pick: You want to get Kolb more comfortable as a starting quarterback? Go draft the best available offensive tackle in 2012. There should be a few good ones, and if the Cards finish third they’ll have their pick.
4. St. Louis Rams (0-6)
After nearly winning the awful NFC West last season, the Rams have fallen flat on their faces thanks to a ridiculous string of injuries that included RB Steven Jackson, QB Sam Bradford and WR Danny Amendola. Yes, they’re winless in a terrible division, but to realize how deceiving that is you have to look at whom they’ve played – all four NFC East teams, Green Bay and Baltimore. They haven’t played a single team in their crummy division yet. When they do, life gets easier. But first they need to fall to 0-7 against the Saints and resist the urge to fire Steve Spagnuolo.
The pick: Bradford has simply been getting killed when he’s been able to play and that’s a direct reflection on a bad offensive line. This is another team that needs a tackle over a quarterback. If they somehow landed the No. 1 overall pick, they could engineer one of the biggest trades in NFL history. But getting a top tackle would be fine, too.
5. Minnesota Vikings (1-6)
They’ve showed signs of life since replacing Donovan McNabb with Christian Ponder, which is exactly what you don’t want to do in the race for a top draft pick. They still have holes at every position except for running back and they still have the Packers, Falcons, Lions and Saints on their schedule. They have enough issues, though, that five wins seems to be their ceiling, which locks them into a top-five pick.
The pick: A quarterback would’ve been an intriguing option for them until Ponder started playing and looking good. Now he needs some help around him. A big receiver would be nice, so the passing game can click and take some of the enormous pressure off Peterson. Don’t be surprised, though, if Leslie Frazier looks to rebuild his defense first.
By RALPH VACCHIANO
By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Here's a look at every game of the Week 9 college football schedule.
No. 60 BYU at No. 39 TCU
BYU will be playing on Friday night for the third time this season. The Cougars were lucky to win their previous two Friday games, edging UCF and Utah State by a combined 11 points. They will need to play their best game of the season to win in Forth Worth.
TCU 30, BYU 20
No. 77 Washington State at No. 4 Oregon
Oregon continued its assault on Pac-12 defenses last week in a 45–2 win at Colorado. The Ducks are averaging 46.3 points and 535.5 yards in league play.
Oregon 49, Washington State 14
No. 32 Baylor at No. 5 Oklahoma State
Nothing is guaranteed, but the Cowboys, up to No. 3 in the latest BCS rankings, could very well play for the national championship if they keep on winning. And beginning with this Saturday, three of the Pokes’ most difficult games — Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma — will be played in Stillwater.
Oklahoma State 51, Baylor 31
No. 6 Clemson at No. 24 Georgia Tech
Those of us waiting for Clemson to have a Clemson moment and lose to an inferior team when it’s least expected might be waiting for a long time.
Clemson 34, Georgia Tech 27
No. 7 Stanford at No. 21 USC
USC is coming off arguably the finest showing of the brief Lane Kiffin era, a 31–17 win over Notre Dame in South Bend. The Trojans will make Stanford sweat, but the Cardinal will do what they always seem to do — win by double digits.
Stanford 37, USC 23
No. 8 Arkansas at No. 53 Vanderbilt
The Commodores are stout on defense and especially strong in the secondary, but Tyler Wilson and the Razorbacks’ deep wide receiving corps will be too tough to slow down.
Arkansas 31, Vanderbilt 17
No. 9 Michigan State at No. 12 Nebraska
Iowa and Michigan are still in the picture, but there’s a very good chance that the winner of the Michigan State-Nebraska battle in Lincoln will represent the Legends Division in the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game.
Nebraska 24, Michigan State 21
No. 10 Virginia Tech at No. 66 Duke
Tajh Boyd is the obvious choice for first-team All-ACC honors at quarterback, but Logan Thomas needs to be in the conversation. Over the last three weeks, he has completed 66.7 percent of his passes and has averaged over 328.7 yards of total offense without throwing an interception.
Virginia Tech 33, Duke 10
No. 11 Wisconsin at No. 33 Ohio State
Not many people expected these two teams to be a combined 3–3 in the Big Ten at this point of the season.
Wisconsin 21, Ohio State 17
No. 14 Oklahoma at No. 13 Kansas State
Kansas State won five straight in this series from 1993-97 but has only won one time since, a 35–7 beatdown in the 2003 Big 12 Championship Game.
Oklahoma 31, Kansas State 21
No. 15 South Carolina at No. 44 Tennessee
Tennessee is a mess right now. The Vols are 0–4 in league play, have lost each of their last two games by 31 points and will be sending out a true freshman (Justin Worley) at quarterback this weekend.
South Carolina 28, Tennessee 17
No. 92 Colorado at No. 16 Arizona State
The Buffs have lost their four league games by an average of 29.0 points and have been outgained by a staggering 244.3 yards per game. Not good.
Arizona State 39, Colorado 10
No. 41 Missouri at No. 17 Texas A&M
Missouri, a disappointing 3–4, has yet to record a quality win. The Tigers will have ample opportunities to do so over the next month, with road trips to A&M and Baylor followed by home dates with Texas and Texas Tech.
Texas A&M 31, Missouri 27
No. 58 Iowa State at No. 18 Texas Tech
The losing team has scored at least 34 points in each of Texas Tech’s last five games. Iowa State has scored more than 26 points only once this season.
Texas Tech 47, Iowa State 28
No. 19 Georgia vs. No. 40 Florida (at Jacksonville)
Georgia has defeated Florida only three times in the past 21 games. This Gator club, however, could be the least imposing of the last two decades. The offense has issues — even if John Brantley is back at quarterback — and the defense has given up an average of 206.3 yards rushing in the last three games.
Georgia 27, Florida 17
No. 62 Purdue at No. 20 Michigan
Purdue is playing very well of late. The Boilers lost at Penn State, 23–18, two weeks ago, then returned home and upset Illinois, 21–14. Michigan hasn’t played since losing at Michigan State, 28–14, two weeks ago. It could be a struggle, but take the Wolverines at home.
Michigan 24, Purdue 20
No. 37 Illinois at No. 23 Penn State
About a month ago, I threw out the possibility that Illinois, with its relatively soft Big Ten schedule, could run the table. I was wrong.
Penn State 17, Illinois 10
No. 90 Kansas at No. 25 Texas
Kansas ranks last in the Big 12 defense (550.9 ypg) and is giving up over 125 yards more than the No. 9 team, Texas Tech.
Texas 38, Kansas 7
No. 61 Arizona at No. 26 Washington
Arizona played its finest game of the season in the debut of interim head coach Tim Kish, smacking UCLA, 48–12, on a nationally televised Thursday night broadcast. The Cats will have to play even better to hang with Washington.
Washington 38, Arizona 24
No. 73 Navy at No. 27 Notre Dame
Navy is 2–5 but has lost two games by three points and two others by one point. Notre Dame is 4–3, with two losses by four points or less. One more fact: Navy has won three of the last four in this series, including the last two in South Bend.
Notre Dame 31, Navy 27
No. 30 Wake Forest at No. 42 North Carolina
Wake Forest, which is 4–1 in the ACC, is a seven-point underdog at North Carolina, which is 1–3 in the ACC. The Heels’ schedule might have been a bit harder, but there is nothing really on their resume that suggests they should be a touchdown favorite.
Wake Forest 24, North Carolina 21
No. 29 West Virginia at No. 46 Rutgers
This is an important game for West Virginia. The Mountaineers need to play well and prove that last week’s stunning no-show against Syracuse (49–23 loss) was an aberration.
West Virginia 31, Rutgers 17
No. 55 NC State at No. 31 Florida State
NC State picked up a much-needed win last week, beating Virginia 28–14 on the road. It was the Pack’s first win against a BCS conference opponent this season.
Florida State 30, NC State 20
No. 78 Ole Miss at No. 34 Auburn
The Tigers have scored 17 points or less in four straight games, their longest such streak (in the same season) since 1999. They should have no problem topping the 17-point mark this weekend.
Auburn 31, Ole Miss 14
No. 36 Southern Miss at No. 93 UTEP
Southern Miss has been known for its offense under Larry Fedora, but the Golden Eagles were terrific on defense last week, holding SMU to 330 total yards en route to a 27–3 win.
Southern Miss 37, UTEP 17
No. 38 SMU at No. 54 Tulsa
Houston is the team to beat in C-USA West, but both Tulsa (3–0) and SMU (2–1) are in the conversation. This is a must win for SMU.
SMU 37, Tulsa 34
No. 43 Iowa at No. 101 Minnesota
The Gophers don’t play Indiana so we won’t know for sure which is the worst BCS conference team in the nation. The smart money, though, is on Minnesota.
Iowa 47, Minnesota 17
No. 45 Mississippi State at No. 84 Kentucky
These two teams are a combined 0–7 in the SEC and are struggling to put points on the board. Kentucky has scored a total of 20 points in three SEC games. Mississippi State scored 34 against Auburn but managed a total of 28 in its ensuing three league games.
Mississippi State 20, Kentucky 7
No. 47 Syracuse at No. 71 Louisville
Syracuse was surprisingly dominant in a 49–23 win over West Virginia last Friday night. The Orange must now prove they can get it done in back-to-back games.
Syracuse 24, Louisville 20
No. 48 California at No. 68 UCLA
The Rick Neuheisel era hit a low point last week in a 48–12 loss at Arizona. The Bruins gave up 254 yards on the ground to a Wildcat team that was ranked 119th in the nation in rushing.
California 21, UCLA 20
No. 74 Oregon State at No. 50 Utah
Oregon State has played better of late and now has a healthy Malcolm Agnew in the backfield. Utah has scored 14 points or less in each of its four Pac-12 games.
Oregon State 24, Utah 14
No. 57 Northwestern at No. 100 Indiana
Both teams have lost five straight games. Northwestern, however, has been competitive; four of the five losses have come by 10 points or less.
Northwestern 41, Indiana 14
No. 97 Wyoming at No. 59 San Diego State
San Diego State is home to the nation’s No. 1 rusher, Ronnie Hillman (138.8 ypg). Wyoming is ranked No. 100 in the nation in stopping the run.
San Diego State 41, Wyoming 17
No. 86 Boston College at No. 63 Maryland
It hasn’t quite been a “dream” season for Maryland’s first-year head coach, Randy Edsall. The Terps are 1–3 in the ACC and have only one win vs. an FBS opponent.
Maryland 27, Boston College 24
No. 64 Air Force at No. 120 New Mexico
New Mexico has lost its last two games by a total of 118–7. The Lobos’ best shot at a win this season will come on Nov. 12 when UNLV visits Albuquerque.
Air Force 41, New Mexico 0
No. 65 Nevada at No. 110 New Mexico State
Nevada is in control of the WAC race, with a 2–0 mark (only undefeated team) and a victory over Fresno State.
Nevada 31, New Mexico State 18
No. 99 North Texas at No. 67 Arkansas State
Arkansas State is 5–0 against non-BCS conference teams. It might be time for ASU fans to make reservations for the New Orleans Bowl.
Arkansas State 28, North Texas 17
No. 107 UAB at No. 70 Marshall
UAB broke into the win column last week with a surprising 26–24 victory over UCF. The winning streak, however, will likely end at one.
Marshall 27, UAB 17
No. 115 Tulane at No. 72 East Carolina
Tulane sunk to a new low last week, losing at home to Memphis, 33–17, in the first game without Bob Toledo.
East Carolina 44, Tulane 0
No. 114 Memphis at No. 79 UCF
Memphis is 1–0 in its last one road game.
UCF 37, Memphis 10
No. 80 San Jose State at No. 88 Louisiana Tech
San Jose State is playing well, with three wins in its last four games, but Louisiana Tech is probably better than its 3–4 record indicates. The Bulldogs have lost to four solid teams — Southern Miss, Houston, Mississippi State and Hawaii.
Louisiana Tech 30, San Jose State 20
No. 81 Hawaii at No. 113 Idaho
The Warriors are 1–3 on the mainland this season, with the only win coming at Louisiana Tech. Idaho has yet to beat an FBS team.
Hawaii 31, Idaho 13
No. 82 UL-Lafayette at No. 112 Middle Tennessee
UL-Lafayette saw its six-game losing streak snapped in surprising fashion — a 42–23 loss at Western Kentucky.
