MLB Playoffs: Wild Card Preview

After 2,430 regular season games, baseball’s playoffs are here.  And despite the longest regular season in professional sports, and despite the entire season being played in series of two to four games apiece, the entire season comes down to a one-game playoff for the Wild Card teams in both leagues.  But I’ll hold my opinion on that for later.  Tonight, the AL Wild Card Game is in Kansas City (8:00, TBS), and the NL Wild Card Game will follow, tomorrow night in Pittsburgh (8:00, ESPN).

AL Wild Card Game:  Oakland Athletics at Kansas City Royals

The Royals are in the playoffs for the first time since the 1985 World Series, and will face a team, the Athletics, that were, once upon a time, actually based in Kansas City.  The A’s are in the playoffs for the third straight season, and in some ways are the Braves of the AL, failing to advance past the first round in six of their last seven appearances, with the 2006 ALCS, in which they were swept, serving as the exception.  The Royals can say they haven’t won a playoff series since 1985, but that’s because they haven’t even been to the playoffs since that team beat the Cardinals in the World Series 29 years ago.  Kauffman Stadium will be rocking on Tuesday night, as anyone in Kansas City under 35 isn’t old enough to remember the joy and agony of previous playoff runs.  For what it’s worth, the three-game playoff winning streak held by the Royals (even if the three games were in 1985) is the second longest in baseball.

Pitching: For Tuesday’s game, the A’s will turn to the man they acquired at the trade deadline on July 31 to pitch big games like this one, Jon Lester (2.46 ERA, 2.35 with A’s, 2.11 career ERA in playoffs), one of the heroes of last year’s World Series run for the Red Sox.  Behind Lester, while the A’s won’t even have the strongest bullpen in the ballpark (keep reading), they do have a strong relief core, led by closer Sean Doolittle (22 saves).  Before the ninth, bullpen options include Dan Otero and Luke Gregerson, both of whom have an ERA under 2.30, and Fernando Abad, who has the best ERA on the team (1.57).  For the Royals, they give the ball to “Big Game James”, James Shields.  Shields is the staff ace (14-8, 3.21 ERA), although his career ERA in the playoffs is an iffy 4.98, but he hasn’t appeared in a playoff game since 2010, and is a different pitcher today.  If the Royals take the lead to the seventh inning, they will like their chances, as the best bullpen in baseball will get to work.  Kelvin Herrera (1.41 ERA) is normally their seventh inning pitcher, followed by setup man Wade Davis (1.00 ERA) in the eighth and closer Greg Holland (1.44 ERA, 46 saves) in the ninth.

Hitting: For the first four months of the season, Oakland’s offense was among the best in baseball.  But when they traded for Lester, they gave up Yoenis Cespedes to get him.  While the A’s also got Jonny Gomes in the trade, the output isn’t the same for their offense without Cespedes in the middle of the order.  The highest batting average on the team belongs to Derek Norris, and that’s just .270.  While Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss had 98 and 81 RBI, respectively, the offense as a unit certainly has less than overwhelming numbers.  Adam Dunn is on the Athletics bench for the game tonight, but is in the playoffs for the first time after 2,001 regular season games, as he plays his final season.  The Royals offense isn’t going to dominate anyone either, but comparing them to Oakland they are the better unit, led by Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez (74 and 70 RBI, respectively), and Lorenzo Cain (.301 average).  Obviously pitching, not scoring runs, is the strength of both teams in this game.

Other: Bob Melvin is managing the A’s in the playoffs for the third straight year, after a couple of five-game losses to Detroit in Division Series play the last two years.  In the other dugout Ned Yost is managing his first playoff game.  The former Brewers manager took over in Kansas City in 2010 and the team has improved under him each year.  As mentioned, Kansas City has waited for this game for 29 years, so they will certainly have a strong home field advantage.  That, coupled with Oakland’s 28-39 post-All-Star Break record which took them from World Series favorite to only making the playoffs by a single game, points to a Royals victory.

The Royals will win to advance to the ALDS to play the Los Angeles Angels.

NL Wild Card Game: San Francisco Giants at Pittsburgh Pirates

Last year, the Pirates were a lot like the Royals this year, hosting the Wild Card Game after a long playoff drought (it had been 21 years, in their case).  This year they are back, and hosting the Wild Card game once again, becoming the first team in the current format to play in the Wild Card round for a second time.  They face the San Francisco Giants, who have had plenty of recent postseason success, winning the World Series in 2010 and 2012.  They missed the playoffs last year, and carry a league-high seven-game playoff winning streak into this postseason.  Last year Pittsburgh’s crowd was very hungry for playoff success after such a long drought, so don’t think they’ve forgotten the past, even though they are in the same situation once again.  Perhaps the most picturesque park in all of baseball will also be one of the loudest this postseason, just as it was a year ago.  Both teams in this game are 88-74, with the Pirates winning four out of six in the head-to-head series in the regular season.

Pitching:  Some have criticized the Pirates’ decision to pitch Edison Volquez in this game, but Volquez leads the team’s major contributors in ERA (among starters), at 3.04.  The Pirates bullpen has been a bit of a liability at times, but has been strong during their September run to a playoff berth.  Closer Mark Melancon (33 saves) took over the role after the midseason trade of Jason Grilli to the Angels.  Add Tony Watson and Jared Hughes, and you have a trio of relievers, all of whom have an ERA under 2.00.  The Giants previous titles were based on pitching, but many of those players have either moved on, lost form, or gotten hurt.  Enter Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98 ERA), who was a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher before, has stepped up and become the ace of the staff.  The Giants bullpen isn’t the force it has been in the past, but it is still a solid unit, with the workload split pretty evenly between closer Santiago Casilla (1.70 ERA, 19 saves) and fellow relievers Sergio Romo (3.72 ERA, 23 saves before losing closer’s job), Jeremy Affeldt (2.28), Jean Machi (2.58), Javier Lopez (3.11), J.C. Gutierrez (3.96).

Hitting:  The Pirates have two of the top three batting averages in Josh Harrison (.315), and Andrew McCutcheon (.314), the 2013 NL MVP.  While the team isn’t the best slugging team in the game, they do have six players with at least 13 homers, including McCutcheon (25) and the team’s slugger Pedro Alvarez (18 in 122 games).  Neil Walker (23 HR, 76 RBI) is also an impact hitter, and Russell Martin (.290, 11 HR, 67 RBI) has had a solid season and was very clutch for the Pirates in last year’s postseason.  The Giants are led offensively by Buster Posey (.311 average, 22 HR, 89 RBI), Hunter Pence (.277, 20, 74), and Pablo Sandoval (.279, 16, 73).  Angel Pagan (.300) has hit for a high average at the top of the order, and Joe Panik (.305) helped solve the team’s early season second baseman woes when he came up from the minors.

Other: Both managers in this game are postseason veterans, with Bruce Bochy of the Giants in his seventh postseason, dating back to his time with the Padres, and looking to reach the World Series for the fourth time, and Clint Hurdle of the Pirates in his third postseason, having reached the World Series in 2007 with the Rockies.  As I mentioned, the Pirates have home field advantage for this one-game playoff, and with two very even teams taking the field Wednesday night at PNC Park, the crowd may just be the difference.

The Pirates will win to advance to the NLDS to play the Washington Nationals.

Ryder Cup Preview

Overview
The biennial competition started by Samuel Ryder in 1927 was, for so many years, an afterthought.  The United States vs. Great Britain & Ireland wasn’t, in most years, a fair match in the game of golf.  But in 1979, at the suggestion of an American, Jack Nicklaus, all of continental Europe was eligible for the team, and once the Europeans ended a 28-year drought by winning in 1985, and then won on American soil for the first time ever in 1987, the rivalry, pageantry, and intensity of arguably golf’s greatest event had been born.

For the 40th matches, the Cup is in Scotland for the first time since it was at Muirfield in 1973.  Europe has won two matches in a row, and seven out of the last nine since an American win in 1993.  That US win at The Belfry was also the last American win on European soil.  That team was captained by Tom Watson, so the PGA brought Watson back, becoming the oldest captain in history.  Considering that the US hasn’t won in Europe in my lifetime, they certainly have the odds stacked against them.

Course
The first transcontinental match, which was played after 12 Americans came “across the pond” to play in The Open Championship, took place at Gleneagles in 1921, and was a forerunner to the modern Ryder Cup, which began in 1927.  This year, 93 years later, the Ryder Cup is being staged on the same property (although it is a different course), on the PGA Centenary course.  Rather than having a links design, like so many well-known Scottish courses, the Centenary was built in 1993 (very contemporary by golf standards), designed in an American style by Jack Nicklaus.  The course does, however, still feature beautiful sightlines of the Scottish hills, and there are a few rolling hills on the eighteen holes themselves.

