Football

The SEC in 2017, a national look and predictions

It's the year of the quarterback and the offense this season. There will be good defenses of course. Alabama and Auburn will be very good on defense, so will LSU, Florida, and Georgia has 10 defensive starters returning. South Carolina will be better. Vanderbilt will be pretty solid on defense. A&M should be better, but you never know with them. Their front 7 is always a question mark. Ole Miss will need to improve, same with State. Tennessee, who knows with them. I guess they'll be better. They've recruited well, but haven't seemed to develop a good defense. They have question marks overall on their team. Kentucky should be pretty decent on defense. Stoops is doing a good job in Lexington. Arkansas, like A&M, needs to improve on defense to be a competitor in the west. But overall, fairly solid defensive play this season. Defense is key a lot of times, but these quarterbacks will be electric this season.

Quarterbacks in the SEC

1. Alabama-Jalen Hurts, primed for a big year. Tua Tagovailoa will play a role and has unlimited talent.

2.Auburn-Looking for a big year out of Jarrett Stidham, and they like their depth with Sean White, who will be competing for the starting job in fall camp, and freshman Malik Willis has a ton of ability.

3.Georgia-Jacob Eason should have an excellent year.

4.Ole Miss-Shea Patterson has off the charts talent.

5. Arkansas- Austin Allen is outstanding and very tough.

6. Mississippi State-Nick Fitzgerald is a phenomenal runner and passer. Needs to develop his downfield passing a little more.

7.South Carolina-Jake Bentley. The sophomore from Opelika, AL. is an outstanding passer and can move.

8. Kentucky-Stephen Johnson is another Fitzgerald-like player who passes it and runs it well.

9. Vanderbilt-Kyle Shurmur-Another excellent passer. Not too mobile, but with protection he can really pick apart a secondary.

10. Missouri-Drew Lock-Has a chance for a really big 2017. Outstanding arm, moves pretty well when necessary, but more of a pocket passer. Like him a lot. Should have a big junior year.

Teams that need to find a good quarterback.

All 4 of these teams have options, but need to develop a leader of their offense.

11. Florida- Has 4 players competing. Malik Zaire transferred from Notre Dame, and he has got a lot of running talent and some passing talent, but he'll be battling it out with 3 others including Luke Del Rio, who I personally like a lot.

12. A&M- Jake Hubenak is back, and he may be good enough, but there is a competition going into fall camp.

13. LSU- Danny Etling is back. Not sure he's the answer to making LSU a contender for the conference title. And there will be a competition come fall camp.

14. Tennessee- Two guys competing for the job right now. Undecided who the guy will be. One guy is Dormady. Jones likes both, so one of them will need to take the bull by the horns this August if Tennessee expects to challenge for the East crown.

Winners in the West and the East

West-Alabama, but Auburn will really challenge the Crimson Tide.

East-Georgia, but Florida will put up a big time fight with the Dawgs.

SEC championship game

Alabama 38, Georgia 34-Bama captures another SEC title under Nick Saban and heads to its fourth straight playoff.

Playoff teams

Alabama vs. Southern Cal

Penn State vs Florida State

Semifinals

Alabama 42, Southern Cal 28

Penn State 45 Florida State 42

National Championship game

Alabama 41, Penn State 27

Will have breakdowns of all SEC teams along with other national contenders in Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, and Florida State coming up in the next 3 weeks. Thanks.  

 
 

A preview of the stellar spring sports landscape coming up, Mexico Championship pick

Golf season is in full bore mode now, with several 20 somethings dominating the circuit, but with some younger vets like Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler winning the past two weeks, D.J. at Riviera and Rickie at the Honda in Miami this past weekend. This week the tour alights in Mexico City for the WGC-Mexico Championship. This is a big time tournament usually played at Trump National Doral, but with POTUS's comments last year on the Wall, the Tour didn't take that very well, and moved the site. Kind of a shame that the players can't compete at the Blue Monster and that epic 18th hole, but maybe it'll come back and Club de Golf Chapultepec looks like an interesting, scenic venue with 50 of the top players in the world. I will have my prediction at the bottom of this column.

The Arnie is coming up, and the majestic 81st Masters is just over a month away. The Players will be in May at TPC Sawgrass, the 117th playing of the U.S. Open in June will take place at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, about 35 miles outside of Milwaukee. Erin Hills has never hosted a major, but has hosted the 2011 U.S. Amateur, won by Kelly Kraft, who is making a move on the tour now. The 146th Open Championship in July will be played at Royal Birkdale in England, which has hosted the Open 10 times, the last won in 2008 won by Padraig Harrington. The 98th PGA Championship will be played at famed Quail Hollow Golf Club in Charlotte, N.C. which has never hosted a major, but is a classic venue and has hosted the Wells Fargo Championship, a regular event on the tour, for many years.

