This One’s for Flip: 2015-2016 NBA Preview

With the NBA season nearing its onset, the time has once again arrived for pundits, fans, and general “basketball people” to start looking at the year ahead and/or making predictions.  The season, as usual, has been rather highly anticipated, and the team that will be raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in June is anyone’s guess.  We’ll try to take that guess (and probably fail miserably) as well as look at the other teams in the NBA.

One other note: we go into this post with heavy hearts, as Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders passed away Sunday at the far-too-young age of 60.  Rest in peace, Flip.

Now, with that being said and with Flip in mind, let’s get on with our preview.  We’ll alternate between conferences and start from the bottom.  You’ll see what I’m talking about when we start.  Here it is, a preview of the 2015 NBA season.

Western Conference, #15: Portland Trail Blazers: 

Take a look at the above image of the 2014-15 starting lineup for Terry Stotts’ Blazers.  There is something special about the guy in the middle, and it’s more than you think.  Yes, he’s Damian Lillard, he’s one of the best point guards in the game, and he hits killer buzzer-beaters to end playoff series.

And the other thing that is special about him, at least this season? He’s the only guy in the picture left on the team.  All the other guys? Moved on to other teams (Wes Matthews, Robin Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge) or were traded (Nic Batum).  It’s been a weird offseason in Portland, but the lineup has basically been flipped on its head because of it. Can C.J. McCollum, Gerald Henderson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee and others replace what was lost over the summer?  It remains to be seen, but it’s also very unlikely.  A rebuilding year awaits the Portland Trail Blazers.

Record: 20-62

Eastern Conference, #15: Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers made a safe and solid pick at #3 overall in this year’s draft, taking Duke’s Jahlil Okafor.  They still didn’t have any guards, but you could bank on them taking some guards in the second round, one in which they had five picks (#35, 37, #47, #58, #60).  Going in, you thought you would see the Sixers go small.  Instead, as a 76er fan, you were left needing to #TrustTheProcess.

GM Sam Hinkie decided to take big man (Willy Hernangomez) after big man (Richaun Holmes) after big man (Arturas Gudiatis) after big man (Luka Mitrovic).  Wedged in the middle of all of these bigs was a wing (North Carolina’s J.P. Tokoto), but, again, none of the picks were guards. 

The team went out and acquired Kendall Marshall and Sauce Castillo Nik Stauskas in deals (Stauskas was acquired from Sacramento for the rights to Gudiatis and Mitrovic).  This team is, to be kind, a work in progress with a truckload of big men.

How that turns out in the future is anyone’s guess, but the 76ers, as Fran Fraschilla once said, “are two years away from being two years away, and then we’ll see”.

Record: 18-64

Western Conference, #14: Sacramento Kings

This team is actually very difficult to handicap.  The addition of Rajon Rondo should, at least theoretically, help the Kings.  On the other hand, Rondo hurt both of the teams he played for last year, and the relationship between DeMarcus Cousins and coach George Karl probably isn’t getting better anytime soon.

A starting lineup with them, Ben McLemore, Willie Cauley-Stein and Rudy Gay carries plenty of intrigue.  However, Cauley-Stein just doesn’t space the floor, which won’t help Cousins in getting room inside.  Gay and McLemore are the only two players in the starting five that can knock down 3s with any consistency, and even with the Kings’ inability to get points from behind the arc, they still ranked 28th in defense last year.  That’s not likely to change all that much, even with Cauley-Stein starting at power forward.

Record: 23-59

Eastern Conference, #14: New York Knicks

The Knicks actually made some, dare I say, good moves this offseason. Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez were solid additions, ones that should improve the Knicks’ 17-65 outcome from a season ago.  Their first-round draft pick of Kristaps Porzingis was one that I simply disagreed with (another example of being two years away from being two years away, and then seeing).

But the Knicks aren’t going to be a playoff team this season, and I think we can all agree on that.  How’s it goink, Phil?

Record: 21-61

Western Conference, #13: Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves also had a very solid and respectable offseason.  It started with the good pick of Karl-Anthony Towns at #1 overall and ended with the acquisitions of veterans Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller.  The team also drafted Duke point guard Tyus Jones, who is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated players in this year’s draft.

They will obviously have to sort out their front office and head coaching situation in light of recent events, but this year should be better in Minnesota.  They’re still a ways away from playoff contention (and surprisingly old in certain places on the roster), but they’ll be making incremental improvement in the 2015-16 season.

Record: 24-58

Eastern Conference, #13: Detroit Pistons

Note: that’s a personal tribute to one of the most underrated teams of all time, the late 80s-early 90s Bad Boys.  They’re also one of my favorite teams ever, one of the most interesting assemblages of characters the NBA has ever seen.  They were simply incredible. Anyway….

This year’s Pistons are not the Bad Boys, and they aren’t coming even close to winning an NBA title.  They had a real chance to be a playoff team next year until Brandon Jennings went down on January 25. After releasing Josh Smith, head coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy saw things pick up with a smaller, faster-paced lineup.  But Greg Monroe and Caron Butler, two key pieces of the brief midseason turnaround last season, are gone, and replaced by lesser talent.

The team did an excellent job by drafting Arizona’s Stanley Johnson with the #8 overall pick, and he’ll be starting the season backing up Marcus Morris (but he will be starting in due time).  But in the aftermath of Jennings’ catastrophic injury and subsequent fight for playing time with volume shooter Reggie Jackson, the Pistons won’t be as competitive this time around.

Record: 24-58

Western Conference, #12: Los Angeles Lakers

With their #2 overall pick, the Los Angeles Lakers picked the best player in the draft (and I really do believe that) in Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell.  They were also able to sign center Roy Hibbert in free agency and are getting Kobe Bryant and Julius Randle back from injury.  And with Bryant and Randle, there is major uncertainty.

Randle suffered a broken right tibia on last year’s opening night and was forced to miss the entire season.  Bryant, after suffering various leg injuries, particularly to his Achilles, in 2013, missed the second half of last season after tearing his right rotator cuff.  Will he return to form, or will we see more of the Kobe we saw at the beginning of last season; inefficient, overworked, and turning the ball over?  Or will we see pre-injury Kobe?  I’m guessing the former, and that’s why I’m putting the Lakers right here.

Record: 27-55

Eastern Conference, #12: Indiana Pacers

The Pacers, much like the Lakers, are also decimated, but for very different reasons.  Gone are…. well, who isn’t gone?  Anyway, gone are Roy Hibbert, Luis Scola, and David West, the key cogs that comprised the Pacers’ dangerous inside game in recent years.  Paul George is back and will be playing power forward, and judging by this video, I’d say he looks pretty good:

But George’s skill set really isn’t geared toward playing power forward, and he’s never done it for an extensive period of time in his career.  It will be interesting to see how he fares, but the Pacers offseason losses will sink them in 2015-16.

