Finally. Football season is upon us. And given the state of major league baseball, and more specifically…the return to sub-mediocrity of our Cleveland Indians, the wait has been excruciating this year. The fact that Clevelanders are devoid of a pennant race for the first time in nine years combined with lofty expectations for the Browns and the Buckeyes has the area abuzz for the coming months, which will see us all glued to our television sets on weekend afternoons.
After taking close to a month off to recharge the batteries, I've decided to release a weekly newsletter this season chronicling the on-goings in the worlds of professional and college football. Hope you enjoy, and as always, your feedback is welcomed by e-mailing me at email@example.com.
With the season set to kick off in the big apple this Thursday evening, it's time for my annual pre-season predictions. Last season, my prognostication of a Rams-Raiders Super Bowl was undone via the "tuck rule", which the NFL reviewed and neglected to change for some reason this off-season. This season, I'm once again picking the silver and black to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl but envision them falling to their former coach, Jon Gruden, and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers in San Diego on January 26th.
On the AFC side, I see Miami nosing out New England for the AFC East title and lone berth from that division and Oakland fending off Denver in the West. Both Tennessee and Indianapolis should return to their form of '00, helped out by easier schedules, to battle for the AFC South title. The Titans will persevere and win the division, and the Colts will secure a wild card berth. In the new AFC North division, one of football's grandest rivalries will be rekindled as the Steelers and Browns duke it out for the division crown. Chalk the Steelers up for the crown, with the Browns right on their tails and the recipients of the AFC's second wild card berth with a ten win season.
Moving over to the NFC, Tampa will take full advantage of being moved to the weakest division in football, and amass 12-13 wins this season while easily securing one of the first round byes. The other will go to the Rams, who will win the NFC West and hold off the young and now completely revamped 49ers…. who will snag one of the wild cards. The Bears will prove last year was far from a fluke, and will once again win the battle with Brett Favre and the Packers for the division title. The Eagles, who came oh so close to a Super Bowl appearance last season, will once again be one of the better teams in the league and take home the NFC East title. And as for the final wild card berth, I'm picking the Redskins to edge out the Saints and the Packers. Not because of the "Fun and Gun" offense, but because of what should be one of the top defenses in football.
It was tempting not to go with this year's trendy Super Bowl prediction of St. Louis and Pittsburgh, as they are the two most talented teams in the NFL. But in the end, I see the same problems that befell those two franchises last season making for disappointing endings to their campaigns this year. For the Steelers, it's the decision making of one Kordell Stewart. We all thought that Kordell had finally figured it out last season (despite throwing only 14 TD's) before he melted down against the Pats in the AFC Championship Game. It's been proven over the course of the last three seasons that you don't need a superstar QB to get to the Bowl, but you do need one that can consistently avoid mistakes.
As far as the Rams are concerned, their tendency to struggle with the leagues most physical teams still worries me. The Bears, Eagles, and Buccaneers posses three of the leagues stingiest and most physical defenses, and chances are the Rams will have to beat at least one, possibly two of those teams to get to San Diego. They escaped with a win over Philly last year before getting bullied around by the Pats in the Super Bowl.
As usual, there were some very notable names hitting the waiver wires when NFL franchises were forced to cut down to 53 players this weekend. Former Browns Jim Pyne, Jeremy McKinney, Madre Hill, Travis Prentice, and Rashidi Barnes were all waived as were former Buckeyes Joe Germaine, Kent Graham, Joe Montgomery, and Joe Cooper. Here's a list of some of the more recognizable names that are now looking for work:
QB Tee Martin, RB Richard Huntley, RB Terry Allen, RB Skip Hicks, RB Rod "He Hate Me" Smart, WR Darnay Scott, WR Sean Dawkins, TE Desmond Clark, DE Michael Sinclar, DT Maa Taunavasa, LB Greg Biekert, LB Mike Jones, CB Terrell Buckley, CB Terry Fair, S Chad Cota, and S Keith Lyle.
With the Browns roster now down to 53 players, it's becoming more and more apparent how vast the difference in the talent evaluation skills of the Dwight/Chris and Butch/Pete regimes has proven to be. Of the 25 players selected in the '99 and '00 drafts, just 7 remain. JaJuan Dawson's release made him the 4th player to be waived that was selected in the 1st 3 rounds of those first two drafts. JaJuan and Travis Prentice were our 3rd round picks in '00 and Rahim Abdullah and Marquis Smith were Dwight's 2nd and 3rd round selections in the '99 draft.
