Thursday, August 31, 2006

Simulated Gambling Week 1

Last year at this time, I was about to embark on a season long “slugfest” with a coin in a contest imaginatively called the Coin Flip Challenge. The rules were simple; we (the coin and me) picked every NFL game of the season against the spread (ATS). The results were not good for the coin. My domination forced the coin into early retirement. I have to say that I am quite relieved by these developments since the coin was due for a big-time comeback. This year, I’m going to try out something new. Instead of picking every NFL game each week, I’m going to pick games that I would bet on if I had an endless flow of money. Call it simulated gambling if you like. The good thing about simulated gambling is that you can’t lose money no matter how bad you do. The bad thing about simulated gambling is that you can’t win money no matter how good you do. Since gambling would ruin my life in the same manner that fantasy sports did, this is as close to gambling as I’ll ever get. I’ll be picking college and pro games alike. This type of contest more closely resembles real life as I (or anyone else) would never bet on every game. There are certain games that are just too unpredictable to have a good feel about.

I won’t be putting any limits on the amount of games I have to pick each week. If I don’t feel good about any games, then I won’t pick any games. I’m trying to set the conditions to be as similar as possible to what would really happen if I decided to become a gambler. My inclination is that I will fare better by being selective rather than just simply picking every game. By definition, picking a game ATS should be a 50/50 proposition. By picking every game, my results will probably be pretty close to 50/50. However, if I can find the few “mistakes” or bad lines that inevitably pop up from time to time, I should be able to take advantage and increase my chances for picking correct games. Time will tell. I obviously think I know what’s going to happen but I’ve been humbled by sports many, many times before.

Since college football starts a week before the NFL, I’ll only be picking CFB games this week.

Your answer key to riches……

(Home teams in CAPS; my picks in Bold)

Boston College -11 over CENTRAL MICHIGAN

I can’t believe the line for this game is less than two touchdowns. Did I miss something like Kelly Baraka and Agim Shabaj enrolling at CMU? This game should be a blow out. BC has been solid every season of Tom O’Brien’s tenure including six straight bowl wins. CMU has been bad every season of everyone’s tenure (or just about).

Minnesota -14.5 over KENT ST.

I’m a little uncertain about this game but I do know a couple things….1) Minnesota runs the ball down the throats of weak defenses and 2) Kent St. has a weak defense. Also, Kent St. is one of the worst teams in college football. Minnesota feasts on schools like that. I’ll take the Gophers.

Southern California -8 over ARKANSAS

This isn’t so much a validation of USC as it is a questioning of Arkansas. USC will score points and I don’t think Arkansas will. The Razorbacks should be better this year but it’s hard to get in sync when your starting running back is at half speed. Unless Mitch Mustain is the best true freshmen quarterback of all time, USC should run away with this one.

MICHIGAN STATE -29 over Idaho

If MSU doesn’t take its foot off the pedal, then this game will easily be a blowout by more than 29 points. I’m not thrilled about taking the Sparties by this much but they have proven that, with Drew Stanton, they can demolish bad defenses.

AUBURN -14.5 over Washington State

Oregon St’s near victory at LSU in 2004 makes me a bit “skittish” about taking Auburn since Wazzou is similar to that Beavers team. However, near the end of last season Auburn was killing teams. I think they’ll pick up right where they left off by handing the Cougars a beating.

FLORIDA -20 over Southern Mississippi

So much for respecting Urban Meyer, eh? In his second season at both Utah and Bowling Green, Meyer’s offenses were unstoppable. Now, he has twice the talent against a pushover. That should be good for at least a 28 point spread. I think the odds-makers missed the boat on this one. Florida should win big.

TENNESSEE -1.5 over California

I’m not sold on a Pac-10 team not named USC winning on the road against an elite SEC team just yet. Tennessee will bounce back with a power run game and a stout defense. Cal is always good under Tedford but it takes a different kind of good to beat a motivated Tennessee team at home.

INDIANA -4 over Western Michigan

I’m taking Indiana for one reason and one reason only; Blake Powers to James Hardy. That combination was good for 10 touchdowns in 2005. Hardy and Blake will both be better as Terry Hoeppner tries to revive the Hoosier program.

TEXAS TECH -26.5 over Southern Methodist

This is a vote of confidence for Texas Tech’s coach, Mike Leach. The Red Raiders kill teams that don’t have the word “Texas” or “Oklahoma” in their name. Last time I checked SMU had neither.

LSU -30 over Louisiana Lafayette

LSU almost always covers the spread against bad, bad teams. LLF fits the bill. My only concern is if Les Miles stays true to his Michigan roots and sits on the ball in the second half. He hasn’t shown that tendency yet so I’m guessing it won’t start now.

Texas Christian -7 over BAYLOR

Baylor could play TCU tough but I would take TCU in a line like this every time. The Horned Frogs have a dynamite defense and Baylor doesn’t have a defense. This game is no “gimme” but Baylor is never good.

PENN STATE -16 over Akron

I think the return of Derrick Williams to the Penn St. lineup will be the catalyst for a high scoring offense. PSU has a bunch of talent on “O”. Anthony Morelli’s inexperience shouldn’t be an issue until the Notre Dame game. Akron was the worst bowl team of all-time last season. I’ll take 2006 Penn St. -16 over the worst bowl team of all time any day of the week.

Army -5.5 over ARKANSAS STATE

I have a rule that I’m going to break. The rule goes: If Army is ever favored on the road by more than three points, I am going with the team that’s playing Army. But, the opposite of that rule is the corollary that if Army is favored by more than three on the road, there has to be a good reason for it. I would say that the fact that Army beat Arkansas St. 38-10 last season counts as a good reason. This one is for you, Bobby Ross!

Monday, August 28, 2006

All Practice and No Play Makes Jack an Adult

Even though I’ve had my hands full for the last 26 years following the careers of every player on every team in every sport, I’ve always felt like something was missing from my sports experience. Fortunately for me, ESPN helped me figure out what exactly that was. The big emptiness that I’ve felt for all those years was due to a lack of overexposed 12-year old baseball players on my TV. Thanks to ESPN, I now have the option of watching 100’s of hours of coverage of games played by kids who may or may not still believe in Santa Claus. Don’t get me wrong, Little League was one of the more enjoyable experiences of my life. The key word in that sentence being my. If my baseball team was particularly good, we might have gotten 20-30 people to show up to watch us play. Even our own parents were more concerned with how long the game lasted than the outcome. Nobody in the neighborhood cared. Nobody in the city cared. Heck, half of the guys on the team didn’t care. Yet, kids just like me are now the “it” phenomenon for the ratings vulchers who will stop at nothing to attract the highly coveted male 18-49 demographic.

Part of what made playing sports fun as a kid was the fact that I could practice for an hour twice a week and then play in two games. Now, the ratio is more like two hours of practice for five days to play one game. Parents are more demanding. Kids are gently nudged into signing up for two or three teams in two or three sports whether they like it or not. One of the great freedoms of being a kid is the ability to do nothing or anything whenever you feel like it. The way it used to work was that kids would start playing sports in the 6th grade or thereabouts. Each year, the quality of play would get better until certain kids stood out above the rest. Those kids would inevitably catch the eye of coaches who then spent more time with those kids in an attempt to help them reach their potential. By high school, the kids that were able to combine skills with generous physical attributes would have a chance to play their sport beyond high school.

Youth sports have come a long, long way since what I just described was the norm. Now, to even have a chance to play sports in middle school, many kids have to sign up by the 2nd and 3rd grade. Any parent out there who thinks they’ll start their kids in sports at the middle school level is in for a rude awakening. Sure, great athletes will be able to play their way into the starting lineup regardless of when they start, but “average” kids will be permanent benchwarmers.

The exploitation of the Little League World Series is the perfect example of this phenomenon. The LLWS itself is great. I think it’s awesome that the best youth baseball teams get rewarded by the opportunity to play in a World Series in a global setting. However, the stress and pressure that these kids are put under by overzealous ratings people is not awesome. There happens to be a book on the subject called “Little League, Big Dreams” . The book is written by professional sports fanatic/researcher Charles Euchner. He explores in-depth the LLWS in all of its exploitation and glory. Without the overhyped parents/coaches and the millions of dollars on the line, the LLWS is what sports is all about. At least from the players, there isn't even the slightest amount of greed or selfishness. They play hard, have fun, and do it all for nothing but the joy of playing baseball. The book highlights every conceviable aspect of the LLWS which is a microcosm of the intensity level by parents and coaches in even the smallest Little Leagues around the country. The unfortunate thing about Euchner’s book is that it’s more a statement of fact rather than a glimmer of hope that the problem can be solved. The exploitation of the LLWS is like opening Pandora’s Box. Once opened, there is no turning back. Sure, parents can be educated about not demanding too much of their children. Grass roots campaigns can pop up exclaiming the importance of family time and child autonomy. The sorry truth is that none of that will change. Really the only thing that can turn back the clock is if people don’t watch. Nothing will cause the networks to jump ship like a bad rating.

I, for one, am ecstatic that my childhood memories are not monopolized by trips to three practices a day with a coach screaming in my ear. High School is the place for that kind of stuff. Kids can make up their own mind at that time. I can pretty much guarantee that the last thing even the most athletic kids want to do is waste their time at practice. Unfortunately, the change in the culture of youth sports forces parents to make a decision early on whether their kids will be successful at sports or not. If they don’t get their kids in at the right time, they’ll be “out of the loop” when they do decide. I find myself trying to negotiate this situation even today and my son is only 19 months old. I certainly don’t want him stressing out at seven years old because an overbearing coach or parent can’t stand losing. The more parents invest time and money into their kids’ endeavors, the more emotionally invested they get in the result. Now, parents want their kids to win for intrinsic reasons as much as for their child’s happiness. Junior’s well-being isn’t the only thing in play anymore. Not only is this environment unfairly stressful for kids, but it also overwhelms kids with time and effort. By the time kids get to high school, many of them are sick of playing sports all together; not because they don’t like the sport but the amount of time and effort necessary just to play one game isn’t worth it. Sports used to be fun. Now, it’s work.

The only solution that I have come up with that I can use when the time comes is to teach my son how to play sports myself. I can monitor his interest and devotion without sending him off to the sports version of boot camp. If he shows interest, then I have all the confidence that I can get him up to par in the skills department. This certainly won’t solve the problem of being “out of the loop” but at least he will get to enjoy being a kid for as long as he’s supposed to be. I’m not saying that every league in America is like this. In fact, there are plenty of non-competitive leagues that parents can sign their kids up in like the YMCA. However, a child who only plays youth soccer at the Y will likely not be prepared to play at the high school level. That’s why parents have to think carefully about what leagues they choose to sign their kids up in. A wrong decision could thwart their child’s chances of advancing in that sport in the coming years. If you find a league that effectively balances preparation for the next level, time, teaching and fun without sucking the innocence out of your child, then quit reading this and sign them up. The rest of you are just going to have to come to a decision that best benefits your kid. Remember, just because a seven year old says he likes basketball doesn’t mean he wants to spend every minute of every day practicing the game of basketball. I like pizza but I only eat it once every two weeks. An excess of even the most desirable things will inevitably cause a burn-out. That is why Dre Day went from being my favorite song to least favorite song in a matter of days. That is also why eating nine chicken sandwiches at the Mary Markley dining hall ruined chicken sandwiches for me for the rest of my life.