Captains
As mentioned, Tom Watson is captain of the American side for the second time, after leading them to victory 21 years ago.  In four appearances as a player in the matches between 1977 and 1989, Watson was 10-4-1.  The Europeans turn to Irishman Paul McGinley to continue their winning streak.  The 47-year old McGinley was 2-2-5 in three appearances from 2002-06, including clinching the winning putt at The Belfry in 2002.  McGinley was an assistant captain in 2010 under Colin Mongomerie and 2012 under Jose Maria Olazabal.

European Team
Overall Record (69-42-18)
Team Fourball Record (25-15-8)
Team Foursomes Record (27-15-8)
Team Singles Record (17-12-2)
Veterans: Thomas Bjorn (3-2-1, 3rd appearance), Sergio Garcia (16-8-4, 7th appearance), Martin Kaymer (3-2-1, 3rd appearance), Graeme McDowell (5-5-2, 4th appearance), Rory McIlroy (4-3-2, 3rd appearance), Ian Poulter (12-3-0, 5th appearance, captain’s pick), Justin Rose (6-3-0, 3rd appearance), Henrik Stenson (2-3-2, 3rd appearance), Lee Westwood (18-13-6, 9th appearance, captain’s pick)
Rookies: Jamie Donaldson, Victor Dubuisson, Stephen Gallacher (captain’s pick)
Fourball: Bjorn is undefeated in fourball, although it is in only two matches.  Garcia (6-2-3), Poulter (4-2-0), and Westwood (8-4-2) are all very strong in the format.  No one on the European team has a fourball record worse than one match under .500, so there isn’t really a weak link.  No individual fourball pairing for the Europeans has more than two matches experience, with one exception (Garcia/Westwood are 2-1-1, but haven’t paired since 2004), with teams of Poulter/Rose, McDowell/Poulter, Westwood/Kaymer, Kaymer/Poulter, and McIlroy/Poulter all 1-0-0 historically.
Foursomes: Garcia (8-2-1), Poulter (4-1-0), Rose (3-1-0), and Westwood (7-4-4) carry the team in this format, and there is only one player (Bjorn, 0-2-0) with a losing career record in the format.  Poulter/Rose (3-1-0) and McDowell/McIlroy (2-2-0) have had some success as partners in the format, as have Garcia/Westwood (2-0-0, but back in 2002)
Singles: Poulter (4-0-0), Rose (2-0-0), McIlroy (1-0-1), and Bjorn (1-0-1) have all never lost a singles match.  While Garcia (2-4-0) and Westwood (3-5-0) are, surprisingly, weak links on an otherwise very solid European squad in the format.

American Team
Overall Record (43-52-18)
Team Fourball Record (17-19-6)
Team Foursomes Record (16-15-9)
Team Singles Record (10-16-3)
Veterans: Keegan Bradley (3-1-0, 2nd appearance, captain’s pick), Jim Furyk (9-17-4, 9th appearance), Rickie Fowler (0-1-2, 2nd appearance), Zach Johnson (6-4-1, 4th appearance), Matt Kuchar (3-2-2, 3rd appearance), Hunter Mahan (3-2-3, 3rd appearance, captain’s pick), Phil Mickelson (14-18-6, 10th appearance), Webb Simpson (2-2-0, 2nd appearance, captain’s pick), Bubba Watson (3-5-0, 3rd appearance)
Rookies: Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth, Jimmy Walker
Fourball: Five of the nine veterans actually have a winning record in the format, although the team as a whole has a losing record.  Among the best are Simpson (2-0-0) and Watson (3-1-0), while Mickelson (6-8-2), and particularly Furyk (1-8-1) struggle in the format.  Mickelson seemed to find his perfect partner in 2012 in Bradley, and they were perfect in this format (1-0-0) and will play a fourball match in session one Friday morning, as will Simpson and Watson (2-0-0), who will play the opening match.
Foursomes: While Bradley (2-0-0) was strong in 2012 at Medinah in foursomes, no one else really has a radical record, either good or bad.  This is the only format in which the team members, as a whole, have a winning record.  Furyk (4-6-1) and Mickelson (4-5-0) have the most experience.  The Mickelson/Bradley pairing was also good in this format (2-0-0), and Johnson and Mahan (1-1-0) played a pair of foursomes matches together in 2010 in Wales.  Simpson and Watson (0-1-0) don’t appear as good in alternate shot as they are in fourball.
Singles: The best American player in singles is Tiger Woods, who is nearly impossible to beat, but in his absence, good records are hard to come by, with the best belonging to Johnson (2-1-0) and Furyk (4-3-1).  Bradley (0-1-0), Kuchar (0-2-0), Mahan (0-1-1), Simpson (0-1-0), and Watson (0-2-0) are winless in singles, as is Fowler (0-0-1), although Fowler showed his grit by birdieing the last three holes in his 2010 singles match for a huge half.

Who’s Missing?
Tiger Woods and Jason Dufner are both not playing for the US side with injuries, and Dustin Johnson remains on a leave of absense.  Billy Horschel won the FedEx Cup, but he got hot only after the teams were finalized.  Tom Watson, in reference to him missing the team before winning the $10 million dollar prize, said “You’re a day late, but not a dollar short.”  Luke Donald and Miguel Angel Jimenez are the most notable Europeans who failed to make the team.

Session One (Fourball)
While we don’t know the pairings for the entire week, we do know how the matches will start on Friday morning (in the wee hours for those of us in America).
Match 1: Watson/Simpson (USA) vs Rose/Stenson (EUR)
Match 2: Fowler/Walker (USA) vs Kaymer/Bjorn (EUR)
Match 3: Spieth/Reed (USA) vs Gallacher/Poulter (EUR)
Match 4: Bradley/Mickelson (USA) vs McIlroy/Garcia (EUR)
That last match will certainly set the tone for Friday, as will the opener.  Sitting out for the US will be Furyk, Johnson, Kuchar, and Mahan, while the Europeans will sit Donaldson, Dubuisson, McDowell, and Westwood.

Prediction
It’s really tough to pick who is going to win these matches.  Most are heavily favoring Europe, but the American team is still very solid.  Europe does have a home-course advantage, and also has the advantage of winning the last matches, as that means that they would retain the cup in the event of a tie.  That makes the difference.
Europe will keep the cup, winning a narrow victory.

 

 

 

Ryder Cup Matches

1927:  United States 9.5, Great Britain 2.5
1929:  Great Britain 7, United States 5
1931:  United States 9, Great Britain 3
1933:  Great Britain 6.5, United States 5.5
1935:  United States 9, Great Britain 3
1937:  United States 8, Great Britain 4
1939-45:  no matches due to World War II
1947:  United States 11, Great Britain 1
1949:  United States 7, Great Britain 5
1951:  United States 9.5, Great Britain 2.5
1953:  United States 6.5, Great Britain 5.5
1955:  United States 8, Great Britain 4
1957:  Great Britain 7.5, United States 4.5
1959:  United States 8.5, Great Britain 3.5
1961:  United States 14.5, Great Britain 9.5
1963:  United States 23, Great Britain 9
1965:  United States 19.5, Great Britain 12.5
1967:  United States 23.5, Great Britain 8.5
1969:  United States 16, Great Britain 16 (U.S. retains the Cup)
1971:  United States 18.5, Great Britain 13.5
1973:  United States 19, Great Britain & Ireland 13
1975:  United States 21, Great Britain & Ireland 11
1977:  United States 12.5, Great Britain & Ireland 7.5
1979:  United States 17, Europe 11
1981:  United States 18.5, Europe 9.5
1983:  United States 14.5, Europe 13.5
1985:  Europe 16.5, United States 11.5
1987:  Europe 15, United States 13
1989:  Europe 14, United States 14 (Europe retains the Cup)
1991:  United States 14.5, Europe 13.5
1993:  United States 15, Europe 13
1995:  Europe 14.5, United States 13.5
1997:  Europe 14.5, United States 13.5
1999:  United States 14.5, Europe 13.5
2001:  matches postponed due to 9/11 attacks
2002:  Europe 15.5, United States 12.5
2004:  Europe 18.5, United States 9.5
2006:  Europe 18.5, United States 9.5
2008:  United States 16.5, Europe 11.5
2010:  Europe 14.5, United States 13.5
2012:  Europe 14.5, United States 13.5
2014:  Europe 16.5, United States 11.5

College Football Picks For Week Five

Game of the Week: #11 UCLA at #15 Arizona State
Arizona State comes into this game, which will go a long way towards determining the winner of the Pac-12 South, as a four-point underdog.  Both teams come into this game with an injured quarterback, with the Sun Devils’ Taylor Kelly out with a foot injury, and the Bruins’ Brett Hundley a game-time decision with an elbow injury.   This game will be played late tonight, as it is on the west coast, and is the only matchup of ranked teams this weekend, meaning there will be none on Saturday.  The game will be the first between two ranked opponents in Tempe since 2007, and one of these two teams has represented the Pac-12 South in each year since the conference began hosting a championship game (in 2011).  On paper, the teams are fairly even, but there is one exception.  Arizona State will be playing inexperienced backup Mike Bercovici at quarterback, so if Hundley plays (and most expect him to), the Bruins will have a big advantage at that position.  In addition to that, while it’s not by much, the Bruins should be the better team, although Arizona State will keep the game close at home.
UCLA 24, Arizona State 21.

