College Football Power Rankings for Week Four

Late Saturday night, as Utah was finishing off a slaughter of Oregon, UCLA was dominating Arizona, and USC was running away from Arizona State, with an excellent performance by Michigan and an excellent comeback by Florida already taking place, Marty Smith of ESPN tweeted “This is one of those Saturdays that define seasons.”  He’s right, and there is a lot of movement in this week’s rankings to prove it, as many teams made a definitive statement, and others proved they don’t even belong in the discussion.

1. Ohio State (4-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 1st)
The Buckeyes defeated Western Michigan, 38-12, on the strength of a balanced offensive attack that totaled 511 yards.  Both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, the two quarterbacks who have split time after a highly publicized quarterback battle, have a 1-1 touchdown to interception ratio, with the pair combining for six touchdowns and six picks, showing plenty of room for improvement.  There is no such controversy at running back, where Ezekiel Elliott has rushed for 455 yards and five touchdowns through the first four games.  Ohio State plays fellow undefeated Indiana on the road this week, but is heavily favored, by 21.

2. Ole Miss (4-0, LW: 1st, AP: 3rd)
Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly had his worst game of the young season Saturday, throwing two interceptions, but Ole Miss survived, beating Vanderbilt, 27-16.  Kelly’s stat line for the season, however, is still very good, as he has completed 61.7% of his passes for 1,215 yards, 10 touchdowns, and only three interceptions.  The Rebels travel to #25 Florida on Saturday, a game which may be tougher than was expected before the season.

3. TCU (4-0, LW: 3rd, AP: 4th)
TCU struggled mightily on defense against Texas Tech’s strong offense, but quarterback Trevone Boykin saved the day, throwing for 485 yards and four touchdowns, including a near-miracle touchdown off a deflection in the final minute, keeping TCU showed some offensive power of their own and kept their perfect record intact.  TCU’s offense is gaining 637 yards per game so far, making the Horned Frogs attack an extremely potent weapon.  This week, TCU hosts in-state rival Texas.

4. UCLA (4-0, LW: 12th, AP: 7th)
In a game when I thought Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon would be strong, UCLA held him to 55 passing yards before he left with an injury, while it was Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen who shined, as UCLA dominated Arizona on the road, 56-30.  The stats were closer than you might expect with that score, but the Bruins forced three Wildcats turnovers, taking a 28-7 lead through a quarter and a 42-14 lead at half.  Rosen, who some, including me, expected to be a weak spot as a freshman quarterback on an experienced roster, has been a big part of the Bruins’ success, throwing for 964 yards for a passer rating of 137.3 so far this season.  Arizona State visits the Bruins in Pasadena this Saturday.

5. Michigan State (4-0, LW: 4th, AP: 2nd)
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Spartans only led Central Michigan 17-10, but a pair of late rushing touchdowns by Gerald Holmes gave the Spartans a 30-10 victory over the Chippewas. The Spartans were actually outgained in the contest, 340-324, which is very surprising since the offense, and particularly Connor Cook, has been putting up pretty big numbers so far.  The Spartans biggest win, against Oregon, doesn’t look as impressive after the Ducks’ 62-20 embarrassment at home against Utah, which coupled with the Spartans’ sluggish performance, causes them to drop a spot, although the AP Poll still ranks them second.  Purdue visits East Lansing this week, as the Spartans begin Big Ten play.

6. Georgia (4-0, LW: 5th, AP: 8th)
Georgia falls a spot due to UCLA’s jump, having done nothing at all to deserve the drop.  In fact, the Bulldogs were dominant Saturday, albeit against an FCS opponent, in a 48-6 thrashing of Southern.  Quarterback Greyson Lambert continued his recent strong form, and in his last two games has now completed 33 of his 35 pass attempts.  However, Lambert isn’t the team’s star, as running back Nick Chubb has rushed for 599 yards and six touchdowns through four games.  The Bulldogs offense overall has rushed for 1,031 yards, a very impressive mark.  The Dawgs face their toughest test yet this week, however, when they host Alabama.

7. Clemson (3-0, LW: 6th, AP: 12th)
The Tigers had a bye over the weekend, giving them a chance to work on the things they struggled with in last week’s win over Louisville.  Improvement will likely be necessary, as the Tigers play host to Notre Dame in primetime this weekend.

8. Baylor (3-0, LW: 7th, AP: 5th)
To say Baylor dominated Rice would be an understatement, as the Bears were strides better than the Owls in every facet of the game in a 70-17 win.  Six of Seth Russell’s 12 completions were for touchdowns, as he threw for 277 yards, while Shock Linwood and Terence Williams both topped the 100 yard plateau in rushing.  Both, in fact, are averaging over 100 per contest, and for any team to have two backs averaging over 100 rushing yards per game is quite a feat.  Baylor’s defense, which I questioned earlier in the season, held the Owls to 253 total yards in the contest.  The Bears begin conference play this week at a neutral site in Dallas against Texas Tech, who nearly knocked off TCU last week.

9. LSU (3-0, LW: 8th, AP: 9th)
The Tigers traveled to Syracuse, where running back Leonard Fournette did some traveling of his own, rushing for 244 yards and two touchdowns, as LSU defeated the Orange, 34-24.  For the season, quarterback Brandon Harris is only averaging 101 yards per game, but that’s only because he hasn’t had to pass much–Fournette has already provided 631 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in the team’s first three contests, with two of those against ranked opponents.  While it is very early, the sophomore back is the consensus Heisman front-runner, at least for now.  LSU hosts non-conference foe Eastern Michigan this week.