Whereas sports used to be a fun way for kids to pass the time, greed and the newfound need for parents to have the “best” has dramatically altered the landscape of youth sports. The amount of time and effort required to compete with the Jones’ these days doesn’t come close to the payoff especially when childhoods are being sacrificed in the process. I’m sure most of you remember how things were when you were kids. If you don’t remember, ask your dad, grandpa or uncle to let you know what the sports situation was like. The past pales in comparison to what is expected of kids today. Just be prepared to make the right decision without being caught up in the glam of having the “best” at your child’s expense.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Silver Lining

The Tigers have not been good this month (August). Fans are growing restless to the point that even one 0-4 game from a player gets magnified ten fold. I can understand the frustrations. I am frustrated, too. But, it is important to remember that the Tigers were never as good as their record. Every time they played a stretch against the AL’s elite teams, they were bludgeoned. This should’ve been a sign for Tigers fans to temper expectations. Some heeded the warning while others wandered dangerously down the path of over-exuberance. This is not to say that the Tigers are a bad team, or that the Tigers won’t make the playoffs. Things have changed so much in the last three weeks that I have gone from the minority of people that consistently proclaimed that the Tigers weren’t nearly as good as their record and Jim Leyland isn’t nearly as good of a manager as the sports world has made him out to be, to being in the minority that still thinks the Tigers are going to the playoffs. My seat on the minority side hasn’t changed but everything else has. Now, I’m the optimist.

As of Sunday August 27, 2006 the Tigers are still four games ahead of Minnesota for the division lead and 5.5 games ahead of Chicago for the Wild Card lead. In similar situations, the Yankees are 5.5 games ahead of Boston and nobody in NY is worried while Oakland is 5.5 ahead of Anaheim and the A’s seem to be pretty comfortable. Granted, the Yankees are playing much better baseball than Detroit but 5.5 games is a lot. The Tigers are about to finish their toughest stretch of the season with a bigger lead than they had just a month and a half ago. The schedule gets much easier from here on out. The Tigers get to play two series against K.C., and a series each against Seattle and Baltimore. The Tigers also helped them selves immensely by booting Zach Miner from the rotation. Mike Maroth will return giving the Tigers a legitimate shot at winning every time out. Kenny Rogers has been the best pitcher on the team over the last six weeks which is a significant turnaround from the way things were heading just after the All-Star break. I’m not saying the Tigers are the best team in the AL, let alone, better than the White Sox. I am saying that the Tigers are good enough to hold on to two leads of 4 and 5.5 games respectively.

To be honest with you, everything I just said is moot in my mind anyway. I care if the Tigers make the playoffs to the extent that any fan wants their team to make the playoffs. However, the Tigers aren’t good enough to beat the Yankees or ChiSox in the post season. Simply getting to the playoffs is great for an organization that has been so bad for so long. But, the Tigers organization has more fish to fry in the future. What Tigers fans are seeing right now is only a glimpse of what the Tigers will be next year and beyond. The two best players in the organization may not even be in Detroit. Andrew Miller is killing people at Lakeland. Cameron Maybin is doing the same at West Michigan. The Tigers have won this year by the sleight of hand magic of Dave Dombrowski. He molded together a roster of serviceable, otherwise unwanted players and parlayed into the best record in MLB entering September. Nobody thought this was going to happen so soon. If that is true, and I’m pretty sure it is, then everything that happens this year is just a bonus. Tigers fans have been captivated for four months longer than they’re used to. Some may argue that it would be less stressful for fans if the Tigers just played .500 baseball all season rather than give so much hope only to take it away. If we’re talking about an old ball-club like the Atlanta Braves, then that might be right. When we’re talking about an organization with as bright of a future as the Tigers, then it’s always better to win earlier than expected. If anything, the success the Tigers have had this year legitimizes to the fans that a) Dave Dombrowski knows exactly how to build a winner and b) the Tigers young pitching prospects are the real deal. With the likely departures of Sean Casey, Dmitri Young, and the expiration of Troy Percival’s contract, the Tigers will shed 22+ million dollars from next year’s payroll. If there’s one thing Mike Illitch has proved in his tenure as the owner of the Red Wings and Tigers is that he’s a front runner. If his teams are crappy, he’ll ignore them like it’s a K-Fed rap album. If his teams are winning, he’ll nurture them like a bird regurgitating in a babies mouth (let’s hope it’s more enjoyable than that). Anyhow, if you can get that last sentence out of your head, there is plenty to look forward to. The Tigers have the deepest and most talented pitching in MLB. Dombrowski will have a bevy of young arms to dangle in front of other teams in hopes of landing dynamite position players which is exactly what the Tigers need. And no, those arms he’s dangling won’t be Verlander, Bonderman, Miller, or Zumaya. The organization is so loaded with arms that there are plenty of other prospects allowing the Tigers to hold on to every prove power pitcher on the team. I’ve grown to like the current group of Tigers positional players but the fact is that these guys aren’t good enough. They work hard and play well but without a lineup comparable to the Yankees or White Sox, the Tigers will be too weak offensively to contend.

I know it’s hard to see the silver lining in the midst of a potential colossal collapse. The last thing Tigers fans want to do is think about next year. But, next year isn’t that far away. If you think the rotation was good this year, then think about how good it’s going to be next year when Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander take one step closer to their prime years. Andrew Miller could be as good as both of those guys right now. As I mentioned above, the future is not now for the Tigers. However disappointing this season ends up being, the Tigers are the MLB team of the future. This year is just a result of the team arriving one year ahead of schedule. Having seen what Dombrowski can do with a limited payroll, I have no doubt that Illitch will allow the team payroll to surpass $100 million. The Yankees have proven that spending the big bucks can get the best lineup in MLB history but it certainly cannot guarantee you a pitching staff to boot. The Tigers are in the enviable position of having the arms that the Yankees have been searching for over the last four years. Once the free agent bats start arriving over the next year or two, the Tigers will blow the rest of the AL out of the water. I am proud to be a Detroit Tigers fan once again and nothing that happens this season will change that in the slightest. Those jumping off of the bandwagon still have plenty of time to get back on considering it wasn’t supposed to leave until next year anyway.

Friday, August 25, 2006

2006 Detroit Lions Preview

Restore the Intrigue

I’m going to make two predictions right off the top about the Detroit Lions' season. 1). The Lions will be closer to terrible than good and…2). From a fan perspective, this will be the most enjoyable and satisfying season to watch since Barry Sanders ripped our souls out. Fans will put up with a bad team if the sole reason for losing is simply a lack of talent. It’s entirely possible to be bad without making a mockery of the city and franchise. Unfortunately, the Lions have been “mockery” bad under Matt Millen thus far. This season, the Lions will likely not be “mockery” bad. They have more talent and better coaching than in previous years. They will play better defense. They will score more points. Winning games, however, is another story all together. The Lions will struggled to win eight games this season but, unlike the last seven years, this season will be a step towards respectability much like the season the Tigers had in 2004. The ’04 Tigers were not good but it was the first time in 15 years that the Tigers had a season that foretold something positive for the future.

I don’t foresee much success on offense this season. Kevin Jones is not the ideal back for a Mike Martz offense and vice versa. Jones is a big, powerful runner with above-average speed. He can catch the ball out of the backfield but that is not his strength. Martz’s “Greatest Show on Turf” offense in St. Louis was made in large part by the presence of one of the most versatile running backs in NFL history in Marshall Faulk. Jones is no Faulk. Much has been made of Martz’s ability to mold any quarterback, regardless of talent, into a Pro-Bowl quarterback. Little has been made of Martz’s good fortune of having two of the premier wide receivers in the NFL (Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce) to go along with Faulk. Even Steve Mariucci would’ve had a tough time keeping that group from putting up big-time numbers. Nonetheless, Martz garnered all the credit and subsequently gained the reputation as an offensive mastermind. If he truly is a mastermind, he should have no problem taking a serviceable NFL quarterback in Jon Kitna, an elite wide receiver in Roy Williams, and a talented running back in Jones and turning them into a proficient offense. I’ll believe it when I see it.

In all likelihood, Kitna is the best quarterback the Lions have had in my lifetime. That doesn’t necessarily say much but it is something to look forward to. He is the typical “gunslinger” QB that throws caution to the wind. He has had his fair share of brilliant moments as well as a fair share of bonehead moments. He is, for all intents and purposes, a playmaker. Yes, you read that correctly. For the first time in 30 years, the Lions actually have a playmaker at the QB position. It remains to be seen how this will translate on the field, but at the very least, Kitna is an upgrade over Mr. Happy Feet.

The most bizarre mystery entering the 2006 season for the Lions is easily the wide receiver position. As the entire world is well aware of, Lions GM Matt Millen spent three straight first round draft picks on wide receivers. Roy Williams is a legitimate star-in-the-making. There is little suspense as to whether he’s going to show up this year. He will. Chares Rogers and Mike Williams, on the other hand, could be in the starting lineup or playing for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Rogers has been sidelined by a combination of injuries and the coaches’ reluctance to give Rogers repetitions in practice. I have a feeling that Millen is doing everything he can to send Rogers out of town. Remember, Millen went after Rogers’ signing bonus last season. There can’t be much affection on either side. Regardless of Rogers’ past indiscretions, he is a first round talent who will help an NFL team some day. I would hope that Millen would put his personal opinions of Rogers behind him and see what Rogers can do in the starting lineup. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened and it likely won’t happen. All of this leads me to believe that Millen is OK with the philosophy of buying high and selling low. Rogers’ value was at an all-time high when he was drafted in 2003 and it’s at an all-time low right now. Unless Millen wants to make the Lions’ version of the Darko Milicic trade, he might want to think twice before giving Rogers away. Mike Williams is a slightly different story. From all accounts, Williams just can’t get it done on the field due to a lack of conditioning. As soon as his quickness and agility improve, I expect to seem him playing meaningful minutes. The WR picture is muddled at best. The Lions signed Corey Bradford in the off-season but it remains to be seen how many reps he’ll actually get. One thing is for sure, the Lions have talent at the receiver position. I don’t know if it’ll all come together on the field this year but a “genius” like Martz should have no problem molding this group together. I’m just not so sure there’s a genius present to do the molding.