Big Game Guarantee: Missouri at #13 South Carolina
South Carolina is a six-point home favorite as these two teams compete for the “Mayor’s Cup”, the trophy created by the mayor’s in each teams locale (both hail from a city of Columbia).  A year ago, the Tigers led at home 17-0 going to the fourth quarter before Connor Shaw, who had not started due to injury, came off the bench to lead his team to an improbable, 27-24 win in double overtime.  After South Carolina’s win over Georgia, it looked like the winner of this game would have the inside track to the SEC East division title.  But after Missouri’s loss to Indiana, although that was not in a conference game, there is certainly doubt over whether or not they will be contenders in the SEC East.  South Carolina isn’t playing their best either, coming off a 48-34 win at Vanderbilt in which they allowed a pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns.  With both teams coming in struggling, South Carolina is at home, and they found a way to win last week while Missouri did not; expect a similar narrative to play out this week.
South Carolina 34, Missouri 27.

Upset of the Week: Duke at Miami
Duke travels to Miami to take on the Hurricanes as seven-point underdogs in this matchup in the wide open ACC Coastal Division.  I’m led to believe that spread is a case of name recognition for Miami’s national brand (and the stereotype that somehow still exists that Duke isn’t good), for a couple of reasons.  A year ago, Duke beat Miami 48-30 on their way to the division title, in a game in which they trailed 30-28 late in the third quarter and scored  20 unanswered points.  This year, after rushing for 358 yards on the ‘Canes last year, Duke’s offense is better, particularly in the run game, with the emergence of freshman Shaun Wilson.  Wilson has run for 404 yards on the season in four games, averaging 14.4 yards per attempt.  Last week at Nebraska, Miami’s run defense struggled, allowing Ameer Abdullah to run for 229 yards, so against Wilson and the Blue Devils, they may be in for more of the same.
Duke 38, Miami 24.

Closer Than The Experts Think: #1 Florida State at NC State
Simply put, on paper the Seminoles are better than the Wolfpack.  There’s a reason, after all, that even though both are undefeated, Florida State is ranked #1 in both polls and NC State is not ranked in either.  Florida State survived a scare last week, beating Clemson in overtime without suspended quarterback Jameis Winston.  This week, Winston is back, and looking to lead the Seminoles offense back to the form that allowed them to go undefeated a year ago.  The Wolfpack have improved every game they have played, starting with a 24-23 win over Georgia Southern, and culminating with 49-17 and 42-0 wins the last two weeks over South Florida and Presbyterian.  This series tends to produce very competitive games, particularly in Raleigh, with the Wolfpack winning three out of the last four at home against the ‘Noles, and five of the last seven at home when Florida State is ranked, including a come-from-behind, 17-16, last second victory in 2012.  Last year, Florida State beat NC State, 49-17, but the Wolfpack have never done well in Tallahassee.  NC State has never beaten a top-ranked team, but has never hosted one either.  While I don’t think the Wolfpack can quite pull the upset, this game won’t be over at halftime like last year, and will be closer than people think.
Florida State 27, NC State 17.

NFL Game of the Week: Carolina Panthers at Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens are three-point home favorites in a game that is, in essence, the Steve Smith Bowl.  Smith played for the Panthers for 13 seasons, and is the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns.  Despite that, on March 13 he was released by the Panthers, the only team he had ever played for professionally, and the next day he signed with the Ravens.  And, it would seem, he immediately circled September 28 on his calendar.  He was even seen in a sideline video during week one, which has since gone viral, shouting “Hey, if you (expletive) think I can’t play, you’ll find out week four, (expletive),” clearly aiming the comment at his former team.  He also said in an interview with a Charlotte radio station back in March there would be “blood and guts” if the day ever came that he would play the Panthers.  Well, the day is here, and in response to the comment, Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams answered media questions this week wearing goggles.  Panther fans, who admired Smith for so long, are in a tough spot as their team now faces one of their heroes, and I’ve heard several say they hope Smith has a big game, but in a Panther win.  The overall matchup features two good football teams, both at 2-1.  The Ravens’ lone loss was by a touchdown at home against Cincinnati, one of the best two or three teams in the game right now, and they are coming off a 23-21 win at Cleveland.  The Panthers are coming off an embarrassing 37-19 home loss to the Steelers in primetime on Sunday; the same Steelers were embarassed themselves the week before–by the Ravens, 26-6.  That, in addition to Smith’s motivation and the Ravens playing on their home field, gives the Ravens a slight edge in what should be a very competitive game between two defensive-minded teams.
Baltimore 17, Carolina 16.

College Football Power Rankings for Week Four

Martin Rickman of Sports Illustrated tweeted this morning “Power rankings have Florida State back at number one this week because I’m neurotic and can’t make up my mind.”  While I don’t have the Seminoles on top, I do concur that the top three teams are all very close.  And none of them are overwhelmingly great, either.  In fact, I almost decided to put them in a three-way tie for third, then rank the rest of the teams from fourth on.  That being said, there’s a new number one…

1. Alabama (4-0, Last Week: 3rd)
Out of the top three team’s victories on Saturday, Alabama’s was, believe it or not, the most impressive, in a 42-21 win over Florida that was closer than the score would indicate.  Florida led 14-7 late in the first, before the Tide took a 21-14 halftime lead, and the Gators tied the game at 21-21 before Alabama scored 21 unanswered, aided by Florida turnovers.  We know the Tide are very young–but they are still very talented and, while they will need to improve to run the table in the tough SEC West, they are off to a very good start.  Their first major test will come next week when they travel to Ole Miss, after a bye this week.

2. Oregon (4-0, 1st)
The Ducks dropped a spot, although they won a conference road game at Washington State, 38-31.  Why?  It’s not the fact they struggled against the Cougars, but it’s how they struggled.  Quarterback Marcus Mariota was sacked seven times in the win, which makes me wonder: if the Ducks offensive line can’t protect the quarterback against Washington State, how are they going to do it against the elite teams of the Pac-12 such as Stanford and UCLA.  Before those two tests, after a bye this week, they will face another test at home against Arizona a week from Thursday.  This is a revenge game after the Wildcats beat the Ducks last year in Tuscon.

3. Florida State (3-0, 2nd)
Florida State defeated Clemson in overtime, 23-17, to survive and remain undefeated, playing the game without their quarterback, after defending Heisman winner Jameis Winston was suspended for the game.  Clemson’s red zone fumble with less than two minutes left in a tied game got the game into overtime, and the Seminoles defensive stop on a 4th-and-1 in the extra session kept Clemson out off the end zone again and led to a Seminole touchdown to secure the victory.  In my opinion, if a team is number one in the polls (which Florida State still is), they should be able to play as well, or at least very nearly as well, without one player (in this case, Winston), as they do with him, since it is, after all, a team sport.  If Winston had been on the field Saturday night, I am sure the Seminoles would have scored more than 17 in regulation.  Clemson is a very good football team, but I don’t know that they would have taken the Seminoles to overtime with Winston on the field.  This week, the Seminoles will hit the road to face NC State, in a renewal of a series that has a tendency for upsets, particularly in Raleigh.

4. Oklahoma (4-0, 4th)
The Sooners avoided the fate of an upset at West Virginia, winning 45-33 in a game that many, including me, had picked them to lose in a tough road environment.  The game was tied at halftime after a back-and-forth first half, but after the Sooners scored in the early minutes of the third quarter to take the lead, they never lost it.  Samaje Perine made his presence known, rushing for 242 yards and four touchdowns.  Like two of the three teams ahead of them, the Sooners have a bye this week, as they prepare to travel to TCU next week.

5. Auburn (3-0, 5th)
The spotlight was on Auburn on Thursday night, as they took on Kansas State in a primetime, nationally televised game on the road.  The Tigers beat the Wildcats 20-14, led by QB Nick Marshall, who threw for 231 yards and two touchdowns.  The win came 52 weeks after their last regular season loss, a 35-21 defeat against LSU.  Since, as we all know, they have gone on an incredible run of close wins, upsets, and a 13-game winning streak against the spread, which ended on Thursday when they were favored by seven and won by six.  This week, after the tough game in Manhattan, the Tigers get a much easier test when they host a Louisiana Tech team out of the Sun Belt, who lost on Saturday to FCS opponent Northwestern State.  The Tigers should enjoy the game, because they play ranked opponents in their next six games after playing the Bulldogs, and seven of their final eight in the regular season, with four of those on the road.