UL-Lafayette 27, Middle Tennessee 24
No. 89 Ball State at No. 87 Western Michigan
Western Michigan must regroup after a shocking 14–10 loss at Eastern Michigan. The Broncs were good enough to win at UConn and scare Illinois (23–20), but couldn’t find a way to win in Ypsilanti.
Western Michigan 31, Ball State 27
No. 95 Buffalo at No. 108 Miami (Ohio)
Buffalo trailed Northern Illinois 31–10 heading into the fourth quarter last week. The Bulls scored three straight touchdowns, including two in the final five minutes, but missed a game-tying extra point with 2:35 remaining.
Buffalo 28, Miami (Ohio) 24
No. 98 Bowling Green at No. 116 Kent State
Something doesn’t quite add up about Kent State’s defensive stats. The Golden Flashes rank No. 22 in total defense yet only rank No. 73 in scoring defense.
Bowling Green 31, Kent State 3
No. 102 Colorado State at No. 117 UNLV
UNLV is responsible for one of the more surprising scores of the season. The Rebels are 1–5 on the season and rank among the worst in the nation in total offense and total defense yet defeated Hawaii, 40–20, back in Week 3.
Colorado State 27, UNLV 17
No. 104 Western Kentucky at No. 105 UL-Monroe
The Hilltoppers opened the season with four straight losses but have rebounded to win three straight. Tailback Bobby Rainey has averaged 161.0 yards during the winning streak.
Western Kentucky 27, UL-Monroe 24
No. 109 Army at Fordham
The Black Knights will be without starting quarterback Trent Steelman, who hurt his foot in a 44–21 loss at Vanderbilt.
Army 38, Fordham 14
No. 111 Central Michigan at No. 119 Akron
Central Michigan, which has lost to Eastern Michigan and Ball State in recent weeks, is in desperate need of a win. The Chips should get one.
Central Michigan 31, Akron 10
Last week — 38–13
Season — 345–70
by Nathan Rush
Albert Pujols’ last game as a St. Louis Cardinal is Game 7 of the World Series. The stage is set for a Michael Jordan or John Elway hero’s exit. But instead of retiring a champion, Pujols will dive into the free-agent pool in search of a 10-year, $300 million contract.
Still, winning a second World Series would be a walk-off home run for Pujols, who will be pursued this offseason by the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Miami Marlins, Washington Nationals, Texas Rangers and any other team that could use a first baseman whose average season over his first 11 years includes batting .328 with a 1.037 OPS, 40 HRs, 121 RBIs and 117 runs over 155 games. But he’s only won two Gold Gloves, so he’s not perfect.
Pujols is not an A-Rod regular season fantasy player who disappears in the clutch, either.
During the Cardinals’ unbelievable postseason run, Pujols has hit .364 with a 1.174 OPS, five HRs, 16 RBIs and 13 runs in 17 games. He single-handedly won Game 3 of the World Series for St. Louis, going 5-for-6 with three HRs, six RBIs and four runs in a 16–7 blowout at Texas. In the process, Pujols tied Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson for the World Series single-game home run record.
In St. Louis’ surreal Game 6 comeback, Pujols doubled in the bottom of the ninth inning to start a rally that ended with the three-time MVP and Lance Berkman crossing the plate to tie the game 7–7 following a David Freese triple. Pujols’ only hit and run-scored in the game came with Derek Jeter-type timing. Freese was the hero, for sure. But without Pujols, the Cardinals don’t pull off an 11-inning, 10–9 win for the ages.
What more do Cardinals fans want? Another World Series win? For Pujols to re-sign? Let’s not get greedy — or say that’s what Albert is.
Pujols was the 402nd overall pick of the 1999 MLB Draft. Since breaking into the bigs in 2001, he’s crushed for 445 HRs and 1,329 RBIs. The team that signs Pujols won’t get that type of production. They’ll curse the 40-year-old making $30 million a year and not producing in a major market. As painful as the thought of losing Pujols may seem to Cardinals fans, his next breakup will be worse.
Tonight, Pujols is in St. Louis, in his prime, with a chance to win the World Series. It doesn’t get any better than that.
“This is pretty special,” said Pujols. “This is what baseball is all about. Having an opportunity to go to a Game 7 in a World Series is unbelievable. Amazing. I don’t even know what to say.”
Say thank you, St. Louis. Put the champagne on ice and enjoy Pujols’ last game as a Cardinal. Win or lose, re-sign or walk, Albert Pujols has been worth every penny.
Whether he continues to be is another story.
-by Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden on twitter)
Everyone has a bad week every now and then — just like Oklahoma and Wisconsin. It took eight weeks of college football but I finally had a sub-.500 weekend of action. The Razor-pigs rolled around in the Oxford mud for most of the day while the underdog Huskies proved they are still a year away from competing for Pac-12 titles. And cmon, we all get Zookered at least twice a season, right?
There is a lot to like this week as the market over-corrects itself (Purdue, Texas Tech, Washington, West Virginia, Arkansas). Do not hesitate to go after those teams who dramatically under or over-performed last weekend.
Season Record ATS: 50-28-3 (4-5-1 last week)
Week 9's Top Picks:
1. Arizona (+4) at Washington
Washington is coming off a bad loss to Stanford while Zona is soaking in the glow of what was an embarassing performance by UCLA last Thursday night. This is the first major over-correction. Arizona is 2-5 with one win over FBS competition, is allowing over 33 points per game and is last in the Pac-12 in total defense. The Huskies have relatively easy wins over Cal, Utah and Colorado and have not lost at home since Halloween of 2010. My Pick: Washington -4
2. Hawaii (-7) at Idaho
Horrendous. There is no other way to explain the Vandals' play over the last two months. Idaho has yet to beat an FBS opponent and last won in Week 2 over North Dakota. Losses to Texas A&M and Virginia on the road are understandable, but home losses to Fresno State and Louisiana Tech by a combined 37 points (and any loss to New Mexico State) are not. Idaho is 114th in total offense and 89th in total defense. Hawaii won this match 45-10 last fall and is averaging 328 passing yards per game. My Pick: Hawaii -7
3. Clemson (-3.5) at Georgia Tech
Only Stanford has a better record against the spread than Clemson's 7-1 thus far. This is an ACC title game rematch from a few seasons ago and if anyone watched the Jackets the last two weeks, there is just no way this number makes any sense. Tevin Washington cannot complete passes and the option attack hasnt't been productive in two loses to Virginia and Miami. In fact, Tech wasn't even competitive last week "in" Coral Gables. Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins continue to roll. My Pick: Clemson -3.5
4. SMU (+3) at Tulsa
This one is simple: Give credit where credit is due. When Athlon editor Steven Lassan has a gut feeling about a team winning outright at the mid-major level, I do not hesitate. He is affectionately known as the Lassanator. Tulsa's defense has been bad no matter the competition — and the competition has been very mediocre of late. SMU has been lighting up secondaries all season and has beaten quality competition in TCU. Tulsa's best win this year is a road W over Rice. My Pick: SMU +3
5. Baylor (+14) at Oklahoma State
The Bears will score plenty of points with RG3, but Oklahoma State will score plenty more. The Pokes rolled-up 725 yards of offense in this game last season and is humming along again in 2011: No. 2 nationally in passing, No. 3 in total offense and No. 2 in scoring. Okie State is also one of only four teams with a 6-1 record this season against the spread. This has an A&M-esque 55-28 feel to it. My Pick: Oklahoma State -14
6. Purdue (+12.5) at Michigan
Market correction No. 2. Someone was going to collect the benefit checks from Ron Zook and, in 2011, it was Purdue's Danny Hope. The Boilers played arguably the easiest schedule of any FBS team until Week 7 - and was 3-3 before Hope had the pleasure of being on the business end of a good Zookering. Michigan is coming off a bye week and has arguably the most electric player in the nation under center. This was an 11-point win by Michigan last season in West Lafayette. This is a new and improved Maize and Blue in The Big House. My Pick: Michigan -12.5
If you are feeling lucky
7. Bowling Green (-3.5) at Kent State
Few teams are statistically worse than the Golden Flashes of Kent State. At 10.7 points per game, they are the worst scoring team in the naton. At a pathetic 180.6 yards per game, they are the least productive offense in America. Bowling Green is riding high after a 13-10 win over Temple last week and sits at 4-4 for the year. Ignore last year's final score, these are two totally different teams in 2011. The Flashes are 1-6 against the spread this fall. My Pick: Bowling Green -3.5
8. Stanford (-7.5) at USC
There is only one team unbeaten against the spread for more than a calendar year. And there is only one Andrew Luck — no matter how well Matt Barkley can cover Jason Mraz. The Trojans have been playing great football so they will not sneak up on the Cardinal, who are favored on the road in the series for the first time ever. Luck will be able to pick apart a defense that is 104th against the pass (265.1 ypg). It will be 16 straight for the Cardinal. My Pick: Stanford -7.5
9. UAB (+5.5) at Marshall
The Herd has excellent wins over Southern Miss and Louisville to go with a another decent victory over Rice (two of which have come in the last four weeks). New quarterback AJ Graham has jump-started the offense in two starts and will slice up the 117th-ranked total defense. Don't worry about the 26-24 win over UCF last weekend, all you need to know is that UAB lost to Tulane at home. My Pick: Marshall -5.5
10. Cal (-4.5) at UCLA
The Bruins are one of three teams with a 1-6 mark against the spread this season and are staggaring around the ring after Arizona dropped them to the canvas on national TV 48-12 last Thursday night. Zach Marynard and half-brother Keenan Allen are possibly the most well-tethered QB-WR combo in the nation (Allen's 129.4 ypg leads the country) and are coming off a 34-10 destruction of Utah. A bad Cal team beat UCLA 35-10 last season. My Pick: Cal -4.5
11. Arkansas (-10) at Vanderbilt
It's a safe bet that Vandy defensive coordinator Bob Shoop isn't getting much sleep this week trying to prepare for the Razorbacks. The Hogs have come out flat all season long in the first half, but have scored plenty of points in the second half so there is little Vandy should be able to counter with on offense. This was a 49-14 game in Fayetteville last season. James Franklin has closed the gap some, but not from 35 points to nine. My Pick: Arkansas -10
7-0 Against the Spread: Stanford
7-1 Against the Spread: Alabama, Clemson
6-1 Against the Spread: Arkansas St., Kansas St., Oklahoma St., UTEP
6-2 Against the Spread: LSU, Temple
2-6 Against the Spread: Virginia Tech
1-6 Against the Spread: Colorado St., Kent St., UCLA
1-7 Against the Spread: Central Michigan
Other Week 9 Content:
Steven Lassan's Key Storylines for Week 9
Athlons Sports In-Depth Preview: Michigan State vs. Nebraska
Mitch Light's Top Ten Picks of the Week
Athlon Sports Picks Every Game of Week 9
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
10 Key Storylines to Watch for Week 9
1. Week 9 could go a long ways in determining the SEC East champ. South Carolina shares a 4-1 record with Georgia, but defeated the Bulldogs in the second week of the season. The road to winning the East got a lot tougher for the Gamecocks two weeks ago, as running back Marcus Lattimore was lost for the year due to an ACL tear. With Lattimore sidelined, the Gamecocks will turn to true freshman Brandon Wilds and junior Kenny Miles to carry the workload in Saturday’s game at Tennessee. However, South Carolina also needs quarterback Connor Shaw and the defense to step up, as Wilds and Miles can’t replace Lattimore’s production. The Gamecocks have to be licking their chops on defense, as Tennessee has scored only 25 points in its last three games, and will start true freshman Justin Worley at quarterback on Saturday. Worley will be making his first career start and has yet to throw his first pass in game action. With Arkansas and Florida remaining, South Carolina can’t afford to be upset on Saturday at Tennessee.
2. Penn State has flown under the radar this season and despite suspect quarterback play, enters Week 9 with a solid 7-1 record and control of the Leaders Division. The schedule is going to get tougher over the final few weeks, as the Nittany Lions host Illinois and Nebraska, before hitting the road to Ohio State and Wisconsin in the last two games of the year. Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden have shared time under center, combining to complete 53 percent of passes, eight touchdowns and six interceptions. Neither player has seized the No. 1 spot, but Penn State has been able to lean on running back Silas Redd and one of the Big Ten’s top defenses. The Nittany Lions rank eighth in total defense and fifth in points allowed, despite losing linebacker Michael Mauti to a torn ACL early in the season. Illinois is reeling after two straight losses, but defeated Penn State 33-13 in Happy Valley last year. The Nittany Lions are still largely untested in Big Ten play, but will the Fighting Illini find the winning formula again? Or will Penn State’s defense keep Illinois’ quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in check, while the Nittany Lions get just enough from Redd to keep the chains moving on offense?