10. Notre Dame (4-0, LW: 9th, AP: 6th)
The Fighting Irish were impressive, particularly after a slow start, against an overmatched UMass team on Saturday, winning 62-27.  The Irish only led 21-20 midway through the second, before scoring 41 unanswered points.  C.J. Prosise rushed for 149 yards and two touchdowns, bringing his season totals to 600 yards and six scores, while Josh Adams added 133 yards and a touchdown.  Quarterback DeShone Kizer has been strong in the just over two games since Malik Zaire went down with an injury, throwing for 541 yards and five touchdowns, while completing 67.7% of his passes.  The Irish have a potentially season-defining game this week, when they travel to Death Valley to take on Clemson.

11. Alabama (3-1, LW: 11th, AP: 13th)
12. Utah (4-0, LW: 25th, AP: 10th)
13. USC (3-1, LW: 17th, AP: 17th)
14. Florida State (3-0, LW: 14th, AP: 11th)
15. Texas A&M (4-0, LW: 16th, AP: 14th)
16. Oklahoma (3-0, LW: 18th, AP: 15th)
17. West Virginia (3-0, LW: 21st, AP: 23rd)
18. Wisconsin (3-1, LW: 19th, AP: 19th)
19. Stanford (3-1, LW: 22nd, AP: 18th)
20. Michigan (3-1, LW: unranked, AP: 22nd)
21. Oklahoma State (4-0, LW: unranked, AP: 20th)
22. Mississippi State (3-1, LW: unranked, AP: 21st)
23. Northwestern (4-0, LW: 23rd, AP: 16th)
24. Florida (4-0, LW: unranked, AP: 25th)
25. California (4-0, LW: unranked, AP: 24th)

Fell from rankings:  Oregon (2-2, LW: 10th), Georgia Tech (2-2, LW: 13th), Arizona (3-1, LW: 15th), Missouri (3-1, LW: 20th), BYU (2-2, LW: 24th)

Twitter Picks for College Football Week Four

Game of the Week and Upset of the Week

#9 UCLA (3-0) at #16 Arizona (3-0)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite: UCLA by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking: UCLA- 12th, Arizona- 15th

 

Big Game Guarantee(s)

#22 BYU (2-1) at Michigan (2-1)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite: Michigan by 5
Stiles on Sports Ranking: BYU- 24th, Michigan-unranked

 

Tennessee (2-1) at Florida (3-0)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, CBS
Favorite: even
Stiles on Sports Ranking: both teams are unranked

 

#18 Utah (3-0) at #13 Oregon (2-1)
Saturday, 8:30 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: Oregon by 12
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Utah- 25th, Oregon- 10th

 

#19 USC (2-1) at Arizona State (2-1)
Saturday, 10:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite: USC by 5
Stiles on Sports Ranking: USC- 17th, Arizona State- unranked

 

Closer Than the Experts Think

UCF (0-3) at South Carolina (1-2)
Saturday, 12:30 pm ET, ESPNU
Favorite: South Carolina by 15
Stiles on Sports Ranking: both teams are unranked

 

Western Michigan (1-2) at #1 Ohio State (3-0)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ABC/ESPN2
Favorite: Ohio State by 31
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Western Michigan- unranked, Ohio State- 1st

 

NFL Game of the Week

Kansas City Chiefs (1-1) at Green Bay Packers (2-0)
Monday, 8:15 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite: Packers by 7

 

 

Season to Date
Overall Record: 13-7
Last Week: 4-3
College Overall Record: 12-6
Game of the Week: 2-1
Big Game Guarantee: 8-1
Upset of the Week: 0-3
Closer Than the Experts Think: 2-1
NFL Game of the Week: 1-1

College Football Power Rankings for Week Three

After a couple of decent weeks of college football, the competition got more dramatic on Saturday.  Three of the top 10 teams in last week’s rankings lost, and other teams won but didn’t look very impressive, leading to some big shift’s in this week’s rankings.

1. Ohio State (3-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 1st)
The Buckeyes won at home Saturday over Northern Illinois, but were not impressive, winning 20-13 over a non-Power Five opponent.  The defense was impressive, holding the Huskies to 190 total yards, but their offense, hyped as one of the nation’s best, simply couldn’t put the Huskies away.  These struggles almost landed Ohio State lower than the top spot in this week’s rankings, but this is, after all, the defending national champion, returning a majority of its players from last year, and they did struggle early a year ago en route to the title.  They can stay #1 for now, ahead of a game with Western Michigan on Saturday.

2. Ole Miss (3-0, LW: 11th, AP: tie for 3rd)
For the second straight year, Ole Miss defeated Alabama, marking the first back-to-back wins over the Crimson Tide in program history, and the first win in Tuscaloosa since 1988.  The Rebels make a big jump in these rankings, but it could have been even bigger.  I considered putting the Rebels in the top spot, something 11 of the 61 AP Poll voters did on their ballots, but they didn’t exactly put Alabama away.  The Rebels led 30-10, before the Tide made it 30-24, and then led 43-24, before the Tide got back within 43-37.  Alabama also outgained Ole Miss 503-433 in the game, although Ole Miss forced five Alabama turnovers.  I’m not trying to devalue Ole Miss’s win, which was the most impressive by anyone so far this season, but they’re not quite the #1 team in my opinion.  The Rebels host Vanderbilt on Saturday.

3. TCU (3-0, LW: 3rd, AP: tie for 3rd)
TCU could have jumped higher in the conversation this week, with Ohio State’s struggles and Alabama’s loss, but they had struggles of their own, allowing 508 yards in a 56-37 win against SMU.  The Mustangs were within a 42-37 margin midway through the fourth before TCU scored two touchdowns to put them away.  It’s widely known the strength of this team is its offense, but the defense allowing 37 to a team that averaged just 11.3 points per game last year, even if they do have an improved offense this year under new coach Chad Morris, is cause for concern.  TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin threw for 454 yards and five touchdowns on the game, the Horned Frogs’ last contest before beginning conference play this week at Texas Tech.