6. Texas A&M (4-0, 7th)
The undefeated Aggies dominated from start to finish against a mismatched, winless SMU team, winning 58-6 on the road in Dallas.  The game was the finale of a trio of easy non-conference games for the Aggies, playing Lamar, Rice, and SMU, coming off their opening week blowout of then-9th ranked South Carolina.  Like Auburn, the Aggies have a tough remaining schedule, which includes five remaining games against ranked teams, so you can’t blame them for playing a pretty easy non-conference schedule.  While the Aggies do not play one of those ranked teams when they resume SEC play this week, they do play a decent Arkansas team, at a (relatively) neutral site in Arlington, Texas.  A&M is currently second in the nation in points scored, and eighth in points against, although I’ll take that with a grain of salt considering who they’ve played.

7. Notre Dame (3-0, 8th)
With LSU’s loss to Mississippi State, the Irish moved up in these power rankings despite not playing a game due to a bye week.  Saturday night they will play in primetime from the Meadowlands when they take on the Syracuse Orange.

8. Baylor (3-0, 9th)
Similarly, the Bears of Baylor move up a spot after a bye, having not played since Friday, September 12 at Buffalo.  They will also play in primetime on Saturday when they make a trip to Iowa State to take on the Cyclones, a team that always seems to pull the occasional upset.

9. Ole Miss (3-0, 10th)
In Oxford, the Rebels also move up a spot after a bye.  This week, they will host Memphis in an intentionally lighter test in their final tuneup before hosting Alabama next week in a big SEC West duel between two top ten teams.

10. Michigan State (2-1, 11th)
While Michigan State did not have a bye, they might as well have, as they played a very easy game against Eastern Michigan, winning 73-14.  With the win, and LSU’s loss, the Spartans jump back into the top ten in these rankings.  The Spartans had 496 yards of offense, including 336 on the ground, in the win, holding to their normal style of an attack rushing team.  The game was the first for the Spartans since September 6, as they had a bye after their 46-27 loss at Oregon.  This week the Spartans will conclude their non-conference slate as they host Wyoming, before beginning conference play next week against a ranked Nebraska team.  The Spartans are currently the highest ranked team in the Big Ten, widely considered the worst of the “Power Five” conferences, so they are favored to win the league and could potentially run the table and win the remainder of their games.

11. Georgia (2-1, 13th), 12. UCLA (3-0, 12th) 13. Arizona State (3-0, 14th), 14. Mississippi State (4-0, unranked), 15. Stanford (2-1, 16th)
16. LSU (3-1, 6th), 17. South Carolina (3-1, 15th), 18. Penn State (4-0, 17th), 19. Wisconsin (2-1, 19th), 20. USC (2-1, 18th)
21. Ohio State (2-1, 21st), 22. Duke (3-0, 22nd), 23. BYU (4-0, 23rd), 24. East Carolina (3-1, unranked), 25. Clemson (1-2, 20th)

Fell from rankings: Missouri (3-1, 24th), Virginia Tech (2-2, 25th)

College Football Picks for Week Four

Game of the Week AND Upset of the Week:  #22 Clemson (1-1) at #1 Florida State (2-0)
In the ACC’s game of the year, Florida State hosts Clemson.  The winner of this game has won the ACC the last three years, and has won the ACC Atlantic Division the last five years.  Florida State leads the all-time series, 19-8, and has won the last two meetings, although Clemson has won five out of nine and six out of 11.  Last year in Death Valley, Florida State dominated the Tigers, winning 51-14.  Clemson hasn’t forgotten that defeat, although revenge will be tough in Tallahassee against the nation’s top-ranked team.  Or so the world thought.  Wednesday, Seminoles QB Jameis Winston was suspended for the first half of this game after shouting obscenities publicly on Florida State’s campus, thus surely improving Clemson’s chances.  Late Friday, the university announced that, as more facts emerged regarding Winston’s behavior, he had been suspended the entire game.  What had started as a 19-point spread favoring Florida State dropped to 17 on Wednesday, 15 by Friday morning, and as of this writing, down to 12, and still in free fall.  While Winston isn’t the only reason Florida State is currently ranked #1, this is not the same Florida State team as the one that won the national championship a year ago.  They struggled with Oklahoma State, then defeated The Citadel by a 37-12 score, a margin that was common at halftime a year ago against teams in the top half of the ACC.  Clemson feels like they have something to prove after a 45-21 week one loss to Georgia, and are looking for their biggest regular season win since beating the ‘Noles in 2011.  With the relative uncertainty of Winston’s backup, Sean Maguire, at quarterback for Florida State, playing the best defense Clemson has had during coach Dabo Swinney’s tenure, along with the Clemson offense under coordinator Chad Morris, known for their explosiveness through his tenure with the Tigers, Clemson has what it takes to pull the upset.  Clemson will secure their first ever win over a #1 team.
Clemson 30, Florida State 24.

Big Game Guarantee:  Florida (2-0) at #3 Alabama (3-0)
Alabama is a 15-point home favorite as these two teams renew a series that, just a few years ago, had so much more national significance.  These two teams played in 2008 and 2009 in the SEC Championship Game, with both matchups serving as a de facto play-in game to get to the national championship game (Florida in ’08 and Alabama in ’09 went on to win the national title).  The series is, in fact, the most commonly played SEC Championship Game matchup, with seven meetings in all, including the first four title games from 1992-95.  The two also met in regular season play in 2010 and 2011, with the Crimson Tide winning both.  This year, the Tide are very young and, at times, have seemed somewhat vulnerable despite their 3-0 start.  Florida defeated Eastern Michigan 65-0 in their season opener, but struggled to a triple overtime win against Kentucky last week.  In the game against the Wildcats, the Gators certainly didn’t look ready to compete against #3 Alabama, and while they have had a week of practice to prepare, the Tide have had the game on their minds for three weeks, as they were easily able to dispatch of Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss.  An interesting storyline in this game is that Florida coach Will Muschamp served as defensive coordinator under Alabama coach Nick Saban from 2001-04 at LSU and in 2005 for the Miami Dolphins.
Alabama 28, Florida 10.

Another Upset of the Week:  #4 Oklahoma (3-0) at West Virginia (2-1)
With Oklahoma favored by eight on the road in Morgantown, the Mountaineers are looking for their biggest win of the Dana Holgorsen era.  Last year, in Norman, a West Virginia team that would finish 4-8 hung with the Sooners, eventually losing a 16-7 result.  That same team pulled off a big upset last year, beating Oklahoma State 30-21 at home, eventually costing, at least in part, a conference title for the Cowboys.  This year, with many (including me) picking them to finish ninth out of 10 in the Big 12, they hung with Alabama, losing 33-23 to the Crimson Tide at a neutral site, proving they can play with the best.  Morgantown is a very tough place for visitors to play, and it will test Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight.  Knight has a reputation for being very good, but inconsistent.  If he plays a very good game, it could potentially be the key to a Sooners win.  If he doesn’t, the door will be open.  West Virginia QB Clint Trickett, who transferred from Florida State, threw for 365 yards against Alabama, showing he can compete against strong defenses.  West Virginia is due, looking for, arguably, their biggest win since 2007.
West Virginia 27, Oklahoma 24.

Closer Than The Experts Think:  Bowling Green (2-1) at #19 Wisconsin (1-1)
Bowling Green visits Camp Randall Stadium to face the Wisconsin Badgers.  Wisconsin is a 27-point favorite, which seems very underestimating of the defending MAC champion Falcons.  Bowling Green struggled in a week one loss to Western Kentucky, but rolled over VMI before defeating a Big Ten team last week, beating the Indiana Hoosiers.  While no one expects them to pull the upset, in three previous meetings with Wisconsin, none were blowouts, with all games being within a 21-point margin.  Wisconsin led LSU by 15 in their opener, but showed in the second half that their offense may not be their biggest strength.  Bowling Green’s offense will keep them in this game, and while QB Tanner McEvoy and RB Melvin Gordon should generate enough offense to beat the Falcons, the Falcons are good enough, even against a ranked opponent, to stay within two or three possessions.
Wisconsin 38, Bowling Green 21.

Another Closer Than The Experts Think:  Virginia (2-1) at #21 BYU (3-0)
BYU is off to its best start since 2008, with a marquee win over Texas to their credit.  Virginia is also off to a strong start, giving UCLA, then ranked in the top 10, a scare, and defeating a a then-ranked Louisville team last week.  Cavaliers coach Mike London began the year on the hot seat, but he appears to have something in this team that many (including me) didn’t see before the season.  BYU QB Taysom Hill is quietly putting together a solid campaign, becoming one of the better dual threat quarterbacks in the country, leading his team in passing and rushing.  Virginia has a 3-1 series lead, including a 19-16 win last year in Charlottesville, which until last week was their most recent win over an FBS opponent.  BYU is a 14-point favorite in this game, which is understandable given the early season success they have enjoyed, but after Virginia has proven they won’t necessarily be in the ACC cellar once again this year, and that starts with remaining competitive in another tough non-conference game.  I only think BYU will win because the game is in Provo.
BYU 23, Virginia 20.