The running game, like the typical Martz ground attack, will be dependent on the success of the passing game. Considering the uncertainty described in the above paragraph, this is not a good thing. The Lions have “serviceable” offensive linemen at every position on the line. However, I must stress that there is a sizeable gap between “serviceable” and above-average. I feel bad for Jeff Backus. He and his agent bamboozled Millen for top-ten money when Backus isn’t anything close to a top ten tackle in the NFL. I can’t blame Backus for taking the money but I hope he understands that he will be criticized mercilessly by Lions fans when he inevitably plays like the top 25 tackle that he is. That is a bad situation in the making. Damien Woody, Ross Verba, Rex Tucker, and Dominic Raiola have all had mild success in the NFL. All five guys are good enough to not be considered liabilities. However, none of the five are difference makers on the offensive line. Without difference makers on the line, the running game will have no chance at sustained drives. I do not have much optimism for the Lions ground attack this season. The holes for Kevin Jones to run through will be few and far between. Any success the Lions will have on the ground this season will be entirely dependent on the passing game. With two of the best running backs in the NFL in Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk at his beckon call in St. Louis, Martz ran the ball as little as any team in the NFL. Even then, his running game was based on the pass. Let’s just say there are a lot of bad things and few good things that could happen this year with the running game.

The defense is the sole reason for my expectations of a quality fan experience this season. The defense hasn’t been awful over the last few years but it certainly hasn’t been good. Certain players have been good (i.e. Shuan Rogers and James Hall) but the entire unit has definitely not been productive enough to be called good. However, there is new talent to go along with new schemes that could change all of that. Rod Marinelli cultivated one of the best defensive lines in the NFL while he coached the defense for Tampa Bay. The Lions have lacked any semblance of a pass rush as far back as I can remember. There have been occasional talents like Robert Porcher but nobody has been dominating and I think a lot of that has to do with a lack of innovation by the coaching staff. Marinelli will finally give the Lions some innovation. James Hall may take the next step in his development which may end with Hall becoming an All-Pro defensive end. Hall doesn’t have the physical attributes as some of the elite defensive ends like Simeon Rice but that shouldn’t keep him from making a name for himself as a formidable threat. Rogers will be back plugging up the middle which is good for the Lions and bad for everyone else. Shaun Cody takes over for Dan Wilkinson which could go either way. I still can’t understand why Millen couldn’t keep Wilkinson around. Maybe Millen got the impression that Wilkinson didn’t want to play for Detroit. If that’s the case, then Millen had no choice. Cody is a Luther Ellis-type tackle which should be a sufficient compliment to Rogers. While Hall and Rogers are excellent tackles, the true strength of the D-line comes from the depth. Marinelli will have his hands full trying to get snaps for Kalimba Edwards, Jared Devries, Bill Swancutt, Cory Redding and Tyoka Jackson. Marcus Bell is one of the better back-up tackles in the NFL. All of this depth is great news for a team that always has injury issues.

Before I say too much about the LB’s, I’d like to say that I'm done waiting for Boss Bailey and Teddy Lehman to a) start; b) make an impact; and c) stay healthy for more than three minutes. Bailey has played in 11 of the last 32 games. Lehman has played in 12 of the last 32 games. That probably explains why I have absolutely no idea how good either will be. They could be pro-bowl caliber or toilet-bowl caliber for all I know. All I can say right now for sure is that they’re both fast and more injury prone than Jose Canseco on the mound. Fortunately, the Lions don’t need Bailey and Lehman to play in order to be better this season. For at least one game, the Lions will have the services of First Round draft pick Ernie “the Walking Lobotomy” Sims. When conscious, Sims is a cannon ball. He throws his body around like he’s a decedent of Gumby. He immediately becomes the best linebacker the Lions have had in my lifetime, which again, isn’t saying much. James “Dirty as he wants to be” Davis and Alex Lewis give the Lions some insurance when the inevitable injuries/concussions to Sims, Bailey and Lehman take place. There is a lot of uncertainty with this group. They could finally come together as a unit or it could be business as usual. I’m guessing that this will be the best LB unit of the post-Barry Sanders era.

As most coaches/analysts will tell you, the defensive line sets the tone for the entire defense. If the d-line can stuff the run and pressure the QB, the LB’s and CB’s will have a tremendous amount of success regardless of talent. Considering the Lions will have a defensive line capable of both stopping the run and pressuring the QB, that is good news for the rest of the Lions defense. The secondary is average at best. Kennoy Kennedy brought a lot of hype with him from Denver as being a feared, hard hitting safety. However, it’s important to remember that Denver, the place that turns no-namers into stars didn’t want him. That doesn’t mean Kennedy is terrible but that at least tells me that his reputation as a hard hitter probably far outweighs his reputation as a good safety. Daniel Bullocks could be good. I wasn’t overjoyed when the Lions selected him in the second round but there is no doubt that the Lions could use help at that position. If he’s as good as advertised, then the secondary will be improved. The cornerbacks are not nearly as good as some would think. Dre Bly is nowhere near a shutdown corner despite his recent Pro-Bowl selections. He is closer to the average CB in the NFL than the best CB in the NFL. Considering Bly is noticeably better than Fernando Bryant, that is not good. The backups are extremely green in playing experience. The bad news is that this unit is the weak link of the defense. The good news is that the defensive line should help them out and injuries to a shady unit aren’t nearly as harmful as injuries to a great unit. I wouldn’t classify that good news as comforting.

The special teams have been the best unit in Detroit since 1998. Part of it is the presence of Mr. Lion (I think he has earned the title) Jason Hanson and the other part is the consistent presence of an above-average return man. Eddie Drummond is a poor man’s Mel Gray. He gives the Lions a chance to score every time he touches the ball. Since the Lions have been so abysmal over the last seven years (or 30 years if you are inclined), having an above-average special teams unit has been a waste. The importance of special teams increases exponentially when teams play close games. If the Lions are truly going to be better on defense this year, special teams may actually become a factor.

Last year, the Lions couldn’t have finished .500 even if they were good. Their schedule was brutal. Some teams ended up being worse than expected which made the Lions’ schedule a bit more manageable than at first glance. Still, they had an uphill battle before the season started. The 2006 schedule is a bit different. The Lions only play four really good teams (New England, Miami, Dallas, and Seattle). The rest of the schedule is made up of a bunch of question marks. Granted, seeing Arizona on the schedule is much less enticing than in years past. The entire NFC North is an unknown. Green Bay could be good or lousy. Chicago could be a defensive juggernaut like last year or a scattered mess like the year before. Minnesota doesn’t have any stars with the exception of Steve Hutchinson who plays guard. The Lions will have a chance in every NFC North contest. St. Louis, San Francisco, Buffalo, NY Jets, and Atlanta are all games that the Lions could win. Of course, having a chance and winning are two totally different concepts. My prediction for the Lions in 2006 is 7-9. I think 6-10 is more likely than 8-8 since it’s more than likely that I have underrated the NFC North as a whole.

When I was in middle school/high school, I couldn’t wait to watch the Lions play on Sundays. That is a feeling I haven’t felt since 1998. In fact, the only joy at watching the Lions over the past seven years has been laughing at them in an attempt to suppress my inner rage. For the first time in ages, I can’t wait to watch the Lions play football. I’m not hard to please. Like I said, I’m only looking at a 7-9 season here. The fact that I can’t wait to watch said 7-9 season should be an indication of how bad the Lions have been and how bad I’ve craved something to watch from my NFL team.

Monday, August 21, 2006

2006 Michigan Football Preview

Finally, Underrated!

Last summer, Michigan fans by the thousands predicted great things for the 2005 Michigan football team. On the other hand, I penned a two-part reality check titled Anatomy of a Michigan Loss exclaiming why Michigan was destined for disappointment in 2005 and beyond. To my surprise, there were actually people out there that had not realized that Michigan had been one of the premier underachieving programs in college football which prompted me to write a sequel. The exuberance of a young, talented team coming back combined with the near miss against Texas in the ’05 Rose Bowl shielded the reality that had become Michigan football. Lofty pre-season expectations followed by September swoons had become the norm rather than the exception. Fast-forward one year and the only thing that has changed is Michigan’s national reputation. For some inexplicable reason, the entire college football world has missed out on their annual chance to overrate Michigan in the pre-season. To be honest, I’m having a hard time figuring out how this happened. The formula for a generous pre-season ranking generally goes something like:

Maturing team (18 of 22 starters returning) + Well-respected coach (Lloyd Carr) + Previous year underachievement (7-5) + storied program (always ranked high) + little to no attrition (no devastating losses) = High pre-season ranking

Instead of following the formula, various voters from the Coaches Poll and the AP Poll took it upon themselves to trust history over expectations and rank Michigan outside of the pre-season top 10. Maybe they realized it themselves or maybe it took doing two minutes of research but either way, Michigan enters 2006 with its lowest AP pre-season ranking in recent memory.

The last time Michigan was ranked this low in the pre-season, Michigan went on to win a National Championship. I certainly am not predicting a repeat of 1997 but in the one case that Michigan came into the season under the radar, they proceeded to exceed expectations. On a much smaller scale, I think the 2006 Michigan Wolverines will exceed expectations. As I stated in my New Twist on the College Football Preview, this is by far the weakest college football season in terms of caliber of highly rated teams in a long, long time. If Michigan played USC or Texas at home in September, I would actually expect Michigan to win. Those teams have zero experience at quarterback. The Trojans and Longhorns are just two of a slew of highly rated teams with big-time issues on offense or defense. So, Michigan gets better by simply staying the same.

In a season where the pre-season top ten is laden with uncertainty, Michigan has very little to be uncertain about. Michigan “should” be better at every position. Chad Henne and Mike Hart couldn’t possibly regress from last year’s performances. Henne is entering his third season as the starting quarterback and seems to have finally taken over the leadership role on offense. Hart is healthy again and word has it that he’s sufficiently motivated for the season. I can’t recall many instances when a team has returned a third year starting quarterback and a third year starting running back both of whom were mega-stars as freshman and still managed to fall under the radar. Henne and Hart alone would usually be a strong enough combination to merit top-five consideration from at least one media outlet.

Even though fan favorite Jason Avant graduated, Michigan will likely attempt and complete more big plays than it did last season. New/old Offensive Coordinator Mike DeBord has gone on record saying that the landscape has changed in college football to a point where teams need to score a lot of points to win. A seasoned Mario Manningham will give Michigan a better “playmaker” than it had all of last season. Also, Steve Breaston can’t be any worse than he was last year. Michigan will likely involve tight ends in the game plan more often than in previous seasons. It would be great if Tyler Ecker could summon the vibes of Jerame Tuman with the bootleg but I’d gladly take Bennie Joppru at this point. Even though there isn’t a Braylon-esque receiver on the team this season there will be a number of talented players vying for playing time including LaTerryal Savoy, Adrian Arrington, and Doug Dutch. I would be willing to bet a sizeable sum that Michigan’s 2006 passing game will easily usurp the 2005 passing game. I would, however, caution against getting too excited by the prospects of some of the lesser known players (i.e. Savoy, Arrington) because Michigan has a habit of shelving underclassmen after the first game of the season and going with experience over talent.