4. Michigan State (3-0, LW: 4th, AP: 2nd)
The Spartans are another team that could have moved up some in the updated rankings, if not for a game against Air Force that looked easier on the surface than it really was.  Sparty beat Air Force, 35-21, on the strength of 247 passing yards and four touchdowns from Connor Cook.  However, the Falcons outgained Michigan State 428-324 for the contest, with the Spartans being held to 77 rushing yards, and the outcome may have been different had Air Force not had three turnovers.  Despite all this, the Spartans jumped to 2nd in the AP Poll, giving the Big Ten each of the top two spots for the first time since 2006.  This week the Spartans play Central Michigan in their final non-conference game.

5. Georgia (3-0, LW: 7th, AP: 7th)
The Bulldogs dominated South Carolina on Saturday, with Nick Chubb running for 159 yards and two touchdowns, and Grayson Lambert throwing for 330 yards and three touchdowns.  Lambert was 24-for-25, completing 96% of his passes to set an NCAA single-game record (minimum 20 completions).  Some will say the domination of the Gamecocks wasn’t as impressive because it was against a South Carolina team who is struggling, but after Georgia struggled themselves in a 31-14 win over Vanderbilt that was closer than the score sounds, this win showed Georgia’s potential for dominance in the SEC East.  FCS opponent Southern comes to Sanford Stadium on Saturday, which is a nice tune-up game for Georgia as they prepare to host Alabama next week.

6. Clemson (3-0, LW: 5th, AP: 11th)
On a night when Clemson’s offense wasn’t its usual stellar self, its defense made the plays necessary to escape Louisville with a 20-17 road win.  The Tigers held the Cardinals to 19 rushing yards, and 272 total yards, while quarterback Deshaun Watson was held to 199 yards and threw two interceptions.  Running back Wayne Gallman did not score in the game, but his 139 rushing yards were a big contribution to the success Clemson’s offense did have.  Now, while Clemson’s win wasn’t necessarily dominant, them dropping in these rankings has more to do with Georgia’s overwhelming dominance.  Clemson has a bye this weekend to prepare for Notre Dame at home next week.

7. Baylor (2-0, LW: 6th, AP: 5th)
The Bears had a bye week, resting before their final non-conference game this Saturday against Rice, and the start of conference play next week at a neutral site against Texas Tech.  Quarterback Seth Russell has filled Bryce Petty’s shoes well through two games, as although his completion percentage is low at 59.4% and he has thrown four interceptions, he has thrown for 718 yards and nine touchdowns.  Like Clemson, the main reason for the Bears one-spot drop is that they were passed by Georgia after the Bulldogs’ impressive win.

8. LSU (2-0, LW: 12th, AP: 8th)
A skeptic would say LSU only had 74 passing yards in their 45-21 win over Auburn on Saturday.  However, anyone who watched the game knows they didn’t have to throw the ball, because they could just hand it off to Leonard Fournette.  The sophomore running back rushed for 228 yards and three touchdowns, part of a 411 yard rushing performance by the LSU offense.  Overall, LSU outgained Auburn 485-260 in their dominant win, as they led 24-0 after a quarter, and 38-7 late in the first half.  The Tigers travel to Syracuse this week, as part of a two-week break from SEC play.

9. Notre Dame (3-0, LW: 13th, AP: 6th)
The Irish were impressive in a 30-22 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday, in a game which they led 30-7 midway through the fourth before the Yellow Jackets staged a late rally to make the score close.  DeShone Kizer, the quarterback making his first start after an injury to starter Malik Zaire, was 21-for-30 for 242 yards and a touchdown, filling in more nicely than some, including me, expected against an opponent as strong as the Yellow Jackets.  CJ Prosise ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns in the win.  The Irish seem to have a very solid team through a quarter of the regular season, and this week they host Massachusetts, a week before a potentially season-defining game at Clemson.

10. Oregon (2-1, LW: 10th, AP: 13th)
Oregon rode a 33-7 first half advantage to a 61-28 win over Georgia State on Saturday.  The Ducks rushed for 311 yards in the game, while holding the Panthers to 113 yards on the ground.  Jeff Lockie, filling in at quarterback for the injured Vernon Adams, was 23-for-31 for 228 and a touchdown.  While Georgia State, who is playing their third season in the FBS and has only won a single game, was an easy test for a program of Oregon’s caliber, the Ducks will face a more difficult test this week, as they begin conference play when Utah comes to Eugene,

11. Alabama (2-1, LW: 2nd, AP: 12th)
12. UCLA (3-0, LW: 16th, AP: 9th)
13. Georgia Tech (2-1, LW: 8th, AP: 20th)
14. Florida State (3-0, LW: 15th, AP: 10th)
15. Arizona (3-0, LW: 14th, AP: 16th)
16. Texas A&M (3-0, LW: 17th, AP: 14th)
17. USC (2-1, LW: 9th, AP: 19th)
18. Oklahoma (3-0, LW: 20th, AP: 15th)
19. Wisconsin (2-1, LW :22nd, AP: tie for 22nd)
20, Missouri (3-0, LW: 19th, AP: 25th)
21. West Virginia (2-0, LW: 21st, AP: unranked)
22. Stanford (2-1, LW: unranked, AP: 21st)
23. Northwestern (3-0, LW: 24th, AP: 17th)
24. BYU (2-1, LW: 18th, AP: tie for 22nd)
25. Utah (3-0, LW: 25th, AP: 18th)

Fell from rankings: Auburn (2-1, LW: 23rd, AP: unranked)

Also ranked in AP Poll: Oklahoma State (3-0, 24th)

MLB Pennant Races with Two Weeks Remaining

October is just a few days away, which for baseball fans means the regular season is closing down and the playoffs are close.  And while for some teams it is, at this point, just a formality that they will make the postseason, for others, they still have very meaningful games left, as they need to survive September if they want to experience October.