NFL Game of the Week:  Denver Broncos (2-0) at Seattle Seahawks (1-1)
In the first regular season rematch of the previous season’s Super Bowl since 1997, the Broncos travel to Seattle, where the Seahawks are five point home favorites.  Many are looking to Seattle’s 43-8 win over Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII as a potential preview of this game, a lot has changed for the teams, particularly for Denver.  On defense, the Broncos have added DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib, while adding Emmanuel Sanders as one of Peyton Manning’s targets.  Those three are among the 10 starters for Denver who were not on the active roster in February, due to injury or being on another team.  In addition to the differences, the Broncos players who were on the team last year haven’t forgotten being embarrassed literally in front of the whole world.  Seattle is coming off a loss at San Diego, and has only lost one home game since the start of the 2012 season, statistically solidifying what many already knew: Seattle may be the toughest place in the NFL for an opponent to play.  It wouldn’t be wise to expect Seattle to lose back-to-back games no matter where they are playing, but with the game at home, a loss would be shocking.  They won’t win big, as Denver will give them a very stiff test, but they will win.
Seattle 23, Denver 21.

College Football Power Rankings for Week Three

1. Oregon (3-0, Last Week: 1st)
The Ducks continued their early season hot streak on Saturday, defeating Wyoming 48-14 to improve to 3-0.  QB Marcus Mariota led his offense on six consecutive scoring drives, completing 19 of 23 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns, and rushing for 71 yards on five attempts with two touchdowns.  The only negative from the game for the Ducks was that they trailed 7-0 after the first quarter, but they scored 41 unanswered points from through the next two quarters.  This week, the Ducks will travel to Spokane to play the Washington State Cougars, in a matchup they shouldn’t have too much trouble with.

2. Florida State (2-0, 2nd)
In preparation for their showdown this week against Clemson, the Seminoles were idle during Saturday’s action.  The ‘Noles remain ranked 1st in the AP Poll, and will host the Tigers, who have never beaten a top-ranked opponent, after beating them in Clemson 51-14 a year ago, when both teams were in the top five.  Following the matchup with Clemson, the Seminoles will travel to NC State next week.

3. Alabama (3-0, 3rd)
The Crimson Tide took care of business on Saturday, defeating Southern Miss by a 52-12 margin.  There are some concerns about Alabama’s defense after allowing four field goals to the Golden Eagles, after allowing 23 to West Virginia, although they shut out Florida Atlantic.  Non-conference play is done for the Tide until November 22, with seven straight conference games beginning this week.  Alabama hosts Florida in a rematch of the 2008 and 2009 SEC Championship Games, both of which featured the top two teams in the nation, and the first meeting between the two since 2011.

4. Oklahoma (3-0, 4th)
In a matchup of the Big 12 and the SEC, the Sooners defeated Tennessee handily on Saturday, 34-10.  The game was more even in the box score that the score of the game would indicate, but Oklahoma did a better job of getting the ball in the end zone.  The game with the Vols was their toughest test yet, after beating Louisiana Tech and Tulsa easily, but that may change Saturday.  The Sooners travel to West Virginia, a team that lost by only 10 to Alabama, and last year, despite a 4-8 record, upset then 11th-ranked Oklahoma State, and also gave the Sooners a test in a 16-7 defeat.  A win for Oklahoma in Morgantown will be a positive step in their quest for the College Football Playoff.

5. Auburn (2-0, 5th)
Auburn was idle on Saturday coming off their 59-13 beating of San Jose State, and took the week off due to a short week this week heading into a Thursday night game at Kansas State.  The Tigers are traveling to the “Little Apple”, Manhattan, KS, for the game, and come in ranked 5th while the Wildcats are ranked 20th.  While I don’t agree that K-State should be a ranked team, they are a solid football team playing a big, spotlight game on their home field, so Auburn will be facing a tough test.  And with three of the Tigers’ remaining four road games against teams currently in the top 13, Auburn is going to have to learn how to win in tough environments on the road if they want to be a playoff team.

6. LSU (3-0, 7th)
The Tigers (the ones further south) defeated UL-Monroe by a 31-0 margin, and while the score looks fairly one-sided, LSU struggled somewhat against the Warhawks, leading just 10-0 at half.  Defensively, however, the Warhawks were never truly a threat to the Tigers, as LSU held them to jut 93 total yards for the game.  This week, Mississippi State comes to Baton Rouge to begin SEC play for both teams, with the Bulldogs coming in after three blowout wins in their non-conference schedule, showing they could be a test for LSU, despite coming in as an unranked opponent.

7. Texas A&M (3-0, 8th)
The Aggies have looked strong ever since their 52-28 opening night win over South Carolina, and their game against Rice was no exception, as they defeated the Owls 38-10.  QB Kenny Hill continued the phenomenal start to his season by throwing for 300 yards and four touchdowns, leading the Aggies to an easy victory.  This week, while the Aggies do go on the road, it is for a game against SMU, a team that lost their head coach to resignation and their quarterback due to injury within the last two weeks.  Therefore, the Aggies are heavy favorites against the Mustangs as they prepare to resume conference play next week with a neutral site game against Arkansas.

8. Notre Dame (3-0, 9th)
The Fighting Irish were heavily favored as they headed to Indianapolis for a neutral site game against Purdue, coming off their 31-0 shutout of Michigan.  However, the Irish struggled with the Boilermakers, trailing 14-10 in the second quarter and leading 17-14 at half on their way to a 30-14 win.  After playing the closer than expected game with a team expected to be one of the worst out of the “Power Five” conferences, and their first relatively close game of the season, the Irish get a bye week that appears to be needed, after which they will travel to the Meadowlands for a neutral site game with Syracuse.

9. Baylor (3-0, 11th)
After convincing season opening stretch of wins over SMU and Northwestern State, Friday night the Bears began a stretch of three straight and four out of five on the road, and passed the first test with ease.  Baylor traveled to Buffalo and defeated the Bulls 63-21.  While Baylor has yet to be in a close game in even the second quarter of a contest, and they do currently lead the nation with 59.3 points per game, keep in mind that the toughest opponent they have played is SMU.  After playing these three easy games, the Bears have a week off, which is one of three bye weeks they get in the unique Big 12 schedule (with no conference championship game, there are regular season games in the conference as late as December 6, allowing teams an extra bye week).  After the bye, they play back-to-back road conference games, first at an Iowa State team that nearly beat Kansas State on the road, then at in-state rival Texas.

10. Ole Miss (3-0, 13th)
For the first time in the history of these rankings (which dates back to last year), the Rebels of Ole Miss crack the top 10.  They have been impressive in every game they have played thus far, starting with a 35-13 win against Boise State, then earning a 41-3 SEC win over Vanderbilt in Nashville, and on Saturday defeating Sun Belt Conference favorites Louisiana-Lafayette 56-15.  QB Bo Wallace tied Eli Manning’s school record of 10 300+ yard passing performances, leading the Rebels through stretches of 28 and 21 unanswered points.  After the win, the Rebels cracked the top 10 in the AP Poll for the first time since September 2009, and they will have a bye week to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  After the off weekend, next week Ole Miss will host Memphis in their last tune-up before back-to-back games against Alabama and Texas A&M.

11. Michigan State (1-1, 12th), 12. UCLA (3-0, 14th), 13. Georgia (1-1, 6th), 14. Arizona State (3-0, 15th), 15. South Carolina (2-1, 21st)
16. Stanford (2-1, 17th), 17. Penn State (3-0, 18th), 18. USC (2-1, 10th), 19. Wisconsin (1-1, 19th), 20. Clemson (1-1, 20th)
21. Ohio State (2-1, 22nd), 22. Duke (3-0, 24th), 23. BYU (3-0, 25th), 24. Missouri (3-0, unranked), 25. Virginia Tech (2-1, 16th)

Fell from rankings: Louisville (2-1, 23rd)

College Football Picks for Week Three

Game of the Week: #6 Georgia (1-0) at #24 South Carolina (1-1)
The Georgia Bulldogs head to Columbia for a rivalry game against the South Carolina Gamecocks, still riding high off their win over Clemson in week one, fully rested after a bye week, and a seven-point favorite.  The Gamecocks were outscored by Texas A&M in week one, losing 52-28, before beating East Carolina 33-23 last week.  The South Carolina defense was much improved against East Carolina, but still has some work to do.  Now they have to face the Georgia offense, and particularly their rushing attack, with the deepest running back unit in the nation, led by Todd Gurley.  While the Gamecocks have struggled with their pass defense, and no their rush defense, they should still be outmatched by Georgia both in the trenches and at the skill positions.  The Gamecocks have won all four meetings in this series when both teams have been ranked and playing in Columbia, including a 35-7 win in a 2012 matchup of top 10 teams.  Georgia won last year’s game in Athens, 41-30, ending a three-game losing streak in the series.  These teams are different, though, and Georgia is, quite simply, the better team here.
Georgia 38, South Carolina 24.

