Monday, March 16, 2009

Vols Got What They Deserved, Mocs Didn't

I’ll admit I was surprised on Sunday when they announced that Tennessee would face Oklahoma State in the dreaded #8 vs. #9 game on Friday afternoon.

We had been led to believe that with a win in the SEC championship game the Vols might nab a #4 seed and even with a loss they would still get a #6 seed or possibly a #5 seed. What we had forgotten was that this year’s Tennessee team never lived up to the hype for more than a game at a time.

It was easy to be hoodwinked by these long, athletic Vols, who are seemingly unstoppable on paper, but the product on the court has been inconsistent all season. The word on the street was that Pearl’s boys were peaking a couple weeks ago after road wins over Florida and South Carolina, even though neither of those teams was tournament bound.

Regardless, the Vols choked on their home court in the regular season finale against Alabama. Fans seem to have discredited that loss based on a “lucky” shot, but the fact was that the Vols had gone 3-3 to finish the regular season with blowout losses to Kentucky and Ole Miss, both teams that failed to make the NCAA tournament.

The great misnomer about this Volunteer squad was that they deserved a high seed because they played the 2nd most difficult schedule in the country and thus had a high RPI rating. The problem was the Vols played a lot of good teams, but they also got beat by most of them.

Step back and look at it this way, the Vols were 1-5 against teams that finished the season ranked in the top-25 with that lone victory coming in December against #23 Marquette on a neutral court. In other words, when the dust settled the Vols’ marquee victory was over a team that finished 5th in its own conference.

And the Vols’ second best win? At this point that looks like it came against Siena, in November. Heck, Cleveland State had better signature wins than the Vols.

There also appeared to be a problem with the Vols paltry total of 19 regular season wins and 21 total wins. That is the lowest amount of total wins for any single digit seed in this year’s tournament.

In that sense, the selection committee actually smiled on the Vols.

Overall there were two things that worked against the Vols as the selection committee deliberated.

First, the selection committee knew the SEC was no good this year. As a result, instead of rewarding the Vols for winning 10 conference games, they punished them for losing six SEC games in the league’s least competitive season in almost 20 years.

Second, the selection committee was watching the SEC championship game and took note of the Vols’ shooting woes, lack of leadership and most of all their inability to inbound the ball at the end of the game.

My gut tells me that the Vols dropped a seed or two instantly when J.P. Prince played “hot potato” with the basketball after Tyler Smith inbounded it to him with seconds remaining.
With that said, for all the Vols’ liabilities, they are freakishly athletic and I believe capable of playing as good as a championship contender or as bad as, well, Alabama.

If the Vols can survive their first round slugfest with the Cowboys then I wouldn’t want to be Pittsburgh because they will have a #9 seed on their hands that has a lot more talent and a deeper bench than any other #9 seed.

The Vols’ wild inconsistency could work to their advantage if they can channel their frustration from their embarrassing SEC Championship loss and play up to their potential this weekend.

Chattanooga Deserved Better

I breathed a sigh of relief when the Mocs avoided the “play-in” game that some “bracketologists” had them slotted for. However, even with a guaranteed game, I think the Mocs deserved better.

First of all, the Southern conference has proven over the last few years to be simply too good for a #16 seed. #16 seeds should be reserved for the MEACs and the SWACs of the basketball world.

Davidson and College of Charleston both had legitimate arguments for at-large bids to the NCAA tournament and after scraping and clawing to the SoCon tournament final, the Mocs didn’t just beat the Cougars, they pounded them into submission. They put up 20 unanswered points coming out of a halftime tie, something I think I can assume none of us had ever seen before.
UTC played their best basketball at the end of the season and that’s all that matters in small conference basketball.

Coach Shulman admitted that his early season schedule, which included UT, Memphis, Missouri and Southern Cal, was unnecessarily difficult, but the selection committee shouldn’t have punished him for it.

Simply put, if the Mocs had played and beat four Division II opponents instead of playing and losing to four future NCAA tournament teams they would have been a #14 or #15 seed with a 22-12 record instead of a #16 seed with an 18-16 record. And that's not right.

