Just Give It Up, A-Rod!

The decision of the appeal of Yankees 3B Alex Rodriguez’s 211-game suspension has been announced, and the suspension has been reduced to 162-games, the entirety of the 2014 MLB season, and also includes the playoffs, should the Yankees make the postseason.

The suspension will end at the same time as it originally would have, as the 211-game suspension was from when it was issued back in August, as it remains through the end of 2014.  Therefore, the reduction really isn’t all that much, even though A-Rod was able to play through the final portion of 2013, since those games ended up not having any playoff implications (although if the Yankees had won a couple more games, they could have).

If I were A-Rod (and thank God I’m not), I would be thankful to the arbitrator for reducing my suspension, and take the year off, whether I agreed with the ruling or not, and move on.  Rodriguez, however, instead of accepting the blame for the drug use we all know he’s guilty of, still believes his situation is above the system, and is threatening to take MLB to federal court to appeal the suspension.  He released the following statement regarding the suspension and what’s next.

“The number of games sadly comes as no surprise, as the deck has been stacked against me from day one. This is one man’s decision, that was not put before a fair and impartial jury, does not involve me having failed a single drug test, is at odds with the facts and is inconsistent with the terms of the Joint Drug Agreement and the Basic Agreement, and relies on testimony and documents that would never have been allowed in any court in the United States because they are false and wholly unreliable. This injustice is MLB’s first step toward abolishing guaranteed contracts in the 2016 bargaining round, instituting lifetime bans for single violations of drug policy, and further insulating its corrupt investigative program from any variety defense by accused players, or any variety of objective review.

I have been clear that I did not use performance enhancing substances as alleged in the notice of discipline, or violate the Basic Agreement or the Joint Drug Agreement in any manner, and in order to prove it I will take this fight to federal court. I am confident that when a Federal Judge reviews the entirety of the record, the hearsay testimony of a criminal whose own records demonstrate that he dealt drugs to minors, and the lack of credible evidence put forth by MLB, that the judge will find that the panel blatantly disregarded the law and facts, and will overturn the suspension. No player should have to go through what I have been dealing with, and I am exhausting all options to ensure not only that I get justice, but that players’ contracts and rights are protected through the next round of bargaining, and that the MLB investigation and arbitration process cannot be used against others in the future the way it is currently being used to unjustly punish me.

I will continue to work hard to get back on the field and help the Yankees achieve the ultimate goal of winning another championship. I want to sincerely thank my family, all of my friends, and of course the fans and many of my fellow MLB players for the incredible support I received throughout this entire ordeal.”

There are a few things in this statement that I completely disagree with.  First of all, at this point A-Rod shouldn’t keep protesting his innocence, because I don’t know one person that isn’t yet convinced of his guilt.  Saying that the deck has been stacked against him is an incorrect metaphor, as there is plenty of completely credible evidence that MLB uncovered to prove A-Rod’s connection to the Biogenesis clinic.  The thought MLB may abolish guaranteed contracts after players are suspended for PED use is a good idea, as hopefully that would keep players from taking the chance, but I feel confident saying that MLB will not, in the 2016 bargaining round, push for lifetime bans for first-time offenders.  That would be much too harsh a penalty, and would be a black eye for the game every single time someone was busted, because it would cause another player to be gone for good for one failed drug test.

A-Rod says he didn’t use PEDs, but himself said in 2009 he used them from 2001 to 2003, and that admission came after years of denial.  Now, he’s apparently back to the denial stage.  In addition, he failed 2 drug tests in 2003, which we learned in early 2009 after anonymous tests were decoded in the BALCO investigation.  He speaks harshly of the evidence that MLB has compiled, and of the process they have used in the suspension.  Rodriguez talks about what he’s been through, but he has put himself through a lot of that himself, including the appeals process in particular.  Perhaps the reason he is being so stubborn to accept such a suspension, as the season-long suspension will cost him $24 million.  However, he has already made $303 million in his career on the baseball field alone, not to mention endorsements and sponsorships.

Is greed the main reason behind A-Rod’s threat to appeal to federal court?  That’s certainly a possibility.

A-Rod, you’ve already made over $300 million in your career, and after the suspension, you will make tens of millions more.  So please stop this suit, for the good of the game, its fans, and yourself.  You’ve spoken about what you’ve been through in the appeals process; it’s about to be that much worse if you appeal this to federal court, because the court can and will side with MLB and its arbitrators.

I’m so sure that a federal judge will side with MLB for a reason pointed out in a tweet by ESPN’s Keith Olbermann:  “Salient point is ARod suing over a suspension process agreed to by his employers and the union to which he belongs.  Courts uphold these.”  Later he added, “Courts have almost never interfered with an industry arbitration/appeals process that’s part of collective bargaining.”

However, A-Rod is going to be both arrogant and stubborn on this issue, and will likely continue to be until he dies.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he even took this to the Supreme Court.  It would absolutely shock me, however, if any federal court reduced or overturned the suspension.  And yet, even though the outcome will be anti-climactic, this case will be dragged out in court over a period of months or even years right ahead of us.  It’s terrible for the game of baseball, for its fans, and even for A-Rod.  I’m sure he wants to play because of, first of all, the money, and second of all, because he’s a professional athlete and competitor who doesn’t want to watch the game on the sidelines.  But for as long as this case drags on, it will be a black eye for MLB, but also on A-Rod’s personal reputation.

The longer it drags on, the more people are going to dislike him more and more.  A lot of fans are over the Tiger Woods and Michael Vick issues, because they paid the price for their actions, are sorry for their actions, and have moved on with their careers.  Rodriguez doesn’t want to do that, and instead wants to make us read his name in the news every few days as developments emerge.  If he would accept his suspension and admit his guilt, and then apologize for the damage he has done to the game, it would be controversial, and there would be those who would never forgive him, but over time the wound would heal somewhat.  This way, with the near certainty the suspension will stand, he will do damage to himself, as far as reception in the public goes, that would never be repaired.

Another reason it would be better for himself to accept the suspension is his age.  He will be 39 in July, and if he took the year suspension, he would return to spring training in 2015 as a 39-year old veteran with a couple of years left.  He is under contract with the Yankees until 2017.  If he drags this out, it could take so long for the case to be resolved that his career might would be in jeopardy.  Let’s say the court case lasts 1 year, for instance.  He would turn 40 during the year of suspension, which would now be 2015, and would turn 41 just a couple of months after he came back on Opening Day 2016.  And if he takes this case to higher court, assuming the suspension is upheld, it could take even longer, further jeopardizing his chances of a comeback.  It’s not like players in their early 40s have never played in the big leagues, they certainly have.  But the odds of taking a year or more off (the “more” if he can’t play during court proceedings, or if the proceedings happen in midseason and he has to be present), and then coming back and still expecting to be a player capable of producing as well as he has throughout his career aren’t good.

So, as I’ve said, A-Rod needs to do a favor for himself, for the game, and for the fans, and stop legal proceedings now, and accept this suspension and be done with it by the end of 2014.

Just give it up, A-Rod!

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NFL Picks for the Divisional Round

New Orleans Saints (12-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
The Saints meet the Seahawks in a rematch of a couple of memorable games, at least for the Seahawks.  One was a Wild Card matchup in 2011 in which the Seahawks were big underdogs at home, but won 41-36, in a game remembered for Marshawn Lynch’s long touchdown run in which he broke over 10 tackles on the way to the end zone.  The other was a 34-7 blowout for the Seahawks in Seattle on December 2.  That memory is still fresh in a lot of minds leading up to this game.  This is easily the best Seahawks team since the one that appeared in Super Bowl XL, and even though their 14-game home winning streak was snapped 3 weeks ago, they are still extremely tough to beat at home.  In addition, the Saints are, even with last week’s win road win in Philadelphia, they are still 4-5 on the road this year.  Even that road win against the Eagles won’t change my mind, as there’s a big difference in playing the Eagles and playing the Seahawks, no matter the location, and with the game in Seattle, I don’t hardly give the Saints a chance.  Out of 13 NFL experts on ESPN.com, only 1 picked the Saints to win this game, the spread favors the Seahawks by 8.
Seahawks 34, Saints 26.

