ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Week of 1/30

The ACC is tough.

I know, that’s not exactly news, but the last couple of weeks serve as proof, as everyone in the ACC has lost a game since my last rankings two weeks ago (although Virginia’s loss was in a non-conference game).

That makes it tough for guys like me, who are trying to put these teams in some kind of order as they drag through the chaos of the midseason stretch, with everyone having successes and failures jumping off the pages of their resume.

That said, here are the latest ACC Power Rankings:

1. Louisville (18-4, 6-3 ACC, Previous Ranking: 4th, AP Poll: 6th)
Sure, it was against the 13th- and 14th-ranked teams in these rankings, but boy the Cardinals have looked impressive in the last week in blowout wins over Pittsburgh (on the road) and NC State.  The Cardinals rank 2nd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (85.1 points allowed per 100 possessions).

2. Virginia (16-4, 6-2, PR: 5th, AP: 9th)
The Cavaliers moved up three spots in today’s AP Poll after a loss, a rarity in college basketball, but it was only appropriate after losing at the buzzer at top-ranked Villanova in a non-conference battle that both teams played well enough to win.  Tony Bennett’s “packline” defense continues to lead the nation in points per game allowed, giving up just 53.7 per contest.

3. North Carolina (19-4, 7-2, PR: 1st, AP: 12th)
The Tar Heels were beaten in every facet of the game on Saturday at Miami, once again proving how hard road wins are in this league, although they are one of two teams who have yet to lose all season at home (11-0).  North Carolina is in the top seven per game nationally in points (88.3, 7th), rebounds (45.3, 1st), and assists (18.3, 3rd).

4. Florida State (18-4, 6-3, PR: 3rd, AP: 15th)
After a 6-1 start to league play got them up to sixth in last week’s AP Poll, the Seminoles have lost back-to-back games at Georgia Tech and Syracuse, although they remain perfect at home (14-0).  The ‘Noles aren’t specifically top-notch on either side of the ball, but are still very good on both ends, ranking 32nd in offensive efficiency and 28th in defensive efficiency.

5. Notre Dame (17-5, 6-3, PR: 2nd, AP: 20th)
The Fighting Irish have also dropped two straight, and three out of four, after starting 5-0 in ACC play, and it doesn’t get easier this week with games against Duke and North Carolina.  The Irish rank 230th nationally in rebounding (35.2 RPG), an astounding low number for a team ranked in the top 25.

6. Virginia Tech (16-5, 5-4, PR: 7th, AP: receiving votes)
The Hokies are, quietly, on a roll in recent ACC play, winning three out of four, with the only loss coming at North Carolina.  Two of their next three games are against rival Virginia; the series was always competitive even in the years the Cavaliers had the best record in the ACC and the Hokies had the worst, meaning the games should be even better with Virginia Tech now so competitive.

7. Duke (16-5, 4-4, PR: 6th, AP: 21st)
In the last week, the Blue Devils suffered their first home loss of the season to NC State, then picked up their first road win at Wake Forest.  Mike Krzyzewski, even while recovering from back surgery, has been critical of his team’s efforts, although they can restore Coach K’s faith if they can win tonight at Notre Dame ahead of a three-game homestand.

8. Syracuse (13-9, 5-4, PR: 8th)
Until Saturday, the biggest hole in Syracuse’s resume was the lack of a quality win, but the Orange alleviated the issue with their win over Florida State.  Now, after struggling in non-conference play, they are over .500 in the league and playing their best basketball of the season as it enters the stretch run, with less than six weeks until Selection Sunday.  The next step is a win on the road–the Orange are 0-7 away from the Carrier Dome–and they’ll have a chance Wednesday in Raleigh.

9. Georgia Tech (13-8, 5-4, PR: 12th)
The biggest surprise in the ACC is Georgia Tech.  I wasn’t sure the Yellow Jackets would win three conference games at all this season, yet they already have three wins over ranked opponents, including last week’s triumphs over Florida State and Notre Dame.  The stretch is even more remarkable when you consider the Yellow Jackets rank 300th nationally with just 67.1 points per game, although they are 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

10. Miami (14-6, 4-4, PR: 9th)
Miami is hard to beat at the Watsco Center, where they are 10-1 on the season, including a convincing win Saturday over North Carolina; rival Florida State comes to Miami on Wednesday night.  Interestingly enough, while Jim Larranaga’s teams typically share the ball well, these Hurricanes have only 12.1 assists per game (272nd).

11. Wake Forest (12-9, 3-6, PR: 13th)
Since the last rankings, Danny Manning finally got his first ACC road win at NC State, but since the Demon Deacons have blown great opportunities for wins at Syracuse and at home against Duke.  The Deacs, who are currently projected as the very last team in the NCAA field by ESPN, rank 12th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, although with better defense and a better clutch streak this team could be even better.  If the Deacs can win at Boston College tomorrow night, they will pick up their first season sweep of an opponent since 2012.

12. Clemson (12-8, 2-6, PR: 10th)
The Tigers stopped their six-game losing streak with Saturday’s win at Pittsburgh, which was a battle for last place in the standings.  Even after their struggles, however, the Tigers are ranked 31st in KenPom and 40th in the RPI, on the strength of the fourth toughest schedule (according to KenPom), and a road non-conference win over South Carolina that keeps looking better.  This week the Tigers meet Georgia Tech and Florida State, a pair of games that are traditionally close regardless of the teams’ records entering play.

13. NC State (14-8, 3-6, PR: 15th)
The Wolfpack got their first win in Cameron Indoor Stadium since January 18, 1995 (37 days before I was born).  However, in a blowout loss to Louisville, the Pack fell to just 1-17 in games after a win over Duke/North Carolina since 1990 (the end of Jim Valvano’s tenure).  The key for NC State all season has been “outscoring their own defense,” as they have allowed 77.7 per game (295th).

