Today goes down as one of the worst sports days of my life. It started out looking good with Oklahoma shutting out Texas, but it rapidly went downhill. Oh, let me count the ways:
-Georgia got sucked into Tennessee's Vortex of Mediocrity that the Gators also fell victim to, played down to the Vols' level, and found a way to lose. This made it infinitely harder for Florida to get to the SEC title game.
- Minnesota, Cal, and Ohio State all lost as well, making a fool of me and torpedoing the rest of my predictions for the day.
-The Yankees beat the Twins in extras, feasting on Minnesota's shaky bullpen and neutralizing another solid, if short, start by John Santana. My OBTFTP didn't even make it past the first round.
And then there was the Gator game. Everyone just seemed too confident, and it felt like a classic trap game. If not for two early turnovers by LSU freshman QB JaMarcus Russell, the Gators would not have been in it at the end. LSU outplayed the Gators in every facet of the game. Just look at the stats for yourself. Florida really had no business leading the entire game.
This was probably the worst I have seen the Gators get outcoached. It's not all on Ron Zook's shoulders; it took a total team effort to put this one together. Chris Leak was off tonight, missing receivers all over the field, and it sure didn't help that everytime the offense looked like it was settling into a rhythm, the coaches would change the strategy (run vs. pass orientation on the drives), thereby killing momentum and leading to punts. The defensive staff also decided to keep dropping the linebackers into coverage instead of using them to plug the gaping running holes that LSU's offensive line opened up the entire second half. The middle of the field was open time after time as well. I kept trying to convince myself that the team wasn't playing not to lose when only up by 4 towards the end, but there was no sign that anyone on the Gators was playing to win, except Ciatrick Fason. No team can just run out the clock when there's still 7:31 on it. Everyone in the stadium knew the Gators needed to score again before the game was over, but questionable play calling and poorly-thrown balls ruled the day. Inconsistency on offense and lack of killer instinct on defense has plagued this team for three years now, and both were the cause of defeat tonight.
In short, the game really wasn't as close as the score would indicate. Florida was dominated on both sides of the ball, and was completely exposed for all to see. I hate to beat a dead horse, but this defeat displays the importance of that blown timing issue at the end of the Tennessee game. Had that not been bungled, tonight's game is a valuable learning experience and a wake-up call to a generally lax team possibly en route to Atlanta. Instead, it is a season-killer, as now UF is now definitively out of the hunt for the national and SEC titles. The college football season is too short simply to write off anything.
Good News and Bad News
The bad news first: the Empire won again, putting my OBTFTP on the ropes. Johan Santana likely will be enough to win Game 4, but Radke is going to have to to better if he plans on pitching the Twins into the LCS in the Stadium. C'mon guys, fight the power!
The Red Sox went ahead and swept the Angels. Everyone knew if was going to happen, so they went ahead and decided to make it interesting by using extra innings to win on a David Ortiz walk off homer. They even managed to bring in Drama King Derek Lowe in at the end of a game, reminding everyone of his adventures back in 2001 when he was Boston's closer. If Bud Selig was into the tinkering-with-everything thing to the extent David Stern is, then he'd probably write the game to go exactly how it did, complete with Vladimir Guerrero grand slam and all to promote one of the game's best players who is relatively untapped marketing-wise. The Red Sox look unstoppable, especially because Schilling only pitched once in the ALDS, opening the possibility for him to start Games 1, 4, and 7 if necessary in the LCS, along with Pedro pitching 2 and 5. People en masse will be picking the Sox to go to the World Series and when it looks like a "cursed" team will break the "curse" (which as I said before requires a World Series win, not just attending the Series) ratings go up.
The good news now: tomorrow is by far the best college football weekend thus far. There are no less than six games highly important games that all could play significant roles in deciding future conference champions and most definitely will go a far in determining the future national champion. The Rematch I, Cal at USC appears to be the biggest, since the winner has an excellent shot at running the table in the conference and being undefeated overall (though Arizona State probably will have something to say about that). Cal has a chance to prove conclusively it is a real contender, while USC tries to prove its lack of depth at receiver will not hinder them in quest of another title. I'm serious about that - watch to see how the lack of receivers for USC affects them and how many times QB Matt Leinart just dumps it off to RB Reggie Bush. Don't be surprised to see the Golden Bears pull it out.