Indianapolis Colts (12-5) at New England Patriots (12-4)
The Patriots are a touchdown favorite at home in a matchup of perhaps the two most successful franchises of the last 15 years.  The Colts have appeared in the playoffs for 12 of the last 15 years, while the Patriots have appeared in 11 of the last 15 postseasons.  This is the 4th time these teams have met in the playoffs, with the Patriots having won 2 out of 3.  All of those matchups were between 2004 and 2007, and featured the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning rivalry.  Now it’s Brady vs. Andrew Luck, and in their only previous meeting, in November 2012, New England won 59-24.  However, the Colts have come a long way since then.  Some people have remarked how the Patriots were guaranteed to win because it’s “Tom Brady in the playoffs,”  but those people are forgetting that the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl in 9 years (although they do have 2 AFC titles since).  The Colts are riding a ton of momentum after coming back from being down 38-10 to the Chiefs to win 45-44.  And this Colts team, and Andrew Luck in particular, will likely be among the NFL’s elite for the next decade.  The future starts now.  While this would be an upset, many people acknowledge this may be the most even matchup, as 5 ESPN analysts out of 13 picked the Colts in this game, and only 4 picked the other 3 underdogs combined.
Colts 31, Patriots 27.

San Francisco 49ers (13-4) at Carolina Panthers (12-4)
Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton were roommates at the 2011 NFL Combine, and now in their 3rd season in the league, they meet for the right to go to the NFC Championship Game.  The Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time in 5 seasons, and their crowd will be hungry to erase the memory of their 33-13 loss to the Cardinals in January 2009.  It has, in fact, been 8 years since the Panthers won a playoff game.  However, the Panthers are 2-point home underdogs because of who they are playing.  The 49ers are the defending NFC champions, and are trying to reach the NFC Championship Game for the 3rd straight year.  They are coming off a road win a week ago in frigid Green Bay, and are gunning for another in Charlotte.  I mentioned the relationship between Kaepernick and Newton; Kaepernick has playoff experience from last year’s run, while this is Newton’s first ever playoff start.  The Panthers are 7-1 at home, with the only loss coming to the top-seeded Seahawks, although the 49ers are 7-2 on the road (counting last week’s win).  The 49ers are undefeated since a Week 11 loss to the Saints, and are undefeated since the return of Michael Crabtree, who had been out injured.  The week before the Saints loss, however, they lost to the Panthers at home, 10-9.  If they want to beat the Panthers now, it will have to come on the road.  While this game has the closest spread, only 2 experts on ESPN are calling for the upset.  I beg to differ, based on the fact the Panthers have beaten this 49ers team in San Francisco, and the fact this Panthers team seems primed and ready to make some noise.  One thing is almost certain:  this matchup between the 2nd and 3rd ranked defenses in the NFL should produce a low-scoring defensive struggle.
Panthers 13, 49ers 10.

San Diego Chargers (10-7) at Denver Broncos (13-3) (-9)
In the largest spread of the weekend, the Broncos are 9-point home favorites.  However, I have reason to believe this could be the most competitive game of the 4.  First of all, 6 seeds have won 6 out of their last 8 games against 1 seeds in the playoffs, a stat that would favor the Chargers.  Also favoring the Chargers is the fact they won, 27-20, in Denver on December 12, exactly one month before this playoff contest.  In their other meeting back on November 10, however, the Broncos won in San Diego, 28-20.  Not only did they split the two games, but the combined scores are 48 for the Broncos and 47 for the Chargers.  I’d say that’s pretty even.  And while the Broncos are 13-3, they are 1-3 against the remaining AFC playoff teams, and was sacked as many times in those 4 games as he was in the other 12 games of the season.  All that being said, in my midseason report, I picked the Broncos to win the AFC, and at the start of the playoffs, although I didn’t write a post making official Super Bowl picks, when friends asked me my pick I said I would stick with the Broncos (and the Seahawks in the NFC), because I hadn’t seen enough out of any other team to change my mind.  So, I’ll continue to stick with it, at least for one more week, even though the Chargers have won 5 straight and are very hard to pick against.  While the Broncos did lose to the Chargers a month ago at home, they are still 7-1 in Denver.  And besides, how wise would it be for me to pick against one of the greatest quarterbacks the game has ever seen?  Interestingly, only 1 of the aforementioned 13 panelists on ESPN picked the Chargers; I certainly think the Chargers should get more respect, and I almost picked them myself.
Broncos 31, Chargers 28.

College Football Postseason Power Rankings

College football season has come to a close, and with it, the BCS era has come to a close as well.  Florida State certainly didn’t go wire-to-wire as #1, as they weren’t #1 until after Alabama’s loss to Auburn on November 30.  But they were in the hunt all season long, through a great season of unbelievable games, jaw-dropping plays, and unforgettable players.  Through all of that, a handful of teams proved they are above the rest, and are listed here as a list of the top 10 teams of the 2013 season.  I’ve also added my picks for the best player, coach(es), and game of the year.

1. Florida State (14-0)
The Seminoles are national champions for the 3rd time, and for the 2nd time of the BCS era, after beating Auburn 34-31 in the Vizio BCS National Championship Game.  We usually talk about runs in basketball, but rarely use the term in football.  That being said, the Seminoles closed the game on a 31-10 run after trailing 21-3 in the first half.  Heisman winner Jameis Winston, who was the 3rd Florida State player to win the award, was a major part of the comeback, including a near-perfect final drive down the field to score the winning touchdown with :13 remaining.  The Seminoles were in the title conversation all year, and with a little help along the way from losses by teams like Alabama, Oregon, and Stanford, reached the title game and validated a perfect season, ending any concern about their weak strength of schedule in the ACC.  The ‘Noles end the SEC’s 7-year streak of titles, and bring the ACC their first title since 1999, the last time the ‘Noles won.  FSU should remain #1 in the 2014 preseason poll, as a lot of the major pieces on this team are coming back, and the ones that aren’t currently have players behind them who are more than capable of starting on a top-tier team.

2. Auburn (12-2)
The Tigers lost the Vizio BCS National Championship Game, 34-31, after leading 21-3 late in the 2nd quarter.  If it’s any consolation for the Tigers, they lost one of the best title games of the BCS era, among the ranks of the 2002 Ohio State-Miami title game and the 2005 USC-Texas title game.  And all of this was from a team that finished 3-9 a year ago and received no votes in the preseason AP Poll.  They were, as they have been called, a “team of destiny”, with magical wins coming against Mississippi State, Georgia, and Alabama.  Gus Malzahn did all this in his first year as head coach, after being the offensive coordinator for the 2010 National Championship team at Auburn.  While Auburn will lose RB Tre Mason, who declared for the NFL Draft on Thursday, most of the rest of their team will be back next year, meaning they will remain a formidable opponent for the rest of the SEC.

