Wednesday, April 18, 2012

#20 Auburn Tigers

The Auburn Tigers came into the 2011 Season as the defending BCS Champions and finished a disappointing 8-5. Auburn's losses were all by double digits and in embarrassing fashion. Many fans took out their frustrations on departed Defensive Coordinator Ted Roof whose defense ranked 81st in the NCAA in Total Defense. Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn also departed from the program to become the head coach of Arkansas State. While Gene Chizik isn't officially on the hot seat just yet, another 8-5 season will make Auburn  fans wonder if the 14-0 season was a once in a lifetime run.

New Defensive Coordinator Brian VanGorder has a track record of improving defenses. He will have a defensive unit that will feature 10 returning starters and a lot of experience. Departed Safety Neiko Thorpe was quite a ball hawk but Sophomore Enrique Florence is more than capable of filling his shoes. Defensive End Corey Lemonier will anchor a great defensive line but unless they improve on their sacks and tackling it could be another long year for the defense.

Scot Loeffler replaces Guz Malzahn at Offensive Coordinator and brings a more pro-style set to Auburn. The Tigers spent most of last year with Barrett Trotter at Quarterback before going to a combination of Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier. Trotter came back to start in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and lead the Tigers to a 43-24 victory over Virginia. The Tigers will hold a Quarterback competition in fall camp between Moseley, Frazier and true Freshman Zeke Pike. Many Auburn fans feel that Pike is a young Cam Newton who will need to adjust his game to the college level. All Quarterbacks spent time with the first unit during the Michael Dyer had off the field issues causing him to miss the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and eventually transfer to Arkansas State. Tre Mason and Onterrio McCalebb stepped into Running Back role for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and looked very impressive. Alabama transfer Corey Grant looks to battle Mason and McCalebb for some playing time after sitting out a year due to transferring. The Wide Receiver corps will be led by Trovon Reed and Emory Blake.

Auburn's schedule is a manageable one and is best divided up into three four game seasons.  The opener against Clemson in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff will go a long way in telling how far the defense has come. They will then travel to Starkville to play a tough Mississippi State squad before hosting UL-Monroe on September 15th. LSU comes to town the following week in what should be the second loss of the season for Auburn. The second four game stretch follows that can either propel this into a special season or send it into a tailspin. After playing a talented Vanderbilt team, Auburn must navigate three trap games at Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt and then home for Texas A&M. The final four games of the season will feature two cupcakes and the two teams favored to meet in Atlanta for the SEC Championship. If Auburn can correct their defensive problems and find an offensive identity, they could easily go 9-3. But if they fail to improve from last year it could be a long, long season for the Tigers. My final prediction is that they will go 7-5.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Random Thoughts for an April Day

  • UAB and Arkansas State should be worried about losing their head coaches to Arkansas. Butch Davis is the hot name going around now but there is way too much baggage for Arkansas to commit to him. While Butch was never convicted of having anything to do with the illegal NCAA activities going on at North Carolina, it's hard to imagine he had no idea it was going on.
  • Ozzie Guillen should not have had to apologize to the Miami Marlins Fans. Yes Fidel Castro is a horrible person and has been a ruthless dictator in Cuba for nearly six decades in some form or fashion. But a man is allowed to believe whatever he wants to believe in America as long as it doesn't cause violence towards anyone else. The Miami Marlins did not want to insult the huge Cuban population in Miami by having Ozzie say that. The Marlins are opening a new stadium and spent a lot of money to try and make the team more "Miami" than "Florida." By forcing a five game suspension on Guillen, it prohibits free speech.
  • The Miami Heat are not getting in playoff shape. The Heat need to realize that you need to have some form of momentum heading into the playoffs. They are 5-5 in their last ten games with two losses to the Celtics who will probably be their second round matchup. You cannot turn a switch on and off for playing good basketball. Consistent winning is a thing that breeds confidence and I'm starting to think the Heat are letting the pressure and pre-season predictions get to them.
  • The Chicago Bulls will be the favorite in the NBA playoffs. The Bulls have been the walking wounded all year and have still managed to have the best record in the NBA. They remind me a lot of the Packers in the 2010-2011 season where the motto became, "Next Man Up!" The Bulls have been able to develop a lot of depth at guardwith the play of Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson, and Jon Lucas, III at guard while Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton have been out. The Bulls are watching Rip Hamilton's minutes as they work him back into the lineup and Rose is still recovering from his various injuries. This depth at guard will ultimately pay off as they make their way through the Eastern Conference.
  • What's the deal with the Braves, Yankees, and Red Sox? The teams are a combined 4-12 through the first week of the season. It looks like the Yankees are just off to a slow start but the Sox may still have issues from last year. The Braves offense looks like the one that struggled to close the season last year and need a shot in the arm from someone. Maybe Chipper Jones' return will get them going.
  • The Stanley Cup begins tonight and NBC is broadcasting it right. One of the biggest problems following the Stanley Cup that past few years has been trying to find all the games. Unless you had the NHL Center Ice package you could not watch every game. Now that NBC has cornered the market on the NHL for the next few years, they can spread the games out between NBC Sports Channel, CNBC and the NHL Network. Every game will be viewable in HD in most households. Hockey is a sport that is made for HD. If the playoff hockey lives up to the hockey we've seen this season, the NHL may be on the rebound for viewers.
  • It's great to hear about Auburn's Shon Coleman returning to practice after his two year battle with leukemia. I am not a fan of Auburn and will never be one but it is great to see a young man battle back from leukemia. These are still baby steps for Shon but they are steps none the least. I and many others are hoping that Shon eventually gets back to full strength and plays for Auburn soon. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Petrino Is Fired and Chaos Will Reign!