Will Jordan Spieth recapture the magic like he looks like he very well could? Will D.J, win a second major? With his length, Augusta National looks possible. Will Jason Day get his momentum back from two years ago? He certainly has that eliteness about him that allows him to win at any of  the four majors. How will Rory come back from his rib injury?  If he can, he wants the Masters to complete the career grand slam and win his 5th major title at 27 years old. Then there are guys like Rickie, Sneds, and others trying to capture their first major. Two guys you might call, as John Feinstein labeled those kind of players in his book, The Majors, "Best Players not to have won a major." Henrik, Justin Rose, Jimmy Walker, the list goes on, all of them have captured a major title with Rose winning the U.S. Open in 2013 and Henrik and Walker both winning majors last year, Henrik at the Open Championship and Walker at the PGA. And, of course, Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama are banging on the door to win not just one major, but multiple majors. Both are chomping at the bit to don the Green Jacket in Butler's Cabin on Sunday, April 9th.

So a lot of extraordinary storylines heading into the heart of the season. Will have major coverage the rest of what looks like an electric season.

March Madness

The great Frank Mason III and Kansas look formidable

The great Frank Mason III and Kansas look formidable

Can Cal and the Cats have some magic in March and capture their second national championship since 2012 and their 9th overall

Can Cal and the Cats have some magic in March and capture their second national championship since 2012 and their 9th overall

This is such a sensational time of year in sports, and college basketball is at its best right now with the historically good NCAA tournament coming up. It's a pretty top heavy field this year with quite a few exceptional teams having a shot of cutting down the nets in Phoenix on Monday, April 3rd.

The four teams that really stick out to me right now are North Carolina, with their tremendous length under the basket, their ability to rebound, and their always prolific offensive ability. If they can defend well, they could very well be cutting down the nylon. Kansas is a superb team, led by All American guards Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham and superstar freshman small forward Josh Jackson.  Villanova is superb again and going for back to back national titles, which would be the first time since Florida accomplished that under Billy Donovan in '06-'07. And I'm starting to get bullish on Kentucky. They're putting it together and with all that Parade All American talent, they're in the mix every year. They are peaking well.

But there are other teams that have a good shot at the national title and certainly the Final Four. Duke, Louisville, Baylor are all outstanding, UCLA and Oregon have super teams, Zona is very good. I'm not as big on the Big Ten teams this season. Virginia lost a lot off last year's team, but the way the play defense gives them a chance to make a run. I like Syracuse a lot, too, and Va Tech has a good squad that could knock some people off. Wisconsin and Purdue look like the best teams in the Big Ten, but not good enough to make the Final Four. Michigan State will be competitive, but they've been really hampered by injuries, so this is not their year. Wichita State has another really good team under Greg Marshall that can go some distance. 

For SEC Cinderellas, I like Florida to do really well with a shot to make it to the Final Four. They're excellent. I see South Carolina making some noise and being a second weekend team. Arkansas is up and down, but pretty darn good when they're up. Vanderbilt is in right now, according to Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist, but they've got work to do. They have a huge game at home against Florida on Saturday, which they have to have, and then they'll need to win at least 2 games in the SEC tournament to get invited to the Big Dance. They have the No.1 non-conference strength of schedule and No.2 strength of schedule overall with victories on the road over Florida and Arkansas, and South Carolina at home, so it's a pretty good resume. But the Dores have work to do. 

For real Cinderellas, Middle Tennessee State has a really good team as does Monmouth

Will have my bracket out the Monday after Selection Sunday, which is March 12th. 

NBA

Can Kawhi Leonard (above) dethrone LeBron, and outlast Steph and KD in the postseason

Can Kawhi Leonard (above) dethrone LeBron, and outlast Steph and KD in the postseason

I watched a superb game last night in the National Basketball Association as the Celtics defeated the Cavs, 103-99, at the "Gaaden," in Boston. I saw one of the best defensive players I've seen in a long time in Avery Bradley. Bradley was like stickem on Kyrie Irving, one of the most prolific offensive players in the NBA along with Steph, Bron, KD and Russ Westbrook. They used to call Gary Payton, who played many years for the Seattle Supersonics in the 80's and 90's, "the Glove" because his defense was as tight as a glove on an offensive player. He was a terrific defender. That's what Bradley looks like. And a really interesting part of the game happened with 1:08 left, when Bradley drained a trifecta, and the camera went into the crowd to show Bill Belichick, a huge Celtics fan. While the rest of the Boston faithful were going berserk, Bill immediately looked up at the clock in a calm, cool fashion like all the great ones do. His coaching job in the Super Bowl with his Patriots down by 28 in the third quarter was nothing short of sensational. He's a cool customer and knew there was a lot of game left. He wasn't satisfied until the clock struck :00. Isaiah Thomas, no relation to the great one, but certainly becoming a great one, canned a 30 foot triple with 49 ticks left and the Celtics sank some free throws and held off Bron and Kyrie to capture an electric victory. The Cavs got a good look with :05 left as LeBron found an open Deron Williams in the corner, with the Cavs down 101-99, for what could have been the game winning triple. But Williams missed, the Celtics got the board, and held on with free throws. 