The offensive line should be no worse than the 2005 unit. A lot has been made of Michigan’s focus on trimming down the offensive line for increased athleticism. This might sound like a trivial change but I think this will pay big dividends this season. Even though this might be the greenest offensive line in terms of experience since Michigan started three freshmen in 1997, hope is in the air. Jake Long may reach his potential yet having dropped 20 lbs which should significantly increase his mobility. The rest of the line will likely feature a combination of Rueben Riley, Mark Bihl, Adam Kraus and Mike Kolodziej (if healthy) all of whom have been around for 3+ years. Giving depth to the line is a bevy of underclassmen with high expectations including Alex Mitchell, Jeremy Ciulla, Mark Ortmann, Dave Moosman, and Cory Zirbel. One would hope that with that many options, the Michigan coaching staff could find a five-man combination that works well together. With the renewed off-season focus on athleticism, Michigan may actually be able to call and execute legitimate running plays that have all but disappeared from Ann Arbor over the past 5-10 years. The counter or the delay handoff has replaced the power run. My guess is that, over the last decade, Michigan’s line regressed athletically to a point that complex blocking could not be executed against more athletic defensive lines. When I was growing up watching Jamie Morris, Tony Boles, Jon Vaughn, Tyrone Wheatley and Timmy B., the Michigan offensive linemen had their way with the opposing D-lines. Things have changed so much recently that Michigan has been forced to bail out the O-line with strategic play-calling. Hopefully the emphasis on athleticism will bring back the bullying ways of old.

Last season, Michigan fans could essentially be split into two groups. The first group blamed Lloyd Carr for Michigan’s perennial underachievement. The second group blamed Jim Herrmann. Sure, there were hybrid groups that blamed both or neither. However, the vast majority had a beef with one guy and one guy only. Since Herrmann is long gone for the 2006 season and beyond, the second group will either be proved right, or be forced to turn its anger to new Defensive Coordinator Ron English. English has been the source of a lot of hope entering the season. His vision on defense consists of less complexity and more tenacity. English fancies a defense around getting after the quarterback at all costs. Michigan may give up the occasional big play but it will force more turnovers and intimidate the opposition into playing out of its game-plan. That is the type of defense that Michigan fans were proud of before everything fell apart in 1998. In the world of college football, defensive scheming can be successful without overwhelming talent. If English knows what he’s doing, Michigan’s inexperience on defense won’t hinder the chances for a successful defense. If Leon Hall, LaMarr Woodley and a number of other talented players live up to expectations, Michigan’s defense could be dynamite. Michigan’s defense under Herrmann had been so bad for so long that people forgot that it is still possible for Michigan to have a great defense. Herrmann was the lone consistent factor in every one of Michigan’s defensive disasters over the last eight years.

Despite the low expectations by the national media, Michigan still has an abundance of talented players on defense. With the graduation of Mr. Complacency (Gabe Watson), Michigan will be able to stack the defensive line with more active and athletic defensive tackles in Alan Branch and Terrance Taylor. Branch and Taylor are both big-time NFL prospects. They will punish opposing offensive running games. In addition, Michigan looks to have two healthy, motivated defensive ends entering the season for the first time in ages. LaMarr Woodley and Tim Jamison are both preceded by their reputations which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That just means that this is the year for these guys to step up. If these guys get after the QB like they’re supposed to, nobody will remember last year or the year before. All in all, the defensive line should not disappoint. I hate to sound cliché here but this might be the best UM line in terms of discipline and execution since 1997. That’s not saying a whole lot but any improvement will be welcomed.

The linebackers will likely continue the trend of average to below average play. In the early 90’s, Michigan was a linebacker-producing machine. Guys like Erick Anderson, Steve Morrison, Jarrett Irons, and Sam Sword were just a few of the prototypical menacing linebackers that were fan favorites. In 1997, Michigan had success with smaller, running back-type linebackers in Ian Gold and Dhani Jones. That success continued with Larry Foote but the dividends stopped paying off after Foote. Michigan’s focus on smaller, faster linebackers has all but eliminated the 6’2 250 lb behemoths that used to roam the field. Considering Ohio St. still churns out big, mean linebackers with extreme success, Michigan might want to consider going back to what worked so well in the 80/90’s. The current unit enters the season with big-time press clippings from the high school level and little else. Dave Harris has a chance to shine as a prototypical linebacker. He is the one guy that looks and acts like a linebacker on the field. After owning the title of “greatest Wolverine who has never played a down” entering 2005, Graham was overmatched on the field. In Graham’s defense, expectations were so high from some circles that it would have been impossible for him to live up to them. I have confidence that Graham will step it up this season. His size can go one of two ways. He could become UM’s version of Ernie Sims, or he could continue the trend of disappointment from the UM defense. Prescott Burgess came to Michigan as a Safety. This is just speculation but I’m guessing after UM coaches pointed out video of Cato June’s career at UM, Burgess made the switch to linebacker. Unfortunately, that move hasn’t paid off in the slightest. Burgess’ tag-team partner in anonymity is Shawn Crable. Crable is a million feet tall and looks more like a basketball player than anything else. Yet, he’s playing linebacker. Michigan’s strategy of taking square pieces and shoving them into round holes has become protocol. Without much success to show for it, Michigan may finally realize that big, strong, fast linebackers still get it done in football. I hope I’m wrong about this group but I am fearful that the trend will continue this season making Michigan just as susceptible to the run as the past few years.

The secondary has more in common with burnt toast than it does with post-it notes. Unfortunately, that has been the case for a number of years now. That is why Michigan “recruitniks” invested so much hope in Michigan bringing in top in-state high school DB recruits Ronald Johnson and Dionte Allen. Johnson may still end up at UM but he won’t help this year. Marlin Jackson and Ernest Shazor came in with the same fanfare and their careers were plagued by inconsistent play and big-game letdowns. Much like everything else on defense, Michigan hasn’t had a great defensive backfield since 1997. I can all but guarantee it won’t have a great defensive backfield this season either. There just isn’t enough ability in the secondary for Michigan to be any more than mediocre at defending the pass. If this unit is going to have success, it’ll be because the defensive line is pressuring the quarterback consistently. Leon Hall is not a terrible corner. In fact, many people will actually go as far as saying he’s very good. I’m not buying Hall as anything more than a slightly above average corner. That’s fine if he is complimented by other slightly above average corners and safeties. Unfortunately, Michigan is stuck with a bunch of players that are unproven. Charles Stewart has the size necessary to match-up with big receivers but he hasn’t shown much. Brandon Harrison is fast but his 5’9 (in high heels) frame makes him a mismatch against most receivers. Ryan Mundy, Jamar Adams, Brandent Englemon, Willis Barringer and Morgan Trent are the other unheralded members of the secondary. Michigan will be tested in the air in 2006 which means things could get ugly yet again.

However, there is one caveat that may change the outlook for the Michigan defense. The most important unit on defense is, and always will be, the defensive line. A very good defensive line can wreck havoc on the running game and force the QB out of the pocket. If opposing QB’s are constantly under pressure and/or forced to abandon the pocket, the secondary is then able to play from a position of strength. Likewise, if the D-line can consistently gain leverage on the opposing O-line and tie up blockers, the linebackers will then be able to play from a position of strength. If the D-line doesn’t pressure the QB, players like Brady Quinn, Drew Tate, and Troy Smith will sit back and pick the Michigan secondary apart. If the D-line doesn’t control the line, Michigan’s inexperienced linebackers will continue to get brutalized. This season, success on defense starts and ends with the D-line. You will know after the first half of the opener against Vanderbilt whether or not things will change for the ’06 defense. If you don’t see Vandy’s QB running for his life, this will be another long season.

As I’ve mentioned quite a few times in the last month, this is by far the least talented group of teams at the top of the rankings in recent memory. Of the teams that make up the top ten in various pre-season polls, only West Virginia appears to be better than last year’s team. Notre Dame should be close to the same. Everyone else should be significantly worse than last year. Michigan, on the other hand, is definitely not worse. It’s a coin flip as to whether Michigan will be better this season or not but by simply remaining the same, Michigan has gained on the elite teams in college football. With three road games against three good teams and a home game against a top 15 team, Michigan has a tough schedule ahead. However, Michigan should be favored over Penn St. and Iowa. That means if Michigan can somehow sneak past the Fighting Irish in South Bend, Michigan will be favored in every game leading up to The Game. To look at the season as 12 games, one would have to view Michigan’s chances of success as minimal at best. However, going one game at a time, Michigan’s season hinges entirely on the Notre Dame game. A loss would push Michigan down the same old dreaded path. A win, however, would immediately thrust Michigan into the National Championship picture.

I can say with certainty that I will enjoy this season more than last. I still feel the exact same way as I did when I wrote Anatomy of a Michigan Loss. The only difference is that instead of being vastly overrated, Michigan enters the season slightly underrated which is infinitely more exciting from a fan’s perspective.

Here are a few Michigan previews by national media outlets:

2006 Michigan Football Preview by Fox Sports

2006 Michigan Football Preview by Wikipedia

2006 Michigan Football Preview by SI

2006 Michigan Football Preview by Yahoo!

Saturday, August 12, 2006


I have a feeling that Carlos Guillen is going to be the Detroit Tigers MVP when the awards are handed out after the season. Guillen’s offensive numbers are above average and his ability to switch hit brings a unique dynamic to the lineup. On the other hand, Guillen’s fielding has been atrocious and his decision-making hasn’t been any better. I have thought about writing a post about Guillen’s laziness in the field for quite some time but I always convince myself not to. However, after Guillen failed to throw home which would’ve easily nailed Scott Podsednik at the plate to preserve a 0-0 game on Friday and his error today against the White Sox, I can no longer bite my tongue.

Normally, when a routine ground ball is hit to the shortstop, I feel good about the situation. When a routine ground ball is hit to Carlos Guillen, I expect something bad to happen. Guillen almost appears lazy in the field. His throwing motion lacks form on occasion which often results in horrendous throws. Even some of Guillen’s putouts are sketchy at best. He’s an unreliable fielder and an even more unreliable thrower. His fielding percentage and error totals are among the worst in MLB. He now leads MLB in errors. His decision making is borderline-awful. Twice in the last two weeks, Guillen has failed to throw home to prevent a run. The error yesterday against the White Sox was a crucial mistake. In a pivotal series where runs will undoubtedly come at a premium, Guillen had a chance to quash a White Sox rally. Instead, he made a mental error (which MLB does not keep track of) which has occurred far too often this season.