Some will say that whoever the last couple of teams to get in the playoffs are won’t be irrelevant because they have no chance of winning the World Series, but that simply isn’t true.  Both teams who reached the World Series a year ago, the Giants and the Royals, were Wild Card teams, with the Giants being the last team to get in the NL, and both franchises not clinching their spots until the season’s final weekend.

That being said, here is a look at every playoff race in baseball, with some expected to come down to the wire, while others are already a foregone conclusion.

(Note: this post uses the “magic number”, which tells how close a team is to clinching.  The number reduces by one each time the team leading wins a game, or the team chasing them loses a game, and the team leading clinches when the number hits zero.  It is explained more in-depth here.)

Division Races

American League

AL West
Texas  80-69  —
Houston  80-71  -1.0
LA Angels  76-74  -4.5

The Rangers were 9.5 games back on May 20, and were 47-52 on July 28, just two days before they acquired Cole Hamels, but thanks to a 33-17 stretch since, and a four-game sweep of Houston last week, they have passed the Astros, who spent 139 days in first place.  The Angels, who were the favorites of many before the season, have very gotten back within arms reach of first after sitting 65-66 on August 31 after a 2-9 stretch.  The Angels are in Houston for three games this weekend, and the Rangers head to Houston for three this weekend, giving the Astros a change to rectify their 6-12 September record before ending with six games on the road.  Should the Angels be able to get any closer to the Rangers, they’ll have a great chance to win the division when they play a season-closing four-game set at Texas.  This race is the most up in the air of all of the division races, as it is the closest, and also has three teams involved, but with Texas’s recent run I expect them to win the division, albeit by a very narrow margin.  The Rangers’ “magic number” is 12.

AL Central
Kansas City  87-62  —
Minnesota  76-73  -11.0

The Royals have the best record in the American League, as they have for a majority of the season, and have been in first place for 150 days.  The Twins have been a nice story as a surprise contender, and have a shot at the Wild Card, but this division race that’s been “over” for quite a while will officially, mathematically be over very soon; the Royals “magic number” is down to three.

AL East
Toronto  86-64  —
NY Yankees  82-67 -3.5

The AL East race has been a fun one all year, with the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays taking turns in the lead through the first half, although the Yankees led the most, totaling 100 days in first place for the season.  The Blue Jays were 50-51 and eight games back on July 28, just before they acquired Troy Tulowitzki and David Price.  By August 12, in the midst of an 11-game winning streak, the Jays were up a half game on the Yankees.  They’ve led every day since August 23, and have led by as many as four and a half games, but for most of that time the Yankees have stayed much closer than that.  Toronto and New York are currently in the midst of a huge three-game series in Toronto through Wednesday, which Toronto won the opener of, after which both teams will play out the regular season against teams that are going to miss the playoffs.  While the Jays do play their last seven games on the road, I expect them to ride their hot second half all the way to the division title, although it may come down to the final weekend.  The Blue Jays’ “magic number” is 10.

National League

NL West
LA Dodgers  85-64  —
San Francisco  78-71  -7.0

Many thought the NL West would be a three-team race, with the Padres acquiring several big name players in the offseason, but San Diego started 39-49 and never recovered.  The Dodgers have led the division nearly wire-to-wire, and have led every day since May 29.  The Giants were within a game and a half as late as August 23, but the Dodgers swept them in a three-game series from August 31 to September 2, which stretched the lead to six and a half.  The Giants are the defending World Series champions, but don’t have the momentum to catch the Dodgers, whose “magic number” is seven.

NL Central
St. Louis  94-56  —
Pittsburgh  90-60  -4.0
Chic. Cubs  88-62  -6.0

This is a strange division race, because all three teams are realistically guaranteed to make the playoffs, with the Cardinals already clinching at worst a Wild Card berth, and the Pirates and Cubs also about to do so as well, with the nearest Wild Card challengers nine games behind the Cubs.  But all of these teams want to avoid the one-off Wild Card Game, so they all want to win the division.  The Cubs and Cardinals have been over from the beginning, with the Pirates struggling early to an 18-22 record before an 11-2 stretch got them into the race.  The Cardinals have the best record in baseball, as they have most of the season, and these three teams have the best three records in the NL.  The Cubs won two out of three over the weekend in their last series of the regular season against the Cardinals, and host the Pirates for three games this weekend.  Pittsburgh then hosts St. Louis next week for three games.  The Cardinals and Cubs finish with six straight on the road, while the Pirates finish with six straight at home, although overall between now and the end of the season, all three teams have six at home and six on the road.  The Cardinals are the best team in baseball, so they should be able to hold their four game lead over the last two weeks, and their “magic number” is nine.  It is really unfortunate that two of these three teams are going to be in the Wild Card Game, and one of them will lose it, meaning their season will be over on October 7.