Record: 31-51

Western Conference, #11: Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns were 29-25 before the trade deadline last season. While they were a fringe playoff team, you would think they wouldn’t make any moves to blow anything up or potentially hurt their chances to make their first playoffs since 2010.  Well, they did just the opposite, and while the acquisition of Brandon Knight was made to help the team go to the playoffs, the price they paid to get him (Goran Dragic) and the loss of Isaiah Thomas in a separate deal was simply too much to overcome.

The Suns have basically the same team this season, with one exception: the addition of Tyson Chandler.  While he should be able to help the team in other areas, he may not be too great of a fit for the team’s up-and-down style, which may be difference between contending for a playoff spot or not.  And the Suns won’t compete for a playoff spot.

Record: 35-47

Eastern Conference, #11: Brooklyn Nets

You’re probably thinking, “The Nets were a playoff team last year and all they lost was Deron Williams, so how could they be worse?”.  Well, think about it from a different perspective.

The Nets had a -2.9 point per game differential a year ago, and no other 2014-15 playoff team had a differential worse than +0.2.  So, in essence, the Nets sold their soul to the devil for a playoff spot last season (hyperbolic, yes, but you cant count on consistently getting outscored and still making the playoffs).  While Williams was a massive disappointment in a Nets uniform, I don’t see Jarrett Jack being all that much better.  Oh, and there’s also Iso Joe Johnson, so the ball won’t magically be whipping around the floor while the Nets are on offense.

They didn’t get better over the summer, and some of the teams behind them did.  The Nets fall short of the playoffs.

Record: 32-50

Western Conference, #10: Denver Nuggets

So here’s the thing: I really like new head coach Mike Malone.  I like him and the fit with the Nuggets so much that I think the team will appreciably improve this season, maybe even to briefly compete for a playoff spot.  The team’s offseason moves were also solid, but Malone was the biggest acquisition the team made all summer.

Malone’s up-tempo offensive style and his emphasis on defense should be the ingredients to let out the “Manimal”, Kenneth Faried. Faried had a slightly disappointing fourth season in the league, and some speculated that he and others gave up on former head coach Brian Shaw.  But an inspired Faried is a scary Faried.  Also new is rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, and he replaces Ty Lawson, who was traded to the Rockets and has his own problems.

This team has holes to fill, but it should overachieve with Malone now at the helm.

Record: 38-44

Eastern Conference, #10: Charlotte Hornets

Kemba Walker, as usual, will have to run everything with the Charlotte Hornets this season.  However, it’s going to be that much harder for Walker and the Hornets to succeed this year, as starting small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went down in the preseason with a torn right labrum.  He may very well miss the entire season, which is simply too much for the Hornets to handle.

Even with the acquisition of Jeremy Lin in the offseason (which is significant, with Kidd-Gilchrist’s injury) and Nicolas Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist’s injury is enough for me to drop the Hornets out of the playoffs.  His effort and energy on defense are impossible to replace and will be dearly missed without his presence in the lineup.  The Hornets will struggle in the East once again in 2015-16.

Record: 36-46

Western Conference, #9: Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks had a really, really awful summer.  They had signed (at least thought they signed) DeAndre Jordan away from the Clippers and Wesley Matthews away from Portland.  Matthews stayed, but Jordan changed his mind at the last minute, going back to L.A. after being barricaded in his own house by Clipper brass and players.  And you thought I was joking:

The team was, however, able to sign Zaza Pachulia from the Bucks, and at least some of the numbers show that he might be better than Chandler.  But Matthews is a gigantic risk coming off his Achilles injury near the end of last season.  The Mavericks, as a team, are also a risk, and as of now, I can’t put them in the playoffs.

Record: 42-40

Eastern Conference, #9: Orlando Magic

The 2015-16 Orlando Magic will, like the Nuggets in the West, be invigorated by a new head coach.  Scott Skiles was hired as the team’s new head coach on May 29, replacing the ineffective Jacque Vaughn. Vaughn was simply unable to take advantage of the Magic’s young talent, compiling a 58-158 record (.269 winning percentage) in over two seasons as the head coach.

This year, however, Skiles will properly take advantage of the talent of young guns Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic (that’s Orlando’s starting lineup).  The Magic will be a surprise this season, mainly because their best players will finally be correctly utilized.

Record: 38-44

Western Conference, #8: Utah Jazz

The Jazz, believe it or not, are one of the league’s most rapidly improving squads.  They improved by 13 wins from 2013-14 to last season, and I would foresee another improvement of a similar scope this season.  In a not-so-little-known stat, Utah led the league in points per game allowed last season (94.9) and were second in opponent field goals made per game (35.8).  The best part of all this?

The Jazz are bringing everyone back.  They get starting shooting guard Alec Burks back and fully healthy, which is big as he and Trey Burke form the effective 1-2 punch in the backcourt.  However, the team does its real business in the paint, with Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert.  Gobert, who had his breakout season last year and led the team in win shares, won the starting job for good after Enes Kanter was traded to Oklahoma City at the trade deadline.  Gordon Hayward is also back, as he is an integral part of Utah’s plan and one of the most perpetually underrated wing players in the game.

Utah will finally break out and get back to the playoffs in 2015-16.

Record: 46-36

Eastern Conference, #8: Boston Celtics

Last year’s Boston Celtics orchestrated one of the most stunning runs to a playoff berth one could possibly imagine.  Once they got to the playoffs, of course, they were run off the floor by the LeBron James-led Cavaliers; while the series ended in four games, all of the games were competitive and the C’s showed an edge that was an embodiment of their head coach, Brad Stevens.

Can they repeat that performance this year and make it back to the playoffs?  Absolutely.  They have last year’s core back for another year (minus Brandon Bass, plus Amir Johnson and David Lee) and, of course, they have Stevens.  It may not be as easy this time in a more competitive East, but the Celtics will be back for more late April basketball.

Record: 40-42

Western Conference, #7: New Orleans Pelicans

Word out of New Orleans is that Anthony Davis is developing a three-point jump shot, and if that is true, the rest of the league should be afraid.  Very afraid.

Where the Pellies’ improvement gets stinted, however, is out of Davis’ control.  Their inability to take a giant leap forward this season instead of just a step lies in the fragility of their two starting guards, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon.  Gordon played in 61 games a season ago but has only reached that total in three other seasons in his career, which started in 2008.  Holiday has not played in more than half of a season in his two years in New Orleans; he has been riddled with leg injuries since he arrived from Philadelphia.  These are the only things holding the Pelicans back from being serious Western conference contenders, and I’m totally serious when I say that.

Record: 49-33

Eastern Conference, #7: Washington Wizards

The biggest loss of the Wizards’ offseason occurred when Paul Pierce decided to call game on his tenure with the team and sign with the Clippers.  Other than Pierce’s departure, the Wizards are largely the same team from last season, and that may be something of an issue come playoff time (or in the regular season, for that matter).