3. Michigan State (13-1)
Michigan State had one of the most successful seasons in school history, and if it weren’t for an early loss to Notre Dame in September, it could have been even better.  That 17-13 defeat is the only loss of their season, and after that they won every Big Ten conference game, including the championship game against Ohio State, by double digits.  That led them to the Rose Bowl, where they were 7-point underdogs, but defeated Stanford 24-20 in a battle of two of the top defenses in the nation.  The Spartans beat 4 ranked teams on the year, including teams ranked 2nd and 5th at the time the games were played in their last 2 contests.  QB Connor Cook and most of the rest of the offense will be back next year, although some pieces of that defense will be lost to graduation or the NFL Draft.  However, the coaching carousel has slowed down, and Pat Narduzzi, despite being a hot name, is still in East Lansing as defensive coordinator.  Having Narduzzi around at least one more year is a win for the Spartans.

4. Oklahoma (11-2)
All season long, I had thought Oklahoma was overrated by both the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll, and hadn’t given them much credit in these rankings.  Even after they beat Oklahoma State on December 7, I still didn’t have them ranked in the top 10 (then again, the polls didn’t either).  Then they led the entire game and beat Alabama, 45-31, in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, in QB Trevor Knight’s breakout performance, leading me to believe in the Sooners as an elite team, even though they did have bad losses to Texas and Baylor.  The original purpose of these power rankings was to show who was playing the best right now, although they turned into a list of who has had the best season.  Therefore, getting back to the original purpose, Oklahoma is definitely playing as well as just about anybody, with wins against the 6th and 3rd ranked teams in the BCS rankings in their last 2 games.  Oklahoma may have the most players out of the top-tier teams who are coming back next year, and I fully expect them to be in national title contention as we enter into the new College Football Playoff era.

5. Alabama (11-2)
For so much of the season, Alabama was #1 in both major polls and the BCS rankings, as well as these rankings.  They were 11-0, with big wins over Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and LSU on their résumé, and had seemingly dominated all their competition.  Then came the Iron Bowl, where the so-called “Kick Six” gave Auburn a 34-28 win, and ended Alabama’s chances of their 3rd straight national title.  For all intents and purposes, that was a freak play that could have happened to anyone.  Then came the loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, 45-31.  The Tide were within 7 with the ball with a minute left, but QB AJ McCarron was stripped of the ball, allowing the Sooners to walk in for another touchdown.  I still believe the Tide to be one of the best 5 teams in the nation, although the AP Poll has them at 7th, and the Coaches Poll has them at 8th.  Then again, anytime a team loses consecutive games, it kills their poll numbers.  Most programs would be thrilled with a top 8 finish in both polls, and an 11-win season.  But this is Alabama, who was trying for 3 titles in a row, and 4 out of 5, so this season surely leaves fans with the feeling of a letdown.

6. South Carolina (11-2)
The Gamecocks of South Carolina finished 4th in the AP Poll, their highest finish ever, after defeating Wisconsin, 34-24, in the Capital One Bowl.  They are the highest ranked team in both the AP Poll and in these rankings that did not play in a BCS bowl game.  However, I don’t have them that high for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I see no way that South Carolina is a better team than Alabama.  Second of all, some of these teams near the top with 2 losses had their losses to other ranked teams, or at least decent unranked teams, but one of the Gamecocks’ losses was to Tennessee.  That being said, they are still ahead of Missouri due to their head-to-head win over the Tigers.  They also got a win in September that, at the time, seemed somewhat irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but now is large in looking at their campaign; that win was over UCF.  Gamecock fans have to wonder where their season would have gone without the loss to Tennessee, as they would have won the SEC East, and had the opportunity to play Auburn.  If they had found a way to upset Auburn, they would have possibly slipped into the national title game.  The Gamecocks had never won 11 games in back-to-back years before last year, so obviously this is the first time in school history they have had 3 consecutive 11-win seasons.

7. Missouri (12-2)
Missouri is also thinking what might have been.  Theoretically, if they could have held Auburn to 41 points, they would have won the SEC and may have played for the national title (since they scored 42).  As is, they went to the AT&T Cotton Bowl, where they beat Oklahoma State, 41-31, in a game that was closer than the score would indicate.  Other than the Auburn loss, their only other loss was in double overtime to South Carolina, in a game they led 17-0 at the start of the 4th quarter.  However, their 5th place finish in the AP Poll ties their 2nd best in school history, and it comes after last year’s 5-7 record in their inaugural SEC campaign.  If anyone was skeptical whether or not Missouri could compete in the SEC, I think the Tigers answered that question easily this year.

8. Clemson (11-2)
Clemson won the Discover Orange Bowl, 40-35, after a back and forth battle with Ohio State, winning their first BCS bowl game and securing back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time.  As coach Dabo Swinney mentioned after their bowl win, since Clemson’s 37-point loss in the Orange Bowl 2 years ago, they are 22-4, including bowl wins over LSU and Ohio State.  Interestingly enough, the 4 losses are to the same 2 programs, as they have lost to Florida State and South Carolina in each of the last 2 seasons.  Their 8th place ranking in the AP Poll matches their 3rd highest in program history.  This season was, in fact, bookended with wins over top 10 opponents, after it began with a home win against Georgia.  That home-and-home series continues to start the 2014 campaign, in a matchup I’m looking forward to already when the Tigers go “between the hedges” in Athens.

9. UCF (12-1)
To say that Central Florida had their best season in school history is an understatement.  This program has only been an FBS member since 1996, and this was only the 4th time they’ve won 10 games or more in a season.  It was, in fact, their first ever 12-win season, with their only loss coming to a team ranked higher than them, South Carolina.  Their season really took off when they beat then 8th ranked Louisville, 38-35, on a nationally televised Friday night game.  After winning out to win the American Athletic Conference, the Knights went to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, where they were 17-point underdogs to Baylor’s offensive attack, but pulled the upset, 52-42, and actually beat Baylor worse than the score would indicate.  Since star QB Blake Bortles is leaving early for the NFL, I don’t expect UCF to be a top 10 team again next year, but I do expect them to be competitive in the AAC, and possibly hover in the top 25.  Coach George O’Leary, however, has proven doubters wrong for his entire tenure in Orlando, so don’t expect that to stop.

10. Stanford (11-3)
It was tough to put Stanford this low, since they were certainly among the upper echelon of teams all year long.  However, they did lose 3 games on the year, including regular season losses to unranked Utah and USC teams.  Also, all the teams who jumped them won their bowl game, and Stanford did not, losing the Rose Bowl to Michigan State, 24-20.  The Cardinal actually played well in Pasadena, but couldn’t convert on a key 4th down late in the 4th quarter, costing them a chance to go down the field and win the game.  Stanford can’t hang their head, however, after winning the Pac-12 for the 2nd consecutive year, and appearing in a BCS bowl for the 4th straight season.  All of this has happened in a program that was the laughing stock of the Pac-12 in recent memory.  Coach David Shaw has stayed out of the coaching carousel, despite rumors about big-time college jobs or an NFL job, and appears committed to Stanford for the long run.