14. Boston College (9-13, 2-7, PR: 14th)
Since the Eagles had a promising 2-2 start to ACC play, they have lost five in a row.  However, there are signs of improvement from these perennial bottom-dwellers–games that have been blowouts in the past are now close losses.  There aren’t moral victories in the ACC, although losing close games, on the road no less, shows Jim Christian is, slowly, rebuilding the Eagle program.

15. Pittsburgh (12-9, 1-7, PR: 11th)
The only way to describe Kevin Stallings’ first trip through the ACC as the Panthers coach is that it has been a disaster.  Pitt sits last place in the standings, having lost six straight, with a two-game road trip to Chapel Hill and Durham to test them this week.  Just keep in mind, as much I hate to admit it, that in November I picked this team to finish fourth in the ACC.

Column: NASCAR may be digging its own grave

Just weeks ahead of the 2017 season, NASCAR is, yet again, changing its race format, continuing to move further away from the simple rules the sport was built on.

As NASCAR continuously makes their product more complicated, their popularity continues to statistically decline, begging the question of how strong a correlation may exist between NASCAR’s format changes and its falling ratings and attendance.

The Changes

The “enhancements,” as NASCAR has branded them, concern dividing races up into segments, something NASCAR hopes will create more exciting racing throughout the entire distance, alleviating the so-called “mid-race lull.”  The enhancements are the end result of a lengthy collaboration between NASCAR executives, teams, drivers, and racetracks in an effort to fix some of the complaints that have been heard within the industry.

Each race will now be divided into three “stages.”  After the first two stages, the top 10 are awarded points (10 for 1st, nine for 2nd, and so on).  Points will continue to be awarded to the full field (1st through 40th) at race’s end.  Points will no longer be awarded for leading a lap, or for leading the most laps.

Stage wins will earn a driver one bonus point for the “playoffs”–no longer called “The Chase”–and race winners will earn five bonus points.

The playoff format is mostly the same (four rounds of 16, 12, eight, and four drivers), with one exception:  the bonus points acquired through the season will be added to each driver’s total at the beginning of each round of the playoffs (previously, bonus points only applied to the first round).  The playoffs remain a “win and you’re in” format, and the finale at Homestead remains a four-man battle with the highest finisher winning the series championship.

Bonus points will also be awarded in the playoffs for each driver’s placement in the final regular season standings:  15 for 1st place, 10 for 2nd, eight for 3rd, seven for 4th, and so on down to one for 10th.

Pros and Cons

The cons of this system are obvious:  fans are going to be confused trying to figure out what in the world is going on.

But like anything else, this system has multiple pros and cons.

Positives include an intermission-like caution period after each stage that will allow competitors and fans alike to catch their breath, while broadcast networks can air more commercials during the break instead of during green-flag racing.

Also, there is now more incentive for drivers who know they are in the playoffs to win more races or stages, since those bonus points now carry over all the way until the Round of Eight in the playoffs.  Consistency will be better rewarded, even while a strong emphasis is still on winning races.

Besides the confusing nature of the changes, another major con is that a race winner could hypothetically only earn 40 points (finishing 11th or worse in the first two stages then winning the race), while a driver who wins the first two stages and then finishes second would earn 55 (10 points for Stages 1-2, 35 for second place).

“Wait Until You See It On The Racetrack”

Everyone on stage at Monday’s announcement, naturally, praised the changes as something that would make NASCAR exponentially better.

“Wait until you see it on the racetrack,” said 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski. “If you are watching right now, please trust us. When you see this on the racetrack, this is going to be the best racing you’ve ever seen.”

And, yes, the media member in me is moderately eager to see the changes in action, as they should theoretically create more exciting moments within each race (i.e. there are now three “finishes” instead of one).  But as a lifelong fan, I’m not sold.

Keselowski is probably right about more excitement throughout the entirety of the race, but the complex nature of the format will likely be a problem for a sport that is already in decline.

NASCAR’s Struggles

NASCAR’s popularity, as judged by television ratings and attendance figures, has been in decline since its peak in the mid-2000s.  Television ratings, which consistently rose from the 1980’s until the mid-2000s, have consistently dropped gradually since.  In 2016, the majority of the races on the schedule either hit all-time ratings lows or their lowest marks in 15-plus years.

Attendance has also plummeted over the last decade, with the International Speedway Corporation (which runs 12 NASCAR tracks) reporting a 49 percent drop from in attendance revenue from its peak in 2007, and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (which runs eight tracks) dropping 46 percent from its 2008 peak.

While both marks were at their peak just before the economic recession of 2008 and dropped like numbers in most other industries when the recession hit, they have continued to fall ever since.

This Won’t Fix NASCAR’s Problems

While the country slowly recovered from the recession, NASCAR has tried to appeal to a younger demographic with continuous rules and format changes.  The changes have resulted in many old-school fans giving up on the sport, and have not drawn enough young fans to the sport to offset the departures.

It’s no secret that NASCAR’s existing fanbase leans conservative, and as a result often resists change.

I’ve met fans over time that aren’t particularly keen on changes like The Chase, green-white-checkered finishes, eliminating the “race back to the caution” (although that one was wholly necessary for safety reasons), and even restrictor-plate racing (though most find it exciting).  Some of these have tolerated the changes and continued to watch, while others have left the sport.

Before now, these changes haven’t been overly complicated.  The “Chase Grid” format, which eliminates four drivers each round until a four-man winner-take-all finale, was the most complex change before yesterday’s announcement.