Then again, maybe the Mocs wouldn’t have been as resilient come tournament time if they hadn’t faced that kind of adversity out of the gates. Any way you slice it, it’s just good to have our hometown Mocs dancing again.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Better Than Advertised Super Bowl

It’s been awhile, so I apologize for the four week hiatus, but my dad is running for governor which means my priorities have changed lately.

But, I couldn’t let the Super Bowl get away without having a few words about a matchup that is better than it’s cracked up to be in our part of the country.

I’ve heard a lot of locals complain about the fact that both the Titans and Falcons were ousted early on, as well as East Tennessee’s favorite son Peyton Manning. Some hardcore Manning fans even pinned their hopes on younger brother Eli, but his Giants faltered in their first round game as well.

And just up the road in Knoxville others were anxious to see hometown hero Chad Pennington’s Cinderella story continue into the postseason. That didn’t happen either.

But for all of you southern sports fans who feel like there is nothing to see and no one worth rooting for, I suggest otherwise.

You’ve got on the one hand a great sports franchise on the brink of winning its record sixth Super Bowl. And on the other hand you’ve got the oldest, continuously run football team in America with tradition dating back to the 19th century, yet they haven’t won squat in 62 years.

The Cardinals may be steeped in tradition, but it’s a losing tradition.

After they won that 1947 NFL Championship who would have guessed that the proud Chicago Cardinals wouldn’t land on their feet again for 62 years and by that time they would have been shunned to play their football in the Arizona desert.

The story gets better.

The Cardinals have landed on their feet with a 37 year old quarterback named Kurt Warner who
was deemed “over the hill” and no longer good enough to start in the NFL just two years ago. Not to mention Warner is one of the all-time “good guys” in the professional sports world, an outspoken Christian and devoted family man.

His supporting cast includes the NFL’s most talented wide receiver duo in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and former Colts’ running back Edgerrin James, whose comeback season rivals Warner’s. Those are guys who have seen their fair share of tough breaks.

Boldin had part of his face shattered in a collision earlier in the year that caused his quarterback, Warner, to consider retirement. Fitzgerald left the University of Pittsburgh with the potential to be one of the greatest receivers ever, and has performed as such, but has never had a significant stage to display his talents. Until now that is. And James, who starred alongside Peyton Manning for all those years but never won a ring, temporarily lost his starting job this season to a rookie.

Then the story gets even a little better because those long forgotten Cardinals played their hearts out all the way to a Super Bowl showdown with the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are known to have one of the country’s largest fan bases, a loyal bunch of black and yellow clad, Terrible Towel waving football fans that supposedly spread far and wide.

Yet, national polls showed that 60% of the country favored the underdog Cardinals in the Super Bowl.

However, Vegas still crowned the Steelers the heavy favorite.

Almost the same exact thing happened last year when the New York Giants had to play the odds on favorite New England Patriots. America’s heart was with the underdog Giants, but Vegas’ brain was with the juggernaut Patriots.

The Giants played harder and tougher with grit and determination, and won Super Bowl XLII. The Cardinals seem primed for a repeat performance.

Don’t bet against the heart of America’s underdog. That’s my prediction.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

NFL Playoffs Preview

What may have been the greatest regular season for the underdog in NFL history is about to get even better as the NFL playoffs get underway this weekend.

Four of the eight teams in action this weekend finished the 2007 season in last place in their division, and better yet, the two most highly touted teams coming into the season, the Patriots and the Cowboys, will be at home watching the playoffs on TV.

You can forget about what was supposed to be one of Jerry Jones’ finest engineered teams ever. Terrell Owens pouted their way out of the playoffs, and Tony Romo chipped in with plenty of untimely interceptions of his own to help send the Cowboys’ much anticipated season down the tubes.

Instead you get to enjoy watching the scrappy “last-to-first” Baltimore Ravens led by rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, who was playing here in Chattanooga just last year for Delaware in the National Championship game.