Also Considered:  Oregon (11-2), Ohio State (12-2), Baylor (11-2), Louisville (12-1), LSU (10-3), UCLA (10-3), Oklahoma State (10-3)

Fell From Rankings:  Baylor (11-2, lost to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl, 52-42), Ohio State (12-2, lost to Clemson in Orange Bowl, 40-35)

Player of the Year:  Florida State QB Jameis Winston
While Winston may not be my favorite player in the country, due to his off-field issues (yes, I do realize he was cleared, but that doesn’t mean I have to like him), his on-field excellence simply can’t be denied.  It was Winston who, during a rare bad game, drove the Seminoles all the way down the field in the final minute to score the championship-winning touchdown.  He completed nearly 67% of his passes for 4,057 yards and 10.6 yards per attempt, leading to the Heisman Trophy.  And his stats might have been better if some of Florida State’s games had been closer, since he didn’t play many 4th quarters since so many Seminole games were blowouts.  As a redshirt freshman, he’ll be back next year, which is a scary thought for the rest of the ACC.
Also Considered:  Alabama QB AJ McCarron, Auburn RB Tre Mason, Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch

Co-Coaches of the Year:  Gus Malzahn (Auburn), David Cutcliffe (Duke), and George O’Leary (UCF)
I couldn’t pick one coach, because the accomplishments of all 3 of these outstanding men are phenomenal.  Malzahn took over an Auburn team that was 3-9 last year, with a 0-8 record in conference play, and led them to an SEC title and a berth in the national title game, which they came very close to winning.  Before Cutcliffe took over at Duke in 2008, the Blue Devils had won a total of 4 games in 4 years, and were the butt of a lot of jokes in college football.  It took time, but he has turned Duke into a legitimate contender in the ACC, and this year they won the Coastal Division title for the first time ever.  O’Leary has a bit of a troubled past, and got a second chance when UCF hired him before the 2004 season.  He’s taken a young program to 6 bowl games in 10 years, and this year won 12 games including a BCS bowl game, shocking the nation twice during the season with wins over Louisville and Baylor (in the bowl game).  All 3 coaches are terrific coaches, and excellent fits at their respective schools.
Also Considered:  Art Briles (Baylor), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Gary Pinkel (Missouri), Jimbo Fisher (Florida State)

Game of the Year:  The “Iron Bowl”, Auburn 34, Alabama 28.
Enough said.  But then again, everybody remembers the “Kick Six” on the game’s final play, but Auburn was behind in the final minute before scoring on a Nick Marshall pass to Sammie Coates with :32 seconds left.  Regulation had appeared over before a review put a second back on the clock and Alabama tried the most famous missed field goal in the history of college football.  The play we’ve all seen like 1,867,249 times.
Also considered:  Georgia at Auburn (the “Immaculate Deflection”, Auburn wins 43-38), South Carolina at Missouri (South Carolina wins in double overtime on a Missouri missed field goal after being down 17), Duke vs Texas A&M (A&M wins 52-48 in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl), Florida State vs Auburn (Florida State wins 34-31 after being down 18 and scoring with :13 left), Ohio State at Michigan (Buckeyes win 42-41 after Michigan fails to convert 2-point conversion)

Maddux, Glavine, Thomas Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame

The votes are in, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY has elected 3 new members, to be enshrined on July 27.  They join managers Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, and Tony La Russa, who were previously selected for induction by the Expansion Era Committee.

I fully agree with the selection of these 3 legends to the hall, as each was among the best, both on and off the field, that baseball had to offer during their time in the game.

By the way, here’s how the process works.  Everyone who has been a member of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America for 10 years gets a ballot, and can vote for as many as 10 players, or as few as 0.  Any player who receives 75% or more of the vote is inducted into the Hall.  Players must be retired for 5 years before they are eligible, and after each year on the ballot must get at least 5% of the vote to remain eligible for the next year.  After 15 years, the name is taken off the ballot, although there are other ways for them to get in, such as the Veteran’s Committee.

Maddux is perhaps the best control pitcher in the history of the game.  He could paint the corners with authority, and while his strikeout numbers were never eye-popping, since he wasn’t necessarily a power pitcher, he did what a pitcher is supposed to do:  he got hitters out.  And in doing so, he won games.  The Mad Dog won at least 15 games in 17 consecutive seasons from 1988 to 2004.  He is the only man in the history of the game to win 4 consecutive Cy Young Awards, from 1992-1995, culminating with a World Series title in 1995 as part of the era’s best pitching staff with Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.  Over the course of his career, he led the league in wins 3 times, in ERA 4 times, in starts 7 times, in complete games 3 times, in innings pitched 5 times, and in WHIP 4 times.  Speaking to his control, he allowed the least walks (per 9 innings) an astounding 9 times.  He also won 18 gold glove awards (that’s not a misprint), and was an 8-time all-star.  For his career, he won a total of 355 games.  With all of these accolades, it should come as no surprise that Maddux was voted in on the first ballot with 97.2 percent of the vote, close to the record for the highest percentage.  Maddux played 23 years, from 1986-2008, for the Cubs, Braves, Dodgers, and Padres, although he is most remembered for the 11 seasons he spent in a Braves uniform.

Glavine was just as good as Maddux.  During their 10 seasons together with the Braves, he wasn’t overall overshadowed by Maddux, even as good as Maddux was.  The two were similar, yet different.  While Maddux used control to pitch to contact outs, Glavine used it for a blend of contact outs and strikeouts.  Glavine has one of the best changeups in the history of the game, and it seemed that the changeup was even better in big games.  That culminated with a 1-hit shutout of one of the best offenses in history, the 1995 Cleveland Indians, in Game 6 of the World Series.  While that 1995 title was Glavine’s only championship, he was a part of 5 National League championship teams.  While Glavine’s numbers don’t quite match Maddux’s, he had 14 consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins, including 5 seasons with 20+wins.  In many the years Maddux didn’t lead the league in games started, Glavine did, doing so in 6 seasons.  While Glavine didn’t lead the league in statistical categories that often, remember he did play in an era in which he shared the National League with Maddux, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz, among others (although some of those didn’t spend their entire careers in the NL).  He won Cy Young Awards in 1991 and 1998, and was a 10-time all-star.  For what it’s worth, he was also one of the league’s best hitting pitchers, winning 4 Silver Slugger Awards.  He becomes a first-ballot Hall of Famer with 91.9 percent of the vote after winning 305 games in his career, ranking him 4th all-time among left-handed pitchers.  He played for 22 seasons, from 1987-2008, for the Braves and Mets, with 17 of those years in Atlanta.

Thomas becomes the first inductee to have played a majority of his games at DH (Paul Molitor played the most games at DH, but it was only 44% of his games).  He had one of the game’s best combinations of strength, power, and hitting for average during his era.  The Big Hurt, as he is known, hit 521 homers and yet walked more than he struck out, making him a power hitter with a high on-base percentage, leading the league in walks on 4 occasions.  In fact, his career OBP is .419, and he led the league in OBP 4 times, and 1 of those years also led the league in slugging.  In one of the ultimate respect stats (if you will), he led the league in intentional walks twice.  For his career, he hit .301, and had 1,704 RBI in addition to those aforementioned homers.  Thomas was a 5-time all-star, and won the AL MVP in 1993 and 1994.  He also won 4 Silver Slugger awards.  And yet, he did all of this without the help of performance enhancing drugs, in an era when it seems most players who had muscles like his and produced numbers like his are now linked to PED use.  Thomas, like the other 2 inductees, is elected on the first ballot, with 83.7 percent of the vote.  He played 19 years, from 1990-2008, for the White Sox, Athletics, and Blue Jays, but spent 16 years as the White Sox slugger.

Craig Biggio was the headliner of the group of those who fell short.  After 591 writers submitted their ballots, Biggio was just 2 votes short of enshrinement.  Generally, when someone is that close, they get in the next year, but next year’s ballot includes first-timers John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Gary Sheffield, keeping the field crowded.  I personally think 3 of those 4 are, in fact, worthy Hall of Famers, making it tough for the guys who didn’t get in this year.  Biggio is certainly worthy, having been one of the games best hitters over a 20 year career, while playing very well defensively at catcher, 2nd base, and outfield, a widely varying group of positions.