A lot has been made of Alex Rodriguez’s errors while Guillen has received little criticism, if any. It would be one thing if Guillen weren’t a good fielder to begin with but his career numbers indicate he is much better than the product he is putting on the field. It is clear to me that Guillen’s numbers are suffering from a lack of effort and/or concentration. I love what the Tigers are doing this season. Seemingly every player has excelled beyond anyone’s imagination before the season started. I certainly didn’t envision the Tigers being so much better than the rest of MLB in terms of record. Unfortunately, a good record isn’t going to get it done in the playoffs. Above all, the Tigers will have to be consistent. Guillen has not been anywhere near consistent in the field. Judging from listening to Mario Impemba and Rod Allen broadcast games on TV it would appear that Guillen is Ozzie Smith II in the field. They constantly rave about Guillen’s defense as if 2005 carries over to 2006. Given the lack of criticism and attention that the Detroit media has given to Guillen’s fielding gaffes, one would think that I’m imagining all of this. But, I assure you that I’m not. Guillen has seven more errors than any shortstop in the American League. He already has three more errors than his previous career high with close to two months to go. Like I said before, I’ve been tempted to write this post many times this season. Watching Guillen in the field has become unbearable.

I like Guillen. He produces good numbers offensively at an affordable price. However, it is important to consider Guillen’s faults on the defensive side of the ball when considering his value to the team. As far as the Tigers most valuable position player goes, Guillen would have to be taken into consideration. His offensive numbers are good enough to garner him consideration but please don’t underestimate Guillen’s inefficiency in the field this year. As I mentioned above, even his outs are often questionable. His whole approach to fielding is more nonchalant than anything else. It is my hope that more is made of this issue by the local media. It seems like everyone is afraid to criticize this Tigers team because they have the best record in baseball. Let’s not forget that this team is nowhere near as talented as some of the other teams in the AL. The Yankees and White Sox can afford to make mistakes with their clout in the lineup. Much like the Championship Pistons team in 2004, these Tigers get by on efficiency, teamwork, and defense. They don’t have the luxury of being able to make up for ridiculous mental miscues in the field. Guillen is by far the worst offender and at some point needs to be held accountable.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

New Twist on the College Football Preview

The most intriguing aspect of the 2006 college football season from my point of view is the good possibility that there are no dominant teams anywhere in the country. Ohio St., Texas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, USC, and Auburn have all received a lot of publicity but those teams aren’t nearly as good as the best teams from last season. I don’t think there has ever been a bigger drop off in the relative strength of each spot in the rankings from one year to the next. For example, there is no doubt in my mind that 2005 Ohio St. would dominate 2006 Ohio St. Likewise, the drubbing that 2005 Texas would give to 2006 Texas would be shocking and humiliating for the 2006 squad. 2005 USC would obliterate 2006 USC. I don’t even think the Sooners are better this year considering they had to turn back to the QB that was the starter for the TCU loss last season. West Virginia might very well be the only team that’s better this season than last among the early National Championship contenders. With such mediocrity among the top teams, there is a good chance for a surprise team to jump into the spotlight like ’97 Michigan or ’05 Alabama.

With the college football season steadfastly approaching, I would like to give a bit of a preview for what to expect this season. I thought I’d try something new this year by doing something other than simply giving a pre-season top 25 based on how I view the best teams in the country. Ranking teams in the pre-season doesn’t really mean anything because nothing has happened yet. There isn’t any data to consider other than the previous year and “expected” performance. The objective of pre-season rankings is mostly to get people interested in the upcoming season. So, I’ll spurn the rankings for a less traditional list. I have gone through the schedules of each of the top 50 or so teams in college football and calculated the probability that each team will go undefeated before bowl games. Obviously, this is a subjective probability since the probabilities of each game were given by me. However, I do have a pretty good knowledge and understanding of college football so I think I came out with fairly respectable results.

Conferences like the Big Ten, Pac 10, and Big East have a much better chance in producing an undefeated team than the SEC, Big XII, and ACC and it has nothing to do with the strength of each conference. The latter conferences force their schools to play a championship game which reduces the already slim odds of that conference producing an undefeated team. Although the conference championship games have not kept LSU, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas from making it to the BCS Championship in recent years, each of those schools were significantly better than their respective opponents in the conference championship games. In those instances, the odds of going undefeated may only be reduced by 20% or so. However, the odds of going up against a “cupcake” in a conference championship game aren’t that great. For every 2005 Colorado “patsy”, there is an equally formidable opponent that has a good chance of winning. This is especially the case in the SEC.

For the most part, teams from the Big Ten, Pac 10 and Big East have the best chances of going undefeated. The SEC slate is so difficult that no team ever has a good shot at going undefeated. In recent years, Georgia, Auburn, and Alabama have had powerful teams that may have been good enough to go undefeated in most other conferences. Instead, they fell victim to the grueling SEC schedule and championship game. Texas and Oklahoma have some of the best probabilities of going undefeated despite having to play a conference championship game. This is largely due to the incredible weakness of the Big XII North Division.

I’m guessing that some people will be shocked and/or critical of the team that shows up first on the list but it’s important to remember that this isn’t a ranking of the best teams as I see them rather a ranking of the teams with the best probability of going undefeated heading into the bowl games. Since the rankings are based on the probability that each team will go undefeated entering the bowl games, you can also look at this list as a predictor for which teams have the best chance at making it to the BCS Championship game. It’s important to remember, however, that even if a team like Boise St., TCU, or Fresno St. goes undefeated, it is highly unlikely that it will be ranked high enough in the BCS standings to make the National Championship game. The jury is still out on teams like W. Virginia and Louisville since the Big East is in limbo between a major conference and mid-major conference. They may, in fact, force a precedent this season since both teams have some of the best chances of going undefeated. For each team, I’ll also show how winning the two toughest games on the schedule will affect their chances of going undefeated.

Pre-season Top 25

(based on probability of going undefeated):

1). W. Virginia --9.16%
2). USC ---------6.78%
3). Ohio St. -----6.08%
4). Notre Dame 4.69%
5). Texas -------4.57%
6). Oklahoma --3.86%
7). Louisville ---3.10%
8) Florida St. ---2.87%
9) Va. Tech -----2.72%
10) Miami FL ---2.61%
11) Iowa ---------2.54%
12) Boise St. ----2.47%
13). TCU --------2.10%
14). Georgia ----1.91%
15). LSU --------1.59%
16). Auburn ----1.34%
17). Penn St. ----1.07%
18). Michigan --0.85%
19). Cal ---------0.63%
20). Alabama ---0.60%
21). Florida -----0.57%
22). Tennessee- 0.53%
23). Fresno St. --0.37%
24). Arizona St. -0.37%
25). Purdue -----0.35%

The odds add up to roughly 66%. In other words, if you take the field, you’ll likely end up with one undefeated team. In most seasons, I would expect the odds to add up to 150% or something close to it. For instance, last season, I was pretty sure that USC would win all of its regular season games. They had a higher probability of going undefeated last year than W. Virginia does this year. As I mentioned earlier, college football is devoid of dominating teams like USC, Texas and Ohio St. from last year. Whereas in years past, USC would have a 90% chance of beating every Pac-10 team (with the exception of Cal), this year, USC is probably closer to 4/5 against Arizona St., Washington St., Oregon St., Oregon and Stanford. The same goes for Texas. Once Texas got past Ohio St. last year, it was smooth sailing. So, the 66% merely reflects the weaker than normal teams among the top 10.

It’s also important to remember that the odds for each game were based on how I view the teams coming into the season. If I did this same thing last year, I would have severely underrated Alabama’s chances of winning against the rest of the SEC elite. The Tide were much better than I anticipated. If a team like Alabama comes out of nowhere as a viable National Championship contender this season, then the chances of their being two undefeated teams probably go up. However, 66% is pretty low so it would take a significant change in the college football landscape for my results to predict two undefeated teams. It sounds a little strange to think that there will only be one undefeated team but when I look at the top teams, it seems to make sense. However, it only takes one team to gel unexpectedly to change everything. It’s possible that a mystery team like LSU or Auburn is poised to be so much better than the rest of the SEC that I slighted their chances by 50% or more. That’s the beauty of sports and college football in general. Some teams come together out of nowhere (a la the 2006 Detroit Tigers) to become an unbeatable force. However, without the luxury of hindsight, I can only go with my expectations sans unforeseen gelling of said mystery school.

Here are some notes on each of the teams on the list:

#1) West Virginia

I have no problem admitting that I was shocked that W. Virginia beat Georgia last year in the Sugar Bowl. In fact, I’m still shocked. However, I also have no problem admitting that the Mountaineers were much better than I thought they were last year and have a shot at going undefeated this year. Part of that has to do with the talent on the roster and the other part has to do with the fact that they play in the Big East. I’m not sure that going undefeated in the Big East would result in an invitation to the National Championship game but I do know that if anyone is going to do it, it’ll have to be a team ranked high to start the season. W. Virginia fits the bill.

The Mountaineers have two tests this year (three if Pittsburgh decides to show up this season) against Maryland and @ Louisville. In my opinion, Louisville was better than W. Virginia last year. W. Virginia squeaked out a victory against Louisville last season but that was at home and featured an unbelievable comeback after Louisville had seemingly put the game away. The Cardinals are not getting any worse so WVU will have its work cut out for it. The Mountaineers probably have a 50/50 chance of winning that game. If they do, they could easily end up undefeated.

If W. Virginia beats Louisville: 18.32%
If W. Virginia beats Louisville and Pittsburgh: 24.42%

#2) USC

You can attribute USC’s generous pre-season rankings to the one-man recruiting machine that is Pete Carroll. USC lost about as much as a team can lose in one season. Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Winston Justice, Fred Matua, Deuce Latui, Frostee Rucker and Darnell Bing just to name a few. Replacing all of those players is a bunch of questions marks—albeit highly rated question marks. While I have no problem admitting that the USC coaching staff has played a large part in USC’s offensive explosion over the last five years, I remind everybody once again of the 2005 Oklahoma Sooners and the 2005 Georgia Bulldogs. Without a proven, stable presence at QB, even the most talented rosters can struggle on offense. Despite Joe Tereshinski’s underdog story of a backup being thrust into the spotlight, Georgia’s season was derailed in 2005 by mediocrity from the most important position on the field when its starter went down late in the season. If Leinart’s heir apparent (John David Booty or Mark Sanchez) struggles, the Trojans will struggle too. Either way, I fully expect a big drop-off in offensive production from USC considering the attrition from last season. The coaching staff will get the most out of the roster but that’s not going to be enough to outscore everyone like recent years. Fortunately, I think USC’s defense will be as good as it has been under Carroll.

USC plays a deceptively difficult non-conference schedule. Arkansas is not going to be a big threat this year. However, this will not be an easy road game for a young team especially with the 70 points they gave up to USC last season fresh on the Razorbacks’ minds. I would still take USC -21 if I had to bet on the game but I would do it with a bit of doubt. The next game provides an interesting match-up against a team much like USC. Nebraska has raked in big-time recruiting classes under Bill Callahan. They took a big step forward last year and look to be even better this year. I would not take USC -21 in this game. The Trojans also play Notre Dame in a rematch of one of the best games I’ve ever seen. If they played right now on a neutral field, I would take Notre Dame’s high octane offense over a young USC team. I haven’t brought up the Pac-10 yet but there is a reason for that. The Pac-10 is terrible. In the past when USC could simply outscore even the best offenses in the Pac-10, things were dandy for the Trojans. This year, USC will not be able to simply outscore everyone because Arizona St., California, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington St. might all have similar firepower.