But this edition of rules changes is taking complicated to another level.  And remember, while I do know some very intelligent people who are diehard NASCAR fans, this isn’t exactly a fanbase known for an abundance of doctors and lawyers.

When fans turn on the Daytona 500 in just one month, many will likely not understand the new format.  Some will be patient and try to understand the changes.  But others will get frustrated, not recognizing the sport in which they used to watch their heroes like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. compete, and turn the race off.

And while these changes are aimed at the casual fan (with the thinking generic sports fans would better understand an event divided into periods, like football/basketball/hockey, and the term “playoffs” instead of “Chase”), I wouldn’t think they would have any more patience than the diehard fans when they turn on a race and get confused.  In fact, they may have less patience and change the channel even faster.

If people stop watching the races, it doesn’t matter how exciting the races are, because the sport will fizzle out.  NASCAR’s thinking is that more exciting racing is the answer, as it would potentially attract new fans and start to grow the sport once again.

But, at least from my perspective, the racing has always been exciting.  Some at Monday’s announcement talked about creating more “moments,” spread out over the three-plus hours of a race, but that has never been necessary in other sports, and isn’t in NASCAR either.  The main draw is to see who wins the race, at the end of 500 miles, not who makes it to the one-third mark first.

Furthermore, whether the Falcons or Patriots lead the Super Bowl after a quarter, they will have no advantage (besides the lead with 45 minutes of football left) as far as winning the game.

NASCAR was at its most popular when it was without all the bells and whistles that they will now execute in the running of each race.

Now, with the gimmicks continuing to add up, I’m afraid the number of fans who bid farewell will add up too.

While the “NASCAR as we know it” from the past ceased to exist yesterday, I fear it will result in “NASCAR as we know it” for the future ceasing to exist as well.

 

 

 

Twitter Picks for NFL Championship Weekend

NFC Championship Game
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
Sunday, 3:05 pm ET, FOX
Green Bay:  12-6, def. Dallas 34-31 in Divisional Round
Atlanta:  12-5, def. Seattle 36-20 in Divisional Round
Favorite:  Falcons by 5

 

AFC Championship Game
Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Sunday, 6:40 pm ET, CBS
Pittsburgh:  13-5, def. Kansas City 18-16 in Divisional Round
New England:  15-2, def. Houston 34-16 in Divisional Round
Favorite:  Patriots by 5

 

 

 

For what it’s worth…

Overall Record: 78-53-1
Last Week: 3-1
College Overall Record: 67-48
NFL Game of the Week: 11-5-1

Game of the Week: 10-5
Big Game Guarantee: 3-7
Upset of the Week: 4-6
Closer Than the Experts Think: 4-6
Not Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-3
Overhyped/Bad Spread Game: 5-5
Group of Five Game of the Week: 7-3
Is This Futbol?: 8-2
Is This Basketball?: 8-2
Toilet Bowl: 6-4
Miscellaneous: 5-5

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.

Column: Parsons gets long-overdue honor, enters NASCAR Hall

Tonight in Charlotte, Benny Parsons will finally be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a long overdue honor for one of the sport’s true legends.

The enshrinement comes after the NASCAR community marked the tenth anniversary of Parsons’ January 2007 death on Monday.

Parsons, a humble everyman from the rolling hills of northwest North Carolina, goes into the Hall for contributions to the sport as both a driver, from 1964-1988, and a broadcaster, from 1989-2006.

He competed drivers from Fireball Roberts to Dale Jarrett, and covered from Richard Petty to Kyle Busch, and now joins all of them (except future Hall of Famer Busch) in the elite membership of the uptown Charlotte facility.

Benjamin Stewart Parsons was born July 12, 1941 in his native Wilkes County, N.C.  “B.P.” drove taxis for his father’s company in Detroit before driving racecars, beginning his Cup Series career with a single start in 1964.  After two ARCA championships (1968-69), Parsons went full-time Cup racing in 1970, and won one of the most memorable championships in the sport’s history in 1973.

Parsons entered the season’s final race in Rockingham, N.C. leading the standings, but a lap 13 crash made his championship hopes seem grim.

Parsons’ crew, along with crewmen from other teams who wanted to see the underdog win, repaired his #72 DeWitt Racing Chevrolet enough for Parsons to return to the track and run enough laps to finish 25th and win the title, with just one victory, on the strength of 15 top-5’s and 21 top-10’s in 28 events.

Parsons went on to win the 1975 Daytona 500 and the 1980 World 600 (now the Coca-Cola 600), the latter coming after a fantastic duel in the closing laps against Darrell Waltrip, preventing Waltrip from his third straight 600 win.

In 526 starts over 26 seasons, Parsons won 21 races and 20 poles in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, finishing in the top 10 in over half his starts (283) and finishing in the top 10 in the season standings nine times (1972-80).

After retiring at the end of 1988, Parsons moved to the broadcast booth, joining Bob Jenkins and Ned Jarrett at ESPN from 1989-2000, in an era when the sport’s viewership was rising exponentially.  Parsons was also the original host of PRN Radio’s weekly show Fast Talk, serving in that role from 1993 until his death, and co-hosted a groundbreaking qualifying broadcast with Mark Garrow on WFMX radio in the 1980s.

In 2001, when FOX and NBC/TNT acquired NASCAR broadcasting rights, Parsons moved to the NBC/TNT booth to join Wally Dallenbach and Allen Bestwick (and later Bill Weber).  In this role, Parsons broadcasted three Daytona 500s (2002, 2004, 2006), and the first three editions of NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup (2004-06).