Mike Piazza (62.2%), Jack Morris (61.5%), Curt Schilling (29.2%), and Jeff Kent (15.2%) are all also players who I believe to be worthy of enshrinement that have fallen short this year.  Piazza is one of the 2 or 3 best hitting catchers in the history of the game, hitting 427 homers with a .308 average, and making 12 all-star appearances.  Morris was in his final year on the ballot, meaning his Hall fate now falls to the Veteran’s Committee in the years to come.  While some say his stats aren’t good enough to be in the Hall, he was one of the most dominant pitchers of the 1980s and early 1990s, and won 4 World Series titles, including pitching 10 scoreless innings in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.  Schilling was also an excellent postseason performer, winning 3 rings and 4 pennants, and famously pitching the so-called “Bloody Sock Game” in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS.  Kent was one of the league’s best RBI men of his time, hitting in 1,518 runs in his career, doing so while playing 2nd base, a position not traditionally known for producing sluggers.

Another big story in this balloting was that players linked to the use of performance enhancing drugs all lost ground in the balloting, and remain a long way away from the 75% threshold.  Roger Clemens won 7 Cy Young Awards and 354 wins, but only had 35.4% of the vote, and Barry Bonds, according to the record books, is the all-time record holder in homers (762*), as well as walks and intentional walks, and won 7 MVP awards, but only had 34.7% of the vote.  Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped the game recover from aftermath of the 1994 strike with their home run chase in 1998, and had 583 and 609 homers, but only got 11.0% and 9.2% of the vote, respectively.  Perhaps the biggest shock out of the PED users is Rafael Palmeiro, who failed to remain on the ballot for next year by getting only 4.4% of the vote, despite 569 homers and 1,835 RBIs.

This election is the first since 1999 in which 3 players were selected for induction.  With the addition of Cox, Torre, and La Russa, there will be 6 living inductees on Hall of Fame Weekend for the first time since 1971.  This is much different from last year, when there were no living inductees after no one was selected on the writers ballot, and the Pre-Integration Era Committee’s inductees had all long since died.  That shutout was the result of a protest by some writers against players from the so-called PED era, as it was the first year on the ballot for players such as Bonds and Clemens, among others.

The induction will be special for many cities and fan bases, as at least one inductee has ties to the Athletics, Blue Jays, Braves, Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Mets, Padres, White Sox, and Yankees.  However, this will be a very special induction for the entire Atlanta area, and Braves fans everywhere, as Maddux, Glavine, and Cox are most associated with the Braves, and Torre managed the Braves in the early 1980s.  In addition, La Russa appeared in 9 games for the Braves as a 2nd baseman in 1971 (and ironically wore #6), and Thomas is originally from Columbus, Georgia, about an hour and a half southwest of Atlanta.

ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Week of 1/6

The first weekend of conference play in the ACC was full of great basketball, and included a couple of upsets of ranked opponents on the road.  This is the second time ever that Duke and North Carolina are both 0-1 in conference play (1994-95 was the other), and the first time ever that Duke, North Carolina, and NC State have all 3 lost their conference opener.  In addition to that, I knew the 3 additions to the ACC coming into the year would make an impact, but I sure didn’t realize that by the first Monday in January they would hold 3 of the top 4 spots in these rankings.  The ACC is, by the way, down to just 2 ranked teams, after North Carolina fell from 19th to the “others receiving votes” category after their loss at Wake Forest.

1.  Syracuse (14-0 overall, 1-0 ACC, Last Week: 1st)
The Orange are now 1 of just 6 undefeated teams remaining in Division I Basketball, and remain ranked 2nd in the AP Poll.  But they didn’t stay perfect without having a little discomfort in one game.  After easily dispatching Eastern Michigan, it was Miami that gave Syracuse a bit of a test, before the Orange won 49-44.  While the defense appears set, the offense clearly struggled in this game, which was their first conference game as an ACC member.  This week, the Orange travel to Virginia Tech before hosting North Carolina.  I’m curious to see how long they can remain undefeated.

2.  Duke (11-3, 0-1, 2nd)
Duke opened conference play with a trip to South Bend that they would rather forget.  Notre Dame hung around with the Blue Devils the whole game before taking the lead and pulling out the win at the end, 79-77.  Duke stays 2nd in this ranking because they are still the 2nd best team in the conference, and even with 3 losses probably have the 2nd best résumé in the conference.  They are also the only other ACC team besides Syracuse to currently be ranked, although they have fallen to 16th in the AP Poll.  This marks the first time in 122 weeks that Duke has not been ranked in the top 10, a period stretching back to 2007.  The week that ended in South Bend began in Greensboro, where Duke easily handled Elon.  This week, the Blue Devils host Georgia Tech on Tuesday before traveling to Clemson over the weekend.

3.  Pittsburgh (13-1, 1-0, 4th)
Pitt moves up to 3rd for a couple of reasons.  First of all, Florida State, who was 3rd, lost to Virginia (see below).  In addition, the Panthers went on the road for their first ever ACC game in Raleigh, and after trailing by 8 at half went on to win by 12 over NC State.  The win came after beating Albany on Tuesday in their last non-conference game.  This week, Pitt hosts Maryland and Wake Forest.  If they take care of business at home, they will be one road win away from heading to Syracuse with a 16-1/4-0 record when they meet the Orange on January 18.

4.  Notre Dame (10-4, 1-0, 7th)
The Irish picked up a huge win on Saturday, upsetting Duke, 79-77.  Given the circumstances, that Notre Dame was unranked, just days after losing their leading scorer to dismissal, and hosting the 7th ranked Blue Devils in their first ever ACC game, I would call this one of the biggest wins in program history.  The win was refreshing, not just because of its magnitude, but because in their previous game they had been taken to overtime by Canisius before escaping with a win.  Next up for the Irish is another home game against another ACC school with a rich tradition, the NC State Wolfpack, who played the Irish a few times in the 1980s when Digger Phelps and Jim Valvano roamed the sidelines.  After the Pack leave South Bend, Notre Dame will travel to Georgia Tech for their first ACC road game.

5.  Virginia (10-4, 1-0, 6th)
It was difficult for me to put Virginia so high, since they lost by 35 on the road at Tennessee just 7 days ago.  But sometimes in sports, it’s good for a team to have a short memory, and Virginia did on Saturday, when they went to Tallahassee and dominated Florida State, who had been 3rd in these rankings, and left with a 62-50 win.  I naturally had to rank them above Florida State, as they proved in that game they were the better team, and with North Carolina’s loss, the Cavaliers actually improve a spot, even with the embarrassment at Tennessee still on the books.  This week, Wake Forest comes to Charlottesville, before the Cavaliers travel to NC State.  A trip to Durham on January 13 is lurking.

6.  Florida State (9-4, 0-1, 3rd)
As mentioned, the Seminoles were dominated on their own floor by Joe Harris and the Virginia Cavaliers.  The loss ended a 4 game winning streak in which the Seminoles had won convincingly twice, and had beaten then 22nd ranked UMass.  However, the last of those 4 wins had been just before the game against Virginia, and had been a struggle for the ‘Noles, when they beat Charleston Southern by just 8.  On Thursday is what some expect to be an easy ACC road game, if there is such a thing, when they go to Clemson, although the Tigers and Seminoles always seem to play close games when they meet.  Sunday night, they will have another testy game at home, when Maryland comes to Tallahassee.

7.  North Carolina (10-4, 0-1, 5th)
After beating UNC Wilmington on New Year’s Eve to complete their non-conference slate, the Tar Heels were upset at Wake Forest, 73-67.  On the year, the Heels are 3-0 against ranked opponents, and 7-4 against unranked opponents, and as a result they are now an unranked opponent, dropping out of the AP Poll from 19th.  While the Tar Heels aren’t the first victim of the Deacons at the Joel Coliseum, the loss is still alarming for Roy Williams and his players.  Miami comes to Chapel Hill on Wednesday before the Heels travel to Syracuse to play the undefeated Orange.  They aren’t playing well enough to hang with the Orange, but they have a résumé that suggests otherwise, with wins against Louisville, Kentucky, and on the road against Michigan State.  No one knows anymore what to expect out of this team.