If USC beats Notre Dame: 13.56%
If USC beat Notre Dame and California: 18.08%

#3) Ohio St.

I was down in Columbus a few months back visiting my family. I asked a friend of the family (who happens to be a ginormous Buckeye fan) if he’s buying all of the Ohio St. hyperbole for 2006. I fully expected him to chuckle and say, “no.” When he said, “you better watch out because the Bucks are going to be tough this year and clearly should be the #1 team”, I just about passed out. I thought to myself, has there ever been a team in college football history to lose three starting linebackers, four starters from the secondary, two NFL-caliber offensive linemen, and the best wide receiver on the team and not only be considered better than the year before, but ranked #1 in the country?

Cleary my friend is not the unbiased sort but Jim Tressell has set the bar so high in Columbus that Bucknuts expect to be the best team every year. The Buckeyes will have a difficult match-up to start off the season @ Texas but that game looks much more manageable than last year’s close encounter of the Vince Young kind. While Ohio St. outplayed Texas for the majority of the game in 2005, Young was able to single handily dispatch of the Buckeyes. The Longhorns won’t have that luxury this year. Ohio St. also has the bonus of playing in an uncharacteristically weak Big Ten this year. Ohio St. only plays three “lose-able” games in the Big Ten this season. Two of them, Penn St. and Iowa, are the first two games of the Big Ten slate. The only other test will be Michigan in Columbus.

While the Buckeyes are probably overrated heading into the season and nowhere near the caliber of last year’s team, Ohio St. has a chance to win every game this season. Texas is down. Michigan has been down. Ohio St. could lead wire to wire without really facing much of a challenge.

If Ohio St. beats Texas: 12.15%
If Ohio St. beats Texas and Michigan: 18.23%

#4) Notre Dame

I’ve read a lot of articles/posts online that question Notre Dame’s defense going into the ’06 season. In fact, there has even been a mini-revolt by some people that has put Notre Dame outside of the top ten. While the Irish defense might be weak this year, people must remember that the relative strength of college football this season is as about as low as it has ever been. Notre Dame will be able to outscore just about every team in America. Defense won’t even be a factor in 90% of their games. Brady Quinn could be the most proficient quarterback in the country. The passing game was unstoppable in year one under Charlie Weiss. Imagine what it’ll be like in year two.

Notre Dame has a surprisingly easy schedule this season. In past years, Notre Dame has played an impossible schedule with little chance for success. This year, the Irish play four difficult games including; @ Ga. Tech, Penn St., Michigan, and USC. I can honestly say that I expect Notre Dame to be favored in all four of those games. Ga. Tech and Penn St. don’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with ND. Michigan does but when has Michigan ever beaten a highly ranked Notre Dame team on the road? USC is nowhere near the 2005 team that Notre Dame barely lost to last season. While I don’t think the Irish match-up in terms of all-time great teams or even some of the best teams of past years, I think the Irish are easily one of the best teams for 2006.

If Notre Dame beats USC: 9.38%
If Notre Dame beats USC and Michigan: 14.07%

#5) Texas

My guess is that for every Ohio St. fan (like my friend) who thinks Ohio St. will be even better this season, there is a Texas fan that thinks the same thing. Texas always has good athletes at every position. The defense will be very good as usual. The problem is that while Vince Young was a one-man, unstoppable offense, his replacement is an unproven newbie. Whereas an above average defense would’ve been as effective as paper against Young and Co. last year, an above average defense this year will probably be enough to give Texas problems. Remember, OU underwent a similar change last year and they paid the price dearly. Rhett Bomar never looked comfortable and the Sooners struggled as a result.

The thing that Texas has going for it is similar to what Ohio St. has in its favor. The Longhorns don’t play a particularly difficult schedule. The winner of the Texas/Ohio St. game will undoubtedly be a favorite to finish the season undefeated. Oklahoma just took a step backwards (literally) when they had to re-name Paul Thompson the starting quarterback after Rhett Bomar’s dismissal.

While Texas will play its most difficult game of the season in September against OSU, they do have a three out of four game patch that could derail their season. Texas plays @ Oklahoma, @ Nebraska, and @ Texas Tech. All three of those teams should be equalt to or better than their 2005 teams. I would be surprised if Texas had enough to win the National Championship this year. There are enough mine fields on their schedule to trip them up once or twice. However, considering how weak the state of college football is in 2006, Texas is still among the best teams even if it’s by default.

If Texas beats Ohio St.: 9.14%
If Texas beats Ohio St. and Oklahoma: 18.29%

#6) Oklahoma

In my opinion, Oklahoma is severely overrated going into the 2006 season. And no, it’s not because Bomar was sent packing. Bob Stoops will always have a talented roster in Norman. However, the offense was not good enough to win big games last year and the offense is virtually the same going into this season. A year of being average doesn’t mean a QB will all of a sudden become good. The defense will be talented per usual but what did that get the Sooners last year?

Oklahoma’s schedule isn’t all bad with the big games against Texas, @ Oregon, and Texas Tech. I would not be surprised if Oklahoma won all three or lost all three. Oklahoma lost two of those games last season and barely beat Oregon in the Holiday Bowl. Oklahoma could back its way into a good ranking by beating up on a lousy schedule and pulling out wins over good teams with question marks. If Oklahoma had Florida’s schedule, I would predict five losses for Stoops.

If Oklahoma beats Texas: 7.72%
If Oklahoma beats Texas and Oregon: 12.87%

#7) Louisville

The Cardinals have a very similar outlook to W. Virginia. They play two difficult games this year against W. Virginia and Miami (FL). As I mentioned above, if a team is going to make it to the National Championship game from the Big East, it’ll have to go undefeated and start the season ranked high. Louisville is ranked just high enough at #13 to be within striking distance by the end of the season. Brian Brohm and Michael Bush are back and badder than ever. I got a chance to watch a number of drubbings that they handed out to decent teams last year. Louisville’s offensive approach is second to none. The only thing keeping them from competing for a National Championship every year is the caliber of recruit that comes to Louisville. Even still, this program is on the rise as long as Bobby Petrino sticks around.

If Louisville beats Miami (FL): 9.30%
If Louisville beats Miami (FL) and W. Virginia: 18.61%

#8) Florida St.

If the 2005 Seminoles performed on the field as well as their players fared in the NFL Draft, they would’ve won the National Championship easily. FSU lost Ernie Sims, Brodrick Bunkley, Kamerion Wimbley, Antonio Cromartie, Willie Reid, Pat Watkins, and A.J. Nicholson on the defensive side alone. The ‘Noles will have little problem replacing those players with highly rated prospects but it’s impossible to imagine there not being a drop off on the defensive side of the ball. The offense has fallen off a long way from the high-scoring offenses from the 90’s. Florida St. and Miami used to dominate the average teams on their schedules. Now, teams like Clemson, NC State, Virginia, Maryland, and Ga. Tech play them tough. Florida St. is still one of the premier programs in college football but the mid-tier ACC teams play with more confidence against the Seminoles than they did in the 90’s.

Florida St. has a decent schedule. Nobody will mistake it for an easy one but considering Miami (FL) and Florida show up, it isn’t half bad. Florida St. should be the favorite in every other game meaning those two games are what stand between them and a shot at the BCS National Championship game. The winner of the FSU/Miami (FL) game will have one of the better chances at going undefeated out of all the major powers in college football.

If Florida St. beats Miami (FL): 5.74%
If Florida St. beats Miami (FL) and Florida: 11.47%

#9) Va. Tech

If Va. Tech wins at Miami (FL), it will have a decent shot at heading to the ACC Championship game with an undefeated record. The problem is that Va. Tech probably won’t be as good as they have been recently. I still expect the Hokies to make it to a major bowl game and go be unbeatable at home but games against Ga. Tech, BC, Clemson, and Virginia are more “lose-able” than ever. Plus, if Va. Tech does make it to the ACC Championship game, they will likely have to contend with a very good Florida St. team.

If Va. Tech beats Miami (FL): 6.80%
If Va. Tech beats Miami (FL) and BC: 10.20%

#10) Miami (FL)

The odds of Miami going undefeated are slightly less than that of FSU and Va. Tech because Miami has to play both FSU and Va. Tech while the Noles and Hokies don’t play each other. Even still, the odds are almost identical. The chances obviously aren’t very good considering that even if a team does make it through the regular season undefeated, it will have to win the ACC title game.

If Miami beats Florida St.: 5.22%
If Miami beats Florida St. and Va. Tech: 8.69%

#11) Iowa

Iowa will likely be favored in every game with the exception of Ohio St. and Michigan. If they can win those two games, the Hawkeyes will have an opportunity to go undefeated. Games against Iowa St., Purdue, N. Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota won’t beat easy but they are all winnable. Iowa has been reeling in excellent recruiting classes over the past few years meaning Kirk Ferentz doesn’t have to get by on out-coaching and out-executing the opposition alone. With big-time recruits in the trenches, he can play smash mouth football with Ohio St. and Michigan. With the talent differential between Iowa and the two perennial Big Ten powers being virtually erased, Iowa has to be considered an elite program as long as Ferentz is at the helm.

If Iowa beats Ohio St.: 7.62%
If Iowa beats Ohio St. and Michigan: 15.23%

#12) Boise St.

Boise St. had its chance to prove it could play with the big boys last year against Georgia. The result was a butt-kicking that won’t soon be forgotten. The Smurfs did the smartest thing possible by getting back to a cupcake-laden schedule. Boise St. may not be the underdog in any game they play. The home game against Oregon St. could go either way. The September 30th game at Utah could also be a tough one considering Boise St. does most of its damage at home. If Boise St. manages to win those two games, it could set up a make or break game against Fresno St for an undefeated season and/or conference title. It’s also important to remember that Dan Hawkins is no longer coaching the Blue Turf Boys. It’s easy to assume that the program will pick off where he left it but time will tell if that’s the case.

If Boise St. beats Fresno St.: 4.94%
If Boise St. beats Fresno St. and Utah: 9.87%

#13) TCU

The big win over Oklahoma last year was huge for the image of TCU football. The Horned Frogs aren’t going to sneak up on anyone this year as they are firmly entrenched in various pre-season top 25’s. TCU has some tough conference games against Utah, Colorado St., Air Force, and BYU but the biggest game of the year will be a home game against Texas Tech. It remains to be seen if TCU has the offense to keep up with Mike Leach’s high scoring Red Raiders. My bet is no but if they do pull off the upset, TCU will likely be favored in every game the rest of the way.