For example, when John Wall was injured in last year’s playoffs, the team simply struggled to put up points against the Hawks’ defense. This lack of scoring ability was a need that was left largely unaddressed during the offseason, and the loss of Pierce can’t help in this regard.  Also, another concern for the Wizards needs to be the lack of an offensive game from Pierce’s replacement, Otto Porter, Jr. While his three-point and field goal percentages improved in his second season, how will he fare with increased offensive responsibility?  It’s a question worth asking, one the Wizards may be unable to answer.

Record: 43-39

Western Conference, #6: Los Angeles Clippers

That’s a lot of people, and a lot for coach/president of basketball operations Doc Rivers to figure out.  It would be difficult enough for the Clippers to figure out how to rebound from last year’s debacle against the Rockets in which they were leading 3-1 and somehow still lost the series.  The additions of Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson and others should theoretically help the Clips this year. Theoretically.

But there are more weapons at the Clippers’ disposal this year, and my dropping them to sixth doesn’t necessarily mean that they are worse than they were a season ago.  But the addition of so many different players, many who are multi-year veterans, presents a unique challenge to Rivers, one that he will have to solve pretty soon if the Clippers are to make a run deep into the playoffs and beyond.

Record: 51-31

Eastern Conference, #6: Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks improved their record by 26 wins from 2013-14 to 2014-15. Much of that rise has to do with the coaching change, albeit terribly handled, from Larry Drew to Jason Kidd in the summer of 2014. Another thing that has to do with the rise of the Bucks is the simultaneous rise of budding superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo (yes, I was able to spell it correctly), as his flourishing all-around game expedited the team’s rebuilding process.  This success also allowed them to spend on power forward Greg Monroe in free agency.

Monroe comes from the Pistons, and can play power forward or center.  He is more likely to play center as the Bucks can put Antetokounmpo at power forward when Jabari Parker returns from injury (yes, I think that will happen; Khris Middleton has to play and the Greek Freak can play anywhere).  However, it’s no secret that Monroe can’t play defense, so he doesn’t quite fit the Bucks’ system; this is why I don’t have them improving on an impressive campaign a season ago.

Record: 45-37

Western Conference, #5: Houston Rockets

The Rockets had a dream season a year ago, as they were the #2 seed in the west and advanced to the Western Conference Finals before ultimately being knocked out in five games by the Golden State Warriors.  They bring almost everyone back from that team, with the exception of trade deadline acquisition Josh Smith.

This is another example of a team that isn’t any worse than a season ago.  But the Rockets will drop mainly because they aren’t any better; also, they were one loss away from dropping from second to sixth in the West last season, so maybe their dream season wasn’t so much of a dream season after all.

Record: 52-30

Eastern Conference, #5: Chicago Bulls

The Bulls were vanquished in the Eastern Conference Semifinals a season ago by LeBron James’ Cavaliers, and their championship window may very well be closing.  Pau Gasol is in the second year of a three year contract, and while he’s still really good, he’s starting to ever so slightly decline.  Joakim Noah has been banged up over the last year or so, so much so that he’ll be starting the season on the Bulls’ bench, losing his starting spot in favor of Nikola Mirotic.

And, of course, there’s the big question: Can Derrick Rose stay healthy?  Jimmy Butler is the best player on the team (another thing I really do believe) but Rose is the most important Bull.  Under new coach Fred Hoiberg, Rose could thrive, but he’ll have to stay healthy to do so.  Because of this uncertainty, picking the Bulls to go deep into the playoffs is essentially a ginormous crapshoot, a risk that probably isn’t worth taking.

Record: 48-34

Western Conference, #4: Memphis Grizzlies

The Memphis Grizzlies are probably the best NBA team that you don’t see coming.  You probably should be aware of their consistent presence (they’ve made the playoffs in each of the last five seasons) but the way they win- post play, rebounding, slow pace…. yeah, that doesn’t exactly lend itself to getting lots of attention.  The offseason they had should also make you buy in to their chances in 2015-16.

In addition to already having veteran Vince Carter on what was a solid second unit a year ago, the team acquired Matt Barnes from the Hornets for basically… nothing.  Barnes joins Carter and Beno Udrih as the centerpieces of the Grizz bench, and while the team lost Kosta Koufos in free agency, they signed Brandan Wright over the summer to replace him.

Mike Conley is the most underrated point guard in basketball.  Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will take care of their business in the paint. The only question mark lies with starting small forward Jeff Green, but in his second year in Memphis, and with more time to acclimate to his surroundings, I’ll guess that he does just fine.  The Grizz will continue to impress and/or surprise in the 2015-16 season.

Record: 54-28

Eastern Conference, #4: Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks were the NBA’s main surprise story a year ago, winning 60 games and earning the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They advanced all the way to the Conference Finals and were then promptly destroyed by the LeBron Jameses Cavaliers.  Still, the season was likely the most successful in franchise history and there should be enough for the team to build off for this season.

But not everyone is back.  DeMarre Carroll left in free agency to sign with the Raptors (more on them later), and do not underestimate the importance of that loss.  Carroll had a solid seven win shares last season, and while that was fifth on the team, that type of output is difficult to replace.  He also led the team in energy, particularly on defense.  Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway, Jr. will attempt to replace him, but it won’t be easy.  Expect a small step back for the Hawks this season.

Record: 51-31

Western Conference, #3: Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder may very well be the deepest team in the NBA this season.  Unfortunately, they may need that depth if superstar Kevin Durant is injury-riddled again this season.  There are reasonably two possibilities for the Thunder this season, and they both hinge on KD.

If Durant can somehow stay healthy, the Thunder may be the best team in basketball.  Russell Westbrook had a near-MVP-caliber season a year ago and can take over some of the load, which would give Durant some rest, which could help him for the rest of the season and beyond.  Without a healthy KD, the Thunder are probably a lower-end playoff team, and not very dangerous come playoff time, either. Somewhere in between is where I am putting them, mainly because they are just too big of a risk to put in the top two in the stacked West.

Additionally, new head coach Billy Donovan is a wild card.  Keep an eye on how he does in year one with Oklahoma City.

Record: 55-27

Eastern Conference, #3: Miami Heat

The Miami Heat acquired guard Goran Dragic from the Suns in last year’s trade deadline in hopes of making something of a run through the Eastern Conference in last year’s playoffs.  Of course, Chris Bosh’s ill-fated blood clots greatly harmed those chances, and the Heat wouldn’t make the playoffs at all.  This season, they have their post-trade deadline cast for a whole season, and the only cap on their potential is the health of Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

If the starting lineup of Dragic, Bosh, Wade, Luol Deng and breakout center Hassan Whiteside can put it together for a full season (or close to it; Wade will sit out some nights with his continued knee troubles), then the Heat are probably the biggest threat to the Cavs in the East. If not, they’re a back-end playoff team.  I’ll bet on the former.