Parsons related to fans with his conversational and down-to-earth style.  Even while distributing his wealth of racing knowledge on the air, he came across as the kindly uncle watching the race beside you on the couch.

Parsons’ deep, booming voice became one of the most recognizable in all of motorsports, and the popularity he enjoyed in his driving career carried over to his broadcasting career.

After battling lung cancer, Parsons died from complications of the disease on January 16, 2007 at age 65.  Since his death, Parsons’ widow has, as part of his last wishes, invested in the attempted revitalization of North Wilkesboro Speedway and opened Rendezvous Ridge winery in Wilkes County.

Parsons’ induction into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame is well-earned, as his accomplishments in both his driving and broadcasting careers are individually worthy of enshrinement.  In fact, given the breadth of his career and his broad impact on the sport in multiple roles, I have been voting for Parsons in the Hall’s fan voting (which represents one ballot of the 48 during the selection process) every year since 2012.

Tonight, Parsons will be joined in the 2017 Hall of Fame class by former driver Mark Martin and car owners Rick Hendrick (who Parsons drove for in 1987), Richard Childress and Raymond Parks.

It will be a special night for many in the NASCAR garage, as one of the great men in racing will finally get a posthumous honor he has long deserved.

NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductees:
Class of 2017:  Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Mark Martin, Raymond Parks, Benny Parsons
Class of 2016:  Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte, Bruton Smith, Curtis Turner
Class of 2015:  Bill Elliott, Fred Lorenzen, Wendell Scott, Joe Weatherly, Rex White
Class of 2014:  Tim Flock, Jack Ingram, Dale Jarrett, Maurice Petty, Fireball Roberts
Class of 2013:  Buck Baker, Cotton Owens, Herb Thomas, Rusty Wallace, Leonard Wood
Class of 2012:  Richie Evans, Dale Inman, Darrell Waltrip, Glen Wood, Cale Yarborough
Class of 2011:  Bobby Allison, Ned Jarrett, Bud Moore, David Pearson, Lee Petty
Class of 2010:  Dale Earnhardt Sr., Bill France Sr., Bill France Jr., Junior Johnson, Richard Petty

Benny Parsons Career Statistics (Cup Series):
526 starts
21 wins
20 poles
199 top 5’s
283 top 10’s
134,870 laps run
6,866 laps led
14.5 average finish
9.3 average start
$4,426,278 career earnings

ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Week of 1/16

The ACC is nearing the one-third mark of league play, and the league is as deep as ever this season.

Consensus preseason favorite Duke is under .500 in league play, and the two teams that were expected to be well behind the pack are a combined 5-5.  Winning on the road is just as hard as ever, yet winning at home is no guarantee when a tough opponent is coming to your building night in and night out.

Here is how the league stacks up, with just under eight weeks until Selection Sunday.

1. North Carolina (16-3, 4-1 ACC, Previous Ranking: 3rd, AP Poll: 9th)
Last Week:  away win over Wake Forest, home win over Florida State
This Week:  Monday vs. Syracuse, Saturday at Boston College
The Tar Heels picked up one of the best wins by anyone in the ACC so far on Saturday, handing Florida State their first conference loss.  The Heels lead the nation in rebounding (42.6 per game), are fourth in points per game (89.6), and are sixth in assists (18.2).

2. Notre Dame (16-2, 5-0, PR: 6th, AP: 15th)
Last Week:  away win over Miami, away win over Virginia Tech
This Week:  Wednesday at Florida State, Saturday vs. Syracuse
Mike Brey has done another fantastic job in South Bend, as the Fighting Irish are now the last undefeated team left in ACC play.  Their only two losses are neutral-site games to #1 Villanova and #21 Purdue, as they are undefeated both at home (11-0) and on the road (3-0), although the latter could be in jeopardy Wednesday in Tallahassee.

3. Florida State (16-2, 4-1, PR: 5th, AP: 10th)
Last Week:  home win over Duke, away loss to North Carolina
This Week:  Wednesday vs. Notre Dame, Saturday vs. Louisville
The Seminoles no longer have their undefeated conference record, although no one expected any team in this deep league to stay perfect for long.  They do remain in the AP’s top 10 as they enter the final two games of a six-game stretch against ranked opponents with a 4-1 record against ranked teams.  Leonard Hamilton’s past teams have won with defense, but this team’s strength is the offense, scoring the 13th most points per game in the nation (86.5).

4. Louisville (15-3, 3-2, PR: 2nd, AP: 12th)
Last Week:  home win over Pittsburgh, home win over Duke
This Week:  Thursday vs. Clemson, Saturday at Florida State
Louisville didn’t have to leave home in the last week, but picked up two wins, including a big one over Duke.  The Cardinals are ranked second nationally in KenPom‘s adjusted defensive efficiency (86.0 points per 100 possessions), and faces a great battle against Florida State’s offense this weekend in Tallahassee.

5. Virginia (13-3, 3-2, PR: 4th, AP: 16th)
Last Week:  away win over Clemson
This Week:  Wednesday at Boston College, Saturday vs. Georgia Tech
The Cavaliers won at sold-out Littlejohn Coliseum in a festive atmosphere as Clemson celebrated their football national championship.  The Cavaliers are known for their defense (53.4 PPG allowed leads nation) and slow pace (59.9 possesions per 40 minutes is the least nationally), that doesn’t make them inefficient on offense–their 115.0 points per 100 possessions is 15th nationally.  There are no easy games in the ACC, but the Wahoos get two of the least difficult this week.

