Sunday, March 25, 2012

#23 Vanderbilt

The Vanderbilt Commodores have been the perennial doormats of the SEC. Last year, the Commodores brought in a young, new head coach in James Franklin and he changed the attitude of the program. They finished the season with a tough loss to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl, but still had a lot to build on for 2012. 

Offensively, they return eight starters including quarterback Jordan Rogers and 2nd Team All SEC Running Back Zac Stacy. The offensive line returns three starters and the wide receiving corps will be one of the most experienced in the SEC. This season will be one of the few times in Vanderbilt history that the offense will be the strength of the team. If the offensive line can form a solid cohesive unit, Zac Stacy has potential for a dark horse Heisman campaign and 1st Team All SEC honors. The Vanderbilt passing offense was tied for 97th in the NCAA and Jordan Rogers will need to progress as a passer to help relieve the pressure on Stacy.

The defense returns a lot of experience on a unit that was ranked 18th nationally in total defense. Vanderbilt will need to replace Casey Hayward at corner and Chris Marve at mike linebacker. These two gentlemen were the heart of the defense and each made 2nd Team All SEC. Casey Hayward was a huge playmaker on defense that led the team in interceptions and force fumbles. Marve was a field general for the defense as well as their leading tackler. Another key loss for Vanderbilt with be defensive end Tim Fugger. Fugger led the team in sacks. This defense needs to replace these three statistical leaders if they wish to be another Top 20 defense. 

Vanderbilt's schedule is very front loaded with the three toughest teams from the SEC East in their first five games. If they can manage to beat South Carolina in their home opener, they will hav a great shot at winning the SEC East. The non-conference schedule is rather easy with the only challenge being a trip to Northwestern. The toughest stretch of the season has trips to Georgia and Missouri followed by consecutive home games against Florida and Auburn. If they can emerge from that stretch 2-2 or even 3-1, they'll be on the path to consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history. Vandy avoids the big three from the West and get Ole Miss for their permanent foe. Vanderbilt should at least go 6-6 again., but I think that this will be an eight win Vanderbilt team. If Vanderbilt reaches their potential, it will be due to a total team effort.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Looking Forward to a Finale

I have been a Braves fan for my entire life. I remember the rotten years of the 1980s when all we had was Dale Murphy rocking his mullet and nothing else. Then in 1991, the Braves started to become a dynasty in the National League with back-to-back pennants and World Series heartbreak. 1993 brought disappointment back to the Braves Nation. If not for the strike of 1994, we would have seen the Braves' consecutive division titles streak snapped by the Montreal Expos.

In 1995, a 23-year-old switch hitting third baseman was given a full time spot with the Braves. That man was Larry Wayne Jones, Jr., or "Chipper" as he would be known for the next 18 seasons. Chipper won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and helped lead the Braves to their first World Series Title in Atlanta. I loved watching Chipper play because it always looked like he was having fun. His smile was seen almost constantly that year and would become a trademark. Baseball wasn't a job for him; he was able to play for a living and have fun at it.  And to a thirteen-year-old Braves fan from Kissimmee, Florida, he was a hero.

My mom bought me a white t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Chipper's Upper Deck trading card and took me to the downtown Kissimmee sports memorabilia shop to seek out his Topps Trading Card. I never missed a Braves game on TBS or ESPN, so I could always see that switch hitting marvel. I despised the Mets and loved when Chipper would go to Shea because I knew he was going have at least two hits that night. Chipper loved playing the Mets because he knew he was in every single one of their pitchers' heads. In fact, he later named one of his sons Shea after the now defunct Shea Stadium.

Now I know that Chipper is only human and not a perfect person. I overlook the fact that he cheated on his first wife with a Hooters waitress and ended up knocking her up with his first son. Over the years his body has taken a beating, and I have to wonder if it was due to bad genetics or steroids.  I will always give Chipper the benefit of the doubt because I am his fan. I still own a Chipper Jones 10 jersey that hangs proudly in my closet. I wear it every opening day and to pretty much any Braves game I attend. I even wore it to the first night of my film class in college, where it helped me make a really nice first impression on my now wife. I have watched many a Braves game on the West Coast into the wee hours of the morning while they trailed in the 9th inning knowing that Chipper was coming up and would knock in the winning run. (And more times than not, he did!)