Record: 55-27

Western Conference, #2: Golden State Warriors

The Golden State Warriors’ mindset will simply be different this season.  It usually is for teams coming off the heels of winning a championship.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and while there have been plenty of recent repeat champions, especially in the NBA, repeating is difficult to nearly impossible.  Being in the hyper-competitive Western Conference won’t make things easier.

The Warriors do basically bring everyone back this season (except David Lee), but the biggest loss may be Steve Kerr; there is no timetable for his return after offseason back surgery.  Stephen Curry is still Stephen Curry, and he may have a similar season to his overly impressive 2014-15 campaign.  But repeating is such a difficult task, and the Warriors won’t quite be the next team to do it.

Record: 56-26

Eastern Conference, #2: Toronto Raptors

The Raptors have lost first-round playoff series in back-to-back seasons, and in both of those series, they lost to Paul Pierce.  The good news?  Pierce is now in L.A., which means Toronto probably won’t lose to him in this year’s playoffs, barring a Finals matchup.  The bad news?  They still have to clear the hump of winning a playoff series.

But the same team returns once more with the same challenge.  And they will finally succeed in this challenge this season.  In the offseason, the team signed DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Luis Scola.  Another year of playoff experience should help the team (finally) begin to win consistently in April and May, which should be huge as the team goes forward.  The Raptors take a big leap forward this season.  They the North.

Oh, and did I mention that this is Kyle Lowry now?

Good AM run with the Fellas!!!

A photo posted by Kyle OQuinn (@kyle.oquinn) on

Record: 57-25

Western Conference, #1: San Antonio Spurs

The 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs will be downright scary, but not after they suffer some necessary growing pains.  Yes, the team is old and its players are probably done growing, but these growing pains come from the free agent addition of LaMarcus Aldridge, which, while it will help the team long-term, will require some adjustments from the team early on.

Other than the loss of Marco Belinelli, basically everyone is back at coach Gregg Popovich’s disposal.  The team also added David West in the offseason for basically nothing and he will provide instant value off the bench.  The usual faces (Parker, Duncan, Ginobili, Danny Green) are also back.  To me, the Spurs will be the best team in the West, even with an early-season adjustment period.

Record: 60-22

Eastern Conference, #1: Cleveland Cavaliers

This is pretty obvious.  The Cleveland Cavaliers are easily the best team in the East once again this season, and they won’t have to deal with any acclimation process, as the core of the team remains largely unchanged.  The only thing that will hold back the Cavs to start in 2015-16 will be the loss of Kyrie Irving, who still has no timetable for the knee injury he suffered in last year’s playoffs.  Even without Irving, GM David Griffin went out and got serviceable, solid point guard Mo Williams; this addition should help the team weather the storm without Uncle Drew.

And you know the rest.  Kevin Love returns from his shoulder injury in the first round of last year’s playoffs, and while the team played well with Tristan Thompson replacing him, Love is simply a better basketball player.  But Thompson is back in a prominent bench role, too.  So not much has changed, and neither has the Cavs’ status as kings of the Eastern Conference.

Record: 59-23

Finally, here are some of my predictions for the NBA award winners for the upcoming season.  My final prediction will be that of the NBA Finals.

Rookie of the Year: D’Angelo Russell, Lakers

Coach of the Year: Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets

MVP: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

My Conference Finals Predictions:

East: Cavaliers over Heat

West: Spurs over Thunder

And finally, my NBA Finals prediction, which only has a 95% chance of being wrong:

Spurs over Cavaliers

Happy NBA season everyone!

The NFC East Is Pathetically Awful and Awfully Pathetic

This probably won’t be a terribly long article; the NFC East doesn’t really deserve all that much of our time.

Currently, predicting the winner of the NFC East is essentially a week-to-week proposition.  Last week and the three weeks before that, one would have to go with the unimpressive New York Giants, who were coming off a last-minute 30-27 victory over the hapless San Francisco 49ers.  For the first week or two of the season, the clear-cut favorite was the Dallas Cowboys; of course, as the NFL goes, centerpieces Dez Bryant and Tony Romo went down, each for several weeks.  Since Romo sustained a collarbone injury in week 2 against the Eagles, the Cowboys haven’t won; in fact, they descended deeper into quarterback purgatory, as Brandon Weeden’s struggles necessitated a change to newly-acquired backup quarterback Matt Cassel.

The aforementioned Giants, who are likely still the best team in the division, could easily be 5-1 as we discuss this subject right now. Obviously, critical clock management failures against Dallas and Atlanta sunk them in their first two games; without these shortcomings, we would definitely be talking about the Giants in the same breath as the best teams in the NFL right now, even though we really shouldn’t fall into this trap.

As for the Philadelphia Eagles, no words can actually describe what they have done in the opening six weeks.  In the first two weeks of the season, they lost 26-24 to the Falcons and 20-10 to Dallas; in six out of the eight quarters of those games, they were absolutely nuked, getting outscored 40-13 with the exception of the second half of the Atlanta game.  After that, save for a loss to Washington in week 4, they’ve won every single game.  But they’re still a mess; prized running back acquisition DeMarco Murray has been the second best running back…. on his own team.  New quarterback Sam Bradford has thrown as many touchdowns as interceptions (nine each).  The way the Eangles have won is clearly an unsustainable way to win games in the National Football League.

Lost in this whole mess, unbelievably, are the oft-discussed Washington Redskins.  They also made a quarterback change going into the season, tabbing Kirk Cousins to depose incumbent quarterback Robert Griffin III.  Cousins has also played very poorly, throwing for just six touchdowns and eight picks.  While the team is at a respectable 2-4 with two losses being decided by a touchdown each, they’re likely going nowhere… again.

The Eagles, in case you were wondering, somehow, some way, lead the NFC East.  They’re 3-3 (and a really bad 3-3 at that) with wins against the Giants, Jets and Saints.  While the wins against the Giants and Jets are technically good, they played both of those teams on “trap weeks”; meaning, those teams didn’t necessarily play their best games against Philly.  They have won two in a row, which has been critical after the loss to the Redskins dropped them to 1-3.

What are we to take away from this?  Nothing, really.  The division is still terrible, and we’re only six games into the season.  Somehow, this division is so terrible that it may actually rival the futility of the AFC South, which has the Texans, Jaguars, and Titans.  That’s saying something really significant.  Then again, no teams in that division have positive point differentials, and the East has two teams of this kind (Giants and Eagles).

Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier addressed the subject I am writing about yesterday:

“A win’s a win,” Sam Bradford said after the game. “We’re taking things week by week, and our goal was to get out of here with a win, and that’s what we did tonight.”

The first-place Eagles still talk like a team in crisis mode, even after back-to-back lopsided victories. And no wonder: They are just two weeks removed from speculation that their head coach would take the first train out of Philly headed for Attractive College Opportunity to Be Determined Later. And their offense still doesn’t really have its act together.