3. It seems all of the talk surrounding the Big East this year has been about realignment. Instead of focusing on all of the off-the-field issues, the conference should be able to turn the focus back to actual games with the West Virginia-Rutgers matchup this Saturday. Both teams lost last Friday, but are still realistic options to win the Big East title. The Mountaineers lead the conference in total offense, but the offensive line and rushing attack have been inconsistent. Also, the defense has struggled to replace some departed players from last year's unit. Rutgers has lost 16 consecutive games to West Virginia, and needs to generate some offense if it wants to end that streak. The Scarlet Knights have been winning with defense and by controlling the turnover battle. However, the offense needs to step up this week, specifically freshman quarterback Gary Nova and running back Jawan Jamison. If West Virginia can jump out to a 14-0 lead, the Scarlet Knights may struggle to generate enough offense to get back into the game.
4. Stanford has cruised to a 7-0 start, but the schedule is going to get more challenging over the next few weeks. The Cardinal travels to USC this Saturday, and takes on Oregon on Nov. 12. The Trojans dominated this series in the early 2000s, but the tide has shifted to Stanford. The Cardinal has won three out of the last four over USC. Expect NFL scouts (and maybe the Dolphins, Colts and Seahawks) to have heavy interest in this game, as Stanford’s Andrew Luck and USC’s Matt Barkley will likely be the first two quarterbacks off the board (provided they both leave school early) in April for the 2012 draft. The Trojans are quietly putting together a solid season, and a much-maligned defense has allowed only 26 points over the last two games. The Cardinal gave up a season-high 430 yards in last week’s win over Washington. And the Trojans have plenty of firepower to hang around in this game. Stanford’s secondary will also be without safety Delano Howell, which is a big loss as it tries to stop USC’s potent combination of Barkley to Woods. Can USC’s defense keep up its recent play? The Trojans are allowing only 91.1 yards per game on the ground, which will certainly be tested by Stanford’s physical offensive line and running back Stepfan Taylor. Considering the losses of Oklahoma and Wisconsin last week, the door is open for Stanford to play its way into the national title game.
5. Can Kansas State continue its magical season? The Wildcats were picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 12, but are 7-0 and ranked No. 8 in the BCS standings. Although Kansas State has been one of college football’s biggest surprises, the competition is going to increase over the next few weeks. The Wildcats host Oklahoma this Saturday, before playing Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas. After last week’s loss to Texas Tech, there’s little doubt the Sooners will be one angry bunch on Saturday. Oklahoma’s national title hopes are on life support and will need a lot of help the rest of the way. A big reason for Kansas State’s success this year has been a much-improved defense. The Wildcats rank 29th nationally in total defense, but are allowing 243.3 yards per game through the air. Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones struggled with his accuracy in last week’s loss, but expect him to get back on track this week. The Sooners should have no trouble moving the ball through the air, which means controlling the time of possession which will be critical for Kansas State’s offense. The Wildcats have proved the doubters wrong all year, but Saturday is arguably their toughest task.
6. If you like offense, then Saturday’s Baylor-Oklahoma State game is for you. Both teams are averaging over 40 points a game and feature Heisman Trophy contenders at quarterback – Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State) and Robert Griffin (Baylor). With two dynamic offenses, whichever defense can get key stops and force turnovers will be the difference. The Cowboys rank 103rd nationally in total defense, but are tied for second with 24 forced turnovers. Baylor is slightly better in total defense, ranking 97th nationally. However, the Bears have generated only nine turnovers and opponents are averaging 4.8 yards per carry. With Oklahoma’s loss to Texas Tech last week, Oklahoma State is now in control of the Big 12. However, a loss to Baylor would end any hopes of playing for the national title. The stakes are raised for the Cowboys, and even though Baylor can match score-for-score, expect Oklahoma State to remain unbeaten for another week.
7. Determining the frontrunner in the SEC East could become clearer after this Saturday. South Carolina will be without running back Marcus Lattimore for the rest of the year, which certainly hampers its hopes to repeat as division champs. With the Gamecocks missing their best player, the door is open for Florida and Georgia to make a move in the division. The Bulldogs lost to South Carolina in Week 2, but have a favorable remaining schedule after Saturday’s game against Florida, with only Auburn and Kentucky remaining in conference play. The Gators need a lot of help in order to win the East, but should take a step back in the race with quarterback John Brantley expected to return to the lineup. Florida has dominated this series, winning five out of the last six games, including a 34-31 shootout last year. However, the Gators are reeling after three straight losses. With the Bulldogs sensing a shot to jump back into the East race, there’s a lot of urgency to win on Saturday.
8. Wisconsin’s national title hopes are likely over after last week’s last-second loss to Michigan State. However, there’s still plenty for the Badgers to play for. Wisconsin controls its destiny in the Big Ten Leaders Division and a potential rematch against the Spartans could happen in the conference title game. The Badgers hit the road for an important Big Ten game against Ohio State this Saturday. The Buckeyes snapped a two-game losing streak with a win over Illinois two weeks ago, but this team still has a lot of issues. Ohio State has struggled to establish its passing attack under freshman quarterback Braxton Miller, but the running game has totaled at least 200 yards in three of the last four games. Wisconsin is allowing 121.1 yards a game on the ground, and Ohio State can expect to see eight or nine in the box to try and slow down the rushing attack. Miller doesn’t need to have a big game, but he has to throw better than he has over the last few weeks. Although the Badgers have to be stunned at how last week’s game ended, it’s hard to see Ohio State generating enough offense to win this game.
9. Thanks to back-to-back losses by Georgia Tech, Saturday’s game with Clemson has lost a bit of its luster. These two teams have hooked up for some memorable games in recent memory, with three of the last four matchups decided by five points or less. The Yellow Jackets offense has cooled in recent weeks, largely due to a lack of big plays in the passing game. Quarterback Tevin Washington has not topped 100 passing yards in the last two weeks, after reaching that mark in the first six games. Controlling the clock and getting big plays from Washington is going to be critical for Georgia Tech’s chances at winning this game, as Clemson is averaging 40 points a game and will be difficult to slow down. The Yellow Jackets are allowing only 170.5 passing yards a game, and have allowed only one touchdown through the air in the last three contests. If Tigers’ quarterback Tajh Boyd gets on a roll early, it would be Georgia Tech’s worst nightmare. Clemson has struggled to stop the run, which should allow the Yellow Jackets to keep this one close into the fourth quarter. In a game of contrasting offensive styles, whichever team can impose its will is going to come out on top.
10. Michigan State can take a big step towards claiming the Big Ten Legends Division title on Saturday. If the Spartans knock off Nebraska, they will have wins over Michigan and the Cornhuskers, with a game at Iowa on Nov. 12 the biggest hurdle to an unbeaten record in Big Ten play. After winning such an emotional game last week, can Michigan State follow that up with the same effort this Saturday? The Cornhuskers lead the Big Ten in rushing offense, but will face a Spartan defense allowing only 88.9 yards a game on the ground. With Nebraska unlikely to have much success running against Michigan State, quarterback Taylor Martinez needs to have a big game. The sophomore is completing only 55 percent of his throws and has tossed six picks this year. If the Spartans are able to force Nebraska into throwing 25-30 times, they should be able to exit Lincoln with a victory and a commanding lead in the Legends Division.
Athlon editor Mitch Light predicts the 10 biggest games for Week 9 – here’s my take on how some of the top games will play out.
Florida State 37, NC State 20
Michigan State 24, Nebraska 20
Texas A&M 34, Missouri 24
Arkansas 34, Vanderbilt 20
Penn State 24, Illinois 17
Wake Forest 31, North Carolina 24
West Virginia 33, Rutgers 20
Oklahoma 38, Kansas State 27
Oklahoma State 48, Baylor 34
Notre Dame 38, Navy 23
Georgia 27, Florida 20
South Carolina 24, Tennessee 13
Stanford 38, USC 27
Wisconsin 27, Ohio State 17
Clemson 37, Georgia Tech 27
Looking for a few upsets? Keep a close watch on these games.
Wake Forest at North Carolina (-7)
The Demon Deacons need to keep winning to keep the pressure on Clemson in the ACC Atlantic. The Tar Heels started 5-1, but have lost their last two games. Wake Forest has won the last two in this series, including a 24-17 win in Chapel Hill.
Michigan State at Nebraska (-5.5)
After last week’s win over Wisconsin, can the Spartans recapture the momentum for another week? Michigan State’s defense won’t give up much to Nebraska on the ground, which makes quarterback Taylor Martinez’s passing even more important on Saturday.
SMU at Tulsa (-3)
The Mustangs fell on the road to Southern Miss last week, but still remain the biggest threat to Houston in Conference USA’s West Division.
San Jose State at Louisiana Tech (-9.5)
The Spartans continue to make progress under second-year coach Mike MacIntyre, winning three of their last four games, including a 28-27 thriller of Hawaii on Oct. 14.
Oregon State at Utah (-7)
The Utes are solid on defense, but offense has been an issue. The Beavers have played better recently, winning two out of their last three games.
UL Lafayette at MTSU (-3)
The Ragin’ Cajuns have been a surprise contender in the Sun Belt race, but suffered a setback with a loss to Western Kentucky last week. UL Lafayette owns one of the conference’s top offenses, while MTSU is allowing 32.5 points a game.
Around the Web: College Football’s Must Read Articles to Prepare for Week 9
Despite a painful shoulder injury, Iowa State linebacker Jake Knott continues play well.
Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel suffered a calf injury in the loss to Oregon State and is likely out the rest of the year.
Wake Forest expects to have running back Josh Harris back in the lineup for Saturday's game at North Carolina.
Even though he struggled against Louisville, Rutgers will continue to start freshman Gary Nova at quarterback.
Florida State's defensive line has been living up to the hype this year.
Saturday's game against Florida is a big one for Georgia. Just take a look at the upcoming schedule.
Can anyone figure out the Penn State quarterback situation this year?
Utah's problems on offense aren't centered just on the quarterback position.
It's back to working on the fundamentals for Georgia Tech quarterback Tevin Washington.
Michigan State should expect to see a lot of Nebraska's no-huddle offense this Saturday.
Replacing Marcus Lattimore isn't going to be easy for South Carolina. Brandon Wilds is expected to start this Saturday against Tennessee.
Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa suffered a turf toe injury in last week's loss to Penn State. But is expected to play against Indiana this Saturday.
Since joining the starting lineup, Randall Mackey has given Ole Miss' offense a spark.
Considering the struggles of UCLA's offense, is it time to take the redshirt off and let Brett Hundley play?
Maryland could be looking at another quarterback controversy for this week's game against Boston College.
Colorado could be without quarterback Tyler Hansen for Saturday's game against Arizona State.
With an inexperienced quarterback, Ohio State is going to lean heavily on its rushing attack in the second half of the season.
LaMichael James' status for Saturday's game against Washington State is uncertain.
Arizona's offense found a rushing attack in last Thursday's win over UCLA.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The Big Ten Legends Division has to be one of the most competitive in college football. Michigan State sits atop the division with a 3-0 record in conference play, with Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa tied at 2-1.
Saturday’s game between Michigan State and Nebraska is expected to go a long way in determining the division champ. The Spartans are riding a four-game winning streak, which includes big victories over Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. Last week’s win over the Badgers provided one of the best endings to a game this season. However, after an emotional win, there’s usually room for a letdown.
Nebraska began the year as the favorite to win the Big Ten title, but has not performed up to expectations. The Cornhuskers were demolished 48-17 at Wisconsin on Oct. 1 and needed a furious second-half rally to knock off Ohio State on Oct. 8. Although there’s a month of games to be played, a loss by Nebraska would significantly damage its hopes of playing in the first Big Ten title game.
These two teams have matched up only five times, with Nebraska winning every game. The last meeting occurred in the 2003 Alamo Bowl, with the Cornhuskers taking a 17-3 victory.
When Nebraska Has the Ball
Much of Nebraska’s success on offense this season has been on the ground. Running back Rex Burkhead has rushed for 752 yards and 10 scores this season, including 119 in the 34-27 win over Ohio State.
Although Burkhead has been one of the Big Ten’s top running backs this season, he has a lot of help from quarterback Taylor Martinez. The sophomore is just behind Burkhead in rushing yards, posting 636 yards on 110 attempts.