NL East
NY Mets  85-65  —
Washington  78-71  -6.5

The Mets are looking for their first playoff berth since 2006, but New York winning the division didn’t look likely before the season, with the Nationals being picked by every single season preview I read, and in a “World Series-or-bust” state of mind.  The Mets strong pitching staff, and their resurgent offense since trading for Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline, took the lead for good on August 3rd, after the two teams had gone back-and-forth on top for most of the season.  The Mets steadily built their lead up to nine and a half games on September 13, a seemingly insurmountable gap for the Nationals, but Washington has closed the gap a little bit coming into the season’s final stretch.  Both teams have games exclusively against teams under .500 until the season’s final weekend, when they play each other, but by that time the race will very likely be over.  The Mets’ “magic number” in seven.

Wild Card Races

AL Wild Card
NY Yankees  82-67 +3.0
Houston  80-71   —

Minnesota 76-73  -3.0
LA Angels  76-74  -3.5
Cleveland  74-74  -4.5

The Yankees and Astros have both spent a lot of time in first place, with the Astros only spending 31 days not in first, but have been the victims of big second half pushes by the Blue Jays and Rangers and, should they not come back to win the division, are currently positioned to appear in the Wild Card Game.  The Twins were not picked by anyone to be in this position, but can be very proud of their contention to make the postseason.  However, three games may be hard to make up with this little time left in the regular season.  It’s even more unlikely for the Angels and Indians to reach the playoffs as they have multiple teams to pass at this point, although they can still keep fighting with the hope of a strong finish and some help from those above them.  The Yankees are currently playing division leader Toronto, but have an easy finishing stretch after that series is done.  Houston is hosting the Angels this week in a big three-game set, which they took the opener of last night.  The Twins and Indians have seven games left against each other, and since both need an excellent stretch to catch Houston, if they split these games fairly evenly, it may end both teams’ playoff shot, but if one wins five or more out of the seven, that could be the team to make a run.  The Astros’ “magic number” is 10, and the Yankees’ is 8.

NL Wild Card
Pittsburgh  90-60  —
Chic. Cubs  88-62  -2.0

Washington  78-71  -9.5
San Francisco  78-71  -9.5

The Nationals and Giants both came into the season with the playoffs as a goal, but both are closer to their division leaders than they are to the Wild Card at this point, a race that is nearly over.  The only part of it that isn’t realistically over is between the Pirates and the Cubs to see who will host the Wild Card Game, although one or both of them could catch the Cardinals in the NL Central to shake things up as well.  A big series towards determining that home field advantage for the one-game happens this weekend in Chicago, when the Cubs host Pittsburgh.  As for clinching a playoff berth, the Cubs’ “magic number” is four, and the Pirates’ is two.

 

While this isn’t necessarily the closest pennant race we’ve ever seen, with many of the races being a foregone conclusion, this should be an excellent postseason.  We know this because all of the teams in playoff positions are very deserving, and there are some very good teams that are going to be left out, no matter how these last two weeks play out.  We also know this because teams like the Mets, Cubs, and Astros haven’t been in the playoffs in a while, and the Blue Jays haven’t been in them in my lifetime, not appearing in the postseason since Joe Carter’s World Series-winning walkoff homer in 1993, the last year before the Wild Card era began.  Add the teams that haven’t been in the playoffs in this decade to teams like the Rangers and Yankees that have but have had a couple of down years in between, as well as the Royals, who appeared in the playoffs last year for the first time since 1985, and teams like the Cardinals, Pirates, and Dodgers who we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the postseason, and there will be no shortage whatsoever of storylines this October.

NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Preview

While it may be overshadowed in the sports world by football season, and the approaching baseball postseason, it is an exciting time in NASCAR, as they prepare for their version of the playoffs, the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Last year, NASCAR changed the format from the previous 10-week cumulative Chase to a four-round system among 16 drivers, with four drivers eliminated every three weeks for the first nine races, all leading up to a “final four”, one race, winner-take-all finale in Homestead.  The elimination format is known as the “Chase Grid”.  Chase participants who win a race in a round automatically advance to the next round, while remaining spots are determined on points.

Kevin Harvick won last year’s title, winning the Homestead race to do so.  This year, there are several storylines entering the Chase, including the recent dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing, the recent struggles of Hendrick Motorsports (at least, relative to their normal level of success), maiden appearances in the Chase for Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard, and Jeff Gordon trying to win a championship in his final season.

Here’s how I see the Chase playing out:

Challenger Round

Races:  Chicagoland (9/20), New Hampshire (9/27), Dover (10/4)
Advancing to next round:  Kevin Harvick (Chicagoland winner), Denny Hamlin (New Hampshire winner), Jimmie Johnson (Dover winner), Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer
Eliminated:  Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard

Harvick is on the pole for Sunday’s race at Chicagoland, where he’s won twice before and finished in the top five over half the time.  Recent form, and his form all year, for that matter, suggest he is ready to win in the Chase, even despite having not won since March 15 at Phoenix.  Much of the same can be said about Hamlin at New Hampshire.  The driver who is racing with a torn ACL last won March 29 at Martinsville, although he did win the Sprint All-Star Race (a non-points event) in May, ranks second among Chase drivers with a 10.7 average finish in Loudon, with two wins at the track.  Johnson recent finishes don’t necessarily suggest him threatening for a record-tying seventh title, but in 27 Dover starts he has 10 wins, 15 top fives, and 20 top 10s, making him the clear favorite for that race.  The #48 team also have rough stretches like their recent one at some point most years, but always seem to practically flip a switch come Chase time.  He has, after all, won six of the 11 championships awarded in the Chase era.