So this morning when the story broke that Chipper was going to retire, I felt sad, but I knew it was going to be a finale worth remembering. We had an end in sight, and he wouldn't become a problem for the Braves the way Favre became for my beloved Packers. Chipper would get the farewell tour around all the NL parks the way Bobby Cox did. Maybe the Braves can capture lightning in a bottle and claim a World Series title for Chipper like the Broncos took Elway out on top. I will probably be a very tired individual during the season, because I will watch every game that Chipper plays this year. I don't want to miss any potential homeruns, RBIs, and especially any of those Chipper smiles after big hits and great catches.

While it is always sad to see a hero retire from the game, it's good to know that he will have played for 18 seasons with the same team and will go down as one of the greatest Braves of all time. We won't have to see him finish his time up with the Phillies and Colorado Rockies wishing he'd hang it up and not tarnish his legacy any more. Chipper will put everything into this season and will hopefully keep his career batting average above .300 and get to 475 homers. I will head to the Ted as many times as I can this year to see Chipper have some of his magic Chipper moments, and hopefully, that great smile.

The Football Messiah Heads to the Big Apple

After a whirlwind 48 hours, Tim Tebow is headed to a team that is more dysfunctional than Jon and Kate Plus 8 and more publicity-seeking than the Kardashians. I am a Tebow fan. I was one of the few Alabama fans who sincerely felt bad for him after Bama stomped him in the 2009 SEC Championhip Game. I wanted Bama to win of course, but I wanted it to be a good game. I admired how he tried to rally the troops for one last run at Bama and how he was a gracious loser. Then the story came out the next week how he prayed with Mark Ingram at the Heisman Ceremony to try to give Mark peace, and that caused me to like him even more. I bought into his rah rah speeches and emotional leadership. I thought he had the "It" Factor that would allow him to become a great quarterback in the NFL, and I still do. But I do not think he's walking into a good situation in New York.

The Jets are led by a blowhard in Rex Ryan and have a very dysfunctional locker room with no true leadership.  The team lacked cohesion, and all of their bravado was gone when they finished the season on a three-game losing streak. Santonio Holmes quit on his team in the middle of the final regular-season game, which the Jets needed to win to have a shot at making the playoffs. AND HE'S STILL ON THE TEAM! Shortly following the season, anonymous criticism came out against the eggshell-tough quarterback Mark Sanchez. This led to owner Woody Johnson and center Nick Mangold defending Sanchez's work ethic and trying to portray that the problems were being handled.

Then the entire offseason dance with Peyton Manning went down, and everyone knew that Tebow's days as a Bronco were numbered. After the Jets flirted with Manning, they gave Sanchez a 3-year contract extension to try to salve the wound of Sanchez's ego. Then, last Friday, the Jets signed career backup Drew Stanton to a one-year deal to be Sanchez's backup putting three quarterbacks on the roster. To the surprise of everyone on Wednesday the Jets were able to pull of the trade that landed them Tebow. The camps were mixed with the Jets as to whether this was a good move or not. Antonio Cromartie tweeted out that Jets didn't need Tebow. (What a way to welcome a new teammate!) He later backtracked on his statement and tried to say he wanted the Jets to spend money on more weapons for Sanchez. No player on the Jets has come out (as of 3:16 p.m. Central Time today) to support Tebow. A lot of people suspect that Rex Ryan made this trade so that the Jets can stay in the spotlight of the NFL while the Saints are being punished and the Broncos are welcoming Manning. A trade for the sake of publicity does no one any good. The Jets circus was about to be cranked up to 11.

