Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Sports Fix: Major League Baseball

I love baseball, it is by far my favorite professional sport to watch as both a casual observer and as a crazy fan that studies every pitch or sequence, breaking down the never-ending mind games and strategy that going on during the games.   That being said, baseball does have its flaws, so today I am here to fix them.

The four issues that I want to address about Major League Baseball are the scheduling, Interleague play, the designated hitter and expansion.  I think there should be something done about a salary cap and revenue sharing as well, but that is for another time and another place.  We will knock off the last three first, and leave the biggest issue in my mind, scheduling, for last.

This will be short and sweet; the designated hitter is no more.  There is no sense to have half the teams in baseball playing by one set of rules, while the other half plays by different rules.  This doesn’t happen in any other sport, and shouldn’t be happening in baseball.

The push back from the player’s union would be that we are cutting a job from the league.  In response to that I would expand rosters to 26, but in doing that I would also add that at no time can any roster have more than 13 pitchers on their roster at one time.  This roster expansion is created to add a bat that can be used in pinch-hitting situation and to replace the bat lost by the DH, not to booster the bullpens.

In my mind Interleague play in baseball has run its course.  Sure, there are some heated rivalries in places like northern California, Chicago, New York and even in the DC-Baltimore region, but for everyone one of those series, we have places like Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Texas that have no natural rival.  In those cities, Interleague play is nothing special.  It is just another series.  Maybe the worst part about Interleague play is how the uneven scheduling effects the standings and playoff races.  You don’t think the St. Louis Cardinals, who finished 1 GB of the Giants in the wild card race this year, would have rather played the A’s as their natural rival than the defending World Series Champion Royals?  Yes, it is cool to get to see the Yankees and Red Sox come to your city every few years if you live in an NL town, or the Cubs and Dodgers if you live in an AL town, but are those few instances worth having to sit through a random series with the Marlins or Twins?  Probably not.  I liked it when guys like Greg Maddux pitched in the World Series against Derek Jeter and it was the 1st time that those two halls of famers ever met in a game.  That doesn’t happen anymore.  Interleague was fun while it lasted and will be missed by some, but not by most.  It is no longer.

With no Interleague play, 15 team leagues don’t work.  Now we either re-align or we expand.  I vote for expansion (with maybe a little re-alignment too.)  We are expanding to 32 teams, which gives us 16 teams per league.  Now, do we have four 8-team division or do we go with eight 4-team divisions?  After that we need to decide which two cities should be getting MLB teams.  I considered returning a team to Montreal, but opted for two US cities.  Our two newest cities are Portland, OR and Charlotte, NC.    I also considered Austin and Indianapolis, but finalized on these two.  The reasoning was somewhat simple, both cities already support professional sports teams.  They both also have had very successful minor league teams over the years, which shows that there is a baseball fan base in those cities. Finally, and maybe most importantly, these are the two biggest TV markets in the US that don’t already have teams.

Now the tough part, breaking up the current division formats and recreating a better one.  For logistics stake, we put Portland in the American League and Charlotte in the National League.  I really wanted to 4 divisions of 8 teams in each division, but I think that makes the playoff situation a little more difficult.  I also factored in that with larger divisions, the playoff races aren’t as exciting and fewer teams are in contention longer in the season than with 8 divisions of 4 teams.  We will now have 8 divisions of 4 teams in each division (4 divisions in each league).  We are dividing up the divisions geographically.  Each league will have an EAST, WEST, SOUTH and CENTRAL division.  
Here are the divisions:
EAST                                                      WEST                                     SOUTH                                                  CENTRAL
Baltimore                                             LA                                           Arizona (flipped from NL)                  Chicago
Boston                                                  Oakland                                 Houston                                               Cleveland
New York                                             Portland                                 Kansas City                                          Detroit
Toronto                                                Seattle                                   Texas                                                      Minnesota

EAST                                                      WEST                                     SOUTH                                                  CENTRAL
New York                                              Colorado                               Atlanta                                                  Chicago
Philadelphia                                         LA                                           Charlotte                                              Cincinnati
Pittsburgh                                            San Diego                              Miami                                                   Milwaukee
Washington                                         San Francisco                       Tampa Bay (flipped from AL)            St. Louis

In my mind baseball needs more days off and fewer games.  Not a ton fewer, but fewer.  This year in MLB teams played 162 games in 181 days.  My schedule is for 156 games in 175 games.  6 fewer games and still done with 19 scheduled off days.  However, my schedule includes 6 scheduled double headers.  Every teams will play will play host to their 3 division opponents in a scheduled double header throughout the season.  These double headers can be scheduled however the home team would like (Classic, Day-Night, Twi-Night).  Every teams will be able to expand their roster by 1 the day of a double header and each team will have a scheduled day off following all scheduled double headers.  This creates 6 more off days during the season for the players.