6. Duke (14-4, 2-3, PR: 1st, AP: 18th)
Last Week:  away loss to Florida State, away loss to Louisville
This Week:  Saturday vs. Miami
When the Blue Devils look back at the 2016-17 season, they won’t be able to say they didn’t face adversity.  From Mike Krzyzewski’s absence with back surgery to Grayson Allen’s tripping incident to Amile Jefferson’s injury, this team is going through a rough patch, and it’s showing in the results:  the Blue Devils are now 0-3 on the road.  They do have a few extra days to prepare for Miami, who comes to Durham on Saturday.

7. Virginia Tech (13-4, 2-3, PR: 7th)
Last Week:  home win over Syracuse, home loss to Notre Dame
This Week:  Wednesday vs. Georgia Tech, Sunday at Clemson
There’s a big gap between the top six and the rest of the league, but that doesn’t discount how well some of the bottom nine teams have been playing.  The Hokies have wins over Duke and Syracuse, and nearly beat Notre Dame, something no one in the ACC has done.  One thing that has hurt the Hokies is rebounding–they rank 215th nationally with only 35.7 per game.

8. Syracuse (11-7, 3-2, PR: 13th)
Last Week:  away loss to Virginia Tech, home win over Boston College
This Week:  Monday at North Carolina, Saturday at Notre Dame
The Orange haven’t won more than two in a row since their four-game winning streak to begin the season, but they have still improved since a rough stretch in non-conference play, and currently sit over .500 in the ACC.  It won’t be easy from here (it never is in the ACC), as three of their next four games are against the top three teams in these rankings.

9. Miami (12-4, 2-2, PR: 12th)
Last Week:  home loss to Notre Dame, away win at Pittsburgh
This Week:  Wednesday at Wake Forest, Saturday at Duke
While Pittsburgh isn’t necessarily the best team anyone has beat on the road, Miami’s 26-point win over the Panthers may have been the most dominant such win.  The win was the 600th in the career of coach Jim Larranaga, joining Krzyzewski, Williams, Pitino and Boeheim as active ACC coaches with 600 or more.  The ‘Canes are fourth nationally at 59.6 PPG allowed.

10. Clemson (11-6, 1-4, PR: 8th)
Last Week:  away loss to Georgia Tech, home loss to Virginia
This Week:  Thursday at Louisville, Sunday vs. Virginia Tech
While it was a fantastic week for Clemson athletics collectively, the basketball team didn’t follow football’s winning ways.  The Tigers, who are much better than their 1-4 league record, are now tied for last in the standings despite being in every game.  As is typical in the ACC, the schedule doesn’t get any easier, and most of the Tigers’ toughest games coming up are on the road.

11. Pittsburgh (12-6, 1-4, PR: 11th)
Last Week:  away loss to Louisville, home loss to Miami
This Week:  Tuesday at NC State
While no one necessarily expected Pitt to go to Louisville and win, I don’t think anyone saw their 72-46 home loss to Miami coming.  The mettle of this veteran team is being tested, and if they are to improve, it will have to start on defense; they are currently allowing 76.2 PPG, which is only 269th nationally.

12. Georgia Tech (11-6, 3-2, PR: 14th)
Last Week:  home win over Clemson, away win over NC State
This Week:  Wednesday at Virginia Tech, Saturday at Virginia
The league’s biggest surprise could very well be Georgia Tech, who is currently tied for fourth in the standings, with their only losses coming to Duke and Louisville.  In the past week, they triumphed over Clemson and NC State, with the latter on the road.  This week they will have to be road warriors again, with a pair of Commonwealth matchups in Virginia.

13. Wake Forest (10-7, 1-4, PR: 11th)
Last Week:  home loss to North Carolina
This Week:  Wednesday vs. Miami, Saturday at NC State
The Demon Deacons are, surprising to me, ranked 41st in KenPom’s national ranking, despite a 1-4 league start, on the strength of the 23rd best adjusted offensive efficiency (115.9 points per 100 possessions).  Closing games has been an issue (sounds familiar), but the Deacons could potentially make up some ground over the next three weeks, as they only play one ranked team between now and February 7 (such stretches are rare in the ACC).

14. Boston College (9-9, 2-3, PR: 15th)
Last Week:  home win over NC State, away loss to Syracuse
This Week:  Wednesday at Virginia, Saturday vs. North Carolina
Despite a lot of roster turnover, the Eagles are far better than last year (although they didn’t have any farther to drop after an 0-18 conference season).  The Eagles have yet to win an ACC road game, but they are 2-0 at Conte Forum, with the chance to upset Virginia and North Carolina there this week.

15. NC State (12-6, 1-4, PR: 10th)
Last Week:  away loss to Boston College, home loss to Georgia Tech
This Week:  Tuesday vs. Pittsburgh, Saturday vs. Wake Forest
After losses to the 12th- and 14th-ranked teams in these rankings in the last week, Mark Gottfried needs to find some answers fast.  There is a lot of talent on this roster, but they are struggling right now, especially defensively (76.4 PPG allowed is 274th).  The Wolfpack are 0-4 on the road and 10-1 at home, although the loss came last night to Georgia Tech.  Two home games this week against Pittsburgh and Wake Forest loom large ahead of a Duke-Louisville road trip.

Column: Check championship parade off my sports bucket list

I’ve always wanted to attend a championship parade.

Ideally, said parade would be celebrating a championship for a team I pull for (I’m looking forward to the parade, one of these years, the first week of November on Peachtree Street in Atlanta), but just in general I’ve wanted to be a part of something as jubilant and festive as tens of thousands of fans celebrating their team accomplishing the ultimate goal.

Where else, besides being at a championship game itself, can you be a part of a group of so many people from so many backgrounds, all celebrating the same thing?

Monday night, Clemson University’s football team won the national championship, winning a thrilling 35-31 game over Alabama with a last-second touchdown.