Although Martinez is one of the nation’s top rushing quarterbacks, his passing ability is still a work in progress. Through seven games, the sophomore is completing only 55 percent of his passes and has tossed six interceptions.
One positive for Nebraska’s passing game has been the emergence of young receivers Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner and Quincy Enunwa. Turner leads the team with 15 receptions, while Enunwa is averaging 16.6 yards per catch.
Moving the ball on Michigan State’s defense has been no easy task this year. The Spartans lead the Big Ten in rush, total and pass defense. Also, they have generated 24 sacks and will get defensive end William Gholston back in the mix, after serving a one-game suspension
If Nebraska is to win this game, Martinez has to be able to stretch the field with the passing attack. The Cornhuskers won’t need 300 passing yards from the sophomore, but they need to keep Michigan State’s defense off balance. The Spartans will likely load the box and try to keep Burkhead from getting on track.
When Michigan State Has the Ball
There’s no question the Spartans will attempt to bring more balance than Nebraska to their offense. Michigan State likes to establish its rushing attack and use that to setup the pass.
Running backs Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker have combined for 808 yards and eight rushing scores this season. The offensive line was hit by injuries early in the year, but led the way for the Spartans to post 213 rushing yards against Michigan and 109 against Wisconsin.
Senior quarterback Kirk Cousins is having a solid season, completing 66.7 percent of his throws, 11 touchdowns and 1,607 yards. The senior has not thrown an interception in the last two games, and his experience winning on the road the last few years is going to come in handy in Lincoln.
Helping Cousins’ cause is one of the best groups of receivers in the Big Ten. Seniors Keshawn Martin, B.J. Cunningham and Keith Nichol combine to form a solid trio, while tight ends Dion Sims and Brian Linthicum can attack the middle of the field. Nebraska’s secondary ranks 27th nationally in pass defense, and this group has allowed only one opponent to throw for more than 200 yards in the last three games. Senior Alfonzo Dennard was injured early in the year, but is rounding back to form, and the defense has received a boost from the play of sophomore Stanley Jean-Baptiste at the other corner spot.
Nebraska’s defense was expected to be the best in the Big Ten, but it hasn’t lived up to preseason accolades. The Cornhuskers rank 70th against the run and are allowing 25.3 points a game. The defensive line suffered a big blow when tackle Jared Crick tore a pectoral muscle in the win over Ohio State and was lost for the remainder of the season.
If the Spartans can keep Nebraska’s defense off balance, they should have the inside track to win this game. Even if Bell and Baker won’t get to 100 yards each, it’s important to get three or four yards a carry, allowing Cousins to test the Cornhusker secondary off play-action passes.
The Cornhuskers own a slight edge on special teams. Kicker Brett Maher has connected on 13 of 16 field goals, including 4 of 7 from beyond 50 yards. Ameer Abdullah has been a dynamic returner for Nebraska this season, averaging 10.2 yards on punt returns and 31.9 on kick returns.
Keshawn Martin is capable of scoring every time he touches the ball on special teams for Michigan State, averaging 7.8 yards on 10 punt returns. Kicker Dan Conroy has connected on 6 of 9 field goals this year, including 2 of 3 from 50 yards or more.
Can Michigan State follow up with the same momentum and energy it had last week? After the crazy finish against Wisconsin, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Spartans got off to a slow start.
Although it has only one loss, Nebraska’s back is against the wall. A loss to Michigan State would be damaging for its Big Ten title hopes. With a win over the Cornhuskers, the Spartans would be in full control of the Legends Division.
Winning in Lincoln is never easy, but the Spartans are the better team. Don’t be surprised if this is a low-scoring game, but Michigan State’s defense will prevent Burkhead and Martinez from finding too much room, giving the Spartans another big win in conference play.
Michigan State 24, Nebraska 20
-by Braden Gall ( @AthlonBraden on twitter)
NFL Bye Weeks: Atlanta, Chicago, Green Bay, NY Jets, Oakland, Tampa Bay
Start These Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh (New England)
Despite the way the Patriots have owned the Steelers, Big Ben is still a relatively obvious play this week. The Pats are still ranked last in the NFL in pass defense (322.2 ypg) and are allowing a 65.5 percent completion rate. The Steelers have rediscovered their ability to go vertical in the passing game and Big Ben and Mike Wallace have been the biggest beneficiaries. He has nine touchdowns against a single pick and has averaged 263 yards per game over his last three.
Matt Hasselbeck, Tennessee (Indianapolis)
During the 3-1 start for the Titans, Hasselbeck had eight TDs, three INTs and averaged 288 yards per game. Against the Steelers and Texans, middle Tennessee’s Matty-Ice has 366 total yards, two TDs and three INTs. Only the St. Louis Rams' (13 TD, 4 INT) defensive TD:INT ratio is even close to the Indianapolis Colts' 14-3 TD:INT pass defense ratio. The Colts did just allow 43 fantasy points and 62 actual points to Drew Brees.
Tim Tebow, Denver (Detroit)
The stat line for Tebow's first start of 2011 was ultra-predictable. He completed 48.1 percent of his passes for 161 yards, rushed for 59 yards and accounted for two touchdowns and a two-point conversion. That line should be a weekly benchmark for Tebow. Detroit's defense has not played up to snuff thus far after two straight losses in which they allowed 332 total yards. Expect a similar line for Tebow's raucous first home start of 2011.
Christian Ponder, Minnesota (at Carolina)
The Panthers have not gotten after the football (9 TDs, 4 INTs) in the secondary and just allowed 21.2 total fantasy points to the Washington Redskins' John Beck last week. Ponder showed poise in his first career start against the best team in the NFL, racking up 20.9 fantasy points of his own. If you are desperate for a spot start this weekend, Ponder looks to be the guy.
Bench These Quarterbacks
Kevin Kolb, Arizona (at Baltimore)
No team in the NFL has allowed fewer passing touchdowns than the Ravens' four. They are fourth in the league in total pass defense at 186.8 yards per game allowed. As a two-touchdown underdog (-13) to what should be a focused and angry Ravens team, Kolb has little chance of posting a usable total.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo (Washington in Toronto)
Only the Ravens and Jets have allowed fewer touchdown passes than the Redskins' five allowed. Fitz has not been a MoneyGrabber of late, throwing three total touchdowns over his last three games after nine TDs in his first three. He has not topped 250 yards since Week 3, failing to reach even 200 yards in two of his last three. Look for Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller to be the focal point of the offense once again.
Matthew Stafford, Detroit (at Denver)
This is more of a warning than a benching. If Stafford is healthy, then he is a great start against the lowly Denver defense. However, having a back-up plan ready for the brittle gunslinger is a wise move. There should be plenty of Ponders out there on the waiver wire in case Stafford cannot go last minute. Keep the refresh button cleared of all debris Sunday morning.
Colt McCoy, Cleveland (at San Francisco)
The Niners have been excellent on defense and McCoy is coming off his worst fantasy performance of the 2011 season (178 yards, 0 TD, INT). San Fran just held Matthew Stafford to his worst performance of the 2011 season (183 yards, TD) and sacked him five times in the win over Detroit two weeks ago.
Start These Running Backs
Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, New Orleans (at St. Louis)
The Rams were the worst rushing defense in the NFL heading into last week. And that was before they allowed a Dallas Cowboys record 253 yards to rookie DeMarco Murray in his first NFL start. Thomas posted a season-high 125 yards from scrimmage (and five receptions) while Ingram ran for a career-high 91 yards on 14 carries last week against the Colts. Look for both to excel (along with Darren Sproles) against a team allowing 183.8 yards per game on the ground.
Knowshon Moreno, Denver (Detroit)
Willis McGahee will not suit up for the Broncos, but John Fox is still the head coach. He wants to run the football, especially with Tebow under center, and Moreno figures to get the workload this weekend. The Lions have inexplicably been unable to slow the ground game this season. The Lions rank 28th in the NFL against the run (129.4 ypg) and have allowed 332 yards to Atlanta and San Francisco during their two-game losing streak.
Jackie Battle, Kansas City (San Diego)
The undrafted Houston Cougar has provided a nice fantasy boost over the last two weeks with 195 yards on 35 carries (5.6). And the Super Chargers have been anything but super against the run recently. The Jets and Broncos each rushed for exactly 162 yards against San Diego in the last two games. With the surging Chiefs playing for a huge leg-up in the AFC West race, look for Battle to continue to get plenty of work.
DeMarco Murray, Dallas (at Philadelphia)
If a rookie running back posted 25 carries and a touchdown in his first career NFL start, most would consider the debut a major success. Murray went above and beyond by setting a Cowboys' single-game franchise rushing record (253) and averaged over 10 yards per carry. The Eagles, due to D-line injuries and poor linebacker play, have struggled against the run, allowing 123.8 yards per game – a number that was 140.2 per game before holding the lowly Redskins to 42 yards. Murray certainly won’t hit the 200 mark again, but 100-1 is a very reasonable expectation.
Bench These Running Backs
Peyton Hillis, Cleveland (at San Francisco)
This one is pretty self-explanatory. The much-maligned runner has dealt with everything from strep throat to contract fallout to hamstring issues over the last month. Now, the big bruiser is facing the NFL's No. 2 rushing defense (74.7 ypg) – which is still the only unit to have yet to allow a rushing touchdown in 2011. Montario Hardesty didn’t look much better last week against Seattle either. Bench your Browns backs.
Bernard Scott, Cincinnati (at Seattle)
I will let Corby Yarbrough handle this one. I concur.
New England Patriots (at Pittsburgh)
Whether it’s Ridley, Woodhead or Green-Ellis, it is hard to endorse a fantasy start for any Patriots running back. As a team, New England ran for 69 yards and no touchdowns against the Cowboys. Against a similar 3-4 front with stellar linebacking play, it is hard to see anything but an aerial assault from the Pats this weekend.
Daniel Thomas, Miami (at NY Giants)
The Giants have struggled against the run this season (127.7 ypg) but will welcome back their best defensive player in Justin Tuck this weekend. Last week against the Broncos, one of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL, Thomas averaged 2.8 yards per carry on 19 attempts. Thomas should still get plenty of touches, but Miami could be playing from behind quickly and will likely need to throw much of the second half.
Seattle Seahawks (Cincinnati)
Yes, the Bengals' defensive statistics have come against lower-level competition: Cleveland, Denver, Jacksonville, Indianapolis namely. But Cincy is still ranked fourth in scoring defense (18.5 ppg), fifth in rushing defense (89.5 ypg) and fifth in passing defense (189.0 ypg). And considering the Seahawks managed three points against Cleveland last week, it is hard not lump Seattle in with those aforementioned “lower-level” teams.
Start These Wide Receivers
Anquan Boldin, Baltimore (Arizona)
The Ravens' top target reached paydirt for the second time last weekend and should be able to rip through the porous Cardinals secondary. Arizona allowed two Steelers to top the century mark and surrendered three touchdowns to Big Ben last weekend. Look for Joe Flacco and the entire Ravens offense to get on track this week.
Mario Manningham, NY Giants (Miami)
The disappointing wideout appears to be finally back on track with Eli Manning. He has back-to-back five-catch, 56-yard games and it's only a matter of time before the vertical threat makes a big play down the field. The Dolphins appear ripe for the picking. Victor Cruz, for what it's worth disappeared last week with a 2-12 line.
Jabar Gaffney, Washington (Buffalo, Toronto)
Santana Moss is out for a few games and Gaffney becomes the No. 1 wide receiver. While Fred Davis is the defacto No. 1 target in the offense, Gaffney still has plenty of value against the big-play prone Bills defense. This Redskin might not even need to reach the endzone to validate a starting spot this weekend.
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh (New England)
The speedy wideout posted season highs in catches (7) and yards (102) last weekend against the terrible Arizona Cardinals. New England hasn’t been much better against the pass and this AFC rivalry has traditionally been a high-scoring affair. Brown is a quality bye-week stopgap this weekend.
Bench These Wide Receivers
Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis (at Tennessee)
Fantasy owners must cringe at Wayne's game log since Curtis Painter took over. His once prestigious yardage totals have dropped three weeks in a row and his Painter highs are five catches (Week 6), 77 yards (Week 5) and nary a touchdown in four starts. Wayne is what he is: The No. 31 ranked fantasy wide receiver. Pierre Garcon isn't
Sidney Rice, Seattle (Cincinnati)
The Bengals cover duo of Leon Hall and Nate Clements has been excellent in 2011. I documented where the Bengals' defense has ranked and there is no reason to think that pattern will change against an offense that mustered 97 yards through the air last week against Cleveland. If Tavaris Jackson plays, bump Rice from a WR4 to a WR3.