Futility comes in all shapes and sizes, but this example of futility just feels special.  This division was actually supposed to be interesting going into the season, but injury and underachievement have forced it into easily becoming the worst division in at least the NFC.

Like the NFC South a year ago, this division really will be won by an 8-8 squad.  The best team in this division is probably still the Giants; even though the Eagles, and particularly their defense, have looked greatly improved recently, they still have many problems to sort out.  If they don’t figure out these problems quickly, it will probably be difficult for them to stay in playoff contention, even in this division.

Even in this division, one that is so remarkably terrible.

What a Time to Be a Baseball Fan: ALCS/NLCS Preview

This year’s MLB Division Series were some of the most competitive in recent memory.  Three went to the maximum five games and one went to four games; there were no sweeps.  Perhaps most remarkable about the first round’s results, however, are the teams that are left remaining and their histories in the playoffs (or lack thereof); the four teams remaining (Blue Jays, Royals, Cubs, Mets) have a grand total of seven World Series titles between them, and the most recent championship from any one of those teams came when the Blue Jays went back to back in 1992 and 1993.  Joe Carter hit this walk-off home run in game 6 of the ’93 Fall Classic to secure the Jays’ second straight title.

Anyhow, those are, remarkably, baseball’s final four in 2015.

Below will be my predictions for both League Championship Series.  I will break down each team’s chances of winning their respective series.  I will limit the predictions to just the LCS and will not expand them to my hypothetical World Series; that might be a separate article once we reach that point.

Now, without further ado, let’s get things going and start by breaking down the ALCS.

ALCS: Blue Jays vs. Royals

As you can probably tell by the above photo, the Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays really don’t like each other.  They had a fun little bench-clearing brawl on August 2, and you can expect the mindsets of both teams to remain unchanged.

While the games may be more tightly legislated by the umpires and more chippy between the lines, the boiling emotions between the two teams really shouldn’t have an actual effect on the games themselves.

So how will those games play out?  To start, the Blue Jays led the league in both home runs and runs scored in the regular season. Their two, three, and four hitters (Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion) combined for 120 of the team’s 232 home runs, but home run threats exist throughout the lineup in the forms of Kevin Pillar, Russell Martin, Chris Colabello, and Troy Tulowitzki.  The team is the Golden State Warriors of baseball: never out of a game, no matter how out of hand it might seem.

But this is also of importance: they may potentially be playing four games in a stadium that just isn’t conducive to home run hitting. Kauffman Stadium ranks 25th in home runs in ESPN’s park factors, which makes the task of scoring runs off Kansas City’s talented pitching staff, and particularly their lights-out bullpen, that much more difficult.  Also, the K’s bigness has to directly benefit the Royals’ offense against a Blue Jay pitching staff that has the fourth lowest K/9 in the league (6.98).  The Royals’ lineup, on the other hand, strikes out at the least often rate in baseball (15.9%).

Statistics, and home field advantage, obviously favor the Royals. What favors the Blue Jays is… pure talent.  Having a threat at just about every position in the lineup is something that is very difficult to beat, even with the Royals’ own talent and prior experience.  Don’t underestimate the Jays’ pitching staff, either, as David Price, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman and R.A. Dickey aren’t too bad themselves. The Jays’ bullpen has improved as well, as set-up man Aaron Sanchez and 20-year-old phenom closer Roberto Osuna have both pitched very effectively; Sanchez appeared in every game of the Blue Jays’ five-game ALDS victory over the Texas Rangers.

This is a rather close series, one that I think may be decided by a handful of plays.  But, I give a slight advantage to the Blue Jays, mainly based on their talent. Bat flips not withstanding, obviously.

Prediction: Blue Jays in 6

NLCS: Cubs vs. Mets

This series, much like its American League counterpart, is all sorts of interesting.  Basically, how this series will be decided really is not rocket science at all: the matchup that will dictate the series will be the Cubs’ young hitting against the Mets’ young pitching.  The two teams played seven times in the regular season; the Cubs won all seven games.  In fairness, however, all of those games came before the Mets’ wild trade deadline, one that got them Yoenis Cespedes, Kelly Johnson, Tyler Clippard, and Juan Uribe, to name a few.

We know New York will be starting young guns Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, and Steven Matz.  We also know that the Cubs will be running out their young hitters, such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler.  They also have MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro (who should receive all the credit on the planet for his second half performance after being moved from shortstop to second base).  The reason Castro is playing second base, however, will not be playing.

Addison Russell will be out for the NLCS with a hamstring injury. This may seem like a big blow considering how Russell has played this season, especially defensively.  Of course, it really isn’t, if Javy Baez’s brief performance against the Cardinals in the NLDS is any indication.  Over two games, Baez went 4-5 with a home run and three RBI.  He obviously won’t keep that up, but if he can continue to be productive, the rest of the Cubs’ already potent lineup will benefit from it.

As for the matchup of Cubs pitching versus Met hitting, well, that’s difficult to call as well.  The Mets like to hit home runs; even with their early season offensive atrociousness, they still somehow rank eighth in the league in homers.  And how will the Cubs counter that, you ask?  Simple: Jake Arrieta.  Arrieta may win the Cy Young this season and carried the pitching staff when Jon Lester and others struggled.  If the Cubs win the series, he’ll be one of the main reasons, most likely, serving as a reminder of just how important pitching is this time of year.

Of course, the Mets have pitching, too.  Completely opposite of the Royals’ approach, the Cubbies strike out.  And strike out.  And strike out some more.  Their hitting leads the league in strikeout percentage (24.5%), and the Mets pitching is a solid ninth in K/9 (8.23); it should be mentioned that this number was weighed down by regular starters Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon, both of whom nurse a rather low strikeout rate.

Who wins out?  It’s difficult to guess.  Both teams have their aces, but I like the Cubs’ lineup just a bit better and, of course, they have Jake Arrieta (and a very good bullpen, by the way).  It’s a tough series to call, but I’ll go with the Cubs by a very slight margin.

Prediction: Cubs in 7

Is Pat Haden Really Fit to Be USC’s Athletic Director Anymore?

Former USC and NFL quarterback Pat Haden took over the Trojans’ Athletic Director gig from Mike Garrett on August 3, 2010.  He was walking into an unenviable situation, as the USC football program had been sanctioned by the NCAA in June with a two year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships.  Pete Carroll, the team’s head coach, had left that year to coach for the Seahawks, and Garrett led the coaching search that yielded the unabated disaster that would become the Lane Kiffin era.

And yet, in light of recent events, the time has come to ask whether USC should retain Haden as their AD.

Kiffin’s 2010 and 2011 seasons were very successful, and the team even won 10 games in Kiffin’s second year in Los Angeles.  But things started to go downhill with an incredibly disappointing 7-6 2012 and a rough, albeit 3-1, start to 2013 that included a home loss to Washington State.  And when the Trojans traveled to Tempe to play Arizona State, everything unraveled.