Big Game Guarantee: #12 UCLA (2-0) at Texas (1-1)
UCLA travels to Arlington, TX for a “neutral site game” (yeah, right), having fallen five spots in the AP Poll over the last two weeks after struggling in an a 28-20 win at Virginia and a 42-35 win against Memphis.  Against Virginia, the defense’s strong performance picked up for the offense on a down day, and against Memphis, while the defense struggled, the offense outscored the Tigers.  Which UCLA team will show up for this road test?  On the other side, Texas isn’t coming in hot either.  After beating North Texas in week one, the Longhorns were embarrassed at home last week, losing 41-7 to BYU.  After that one game, a team many thought could possibly contend for a Big 12 title in coach Charlie Strong’s first season has been written off, with many saying Texas is in for a “long year”.  While both teams come into this game struggling, UCLA is, at least on paper, the better team, and is favored by eight.  QB Brett Hundley, when playing well, is one of the best dual-threat QBs in the country, and RB/LB Myles Jack is a difference maker on both sides of the ball.  Texas is without their QB, David Ash, who is out for several weeks with a bad concussion.  UCLA will allow the Longhorns to keep it close, but will still prove they are the better team in the end.
UCLA 28, Texas 20.

Closer Than the Experts Think:  Tennessee (2-0) at #4 Oklahoma (2-0)
Oklahoma is favored by 21 in this SEC vs. Big 12 matchup.  Tennessee comes in as a program on the rise, albeit slowly, under coach Butch Jones, and hoping to be a potential sleeper in the SEC East, which is a possibility since there is only one overwhelmingly strong team in the division.  The Vols head to Norman, after a pair of comfortable early season victories over Utah State and Arkansas State, to face a top five opponent in Oklahoma, who comes in after a pair of blowout wins of their own over Louisiana Tech and Tulsa.  In those games, the Sooners have combined for a 62-3 score in the first half, allowing starters to sit most of the second half of both games.  Tennessee will at least make the Sooners play four quarters here.  Tennessee’s defense comes in after two strong performances, having held their opponents to just 7-for-31 on third downs so far on the season, after ranking 90th nationally in that category a year ago.  The Vols also have 15 tackles for loss.  I don’t think Tennessee’s offense is quite ready to outscore Oklahoma, but their defense should keep them in the game.  Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has spoken out in the past about the SEC”s hype and media attention, so this matchup between his team and an SEC program has a little extra meaning.  This is the first regular season meeting between the schools, although they split a pair of Orange Bowls in 1939 and 1968.
Oklahoma 34, Tennessee 19.

Another Closer Than the Experts Think: East Carolina (1-1) at #17 Virginia Tech (2-0)
Virginia Tech is favored by 10 in a home bout with the Pirates of East Carolina.  The Hokies come in fresh off their upset win over Ohio State last week in Columbus, and are back where they are a majority of the time–ranked in the AP Poll–for the first time this year.  The Pirates come in off an upset bid that fell short in a 33-23 loss at South Carolina last week.  The Pirates have a strong, hurry-up offensive attack, led by QB Shane Carden, which gave the Gamecocks fits for at least parts of last week’s game.  Virginia Tech, a program not usually known for their offense but instead for their defense and special teams, scored 35 on the Buckeyes last week, although they were impressive in all three facets of the game.  East Carolina has had another week to prepare to face another ranked team, and should be more primed to win this week after knowing where they lacked a week ago.  Additionally, the Hokies always seem to struggle to beat ECU, winning last year by a 15-10 score, and in the meeting before that in 2011 winning 17-10.  Expect a close, low scoring game, that the Hokies will find a way to win.
Virginia Tech 17, East Carolina 14.

NFL Game of the Week: Philadelphia Eagles (1-0) at Indianapolis Colts (0-1)
A pair of 2013 division winners meet on Monday night in one of a few marquee matchups for week two in the NFL.  The Eagles didn’t look good at all for the first half of last week’s game against Jacksonville, but scored 34 unanswered to beat the Jaguars by a 34-17 count.  The Colts also caught fire late, but in their case their opponent was too much, as they scored the final 14 points of the game against the defending AFC Champion Broncos, but lost 31-24.  The Colts are three-point home favorites, which in the NFL generally means the teams are pretty even on paper, as the home team generally gets three to four points in the spread, which is understandable in a game like this, since the Colts have a loud and passionate fan base, and Lucas Oil Stadium is a difficult place to play.  Two very good offenses are meeting here, with Chip Kelly’s high-powered Eagles attack led by QB Nick Foles matching up with the Colts and their former top draft pick, QB Andrew Luck.  An interesting storyline is that Foles was drafted in the third round (88th overall) in that 2012 draft when the Colts took Luck 1st overall, although both have had great starts to their careers.  The Eagles defense is probably a touch better, but with the Colts playing at home, coming off the tough loss in Denver, they will be a team on a mission.
Indianapolis 31, Philadelphia 27.

Handicapping Each MLB Division Race With 20 Games Remaining

After each team has battled through approximately 142 games out of the 162 in professional sports’ longest regular season, we are now in the stretch run.  And while some division races are realistically over, others are a real tossup.  Here is the chance I give each contender to win their division.

I am focusing here on the division races, and not the wild card races, due to the importance of avoiding the Wild Card Game, the one-game playoff in each league between the top two non-division winners.  Everybody wants to avoid that one-off scenario, so the focus in each clubhouse is on winning their respective division.

AL East
Current standings: Baltimore Orioles (84-59), New York Yankees (73-68, 10 GB), Toronto Blue Jays (74-69, 10 GB)
Key Series:  New York at Baltimore, September 12-14 (Doubleheader on 9/12)
This is one of those that is, at this point, realistically over.  The Orioles took the division lead on July 5, and haven’t looked back, stretching the lead to 10 games as of yesterday.  With a magic number of 11, the O’s have an outside chance of clinching during this weekend’s Yankees series, should the Yanks and Blue Jays both struggle this week, and while they do play Toronto six more times and the Yankees four more after this weekend’s series, it is very unlikely that these games will matter in the division race (they will matter in the Wild Card, as well as Baltimore’s playoff seeding).
Baltimore: 99%, New York: <1%, Toronto: <1%

AL Central
Current Standings: Kansas City Royals (79-63), Detroit Tigers (79-65, 1 GB), Cleveland Indians (74-68, 5 GB)
Key Series: Detroit at Kansas City, September 19-21
This is undoubtedly 2014’s best divisional race.  The Tigers, who have both a great pitching staff and a good lineup, and were picked by many (including me) to win the AL, are pitted up against the upstart Royals, looking for their first playoff appearance since winning the World Series in 1985.  Kansas City took the lead for three days in mid-June, only to fall as many as eight games back by July 21.  Remarkably, after an incredible run of 16-3, they were back in first just 21 days later on August 11, and haven’t trailed since.  The two teams did fall into a tie last week, but the Royals took a two game lead into their current series, before the Tigers won the opener yesterday.  The teams play tonight and tomorrow, before meeting on the penultimate weekend of the regular season.  The Indians have snuck into the race by charging after hanging around the .500 mark for much of the season, and got within two and a half games on Labor Day weekend, currently sitting five back.  However, the Indians are running out of games and will have to pass two teams to win the race.
Kansas City: 50%, Detroit: 45%, Cleveland: 5%

AL West
Current Standings: Los Angeles Angels (88-55), Oakland Athletics (80-63, 8 GB), Seattle Mariners (80-64, 9 GB)
Key Series: Oakland at Seattle, September 12-14
For the first half of the season, a team winning the AL West by eight games, or more, seemed feasible, but the thought existed for the Oakland A’s, not the Los Angeles Angels.  After a 47-28 start for Oakland, the season seemed to become World Series-or-bust.  But to the Angels credit, they never trailed by more than six games, and have caught Oakland, who fizzled in August despite the acquisition of Jon Lester.  Now the Angels are the favorites to represent the AL in the World Series, with neither Oakland nor Seattle in shouting distance.  When the Athletics and Mariners play their final series against each other this year over the weekend, it should eliminate one from any shot to catch the Angels, and will also have big Wild Card implications.  The Angels do have seven more against Seattle, and three more against Oakland, but the games aren’t likely to matter, with the Angels magic number currently sitting at 12.
Los Angeles: 98%, Oakland: 1%, Seattle: <1%

NL East
Current Standings: Washington Nationals (81-61), Atlanta Braves (74-70, 8 GB)
Key Series: Washington at Atlanta, September 15-17
Last night’s Nationals win over the Braves stretched the gap to eight games in this race, which has been a close, back and forth race all season, with the Nationals pulling away late.  The two teams are currently in the midst of a three game set in Washington, and with the Nationals magic number at 12, it is possible (although not likely) that they could clinch on their rival’s field when the teams meet in Atlanta.  The Braves offense hasn’t shown many signs of life lately, but during Fredi Gonzalez tenure (particularly the last two years), the team has had a tendency to get very hot, very quickly, with little explanation.  They would have to do that to have any shot to catch Washington, and even then the chances would be low with such a deficit, but with five games remaining between the teams, it is possible.  Otherwise, the Nationals could clinch relatively early and focus on trying to secure home-field advantage for the playoffs.
Washington: 96%, Atlanta 4%