Brandon Lloyd, St. Louis (New Orleans)
Each week that goes by should make owners more and more comfortable with Lloyd adapting to the new offensive scheme. Of course, if Sam Bradford plays, his value probably reaches WR3 status for this week due to the potentially high-scoring nature of this game.
Denver Broncos (Detroit)
From an aerial perspective, Tebow will struggle most weeks. His fantasy value is saved by his ability to improvise and pick up points on the ground. Eric Decker and company don't have such a luxury. The rapport Demaryius Thomas might have with Tebow further complicates the Broncos' receiving options.
Start These Tight Ends
Fred Davis, Washington (at Buffalo)
With Santana Moss out, Davis becomes the No. 1 target for John Beck.
Heath Miller, Pittsburgh (New England)
Has scored in two of his last three and the Pats' pass defense is atrocious.
Jake Ballard, NY Giants (Miami)
Has caught eight passes for 153 yards and a TD in last two. Beatable match-up.
Bench These Tight Ends
Dallas Clark, Indianapolis (at Tennessee)
Curtis Painter has yet to fully utilize the talented tight end.
Start These Defenses/Special Teams
Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Should see plenty of offense…and turnovers, mistakes and special teams potential.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Seattle Seahawks
Should see no offense whatsoever in this one – maybe AJ Green reaches paydirt.
Bench These Defenses/Special Teams
New England Patriots vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Two offenses clicking through the air in what has been a traditionally high-scoring affair.
Was last night’s Game 6 the greatest World Series game ever? Tough to say. After all, the World Series has been played 107 times now.
I wasn’t alive for the 1960 World Series, but that Game 7 was pretty wild. I remember staying up late and seeing the Carlton Fisk home run in 1975. I watched Reggie hit his three home runs in a row in 1977. The Kirk Gibson home run was magnificent, but it wasn’t in an elimination game; we all knew there would be a Game 2. The 2001 World Series was littered with great moments and unlikely heroes with a dramatic Game 7.
But 20 years ago last night, the 1991 World Series ended in epic fashion. I maintain that the 1991 Series was the best I saw. Game 7 was tense from the first pitch through the 10th inning. It was winner-take-all, no tomorrow. It certainly didn’t hurt that the 1991 affair was preceded by four one-run games, three won on walk-offs that enhanced the drama.
John Smoltz pitched brilliantly for 7.1 innings, Jack Morris for 10. Morris retired the Braves in order in both the ninth and 10th innings to give the Twins a chance. Dan Gladden led off the tenth with a double off Alejandro Pena, which was the difference-making at-bat.
That game, 20 years ago, was a well-played game on both sides, with one baserunning lapse by Lonnie Smith that could have made the difference.
But last night’s game?
Last night’s game was like putting Bill Buckner’s error, Joe Carter’s home run, Carlton Fisk’s home run, Luis Gonzalez’s blooper off the fist, Tony Fernandez’s misplay, Curt Flood’s misstep, Babe Ruth getting thrown out stealing second and Edgar Renteria’s hit all in one game. There were three Series-ending home runs — or at least thought to be at the time — hit by Texas. Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and certainly Josh Hamilton all had potential game-winning home runs. It just so happened that none of them held up. The Cardinals made three errors that should have cost them the game. The Rangers returned the favor with a couple of their own.
There’s no doubt last night’s game cannot be matched for sheer drama and suspense. But until the eighth inning, it wasn’t a well-played game and left both teams — well, the Texas Rangers — kicking themselves over missed opportunities.
Pitchers were at the plate with the game on the line. Derek Holland got an out with the bases loaded to preserve a one-run lead to save the game in the sixth inning. At least 20 different players were involved in game-deciding plays. And that may have been just from the eighth inning on.
I was only a year old when the National League pennant wasn’t decided until the final day of the season in 1964, but I can’t imagine any more exciting baseball over 30 days than what we’ve witnessed since the final day of the regular season. Tonight will be the 38th of a possible 41 postseason games this year. That’s an incredible run for baseball.
The Braves and Red Sox were comfortably in as wild card teams until the Cardinals and Rays refused to die on their deathbeds. St. Louis upset the Phillies, winning an epic Game 5 in the NLDS, then defeated the best home team in the majors twice in their park to win the NLCS. And down to their last strike twice, the Cardinals managed to keep breathing while many of their fans may not have been.
I love Game 7s more than any other game in sports — more than the Super Bowl, more than the Final Four. But Game 7 tonight may not be able to live up to what we witnessed last night.
Incredible. And just for the record, I would have been disappointed if Joe Buck hadn’t honored his father with “We’ll see you tomorrow night.”
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 8, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Patriots (5-1) at Steelers (5-2)
After this week’s Bibi Jones TwitPic drama, Rob Gronkowski is looking to repeat his 2010 three-TD effort against Pittsburgh. It could happen. Bill Belichick has a 9–2 record the week after a regular-season bye during his reign as coach in New England. Tom Brady has a 6–1 career record against the Steelers — including a 39–26 win at Pittsburgh in Week 10 last year. Brady threw for 350 yards and three TDs in his most recent matchup with the Steel Curtain. This year’s Pittsburgh defense has done less bending (9th in total yards) and more breaking (19th in points allowed).
Patriots by 5
Dolphins (0-6) at Giants (4-2)
Tony Sparano’s last stand heads to New York, where the Miami “Suck for (Andrew) Luck” campaign should continue. It’s unlikely the Dolphins losing streak will end against the Giants, who are well-rested coming off their bye week.
Giants by 10
Jaguars (2-5) at Texans (4-3)
These AFC South rivals are fresh off of huge wins, as Jacksonville stunned Baltimore, 12–7, on Monday night and Houston steamrolled at Tennessee, 41–7, to take sole possession of first place in the division. This is a must-win for the Texans, who are aiming for their first playoff berth since entering the league in 2002.
Texans by 10
Colts (0-7) at Titans (3-3)
On the flip side, these AFC South foes are both looking to bounce back from embarrassing losses, with Indianapolis losing to New Orleans by 55 and Tennessee falling to Houston by 34. Both teams are also missing their best player. Peyton Manning’s rehabbing a neck injury; Chris Johnson’s diagnosis is less certain.
Titans by 11
Vikings (1-6) at Panthers (2-5)
A showdown of rookie quarterbacks pits Minnesota’s Christian Ponder against Carolina’s Cam Newton. This will be Ponder’s first start on the road, while Newton carries a 2–2 record at home — losing close calls against the Packers (30–23) and Saints (30–27).
Panthers by 3
Saints (5-2) at Rams (0-6)
New Orleans’ No. 1-ranked scoring offense (34.1 ppg) hits the road to take on St. Louis’ 29th-ranked scoring defense (28.5 ppg) and 32nd-ranked scoring offense (9.3 ppg). The question is whether or not the Saints can one-up last week’s 55-point beatdown of the Colts.
Saints by 15
Cardinals (1-5) at Ravens (4-2)
Kevin Kolb is walking into the lion’s den. Or, an angry Ray Lewis’ house, same difference. The Ravens have questions that need answering following a shocking 12–7 loss to the Jaguars on Monday night. Kolb is headed to the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.
Ravens by 10
Cowboys (3-3) at Eagles (2-4)
Turn on the heat lamp and pressure cooker when Tony Romo and Michael Vick square off under the lights in prime time on Sunday night. This will be the first head-to-head matchup of America’s two most scrutinized quarterbacks; the road team won both games last year, with Philly winning Week 14 and Dallas in Week 17.
Eagles by 3
Lions (5-2) at Broncos (2-4)
Matthew Stafford limps to Denver, where Tim Tebow is on top of the Mile High mountain after his first start of the season. Detroit is on a two-game slide, however, and needs to end Tebow’s feel-good story in order to restore its own.
Lions by 4
Redskins (3-3) at Bills (4-2)
Buckle up, Toronto. Washington and Buffalo are ready to invade the Rogers Centre for the fourth regular-season game of a five-year deal. The Bills are 0–3 north of the border, however, with close losses to the Dolphins (16–3) in 2008, Jets (19–13) in ’09 and Bears (22–19) in ’10.
Bills by 5
Browns (3-3) at 49ers (5-1)
Braylon Edwards returns from injury just in time to face his former Cleveland club. Postgame? This pregame could get ugly.
49ers by 8
Bengals (4-2) at Seahawks (2-4)
Seattle must regroup vs. Cincy after last week’s 6–3 loss, which featured too many mistakes by the lake in Cleveland.
Bengals by 1
Chargers (4-2) at Chiefs (3-3)
Last season’s Monday double-header nightcap was a barn burner, with Kansas City stealing a 21–14 upset. But San Diego got its revenge, 31–0, in the Week 14 rematch.
Chargers by 5
by Vito Pugliese
There’s a reason why Talladega continues to endure and endear itself to NASCAR Nation. Vito Pugliese provides a first-hand account of this past weekend’s racing from the 2.66-mile behemoth.
While some experiments and initiatives in NASCAR have not performed as expected, there are some constants that continue to produce. One of them has been producing for over 40 years: Talladega.
As I have written here and elsewhere quite often, everyone loves nostalgia — going retro is all the rage. From the newest versions of the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang, to the endless ’70s and ’80s remakes that are cranked out of Hollywood like P-51s during WWII, the past is always in style, and for those who fancy old-school NASCAR, it’s hard to beat Talladega — and last weekend’s Good Sam Club 500 was no exception.
Well, at least for the last 25 laps. Even Tony Stewart suggested cutting it down to 40 if most drivers were just going to cruise for the majority of the afternoon. But I digress.
One of the facets of NASCAR that permeated from the 1950s to the 1970s, was that of manufacturer loyalty among fans and racers alike. That aspect became relevant once again on Sunday, as team (and manufacturer) orders were apparently delivered — both internally and externally.
Ford’s Trevor Bayne was in position to help his childhood hero and racing idol, Chevy’s Jeff Gordon, to the finish in the final laps. Gordon’s teammate and BFF drafter, Mark Martin, got mangled with eight laps to go when Gordon, Martin, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano stacked up coming off Turn 2. Bayne committed to Gordon over the radio under caution, but then the partnership dissolved halfway down the backstretch, with Bayne betraying his bumpership, and falling in line with the Ford of quasi-teammate Matt Kenseth.
In this era of two-car tandems that have dictated that a driver work with whomever and whatever goes fastest, it is refreshing to see the element of manufacturer loyalty return. That’s not to say that I was happy to see Gordon get smoked on the white flag lap on what more or less was a lie on Bayne’s part (told to Gordon, who went out of his way to help the youngster during Speedweeks in Daytona). But when I first started following NASCAR intently, a Chevrolet driver working with a Ford driver was something just short of heresy.
Back in the heyday of manufacturer involvement, it was the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega that inspired competition between brands — so much so that Dodge and Ford developed wildly-successful models named after each respective track. In 1969, Dodge released two models specifically to better compete on the fast tracks: the flush-grilled fastback Charger 500, and later the Charger Daytona and Ford’s Torino Talladega.
During the 1990s, the same philosophy was echoed throughout the field. You wouldn’t see Dale Earnhardt drafting with Geoff Bodine in a Ford (OK, bad example), or Bill Elliott’s Ford partnering with Rusty Wallace’s Pontiac. As much cross-pollination as you could expect would be an Oldsmobile or Pontiac working with a Chevy Lumina. The Ford teams were islands unto themselves for the most part — which wasn’t a bad thing a couple of years later when it seemed everyone ran a Ford Thunderbird.
There were also orders of another kind at Talladega, namely Chad Knaus instructing Jimmie Johnson to ding up the rear of his car if he won to avoid any post-race template troubles. Considering the suspensions that were levied to the Michael Waltrip Racing teams for unapproved windshields last weekend, it’s probably for the best that ol’ Five-Time got drilled in the door by Andy Lally late in the going. A bit coincidental, considering the winner was Clint Bowyer, whose title hopes were dashed a year ago after having 150 points docked following a win at New Hampshire for what was alleged to be damage suffered by getting a push from a wrecker that caused his car to be out of tolerance.
One couldn’t help but be reminded of the 1985 Winston, when Darrell Waltrip just happened to blow the engine (some would claim the over-sized engine) in his Junior Johnson-prepared Monte Carlo SS immediately after taking the checkered flag.