Of the 16 players selected by Butch and Pete over the past two seasons, 14 remain. Just Jeremiah Pharms and Michael Jameson, who played well in the pre-season but was nosed out by special teams demon Chris Akins, have been released. Also, two players immediately targeted as undrafted free agents after this year's draft, WR Frisman Jackson and DB Kalvin Pearson, were both very impressive all pre-season and both secured roster spots as well.
The Browns open the season with what appear to be two very winnable home contests against the Chiefs and the Bengals before hitting the road to go play at Tennessee and Pittsburgh in weeks 3 and 4. The Browns will be favored to win each of those first two games, and in order to secure the 10 or 11 wins that will be necessary to get this team into the playoffs, you can't drop too many home games against lesser opponents. In the Chiefs, the Browns will go up against a team that ranked 27th in rush defense a season ago and will likely be without 1st round pick DT Ryan Sims, who just ended a lengthy holdout. They do feature a solid pair of end rushers in Eric Hicks and Duane Clemons, but lack any real run stuffers aside from graybeard MLB Marvcus Patton. If the Browns struggle to run the ball this week, there will be some reason for concern. The Chiefs also ranked 23rd in total defense and points allowed a season ago, and there is little reason to believe their defense will be any better this season.
Offensively, Kansas City has once again lost receivers Sylvester Morris and "Snoop" Minnis to leg injuries. Tony Gonzalez just reported to camp and it will be interesting to see how big of a role he plays in Dick Vermeil's offensive scheme this week. The consistently inconsistent Eddie Kennison and converted RB Dante Hall will be the Chiefs 2nd and 3rd wideouts heading into the season. The Chief offense does feature one of the league's better offensive fronts, bolstered by the addition of seven-time Pro-Bowler Willie Roaf at left tackle. Running back Priest Holmes led the NFL in yards from scrimmage last season and will provide an early and immediate test for new MLB Earl Holmes.
Clearly, the Browns ability to run and stop the run will factor heavily in how successful the opener goes for them this season. The Browns also figure to be much improved on special teams this season, and it was a late lapse in that area that led to Ryan Lindell's field goal that capped the heartbreaking 6-3 loss to the Seahawks that began last season.
Around The NCAA
Finishing off my pre-season predictions, my prediction for the national championship game this season will feature the two teams that should have met for the title two seasons ago and come down to Miami Florida and Oklahoma playing for it all in the Fiesta Bowl this coming January 3rd in Tempe. There could easily be a scenario that exists this season where there are no unbeatens that remain come December, and a mess of six or seven very talented one loss teams jockeying for the BCS berths.
Unfortunately, it appears that continued controversy each season over college football's incredibly flawed system will never result in the playoff system that all fans want to see implemented. Oklahoma is my pick to win it all this season, despite losing once, and I'll go with a Orange Bowl featuring Texas and Tennessee and a Sugar Bowl contest of Florida facing Florida St. In the Rose Bowl, I see a Buckeyes-Ducks match-up that could also have title implications. Talking sleepers, the teams I feel that have a legitimate shot to take undefeated seasons into November and possibly get in the BCS mix include this week's winner of the Arkansas/Boise St. game, Boston College, Oregon, Oregon St., Ohio St, Marshall, and Georgia Tech. Another team to keep an eye on this year is the Utah Utes…who have the best defense in the country that no one has heard about. Unfortunately, back-to-back road trips to Arizona and Michigan in the next couple weeks make a run up the rankings unlikely. However, every other game on their schedule this season is very winnable.
Looking ahead to this week's college slate, there are several intriguing contests that litter the board. The biggest of which being the showdown between the Hurricanes and the Gators (in Gainesville) that will have a huge early bearing on each of those team's prospective title hopes. Other big non-conference games this weekend include Arkansas-Boise St., Oklahoma hosting Alabama, Stanford at Boston College, and Southern Mississippi hosting Illinois. Also, in a rematch of a game that the BCS committee sweated out last season, BYU looks to avenge their 72-45 loss that ended what would have been a 13-0 regular season when the talented Hawaii Rainbow Warriors invade Provo.
And finally, here's praying that Ohio St.'s mega-talented frosh runner Maurice Clarett gives us the privilege of letting Buckeye fans see him don the scarlet and gray for at least three seasons. The Bucks will see Kent St. come to town this week before hosting Washington St. the following week in what appears to be Ohio St.'s only possible roadblock to a 7-0 start before heading to Madison to face the Wisconsin Badgers on October 19th.