Also, go ahead forget that Matt Cassell filled in admirably for Tom Brady and kept the Patriots in the playoff picture all season. Even with an 11-5 record the Pats’ season has already ended at the hands of the unlikeliest of foes, last year’s cellar dweller Miami Dolphins.

 Instead of the Patriots you get the reinvented Miami Dolphins, just one year removed from a 1-15 season and currently thriving under the leadership of nine-year NFL veteran and Knoxville native Chad Pennington, who was dumped by the Jets before the season started to make room for Brett Farve.

However, no team contributed to this year’s upside down regular season quite like the Atlanta Falcons, who were once thought to be most dreadful team in the NFL this season, yet turned out to be one of the league’s most exciting attractions as the season progressed.

Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, MVP runner-up Michael Turner and breakout receiver Roddy White made Michael Vick’s troubles a distant memory for Falcons fans and they’ll look to add another chapter to their storybook season with a win today against the Cardinals.

  • Atlanta Falcons (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals (9-7)

The Falcons seem to be peaking at just the right time, whereas the Cardinals more or less stumbled to the finish line during the regular season. Cardinals’ receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald test cornerbacks like no other duo in the NFL can, but consistency has been an issue in Arizona all season long. There is always a possibility that quarterback Kurt Warner finds his rhythm with Boldin and Fitzgerald and the Cards put points on the board in a hurry, but I expect the Falcons to come out on top with an inspired effort defensively.

Unlike the other three games this weekend, this came could turn out to be a blow out either way if one of the offenses starts clicking.

Falcons 27, Cardinals 21                     

  • Indianapolis Colts (12-4) at San Diego Chargers (8-8)

First of all, you’ve got a poor home field advantage system when a 12-4 team is traveling halfway across the country to play an 8-8 team. Earlier in the season the Colts edged the Chargers by a field goal in San Diego, but that was before the Chargers hit stride and this time the result could easily be different.

This one is tricky because both teams are on a roll, but still have areas of weakness that can be exploited. The game should go down to the wire where NFL MVP Peyton Manning will have an opportunity to be the difference maker for his team once again.

Colts 24, Chargers 20

  • Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Miami Dolphins (11-5)

This game has the potential to be one of the most exciting of the playoff season because both teams play hardnosed defense and conservative game management offense. The team that scores a touchdown will likely win the game. Because of their playmaking defense and much improved offense, I expect the Ravens to have a better chance at putting a touchdown or two on the board in this one.

Ravens 13, Dolphins 9

  • Philadelphia Eagles (9-6) at Minnesota Vikings (10-6)

The resurgent Eagles are coming off of one of the most impressive wins in the NFL this season after thumping the Cowboys 44-6, but the Vikings have yet to go down without a fight this season. The Vikings masterfully control the flow of every game by running the ball hard on offense and stopping the run on defense as evidenced by the fact that Adrian Petersen has been the leading rusher in all 16 of the Vikings games this season. Five of the Vikings six losses this season were by a touchdown or less and they have won five games by four points or less, so it’s safe to assume that this one will be close all the way

The Eagles can match the Vikings defensive toughness, but have more versatility on offense.

Eagles 21, Vikings 17

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Boras On This Year's Naughty List

This just in from the North Pole: Scott Boras has officially been added to the Naughty List.

On his way to becoming baseball’s mega-agent, Boras has developed a reputation for being one of the greediest brokers in the business of sports.

Unfortunately, no one, Santa included, can argue that Boras isn’t good at what he does.

In fact, he’s probably the best player’s agent ever. His clients get paid the most, often for the least results, and he’s got so many clients that major league teams can’t avoid him.

The problem is Boras’ practices are almost always bad for baseball.

One way or another Boras himself comes out on top in almost every deal he strikes, typically with total disregard for the game that has afforded him the opportunity to make such a living.

You may remember that he was the architect of the infamous $252 million contract awarded to Alex Rodriguez by the Texas Rangers in 2000. The deal has tormented the Rangers financially ever since and drove the market for big name players even higher.