After trailing 20-14 at halftime, the Trojans gave up 28 points in the third quarter, and the game was blown open.  According to all accounts, Haden met with USC brass in the third quarter of that game and decided to fire Kiffin after the game.  And he wasted no time, either: he notified Lane that he would be fired in the terminal at LAx; did I mention that this all happened at 3 A.M. PT?  That was Haden’s first mistake; not firing Kiffin, but rather doing so in the manner he did.

After this, Ed Orgeron would take over and get the Trojans program revitalized and nationally potent again.  Before that Orgeron was famous for two things: being Ole Miss’ head coach from 2005-2007 and Michael Oher’s college coach in The Blind Side (and real life). That was his only stint as a Division I head coach, and he was a grand total of three conference games in as many years with the program.  It didn’t seem like the move would work out.

Of course, it did.  Orgeron had his team playing hard and winning games again.  The USC program was back, and Orgeron’s brief stint as USC head coach culminated in a stunning home win over #4 Stanford on November 16.

It seemed like Orgeron would have the job for good after going 6-2 to finish the season, but a loss to cross-town rival UCLA in the final week sealed his fate.  Haden and the USC Athletic Department opted to go in a different direction. They decided that, instead of keeping Orgeron, it would be better to hire then-Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian. The Orgeron era was over, and he resigned once he was passed over for the head coaching job.

How would an Orgeron regime have fared in the ever-copmetitve Pac-12? No one knows, but Bleacher Report’s Adam Kramer wrote about what could have been Monday:

Having failed at Ole Miss, many assumed Orgeron was not equipped to handle a job of such magnitude over the long haul. But everything aligned. He was different. The program was different. And, perhaps most importantly, he had the unwavering support of his players, many of whom he could still be coaching. The true value of this could have snowballed into something grand.

How grand is a question that will never be answered. At the bare minimum, it would have been much, much different.

Picking a head coach is an inexact science, to say the least. It’s a process that fails far more often than it succeeds. In many interim instances, athletic directors and administrations would much rather test drive a current regime without a financial penalty attached and decide six months later whether they want to proceed.

That, however, is not the way this profession works. Well, in most cases.

Choosing Sarkisian over Orgeron seemed, at the time, like the right decision.  Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and now we can confidently say it wasn’t.

Ironically enough, the Sarkisian epoch at USC got off to a really strange start.  In a game at Stanford on September 6, 2014, Sarkisian had grown rather unhappy with some calls that had not gone his team’s way.  Instead of simply complaining to the referees about it, he decided to go the extra mile and actually text Haden from his cell phone and ask him to come down to the sidelines.

The best part is, Haden acted like receiving a text message from the head coach to come to the sidelines and argue with referees was a completely normal, weekly occurrence.  For example, can you imagine if Carroll had texted Seahawks’ GM John Schneider before the last play of the Super Bowl last year, asking him what play to run? I’m not 100% sure how that would have turned out, but my guess would be Schneider would have said, “Run it”, and the Seahawks would have won back to back Super Bowls.  But that didn’t happen.

Anyway, the team went 8-4 in the 2014 regular season, winning the 2014 Holiday Bowl over Nebraska.  Going into 2015, the thought around college football was that USC might have its most talented roster since the days of Pete and a chance to compete for a national championship.  After two wins to start the season, things got off the rails with a home 41-31 loss to Stanford in Week 3 and an ugly Week 5, Thursday night 17-12 loss to Washington.

And then the real trouble came.

We all found out about it on Sunday afternoon, with this report from Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman:

Sarkisian’s drinking has been somewhat well publicized in the past. While it really hasn’t come into focus until this season, Sunday isn’t the first occurrence of his drinking getting in the way of his work.

Earlier this year, the University held a Salute to Troy event for alumni and donors to kick off the season.  Sarkisian was at the event, but he really wasn’t all there.  While I couldn’t find a full video of the speech, this is the important part, in which he is clearly intoxicated, slurs his words, and drops an f-bomb:

Sarkisian would be fired by USC on Monday, and replaced by offensive coordinator Clay Helton for the rest of the regular season.

Before wrapping up this article, I’d like to take a moment to digress and say that I hope Coach Sark can get the help he needs.  Addiction is a very difficult disease to overcome; here’s to hoping we see Sark on the good side of this when all is said and done.

Going back to Haden; this is where USC is now.  Their football program is in disarray, and at least part of that needs to be put on the shoulders of the athletic director.  The Salute to Troy episode just maybe should have been a sign that the football coach was in dire need of help; after all, his drinking problem dates back well before he was the head football coach at USC.  That ugly night should have been a sign of trouble, but instead, Haden pressed forward with what turned out to be a disastrous hire.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the basketball program has not won an NCAA Tournament game since he took over as AD.  His straight outta Dunk City hire of Andy Enfield has gone 23-41 in two seasons, and probably needs to turn the program around in the next year or two if he hopes to have long-term success at the school.

But, going back to football, Haden kind of, sort of, maybe got the Trojans into this mess, with the hire of Sarkisian and the rejection of Orgeron.  Now, he has to get them out of it with his next hire.

As far as I’m concerned, he’s lucky he even has one.

Matt Hasselbeck’s Outplaying of Andrew Luck Is Just the Least of the Colts’ Problems

On the very surface, this would seem like a ridiculous discourse to engage in.  Luck is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and has reached the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons in the NFL. He’s arguably carried the Indianapolis Colts on his shoulders every year since he was drafted, and his team would not have gotten as far as it did without his leadership and play at the position.

On the other hand, his backup Matt Hasselbeck has also reached three Pro Bowls… but he’s in his 17th season.  He hasn’t been a regular starter on an NFL team since 2012 and has been Luck’s backup since ’13.  He’s 40 now, and this may be his final season.  An accomplished career that started with him backing up Brett Favre in Green Bay will end with him backing up Andrew Luck in Indy… or will it?

Luck was ruled out of the team’s week 4 game against Jacksonville with a shoulder injury, and, with the team playing on Thursday night against Houston, he had little time to recover and missed that game as well (the NFL should scrap TNF, but that’s for another time).  In the meantime, Hasselbeck has filled in, and while he has played two inferior opponents, the Colts have won both games.

And, in a much more troubling development, Hasselbeck has outplayed Andrew Luck.

This isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact.  And the numbers back it up:

I would call this a minor issue, but that wouldn’t give this conundrum justice.  Hasselbeck has clearly played better, but Luck is clearly the Colts’ franchise quarterback; he has to play, right?  But even when Luck comes back, the team will still have plenty of issues to sort out.

Such as this one: they’ve been playing really bad football.  While they’re 3-2 and obviously in the driver’s seat in the AFC South, they basically got hammered by the Bills and Jets in the first two weeks of the season.  In each of the past three weeks, they’ve been taken deep into games in the last three weeks by the Titans (with Luck), Jaguars, and Texans (the last two with Hasselbeck).