Now there are some upsides to this trade. Tebow will probably at first be used exclusively in the Wildcat formation. Tony Sparrano utilized this during his head coaching days with the Dolphins and was the first in the NFL to do so. Tim has shown that he is very adept at running this package with the Broncos when he supported it by making some throws down the field. Tim had trouble doing that on a consistent basis though, and that allowed opponents to stack the box against him and slow down or stop the spread option attack. Tim will have to work on being more accurate with his throws, but he has shown that he is willing to do whatever it takes to be an NFL quarterback.

So now Tebow comes to the biggest media market in the world as one of four quarterbacks on the Jets roster. He has a starter ahead of him whose confidence is shaky at best, a locker room that is splintered and fighting with each other, a coach who drops the f-bomb the way I down Coke Zero, teammates saying they don't want Tebow there, and the pressure of the expectations of his ever-growing fan base. The situation seems like one that is doomed for failure. But call me crazy, I think Tebow has what it takes to succeed here and make a mole hill out of a mountain of obstacles.

If Tebow could pull that miracle off, we may be able to convince atheists and agnostics that there is a God.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Safety, the Saints, and the NFL

So let me start by saying I think Roger Goodell reacted accordingly and had to punish Sean Payton more severely for lying  about the bounties more than the bounties themselves. Were the bounties bad? Yes. Was there a need for punishment? Yes. Did Payton hurt himself more by lying? Oh yeah. But the key to all of this is the bounty system the Saints used under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

Now that it's out of the way, I don't think there should have been such a big deal made about the bounties. Bounties happen on every level but don't always involve cash. Colleges and high schools give helmet stickers for big hits. ESPN used to have a segment on Monday Night Countdown called "JACKED UP!" That is from 2008. In 2009, the NFL asked that the segment be discontinued because they were starting to put the emphasis on safety.  The following year concussion studies began coming out showing a disturbing trend in NFL players.  This study opened the floodgates of former players talking about their concussions and studies showed the damages were worse than the NFL had let on. The suicide of NFL legend Dave Duerson sparked a lot of conversation about concussions and their effect on former players. Duerson had shot himself in the heart and left his brain to be studied. The study revealed that Duerson had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which has been found in the brains of more than 20 recently deceased football players. This led multiple former players to file lawsuits against the NFL alleging that the NFL had intentionally hid the results about concussions from players going back as far as the 1920s.

With all of these lawsuits going around the NFL right now, Goodell had to take a tough stand on the bounty issue. Player safety is going to be a leading topic for the next few years as the lawsuits continue and Goodell is the figurehead for the organization that will face a majority of the lawsuits. He was given a great opportunity to take a stand against one of the most popular NFL franchises for a bounty program. He was going to make an example of the Saints. Saints head coach Sean Payton and the GM Mickey Loomis made huge errors by lying to the investigators about their knowledge of the bounty system. They were going to get hammered because of the bounties but when you lie to the investigators on top of that, you've upped the punishment.

Football is a violent game.  I played football at the middle school, high school, and college level from 1996-2004. I had my bell rung several times and continued practicing and playing despite probably having a concussion. I know for a fact that I have osteoarthritis in my knees, hips, hands, ankles, hands,  and neck. I lucked out by never having a serious enough injury to garner surgery. Would I do it all again? Yes. I knew football was a violent game going into it. I knew that there was always a risk of injury. If you play afraid, you'll get injured. You have to play fearless and with reckless abandon. I forged my best friendship outside of my marriage because of football. We went through 3-a-days, football camps, highest of highs, and lowest of lows together. Football is a great game but it is a dangerous one. Eventually they will have to improve the safety of the game to reduce the risk of concussions because as long as you have people colliding at a high rate of speed you are going to have injuries. You cannot prevent physical contact in football unless you go to a flag football game and there is no audience for people watching flag football.

The NFL, NCAA, and all the way down to peewee football will have to do the best they can to ensure the safety of their players but players and the higher ups will have to acknowledge that there is no way to make football 100 percent safe.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Tebow vs. Manning

I have never been a big fan of Peyton Manning mainly due to his conducting the Tennessee Marching Band at Legion Field after Tennessee snapped Alabama's unbeaten streak against the Vols in 1995. However, I do respect the things he has been able to do on the football field as a top five quarterback in the history of the NFL. Manning's release from the Colts was an inevitability since he had his fourth neck surgery and was owed a whopping $28 million. The Colts didn't want to risk setting the franchise back even farther while they waited for Manning to recover and they didn't want to not draft Andrew Luck as a possible second franchise quarterback while paying Manning $28 million.