8.  Maryland (8-5, 2-0, 8th)
Maryland began their final ACC season with a convincing win over Georgia Tech, after beating NC Central easily earlier in the week.  Since they had a December conference game, and sit at 2-0 in conference play, they technically have a half-game lead in the standings.  That could change tonight when the Terrapins travel to Pittsburgh, where the Panthers have a 12-game home winning streak.  Even if the Terps can upset the Panthers tonight, they will still face an uphill battle to keep their lead when they travel to Florida State on Sunday.  While Maryland has had a couple of tough losses, including George Washington and Boston University, they are still a team that should have a good shot down the stretch to play their way into the NCAA Tournament.

9.  Wake Forest (11-3, 1-0, 11th)
The Demon Deacons beat then 19th ranked North Carolina on Sunday night, 73-67, for their 11th straight home win, and after their first win over the Tar Heels since 2010, they move from 11th to 9th in these rankings.  Since the start of last season, the Deacs are 3-1 at home against ranked opponents, adding the win over the Tar Heels to wins last year over Miami and NC State, with the only loss coming to Duke by 5 last February.  The big issue for the program as it tries to rebuild is winning games on the road.  Wake lost its only road game so far this year at Xavier, but 4 of their next 5 games are away from the Joel Coliseum, including matchups at Virginia and Pittsburgh this week.

10.  Miami (8-6, 0-2, 10th)
Miami was jumped by Wake Forest in these rankings after the Deacons beat North Carolina, but the Hurricanes jumped over NC State to remain in 10th after a quality loss, if such a thing exists, when they went on the road to Syracuse and lost by just 5.  Miami’s defense is clearly a strength, as they allowed only 49 in the game, although their young offense struggled against Syracuse’s defense.  This team has been sporadic all year, as most young teams are.  Their best win all year was against Arizona State, although they can change that when they travel to North Carolina on Wednesday before taking a few days off over the weekend and preparing to host in-state rival Florida State next week.

11.  NC State (10-4, 0-1, 9th)
The young NC State Wolfpack seemed to be making progress as the season went on, recovering from early losses to Cincinnati and NC Central to win 7 straight and lose a close game against then 25th ranked Missouri.  While the progress may have seemed to be slowing with a close game against UNC Greensboro, it looked like the Pack were ready for the ACC when they led Pittsburgh by 8 at halftime.  But that lead wouldn’t last, and the Pack lost by 12 as Pitt led the 2nd half scoring 48-28.  It was tough to drop the Pack two spots over a loss to the 3rd ranked team in these rankings, but the teams around them were more impressive over the weekend.  It won’t get any easier for NC State this week, as they travel to Notre Dame on Tuesday before they host Virginia on Saturday.

12.  Clemson (10-3, 1-0, 12th)
Like a lot of the teams in this section of the rankings, Clemson has a young roster.  That being said, they are having some success, and that continued this week when they beat VMI by 30 before winning their ACC opener against Boston College, 62-60.  This week Florida State and Duke both travel to Littlejohn Coliseum, giving the Tigers an opportunity to really make a statement and prove they will be a player in the ACC race.  Looking at their non-conference schedule, big wins over Davidson, South Carolina, and Temple may suggest they will, in fact, be competitive, while a loss to Auburn and a win over Boston College by only 2 points may beg to differ.

13.  Georgia Tech (9-5, 0-1, 13th)
The Yellow Jackets have a young team as well, although their starters all have some experience.  The experience appeared to be missing, however, in a 77-61 loss at Maryland to start conference play.  The Jackets are better at home, where they haven’t lost and even have a quality win over Illinois.  On the road, while they’ve beaten Georgia and Charlotte, they’ve also lost to Vanderbilt and Dayton, in addition to the Terrapins.  While I don’t expect the Jackets to pull a shocker at Duke tomorrow night, a home game against Notre Dame on Saturday and another one against Pittsburgh next week give Georgia Tech a couple of chances to pick up a surprising victory.

14.  Virginia Tech (8-5, 1-0, 14th)
Virginia Tech stays 14th in these rankings due to a lack of sample size.  While the team directly ahead of them lost on Saturday, and Virginia Tech won their only game of the week, that win was over Maryland Eastern Shore, and came on Tuesday before the Hokies were the ACC’s first “odd team out” (since there are an odd number of members, somebody always has a couple extra days off since there’s no one for them to play).  They do have a conference win, coming back in December over Miami, in overtime on the road.  They will have to pull the nation’s biggest upset of the year if they want to remain undefeated in ACC play, as they host 2nd ranked Syracuse on Tuesday, before they have a very winnable game on Saturday at home against Boston College.

15.  Boston College (4-11, 0-2, 15th)
Boston College has been dead last in these rankings ever since their 0-3 start, even after being 8th in my preseason rankings with all 5 starters back from last year’s improved team.  In the Eagles first 11 games, they were 4-7, and remained the only ACC team under .500, but that was with a tough schedule that was presumably assembled to prepare the Eagles for ACC play.  However, their season has taken a turn for the worse since, with 4 straight losses, with the low point coming with a 10-point loss at Auburn.  They are now 0-2 in conference play after a December loss to Maryland and a loss Saturday to Clemson.  They get a much-needed week off before playing a winnable road game Saturday against Virginia Tech.

Game of the Week:  North Carolina at Syracuse
Many have said that no North Carolina result, good or bad, would surprise them in any game, as a result of the sporadic start they’ve had to this season.  The Heels do have a big win on the road, at Michigan State, but have lost their other 2 road games to UAB and Wake Forest.  If the Wake Forest game produced a tough atmosphere for the Heels to play in, imagine when they play in front of 33,000 fans, all pulling against them in a sea of Orange, against the undefeated, 2nd ranked team in the country.  In addition to that, Syracuse simply has the better-playing roster, plain and simple.
Syracuse 83, North Carolina 71.

NFL Picks for Wild Card Weekend

The best time of year, at least in football, started with bowl games over the last 2 weeks.  Now it continues with the NFL Playoffs.  While some may brush off the Wild Card matchups as irrelevant, since the top 2 in each conference don’t play until next week, the last 3 Super Bowl champions have played on Wild Card weekend, meaning that the 4 teams who advance to next week’s divisional round may have a good shot to win it all.

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
The Colts are a 2-point home favorite after winning the AFC South, and as the 4 seed host the Chiefs, who are the 5 seed after falling short of the AFC West title.  The Chiefs are 0-7 in the playoffs since their last playoff win in January 1994, including 3 losses to the Colts.  They started this season at 9-0, but have lost 5 of the last 7, although each of those 5 losses was to a playoff team (then again, one of those losses, this past Sunday against the Chargers, was a bit controversial after a referee no-call).  The Colts have a playoff losing streak of their own, but it is only 3 games, and only dates back to their last Super Bowl trip in 2010.  The Colts are 1 of 3 teams since 2003 with 3 wins over 12-win teams.  Out of the first 2, the 2011 Ravens reached the AFC Championship, and the 2003 Patriots beat the Panthers in the Super Bowl.  These teams are pretty statistically even, but a head-to-head matchup just 2 weeks ago shows otherwise.  The Colts won 23-7, in Kansas City.  This time the Colts have a home-field advantage to help them even more.
Colts 28, Chiefs 13.