Arkansas did something that I thought they wouldn't have the guts to do and that is fire Bobby Petrino. There was no way that Arkansas could not fire him after he A) Lied to his bosses about the wreck B)  Tried to cover up the circumstances around the wreck and C) Hired his mistress to be a direct subordinate. If Arkansas would have left him in charge it would have severely compromised the program's integrity and opened them up to even more scrutiny. Arkansas will now have to deal with an employee who could file sexual harassment charges against the university if she wants to get money out of them. Luckily they should be able to invoke the morals clause in Petrino's contract and get out of buying him out.

Where will Arkansas go from here? The popular names for Petrino's replacement are Guz Malzahn, Butch Davis and Garrick McGee. Jerry Jones is said to be pushing hard for Butch Davis to become the head coach but would Arkansas really want all the baggage he would bring? I think it is more likely that Garrick McGee will be the head coach because he is familiar with the system and wouldn't have to make too many changes to the program. 

I went through a coaching staff change after spring training while I was at Bama. It was rough. Pretty much all of you are aware of the Mike Price scandal in the spring of 2003. The only real consistency we had after the firing was on the defensive side of the ball and the strength and conditioning staff. The offense and special teams were overhauled and needed a lot of work before fall camp. We worked a lot on pass skeleton and special teams formations and terminology to try and catch up. But putting in a new offense without any practices led by coaches was a tall order.

If Arkansas decides to use a current coordinator as an interim coach much like Ohio State did this past season, I wouldn't blame them. But Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long is going to have a very difficult decision to make these next few days that will not only affect the program but his career as well. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

#21 Michigan State

The Michigan State Spartans were a surprise to many last year as they made a run for the Big Ten Championship. After a rough loss to Notre Dame early in the season, Sparty went on to finish 9-2 with a heartbreaking loss in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game. Michigan State scored the the lone Big Ten win over the SEC with their thrilling triple overtime victory over Georgia in the Outback Bowl. While the Spartans are going to break in a lot of new offensive players, their defense will be one of the best in the nation.

Michigan State loses quarterback Kirk Cousins, running back Edwin Baker and a host of wide receivers on offense. Junior Andrew Maxwell will step into the quarterback role and lean heavily on last year's leading rusher Le'Veon Bell. Le'Veon ran for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns and will run behind a very experienced offensive line. Four out of the five offensive linemen have returned from a solid unit last year and two more received significant playing time. There will be some growing pains early with the offense but everything should be in place for their conference run.

Michigan State's Defense ranked 6th last year in total defense and return nine starters. The defense was ranked 10th in scoring defense and 14th in tackles for loss. This unit would be right at home in the SEC. This fierce defense is led by first round defensive end prospect William Gholston and linebacker Denicos Allen. Gholston and Allen combined for 16 sacks last year and 34.5 tackles for loss. Sparty was strong in the red zone and gave up only 9 red zone rushing touchdowns. This unit will be leaned upon heavily during the first few games as the offense gels.