I am not a Clemson fan (I pull for two teams, who happen to be a rival and an annual ACC Atlantic Division foe) but by the time I went to bed Monday night I had realized there would be a championship parade 30 minutes from my doorstep, and immediately considered going.  By Friday night, a friend with similar rooting interests but an equally similar perspective agreed to join me.

Championship parades have always been fun to watch on TV, especially when the team celebrating has not won a championship in many years.  In the past year, Cleveland ended a 52-year city-wide championship drought (Cavaliers), and the Chicago Cubs ended their 108-year curse, and both parades were enormous events in those respective Midwestern cities.

The Chicago parade, with an estimated 5 million in attendance, was actually the seventh-largest gathering in human history (the largest in American history), trailing only religious pilgrimages and funerals of world leaders.

While Clemson didn’t have quite as big a crowd, I thought going in that it may be as chaotic, with the reasoning that tens of thousands of people in the small town of Clemson was equitable to 5 million in a place as big as Chicago.

An estimated 30,000 lined the route, which led from downtown Clemson to Memorial Stadium, and about 65,000 attended the championship pep rally in the stadium after the parade.

Like many patrons, we were part of both crowds, positioning ourselves near the gates of Memorial Stadium to watch the parade, then entering after the parade passed.

The energy built as the parade neared (the marching band was first, so we could hear it coming), and continued as the parade progressed through the band, cheerleaders, 1981 championship team and other former players, as well as school president Jim Clements and athletic director Dan Radakovich.

Coach Dabo Swinney and his family rode on the back of a convertible, and the coach seemed to be taking it all in.  As the parade slowed to a stop in front of us, he even took out his phone to take a picture of the assembled crowd.  Some fans even ran out into the street to shake the coach’s hand.

The first players in the parade were quarterback Deshaun Watson and linebacker Ben Boulware, the offensive and defensive MVP of the championship game, standing in the back of an orange Jeep.

Other fan favorites followed, including tight end Jordan Leggett, center Jay Guillermo, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and safety Jadar Johnson, followed by the rest of the team (including wide reciever Hunter Renfrow, who caught Monday’s game-winning touchdown), on the backs of flatbed trucks, sorted by class.

After a hike to the upper deck, we watched the championship pep rally, which featured the presentation of the two national championship trophies (College Football Playoff and Coaches’ Poll) and speeches by Clements, Radakovich, several players including Watson and Boulware, culminating with Swinney.

Now, before my Gamecock friends (and, for that matter, Demon Deacon friends) disown me, I kept a poker face through the entirety of the event.  I didn’t chant “C-L-E-M-S-O-N” while the band played Tiger Rag, and didn’t cheer during the pep rally.  An occasional, light applause was reserved for individuals that I have a tremendous respect for, like Ben Boulware, Deshaun Watson, and coach Dabo Swinney, especially on mentions of academic success and strong character for them and the team.

I went simply to take it all in, and experience the jubilation of a team’s championship.  I would imagine the atmosphere was more electric in Clemson on Monday night, as the championship victory was fresh, but on this day the fans got to show their gratitude, up close, towards their football heroes after the program’s first championship in 35 years.

I look forward to, hopefully, being one of those fans at a future parade in another location (Atlanta, Columbia, Winston-Salem, etc.), but on this day, as more of an observer than a participant, I simply took it all in.

And, with so many people exhibiting such jubilation, it was one of the coolest sports-related events I’ve ever been a part of.

 

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Twitter Picks for NFL Divisional Weekend

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons
Saturday, 4:35 pm ET, FOX
Seattle: 11-5-1, NFC West champion, def. Detroit 26-6 last week
Atlanta: 11-5, NFC South champion, first round bye
Favorite: Falcons by 5

 

Houston Texans at New England Patriots
Saturday, 8:15 pm ET, CBS
Houston: 10-7, AFC South champion, def. Oakland 27-14 last week
New England: 14-2, AFC East champion, first round bye
Favorite: Patriots by 16

 

Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
Sunday, 4:40 pm ET, FOX
Green Bay: 11-6, NFC North champion, def. N.Y. Giants 38-13 last week
Dallas: 14-2, NFC East champion, first round bye
Favorite: Cowboys by 5

 

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs
Sunday, 8:20 pm ET*, NBC
Pittsburgh: 12-5, AFC North champion, def. Miami 30-12 last week
Kansas City: 12-4, AFC West champion, first round bye
Favorite: Chiefs by 1

*Game moved from original time of 1:05 pm ET due to weather conditions

 

 

 

For what it’s worth…

Overall Record: 75-52-1
Last Week: 4-0
College Overall Record: 67-48
NFL Game of the Week: 8-4-1

Game of the Week: 10-5
Big Game Guarantee: 3-7
Upset of the Week: 4-6
Closer Than the Experts Think: 4-6
Not Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-3
Overhyped/Bad Spread Game: 5-5
Group of Five Game of the Week: 7-3
Is This Futbol?: 8-2
Is This Basketball?: 8-2
Toilet Bowl: 6-4
Miscellaneous: 5-5

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.

Column: Carl Edwards leaves just as he competed — with class

It’s 6:16 p.m. on November 20, 2016.

On a restart with 10 laps to go in the Ford EcoBoost 400 and the season, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano approach Homestead-Miami Speedway’s first turn, fighting for the race and championship leads.  Logano dives to the inside, Edwards blocks.  Edwards’ left-rear hits Logano’s right-front, hooking Edwards to the left, and he hits the wall head-on.

