Time for a stock report to assess what we've seen in the last week or so in sports.
Pitt Panthers basketball-- Back to back wins at Syracuse and Cincy for Pitt and now sitting atop the Big East at 3-0. Wasn't this supposed to be a rebuilding year?? Man, color me impressed. I watched them last night against Cincy, and it's like they haven't missed a beat. They are the same team-oriented, tough as nails team that they've always been.
This Ashton Gibbs guy has turned himself into one heckuva player. I went back and looked his recruiting bio up just out of curiosity. Has to be a 5 star, right?? I mean, we've all heard so many excuses from ND fans about how Brey is hamstrung because he can't attract five stars, so Gibbs must be one of those elite guys, right?? Nope. 3 star recruit out of Jersey. He had an offer from Georgetown, but the rest of his "cohort" was schools like Rutgers and Seton Hall.
This is where Pitt excels. They find these underrated 3 star types who are maybe a little undersized or not as athletic or whatever, but they know how to play the game and can play team basketball.
Most underrated program in the country by far. Jamie Dixon continues to do an outstanding job. Pitt will be a major factor in the Big East yet again.
The Midwestern brand of football! - I'll divide this into 3 categories after a spectacular weekend for the Midwest in college football.
1) Nebraska -- Husker Nation, I apologize. I will admit that I wrote a few obituaries on this blog about Nebraska's future as a major power in college football and questioned whether they had the talent base to continue the great tradition of Husker football. With demographics working against them, it seemed like Nebraska football had become marginalized in the Big 12 to some degree.
I'm still not sure what their ceiling is, but I don't think they could have made a better impression on the nation than they did in the Holiday Bowl. WOW. Couldn't have looked more dominant. Just classic Husker football with a physical, aggressive defense that shoved around Arizona like rag dolls. Great to see Nebraska playing physical football again. Between the Holiday Bowl and that strong performance against Texas in the Big 12 championship game, I think people are buying in again on the Huskers in a big way.
All starts with Bo Pelini. Wherever this guy has been, he has produced physical, attacking defenses. Tom Osborne might have saved Nebraska football with that hire. Just goes to show what happens when you have an A.D. who knows football. ND, are you listening?? Tom Osborne doesn't need to read a Pat Forde column or study the Sagarin ratings to know who a good coach is. He can see it with his two eyeballs.
Nebraska has 17 starters coming back next year. They were much better offensively in the bowl game, so I expect that momentum to continue going into next year with 10 offensive starters back. For my money, even though Texas reloads every year, Nebraska is the team to beat in the Big 12 next year.
Mark your calendars: October 16, 2010. Texas at Nebraska. WOW. The Husker Nation will be gearing up for that one all year.
2) The Big Ten -- Maybe the overall numbers aren't there in terms of a bowl record (especially if Iowa loses to Georgia Tech), but the statement was made in the three big games for the Big Ten against the "speed" teams of the south and west.
Wisconsin beats Miami (FL)
Penn State beats LSU
Ohio State beats Oregon
Even Northwestern put up a good showing against Auburn. Amazing how quickly the image of a league can change overnight. Suddenly, the perception of the slow, stodgy Big Ten turned into the powerful, physical brand of football that shoved around these "soft" ACC and Pac 10 teams. It just goes to show that winning the games at the line of scrimmage is still what matters at the end of the day in college football. Speed doesn't mean anything if your d-linemen are getting blown backwards, and high-powered offenses aren't as dangerous if the o-line can't move defenders in the direction they want them to go. If you win the line of scrimmage, you put yourself in position to win the game.
The other thing is matchups. In past years, the Big Ten representative would go out to the Rose Bowl and lose to these juggernaut USC teams that were just as physical but also more explosive. And then you'd have OSU in a bowl game with a big time SEC team or Texas. Suddenly, you're 0-2 in the big bowl games. All that trickled down to the other bowls and created bad matchups (i.e. MSU in the Cap One bowl last year against a quality Georgia team). This year, OSU gets a smaller Oregon team, and the Big Ten was fortunate to have a big, physical team like Penn State in the Capital One Bowl.