The racing itself on Sunday was a bit 1980s-ish, as well. Speeds hovering consistently around 200 mph meant that the track, which was the first to honor the stock-car mark, was once again being used for what it was designed. We saw packs break away and catch up, as well as single-file racing, not unlike the days when cars had to lift through the corner as drivers sawed on the wheel — not so much driving as they were keeping their cars from lifting off and trying to feel where the front tires were pointed. Racing at speeds which most aircraft go wheels-up, that big blade on the back has to be a bit comforting, particularly when getting shot head-on into a wall at these speeds.
Reagan Smith’s impact in his black Chevrolet was both sobering and eerily reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash at Daytona in 2001. It was a testament to how far the sport has come safety-wise, as SAFER Barriers, HANS devices and any other acronym that has prevented the unthinkable from happening the last decade is one area where waxing poetic about open-faced helmets, smock dipped in some sort of concoction which was allegedly fire retardant (though most likely just Epsom salt) falls flat on its exposed face. It is nothing but dumb luck or divine intervention that prevented more drivers from dying during the 210-plus mph era of the late ’70s and mid- ’80s.
What is unique about Talladega is that it was conceived during an era when all of the tracks were different; each with its own idiosyncrasies. It’s kind of like NASCAR itself. What other track was said to have been built on a Native American burial ground, is allegedly cursed, had a driver boycott before its first race and, even though cars nearly ended up in the stands twice in virtually the same spot, routinely witnesses fans buying tickets to sit up front, right where said cars tore into fencing?
More than that, the track is as big a part of the racing story as the title bout it was hosting.
The wildcard of the Chase pulled a fast one on the front-runners and their title hopes. Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick all took huge hits, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all but had their Wonka tickets punched. In the end, it wasn’t about fuel mileage or a 30-car junkyard — it came down to two teammates with no championship implications whatsoever. And no one seemed to care one way or another that no Chasers were contending for the win.
We’ve since grown accustomed to seeing wide swathes of open seating, some tracks going so far as to widen the seats to help fill up the empty spaces where fans used to shoehorn in, or going so far as to remove entire sections of grandstands. Not so in Eastaboga, Alabama.
This go ’round I took to the seats rather than the media center. Sure, I had my Garage Pass in hand but decided to watch the race with the fans. And by “the fans,” I mean fans that still have a rabid appreciation for the sport, as every single seat that was available in the Birmingham Tower was filled.
What economic downturn? Those Occupy Wall Street miscreants couldn’t hold down much more than a wet fart if their lives depended on it in comparison. They’ve got nothing on my people (particularly in the hygiene department).
There were more bodies seated, on time and ready to go than there are at my church on most Sundays. Couple that with a flyover by a pair of F-22 Raptors (including a super slo-mo pass over the backstretch that looked like it was going about 100 mph courtesy of thrust vectoring) and a Kenworth pulling a massive American flag. There was a bit of relief amongst the chaos that is Talladega that at least here, things still make sense.
It’s not often you see and feel what racing was like 15 or 20 years ago — literally. A fat, sweaty stranger mere inches from you is gross, but once the race starts and everybody is standing, there actually is a bit more room. And if you knock back a few pops, your own breath and BAC trumps anyone else’s BO. Sure, those seats might be metal and some are a bit rusty, but every one of them was filled, and it was elbow-to-elbow. And no one seemed to mind. (A side note: Talladega is in the process of redoing the seating, expanding each seat to 22” so feel free to go nuts this holiday season and embrace your inner Adam Richman.)
There is a reason why even in the midst of yet another recession, where people are careful where and how they spend what little discretionary income they have right before Thanksgiving and Christmas, that many still make time for Talladega. With all of the talk of fuel-mileage races dictating a championship and conspiring to ruin racing, Sunday was an old-fashioned superspeedway race, where two of the fastest cars ran up front all day, pulled away from the pack at the end and settled it amongst themselves.
It’s not that hard to see why people keep showing up to Talladega in droves as they always have and why its two dates continue to be the most popular of the year:
Because it just plain works.
The same concern from fans and media arises each college football season around late October, and that is the potential for an unbeaten team to be left out of the BCS Championship Game. In most seasons, everything works out fine and all of the debate and consternation is for nothing. There have been exceptions, however, like Auburn in 2004. And past non-BCS teams with perfect records such as Boise State, TCU and Utah have argued that they deserve a shot at the title. There are currently eight unbeatens — LSU, Alabama, Stanford, Oklahoma State, Boise State, Clemson, Kansas State and Houston — and this season looks like it could have four or five teams finish with unblemished resumes. If that happens, the college football world will be saturated with heated debates from coast to coast.
How many teams will be undefeated heading into bowl season?
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Three. I believe that Alabama, Oklahoma State and Boise State will head into bowl season without a loss. Stanford is obviously one of the elite teams in the nation, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Cardinal lost at home to Oregon on Nov. 12. Clemson still has some tough tests in the regular season — at Georgia Tech and at South Carolina stand out — but I believe the Tigers will make it through unscathed. A rematch against Virginia Tech in the ACC title game could be problematic, however. The Hokies have improved on the offensive end, most notably at quarterback, since these two teams met in Blacksburg on Oct. 1. Oklahoma State is dominant on offense and good enough on defense to make it through the rest of its schedule — including a home date with Oklahoma — without a loss. Boise State? Not an issue. And finally, Alabama, assuming it beats LSU, will not lose.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I think the number is four, but Kansas State is the only one of the eight unbeatens that I give no shot at a perfect record. My quartet is the Alabama-LSU winner, Stanford, Boise State and Houston. I thought the Cardinal would be more of a 9-10 win team with the departure of Jim Harbaugh, but David Shaw deserves credit for having his team running on all cylinders. Of course, it helps when you have college football’s best player in Andrew Luck. Boise State should cruise the Mountain West, with only TCU potentially posing a problem. Houston will be challenged in late November, but Case Keenum and crew should win them all. Oklahoma State has awesome firepower on offense, but there are too many possible pitfalls down the stretch. The same applies for Clemson, especially if a rematch with Virginia Tech occurs in the ACC title game. Whatever happens, we should let it all play out instead of getting needlessly worked up over early BCS standings. These next few weeks in college football should be as exciting as anything you see in sports.
Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)
I will say four teams finish the regular season undefeated. Boise State won't even come close to being tested and faces no championship game. Houston has SMU, Tulsa and a potential championship game over the final three weeks, but the way the offense is humming (No. 1 in scoring, passing and total offense nationally), the Cougars feel like an unblemished team. Alabama will take down LSU in two weekends and roll into the BCS title game unbeaten. Clemson will not be able to beat Virginia Tech — and a much improved Logan Thomas — for a second time this season in the ACC title game. Oklahoma State will topple Kansas State play before getting beat by the Sooners — who have a litany of reasons to be ecstatic about eliminating the Pokes from the national title picture. That leaves the Stanford Cardinal, who will beat Oregon at home on November 12, as the fourth undefeated team. Andrew Luck vs. Alabama's defense in the BCS title game sounds juicy to me.
There will be four undefeated teams prior to bowl games — two in the BCS national title game (the winner of Alabama-LSU and Oklahoma State) and two non-BCS squads (Boise State and Houston). Of those unbeatens still standing, either Alabama or LSU will obviously fall when the nation's top two teams go toe-to-toe in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 5. Clemson will lose either at South Carolina or in the ACC title game; Stanford will stumble either in an upset this week at USC or against Oregon; and Kansas State is poised for a potential four-game losing streak against Oklahoma, O-State, Texas A&M and Texas. I'm assuming the Alabama-LSU winner takes down the beast of the East in the SEC title game, that O-State wins a shootout at home against Oklahoma in a classic Bedlam battle and that both Boise State and Houston keep running laps around inferior competition. Then again, last week I was certain Wisconsin would roll to the BCS title game.
by Mike Neff
On Wednesday, SBNation.com’s Jeff Gluck reported that prior to the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega on Sunday, crew chief Chad Knaus was overheard on NASCAR.com’s RaceBuddy telling Jimmie Johnson that, should he win the race, he needed to inflict some damage on the car’s rear end during his victory celebration. While there wasn’t a post-race celebration for Johnson, this conversation has certainly stirred the pot that always seems to swirl around Knaus and his history of pushing the envelope of NASCAR’s rule book. Johnson’s car passed three different inspections last weekend, so it was certainly within the parameters set by the sanctioning body — but hearing dialogue between crew chief and driver is going to cause people to, once again, point the “cheater finger” at Knaus.
There is definitely a history of Knaus pushing the limits in NASCAR’s infamous gray area (and some of the black and white areas, as well), so it is certainly justified for people to question what might have been going on with the 48 car’s rear end. Remember that Knaus was told to leave the track days before Johnson won the 2006 Daytona 500 thanks to a design on the car that allowed the rear window to be changed when it appeared a wedge adjustment was being made to the car. While it might have appeared to fall within the gray area of the rule book, NASCAR felt it was altering a piece of the car that was not supposed to be touched, thus an expulsion and suspension.
Knaus found himself in hot water at Infineon Raceway shortly after the Car of Tomorrow was introduced in 2007 when his team massaged the fenders of the car between the points where NASCAR’s inspection “claw” touched the body. While the car passed the requirements of touching the template at all of the required points, it was different from other cars in the areas between the points, and therefore, was deemed to provide an unfair advantage. It must be noted that there is room for debate as to whether this instance was actually cheating or simply working within the gray area, but Knaus was fined $100,000 and suspended for six races, an example of NASCAR sending a message to the garage area to be mindful of it’s hard-line CoT specs.
There was also “Shockgate” at Dover in 2005, when the shock absorbers on Johnson’s car actually raised up after use rather than sank, as shocks normally do. The shocks were perfectly legal within the rules as far as parts and compression rates, but the way they were assembled and how that ultimately made them function was not in the spirit of the rules. NASCAR quickly issued a rule change to prevent that from ever happening again, but it was a classic gray-area play by Knaus.
These are but a few examples of Knaus’s ingenuity — he’s had at least seven violations with at least four being technical in nature that have resulted in no less than $190,000 in fines. Interestingly enough, he has not been fined since 2007.
No one but Knaus and his team know if there were any shenanigans going on with the No. 48 last weekend. Knaus explained that his pre-race “request” to Johnson was based on the fact that there is a tremendous amount of bumping that takes place during tandem racing at plate tracks. With the tight tolerances that NASCAR imposes on restrictor plate tracks, it would be very easy for a car to get knocked outside of those measurements simply through the aggressive bump drafting that occurs at 200 mph.
While that certainly seems like a plausible enough explanation, it would seem as though NASCAR’s technical inspectors would take that kind of contact into account and allow for some leeway. Then again, Richard Childress Racing claimed that Clint Bowyer’s car was knocked out of alignment by a tow truck at New Hampshire last season but NASCAR didn’t buy that explanation — so better safe than sorry, right?
Of course, it’s also very possible that Knaus was just trying to cover his bases, reasoning that it would be better, should his car win the race, to make an on-track modification that would prevent any post-race scrutiny rather than have to deal with the inspection nuances over the position of the rear bumper.
It is sad that the current “spec” environment in NASCAR has come to the point that teams will consider damaging their racecars rather than have them probed, measured and dissected so closely after winning a race. Fortunately, that does mean that the playing field is as level as it can possibly be — and that ensures that the racing is as fair as NASCAR can make it.
In the end, even if the No. 48 was legal from tip to tail, it might have been in Knaus’s best interest to keep his mouth shut and let the chips fall where they may. Because as another rule-breaker once said, “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”
Terrell Owens, the enigmatic free agent wide receiver apparently attempted suicide earlier this month.
Owens was in the news when he was rushed to a hospital in early October after overdosing on prescription pills. According to new reports released by TMZ.com., the 911 dispatcher who took the call was speaking to Owens' personal asisstant. When the dispatcher asked if this was a suicide attempt, the personal assistant responded, "Yes, I believe so."
And if you recall, Owens was rushed to the hospital five years ago with a similar pill overdose. You may remember it because during the press conference after TO's incident, there were similar questions about whether it was a suicide attempt back then. And his manager responded with the gaudy and sort of disgusting "Terrell has 25 million reasons not to be alive." Clearly that response is a diversion, trying to distract the media away from the real issues that Owens was dealing with.
So now we have two questionable incidents of Terrell Owens at best just mismanaging his prescription pill use, and at worst (or saddest) attempting suicide. How long before someone should take the reigns of this situation and get h im the help it seems clear he really needs.