Kurt Busch won the inaugural Chase in 2004, and while he does have three wins at New Hampshire, he has a poor average finish of 18.6 at Dover, and his overall recent form has been decent, but not champion-like.  My elimination of Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be a popular prediction, as he is the sport’s most popular driver, but the three tracks in this round are all tracks he struggles at, particularly at Kansas and Dover.  He only has 31 top 10s in 77 career races at the three tracks combined.  However, should Junior get past this round, with his record at Talladega, and last year’s win at Martinsville, he could be a threat for a deep run.  McMurray could potentially be a sleeper, but he has to get out of this round first.  His best average finish at these three tracks is 17.8 at Dover, with the other two worse than 20th.  Menard has the least career credentials of any driver in the Chase, and his numbers at these three tracks are similar to McMurray, although he is having his most consistent season this year.

Contender Round

Races:  Charlotte (10/10), Kansas (10/18), Talladega (10/25)
Advancing to next round:  Carl Edwards (Charlotte winner), Jimmie Johnson (Kansas winner), Brad Keselowski (Talladega winner), Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin
Eliminated:  Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman

Edwards doesn’t necessarily have the most wins at Charlotte–he only has one, and it came this May in the Coca-Cola 600–but he has been consistent there.  His 10.8 average finish there is second among Chase drivers, and after struggling during the summer, he has been steadily improving coming into the Chase, including a win at the Southern 500 two weeks ago.  Johnson has three Kansas wins, and has 15 top 10s in 18 starts at the track.  His 9.1 average finish there is the best among Chase participants, and he won at Kansas in April.  The Talladega race is as unpredictable as any in the Chase, but Keselowski won the fall race there last year, and has 3 wins in 13 starts there.  An average finish of 12.5 doesn’t necessarily scream “race winner” at other tracks, but because of the craziness that happens in restrictor plate racing, that average is very respectable.  Kenseth, Harvick, Gordon, Logano, and Hamlin all have solid enough records at the tracks to be expected to run well, resulting in their advancement on points.

Bowyer is trying to win a title in the final season for his team, Michael Waltrip Racing, and has won at two of these three tracks, but he was the last driver in the Chase, and his luck will run out here.  A writer who covers NASCAR wrote this week that if Kyle Busch can get past Kansas, he can win the championship.  I agree, but I don’t think he will get past Kansas, or Talladega either.  While his Charlotte record isn’t bad, Kansas is his worst track on the circuit, with a 21.3 average finish, and only 3 top 10s and a single top five in 15 career starts there.  His Talladega record isn’t great either, although he has won there, with a 22.4 average finish.  Truex is good at Kansas, but won’t be able to get past struggles at Charlotte and Talladega.  Newman doesn’t have an awful record at any of the three tracks, but his best average finish is 17.6, and he always seems to be part of the “Big One” at Talladega.

Eliminator Round

Races:  Martinsville (11/1), Texas (11/8), Phoenix (11/15)
Advancing to next round:  Denny Hamlin (Martinsville winner), Matt Kenseth (Texas winner), Kevin Harvick (Phoenix winner), Jimmie Johnson
Eliminated:  Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

Hamlin, a native Virginian, is very solid in his home state at Martinsville, with five wins and 15 top 10s in 19 starts there.  Kenseth has two wins at Texas, and an average finish of 9.5, second among all drivers to Johnson.  He has finished in the top 10 in each race at a 1.5-mile track this year, despite not winning at one.  Harvick has seven wins at Phoenix, including the last four Phoenix races, and five of the last six.  Last year’s win in the Phoenix Chase race vaulted him into the Championship Round at Homestead, when he won his first career title.  Johnson advances on points after winning a race in the first two rounds.

By this point in the Chase, with the field being cut down to the final four drivers, there is no margin for error.  Carl Edwards only has one top five in 22 Martinsville starts, and although he is always a threat to win at Texas and Phoenix, he may have to win to advance if he digs himself too deep a hole at Martinsville.  Gordon’s best chance to avoid a winless season in his swan song will likely come at Martinsville, where he has eight wins and a 6.9 average finish, but it may also be his best shot to advance to the Championship Round in his final race at Homestead given that Texas is arguably his worst track with a 17.3 average finish and only one win in his lengthy career.  Keselowski’s average finish is no better than 13.9 at any of the three tracks, and 17.3 at Texas, and he has never won at any of the three.  Logano, who is a common championship pick, has similar numbers to Keselowski at these three tracks, and although he does have one Texas win, he has a 16.9 average finish there.

Championship Round

Race:  Homestead (11/22)
Champion:  Denny Hamlin
Eliminated:  Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson

It all comes down to one race at Homestead to determine who has had a great year, and who is the champion, and it is determined in the “Game Seven” atmosphere NASCAR had in mind when they created this format.  Any of these four drivers are more than capable of winning the title, so here’s why I picked Hamlin.  While Johnson and Kenseth have both made their careers to some extent by running well on 1.5-mile tracks, Kenseth has a 15.8 average finish, although he does have one win, and would tie a record for the most years between championships (12 since his 2003 title in the last season before the Chase).  Johnson has never won and has only four top fives at Homestead, with an average finish of 14.4.  While some will use the argument that he hasn’t had to win, but just finish, most years at Homestead while clinching the title, in other years the #48 hasn’t necessarily been a race-winning car.

Harvick and Hamlin are both good at Homestead, with Harvick winning last year’s finale to win the title, and holding a 7.6 average finish.  However, it is historically difficult to win back-to-back titles, as only nine drivers have ever done it (although four have done it more than once), and that is true in every sport.  Harvick has also finished second an astounding 10 times this year, with “only” two wins.