The SEC is still the king pin without question. It's not even close. You have the superpowers at the top, and the depth in the league is remarkable. Case in point, they matched up their 7th/8th best team (Auburn) against the 5th best team in the Big Ten (Northwestern) and still got a win.
But I think the Big Ten has really elevated itself in this bowl season. They can go into the offseason feeling like they are back in the mix for that 2nd best conference moniker going into next year. I expect the preseason polls to reflect that with lofty rankings for Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State, and Wisconsin. Amazing how one good bowl season can change your fortunes overnight. If an OSU or Iowa or Penn State runs the table next year, they are going to be taken more seriously as a participant in a title game than they were this year. The mere mention of Iowa in the title game this year drew borderline outrage (me included). But next year, the Big Ten teams might get a little more love.
3) Ohio State -- Just an enormous win for an Ohio State program that was really starting to wonder where they stood in the national picture and whether that big win over a southern/western school would ever come again. The entire collective spirit of this city has picked up since that win over Oregon. I will be fatigued by the Buckeye offseason hype by about mid-May, but I can certainly understand the good vibes that are going on around town right now.
I had a good feeling going into the game that OSU would play well and put up a good showing. Yes, OSU has had their "big game" problems in recent years, but a big part of the reason for those problems has been that they were just playing really really good teams the last few big games. They got blown out by extremely talented Florida, LSU, and USC teams that were probably the best teams in the nation when OSU played them. Is there really that much to be ashamed about there?? Oklahoma has been soundly defeated by all three of those teams in the last decade as well. In fact, lots of teams have. Before this little malaise, Tressel had performed well in BCS bowl games and other "big games." People forget that they destroyed Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl a few years back when KSU was getting all kinds of hype as the Big 12 champ.
So getting a favorable matchup with a good Oregon team that didn't have the same physical presence as an LSU or Florida or USC was a nice break. And credit to The Vest for having a really good game plan that threw off Oregon and got the job done. He opened up the offense, let Pryor make plays with his legs and arm, and they overplayed Masoli on defense to neutralize him. It was a great plan, and Tressel is officially back to god-like status in the city of Columbus. In this decade, Tressel is now 4-3 in BCS bowl games with a national title. Ummm, that's not all bad.
The other story of the Rose Bowl was Terrelle Pryor. What a ballgame for #2. Let the hype for 2010 begin. Amazing how much the Vince Young parallels continue to follow him now that they've both seemingly had their coming out parties in the Rose Bowl. Seems like TP is poised for a monster year in 2010 if Tressel keeps the harnesses off. He has work to do in the passing game, but his playmaking abilities are a serious weapon. How many 6'6, 240 lb guys with 4.4 speed have ever played quarterback before?? How do you stop this guy when he can seemingly run ten yards in about four strides??
The other interesting plotline in 2010 for Pryor will be his NFL future. If he has a big year in 2010, does he leave after next year even though a lot of people will wonder whether he's an NFL quarterback?? Would he even be a first round pick considering how leery scouts probably are about "athletic" Qbs after the shaky tenures of Michael Vick and Vince Young??
Going to be an enormous amount of hype for OSU next year. I'll go on record and predict that they will be preseason #2 behind Alabama, but it will be interesting to see what their defense looks like next year if they lose a few of those d-linemen to the draft. OSU's success this year came from a great defensive line that rotated 8-9 guys and controlled the line of scrimmage in just about every game they played. Will their defense be as formidable next year without all those bodies??
Indiana basketball -- Where do I pour myself a bowl of crow after IU's nice win over Michigan in their opener?? I was impressed with how they played. I'll admit that my barbs at IU last week were uninformed, and I'm ready to change my tune on them afer watching that Michigan game. Crean seems to be building a nice foundation with that team, and I think there's something to be said for finding solid 4 year kinda guys to build around. There's another coach in the Big Ten who I'd like to see doing that more often (more on that later).
Kudos to Tom Crean. I'm still not sure what his ceiling is at IU, but things aren't as bad as I thought last week after seeing the score of that loss to Loyola. They can win some ballgames in the Big Ten this year and should make a run at an NCAA birth by next year.