Manning began to be recruited by 12 NFL teams in desperate need of a quarterback eventually boiling down to the Titans, 49ers, and the Broncos. The Titans fan base led by one Clay Travis, were convinced that Peyton was going to be a Titan. And then the bombshell dropped this morning that Elway's relationship with Manning had been more of a factor than anybody thought and Peyton was a Bronco. The vitriol spewed in the Nashville area was as if Lane Kiffin had left all over again.  The Broncos had landed a great quarterback to lead them to the promised land. An experienced vet who had two Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl victory under his belt.

Except they had a young quarterback with a work ethic that was near unparalleled in the NFL and a lot of raw skill. That quarterback is Tim Tebow. John Fox had Tebow thrust upon him by the previous Denver head coach Josh McDaniels who was fired late in the 2010 season. Tebow is not the most skilled passer but he was learning the NFL game and started 16 games in his NFL career going 9-7, 1-1 in the playoffs. A man who had a following not only because of his college career, but because of all the off the field activities he has involved himself in helping others and raising money for various causes. Tebow is a quarterback that has a lot of raw potential and was working very hard to improve on this off season.

Tebow was hurt by the NFL Lockout last year where he was unable to use the Broncos facilities to watch game film and work with his wide receivers. The Broncos had to try and quiet the Tebowmania that was sweeping Denver after they had started 1-4. Tebow didn't play particularly well in his first start but led the Broncos to an improbable comeback and a 8-5 record as a starter for the 2011-2012 season. Tebowmania swept the nation. People tuned into games just to see what Saint Tebus would do this week. While this was going on, Broncos management (Elway) and coaching staff began to grow tired of Tebow's inconsistent play and began to seek a way out.

The Broncos knew that the only way they could escape Tebowmania was for them to get a huge splash at quarterback. That splash, was Peyton Manning.

Now the Broncos are finalizing the deal with Peyton and as soon as he is signed Tebow will be traded to another team. This is a huge risk for Denver. They are essentially putting all of their eggs in the Manning basket. Manning will supposedly sign a $95 million/5 year deal. Manning maybe has 2 or 3 good years left in him and that's only if his neck holds up to the pounding an NFL QB takes. Tebow is a young QB that has a far bigger upside than that of Manning. If you don't believe me, listen to the wisdom of CNBC Sports Financial Analys Darren Rovell: "If Tebow is traded to the right team, he does more business for them than Manning does for Denver."

Only time will tell if the Broncos made the right choice but I strongly believe that Tebow will prove all of his Denver doubters wrong and become a great NFL Quarterback. If there is one thing I have learned in my 6 years of watching Tim Tebow play, it is to never count out number 15.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Tourney is Missing Its Heart

As I've been watching the NCAA tournament and seeing the pretty good first and second round games (screw the NCAA calling the play-in games the first round), I've noticed one huge glaring omission: Gus Johnson. Gus Johnson could make a casual fan absolutely entranced by a game between 12 and 13 seeds.  The audience would hang on every word of Gus because he cared about what he was broadcasting. He actually got excited about exciting games as opposed to Joe Buck who stays even keeled throughout the entire ballgame. Here is a series of calls from Joe Buck during the 2011 NFL Playoff run. Here is Gus calling the Pac 10 Championship Game from 2011.  Which one sucks you in immediately? The Gus call of course.

Now some may say that Gus lucks out and has all of these amazing moments fall into his lap. I beg to differ. The Law of Gus was so brilliantly defined by one of my favorite sports writers Bill Simmons. It just seemed that no matter where Gus was, a great game was going to happen. Gus was able to have so many iconic NCAA Tourney games happen during his broadcasts that there was an active internet movement to have Gus broadcast the Final Four instead of Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg. Gus is a fan who realizes how lucky he is to broadcast from sporting events that we all want to be at. 