In my preseason predictions, I predicted the San Antonio Spurs to capture the Larry O'Brien Trophy winning in 7 over the Cavs. Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs was my MVP pick. The Dubs are still awesome with Steph, KD and Klay Thompson, and, at 50-10, look extremely formidable. But KD is out for four weeks with a sprained MCL and a bone bruise in his left leg, but will be back a week or two before the playoffs start on April 15th, a Saturday. The Spurs are 46-13 and 3.5 games back of the Dubs in the west. The Cavs are 41-18 and have a 3 game lead over the Celtics, which are at 39-22. Still bullish on my Spurs over Cavs pick though it's tough to go against the Warriors with that eliteness they have talent-wise, and the Celtics have really come on. But going to stick with my prediction in October barring major injuries. Will have my updated predictions for the NBA playoffs that Saturday, 4-15. Kawhi hit a huge 12 footer last night with 2 seconds left to lift the Spurs to a 100-99 victory over the Indiana Pacers. Kawhi is averaging 26 points and 6 boards and is a prolific defender, much like Bradley. Should be terrific in April with the playoffs starting. Like that Big four to be in their respective conference finals.

In the NHL, I like the Chicago Blackhawks. They are a machine and have won the Stanley Cup most recently in 2010, 2013 and 2015 and have won 7 overall. Patrick Kane pulled off a hat trick last night in the 'Hawks 4-1 victory over defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh. Really like the way they're playing and have them in the west. I'm a little more uncertain about the east. The Washington Capitals have the best record in hockey at 42-13, and the most points with 91, but Washington was superb in the regular season last year and melted down in the playoffs. So while I like the Blackhawks over the Minnesota Wild in the west, I see the east as more of a toss up. Still believe in Sydney Crosby and the defending champion Pens, but the Caps, and the Columbus Blue Jackets have really good teams. The Montreal Canadians are good this season, too. Not counting out the Tampa Bay Lightning in the east either. They were in the finals two years ago and are starting to play well again. Anaheim is a challenger in the west. Will have NHL playoff predictions on Wednesday, April 12th, the day the playoffs commence.

MLB is in full stride in spring training. I like the Cubs again to do very well, but to be really challenged by the Dodgers. In the AL, I like the Indians and the Bosox with the Rangers and the Astros as key competitors. Also still like the Giants and Nationals in the NL. Will have those predictions on Saturday, April 1st.

In professional tennis, Roger and Serena were epic at the Australian Open. It was a masterpiece performance for both all time great superstars. Serena won her 23rd slam and moved ahead of Steffi Graf for most majors in a career in the Open Era, which started in 1968 when professionals were allowed to compete with amateurs in the slams. Margaret Court holds the overall record with 24, so Serena still has something to gun for. There are some good competitors challenging Serena in Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova and Carolina Wozniacki looks back. Garbine Muguruza won the French last year defeating Serena in a dominating performance. American Coco Vandeweghe is really coming on, and, of course, Venus, is still playing at a high level with her 7 slams under her belt.

It was pretty remarkable seeing Roger face Rafa again in a major final. Roger played like 39 year old Tom Brady does, who has a patent on the Fountain of Youth. Brady plays like a 25 year old and says he feels even better now than he did then, and that's what the 35 year old Fed did in beating Rafa in an epic 5 setter, winning the 5th, 6-3, in an unstoppable performance. Roger now has 18 slams. Rafa is tied with Pete Sampras for second at 14, and Joker is tied with Roy Emerson and Rod Laver at 12. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out this summer, whether Joker or Rafa can stay on Roger's heels,  or if Roger can extend his all time lead. Next up is the French, May 29th-June 11th, where Rafa has won 9 times, the last one coming in 2014, so he would presumably be the favorite. Wimbledon is July 3rd-16th, where Roger has won 7 times, with the last coming in 2012. It's his favorite, so that should be compelling as always. Roger's won 5 times at the U.S. Open which commences August 28th with the finals on September 10th. Novak was a 6 time winner at the Australian, but fell early. He seems to be struggling right now. Andy Murray is always a factor, and he'll be in the mix big time this summer. There are other guys like Marin Cilic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, American Jack Sock, Milos Raonic and Dominic Thiem who will be major factors at Paris, London and the Big Apple. So a lot of riveting tennis coming up.