If TCU beats Texas Tech: 8.42%
If TCU beats Texas Tech and Utah: 12.63%

#14) Georgia

Georgia is a perennial power but without an experienced quarterback, things don’t look all that promising in the SEC. The good news is that Georgia doesn’t have to play LSU, Alabama, or Arkansas. The bad news is that they have to play at S. Carolina, at Florida, at Auburn and then play Georgia Tech and Colorado at home. Georgia could very well have a Michigan 2005 type season this year with five or more losses. Georgia was smoking teams last year until D.J. Shockley went down. They were exposed in the two games that he missed and that cost them a shot at the National Championship. Having said that, Georgia does have going for it the fact that it plays the four worst teams in the SEC in Ole Miss, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi St. Throw in the fact that the Bulldogs should go undefeated in non-conference play and you’ve got seven wins. Time will tell how they do in the five big games starting on October 7 against Fat Fulmer.

If Georgia beats Florida: 3.82%
If Georgia beats Florida and Auburn: 7.64%

#15) LSU

LSU, Georgia, and Auburn all have pretty much the same chance of going undefeated. Even though the odds put Georgia slightly ahead, if I had to bet on one of these teams going undefeated, I’d put money on LSU. They have the type of team that can gel into a powerhouse while Georgia’s lack of experience and talent at the QB position will likely prevent the possibility of the Bulldogs developing into an elite team.

If LSU beats Auburn: 3.18%
If LSU beats Auburn and Florida: 6.36%

#16) Auburn

I expect Auburn to be better than Georgia, too. The Tigers have to play LSU, @ S. Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and @ Alabama not to mention a non-conference affair against Washington St. It would be a miracle if Auburn managed to win all of those games and then win the SEC Championship. That is the reason why I’ve got Auburn at a 1.34% chance of going undefeated.

If Auburn beats LSU: 2.69%
If Auburn beats LSU and Georgia: 5.37%

#17) Penn St.

In my opinion, Penn St. isn’t yet among the elite teams. I think they are a half-step behind the top teams in the country. I think Penn St. will likely be slight underdogs when they travel to Notre Dame and Ohio St. I expect them to lose both games. Having said that, I don’t think Penn St. will be the underdog in any other game this year. The Michigan game is pretty much a 50/50 proposition and they don’t have to play Iowa. If Penn St. beats Notre Dame and Ohio St., the Michigan game becomes the biggest game played in Happy Valley in ages. The Nittany Lions are two upsets away from being at the top of the National Championship contenders list.

If Penn St. beats Notre Dame: 3.22%
If Penn St. beats Notre Dame and Ohio St.: 9.67%

#18) Michigan

If you take away the games against Notre Dame, Ohio St., Iowa and Penn St., Michigan has one of the easiest schedules around. However, that’s usually the case every year. Michigan only plays 3-4 “lose-able” games in most years and it’s just up to Wolverines to win them. In fact, if Michigan beats Notre Dame, Ohio St., Iowa, and Penn St., they have a 30%+ chance of going undefeated.

If Michigan beats Notre Dame: 2.55%
If Michigan beats Notre Dame and Ohio St.: 7.64%

#19) California

If Cal beats USC: 2.53%
If Cal beats USC and Tennessee: 7.58%

Cal enters the 2006 season as one of the biggest mysteries. They could be really good or just average. Jeff Tedford generally has good teams so my bet is that they’ll be a competitive bunch. I have to admit that I didn’t realize Cal played Tennessee until recently. That game will be big for both schools. If Tennessee loses to Cal at home, Fulmer is going to be on the hot seat. Remember, Fulmer cleaned house last year on the coaching staff in an attempt to save face. On the other hand, Cal starts the season off with Tennessee and Minnesota which could put them in an 0-2 hole. My guess is they’ll beat Minnesota but lose to Tennessee. Cal benefits from playing in the Pac-10 where they should be the second best team behind USC. Considering this will be USC’s weakest team in five years, Cal has its best chance of winning the Pac-10 in a long time.

#20) Alabama

Alabama only plays five “lose-able” games on the season. Unfortunately, those games are very “lose-able”. Alabama has to play @ Arkansas, @ Florida, @ Tennessee, @ LSU, and Auburn. SEC schedules don’t get much harder than that. Still, Alabama will have a chance to start the season 10-0 if it can beat Florida in Gainesville and get by Arkansas. Alabama probably doesn’t have as much talent as the SEC’s top teams (Florida, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, and Tennessee) but they are very close. I expect Alabama to be the cream of the crop in the SEC within two years. Mike Shula is bringing the Tide back. I just don’t think this is the year that they’ll make their statement.

If Alabama beats Florida: 1.50%
If Alabama beats Florida and LSU: 3.76%

#21) Florida

If Urban Meyer’s influence on Florida’s offense is the same as his second year success in Utah and Bowling Green, then I have severely underrated Florida. However, I think that Meyer’s ceiling isn’t anywhere near as high as it was with those other programs because of the caliber of defenses in the SEC. That’s not to say that Florida won’t be good or Meyer isn’t an elite coach. I just think Florida is in the same boat as LSU, Auburn, Georgia, and Tennessee. On any given week, any of those teams can beat the other. Throw in the fact that Florida always plays the toughest non-conference game in the SEC (Florida St.) and Florida going undefeated looks sketchy at best.

If Florida beats LSU: 1.13%
If Florida beats LSU and Auburn: 2.27%

#22) Tennessee

Fatty McFulmer is on the hot seat and if things go right, he’ll be cooking like bacon by the end of the season. Tennessee has to play California, Florida, @ Georgia, Alabama, @ S. Carolina, LSU, @ Arkansas and the SEC Championship game if they should get through that slate without a loss. I’m guessing that Tennessee is in line for another 4-loss season which would put him into Lloyd Carr territory among the Tennessee fan base.

If Tennessee beats Georgia: 1.32%
If Tennessee beats Georgia and LSU: 2.63%

#23) Fresno St.

The chances of Fresno going undefeated are as slim as ever with the presence of LSU on the schedule. The Bulldogs have to go to LSU mid-season which will almost surely result in a loss. If that’s not enough, Fresno has to play Oregon and travel to Washington which should be better than expected in year two of the Willingham era. Pat Hill’s teams are always competitive but their overall lack of talent makes them vulnerable to losses against average teams. Fresno also has to play @ Boise St. which makes it highly unlikely that this team will come close to threatening the equilibrium of the BCS which it has done in previous years. Since it is unlikely that no mid-major will crash the BCS party this year, BCS officials can start their yearly ’72 Dolphins-esque victory celebration and self-love fest.

If Fresno St. beats LSU: 2.22%
If Fresno St. beats LSU and Oregon: 5.54%

#24) Arizona St.

Arizona St. is one of the most underachieving programs of the last ten years. They always start the season with high expectations and end up tanking by mid-season. This season won’t be any easier as they play @ Colorado, @ California, and @ USC. With teams like Washington St., Oregon, Oregon St., Stanford, UCLA and Nevada on the schedule, ASU will be lucky to finish the season with less than five losses.

If Arizona St. beats USC: 1.84%
If Arizona beats USC and California: 4.60%

#25) Purdue

For the second year in a row, Purdue has the luxury of missing Michigan and Ohio St. on the Big Ten schedule. Purdue has three make or break games this year. Two of them are on the road @ Notre Dame and @ Iowa. The other game is a home contest against Penn St. I don’t think Purdue will win any of those games but should they miraculously win all three of them, they would be a thorn in the BCS side as that allows for the possibility of Purdue and Ohio St./Michigan to go undefeated. That’s not going to happen but we can dream!

If Purdue beats Notre Dame: 1.40%
If Purdue beats Notre Dame and Iowa: 4.20%

Teams that are good enough to be among the Top 25 in terms of the best teams but have virtually no chance of going undefeated because of their schedules (in other words, the best teams that didn’t show up on my list):

Ga. Tech
Texas Tech

Just for fun; here are the top 25 probabilities of going undefeated if every team wins their two toughest games of the season:

1) W. Virginia--24.42%
2) Louisville ---18.61%
3) Texas ------18.29%
4) Ohio St. ----18.23%
5) USC --------18.08%
6) Iowa -------15.23%
7) Notre Dame-14.07%
8) Oklahoma --12.87%
9) TCU --------12.63%
10) Florida St. -11.47%
11) Va. Tech----10.20%
12) Boise St.---- 9.87%
13) Penn St. -----9.67%
14) Miami (FL)---8.69%
15) Georgia ------7.64%
16) Michigan-----7.64%
17) Cal -----------7.58%
18) LSU ---------6.36%
19) Fresno St.----5.54%
20) Auburn ------5.37%
21) N. Illinois -----5.22%
22) Arizona St. ---4.60%
23) Purdue -------4.20%
24) Alabama -----3.76%
25) Nebraska ----3.33%

This list is probably more helpful in predicting the teams that will play in the National Championship. All you have to do is pick the teams that have the best chances of winning their two toughest games. West Virginia simply has to beat Louisville and Maryland. While I think Louisville is every bit as good as West Virginia, the Mountaineers have one major hurdle with a 50/50 chance of success. Believe it or not, that’s as good of an opportunity as any team will ever have at going undefeated. Louisville comes in at #2 but they have to play Miami so they aren’t a good candidate. Texas is #3 but they have to play Ohio St. and Oklahoma. With a new QB and a young team, Texas could have its hands full with those two games. Ohio St. has Texas and Michigan. Off the top of my head, I would expect Ohio St. to win both games. USC plays Notre Dame and California. Those are definitely both winnable. Iowa plays Ohio St. and Michigan. I don’t see them winning both of those games. Notre Dame plays Michigan and USC. I can see Notre Dame winning both of those games. The rest of the list features teams that have to play brutal schedules with the exception of TCU and Boise St. Texas Tech and Fresno St. seem to be the two teams keeping TCU and Boise St. from a run at an undefeated season. However, even if those two teams do go undefeated, I don’t think they’ll make the BCS Championship game over a one-loss big time school.

Here are my personal best bets to go undefeated despite the above probabilities:

W. Virginia
Notre Dame
Ohio St.

I’ll go out on a limb and predict USC to beat West Virginia in the BCS National Championship game.

Here are the teams that have the best chance of being the mystery team to gel and shock the college football world and my pre-season predictions like Alabama ’05:

Penn St.

Last but not least, I’ll leave you with the ten best teams, in my opinion, entering the 2006 season in no particular order:

Notre Dame
Ohio St.
W. Virginia
Penn St.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Greatest Sports Day of My Life

The greatest sports day of my life and one of the greatest all-around days of my life took place during my freshman year at the University of Michigan. I was just reminded how special that day was for me by the showing of the 1997 Michigan/Ohio St. game on ESPN Classic just a few days ago. As I’m sure most UM fans and non-UM fans alike know, 1997 was a magical year for Michigan football. It had been since 1948 that Michigan had won the National Championship. In a year when Michigan started off the season ranked uncharacteristically low at #13, the stars (and the Michigan defense) aligned to give way to perfection in Ann Arbor. That season marked the last time that Michigan stood atop the summit of the college football world, and in a lot of ways, marked the end of my innocence as a sports fan.