Kentucky basketball -- Dear god, how athletic is Kentucky? When they put it all together and get a little bit better flow from playing more games together, they are going to be scary good. Cousins is a mammoth beast inside, and Wall is sick. They are a little raw right now, but Kentucky is really fun to watch. Calipari might put Kentucky on the death penalty probation someday, but UK fans are going to enjoy the good times for now.
Florida -- Are you kidding me with this shot?? WOW. For all we know, this shot might be the difference between them making and missing the NCAA Tournament. Does this end the "miss the free throw on purpose with 2 seconds left to force a 3/4 quarter court heave" strategy that most teams employ??
The Pac 10 -- Brutal performance by the Pac 10 this year. The kind of bowl season that can destroy their reputation after several years of really gaining momentum. All those "the Pac 10 is a joke" articles and posts will be coming out in full force now.
I don't consider myself to be a Pac 10 basher at all and would even go so far as to say that I thought the Pac 10 had emerged at this time last year as the second best conference in America after Oregon destroyed Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl and USC did their usual number on a Big Ten team.
But Arizona looked horrific in the Holiday Bowl this year, and Oregon really looked outclassed by Ohio State. That Nebraska-Arizona game was an abomination for the Pac 10. The Huskers completely abused Arizona at the line of scrimmage. By the time the Rose Bowl was over, the perception of the Pac 10 had gone from this aggressive, forward-thinking league to a bunch of soft, small teams that would wilt if you got physical with them.
Seems like the Pac 10 had a matchup problem this year like the Big Ten has had in the past. If USC had done what they normally do, they would have provided a much more formidable test physically for Ohio State. That moves Oregon down to the Holiday Bowl and Arizona into some winnable third tier bowl. USC's collapse this year put everyone else one rung too high.
The other interesting thing is how small-timey Oregon and Arizona came off in those bowl games in terms of pomp and circumstance. Stories are starting to leak out about the performance of Oregon's band at the halftime show of the Rose Bowl. At a place like the Rose Bowl with all the pageantry of that setting, you better have a big time band that can hold its own weight on that stage. Apparently Oregon's band was tiny, and performed like a high school band compared to the OSU band. Yikes. Get yourselves back to that Sun Bowl ASAP.
Same with Arizona. You had the Husker Nation out in San Diego in full force, and meanwhile Arizona had no one there outside of a few Stoops brothers (how many Stoops brothers are there by the way?).
Even though college football has changed a ton in the last 20 years and more and more talent is showing up in the south and west, there still is something to be said for those "brand name" programs like Nebraska and Ohio State that know how to do the big boy football thing. This isn't the first time either of those programs have been to the dance. They know how to put 50,000 fans in the seats or put on a big time band show. They have that 100 year kinda tradition of playing football in big time settings. Schools like Arizona and Oregon don't have that. There's a reason why these Pac 10 schools all play in 45,000 seat stadiums on some random Fox Sports affiliate.
When we have those discussions about scheduling "heavyweights" in college football, this is what ND fans who want scheduling changes mean. The big boys. The schools that can bring 50,000 fans anywhere. The schools that have 200 people in their band with songs that everyone in America knows. The schools that have won national titles. The schools that play in 80,000+ seat stadiums and play on national tv almost every week. I don't have a problem with playing TCU or somebody like that as filler in a 12 game schedule, but not in place of a Nebraska or a Texas or an Alabama or an Ohio State.
I don't care about Sagarin ratings. If I have a choice between playing an 8-4 Nebraska team or a 10-2 Utah team, give me the Huskers all day long.
Les Miles -- Brutal clock management. What else is new?? But it's more than that. Even with all that talent, The Hat has now gone 8-5 and 9-4 in back to back seasons. And they are losing 12 starters going into next year. The last remnants of the Nick Saban juggernaut are fading away.
Yup, you know what that means. LSU is going 6-6 or something like that in 2010. The warmish seat at LSU for Les Miles is officially getting hot. He better right the ship next year and get the Tigers back in the BCS hunt.