New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
The Eagles are 3-point home favorites coming off a big road win in Dallas for the NFC East division title, leading into a rematch of a 27-24 Saints win in the 2007 NFC Divisional round.  The Eagles claimed the 3 seed with that division title, and will host the Saints, who captured the 6 seed with their win over the Buccaneers on Sunday.  This game is certainly meaningful, since it is a Wild Card playoff game, but it is even more meaningful in suburban Austin, TX, at Westlake High School.  Drew Brees of the Saints and Nick Foles of the Eagles, both starting QBs in this game, went to the school.  Since there is a 10-year age difference, they actually didn’t ever meet each other until both had made it to the big leagues, but this high school connection has football fans everywhere intrigued.  According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is actually the 2nd time a playoff matchup has included QBs from the same high school, after Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers and Joe Ferguson of the Bills both graduated from Woodlawn High School in Shreveport, LA, before meeting in the 1974 AFC Divisional Round.  As for these 2 teams (it is a team sport, after all), the Eagles have won 7 out of 8 on their way to the division title, including 4 straight at home.  The high-powered offensive attack that first year coach Chip Kelly brought from the University of Oregon is working in the pros, as the Eagles are ranked 1st in the league in rushing and 9th in passing.  Foles didn’t start the year as the starting QB, but has stepped in nicely, throwing 27 TDs and only 2 interceptions on the year, and tying the NFL record with 7 TDs in a single game on November 3.  In addition to the passing attack, the Eagles have the league’s leading rusher in LeSean McCoy.  The Saints were undefeated at home this year, but that doesn’t mean anything this weekend in Philadelphia.  The fact they are 3-5 away from the Superdome, and have lost 3 in a row on the road and 4 out of 5, certainly does mean something.  Not only are their win-loss numbers alarming, but so are the differences in Brees’ numbers.  Out of his 39 TD passes, 27 are at home, with only 12 on the road.  Out of 12 interceptions, only 3 were at home, while the other 9 were on the road.  This game will also be in cold weather, with a high around 40 and a forecast for rain, which should benefit the Eagles even more.
Eagles 34, Saints 24.

San Diego Chargers (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
The Bengals are 7-point home favorites in this game between the 3 and 6 seeds in the AFC.  The Bengals, as the higher seed, are hosting the Chargers, and the fact that the Bengals have this game at home is huge for their chances.  First of all, they are undefeated at home and just 3-5 on the road so far this season.  They will also have a very hungry fan base behind them, as they haven’t won a playoff game since 1991, losing 5 straight.  Perhaps it’s a good thing they aren’t playing the Houston Texans, as they are the team that eliminated the Bengals the last 2 seasons.  Cincinnati has won 5 out of 6, and the 2 losses right before that streak were both in overtime.  They have a 4-0 regular season record against the 12 playoff teams, including a 17-10 win over these Chargers on December 1, in San Diego.  However, this isn’t the same Chargers team as even the one that lost that game just 5 weeks ago.  After a first half that included losses to the Texans, Titans, Raiders, and Redskins, their stretch run that included a 5-1 stretch included 2 wins over the Chiefs and 1 over the Broncos.  They also had earlier wins over the Colts and Eagles.  With both teams coming in on such hot streaks, this should be one of the best-played games of the weekend, and one team may play well but not be rewarded with a win.  Weather in the mid-30s with a chance of a rain/snow mix should favor the Bengals, and if matchup history means anything, the Bengals have won 3 straight in the series, and won their only playoff meeting, 27-7, in the 1982 AFC Championship.|
Bengals 24, Chargers 20.

San Francisco 49ers (12-4) at Green Bay Packers (8-7-1)
The Packers are a 3-point underdogs at home against the defending NFC Champions, the 49ers, in a rematch of a meeting in the NFC Divisional Round last year which the 49ers won 45-31 at Candlestick.  The Niners are, in fact, the highest-finishing team from last years playoffs in this year’s tournament, since the Ravens, who won last year’s Super Bowl, missed the playoffs with their loss to the Bengals on Sunday.  For what it’s worth, the 49ers beat the Packers 34-28 in Week 1, although it’s really not worth much since that was back on September 8, almost 4 months ago.  The 49ers, in fact, followed up that win with consecutive losses, even though they were to the Seahawks and Colts, a pair of division champions, before going 11-2 the rest of the way, including a 6 game winning streak to end the regular season.  One negative about the 49ers is they are 2-4 against this year’s playoff teams, with both of the wins coming at home.  They are 6-2 on the road, which is a pretty good mark, especially considering the 2 losses are at Seattle and New Orleans, 2 of the toughest places in the league to play as a visitor.  Then again, Green Bay is a tough atmosphere as well, particularly in the playoffs, as the Packers are 16-4 all-time in Lambeau Field playoff games.  While the Packers are 8-7-1 on the year, they are 6-3 with Aaron Rodgers under center, as he missed 7 games with a broken collarbone, and during that time they were 2-4-1.  While the Packers are 0-3 against playoff participants, 2 of the losses were on the road and the 1 at home was during Rodgers’ injury sabbatical.  It is Rodgers who is responsible for the Packers even being here, after his 48-yard TD pass to Randall Cobb on 4th and 8 in the final minute last week against the Bears in the de facto NFC North title game.  A final advantage the home-standing Packers have will be the weather, like the other 2 outdoor playoff games that also happen to be in the northern part of the country.  Unlike the games in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, this game will see temperatures below zero, with Sunday’s high forecast as -3, with wind chills of -20 to -30, and there is also a chance of snow.  Green Bay leads the series 6-3 since 2001, and has won 4 out of 6 playoff meetings
Packers 21, 49ers 14.

College Football Picks for BCS Bowl Games

Bowl Championship Series

The Bowl Championship Series, shortened by many to be called the BCS, will bid farewell to the wonderful world of college football this year.  While this may not be the greatest set of 5 games the BCS has produced, there are still some intriguing matchups in this year’s edition, particularly in the National Championship Game and the Rose Bowl.  All of these teams have had fantastic years on the gridiron, and are rewarded for their fine work by participating in the most unique postseason system in all of sports, although all that changes next year with the College Football Playoff.  But let’s not get overly sentimental as the BCS bids farewell, since seemingly everybody seems to be able to think of a season in which somebody didn’t get the bid they deserved under this system.  Then again, the topic of BCS snubs is certainly another story for another day.

Florida State University logoEnglish: Sports logo of Auburn University

Game of the Week:  Vizio BCS National Championship, #1 Florida State (13-0) vs #2 Auburn (12-1)
Florida State is an 8-point favorite in the final BCS National Championship Game, taking on a “team of destiny” in Auburn.  Many look at Auburn’s incredible rushing game and their multiple miracles this year as reasons they will take home the crystal ball when these teams meet Monday in Pasadena, but I am going to look more at why I think Florida State will lose.  QB Jameis Winston has had an outstanding season, and was rewarded with the Heisman Trophy.  However, Heisman winners are 3-6 in national title games under the BCS format, and Heisman winning quarterbacks have an even worse mark at 2-5.  Florida State’s schedule was just the 66th toughest in the nation, the worst for any team ever to reach the BCS title game.  The next 3 worst, which were Ohio State in 2006 and 2007 and Texas in 2009, all lost to SEC opponents by 27, 14, and 16, respectively.  This is the 4th time an undefeated team has played a 1-loss team in the national championship.  The previous undefeated teams were Ohio State in 2006, LSU in 2011, and Notre Dame in 2012, and they all lost to the 1-loss team, which each time was from the SEC, by 27, 21, and 28, respectively.  Looking at Auburn, this is the 7th ranked team they have played, and the 4th in a row.  While they did lose to LSU back in September, this is not the same team now, as they have improved week-by-week.  This is the 5th ranked opponent for the Seminoles, although the caliber of the ranked opponents isn’t quite the same.  It’s tough to pick against a Florida State team that hasn’t really been threatened by anyone, but with this look at history and the seemingly destined path of Auburn to this championship opportunity, it would be even tougher to pick against the Tigers.  I do believe the game will be closer than the historical games I referenced above.
Auburn 38, Florida State 31.