Hamlin has two wins at Homestead, and a 10.8 average finish, and has been poised to win a championship his entire career, since his rookie year in 2006 (he would’ve won the title that year in the current format).  One of the best stretches of his career came after he tore his left ACL in 2010, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win a championship after tearing his left ACL just before the last “regular season” race at Richmond.  Hamlin does have a 27.1 average start at Homestead, which is by far the worst of the four Championship Round drivers, but his qualifying numbers have steadily improved since his career low average start of 21.0 in 2013.

Two interesting notes should Hamlin win the title: it would be the first title for Joe Gibbs Racing since 2002, and it would be the ninth championship for car number 11 in NASCAR history, which would extend a record, as Hamlin would join NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett, Cale Yarborough, and Darrell Waltrip as champions driving #11.

As the Chase unfolds, fans may think that who advances from one round to the next early in the Chase is inconsequential, as they think the drivers who end up competing for the title at Homestead will be near the top of the standings throughout.  However, as I made my projections (ranking drivers first to last at each track then giving points accordingly), Hamlin nearly didn’t get out of the Contender Round at Talladega, as he was tied with Clint Bowyer, and won the tiebreaker based on having more wins.

Now, the drivers I have picked in fantasy NASCAR competition all season have done horribly, always seeming to have an accident or mechanical failure, causing them to finish much more poorly than they would have run without issues during the race.  That being said, I want to apologize in advance to Denny Hamlin’s fans, because in picking your driver to win the title, I have probably actually doomed him into a poor Chase finish.  These rankings, obviously, are as unofficial as they come.

It should be an excellent Chase for the Sprint Cup.  The storylines I already mentioned will make it memorable, as well as those that we can’t even imagine right now which will present themselves.  For instance, who would have thought this time last year that Brad Keselowski would be involved in brawls with Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon after Chase races, and who would have thought Ryan Newman, one of three drivers to reach the Chase without a win, would make it all the way to Homestead, and would finish second, having a shot at the title all the way until the final lap.  Stories like these are what the Chase format intended to create, making it among the most unpredictable of “playoffs” in all of sports.

Twitter Picks for College Football Week Three

Game of the Week

#15 Ole Miss at #2 Alabama
Saturday, 9:15 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite: Alabama by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Ole Miss- 11th, Alabama- 2nd

 

Big Game Guarantee(s)

#11 Clemson at Louisville
Thursday, 7:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite: Clemson by 6
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Clemson- 5th, Louisville- unranked

 

#14 Georgia Tech at #8 Notre Dame
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite: Georgia Tech by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Georgia Tech- 8th, Notre Dame- 13th

 

#18 Auburn at #13 LSU
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, CBS
Favorite: LSU by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Auburn- 23rd, LSU- 12th

 

Upset of the Week

Nebraska at Miami
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ABC
Favorite: Miami by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking: both teams are unranked

 

Closer Than the Experts Think

#19 BYU at #10 UCLA
Saturday, 10:30 pm ET, Fox Sports 1
Favorite: UCLA by 17
Stiles on Sports Ranking: BYU- 18th, UCLA- 16th

 

NFL Game of the Week

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers
Sunday, 8:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite: Packers by 4

 

Season to Date
Overall Record: 9-4
Last Week: 2-3
College Overall Record: 9-3
Game of the Week: 2-0
Big Game Guarantee: 6-0
Upset of the Week: 0-2
Closer Than the Experts Think: 1-1
NFL Game of the Week: 0-1

College Football Power Rankings for Week Two

Once again, like the opening weekend of the season, this past weekend wouldn’t necessarily qualify as the best weekend of college football any of us have ever seen.  But it wasn’t bad, with several high-profile games coming down to the wire, including all three matchups of two ranked opponents, and also including, shockingly, the Auburn-Jacksonville State game (which Auburn won, although an overtime game with an FCS foe has caused them to drop double digits both here and in the polls).  This coming weekend should be exciting, with four matchups between a pair of top 20 opponents (not bad for this early in the season).

1. Ohio State (2-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 1st)
The top-ranked Buckeyes took care of business against visiting Hawaii in their home opener, winning 38-0 over the Warriors.  Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 103 yards and three touchdowns in the victory.  Northern Illinois visits “The Horseshoe” in Columbus on Saturday, and Western Michigan does next week, before the men of the scarlet and gray begin conference play.

2. Alabama (2-0, LW: 2nd, AP: 2nd)
The Crimson Tide only led 7-0 over Middle Tennessee State after a quarter, but from there they dominated, beating the Blue Raiders, 37-10.  Derrick Henry, who ran for three touchdowns against Middle Tennessee State, already has six scores in the young season, along with 243 rushing yards, forming one of the most impressive early-season stat lines in the country.  Alabama’s only loss last year before the College Football Playoff was to Ole Miss, and they will get a chance for revenge against the Rebels.  That may not sit well for the Rebels; Alabama is 9-1 in “revenge games” under Nick Saban.

3. TCU (2-0, LW: 3rd, AP: 3rd)
Stephen F. Austin was simply overmatched when they met the Horned Frogs, as TCU defeated the Lumberjacks, an FCS opponent, 70-7.  Quarterback Trevone Boykin threw for 285 yards and four touchdowns, before retiring for the day once the score was more than lopsided in the third quarter.  This week the Horned Frogs host in-state rival SMU in their final non-conference tune-up for Big 12 play, which starts at Texas Tech next week.

4. Michigan State (2-0, LW: 9th, AP: 4th)
Connor Cook led the Spartans to their biggest non-conference win of this century on Saturday, as he threw for 192 yards and two touchdowns in the Spartans’ 31-28 win over Oregon.  Although the Ducks outgained the Spartans 432-389, and had five more first downs, Oregon had more turnovers and more penalties, and the Spartans led by double digits on two occasions before winning by three.  Next up for the Spartans is a pair of home games with non-conference opponents they will be heavily favored against, as they play Air Force and Central Michigan.