Horse Racing

It was phenomenal when American Pharoah won the triple crown two years ago, in 2015. That hadn't been done since 1978 when Affirmed followed Seattle Slew, which won it in 1977. It had been 37 years since a three year old thoroughbred had won the Triple Crown. Of course, the greatest of all time, Secretariat, did it in 1973, and set the standard as the greatest horse ever. That still stands today.

The 143rd Kentucky Derby in May, the 141st Preakness in late May, and the 149th Belmont Stakes in June are always historically electric events. Will have more on the key horses once we get closer to post time for the Derby.  

Prediction this week

The WGC-Mexico Championship

Club de Golf Chapultepec, 7,330 yards, par 71. Just outside Mexico City

TV: Today-Friday: Golf Channel, 1-6 PM CT/2-7 PM ET;

Saturday: Golf 11 AM-2 PM CT/Noon-3 PM ET. NBC, 2-5 PM CT/3-6 PM ET.

Sunday: GC, 11 AM-1 PM CT/12-2 PM ET. NBC: 1-5 PM CT/2-6 PM ET.

Prediction

I'm going with the 37 year old from Borriol, Castellon, Spain to capture his 10th PGA title, and get closer and closer to a major. He's another guy in the mix this year. He's newly engaged and seems to have settled down pretty well. Going with El Nino.

Sergio Garcia

 

 

 

Yesterday in Miami Beach, Christian McCaffrey's ill-advised decision, Boca Bowl tonight

Tulsa 55, Central Michigan 10 in the Miami Beach Bowl yesterday. Tulsa was ballistically explosive on offense. Their quarterback, Dane Evans, threw for 304 yards and 5 touchdowns, 2 running backs, D'Angelo Brewer and James Flanders ran for over 100 yards and  Josh Atkinson  caught 12 passes for 131 yards and a seven, and Keevan Lucas caught 7 passes for 72 yards and 3 TDs. Central Michigan was hopeless. They had no answers on offense or defense. Their quarterback threw three interceptions. It was a massacre. On to Boca Raton. 

A majorly disappointing decision by McCaffrey

A majorly disappointing decision by McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey

I really have a problem with his decision to forgo Stanford's Sun Bowl game versus North Carolina in order to get ready for the NFL draft. With this decision, one word sticks out to me; cowardly. It really is. I don't get it, I can't relate, it's unfathomable. Leonard Fournette did the same thing to LSU and actually I can see his point more than McCaffrey's because Fournette came from little means growing up, so this is kind of a make or break deal for him. But he's not even the best running back on his team. Derrius Guice is. And he's pretty much a quitter. Not sure if he'll be that good in the NFL when Alabama just shut him down two years in row. This year's Alabama defense was one of the best and I'd say the best in college football history in my opinion. And they were pretty outstanding for most of the season last year too. But if Fournette can't get it done against a stellar college defense, what's he going to do against the Patriots, the Seahawks, the Giants, the Steelers, etc... So I'm not sure if this really matters with Fournette. He's got a long way to go.

But McCaffrey's decision is unconscionable really. He's gotten the privilege, and it's a privilege not a right, to get a four year tuition free scholarship to play football at one of the finest universities in the country. It may be the best in the country when you take into account the climate, the beautiful part of the country it's in, Palo Alto, California. There are marquee facilities, and all the academic support you need along with a stellar, interesting, very fun student body. So yes he can play another college football game for the university that has done so much for him, be the best he can be in it, then get ready for the NFL draft. As recently as last Friday he was good to go for the Sun Bowl. Something happened over the weekend, either an agent or somebody, maybe even his parents, convinced him to drop out of the game.

I kind of understand the arguments some of these liberals make that the linebacker for Notre Dame last year, Jaylon Smith, injured his knee severely in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl versus Ohio State and lost a good deal financially since he dropped to the second round in the draft and was projected to be a top 5 pick. But  he did get $4.5 million in guaranteed money from the Cowboys and he'll play next season, not too bad. I know a lot of people who would want to get hurt at work and still get more money than they'll ever need in a lifetime if they handle it well. Along with that, these guys get insurance policies now that pay them $5 million if they get hurt in college football and it affects their draft status. 