The traditional Big Ten scheduling of four non-conference opponents followed by 8 conference games stands pat with the Spartans. A Friday night opener against Boise State will be a nationally televised game where Sparty will be favored. A home game against Notre Dame will be key for the Spartans' season. If they can get by Notre Dame, they should be 7-0 heading into a brutal stretch of at Michigan, at Wisconsin and home for Nebraska. Michigan State will be going for 5 straight wins over their in-state rival and trying to avenge losses last year to Wisconsin and Nebraska. If the offense is clicking along by this stretch watch out for Sparty. But I don't see them being able to overcome that inexperience against all three of the brutal run. I see Michigan state going 1-2 during that stretch at best and finishing out 9-3.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Random Thoughts on Opening Day and Petrino

Opening Day in Baseball is one of my favorite days of the year. Sadly, Bud Selig has found a way to screw it up by having two Opening Days. One in America and the first one in Japan. Now the one in Japan was seen exclusively by fans of the Mariners and As in their markets and only available to everyone outside those markets as part of the MLB Extra Innings package. Way to go Bud! Then the second Opening Day was last night with the Cardinals and Marlins opening up Marlins Park. This is sad because the Cincinnati Reds used to have the market on Opening Day by having the first MLB game. Opening Day in Cincinnati involved all school children being out and a huge parade. The whole city got behind it. But due to Bud's infinite wisdom, the Reds don't get this privilege any more. Is this a result of Bud's ill will towards the late Marge Schott? Probably.

And now on to the fun story of the day: Bobby Petrino's wreck. Petrino wrecked his Harley last Sunday evening. Here is a recording of Petrino's account of the events. Well today, Max Brantley tells us that there was a rider on Petrino's Harley that escaped uninjured. The rider was Jessica Dorrell, who is an assistant to Bobby Petrino. I wonder what Petrino's assistant was doing with him on a Harley Sunday evening? Could Petrino be going down the path of another powerful man from the state of Arkansas?

This should be a fun few months for SEC fans after Spring Training finishes!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

#22 Notre Dame

Notre Dame has always been a divisive team in the nation. Almost as many people enjoy seeing Notre Dame lose as seeing them win. Last year was a bit of a disappointment for the Notre Dame faithful with an 0-2 start and finishing on a two game losing streak to Stanford and FSU. The quarterback position was a constant struggle between Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist. Neither was able to put a stranglehold on the position and it led to a mediocre season. Brian Kelly has led the Fighting Irish to back to back 8-5 seasons making his seat a little warmer than he would like. Notre Dame has had a quick hook with their past two head coaches so Kelly will need to improve his record quickly.

Offensively, there will be a four man race for starting quarterback between Junior Tommy Rees, Junior Andrew Hendrix, Sophomore Everett Golson and true Freshman Gunner Kiel. Rees has the inside track due to his experience from last year but he never did wow Brian Kelly enough to secure the job. The quarterback competition will likely continue on through the summer and into fall camp. Notre Dame had the 35th best Total Offense in the NCAA and will likely finish in the top 35 again if they can improve their 55th ranked rushing offense. They will be breaking in two new offensive linemen which may complicate the ability of the winning quarterback to have time in the pocket. The departure of Michael Floyd will be a huge loss for the wide receiving corps. Senior John Goodman will be looked upon to fill that role. Former wide receiver Theo Riddick will be moved to running back to try and bolster that position. Riddick and Cierre Wood will split time at running back and try to replace departing Jonas Gray. With all of these changes, the offense will need some time to adjust and become a cohesive unit.

Notre Dame's defense finished tied for number 30 last year in Total Defense. Led by Senior Linebacker Manti Te'o, this unit should be the strength of the team for the first half of the season. The secondary is losing three key players in cornerback Robert Blanton, cornerback Gary Gray and safety Harrison Smith. Their replacements have experience but will need to get used to being the starter. The passing defense ranked 38th and the rushing defense ranked 47th. To become a dominant defense, they will need to improve greatly against the run. 

Notre Dame's schedule is a manageable one this year but they will several tough games away from Touchdown Jesus. The Irish have road trips to Michigan State, Oklahoma, and USC as well as neutral site games against Navy in Dublin, Ireland and The U in Chicago. Their home schedule isn't too bad with the toughest game being Michigan closely followed by a rebuilding Stanford team. I think the Fighting Irish will probably end up in an 8-4 to 9-3 range with losses to USC, Michigan and Oklahoma. Michigan State will be the swing game for the Irish this year. If they can win that, they will be off to a 3-0 start.