During his recent much-publicized workouts, his agent Drew Rosenhaus was all over the media talking about how much he's trying to get the best deal for Terrell. It seems like if he really cared about Owens, he would do something about this pill/suicide trend that's happening in his life.
Owens clearly has issues with himself and others. And it's scary to think of what will happen to him when he doesn't have football to drive him anymore. Recent reports about Walter Payton's struggle with post-football depression and suicide talk are very reminiscent of Owens' issues.
The difference is that Payton was able to hide his demons from the media, but Owens, on the other hand can't seem to, which means he could be an even bigger danger to actually committing suicide. Suicide seems to be a much larger issue in the post-athlete world than we know about. If the indescrutctible Walter Payton had these demons, then imagine what some of the lesser known players have to deal with?
Instead of worrying about signing Owens to a new NFL team, someone should step in and take care of his bigger issues before something really bad happens to him.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim will bring one of his most experienced teams into his 36th campaign. The Orange will feature four returning starters along with several reserves who played key roles off the bench last season. In addition, Boeheim has added three standout freshmen, including two McDonald’s All-Americans, into his rotation. It all makes for a tantalizing 2011-12 season — except for one problematic issue: How will Syracuse make up for the loss of starting power forward Rick Jackson?
Other than Connecticut’s Kemba Walker, Jackson meant more to his team’s success last season than any player in the Big East. The powerful 6'9" forward led the Big East in rebounding, blocked shots and field goal percentage. His 35.6 minutes played not only led the Orange, but were an astonishing figure for a 245-pound muscle-man who loved the physical play in the low post. “Ricky meant a lot to us last year, no question,’’ Boeheim says. “We don’t have anyone on this team that’s exactly like him, but we do have options.’’
While Boeheim figures out who replaces Jackson at power forward, he’ll have the luxury of penciling in veterans at every other position. The backcourt of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche returns intact. Senior forward Kris Joseph should vie for All-America honors. At center, Boeheim will employ the sophomore tandem of Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita, both of whom showed flashes of promise as freshmen.
Key Orange Stat: 6.8
Syracuse averaged a league-high 6.8 blocks in Big East games last season. The Orange, however, must replace Rick Jackson and his league-leading 2.8 blocks per game.
Joseph led the Orange in scoring last year and improved his 3-point shooting from 22.0 percent as a sophomore to 36.6 percent last year. An offseason procedure on his knee should also return some explosiveness to his game. “I think Kris will have a very good senior season,’’ Boeheim says. “He gained a lot of experience as a first-time starter last year.’’
While Joseph fills the role of the prototypical Syracuse forward who knocks down the jumper and slashes to the hoop, he’s not at all like Jackson. Melo and Keita should take huge steps forward, but neither is expected to score as much as Jackson did.
C.J. Fair, who averaged 6.4 points on 54.3 percent shooting, could be an intriguing frontcourt partner for Joseph. Fair is a slender 6'8", 203 pounds, but he has a nose for the ball. James Southerland, a 6'8" junior who possesses extreme range on his 3-point shot, is another option.
Rakeem Christmas, a 6'9" freshman, will factor into the equation at either power forward or center. Christmas lacks polish on offense, but he’s a shot-blocker extraordinaire.
Even though both had extensive experience, Jardine and Triche spent last season adjusting to new roles. Triche moved from the point to the off-guard spot, while Jardine went from sixth man to starting at the point.
Jardine led the Big East in assists. He showed the willingness to share the ball and take big shots. However, he was prone to lapses in judgment, and his shooting percentage dipped to 41.5 percent. Much will be expected of Jardine in his second year on the job.
Triche, meanwhile, struggled in his switch from facilitator to scorer. He played passively at times — not what coaches want from their best pure shooter. After a poor start, Triche finished the year averaging 11.1 points and shooting 33.3 percent from 3-point range. Expect both those numbers to improve.
What really sets Syracuse’s backcourt apart is its depth. Dion Waiters is a dynamic offensive player. His upper-body strength gives him the ability to take the ball into traffic and score. Michael Carter-Williams, a McDonald’s All-American, will eventually give Boeheim the big guard he craves for the top of his 2-3 zone defense. Trevor Cooney, another freshman, probably won’t play much this year, but he could be the next Andy Rautins in terms of outside shooting.
While replacing Jackson will be a challenge, there’s just too much talent here to ignore. Boeheim will once again field the kind of team that attracts 30,000-plus crowds to the Carrier Dome — one that wins and plays exciting ball. The potential starting lineup of Jardine, Triche, Joseph, Fair and Melo will stretch opposing defenses. Boeheim will supplement that starting five with the likes of Waiters, Southerland and Keita, as well as the freshmen, Carter-Williams and Christmas. Syracuse will fight for the Big East title and should factor into the national championship conversation.
Big East Predicition: 2nd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Elite Eight
Everything was in place for the most memorable Ohio State basketball season in half a century until the Sweet 16 left a very bitter taste in the mouths of the Buckeyes and their title-hungry fans. OSU darted out to a 24–0 start, receiving immediate and plentiful contributions from freshmen Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft, and benefitting from William Buford’s most productive season and record-setting shooting displays by Jon Diebler. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, and headed into the NCAA Tournament as the nation’s clear-cut best team. The dream season continued with an eye-popping 7-for-7 effort from deep by beloved senior David Lighty in the round of 32. However, it all came crashing down with a last-second loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, a setback that figures to drive the returnees.
In fact, Sullinger passed up top-five draft status to return — “I’ve got a lot more winning to do,” he says — and Buford also put off his pro career after a dreadful shooting night against UK.
Still, the Buckeyes are going to need a major boost from their incoming class to contend once again with Lighty, Diebler and center Dallas Lauderdale having graduated.
Buckeyes Key Stat: 4
In four out of the last six seasons, Ohio State has been either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The possibilities are boundless for Sullinger, an obvious candidate for National Player of the Year honors. Blessed with a powerful lower body, soft hands, natural footwork, court smarts and a résumé filled with victories, he is likely the best low-post option in the country and the main reason why the Buckeyes are capable of going very far once again.
Sullinger is best suited for the 4-spot, and the coaching staff wants to see if freshman Amir Williams can fill the void at center where Lauderdale once stood. “With Amir’s size and defensive presence, I think that he could be a very big factor in what we’re doing defensively,” coach Thad Matta says.
Williams, though, endured an up-and-down prep career. If he’s too raw or inconsistent, look for the staff to lean on Boston College transfer Evan Ravenel, a sturdier albeit less dynamic performer.
Also, the coaches will pair up Sullinger in the frontcourt with Deshaun Thomas for stretches of games. A slick, offensive-minded lefty, Thomas is in line for major playing time if he can hold up to the grind. “His big thing is learning to push through when he gets tired,” Matta says. “Deshaun is a huge key for next year’s team because we know he can put the ball in the basket.”
Youngsters J.D. Weatherspoon and Trey McDonald don’t figure to make the rotation but possess some specialty skills.
The Buckeyes advanced to the 2007 national title game with a pair of natural point guards — Mike Conley Jr. and Jamar Butler — playing the majority of the minutes in the backcourt.
This season, newcomer Shannon Scott, son of former NBA point man Charlie Scott, could bring the same dynamic when paired with Craft. Scott’s skill set and readiness to help with the ball-handling duties could allow Craft to put even more energy into his airtight defensive skills — and put more passes right on the money for Buford, one of the top shooters in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes also can utilize combo guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. and have a pair of big wings in sophomore Jordan Silbert (6'4") and freshman Sam Thompson (6'7"). Silbert could be ready to flourish after a year in the fray. “We want him to be able to knock down open shots but also play with a little bit of a reckless abandon on defense,” Matta says.
This is now a top-10 program, and Matta has reloaded once again. He’s also bolstered the schedule, as trips to Kansas and South Carolina have been added to a visit by Florida and a date with Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
We’ll know by January if the Buckeyes are again capable of seizing another Big Ten crown and lofty NCAA seed. And even if there is trepidation to that point, Matta is as good as it gets at getting teams to peak in February and thrive in March.
Replacing a versatile swingman and defender like Lighty is nearly impossible. And the departure of the Big Ten’s all-time 3-point shooter — Diebler — also leaves a mark. However, OSU has laid the groundwork for success.
Matta may have as many healthy pieces as he’s ever had, and he knows how to teach unselfish play. In other words, don’t count this team out — of anything.
Big Ten Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Final Four
by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush
Race: Tums Fast Relief 500
Track: Martinsville Speedway
Location: Martinsville, Va.
When: Sunday, Oct. 30
TV: ESPN (1:30 p.m. EST)
Specs: .526-mile oval; Banking/Turns: 12 degrees
April Winner: Kevin Harvick
2010 Winner: Denny Hamlin won both races.
2011 Race Length: 500 miles/263 laps
Track Qualifying Record: 98.084 mph (Tony Stewart, 2005)
Race Record: 82.223 mph (Jeff Gordon, 1996)
From the Spotter's Stand
Kevin Harvick rained on Junior Nation's parade at Martinsville in April, when he slid by Dale Earnhardt Jr. wqith four laps remaining to earn his first Martinsville Grandfather clock.
Kyle Busch led a race-high 151 laps before Earnhardt brought back images of his legendary father, executing a textbook “bump 'n' run” to get by his arch-rival. However, 17 laps later Harvick made the race-winning pass — his first of two over Earnhardt this year for the win with less than five to go.
Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have combined to win 14 of the last 17 races at the shortest track on the Cup circuit — with only Kevin Harvick (2011), Tony Stewart (April 2006) and Rusty Wallace (April 2004) breaking the trio’s impressive streak.
Last year, Hamlin was the Mayor of Martinsville, leading 172 laps in March, but needing a late charge on a green-white-checkered restart to beat runner-up Joey Logano and seven-time winner Gordon (92 laps led).
Hamlin won his third straight and fourth in six runs at Martinsville during the return trip in October, edging out runner-up and two-time winner Mark Martin and taking the first of his two checkers in the Chase.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Brakes, brakes, brakes. Being able to get good forward bite off the corner allows for passing and plenty of speed in the straightaways, then braking hard twice a lap at the entrance to Turns 1 and 3 takes its toll. It’s not nearly as fast as Bristol, but we have as much contact at Martinsville as we do at Bristol. There aren’t as many incidents because the pace is slower. The faster you run, the more you’re on the edge of grip. When you lose grip, you make more contact. It’s inevitable, but a driver has to keep cool. The ones who don’t like to be touched don’t do well here.”
Looking at Checkers: Prior to a 12th in April, Denny Hamlin had averaged a 2.4-place finish in his last nine Martinsville starts.
Pretty Solid Pick: Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are the other two you have to keep an eye on.
Good Sleeper Pick: This is one of Junior’s favorites, made evident by his 12 top 10s in 23 starts.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Quite a few, led by Greg Biffle and David Reutimann.
Insider Tip: It’s best to stay with the Big Three of Hamlin, Johnson and Gordon.
Classic Moments at Martinsville Speedway
The media in attendance for the 1960 Virginia 500 are treated to a luxury unheard of in the formative years of stock car racing: An air-conditioned press box — a NASCAR first.
It’s another NASCAR first as well, as Richard Petty wins his first of a series-best 15 races at Martinsville Speedway.
Petty leads laps 316 through 333, but relinquishes the lead to Bobby Johns, who takes over for the next 48 laps until he suffers a rear-end failure.
Jimmy Massey assumes the lead but is overtaken by Petty one lap later. The King leads the final 116 circuits to capture his second career Grand National win. Petty wins three races in the 1960 campaign and finishes second in the standings. It is another four years until he breaks through for his first title.
Back in the day, carving a jack-o-lantern was pretty easy. You cut three triangles, a crooked smile with bad teeth, lit a candle and voila, it was Halloween. Now, it seems that you need a Ph.D in stencil to make your pumpkin stand out in your neighborhood.
Here's a collection of the weirdest and least likely sports-related pumpkins we thought we'd ever see.
1. Placido Polanco Pumpkin
2. Ahman Green Pumpkin
3. Manny Acta Pumpkin
4. Rasheed Wallace Pumpkin
5. Jack Nicklaus Pumpkin
6. Knowshon Moreno Jumpin' Pumpkin
7. Mike Lowell MVP Pumpkin
8. Ozzie Guillen Pumpkin
9. Mike Holmgren Pumpkin
10. The Oklahoma City Thunder Pumpkin
11. Stan Musial Pumpkin
12. Yadier Molina Pumpkin (Apparently people in St. Louis like carving pumpkins)
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Ohio State is expected to be one of the top coaching jobs open at the end of the season. Interim coach Luke Fickell has guided the Buckeyes to a 4-3 record, but this program expects to be contending for Big Ten titles. Ohio State has a young roster, along with the black cloud of a NCAA investigation and potential sanctions. Fickell's chances of keeping the full-time job in 2012 likely depend on winning the final five games this season.