NL Central
Current Standings: St. Louis Cardinals (80-64), Pittsburgh Pirates (75-68, 4.5 GB), Milwaukee Brewers (74-70, 6 GB)
Key Series: Milwaukee at Pittsburgh, September 19-21
After the Brewers had led the entire season, the Cardinals tied Milwaukee on August 31 and took the lead September 1, and in just over a week, the Brewers have fallen six games back, with the Pirates moving into second place at four and a half games back.  St. Louis is trying to reach the playoffs for the fourth straight year, after winning the World Series in 2011 and reaching it in 2013, and now have the momentum in this race to go with that experience.  Pittsburgh and Milwaukee still have a shot, as this is, in fact, the third closest division race in the game, although their focus is also on each other as they battle with the Giants and Braves for two wild card spots, and their series against each other at PNC Park next weekend will go a long way towards determining that winner.  The Brewers have little division shot, due to the gap as well as a recent scuffle, losing 12 out of 13, while the Pirates have played well to get into, for now, the second wild card spot, but I don’t expect either to make a run at the Cardinals.
St. Louis: 90%, Pittsburgh: 9%, Milwaukee: 1%

NL West
Current Standings: Los Angeles Dodgers (82-62), San Francisco Giants (78-65, 3.5 GB)
Key Series: San Francisco at Los Angeles, September 22-24
At the start of the year, the West looked like it was the Giants’ division to lose, leading by 10 games on June 8.  Then the Dodgers caught fire through the rest of June, just like last year, and by June 30, the race was tied.  The Dodgers took the lead for good on July 27, after the teams had gone back and forth throughout July, and by August 15, with a five game lead, the Dodgers looked like they were going to run away with the title.  The Giants have fought back, however, hovering at two games back most of last week, and currently sitting three and a half back.  The teams play a pair of three game series over the next couple of weeks, with the first coming this weekend in San Francisco, and the second coming during the final week of the regular season in Los Angeles.  Both these teams have great pitching staffs, and although the Dodgers overall team looks better on paper, the Giants just don’t seem to go away.
Los Angeles: 75%, San Francisco: 25%

College Football Power Rankings for Week Two

1. Oregon (2-0, Last Week: 2nd)
The Ducks looked impressive in the second half of Saturday’s game against Michigan State, turning a 27-18 deficit early in the third quarter into a 46-27 win with 28 unanswered points.  The game was the biggest of the year so far in college football, and with the Ducks winning it so convincingly, they deserve to take the top spot.  No one has ever scored 46 or more points on anyone currently on the Michigan State defensive roster, as it hasn’t happened since the January 1, 2011 in the Capital One Bowl against Alabama.  This week. Wyoming will come to Autzen Stadium.  While the Coyotes are coached by Craig Bohl, who led North Dakota State to FCS titles the last three years, the difference in talent level should lead to the Ducks having no problem earning a comfortable victory.

2. Florida State (2-0, 1st)
The same was said about Florida State’s matchup with The Citadel this past week, but the Seminoles only defeated the FCS opponent 37-12.  For a team that beat every opponent except two by 27 or more last year, including a pair of blowouts over top 10 opponents, that score was a mild surprise.  Florida State was the preseason number one in both these rankings and both polls, as many thought they would be just as good this year, but the 25-point margin against The Citadel proved that this team is absolutely not invincible.  The ‘Noles have a bye this weekend, as does Clemson, as the two teams prepare to play each other in a top 25 showdown next week.

3. Alabama (2-0, 3rd)
Everything went well for the Crimson Tide in a 41-0 victory over Florida Atlantic, to the point that when there was a lightning delay midway through the fourth quarter, the teams and officials quickly agreed to call it a day.  Both quarterbacks Blake Sims and Jacob Coker looked good for Alabama, although Sims averaged 16.3 yards per completion while throwing for 228 yards and two touchdowns before Coker relieved him once the outcome had been decided.  Coach Nick Saban insists there is no quarterback controversy for the team, and I will agree that Sims has earned the job, at least until he does anything to give it away (which I don’t expect to happen).  The Tide host Southern Miss this weekend in their final tuneup before hosting Florida to begin SEC play next week.

4. Oklahoma (2-0, 4th)
The Oklahoma-Tulsa game was a clear mismatch, which is unfortunate for the Golden Hurricane since the game was on network television in most of the country as part of the ABC regional package.  The Sooners began the beatdown with an opening minute touchdown, then continued to a 31-0 lead midway through the second quarter, eventually winning 52-7.  And the game was on the road, at Tulsa.  As the Sooners continue to prepare for conference play and their goal of winning a Big 12 title, this week they play their final non-conference game, which is their toughest yet, as they host the Tennessee Volunteers out of the SEC.  If anyone is skeptical about if the Sooners deserve this ranking, the team will be playing in primetime on ABC, for all to see.

5. Auburn (2-0, 6th)
After the Auburn-San Jose State game was tied midway through the opening quarter, the Tigers exploded offensively, scoring 28 unanswered points and eventually putting up 59 for the game in a 59-13 thrashing of the Spartans.  After the win, and the aforementioned Florida State-The Citadel game, the Tigers have passed Florida State for first in the ESPN Football Power Index.  For the rest of the season, Auburn faces a brutal road schedule, in which the easiest of their five road games is at Mississippi State.  After a bye this week, that tough schedule will begin with a Thursday night game next week at Kansas State, who is in the top 20 in the AP Poll (although I disagree).

6. Georgia (1-0, 7th)
A week after their season-opening win over Clemson, the Georgia Bulldogs took a week to rest, and with good reason.  The team started their season with a matchup against a top 20 opponent in Clemson, and the Tigers’ quick offense and tough defense.  This week, after the bye, they will travel to Columbia to play South Carolina, in a game that was supposed to be between a pair of top 10 teams, until Texas A&M’s beatdown of the South Carolina secondary sent the Gamecocks back to 24th in the AP Poll.  Nevertheless, this game will go a long way towards deciding the SEC East Division title, as it has the last several seasons, and who will be playing in Atlanta on the first Saturday in December.  Should RB Todd Gurley have a good game, it would vault him into the conversation as one of the two or three favorites to win the Heisman (but it’s very early).

7. LSU (2-0, 9th)
The headline on the ESPN.com recap of the Tigers game with Sam Houston State used the word “overwhelms” in describing what the Tigers did to the Bearkats (that spelling not a typo, by the way), and the word fits.  Les Miles’ squad dominated, leading by 35 at halftime, on their way to a 56-0 shutout.  QB Anthony Jennings and WR Travin Dural connected for three touchdowns in the first half, and RB Leonard Fournette got some attention (both good and bad) for striking the Heisman pose after his first collegiate touchdown.  This week, the early season slate of games that are, or at least should be, an easy test continues, as the Tigers host UL-Monroe, one week before a home bout with Mississippi State opens up conference play.

8. Texas A&M (2-0, 10th)
Saturday against Lamar, the Aggies picked up where they had left off against South Carolina the week before, scorching the Cardinals for a 73-3 rout, and there was no letting up, as they scored four touchdowns in the fourth quarter.  Often in these types of games, the field goal kicked by the losing side is late, once the game is out of hand and the highly ranked opponent has let off the gas, but in this game, Lamar’s field goal made the score 7-3 in the first, and the Aggies responded with 66 unanswered points.  QB Kenny Hill continued the good work, throwing for 283 yards and four touchdowns.  The Aggies early season easy streak (after the South Carolina game, anyway) continues with Rice this week, followed by a trip to SMU, where coach June Jones unexpectedly resigned this week.

9. Notre Dame (2-0, 15th)
Notre Dame and Michigan ended (at least for now) one of the game’s historic rivalries with a domination, which is rare in the usually competitive series, as the Irish beat the Wolverines by a 31-0 score, dominating every facet of the game.  Notre Dame became the first team to shut out Michigan since 1984, ending a NCAA-record 365-game streak.  In what should have been a good quarterback matchup, Notre Dame’s Everett Golson certainly outplayed Michigan’s Devin Gardner, throwing for more yards, more yards per completion, and three touchdowns while Gardner threw three interceptions.  Speaking of the rivalry, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said, “We’re going in two different directions,” a statement which appears to also be true on the football field, with Michigan having now lost 11 straight road games against ranked opponents.  This week, the Irish head to Indianapolis for a neutral-site game against Purdue, followed by a bye before the Irish hit the meat of their schedule.

10. USC (2-0, 18th)
USC went to Palo Alto and ended the nation’s longest home winning streak* with a 13-10 win against the Stanford Cardinal.  This is after in my “College Football Picks” post for last week said that there were “bad vibes” around the Trojans team, and that I didn’t think the team was “quite ready” for such a big win this early in the Steve Sarkisian era.  The Trojans proved me wrong, holding Stanford to 10 points despite allowing them inside the 30-yard line nine times, and being outgained by 112 total yards.  Additionally, Stanford had the ball 7:34 longer than the Trojans, but Sarkisian’s bunch just found a way to win.  Javorius Allen rushed for 154 yards on 23 carries, individually racking up over half the team’s yards.  This week the Trojans hit the road again, traveling across the country to face Boston College, before next week starting a stretch of nine straight conference games before finishing with Notre Dame in November.