More recently Boras hosed the San Francisco Giants into signing his client, Barry Zito, to a seven-year deal worth $126 million despite every indication that his career was headed for the tubes. In Zito’s second year in San Francisco he was so bad at one point that he was demoted to Triple-A.

And earlier this year he miraculously convinced the LA Dodgers that Andruw Jones was still worth $18 million a year just months after hit .222 for the Braves. As a result, the Dodgers paid Jones $18 million for just three home runs and a .158 batting average this past season.

Boras struck again yesterday, just two days before Christmas, with one of his most despicable acts to date.

He convinced Mark Teixeira, one of baseball’s "good guys," to shun his hometown Baltimore Orioles, the team he was rumored to have wanted to play for since childhood, for the glitz and glamour of playing in the Bronx.

This time the implications of Boras’ latest monster contract may be far more serious than the previous ones.

Instead of negotiating a contract worth more than his client as he is famous for doing, he contributed to baseball's biggest problem by convincing yet another superstar to turn his back on the rest of the country and head to New York.

In the Big Apple, Teixeira can make even more money for Boras through endorsements and other activities only possible in New York City. 

Capitalism is All-American, but not when it's destroying America's Pastime.

Unlike the signings of post-prime players like Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi that fattened up the Yankees before their eventual slaughter either before or during the playoffs, the Yankees’ latest free agent acquisitions could permanently change the landscape of Major League Baseball.

Apparently the Yanks learned from their mistakes of the last decade and went out and pounced on this year’s healthy crop of big name free agents in the middle of their prime baseball years.

C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, three of baseball’s finest players, will be in pinstripes for at least the next five years at a total cost of $423.5 million.

To put in perspective how lopsided the playing field is becoming in Major League Baseball, the Florida Marlins could pay their entire 2008 roster for 20 seasons with that amount of money.

With the signing of Teixeira, the Yankees now have the four highest paid players in baseball, all four of whom could have covered the Marlins’ payroll with their own salary.

If the master plans of Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman and Hank Steinbrenner work out the way they look like they might, World Series Championships will be up for sale with only a few teams in the mix to afford the price tag.

The brilliant management of smaller market franchises like the Marlins, Twins and A’s is the main reason Major League baseball has been to avoid a salary cap as long as it has. 

Amazingly those franchises have stayed ahead of the curve without big money and won consistently with the help groundbreaking strategies like sabermetrics. 

However, the Yankees, with the help of Scott Boras and a team stacked with as many as eight or nine future Hall of Famers, could usher in an era in which small market clubs haven’t the slightest chance of competing for World Series.

Now you know how Boras ended up where he did, near the top of Santa’s 2008 Naughty List.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Peyton's Third MVP Season

After the Titans beat the Colts 31-21 on Monday Night Football sending the Colts to a disappointing 3-4 start to the 2008 season, Kerry Collins was a more popular pick for NFL MVP than Peyton Manning.

In fact, people far and wide began to suggest that this was the beginning of the end for Peyton, as he’s affectionately known in this part of the country. They said that his surgically repaired left knee would never be the same and that he had lost some velocity on his passes as a result.

In reality, there were other factors contributing to Peyton and the Colt’s slow start like his depleted offensive line that relied heavily on three rookies and was missing its mainstay, center Jeff Saturday for much of the season.

Marvin Harrison, who has been Peyton’s top target for years, finally slowed down in his 13th season meaning that Manning was without his top downfield weapon for the first time ever.

But Peyton’s biggest challenge of the season and possibly his career came from the inconsistency of the Colts’ running game. The Colts’ woeful run game has managed only 76.9 yards per game, good for 31st in the NFL and ahead of only the “pass happy” Arizona Cardinals. And only once this season has a Colts’ running back cracked the 100-yard mark in a game.

So how did Peyton respond to the adversity of Colts’ worst start to since his rookie season? With eight consecutive wins including a magical come from behind victory this week against the Jaguars that his coach, Tony Dungy,  referred to as “an MVP performance for sure.”

The win in Jacksonville not only secured a Colts’ seventh consecutive trip to the playoffs, it pushed Peyton to the forefront of the NFL MVP race.