I have no problem admitting that 1997 was the greatest year of my life sports or otherwise. During the Fall Semester of my freshman year I had never been so invincible in my life, or so I thought. I had carte blanche over every personal decision for the first time in my existence. I could stay out as late as I wanted. I could skip class if I wanted. The only limits placed upon me were due to my own lack of imagination. As if that weren’t enough, there were 10,000 other kids in the exact same situation with the exact same newly-found freedom. A feeling like that will never be duplicated again, at least not for me. My passion is sports. Those that know me in the slightest know that I have a ridiculous and possibly wasteful passion for sports. I bleed Maize and Blue. I cherish Detroit sports. To go along with my newly found autonomy, 1997 was the year to be a Detroit sports fan. The Michigan hockey team won the National Championship in 97/98. The Detroit Red Wings won back to back Stanley Cups in 97/98. The Michigan basketball team won the Big Ten tournament in 97/98 (which, of course, is the last time the team made it to the NCAA Tournament). The Detroit Lions had a running back named Barry Sanders who rushed for 2,053 yards in ’97. The Tigers won 26 more games than the year before and almost finished at .500. The Pistons won 50+ games for the first time since the Bad Boy era. While all of that stuff was great, the ride that was the 1997 Michigan football season was what truly made that period the greatest four-month span of my life. That run culminated with an improbable National Championship and an even more improbable Heisman Trophy.

My sports passion as a youth was Michigan football above all else. I loved all of the Detroit sports but Michigan football became an obsession. Michigan’s string of soul-crushing losses over the years had become lore in the minds of many fellow fans. In 1997, Michigan started getting the breaks that eluded them so many heart-breaking times in the past. The defense was dominating. The offense was methodical, if not controlling. In one season, Michigan football became everything I’d always hoped it would be. The come-from-behind win over Iowa at home was as glorious and nerve-racking as it gets. The resulting party at the “Baseball” house on State St. featuring Glen Steele, Ian Gold, Noah Parker, and Ben Huff (who was on crutches) among others was definitely a highlight. I actually talked to each individually for a few minutes. I asked Ian Gold how he felt about playing linebacker when he came in as a highly rated running back. He said, “I just want to do all I can to help the team. Whatever they ask me to do is what I’ll do. If they want me at linebacker, I have no problem with that.” Needless to say, I have always been a big Ian Gold fan. I asked Ben Huff (R.I.P Ben Huff) if he was planning on coming back for a 6th season and he said it was up in the air. I was bummed out when he didn’t return in 1998. Especially memorable that night was my attempt to break up a brewing fight involving my friend and Michigan hockey defensemen/head hunter Chris Fox and Glen Steele. I succeeded brilliantly when I told Steele that he was my favorite player (which was true!). He said, “Why thank you very much.” Conflict over! The good times continued to roll with a dominating win over #2 Penn St. on the road on Judgment Day. That was a day I’ll never forget. That was also the day that a mob of students congregated at President Lee Bollinger’s house to celebrate the magnificent victory over Mike McQueary’s overrated Penn St. club. All of this led to the biggest Michigan/Ohio St. game of my lifetime.

Michigan needed to beat #4 Ohio St. to go to the Rose Bowl to play for the National Championship. While the game was the story, there was a subplot going on behind the scenes in college football. Two candidates had pulled away from the pack in the race for the Heisman Trophy. Amazingly, one of those candidates was a defensive player. Michigan’s Charles Woodson had been the best all-around player in college football but a defensive player had never won the Trophy. Peyton Manning had the gaudy offensive statistics and the storied pedigree to go with them. He was all but given the award entering the season. Woodson needed a strong showing against Ohio St. to keep Manning from walking away with the Trophy. What transpired on that cold, November day was everything that Michigan football can be. There may never again be a day like it where every conceivable aspect of the storied program was running on all cylinders. Michigan football was perfection that day.

The defense was dominating. Nary a Buckeye running back made it to the line of scrimmage without first being hit by a Michigan lineman--a trend that has all but disappeared in Ann Arbor. The Ohio St. duo of Joe Germaine and Stanley Jackson were stalked all day long by a litany of motivated Wolverines. And when Germaine and Jackson did get a pass off, the swarming Maize and Blue secondary was relentlessly ball-hawking at will. For some inexplicable reason, Michigan’s defense has never been the same. Perhaps holding other defensive units to the 1997 standard allows for the perception that Michigan’s defense has fallen off significantly. However, I don’t think that there’s much of an argument to the contrary. There is no question that the ferocity that had become synonymous with Michigan’s defense has been missing for close to a decade making that 1997 “D” that much more memorable.

Never in my lifetime had the stakes been higher for the Michigan football program. Michigan Stadium was packed to the brim. The crowd was as stoked as any Michigan crowd I had ever seen. The weather was perfect for a fall college football game. I couldn’t draw up the scene better if I had years to plan it. In the most important game in a half a century, Michigan was up for the challenge. The Wolverines dispatched of the Buckeyes and Charles Woodson had the game of his life. Michigan was headed for a National Championship and Woodson was headed for the Heisman Trophy. The season that I had hoped for and predicted so many times in my youth had finally come to fruition.

There are a lot of factors that were at play in my early years as a sports fan that were altered after the 1997 season. First and foremost, that was the last year that every player on the Michigan roster was older than me. Ever since I could remember, I looked up to these players for being not only bigger and stronger but also older and wiser. That was part of the allure of being a fan. 1997 was the last year that this would be true. That’s not to say that I stopped liking Michigan. It’s just that I started to look at everything for what it was. I started to see players in the classroom. I started to see that these people weren’t perfect. I heard stories about players and their work ethics. These were things that I wasn’t privy to before 1997. I no longer had all of these grand allusions about the players. Whereas they were icons to me before, they became peers and equals after 1997. Unfortunately, the humanizing of heroes is an inevitability of time’s work.

I vividly remember specific instances when a player in one of my classes was cocky and disrespectful to teachers and students. These were things that never entered my mind as a 15 year old kid. During my sophomore year, Dave Petruziello and Larry Foote were in one of my classes. It was a small class so we got to know each other pretty well. It was such a weird feeling knowing that these guys were actually a year behind me. As much as I didn’t want it to, that realization had an effect on the way I watched games. Petruziello was roommates with Drew Henson during their freshmen year. I had a group project with “Petro” so we met at his room where he enlisted Henson to drive us to the library in his brand new SUV featuring heated seats courtesy of the New York Yankees. Henson was a nice guy but he drove like a maniac. I can safely say that when I was cheering for Elvis Grbac, Todd Collins, and Brian Griese, I never had to deal with the knowledge that they played rap music ridiculously loud and had less-than-desirable driving abilities.

To every kid 18 and younger, Henson was just like Grbac and company were to me. It wasn’t Henson’s fault. He was just a kid himself. Some punk freshman in 1993 probably had the same “growing up” moment with Grbac or Collins. My time to “grow up” had come. Just one of the many instances that humanized Michigan football players to me was an email from one football player in particular sent to one of his professors. Said player must have accidentally hit the “reply to all” button as his email was sent out to a class of 200 people. The fact that the email was mistakenly sent wasn’t as memorable as the words themselves. I still have said email which is something in itself. Particularly memorable about the email was the longest punctuation-less sentence I have ever read. The sentence featured 50 words with no commas or semicolons. I’m not taking anything away from this guy but when I was 15 years old rooting for Timmy B to run for 300+ yards against the Buckeyes, I never had to consider his use of commas and/or semicolons. Don’t get me wrong, everybody makes grammar mistakes. I was just used to seeing them made by “mortals” and not “heroes”.

The change took place so suddenly. In 1996, I was still looking up to Michigan football players as larger-than-life icons. In 1998, I knew as much about them personally as I did about their on the field accolades. As far back as I could remember before 1997, I would take a look at Michigan’s schedule and conclude that Michigan should win every game. I used to waste time in high school by coming up with my pre-season Top 25. I’d always try to force myself to rank Michigan lower than I wanted but I inevitably ended up convincing myself that they would go undefeated. More times than not, I’d end up ranking them #1. The fact that Michigan seemingly lost every game by a ridiculous combination of circumstances (i.e., every Notre Dame game, Colorado ’94, Miami ’88) only encouraged my belief that Michigan had as good of a chance as anyone to win every game. After the 1997 season, that all changed. I started looking at things as they were instead of as they “should” be. I was able to see first hand that the players were just 18 and 19 year old kids with dual focus on football and girls. I started to see that expecting perfection from people that are just finding there way in the world is akin to expecting your four year old to never pee the bed. More times than not, Junior is going to succeed but there will always be slip ups. There will always be off-the-field distractions and mental lapses. At 14 years old, this idea was foreign to me. At 19 years old, it was as obvious as the Great Wall of China. The disappointing ’98 season jump-started my life as a skeptical sports fan. I shed my role as a naïve sports fan for one of realistic expectations. I started to take into consideration the mental lapses and the odds of reoccurrence rather than simply attributing them to fluke performances. I started to look at game plans and coaching philosophies. I started to compare Michigan to other programs. I don’t want to short change my younger self. I always was a skeptic. I could recognize bad decisions. Gary Moeller’s disappointing Michigan teams enraged me. I could recognize bad play calls. It’s just that every player on the roster became human to me for the first time. I couldn’t rely on a miracle anymore. My hopes and dreams were no longer in the hands of “heroes” rather they were in the hands of mortals with the same problems and vices that I had. Obviously, that takes some of the allure away from being a sports fan.

Some sports fans never change. They choose to root and root some more regardless of the situation. For many of these people, criticizing the home team is a sin. For me, being a sports fan is a constant transformation. In the same way that I don’t look at Christmas morning in the same way as I did when I was 12, I don’t look at sports in the same way. I give sports the same scrutiny as I give politicians and musicians. If something deserves to be criticized, I criticize. If a team is relatively weak, I don’t expect much. If a team is good, I expect more. Some sports fans use sports as an excuse to devoid themselves of having to use logic. My whole sports world is presently based on logic. I consider “odds”, “chances” and rationality in virtually every situation. Some might argue that this takes away from the fun but to that I ask why every adult doesn’t still believe in Santa Claus. Wouldn’t Christmas be more fun with Santa Claus? Of course. In the same manner, sports would be inherently more fun without logic. I am a sports fan in the same way that I take on every aspect of life. I gather all of the information that I can and form the best possible point of view. To do otherwise would be a disservice to myself.

The previous paragraph is why The Greatest Sports Day of my life is and always will be in 1997. It is also the same reason why the greatest Christmas in my life is stuck somewhere in the 1980’s. Things change. People get smarter and priorities change. Michigan football was perfect on November 22, 1997. While another perfect season would undoubtedly provide thousands of other people with the Greatest Sports Day of their lives, that distinction for me is forever locked into that November Saturday in 1997. That is, of course, until my son gets his first hit in tee-ball.

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