By the way, if you're a Michigan fan, aren't you dreading a scenario where Rich Rodriguez has another down year, gets fired, and Les Miles jumps ship to Michigan with a golden parachute?? How lukewarm would that reception be for Les Miles if he's coming off a 6-6 year at LSU and flees to Michigan because they are desperate to save face and hire a "Michigan Man"?? You could just pencil him in for 8-4 seasons at Michigan for the next decade. And he would be impossible to fire with his Michigan ties and insider connections. He's the closest thing they have to a "made man." Very dangerous scenario for a Michigan program that seems to be steadily losing its cache as a national program and doesn't really have a big time in-state talent base to feed itself. ND has problems of its own, but at least we still have a national brand that will probably always be there as long as we remain an independent. If Michigan loses their national branding, they become Michigan State. Or Purdue.
For what it's worth, I'd put that Miles to Michigan golden parachute scenario down at about 1:1 odds of happening. Maybe better.
The Denver Broncos -- Brutal finish for Denver and Mr. Wonder Boy, Josh McRabbitsfoot. You start out 6-0 and finish 8-8 and basically have done everything to run your two best players off (Cutler and Marshall)?? That can work if you win. But if you don't, look out.
If McDaniels flames out, at some point NFL organizations are going to have to go cold turkey on Belichick disciples. None of these guys have worked out. Not one. Weis, Mangini, Crennel, McDaniels, Haley (so far). I guess you could say Nick Saban worked out, but he had many other influences besides Belichick.
I remember reading in ESPN The Magazine that Belichick does not really keep these guys in the loop at all and gives his assistants less responsibility than probably any other head coach in the league. He's in the business of winning, not grooming other coaches to be head coaches.
Then again, the Mangenius is suddenly red hot. I think Browns fans are going to be mildly disappointed if Mangini gets fired.
Mid-major football programs -- TCU/Boise/Cincy did not do themselves any favors in terms of national perception. Couldn't have been less impressed with any of those teams on the big state.
It's going to be very interesting next year if we get an undefeated Mountain West or WAC or Big East team, and there is only one other undefeated BCS team. How could you put a Cincy type team in the title game next year against the SEC champ after seeing what Florida did to Cincy this year?? Or what if you have an undefeated team like Texas in the title game, a one loss SEC champ, and an undefeated TCU?? Would the undefeated TCU go over the one loss SEC team?? That would be the most absurd decision of all time. Just look at the players on the field. There's no comparison between SEC football and the Mountain West or the Big East.
At some point, that scenario will happen, and I think that scenario is the biggest reason why I support a college football playoff. Somebody like TCU or Cincy should never waltz into the title game on the back of a 12-0 regular season alone. Beat a big boy in a playoff, and then I can live with it. But I'd rather see a one loss Big 12 team or USC or someone like that in the title game than freaking TCU.
Week 17 in the National Football League -- Major stock down on Week 17. The last week of the regular season has turned into a compete farce. Half the teams in the league are just mailing it in that week. And people wonder why NFL stadiums are having a tough time filling up and why a lockout is looming in 2011?? People are shelling out $100 a seat for 10 games (2 preseason), and almost 1/3 of those games are completely meaningless now. Why not just sit in front of your 50" plasma and shell out for The Sunday Ticket instead of buying season tickets and dealing with all the hassle on a Sunday and all the white trash drunks who are getting into fights left and right in the stands?? It's getting to the point where it's not worth it, especially when you're sitting there in the freezing cold watching a game where one of the teams has already packed it in.
The NFL has far and away the best television product in sports (and I'm saying that as a diehard college football guy). The game times are usually right on the 3 hour mark, the games are competitive, the HD and all the camera shots are all of the latest and greatest, and the players are spectacular. The ratings for NFL games on tv seem to go up 15% every year. But the live NFL experience is probably the worst in all of sports right now between the crappy weather and hilljack fans and expensive tickets. A lot of fans who used to trudge down there every Sunday seem to have walked away from it and might not be coming back any time soon. The number of blackouts in NFL cities this year was pretty remarkable.