On Thursday night, Peyton yet again picked up the slack for the Colts’ run game, which gained only 32 yards, with one of the finest individual performances in recent memory as he completed 29 of his 34 passes for 364 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

In the process, he officially silenced his critics, you know, the ones worried about his bum knee and lost velocity.

What was once younger brother Eli’s season, whose Giants appeared to be the NFL’s most dominant team until recently, is beginning to look like older brother Peyton’s finest hour as a pro.

And at the going rate don’t be surprised if Peyton walks away with his second MVP award in a few weeks thanks to his second half heroics.

From a statistical perspective Peyton has put up more gaudy numbers in the past, but he’s still in the top five in the league in completion percentage, passing yards and touchdowns.

However, his other “non-statistical” qualities are what have made this a special year for him and Colts fans.  

With the odds stacked against him, Peyton’s game management skills and unrivaled on-field leadership ability have led the way to the Colts’ eight-game win streak and make him the most deserving candidate for this year’s MVP award.

An important part of Peyton’s case for MVP rests in the way that the Colts have won their 11 games. They rarely blew out their opponents, instead, they scraped and clawed their way past them week after week.

The Colts have won six games by four points or less and eight games by a touchdown or less meaning that in eight of their 11 wins, the Colts’ success was just a mistake or two away from being failure.

Luckily, Peyton has made the big plays when his team needed them this season, but just as importantly he has kept the mistakes at an all time minimum.

His 16:3 touchdown to interception ratio during the Colts’ eight-game win streak proves that the big plays have been far more common than the mistakes in Peyton’s third MVP season.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Auburn and UT Headed in Different Directions

Monte Kiffin On His Way to Knoxville

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin ended the speculation on Sunday by announcing that he would, indeed, join his son’s coaching staff at the University of Tennessee.

Some see this as old news, but I was a taking a “believe when I see it” approach like Tony Dungy said he was taking about the rumors that Kiffin would follow his son to Knoxville.

Old or not, this is big news for Tennessee football because it confirms that the Vols were the biggest winners in the coaching free agent market.

While the Kiffin’s success on the field will ultimately determine whether or not Mike Hamilton made a good decision, Hamilton is looking as good as any AD in the country after hiring a big name offensive guru as his head coach who brings with him a legendary NFL defensive coordinator.

There is really no precedent for a major college program simply stealing away one of the best NFL coordinators, let alone one of the highest paid, to do the same job at the collegiate level.
Clearly, from day one the Kiffin hire was a package deal orchestrated by Hamilton and at this early point in the process it’s a decision that is looking better and better.

The elder Kiffin will have two future NFL safeties at his disposal in his first year, including Eric Berry, who will be seen as an early candidate for the Heisman Trophy. He’ll also have two quality returning cornerbacks to plug into his famed “Tampa Cover 2” defensive scheme which could wreak serious havoc in the SEC as early as next season.

At this point, too much attention has been paid to the few deficiencies on Lane Kiffin’s resume and too little attention has been paid to the fact that his father, an elite NFL coach, is coming with him to run his son’s defense, therefore allowing the younger Kiffin to focus primarily the offense, something he has proven he can do very well.

Auburn Replaces Tuberville with…Gene Chizik?

I rarely agree with Charles Barkley, but he’s dead on this time with his sharp criticism of his alma mater over the hiring of former Iowa State head coach Gene Chizik.

Barkley, who had openly endorsed Buffalo’s Turner Gill for the Auburn job, said this about the decision, “You can say it’s not about the race, but you can’t compare the two resumes and say [Chizik] deserved the job. Out of all the coaches they interviewed, Chizik probably had the worst resume.”

Let’s hope Auburn didn’t interview anybody with a resume that included something worse than Chizik’s current 10-game losing streak at Iowa State.

We will never know if Turner Gill was the right coach for Auburn, but I’m convinced that Gene Chizik is not the answer. What began as an attempt by Auburn to strike fear in Nick Saban’s heart, instead, turned into a reason for Saban to be licking his chops at the Tigers' new coach with a 5-19 record as a head coach.