5. Clemson (2-0, LW: 4th, AP: 11th)
The Tigers dominated Appalachian State on Saturday, winning 41-10, and they have now outscored their two opponents for the season 90-20, although both of their games have been mismatches.  Quarterback Deshaun Watson has been as impressive as advertised, as he has gone 37-for-48 for 442 yards and five touchdowns.  (Yes, it has been against light competition, but his numbers are better than other top quarterbacks against equally light competition.)  The schedule gets much tougher now, as the Tigers hit the gauntlet: at Louisville this Thursday after a short week of practice, and after a bye week, home against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.  We’ll know very soon just how legit the Tigers really are.

6. Baylor (2-0, LW: 6th, AP: 5th)
When Baylor played FCS opponent Lamar on Saturday, even as they won 66-31, we saw how shaky the Bears defense can be.  The Bears allowed 340 yards and 31 points to a team that plays in the Southland Conference in the FCS, numbers which don’t exactly show defensive strength, especially since a lot of those yards weren’t in garbage time.  Lamar led 14-13 early in the 2nd quarter, and the game was tied 21-21 late in the first half, before Baylor pulled away.  The good news here is what Baylor’s offense did, even in a game where quarterback Seth Russell threw three interceptions, as they gained 785 yards and 38 first downs, scoring 66 points, with Russell throwing four touchdowns, all to Corey Coleman.  There is time to work on the defense, as well as the interceptions, as the Bears have a bye this week, before hosting Rice next week in their last tune-up before Big 12 play begins.

7. Georgia (2-0, LW: 7th, AP: 7th)
While Georgia wasn’t as dominant as some of their fans might have liked, they defeated Vanderbilt on the road, 31-14, in their SEC opener.  The game was more even than the score would indicate, as the Georgia only outgained the Commodores 422-400, and Vanderbilt had more first downs than Georgia, 21-19.  However, three Johnny McCrary interceptions doomed the ‘Dores, along with a 77-yard punt return touchdown by Isaiah McKenzie, and 189 rushing yards by Nick Chubb, who ran for 9.9 yards per carry.  This week the Bulldogs play division rival South Carolina, and while the series is traditionally close, and Georgia was upset by the Gamecocks a year ago, this year they are at home and favored by 17.

8. Georgia Tech (2-0, LW: 8th, AP: 14th)
The Yellow Jackets don’t have any superstars, but are very solid as a unit, together doing what needs to be done to win.  That was evident on Saturday in a 65-10 win over Tulane, as Georgia Tech rushed for 439 yards as a team, but their leading rusher Matthew Jordan only rushed for 72 yards.  That’s because there were eight Yellow Jackets players who each rushed for 35 yards or more, with five players topping 45 yards, three gaining over 50, and two surpassing 70.  We will know more this Saturday about just how good this unit is, as they travel to 8th-ranked Notre Dame.

9. USC (2-0, LW: 10th, AP: 6th)
Quarterback Cody Kessler threw for 410 yards and three touchdowns Saturday as the Trojans crushed Idaho, 59-9.  For the season, USC is outscoring opponents 114-15, and while that hasn’t been against any Power 5 opposition, it hasn’t been against any FCS teams either.  Against the Vandals, the Trojans gained 737 yards, and Kessler is now at 650 passing yards for the season.  This week, USC opens Pac-12 play against rival Stanford, who began the season ranked, but has fallen from the Top 25 after losing to Northwestern.  USC is favored by 10, but the last five meetings have all been decided by eight points or less, and the series has seen numerous upsets in recent years by both sides.

10. Oregon (1-1, LW: 5th, AP: 12th)
Even though they lost, the Ducks made a very strong showing for themselves as a young team on the road, taking a top 10 opponent down to the wire in a 31-28 loss at Michigan State.  However, in the game’s closing minutes, quarterback Vernon Adams missed an open receiver in the end zone.  Had he converted, the outcome of the game could very well have been different.  Adams was up-and-down, throwing for 309 yards and a touchdown, but also throwing two interceptions and missed the potential game-winner.  Adams, and the rest of the team, will be able to work on some things in game action this week, as they host Georgia State (1-24 since joining FBS), before starting conference play next week against Utah.

11. Ole Miss (2-0, LW: 13th, AP: 15th)
12. LSU (1-0, LW: 14th, AP: 13th)
13. Notre Dame (2-0, LW: 12th, AP: 8th)
14. Arizona (2-0, LW: 15th, AP: 20th)
15. Florida State (2-0, LW: 16th, AP: 9th)
16. UCLA (2-0, LW: 17th, AP: 10th)
17. Texas A&M (2-0, LW: 19th, AP: 17th)
18. BYU (2-0, LW: unranked, AP: 19th)
19. Missouri (2-0, LW: 20th, AP: 22nd)
20. Oklahoma (2-0, LW: unranked, AP: 16th)
21. West Virginia (2-0, LW: 23rd, AP: unranked)
22. Wisconsin (1-1, LW: 24th, AP: 24th)
23. Auburn (2-0, LW: 11th, AP: 18th)
24. Northwestern (2-0, LW: unranked, AP: 23rd)
25. Utah (2-0, LW: unranked, AP: 21st)

Fell from rankings: Arkansas (1-1, LW: 18th, AP: unranked), Tennessee (1-1, LW: 21st, AP: unranked), Boise State (1-1, LW: 22nd, AP: unranked), Louisville (0-2, LW: 25th, AP: unranked)

Also ranked in AP Poll: Oklahoma State (2-0, 25th)