If the job comes open as expected, Ohio State will generate a ton of interest from candidates, even with potential sanctions from the NCAA.
Tim Beckman, head coach, Toledo – Beckman is a candidate that is probably off the national radar, but he is quietly building a solid resume at Toledo. Beckman is 18-15 and in two-plus years with the Rockets, has Toledo positioned as the likely favorite to win the MAC title. Also, the Rockets nearly upset Ohio State in Week 2, losing 27-22 after a late stop by the Buckeyes’ defense. Beckman has experience at Ohio State, coaching cornerbacks under Jim Tressel from 2005-06. If for any reason Ohio State can’t lure one of the top coaches to Columbus, Beckman is a rising name in the profession and would accept the job in a heartbeat.
Urban Meyer, ESPN analyst – Meyer stepped away from Florida for health reasons, and has been working as an analyst with Chris Spielman and Dave Pasch for ESPN’s college football coverage. He's had a year off to recharge the batteries and is an Ohio native. If Meyer is serious about getting back into coaching, Ohio State has to be near the top of his destination jobs. And the Buckeyes are likely very interested.
Dan Mullen, head coach, Mississippi State – Mullen could be a hot name on the coaching circuit, as Arizona could be interested in him as a replacement for Mike Stoops. Mullen is just 17-15 (and 0-4 in the SEC this season) in his third year at Mississippi State, but the program has been more competitive under his direction. Although Mullen seems to be happy at Mississippi State, the SEC West has been one of the most difficult divisions in college football. With Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Auburn all likely preseason top 25 teams in 2012, it’s going to be very difficult for the Bulldogs to move up in the division pecking order.
Bo Pelini, head coach, Nebraska – Pelini has a great job at Nebraska, but would he listen to his alma mater? Pelini played at Ohio State from 1987-90 and has recorded a 36-13 record in his fourth year at Nebraska. There’s no doubt about Pelini’s ability to coach a defense (although his 2011 unit is struggling), but his offenses at Nebraska have been inconsistent. Pelini has been a solid recruiter at Nebraska, and could bring in elite classes with a better talent base in Ohio. Pelini and Urban Meyer figure to be near the top of Ohio State’s coaching board when the job officially opens.
Lovie Smith, head coach, Chicago Bears – Is Smith a legitimate candidate? How the Bears finish out 2011 will likely depend on his availability or job status for 2012. Under his direction, Chicago has made the playoffs three times, including a Super Bowl appearance. He coached at Ohio State in 1995, which was his last experience at the college level. Smith would be a good candidate for the job, but how quickly would he adjust to the college game after being in the NFL for the last 15 years?
Brent Venables, defensive coordinator, Oklahoma – Venables is one of the top assistants in college football, and it’s only a matter of time before he gets a shot at being a head coach. He has coached under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma since 1999, serving as the defensive coordinator since 2004. Pulling Stoops away from Oklahoma isn’t likely, so why not get his best assistant? Venables is a Kansas State alum – could he be more interested in waiting for that job?
Mark Dantonio, head coach, Michigan State – Dantonio worked as an assistant under Jim Tressel at Ohio State from 2001-03, and has been a solid head coach during his tenure at Michigan State (39-20). However, Dantonio recently got a raise at Michigan State, and Ohio State may wish to separate itself from the Tressel era.
Ron English, head coach, Eastern Michigan – English has resurrected Eastern Michigan into a MAC West title contender this year. Through eight games, the Eagles are a respectable 5-3. While five wins may not seem like much, the last time Eastern Michigan had more than four wins was in 1995. English may not be on Ohio State’s radar, but he’s due for a shot at a BCS school.
Luke Fickell, head coach, Ohio State – There’s still a possibility Fickell returns in 2012, but it seems the odds are stacked against him. The Buckeyes are 4-3 entering Week 9, with losses to Miami, Michigan State and Nebraska. Although Ohio State has suffered some tough defeats and has a young team, there’s a lot of doubt about Fickell’s ability to keep this program among the best in the Big Ten.
Pat Fitzgerald, head coach, Northwestern – Although Fitzgerald is a Northwestern alum and has a contract through 2020, he could get restless if facility improvements continue to drag out. Fitzgerald was targeted by Michigan in its search last season, but was not interested in the position. Fitzgerald would be a great fit at Ohio State, but it would be difficult for him to leave behind his alma mater.
Jon Gruden, ESPN analyst – Gruden has been out of coaching since 2008, but his name continues to pop up for open gigs. He recently inked an extension to stay on as an analyst with Monday Night Football, but can’t be ruled out from returning to coaching. Gruden seems more likely to return to the NFL, as he hasn’t coached in college since 1991.
Skip Holtz, head coach, South Florida – With the uncertainty of the Big East and South Florida’s future conference, would Holtz consider leaving? After a 4-0 start, the Bulls have lost their last three games, so some of the appeal of Holtz has cooled.
Gary Patterson, head coach, TCU – With the Horned Frogs moving to the Big 12, Patterson isn’t going anywhere.
Paul Petrino, offensive coordinator, Illinois – Petrino is a darkhorse candidate. In his two years at Illinois, Petrino has made a positive impact on the offense. The Fighting Illini finished fourth in the Big Ten in scoring and total offense last year. Illinois ranks 23rd nationally in rushing offense through eight games and fourth in the Big Ten in total offense.
Chris Petersen, head coach, Boise State – Petersen’s name always pops up for any BCS job that comes open, but it would be a major surprise if he left Boise State.
Gary Pinkel, head coach, Missouri – Pinkel has done a nice job of elevating Missouri football during his tenure, but how much higher can this program go, particularly if it joins the SEC? Pinkel does not have any experience in the Big Ten, but is from Ohio and has a solid 150-86-3 record as a head coach, including a solid stint at Toledo. A longshot, but would be a safe hire by Ohio State.
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma, head coach, Oklahoma – Stoops has a great job at Oklahoma and seems more likely to consider leaving for the NFL than another college. Although he was born in Youngstown, expect Stoops to have little interest in leaving Oklahoma this offseason.
Mark Stoops, Florida State – Stoops’ profile has been on the rise over the last two years, as he has helped to improve Florida State’s defense under Jimbo Fisher. Stoops played at Iowa, so he has familiarity with the Big Ten. Although Stoops has done a nice job in Tallahassee, he may need another year or two before he gets a look as a head coach.
Charlie Strong, head coach, Louisville – Barring a major change of heart, Strong can be crossed off the rumor mill for any head coaching spot that comes open. He recently received a contract extension, designed to keep him at Louisville until 2018. No one knows what conference Louisville will be in two years from now, but it would be a surprise if Strong isn’t the coach.
As the game of college football has evolved over the past 15 years, it has clearly become an “adapt or become extinct” type of game. Steve Spurrier’s “fun and gun” of the 1990’s at Florida has become “not so fun to watch” in his stint at South Carolina. Ralph Friedgen’s innovative and balanced offensive attack of the late 90’s and early 2000’s eventually became outdated and not so innovative and was passed up by the new “spread option” attacks of Gus Malzahn and Chip Kelly.
In the fast moving world of technology and information that we live in, it is more important than ever for a college football coach to try and stay one step ahead of the opponent, constantly striving to come up with different and innovative ways to win games.
This brings us to this week’s topic: Special Teams
Special Teams are indeed called “special” for a reason. Being able to flip field position on an opponent as well as the psychological momentum a team can gain from a big Special Teams play cannot be understated. Here are a few quotes from a couple coaches who put great emphasis on special teams (it’s not coincidence that these are three of the best coaches over the last few decades in college football):
A lot of teams take special teams for granted. Here, it's a privilege to play on the kickoff team or the punt return team. That's why you eat first on Friday night (before games). It's a big deal. He rewards guys who do good on special teams. It's not just overlooked like it is at some places. That's why they play so hard.
I was proud of our special teams. I think when you’re playing a good football team.....you better be good in your special teams.
I've seen too many games won or lost with special teams. On offense you run a play for zero yards, and you get up and do it again. On defense you can give up five yards, and you get up and do it again. But with special teams play, you get one shot. You don’t get second chances. You have one chance to do it, or one chance to defend it. It can change the complexity of the game so readily.
As you know, here at CBTN we are big fans of Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and the offensive system that he has implemented at Georgia Southern, Hawaii, Navy, and now Georgia Tech. However, as much as we admire the job Coach Johnson has done as a head coach and offensive mastermind, we have to bring to light Coach Johnson's attention or lack thereof to Special Teams. Below is a breakdown of how Georgia Tech has ranked nationally in the five major special teams categories in Paul Johnson’s tenure as the HC at Georgia Tech (national rankings are out of 120 teams):
|Year||Net Punting||Punt Returns||Punt Return Def||Kickoff Returns||Kickoff Return Defense|
Not surprisingly, Georgia Tech’s best season on special teams was the 2009 season in which GT won 11 games and the ACC Championship and earned a birth to the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1966. Overall, Johnson's Special Teams have finished in the top half of FBS teams on average in only two of five categories, kickoff return defense and punt return defense. The kickoff return defense numbers can be a little misleading seeing as Georgia Tech’s kickers routinely kick the ball short, so even a short return gives the opponent quality field position.
Additionally, of the 20 rankings spots listed above, Georgia Tech's Special Team have been ranked in the bottom third of the nation in 11 of 20 spots (55%). Now let’s take a look at the CBTN top ten rated active coaches since 2007 (minimum of five years experience) and see how they have fared on Special Teams:
|Coach||Avg. Net Punting Rank||Avg. Punt Return Rank||Avg. Punt Return Def. Rank||Avg. Kickoff Returns Rank||Avg. Kickoff Return Def. Rank|
So, of the top ten rated coaches over the last five years, here is the breakdown of the number of categories their Special Teams units have ranked on average in the top half of FBS teams:
Saban: 4 out of 5
Stoops: 4 out of 5
Petersen: 4 out of 5
Miles: 4 out of 5
Beamer: 4 out of 5
Patterson: 4 out of 5
Brown: 3 out of 5
Kelly: 3 out of 5
Paterno: 3 out of 5
Whittingham: 4 out of 5
Are we picking up on a theme here? Of the top ten CBTN rated head coaches from 2007-Present, eight are rated in the top half of four of the five major Special Teams categories listed above. Additionally, all ten are rated in the top half of at least three of the five major Special Teams categories.
So, are Special Teams important? According to the top coaches, yes they are. A quick review of Georgia Tech's 2010 season, in which they finished the year 6-7, sheds more light on the importance of Special Teams. In three games from the 2010 season, Georgia Tech saw the following Special Teams blunders, which played a major part in GT's loss:
- In a 14-7 loss to Air Force in the Independence Bowl, Georgia Tech muffed two punts
- In the game with arch rival UGA, Georgia Tech missed a PAT late in the 4th Quarter that would’ve tied the game
- After tying the game late in the 4th Quarter against Virginia Tech on the road, Georgia Tech gives up a kickoff return for a TD
While there are many plays in a game that contribute to the final outcome, these Special Teams errors played a major part in the loss. After GT's recent 24-7 loss to Miami, in which three Special Teams blunders cost the Jackets dearly, Coach Johnson was asked about the Jackets' Special Teams' woes and about the possibility of hiring a coach whose primary responsibility was Special Teams. Here was his answer:
The whole thing is ridiculous. Guys calling for special teams coordinators don’t have any idea. You know how many teams in the ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten have special teams coordinators that don’t coach another position? Six. You know who it is in our league? Boston College – which is helping them a lot – and N.C. State. And the Big Ten, it’s Purdue. In the Big 12, it’s Kansas State. I think it’s Coach (Bill) Snyder’s son. Most staffs are set up the same as ours.
--Paul Johnson after a 24-7 loss to Miami
It is not our place to tell Coach Johnson who should be coaching what or how they should be coaching it. That being said, the numbers don't lie and the only ridiculous thing we see is the performance of Georgia Tech's Special Teams. As Mike Leach stated in his book, "you're either coaching it or allowing it to happen." If Paul Johnson wants to be considered among the elite coaches in college football, he had better figure out a way to get better on Special Teams.