Rumors have it that the former Auburn defensive coordinator was the favorite of a few high level boosters, despite his obvious failures at Iowa State. But the fact is that if Chizik can’t win a conference game in the Big 12, he won’t last more than three years in the SEC.

And the irony is that in those three years Chizik will never beat Saban, the man he was brought in to compete with. He probably won’t even come close. You heard it here first.

The firing of head coach Tommy Tuberville was the most controversial of any this season in
college football, given his six-game winning streak against rival Alabama entering this season and the program being just four years removed from an undefeated season.

As a result, Auburn needed to make a splash, and, in a relatively shallow coaching market, could have done so with Gill.

His quick ascent at Buffalo would have made him a steal for Auburn and he would have had an opportunity to carve a unique recruiting niche in the SEC as an African American.

Chizik, on the other hand, is going to have to convince recruits that he actually knows how to win football games as a head coach, a task that won’t be easy.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

In Football Utopia...

In football utopia some things on the college football calendar over the next few weeks would stay just the same.

For example, Michigan State’s Javon Ringer and Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno would still go head-to-head in the Capital One Bowl giving fans the opportunity to see two future NFL running backs on the same field.

Fans would still be treated to a surprisingly strong Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup between defending National Champion LSU and arguably the best team from the ACC, Georgia Tech.

Even lowly Colorado State would still get a chance to play in the New Mexico Bowl in this imaginary world of football justice.

Some things, however, would be different in football utopia.

Texas Tech and their high-flying offense would not be in Dallas for a Cotton Bowl matchup with the 8-4 Ole Miss Rebels. In utopia that would be considered a waste of one of the most exciting teams in the country, and a slap in the face to a few of its finest players.

Nor would the Alabama Crimson Tide be stuck playing Utah in the meaningless Sugar Bowl after starting the season 12-0 and losing its first game (and season) in the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship.

Better yet, that 11-1 Texas squad that beat Oklahoma by 10 points on neutral turf would surely not be insulted in such a way that they would be forced to conclude their outstanding season with a date in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. The same Ohio State team that, in football utopia, would have actually had to play a conference championship game like everyone else.

And no, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati would not be automatically included based exclusively on the fact that their conference is called a “BCS” conference.

Instead, Brian Kelly’s Bearcats would be judged by their own quality as a football team and this year that would have been good enough to punch their ticket to the College Football Playoff, football utopia’s featured event.

Here justice is served the same way it is in every other Division I sport.

There are eight teams in a bracket designed to yield one, undisputed National Champion. There is no bias to big conferences or small ones, just the eight best teams in the country getting a fair shot to win it all.

Making money is still possible in football utopia, in fact, it’s encouraged. Instead of there being empty seats at the Orange Bowl this year when Cincinnati and Virginia Tech play, the Orange Bowl would serve as home to one the first or second round playoff games. And trust me, football utopia’s College Football Playoff is so thrilling that there would not be a seat left empty.

This sponsorship system allows all four BCS Bowls (Fiesta, Rose, Sugar and Orange) to play a major role in the playoff while allowing two more bowls to bid up into the top tier of bowls because there would be six total games before the National Championship.

Here’s what we would be in for:

#1 Oklahoma vs. #8 Cincinnati: Big East champ up against the Big 12 champ to see if Cincinnati can hang with the big boys, good thing Cincinnati improved as the season progressed because the Sooners whipped the Bearcats 52-26 in early September.

#2 Texas vs. #7 Texas Tech: How exciting would it be to replay this classic? These are the kind of things that could unfold if we had a playoff.

#3 Florida vs. #6 Penn State: Old school vs. new school in this one with one of the all-time greats, Joe Paterno, matched up with arguably college football’s top coach Urban Meyer. Only one team advances.

#4 Alabama vs. #5 Southern Cal: The richly steeped tradition of the Crimson Tide clashes with the top program of the new millennium. Two different offensive philosophies that have found great success this season would make for a very interesting matchup of West Coast style versus SEC style.