Are they going to make the playoffs?  Of course they are, for the simple reason of the three teams they’ve beaten over the last three weeks.  But, as Gary Davenport of Bleacher Report writes, once they get there, they may not do very much:

But the next few weeks, as the Colts begin to face opponents that aren’t covered in frosting, are going to serve as an excellent barometer for what will happen in those playoffs—for what’s going to happen when that erratic offense and nonexistent defense have to square off against the AFC’s best.

And if the first five weeks of the 2015 season are any indication, the same thing is going to happen that happened to the Colts in Weeks 1 and 2.

They’re going to get pounded.

Well, yeah.  They are going to get pounded.  If the Buffalo and New York games are any indication, they will be unequipped to handle even fringe playoff teams.  They have myriad issues, but this is where they start: their defense, or lack thereof.

This is how the first five offenses the Colts have faced have faired against them, with the quarterbacks of those teams in parentheses.  It isn’t too pretty:

  1. Buffalo Bills (Tyrod Taylor): 342 yards
  2. New York Jets (Ryan Fitzpatrick): 344 yards
  3. Tennessee Titans (Marcus Mariota): 433 yards
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars (Blake Bortles): 431 yards
  5. Houston Texans (Ryan Mallett/Brian Hoyer): 444 yards

That isn’t good, but the problem gets magnified when you consider the quarterbacks the Colts will be facing the next three weeks: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Cam Newton.  Based on prior results, there’s little reason to think that Indy can do anything to stop them.

Another problem of theirs?  Their new playmakers, and how they haven’t performed.  The team added running back Frank Gore and wide receiver Andre Johnson through free agency this past offseason; couple that with the addition of wide receiver Philip Dorsett through the draft and you should get a very dangerous looking assortment of offensive weapons.  Of course, through five games, that hasn’t exactly been the case.

Johnson has 13 catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns.  These numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, however; 77 of those yards came and six of the receptions came in the win against Houston, and in the two games before that, Johnson had approximately zero catches.  Both of his touchdowns came against his former team, and he has been rather inconsistent so far this season.

Gore has been okay to decent in his first year away from San Francisco, but he too has been inconsistent.  He’s come alive recently, with games of 86 and 98 yards coming within the last three weeks. Wedged in between, though, is a 53-yard game against Jacksonville, and before the Tennessee game, 31 and 57-yard performances against the Bills and Jets.  He’s also lost two fumbles so far this season, which is just another thing to worry as the Colts go forward.

And as for Dorsett, he only has eight catches through the first five weeks, more or less acting as a non-factor.  He hasn’t caught for more than 45 in any game this year and only has one touchdown; to call him a disappointment to this point would be a colossal understatement.

This is the heart of the matter: there is an unfathomable number of issues with the latest version of the Indianapolis Colts.  Coach Chuck Pagano is on one of the hottest seats in the NFL (not right, but that’s just the way it is) and his team has struggled mightily to a 3-2 start. The team will make the playoffs and win the division, but this will occur only because of the teams that comprise the remainder of the AFC South.

The colts should be thankful to be sitting at 3-2; they could be 0-5.  But they should also realize that they are a deeply flawed team.

A deeply flawed team that also happens to have issues with its quarterback(s).

Wild and Crazy: Predicting the MLB Wild Card Games

And then there were ten.  It’s that time again, the time for us baseball fans to sit back and enjoy some October baseball.  It’s also the time for us to pick those games correctly… or at least try to.

Last year’s playoffs gave us two Wild Card teams, the Royals and Giants, playing in the World Series.  Only one team (the Orioles) that had home-field advantage in the Division Series moved on to the LCS, and no series went more than five games until the World Series, which went seven.  To be completely forthright, until the Fall Classic, the postseason was a real clunker, and if it weren’t for that legendary Giants-Royals series, well, the postseason of 2014 would have lived on as one of the least competitive of recent memory.

However, it did have its moments.  This one, in my opinion, was its best, the Travis Ishikawa, modern-day “Giants Win the Pennant” home run:

But that was a year ago, and this is now.  Only four of the ten teams in last year’s playoffs are back this year (Cardinals, Royals, Pirates, Dodgers).  Those teams will be accompanied by six new ones (Blue Jays, Rangers, Astros, Yankees, Mets, Cubs).  This year’s playoffs are wide open, one of the most interesting Octobers in recent memory. When I called these predictions wild guesses, well, you know, they are.  But I’ll try to get them right anyway.

So here they are.  I’ll pick both Wild card games as well as every series, and each prediction will be accompanied by a brief explanation.  I may get all or none of these right because your guess is as good as mine when it comes to this year’s postseason.

Let’s get to it; we’ll start on the AL side and then work our way to the National League.

AL Wild Card Game: Astros at Yankees

Little known fact: Brett Anderson of the Dodgers leads baseball in ground ball percentage this season (66.3%).  Take a guess who’s second.

It’s the Astros’ Dallas Keuchel.

Keuchel just so happens to be pitching against the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game, and his ground ball-inducing tendencies just may be perfect for a one-game playoff in the ultimate hitters’ park, Yankee Stadium.

Both lineups do pose threats to Keuchel and the Yankees’ starter, Masahiro Tanaka.  Both teams cleared the 200 home run mark this season and are never really out of a game.  But if this one does end up being a shootout, favor Houston: the Yankees are without arguably their best home run hitter in Mark Teixiera.  Greg Bird has filled in admirably (even well) at first base but he is both a batting and fielding downgrade.  The Yanks will likely miss Tex here.

This game will likely be a decent to high-scoring affair; Tanaka has struggled recently and Keuchel has never pitched on three days’ rest. While the Yankees undoubtedly have a better bullpen, they be behind and unable to get the game to Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller.

I’m taking Houston to come into Yankee Stadium, take the Wild Card game, and be on to Kansas City Thursday.

Prediction: Astros 7, Yankees 5

NL Wild Card Game: Cubs at Pirates

This is actually what the Wild Card game was made for.  This game will, I believe, be the best Wild Card Game since its inception in 2012. It’s mainly because of the two teams in it and the pitchers they’re sending out to the hill to start the game.

The Pirates will be making the safe choice and starting their ace, Gerrit Cole.  This is a no-brainer; Cole has had an excellent year and is ninth in the game among pitchers in WAR.  He leads a very good, 98-win Buccos team into battle against the Cubs on Wednesday night.

As for the Cubs, they’ll be starting the man who is currently the best pitcher in the game: Jake Arrieta.

ESPN Stats and Info put together a recap of Arrieta’s second half to date, and it has been historic:

Jake Arrieta has a 0.41 ERA in 12 starts since the start of August. From ELIAS: That’s by far the lowest ERA from August on in a season since earned runs became official in 1913 (minimum 10 starts).

Arrieta’s 236 strikeouts were a big part to the Chicago Cubs setting a new record for most strikeouts in a single season by National League team’s pitchers, breaking the 2003 Cubs record of 1,404 strikeouts. Including their win against the Brewers Friday, Cubs pitchers have struck out 1,414 batters.