If Cal-USC is the number 1 game of the weekend, then Oklahoma-Texas is Game 1-A. Bob Stoops knows a thing or two about winning border wars as he has not lost to Texas yet, and he contributed to Florida's 13-of-14 streak over Georgia as defensive coordinator. I have respect for Mack Brown and Texas, but they just never seem to be able to win big games. I have to give the Sooners the edge. With nos. 1 and 2 out of the way, that brings up no. 3 Georgia who gets Tennessee at home. It's not going to be pretty, or close. I promise, Tennessee isn't that good. Really. I will continue to say this all year. The Vols just aren't a good team.
Next on the list are two Big 10 showdowns, Minnesota at Michigan and Wisconsin at Ohio State. The UM-UM game ironically will be decided by the QBs because though both teams prefer to run all day, both defenses are fairly adept at stopping the run. If the QBs do decide the game, Brian Cupito will be the difference in a Gopher triumph over Chad Henne and the Wolverines. Michigan has better receivers, but Cupito has more experience and is not subject to freshman mistakes that can happen inexplicably at anytime, anywhere as Henne is. Ohio State's running game just is not getting the job done, and the loss to Northwestern proves it. The Buckeyes must either make a dramatic turnaround on the ground or else go against everything Jim Tressel believes in and air it out against the Badgers. Ohio State is better at home than away (the Northwestern loss was at Northwestern) so the Buckeyes will probably pull it out in a squeaker.
The final big game, in Prime Time under the lights, is the Rematch II - LSU at Florida. LSU is an angry and humiliated team due to starting 3-2 and is very lucky not to be 2-3 (why would Oregon State allow the kicker to wear number 13 anyway?). They aren't looking as much to avenge last year's only loss as they are trying to regain shreds of dignity that were cast to the wind at the hands of Georgia. Still, there's not much a team can do when it has nothing at quarterback and the secondary is as exploitable as David Greene showed it to be. There will be a lot of fight in the Tigers, but effort alone will not be enough to propel them to victory. It will be close (Ron Zook has been known to go into run-out-the-clock mode in the second quarter if he has more than a 10-point lead) but as LSU is the only team the Gators have been able to close properly under Zook, Florida will come out victorious at the end by a final score similar to but slightly higher than last year's 19-7 barn burner.
Okay, Enough of That
Back to baseball. John Lieber proved me wrong by outpitching Brad Radke. I really thought the Yankees would return to the House that Hubert H. Humphrey built down 0-2, and almost did thanks to Devil Rays and Blue Jays cast-off Tanyon "How Did I End Up on the Yankees?" Sturtze, but a questionable decision by Ron Gardenhire to leave Joe Nathan in too long allowed the Yankees to come back and win and dredge up all of the dumb "Yankee Magic" nonsense that always rears its ugly head this time of year. If you get through two innings with your closer, you're living on borrowed time as it is, so a third inning is asking a bit much. Sure, Nathan was once a starter, but he wasn't one this year, and the nine-straight balls he threw in the 12th inning should have been a signal to get him out. Torii Hunter gave them the lead in the top of the inning, and if you have to go as far as using three different relievers to get the three outs, you do it because that 2-0 lead going home is worth it. It worked just fine for the Red Sox in their game.
Speaking of the Red Sox, wow. The Angels may be the What-Could-Have-Been team this year, but Boston is the Look-At-What-Is team. The offense is humming right along, the pitching has been excellent from Schilling and Pedro, and the bullpen hasn't blown anything (yet). If they can keep it up, say goodbye to the "Curse of the Bambino," which has been more like the "Curse of Ownership Unwilling to Go as Far for Winning as the Yankees' Ownership until Just Recently." This year would make sense for them to finally break through against the New York because the Yanks are looking an awful lot like this past year's Lakers - overhyped because of big-name acquisitions, but harboring very real depth concerns. If beyond the stars you have to rely on guys like Tanyon Sturtze or Slava Medvedenko, you're in trouble.
I Just Noticed This Today
A Tale of Three Rookies
A basketball league is beset by lagging excitement and attendance when three rookies are all selected in the same draft and instantly infuse new energy and interest in the league.