Edwards has every right to be frustrated, as the accident prevents him from potentially winning his first Cup Series title.  And yet, while his disappointment is apparent in post-race interviews, he shows no ill will towards Logano, even stopping at Logano’s pit to shake crew chief Todd Gordon’s hand and wish the team good luck in the remaining laps.

No one (including Edwards himself) knew at the time that Edwards’ incredible class, even in the face of heartbreak, would be the final image of his stellar career.

But Wednesday, the 37-year old Edwards announced he is stepping away from NASCAR, effective immediately.  Edwards said he came to the decision after the season, giving three well-thought-out reasons.

Three Reasons Why

First, Edwards is legitimately satisfied with his career accomplishments, even without a Cup Series title on his resume.  Edwards said that, to him, the competition in NASCAR was about more than winning, but the journey.

“Going through that whole process and becoming a better person, a stronger person, a better competitor, a better teammate, a better friend to people, that’s a big deal to me, and I feel accomplished,” Edwards said.

Secondly, Edwards said that while racing has been all-encompassing, physically and mentally, for the last 20 years of his life (13 in the Cup Series), it is necessary to devote his time and energy to other interests.

“I need to take that time right now and devote it to people and things that are important to me, things I’m really passionate about,” Edwards said.

Lastly, Edwards is 100 percent healthy, and wants to keep it that way in the short- and long-term.  Edwards does not appear scared, but is instead simply acknowledging that continuing to drive at the highest level could potentially be a risk to his health.

“Like anybody in a contact sport, I realize that there might be long-term consequences to that stuff, and that’s a piece of the puzzle,” Edwards said.

What’s Next

Edwards came to his decision after this season, and said that after considering his reasoning, he couldn’t think of a good reason why not to walk away now, and said that, in following his gut, he has no regrets.

“This is a pure, simple, personal decision, and for that I’m grateful,” Edwards said.

In his post-race interview at Homestead, Edwards clearly had not yet made this decision, as he pointed to the future after the tough break that cost him the 2016 title.

“This team is going to be on fire next year,” Edwards said.  “You watch out.  It’s going to be awesome.”

Perhaps he’s right — 2016 XFinity Series champion Daniel Suarez will take his place in the #19 Toyota, and is an immediate threat to qualify for the Chase for the Cup.

Edwards would not use “the R word” to describe his decision to walk away, because he is open to the possibility of potentially driving part-time in the future, saying his first call in such a situation would be Joe Gibbs, the car owner he drove for in 2015-16.

“If it comes up and the right opportunity is there and at that moment, it’s the right thing, then for sure I’d entertain it,” he said.

Outside of racing, Edwards has no specific plans, although the uncertainty doesn’t bother him.

“That’s one of the beauties about this decision,” Edwards said.  “I don’t have a there’s no life raft I’m jumping onto. I’m just jumping. And in a way, it makes it easier, because I’m not being swayed by some carrot out here, something going on.

“I don’t really have that all figured out yet, and to me that’s okay.  I’m at peace with that. I know if I lay out those three reasons that I listed, if you put those together, you add them up, it adds up to this. This is the right thing.”

Class at Every Turn

Edwards entered the Cup Series in 2004 with Roush Racing and drove #99 Ford for the team until the end of the 2014 season, before moving to Gibbs for his final two seasons.

The Columbia, Missouri native won 28 races in 445 starts, finishing second in points in 2008 and 2011, and leading the championship with 10 to go in 2016 before the crash with Logano.  Edwards also won 38 races and the 2007 championship in the XFinity Series, running both XFinity and Cup full-time for seven seasons.

But the lasting impression of Edwards career is the class and dignity with which he competed, something not lost on Edwards himself at Wednesday’s press conference.  After a reporter remarked that Edwards had seemed to compete with a Midwestern mentality of work hard, be kind to others, and your reputation will follow, Edwards got choked up at the compliments given to his character.

“It’s important to me… to do the right thing,” Edwards said.  “I do not always do the right thing, and just like anyone, there are things I wish I could do over, and that’s that.”

Edwards said he was “a jerk” at times in his career, yet I can’t recall a time in his career when Edwards didn’t handle himself in the usual professional, classy way that became the trademark of his career, a refreshing departure from an age of several star drivers with an arrogant and self-centered streak.

When he was upset over on-track events — and I can’t remember a time in his career when such frustration wasn’t justified — he didn’t lash out publicly at his rivals but typically dealt with the situation professionally, behind closed doors.

When he won, Edwards visibly had a blast, performing his unique backflip celebration, but applauded the competition on a good race and humbly accepted the congratulations of his peers.  When he had heartbreaking losses, he tipped his cap to those who beat him, often personally congratulating the victor.

It was one of those heartbreaking losses at Homestead that will now go down as (at least for now) his final Cup Series start.

While the result of a 34th-place finish is not indicative of Edwards’ ability on the track throughout his career, the grace and sportsmanship Edwards showed in defeat is an appropriate end to his career.

I was watching the Ford EcoBoost 400 at the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s race-viewing party, and after Edwards’ interview with NBC’s Kelli Stavast, the assembled crowd applauded the class Edwards showed in possibly the toughest defeat of his life.

That applause can now be extended to cover Edwards’ entire career.  Even as Edwards is walking away at a surprisingly young age, he has nothing to regret as he looks back over his career.

After doing things the right way from start to finish, Edwards walks away just as he drove, showing class and dignity at every turn.