But it just goes back to what Bill Belichick says, "Do your job." McCaffrey owes Stanford an inordinate amount of gratitude for giving him the best opportunity any high school football player would dream about. In the movie, Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe Jackson said, "Man, I'd play this game for free." It meant that much to guys like that. And there are many college football players who are still like that, though they all get four year rides with free room and board and now a stipend. So it's a pretty good gig. I look at Jonathan Allen, O.J. Howard and Reuben Foster who all three came back for their senior seasons because they wanted to be a part of something special. They wanted to improve their draft status of course, but they loved being on a special team, being part of something unique. And it's turning out pretty well for all three of them.

I'm really disappointed in McCaffrey and his parents. They didn't do him a very good service. You want your son or daughter to be persistent, to see things through, to not quit. This is quitting and it's a terrible precedent for college football. There are plenty of super kids though who want to play college football and see it through. It's some of the best four years of anybody's life. Peyton Manning came back for his fourth year because he said, "I love playing college football." Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are coming back to Georgia. They want to improve their draft status of course, but it's still a highly admirable, respectable thing to do. It shows loyalty to a university that has been good to you. Christian McCaffrey is a major disappointment. 

 

The stellar Anthony Wales leads the Western Kentucky attack

The stellar Anthony Wales leads the Western Kentucky attack

Boca Raton Bowl

Memphis (8-4) vs. Western Kentucky (10-3)

Riley Ferguson leads the Memphis offense

Riley Ferguson leads the Memphis offense

FAU Stadium (Florida Atlantic University), 29, 419

6 PM CT/7 PM ET

ESPN

Dave LaMont, Dez, Quint Kessenich

Whistles: Big Ten, Don Willard

Two high powered offenses going at it in Boca Raton. Western Kentucky was second in the country in scoring offense at 45.1 ppg, while Memphis was 17th at 39.5. Expecting fireworks tonight on offense. Western Ky running back Anthony Wales rushed for 1,376 yards this season and was second in the country with 24 rushing TDs. Quarterback Mike White completed 260-of-386 passes, 67%, for 4,027 yards, 34 TDs against only 6 ints. Their wide receiver tandem of Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris has been superb. Taylor caught 89 passes for 1,586 yards and 16 TDs, while Norris caught 73 balls for 1,253 yards and 13, 7's. Wow. Their defense is led  by Keith Brown, a 6'1", 240 pound linebacker, who has posted 123 tackles, with 12.5 for loss of 51 yards, and 6 sacks. Brown also has an interception. Western is a pretty good intercepting team with 13 on the season. Their punt returner, Nacarius Fant, has two punt returns for touchdowns and their kickoff returner, Kylen Tawner, has a 40.8 yard kickoff return average with a 93 yard house call. Their punter, Jake Collins, has a 42.9 yard average, and their kicker, Skyler Simcox, is 15-of-20 on kicks this season. He is 4 for 8 from 40-49 yards and is 2-for-2 from 50 yards or more with a long of 52. 

Memphis counters with explosiveness of its own. Quarterback Riley Ferguson took over from Denver Broncos' first round pick Paxton Lynch and has done well. He is 255-of-400, 64%, for 3,326 yards, 28 TDs, and 9 ints. His main target is Anthony Miller, who has 84 receptions for 1,283 yards and 11 TDs. But Memphis runs it pretty well, too. Doroland Dorceus has rushed for 783 yards, 6.2 yards per carry, and 9 TDs. Patrick Taylor has added 512 yards, 5.7 yards per carry, and two TDs. Darrell Henderson has accounted for 469 yards on an average of 6 yards per carry, with 5 TDs. Memphis is led on defense by free safety Jonathan Cook who's posted 81 tackles on the season. Memphis also has 15 interceptions on the season with Genard Avery taking two back to the house. Kickoff return man Tony Pollard has taken two kicks back to the house, one for 100 yards. Punter Spencer Smith averages 45 yards per punt, and kicker Jake Elliott is 15-of-17 on field goals with 9 coming from 40-49 yards and one from 50 yards out. 

Final decision

There ought to be some serious offensive firepower in this game. Memphis defeated Houston in their last game of the season, 48-44, and they were impressive though Houston kind of limped in, but I liked the way Memphis looked. The HIlltoppers are fresh off a C-USA title victory over Louisiana Tech, 58-44. WKU lost their coach, Jeff Brohm, to Purdue, so defensive coordinator Nick Holt will be the interim head coach for Western Ky  while former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford gets ready to take over in 2017. That's a factor in this game, but not enough for me. The HIlltoppers just have so much explosiveness in their offense that it'll be too much for Memphis to stop. This will be a thriller to watch. Close, exciting. Enjoy the Boca Bowl.

Western Ky 49, Memphis 45