Now there were rumors that Nantz became threatened by Gus' popularity and it led CBS to be cautious with resigning Gus to a big contract. But there is a reason that Gus' voice is used for Buffalo Wild Wings commercials, the voice of the Madden franchise, and a Gus Johnson soundboard that can brighten the day of any sports fan. 

With the loss of Gus Johnson from the NCAA Tournament, the NCAA has lost its heart. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

#24 Washington

After last week's preview of the # 25 Florida Gators, we head to the Pacific Northwest with the Washington Huskies.

Washington started off 5-1 last year before losing 4 of their last 6 and falling to 7-5. Steve Sarkisian starts his fourth year at Washington and will try to get over the 7-6 hump he's had in the previous two years. Overall, Sark's record is 19-19 at Washington with a 1-1 bowl record. He has 16 returning starters overall and a very difficult first 6 games with LSU, Stanford, Oregon, and USC at the start.

The offense returns eight starters including four of their five offensive linemen. While the biggest lost will be running back Chris Polk, All Pac 12 Honorable Mention Keith Price returns at quarterback. Price was one of the most efficient red zone quarterbacks in the nation last year placing in the top five in red zone completion percentage, passing efficiency, touchdowns, and touchdown efficiency. With the departure of Chris Polk, Jessie Callier and Bishop Sankey will probably lead a duel backfield as the Huskies try to use a multi back system. Two great wide receivers in Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar are headed to the NFL and Kevin Smith is unlikely to return from a knee injury making the experienced wide receivers for Washington rare. James Johnson will be leaned on heavily by Keith Price at first but look for some of the true freshmen and red shirt freshmen to step up.

The Husky defense was ranked 107 out of 120 in the NCAA and have a lot of room to improve. New Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox comes from Tennessee and looks to use the personnel he has inherited at Washington to form a fierce unit that mirrored his 28th ranked Tennessee Volunteer defense from last year. According to Jerry Brewer's column, Wilcox will be a coach who isn't coaching to  a system, but coaching to his players. He'll need to use a lot of coaching to get a defense that gave up an average of 35.8 points a game into a dominant one. The Husky faithful should feel better knowing that Justin Wilcox will be improving the weakest link of the team.

All in all I think the Huskies can go 8-4 with a possibility of 9-3. The first six games are brutal but if they can beat the two they are supposed too in San Diego St. and Portland St., then steal one from either LSU, Stanford, Oregon or USC, they will be heading into the final six games 3-3 and would probably be favored in them all.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

#25 Florida Gators

Yesterday on JOX GameDay OverTime we started our Top 25 of 2012. Coming in at Number 25 were the Florida Gators. The Gators will look to rebuild their offense losing Jonathan Brantley, Chris Rainey, and Jeff Demps but returning 7 starters. New Offensive Coordinator Brent Pease will try to institute a more pro style offense for the Gators after coming from Boise State. The Gators had the 89th ranked passing offense and the 73rd ranked rushing offense. Mike Gillislee is the returning rushing leader and will try to win the starting job as Spring Training comes around. Andre Debose will be the primary deep threat for the Gators that will try to improve upon a passing game that was 83rd in the nation. The quarterback battle will be between Jeff Driskell and Jacoby Brissett. Both saw action after Brantley was injured but neither really impressed the Gator faithful.

The defense for the Gators returns 10 of 11 starters but the depth behind them will have little to no experience. The Gator Defense was 8th in the nation in total defense and was one of the few highlights of the year for the Gators. The linebacking corps led by Jonathan Bostic will be one of the best in the nation and should allow the Gators to improve on their 40th ranked rushing defense. The Gators secondary has all 4 starters returning which will help to maintain one of the best passing defenses in the nation. The Gators finished 7th in the nation in passing defense and were only second to Alabama in the SEC.

Overall the Gators should improve upon their 7-6 record from 2011. I see the Gators going 8-4 with losses to Texas A&M, LSU, Vanderbilt, and Georgia. Will this improvement be enough progress for the Gator faithful? Only time will tell.