The "Handicapper's Corner" is a little column I started late in 2001 that's been in hibernation since the end of the men's NCAA basketball tournament. Was lucky enough to have some success prognosticating winners against the Vegas line in both the NFL Playoffs last season (7-4-1, 64%) as well as college hoops (16-11-1, 59%) in this column, and with football season now in full swing, I'm back to give it another whirl.
Each week I'll desperately try and provide anywhere from one to four winners against the number in both the pro and college games, and also try to provide some interesting antic dotes from the world of football handicapping whenever possible. This week, I offer up 3 selections in NCAA action and 4 picks from the 1st week of NFL play. Here we go….
The number on this game was all set to come out at somewhere between 3 and 4 points until the Golden Domers shut out a Maryland team that graduated their QB and top wideout and was without star RB Bruce Perry, who is out for the next month or so with a groin injury. The Boilermakers return 8 starters on both sides of the ball and feature one of the Big Ten's top defenses. In each of the last four seasons, this game has been decided by 6 points or less and the Boilers are 6-3 ATS in their last 9 against Notre Dame. It always seems the Irish point spreads are a couple points off of what they should be due to their popularity, and the team has had just one winning season ATS since '96. Take Purdue plus the seven.
Saturday, September 7th
New Mexico +6 ½ at Air Force
Another case of an inflated number, based on Air Force's drubbing of a weak Northwestern team this past weekend. The Lobo defense is much stingier than that of Northwestern, and New Mexico has owned Air Force, winning the last three contests straight up and covering 6 of the last 7 against them. Air Force returns just 2 starters on offense from their 6-6 effort a year ago, and graduated their entire offensive line and signal caller. The Lobos take this one outright, or at the least, keep it close. Take New Mexico plus the six and a hook.
Saturday, September 7th
Utah –13 vs. Indiana
The Utes return 8 defensive starters and 44 lettermen from a team that went 8-4 last season and held USC to 151 total yards in a win over them in the Las Vegas Bowl to end last year. Utah also went into Bloomington last season as underdogs and beat Indiana on their home field. Most pre-season prognostications have 5-6 Ute defenders listed as pre-season 1st team All-Mountain West performers, including 3 players on their mighty defensive line. The Hoosiers offense has been completely restructured from last season with LSU retread Gerry DiNardo at the helm and Antwaan Randle-El playing on Sundays. Indiana struggled last week with William and Mary of all teams, before escaping with a 25-17 win. Indiana will struggle to score, take the Utes laying the 13.
This is just a few too many points for me to see Green Bay laying with still such huge questions revolving around Brett Favre's receiving corps this season. The Falcons are a team I like to win a couple more games than most are expecting this season, and remember also that they snuck out of Lambeau with a 23-20 win in week 10 last season. While the pre-season is practically meaningless, the new Falcon power running/short passing offense has looked pretty damn good so far. Take Atlanta plus the eight.
The last two times these played have resulted in blowout victories for the Jags, and it's going to be payback time for Indy against a noticeably undermanned Jacksonville team to open the season. Tony Dungy has finally brought a defensive mindset and scheme to the Colts and they made some savvy off-season personnel moves on the defensive side of the ball via the draft and free agency. Jacksonville's offensive line and receiving corps is in shambles, and a blowout victory by Indy here would not surprise me at all. Take the Colts and lay the 3 ½.
Despite my Indy pick above, I love home dogs…especially early in the season. Rich Stadium is not an easy place to play, and you can be assured it will be rocking come Sunday. For whatever reason, I'm not sold on the Jets or Herm Edwards, and no team in the league may have improved themselves as much as the Bills this off-season. These teams always play each other close (7 of last 10 decided by 10 points or less) and Buffalo team much worse than the one they will trot out Sunday went into NY and beat a Jets team desperately needing a win last year in week 16 by a 14-9 count. I'll jump on the opportunity to take the points here, take the Bills +3.
Sunday, September 8th
Cleveland –3 vs. Kansas City
It doesn't matter who is starting at QB for the Browns, this is a game they should win by at least 7 points by virtue of being at home and the by virtue of being a much better defensive club. The Chiefs are banged up, weak in the front seven, and going into one the NFL's most hostile environments. Look for the Browns to finally establish some sort of running game and comfortably win a relatively low scoring contest. Take the Browns –3.