Rookie 1 was selected first overall, and it was never a case of where Rookie 1 would go, but which team got the first overall pick. Rookie 1 has skills reminiscent of Magic Johnson and rediculously high expectations because of it. All expectations are fulfilled en route to joining the top echelon of the league in scoring instantly. Through no fault of Rookie 1, however, the the team fails to make the playoffs.
Rookie 2 is more of a forward than Rookie 1, who is a guard, and finished with a higher rebounds per game stat. Rookie 2 also has the benefit of being on a better team, and that team makes it into the playoffs but falls in the first round.
Rookie 3 is solid throughout the year, having ups and downs and showing flashes of brilliance along the way. Rookie 3's team was not predicted to make the playoffs because it had no superstars, but against odds and expectations it made the postseason. Once in the playoffs, Rookie 3 really comes alive and sparks the team to playoff success with acrobatic slashing moves and becomes the talk of the league.
The basketball league's executives know these rookies are good for the league and will contribute and compete for a long time. It needs them to take the game to new heights in order for sustained growth.
Are Rookies 1, 2, and 3 the NBA's LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade, or the WNBA's Diana Taurasi, Alana Beard, and Lindsay Whalen? It's an awfully interesting parallel.
In terms of good news, the Yankees lost yesterday and the Braves are in the process of losing today. The three teams I hate the most in sports are: 1) anything FSU, 2) the Braves, and 3) the Yankees. I quite possibly might be the only human alive who doesn't like the Yankees, but dislikes another team more. Facing Johan Santana just isn't pleasant at any time these days, but especially not when he puts you in a 1-0 series hole.
I'm torn over the Astros. I want them to humiliate the Braves, of course, but beyond that I'm not sure. I want Biggio, Bagwell, and Berkman to get their rings, but I can't stand Roger Clemens. At all. Ever. Maybe if the Astros can win it all with Rog losing every one of his starts (or getting no-decisions after falling behind but the 'Stros coming back to win) it would be okay. It's not like he hasn't won a championship before, and denying him now would deny him forever. This is all contingent on my OBTFTP (Official Bandwagon Team for the Playoffs), the Minnesota Twins, not reaching the World Series, but they'll be there. They are my team after all; I wouldn't slander them by picking against them.
The one person I do have sympathy for is Mike Mussina. He just seems like one of those guys destined for several "Best Pitcher Never to..." lists (i.e. win 20 games, win the Cy Young, throw a no-hitter, catch a break, etc). When he pitches in big games, he always does well (like 2 ER in 7 innings yesterday) but got a loss for a quality start due to facing Santana. It's like all those 1-0 losses Randy Johnson had to endure this year. Mussina was on the 1996 Baltimore team that got burned on the Jeffrey Maier incident. He was my favorite pitcher when he was on the Orioles, and I can't blame him for leaving a sinking ship for more money on a good team. Still, he seems like he'll never win a championship. I mean, that Yankee lineup should be able to eke out a run every three innings, right?
Quick note: congrats to the Connecticut Sun for making the finals. They draw a Seattle team that is very similar to themselves only with a little more size. If Sun leading scorer for the playoffs Lindsay Whalen can get to the free throw line more like she did against Washington than New York, and Taj McWilliams-Franklin continues dominance inside against taller players, then the Nutmeg State will celebrate its third basketball championship this year.
Wow, this is a late NFL wrap-up. That's what being busy can get you.
The Jags did indeed lose to the Colts. Poor Nick. In order to beat the Colts, you must score more than 20 points, a feat that Jacksonville has yet to do this year. It was a courageous defensive effort for the Jaguars, but Indy 'D actually showed up too and that made the difference.
The honeymoon is officially over for Joe Gibbs in Washington. He came in with Hall-of-Fame credentials, and he got Clinton Portis to boot, but it has translated into a 1-3 start. The 'Skins have been described as "undisciplined and sloppy" even. Perhaps it wasn't Norv Turner's or Steve Spurrier's but Daniel Snyder's fault for the struggles in the Captiol. If Joe Gibbs can't win under this ownership, then no one can.
Congratulations to the Houston Texans for their first winning streak ever. It's a major psychological hump to get over, and the franchise that everyone seems to be rooting for behind their normal team has finally done it. Back to reality: that's two in a row to become 2-2, and 8-8 won't make the playoffs.