11. Baylor (2-0, 11th), 12. Michigan State (1-1, 5th), 13. Ole Miss (2-0, 14th), 14. UCLA (2-0, 8th), 15. Arizona State (2-0, 16th)
16. Virginia Tech (2-0, unranked), 17. Stanford (1-1, 13th), 18. Penn State^ (2-0, 20th), 19. Wisconsin (1-1, 21st), 20. Clemson (1-1, 23rd)
21. South Carolina (1-1, 24th), 22. Ohio State (1-1, 12th), 23. Louisville (2-0, 25th), 24. Duke (2-0, 22nd), 25. BYU (2-0, unranked)
Fell from rankings: Texas (1-1, 17th), Iowa (1-1, 19th)

 

*Note: in Week One, South Carolina’s loss to Texas A&M ended the nation’s longest home winning streak at 18 games.  Last week, Stanford’s loss to USC and Ohio State’s loss to Virginia Tech ended the longest two home winning streaks at 17 and 15 games, respectively.  Fresno State now inherits the distinction, with a 13-game streak, and the 0-2 Bulldogs will host Nebraska this week, putting that mark in jeopardy as well.

^Note: Penn State, due to the NCAA lightening the sanctions against them for the Sandusky scandal, is now bowl eligible.  The original four-year bowl ban for the 2012-15 seasons was ended on Monday, effective immediately.

College Football Picks for Week Two

Game of the Week:  #7 Michigan State at #3 Oregon
Oregon is a 12-point home favorite in the biggest matchup of the early portion of the season, one that puts two potential playoff teams against each other.  This matchup puts speed against toughness, as the Ducks are known for their up-tempo offense and the Spartans are known for their rugged defense.   Michigan State is playing their first regular season game between two top ten teams since tying Notre Dame in 1966.  Last week, the Spartans actually impressed with their offense, with QB Connor Cook going 12-for-13 with 285 yards and 3 touchdowns in a half of play, a part of the Spartans’ 45-7 win over Jacksonville State.  Oregon, led by QB Marcus Mariota, also was impressive in their 62-13 win over South Dakota.  The Ducks are 22-7 at home against ranked opponents since 1998, and they’re just a little bit better overall than the Spartans.  There is, after all, a reason they’re ranked a few spots higher.
Oregon 28, Michigan State 20.

Big Game Guarantee:  #14 USC at #13 Stanford
Stanford is a three-point home favorite in this in-state rivalry game that has really picked up in relevance the last few years, dating back to Stanford’s 41-point upset over the Trojans during the Jim Harbaugh days.  Now, there is a storyline regarding Stanford coach David Shaw and USC coach Steve Sarkisian, after last year’s Stanford-Washington game (Sarkisian was the Washington coach) led to a war of words after a hard-fought Cardinal victory.  The Trojans are very upbeat and optimistic after hiring Sarkisian, but they do have some bad vibes after Josh Shaw was suspended for lying about how he hurt his ankles and Anthony Brown quit the team, accusing Sarkisian of being a racist.  While those distractions didn’t seem to hurt the Trojans in last week’s 52-13 win over Fresno State, playing the Cardinal is a much tougher test.  Stanford had won four straight in the series, which always seems to produce great games, before last year’s 20-17 loss in Los Angeles, and is defending a 17-game home winning streak, the nation’s longest.  Sarkisian is looking for his first big win at USC, but I don’t think his team is quite ready.
Stanford 24, USC 20.

Another Big Game Guarantee:  Michigan at #16 Notre Dame
In the final scheduled meeting between rivals Michigan and Notre Dame, the Irish are four-point home favorites.  The series dates back to 1887, when Michigan students played a pickup game against Notre Dame students after driving to South Bend to teach their peers the new game, and has been played almost continuously since 1978, but Notre Dame has stopped agreeing to play the Wolverines, claiming that their contract to play five games against ACC teams each year made it necessary.  Michigan, naturally, claims the Irish are “chickening out” of the series.  Both sides are coming off of big wins over overwhelmed competition, with Notre Dame beating Rice 48-17, and Michigan beating Appalachian State 52-14.  For the Irish, it was QB Everett Golson’s return after missing all of last season due to academic ineligibility.  In terms of depth and the strength of the players on the field, this Irish team is actually closer to the 2012 team that played for a national title that last year’s team was.  Michigan still has a lot of question marks, despite a very complete game last week, including the cloudy future of coach Brady Hoke.  With the game in South Bend, Notre Dame should take care of business.
Notre Dame 31, Michigan 21.

Upset of the Week:  Virginia Tech at #8 Ohio State
The Buckeyes are 11-point home favorites in the first big test for either team.  This game seemed like a possible top-20 matchup when it was scheduled, but the Hokies have slipped from their national relevance over the last couple of years.  Ohio State, on the other hand, remains in the top 10, and hasn’t lost a regular season game under Urban Meyer, now in his third year.  However, it took a second half rally for the Buckeyes to defeat Navy last week, and although the Hokies played FCS opponent William & Mary, they looked strong in a 34-9 win.  After being a force for so much of coach Frank Beamer’s career, the Hokies have lost six out of their last seven against ranked opponents, priming them for a potential run at the win this week.  On the other side, Ohio State has won 64 consecutive non-conference home games over unranked opponents, but the preseason loss of QB Braxton Miller will eventually catch up to them.  The question is how long that will take.  Tech’s defense is strong enough to test freshman QB J.T. Barrett, and if the score stays low, it plays right into their hands.
Virginia Tech 17, Ohio State 16.

Another Upset of the Week:  BYU at Texas
A year ago, BYU had 679 total yards, including 550 rushing yards, in a 40-21 upset win over the Longhorns in Provo.  It was the final game at Texas for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who was fired afterward, and was the beginning of the end for head coach Mack Brown, who resigned after the season.  This year, with a different Texas team and coaching staff, led by Charlie Strong, and a chip on their shoulder from last year’s embarrassment, the Longhorns will come out ready to play.  BYU is a one-point road favorite, as this year’s game is in Austin, and will be the first big game of the Charlie Strong era, as well as their last game before taking on top-10 opponent UCLA next week.  Both teams looked good in week one, although both played weaker competition, with BYU beating Connecticut 35-10, and Texas beating North Texas 38-7.  With the motivation for this game for Texas, along with a more mature defense and a more mature quarterback in David Ash, the Longhorns should make a statement.
Texas 34, BYU 23.

Closer Than The Experts Think:  East Carolina at #21 South Carolina
South Carolina is a 17-point home favorite as they try to rebound from their embarrassing loss to Texas A&M to open the season.  The Gamecocks weakness in the game was certainly their defense, allowing Aggies QB Kenny Hill to throw for 511 yards and giving up 52 points.  Now, in what should be a slightly lighter test for the Gamecocks, they face East Carolina, whose strength is their passing offensive attack.  QB Shane Carden threw for 283 yards in a 52-7 win last week over NC Central, returning from last year’s 10-win Pirates team.  However, lost in the fact that Hill threw all over the Gamecock secondary is the fact that QB Dylan Thompson, while only completing 50% of his passes, threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns.  While Thompson didn’t look particularly comfortable on the field last week, perhaps a week of practice will help his comfort level in this week’s game.  It’s a cliché that whoever scores more points will win the game, but here it’s particularly true, as both offenses should play well, but expect the Gamecocks to end up with a few more on the scoreboard.
South Carolina 49, East Carolina 35.

NFL Game of the Week:  Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos
Denver is an eight-point home favorite in the primetime game on Sunday night in the NFL’s opening week.  When the two teams met last year, it was about Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis for the first time since signing with the Broncos, and the Colts won 39-33 at an emotional Lucas Oil Stadium.  This time around, as the Colts travel to Denver, it is about two of the AFC’s best teams, and whether or not the Broncos can get off on the right foot in their defense of the AFC title, despite the bad momentum from a 43-8 Super Bowl loss.  The quarterback matchup in this game is outstanding, with Manning taking on the Colts’ Andrew Luck, who some consider to be the next great quarterback in the NFL.  Both sides also have good units at wide receiver, giving each passer trustworthy targets to throw to.  The biggest difference in the two teams is on defense.  The Broncos’ defense, which at times last year was a liability while Manning and company put up record-setting numbers, has added DE DeMarcus Ware to strengthen the defensive line and CB Aqib Talib to strengthen the secondary, and returns a strong linebacking core led by Von Miller.  The Colts defense doesn’t have a superstar player, and although they ranked 9th in the NFL in points allowed last year, they will be challenged to stop Manning and his targets.  Last year, Manning threw for a NFL-record-tying seven touchdowns in the opener against Baltimore.  While he probably won’t repeat that historic performance, he could very well take charge.
Denver 38, Indianapolis 27.