Interest in the NFL has probably never been higher. Heck, I'll admit that my NFL interest had a massive renaissance this year (had nothing to do with the Bengals going to the playoffs this year, I swear!). But long term, the NFL would be wise to make sure fans who shell out money every year for season tickets are rewarded for their efforts. I think the NFL would be wise to consider some proposals to make sure the NFL remains interesting all the way through the regular season. I thought this "seeding" proposal by the Mike Florio of National Football Post was a very intriguing idea. If you had more of an NCAA style "seeding" with a selection committee for these teams instead of going straight off regular season records, I think that would make for fantastic drama down the stretch and would keep teams playing hard all the way through. A team like San Diego that finished red hot might be able to jump up and steal the #1 seed from Indy if the Colts rested their starters the last couple weeks. I think that would end the "mail in your last two games" strategy right away.
Plus, any reason to get Terry Bradshaw and Jimmy Johnson ready to brawl arguing over who deserved the #1 seed between Indy and San Diego would be good tv for all of us. Then again, maybe not.
Thad Matta -- Brutal start for Thad Matta and the Buckeyes thus far in Big Ten play. Back to back games where they got run off the floor. After such a promising start to the Thad Matta era with a Big Ten title in his second year and a Final Four run in his 3rd year, Thad is likely staring at the NIT/NCAA bubble for the 3rd straight year. Thad has had some bad luck the last couple years with injuries, but at what point is it time to ask some serious questions about his player evaluation and roster construction abilities???
People can talk about one and dones all they want (admittedly, the one and dones have been killers), but the real mistake that Matta has made has been with his filler recruits. Instead of staying patient and finding 4 year guys, he has burned through scholarships on JUCOs like PJ Hill and Jeremie Simmons and Kecman and borderline walk-on transfers like Kyle Madsen and Sirikopoulos. That's five scholarships on guys who can't play major college basketball. He went for some quick fixes to grab bodies after losing transfers and one and dones, but you can't give out scholarships to guys who can't play. If he had saved a few of those scholarships on a couple ballhandlers, Ohio State wouldn't be in the dire straits at guard that they are in now.
You can't have enough guards who can handle the ball on your roster. Ohio State has as good a collection of wing players as anyone, but no one at point guard to create offense from the top of the key.
And even with the one and dones, it's laughable that Matta just throws his hands up in the air on that topic and acts like he was blindsided by those guys leaving. Ummm, I've never spoken to BJ Mullens or Kosta Koufos or Oden or Daequon Cook once in my life, but even I knew every one of those guys was gone after one year. This was no big secret. If I knew, how would Thad not know it?? He's either lying or he's ignorant. Neither quality is especially flattering.
The only guy who legitimately "blindsided" him was Mike Conley, but that was one guy!! Thad recruited the other four knowing that they were gone. BJ Mullens and Koufos were so obviously "one and dones" that I'm astounded that Thad feigned surprise on either of them. He's insulting his fanbase.
Here's the point. If he recruits a nice 4 star big man instead of Mullens (Kenny Frease) and maybe adds one other solid big man recruit instead of Koufos, his program would have been better off. That two year gap of losing big men after one year was an absolute killer for his program. They have nothing inside the paint this year. If you don't have a couple guys who get you easy scores in the paint, it makes it really hard on your offense.
The amazing thing is that he's getting right back into the "one and done" pool next year!! They have two five star guys coming in next year, and DeShaun Thomas is hinting that his stay in Columbus will be for one year. And I'm still not sure there's a point guard on their roster again next year.
Just a very strange job of roster construction. Matta is a good coach without question and has landed a lot of talented players, but roster management is a key part of coaching. You need to have balanced classes and a balanced roster. If he wants to be produce consistently good teams at OSU, he'll need to adopt a better recruiting model. Otherwise, it will be a lot of highs and lows depending on what highly-touted freshman he can land.
Is Matta under any real pressure?? No, of course not. Buckeye fans don't care at all about basketball. Most people in Columbus don't even know who Thad Matta is. But after a meteoric rise in the early going at OSU and some monster recruiting successes, things have gotten a little wobbly for him in Columbus.