2010 Sugar Bowl

Big Game Guarantee:  Allstate Sugar Bowl, #3 Alabama (11-1) vs #11 Oklahoma (10-2)
Alabama will be a 16-point favorite in a very maroon Superdome on Thursday night when they take on an Oklahoma team that got into the BCS at the last minute when they beat Oklahoma State.  That game was one of 3 wins for the Sooners over ranked opponents, but the other 2 came against teams who are no longer ranked.  They also had losses against Baylor and Texas in games that were not close, and while Baylor is joining the Sooners in the BCS, the Longhorns win over the Sooners was pretty much their only high point in a season that ended in Mack Brown’s resignation.  Oklahoma won their last BCS appearance, but before that had lost 5 in a row.  Alabama actually has the same 3-1 record against ranked opponents as the Sooners do, but they beat better quality opponents and lost to Auburn, who is playing for the national championship.  Alabama has won 4 straight bowl games, with 3 of those wins coming in the BCS title game.  It’s the other of those 4, however, that I’m looking at in analyzing this matchup.  The Tide came into the 2011 Capital One Bowl in a very similar situation to this Sugar Bowl, in a potential letdown game after losing national title chances over the last month of the season.  In Orlando, on that occasion, the Tide beat a good Michigan State team, 49-7, ending talk of a letdown game.  Then again, the last time the Crimson Tide played in the Sugar Bowl, in 2009, they lost to Utah, also under very similar circumstances.  However, Nick Saban has told his players not to let the Auburn loss get them down so much that it causes them to lose this one too.  Oklahoma has lost their last 3 bowl games against the SEC, including their last Sugar Bowl trip in 2004.
Alabama 42, Oklahoma 24.

2011 Rose Bowl

Upset of the Week:  The 100th Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, #5 Stanford (11-2) vs #4 Michigan State (12-1)
The last time these two programs met was in the 1996 Sun Bowl, when Stanford won 38-0.  There may not be 38 points, total, in this Rose Bowl matchup between two teams whose strengths are their defenses and running games.  These programs met 4 times between 1955 and 1962, with Michigan State winning 3 of the 4, but that Sun Bowl is the only meeting since before today.  Stanford is favored by 7, perhaps due to their familiarity with the Rose Bowl, after beating Wisconsin 20-14 in last year’s edition, and the BCS, as this is their 3rd straight BCS bowl.  This is Stanford’s 8th matchup with a ranked opponent, and they have won each of the previous 7, including 3 games against top 11 opponents, although they also added losses to Utah and USC.  Michigan State is making their first ever BCS appearance, and their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1988, after upsetting Ohio State to win the Big Ten Championship Game.  The Spartans are leading the nation in total defense, and have allowed the 4th least points, at just 12.7 per game.  Their only loss of the season was at Notre Dame, 17-13, in a game with some controversial calls against the Spartans.  They have not only won the rest of their games, but have won all their games by double digits, including each of their Big Ten conference games and the Big Ten Championship against the Buckeyes, which they won 34-24.  Michigan State hasn’t played the strength of schedule that Stanford has, but with the games they’ve played, they have compiled quite a résumé that leads me toward their first Rose Bowl win since the Reagan administration.
Michigan State 13, Stanford 10.

2011 Orange Bowl

Another Upset of the Week:  Discover Orange Bowl, #7 Ohio State (12-1) vs #12 Clemson (10-2)
These programs have met just once in their elaborate histories, in the 1978 Gator Bowl.  That game is infamous in college football lore after Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes punched Clemson player Charlie Bauman after Bauman’s interception which sealed Clemson’s win, and Hayes’ Hall of Fame career ended when he was fired the next day.  While we probably won’t see the same reaction from Urban Meyer if Clemson wins, I don’t think we’ll see the same score either, as that was a 17-15 game.  This year’s matchup is between the 3rd and 9th best scoring offenses in the nation.  Clemson is in their 2nd BCS bowl game in 3 seasons, and the memory of the first is plenty of motivation, as the Tigers try to forget their 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl.  Clemson’s 2 losses this season are to Florida State and South Carolina, currently ranked 1st and 9th, respectively.  Other than the losses, and a big 3-point win over Georgia on opening day, they’ve beaten everyone else convincingly.  Clemson is 2-2 all-time in the Orange Bowl.  Ohio State is in just their 2nd Orange Bowl, after beating Colorado by 17 in 1977.  They had been hoping to play an ACC team in a bowl this year, but they had Florida State in mind.  That hope of a bid in the national title game ended with their loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, 34-24.  Even before that, while they had a 12-0 record, many of their wins weren’t necessarily convincing, with 2 particular games standing out.  One was against Northwestern, when they trailed for most of the game before winning by double digits only because of a touchdown on the game’s final play.  The other was “The Game” against Michigan when the Wolverines chose to go for 2 and the win instead of kicking the extra point to force overtime, and were stopped by the Buckeye defense.  Ohio State has given up 35 points or more in 3 of their last 4 games, and this Clemson offense will certainly be the best they’ve played all year.  Ohio State is favored by 3, but Clemson will likely have more motivation as they play an Ohio State team who seems to be on the decline as the season comes to an end.
Clemson 48, Ohio State 40.

2012 Fiesta Bowl

Closer Than The Experts Think:  Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, #6 Baylor (11-1) vs #15 UCF (11-1)
Both of these programs come into their first ever BCS bowl game, both after having very similar seasons.  In fact, both can claim they are having their best season in school history.  Additionally, both have active bowl winning streaks, with UCF winning 2 straight and Baylor winning 3 straight.  Baylor is a 17-point favorite, due in large part to the nation’s best offense, which is averaging 624.5 yards and 53.3 points per game.  QB Bryce Petty has proven himself as one of the nation’s elite passers, and coach Art Briles’ name continues to surface in rumors about vacant jobs, both at Texas and in the NFL.  Baylor was 9-0 in mid-November, and was looking at an outside chance at playing for the national championship in the event they won out.  The dream ended with a 49-17 loss to Oklahoma State.  It didn’t even look like Baylor would get a BCS bid, or at least not an automatic one, going into “championship Saturday” on December 7, but when Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State, the Baylor-Texas game became a de facto championship game, and the Bears won 30-10, earning their trip to Phoenix.  UCF was undefeated in conference play, although the fact they are champions of the new American Athletic Conference is more of a hindrance to their credibility than a help.  The Knights did beat Louisville, 38-35, in one of the season’s best games back in October, taking the conference title away from the favored Cardinals, and also beat Penn State in Happy Valley.  UCF’s one loss was to South Carolina back on September 28, in a game in which they played very well before losing 28-25 to a Gamecocks team currently ranked 9th.  While the spotlight will shine on Baylor’s offense, QB Blake Bortles has formed quite an offensive juggernaut for the Knights.  Looking deeper at the Knights, however, 4 of their last 5 wins were by a combined 15 points, over 4 teams with losing records.  While motivation won’t be an issue, and Bortles should play well enough to keep the game relatively close, Baylor’s offense will be too much in the end.
Baylor 45, UCF 33.

(All photo credits to Wikimedia)