Mike McKenzie finally got his wish after an ugly holdout and other issues with the Packers in getting traded to the Saints today. The Packers in return get most notably a second-round draft pick, but also former Cal-Davis QB J.T. O'Sullivan whom Green Bay apparently has been interested in since he was drafted in 2002. I don't believe I can explain that last part, but with their top two QBs injured, the Packers were bound to make some kind of move. It's probably only a matter of time before Tampa Bay trades its holdout receiver Keenan McCardell too.
I thought that Ben Roethlisberger was the best QB in this year's draft, and thus far he's 2-0. True, those wins were against Miami and Cincinnati, and true, he's got a good running game and defense on his side, but he's one heck of a player. You can have Eli "I Probably Won't Win Anything Either" Manning and Philip "Someone Help Me Find the Other L For My First Name" Rivers, but I'm sticking with Big Ben, thanks.
Everything else: It doesn't even occur to me anymore that the Patriots might lose. Yes, the Falcons are 4-0, but they are fortunate that Warrick Dunn has been playing above himself the past two weeks - something that will not last. Maybe the Giants offensive line isn't so bad. Congrats to Emmitt Smith for returning to form in the Cardinals' first win; Denny Green will get that team turned around quicker than most think. Also congrats to the Chargers for being 2-2, which isn't bad for a team many experts predicted to be 3-13. Can the Dolphins reverse '72 this year? I'm still not happy about the Bucs cutting John Lynch. How do college no-names like Billy Voleck, Craig Nall, Marc Bulger, Jonathan Quinn, Doug Pederson, and Jay Fiedler actually end up in real NFL games? I realize the college and pro games are different, and that some of the guys I mentioned are backups, but are all of the draft analysts that far off? When Bulger was taken by the Saints in the sixth round in 2000, where was he on Kiper's Big Board? Jake Delhomme wasn't even drafted!
Finally, in non-football news, farewell and godspeed to Edgar Martínez, who has now retired after 18 years, all with the Seattle Mariners. He closes out with final career totals of .312 BA, 309 HR, 1261 RBI, 514 2B, 1282 BB, .418 OBP, .516 SLG, and .934 OPS. He was a 7-time all-star and two-time batting champion. He is the definition of professional hitter, and is a hall-of-famer in my book.
Two More Down
Two more teams besides West Virginia fell off the potential unbeaten list, with Fresno State's upset loss to Louisiana Tech (there goes ESPN College Gameday's visit to the Fresno-Boise State game) and Ohio State's shocking upset loss to Northwestern. Especially damaging for the Buckeyes is the fact that it counts as a Big 10 conference loss, not just a shameful loss to a team they should have beaten. When you let other teams hang around week after week instead of putting them away, it will catch up to you sooner or later. The potential unbeatens list now stands as such (in alphabetical order):
the Cal-USC winner
the Virginia-Miami winner
Texas can jump on the list if the Longhorns beat Oklahoma, but that's a pretty big if, and Texas always gets knocked out of the BCS race every year by losing to OU and then to a team they should have beaten (last year it was Washington State, in 2002 Texas Tech, and in 2001 Colorado). This year it could be Texas Tech again, who put up far more of a fight against Oklahoma than they have in recent memory, Oklahoma State, or possibly even Texas A&M. Georgia is not on the list because Florida is on their schedule and they must travel to Auburn. Purdue has a chance to move up from spoiler to contender based on Ohio State's new-found vulnerability and the fact that Kyle Orton has still not thrown an interception in 137(!) attempts, but I'll wait to see how they handle Wisconsin and Michigan in back-to-back weeks. Wisconsin too might move up, but I only mention this because the Badgers have not lost yet. Wisconsin must play Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan, and Minnesota, and running that table is going to be very, very difficult.
I predicted the Gators would be ranked 13th this week, but instead they moved up to 12th in the coaches poll thanks to Ohio State's loss that I somehow didn't predict...
A little bit of Instant History for you: San Jose State and Rice played the highest-scoring regulation-length game in Division I-A history last night with SJSU sqeaking out a 70-63 victory and passing the old record of Middle Tennessee State's 2001 70-58 victory over Idaho. The record for any game was set last year by Arkansas' epic 71-63 win over Kentucky in 7 overtimes. The record for any level of football was in Division III North Park's 104-32 demolition of North Central (Illinois) in 1968. SJSU and Rice also set a new record for combined touchdowns with 19. There is a reason why the WAC has a reputation for wide open football.