That’s insane.

Arrieta has gone out of his mind since the All-Star break and been a big reason for the Cubs’ second half surge and 97-win season.  There isn’t much more to say about his performance that hasn’t already been said, and the prospect of him starting in a one game playoff should have the Pirates very concerned, even with their potent lineup.

This game could have easily been the NLCS; it at least should have been a first-round series.  Instead, we’ll only get one game of this.

That being said, this will be a game for the ages.  While you never know what will happen in a one-game playoff, this is why it exists. Both aces will be starting, and this one won’t disappoint.

As for a prediction, well, it’s difficult.  While I chose the Pirates to come out of the NL in April, with Jake Arrieta’s recent dominance, it’s hard to think the Bucs’ lineup will be able to do serious damage against him.  In a close one and an all-time classic, the Cubs win in extras.

Prediction: Cubs 2, Pirates 1

What’s right?  What’s wrong?  Let me know in the comments section and, more importantly, enjoy the baseball this month!

Don’t Count Alabama Out Just Yet

Alabama-Georgia may be, save for Notre Dame-Clemson, the biggest game of this college football weekend.  While Alabama has already endured a home loss to Ole Miss in week 3, a win today in Athens would easily put them right back in the Playoff picture.  However, another loss probably knocks them out of any possible contention for a spot in the sport’s final four.  So, it would be safe to assert that this game is pretty darn big to Alabama, and maybe not so much for Georgia.

As for the Bulldogs, the game against the Tide most likely represents the biggest game of their season.  Trips to Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia Tech still remain, but if Georgia wins, they have a real chance to be undefeated going into the SEC Title Game.

And the oddsmakers like Georgia as well; they’re a 2-point favorite. Which is, in simplest terms, a mistake.

This year’s Alabama team is undoubtedly weaker than last year’s, losing standouts such as safety Landon Collins, linebacker Trey DePriest, quarterback Blake Sims, and, most of all, wide receiver Amari Cooper and running back T.J. Yeldon.  Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin, Kirby Smart and staff have had something of a difficult time replacing these departed players, and this year’s team has likely taken a step back from last year’s Playoff squad.

So far, they’ve suffered for having this much turnover.  After a week one win over Wisconsin in Jerry World AT&T Stadium and a 37-10 victory over Middle Tennessee the week after, Ole Miss came into Bryant-Denney Stadium and, for certain long portions of the game, handed the Tide their lunch.  Alabama would end up going down 43-37 that night, and while the Rebels absolutely should have won by more than six points, this play was the difference in the game: (While watching this unhinged play never gets old, it turned out to be an enormous play when all was said and done.)

So that being said, there is both a statistical and historical argument to be made for an Alabama win on Saturday.

I found this tweet in an article by SBNation’s Bill Connelly (I’ll get back to that later) that, to be honest with you, kind of startled me. This is from ESPN’s David Hale, on Greyson Lambert and how he handles (or doesn’t handle) pressure:

So, if Alabama’s pass rush can get through to Lambert, it’ll be a long day for Georgia’s offense.  Of course, they may very well not get through to Lambert, and that may be an issue.  Back to that Connelly article:

It’s been a while since Alabama’s had an impressive pass rush. That’s partially by design; Saban’s and Kirby Smart’s defense is based on leverage, swarming and gang tackling more than risk. But the baseline sack rate has still been lower than preferred over the last couple of seasons.

The needle seems to be pointed up. Alabama ranks 42nd in Adj. Sack Rate; the Tide aren’t generating a ton of pressure on passing downs, but linemen Jonathan Allen and Da’Shawn Hand are beating linemen by themselves. They have combined for 5.5 sacks, while everybody else on the team has just 4.5.

Pressure could be vital. Alabama’s secondary is still the weakest link in the defense, and Greyson Lambert has proven that, when given time, he can do devastating things. Since beginning the Vanderbilt game 0-for-7 against the Commodores’ increasingly tricky defense, he has completed 44 of 49 for 592 yards.

With that, we can most likely wrap up the statistical argument right here.  Now, it’s time to delve into the historical argument behind why Alabama should go into Saturday favored instead of being a two-point underdog.

Since 2012, Alabama has remarkably only lost five times.  I’m excluding 2011 because they’re only loss that season was to #1 LSU in the greatest 9-6 game in college football history.  But think about that for a second; five times.  Over the course of 3+ seasons.  That’s amazing.  But this historical argument is about the teams they lost to, so let’s look at that.

In 2012, they lost at home to Texas A&M in large part due to the heroics of that year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel.  Who remembers this play?

The Tide went on to win a national title that year, overpowering Notre Dame 42-14 in Miami.  The A&M loss was their only defeat in an otherwise perfect season.  The point is, A&M’s was an offense designed to spread out the opponent, something Alabama was simply not ready for.

Fast forward to 2013 and Alabama had won their first 11 games in hopes of a three-peat.  There was one, final, looming task in front of them to complete an undefeated regular season, and it came in the person of the Auburn Tigers.  While Alabama’s inability to kick a field goal (and their continued attempts at doing so) played a large part in the final outcome of the game, plays like this one did too.  Here is the game tying touchdown for Auburn, a play that is as spread offense as it gets.

Their next loss would come in their next game, against yet another spread offense in the Oklahoma Sooners.  OU quarterback Trevor Knight had the game of his life, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns.  Alabama simply couldn’t keep up, and would go on to lose 45-31.

A year later, the Tide, out for revenge after the disappointing finish to the previous season’s campaign, went into their game at Ole Miss ranked as the #1 team in the land.  While their defense did better against Hugh Freeze’s spread, they would go on to lose 23-17. Another spread offense had beaten the mighty Tide.

Finally, the team made the inaugural College Football Playoff as the #1 seed, despite having lost in the regular season.  Their opponent in the semifinal would be Ohio State, a team, and spread offense, on its third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones.  While Jones didn’t have that great of a game statistically (18-35, 243 yards, one touchdown, one interception), the Buckeyes rushed for almost 300 yards behind Ezekiel Elliott.  It was as shocking a game as there was in college football last season, and it happened for one simple reason: Alabama could not stop Ohio State’s spread look.

So what’s the point in me saying all this?  Well, Georgia is not a spread offense.  While Nick Chubb has had an amazing start to his season and even elicited absurd comparisons to Herschel Walker, the offense won’t be working the perimeter of the field like 2012 Texas A&M, 2013 Auburn, 2013 Oklahoma, 2014 and 2015 Ole Miss, and 2014 Ohio State were able to.  They’ll be playing in the trenches, which may bode well for Bama.  And, in case you haven’t figured it out, I’m predicting that the Tide will roll in Athens.

But no matter what the result of today’s game is, there is one thing that needs to be certain here: it’s way too early to count out Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.