 

 

 

Carl Edwards Career Statistics (Cup Series unless otherwise noted):
445 starts
28 wins
124 top fives
223 top 10s
22 poles
14.2 average start
13.6 average finish
127,758 laps
6,136 laps led
$80,473,708
2008 & 2011 Cup Series runner-up
38 XFinity Series wins
2007 XFinity Series champion

My Interview with Clemson Radio’s Kevin Selman

Wednesday night, just two days after Clemson’s thrilling victory over Alabama in college football’s National Championship Game, I had the chance to interview Clemson Tiger Sports Network football spotter Kevin Selman, at halftime of my autrojans.com broadcast of Anderson University basketball, where Kevin serves as PA announcer.

The interview includes his thoughts on Clemson’s national championship, the contrast to last year’s title game loss, and his role as the spotter for Tigers play-by-play announcer Don Munson.

Fast Five: Reasons Clemson Will Beat Alabama Tonight

Tonight, Clemson and Alabama meet for in college football’s National Championship Game for the second straight season.  Last year’s meeting produced a 45-40 classic, won by the Crimson Tide, and many expect the rematch to be as good or even better.

Experts are split between whether Clemson or Alabama will win this time around, but there are five reasons why I think Clemson will win tonight’s game:

5. Semifinal performances

In the College Football Playoff’s semifinal round on New Year’s Eve, Clemson had the better performance, beating 3rd-seeded Ohio State 31-0 to hand Urban Meyer the worst loss of his coaching career.  Alabama, on the other hand, was facing 4th-seeded Washington, and only led 17-7 early in the fourth quarter before eventually winning 24-7.

Clemson will be a much tougher opponent than Washington, who had a chance entering the fourth quarter despite not playing their best, something that could be troublesome for the Crimson Tide.  From the opposite perspective, Ohio State’s team has a similar makeup to Alabama (even if Alabama is collectively a better team), and Clemson completely dominated every facet of the game in the Fiesta Bowl victory.

4. Jalen Hurts vs. Clemson’s defense

Alabama QB Jalen Hurts is trying to become the first true freshman starting quarterback since 1985 to win a national championship, but will be facing the Clemson defense, the toughest unit he’s met all season.  Hurts struggled in the Peach Bowl win over Washington, going 7-for-14 for just 57 yards.  Alabama’s offensive line struggled protecting Hurts in that game, as he was sacked three times, and now will face a much tougher test against the Clemson defensive line.

That group, led by Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins, has the third most sacks in the country (49), and sacked Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett three times in the Fiesta Bowl.  For Alabama to win, both Hurts and his offensive line will have to play their best , something I think Clemson will be able to prevent from happening.

3. Distractions

Alabama has had a huge distraction over the last seven days after head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin parted ways on January 2.  Kiffin, who was originally slated to stay with Alabama through the Playoff before becoming head coach at Florida Atlantic, got to jump ship for Boca Raton early, and Saban promoted offensive analyst Steve Sarkisian, the former head coach at USC and Washington, to offensive coordinator.

This story has been a huge storyline over the last week, and now the Alabama offense has to prepare to face the Clemson defense with a different coordinator than they have had all season, and one in Sarkisian who hasn’t been an offensive coordinator since 2008.  This would be a big deal if Alabama’s quarterback were a senior; the fact this is happening with a true freshman leading the offense potentially creates even more turbulence.

Clemson, in the meantime, has essentially been distraction-free in the lead-up to tonight’s game, and appears to have a wholly focused approach to the game, which leads to my next point.

2. Motivation

Clemson is completely motivated for tonight’s game, as they attempt to avenge last year’s defeat against the Crimson Tide.  In recent years in sports, when there has been a rematch on a championship-level stage, the team that lost the first meeting has often gotten their revenge in the second, and Clemson has shown more than motivation to do it themselves.

While Clemson wasn’t as impressive in some of their early-season victories as they were in the 2015 season, after their 43-42 loss to Pittsburgh, the Tigers have been a different team, proving their focus with their results.  The team’s defensive leaders even pointed to their “All In” mentality as a big reason for their blowout win over Ohio State, and nearly every player has said they have wanted to meet Alabama again this season, to finish some unfinished business, especially on defense (after allowing 45 points last year).

There is added motivation in addition to just last year’s result.  Clemson is a six-point underdog in the title game, and under Dabo Swinney the Tigers are 5-1 as bowl underdogs, with the only loss coming in last year’s title game.

This point isn’t to say that Alabama isn’t motivated–Nick Saban is a master at motivating his players–but that the Clemson team, which has the talent to match Alabama, is so motivated and so focused that they will be hard to beat.

1. Clemson’s offense

In last year’s game, the Clemson offense put up 40 points against Alabama, and Watson was clearly the best player on the field.  The two-time Heisman finalist threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for 73 yards in last year’s game.  In three career Playoff games, Watson has averaged 284 passing yards, 92 rushing yards, and three touchdowns per game.

Last year, Nick Saban said Watson was the best player Alabama had faced since Cam Newton, and Watson is even better this year, having thrown for more yards and more touchdowns than a season ago, even with less help from the rushing game (175 yards per game this year, 225 last year).

Alabama under Nick Saban has historically struggled, at least by their high standards, against dual-threat quarterbacks, and Watson certainly fits that bill.  These struggles have even continued in second (and even third) games against a player, so I expect Watson to be just as good as last year in tonight’s rematch.

Watson could actually play even better (as hard as that is to believe), because in last year’s title game the Tigers were without wide receiver weapons Mike Williams (who was injured) and Deon Cain (who was suspended).  Their participation in tonight’s game could be very problematic for the Alabama defense.

 

 

#2 Clemson (13-1) vs. #1 Alabama (14-0)
Tonight, 8:00 pm ET, ESPN
at Tampa, Fla. (Raymond James Stadium)
Favorite:  Alabama by 6
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Clemson- 2nd, Alabama- 1st

Prediction:  Clemson 31, Alabama 23