The season will always begin on the 2nd Sunday of April.  For the 1st week of the season, all games will be played in either a domed stadium or a warm weather climate.  For the final weekend of the season, all teams will play against teams from their division.  In September, with expanded rosters, each team will only be allowed to declare 26 players eligible for a given game (27 if playing a doubleheader).

The actual scheduling of the games will be simple.  Each team will play 48 division games, playing each opponent 16 times each (8 away, 8 home).  All divisional series will be 4-game series.  Each team will play 108 out of division games, playing each opponent 9 times each.  All non-division series will be 3-game series.

There will still be 5 playoff teams from each league making the playoffs, 4 division winners and 1 wildcard winner.  The difference in that we will no longer have a “Wild Card” game, but a “Play-In” game.  With only 1 wild card winner, it doesn’t make sense to call it a wild card game and take away from a team that won their division.  Instead the wild card winner, will play on the road at the division winner with the worst record.  Those teams will play 1 game to advance into the MLB Postseason.  The division winner with the best record hosts the winner of the Play-In game, while the other 2 division winners also play, with home field for the series decided by season record (tiebreaker would be head-to-head record).

An important change to the postseason scheduling that I am making, is doing away with travel days in the middle of the series.  This changes the structure of a series too much and allows pitcher dominant teams to rely on one or two pitchers to carry them to a series victory.  By limiting the extra off days in the middle of postseason series, it forces teams to play more like they did in the regular season, which is how they got to the postseason in the first place.  The only off days in any series (both best of 5 series and best of 7) will come after Game 4.  This also avoids the postseason carrying on into November like it is scheduled to this year if it returns to Cleveland for Games 6 and 7.

Sadly, most of these changes will probably never happen, but in my mind, they should.  Anyway, enjoy the rest of the World Series.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Time To Trade

The Pirates are currently 5 games under .500.  They are sitting 5.5 GB of the 2nd Wild Card and that could move to 6 if the Mets win tonight in Atlanta.  They have played 73 games to this point, leaving 89 games in the season, 16 games until the All-Star Break and 30 until the trade deadline.

That last number is key, the Trade Deadline.

The Pirates have to decide whether they are going to be buyers or sellers at this deadline.  Since the Wild Card expanded to 2 teams, no team in the National League got into the Wild Card with less than 88 wins.  Over those same 4 years the 2nd Wild Card averaged 90.75 wins to gain a berth in the postseason.

The Pirates are currently 34-39.  That means they would have to go 54-35 in their final 89 games to get to that magic number of 88 wins.  Add 3 more wins if you are going based on the average. 57-32! Now ask yourself, have you seen anything at all from this team so far this season that make you believe that they can play at a .640 clip the rest of the way this year?

I’ll answer that for you, NO!

But if you would like to hold out hope, that is fine. Let’s give the team until the All-Star Break and see where they stand.  They have 16 games to play before the break, of those 16 games 13 are against teams with a better record than them.  To have any realistic chance of reaching 90 wins, or even 88, reaching .500 by the All-Star Break should be the goal.  That means going 11-5 in the next 16 games.  Those next 16 games include 4 against the Dodgers (currently in position for the top Wild Card spot), a 9 game road trip which includes 5 on the west coast and 4 in St. Louis, and they finish against the Cubs, who have beaten the Pirates 8 out of 9 times this season.  How’s that 11-5 run look now?

It is officially time to lower the Jolly Roger and raise the White Flag on the 2016 Pirate baseball season.

The Pirates are only 1 of 3 teams that can make the claim of reaching the postseason each of the last 3 years.  And that came off of a 21-year hiatus.  Now is not the time to live in the recent past, but to look towards the future.  The Pirates have a bright future, with plenty of young talent in the organization and most of their starting line-up locked up long term.  So why not sell off valuable pieces to help the future?

The Pirates have plenty of pieces that would be valuable to a team in the race in September.  SO who are they?

First and foremost, Mark Melancon.  It is well known that the Pirates shopped around Melancon last off season, knowing that he was going into his final year of arbitration.  He is a free agent after this season and it seems like the Pirates have zero interest in paying him this winter.  What team doesn’t need bullpen help in October?  You’d have to think that other than the Yankees Aroldis Chapman, Melancon would be the best reliever available come July.  He would get a big return.

Another pitcher is next, Francisco Liriano.  Before you laugh at the thought of anyone giving the Pirates more than a bucket of Double Bubble for the struggling lefty, realize this, he is a proven commodity and a lefty.  He also has another year of control on his contract, making him more valuable to the team that gets him. And apparently at least one team has shown interest in him.  (Rotoworld blurb from Wednesday: )  Liriano would also get a nice return, not as much as Melancon, but something worthwhile.

Neftali Feliz is another rental player that the Pirates would be able to get a decent return on.  As said with Melancon, teams are always looking for another arm for the postseason.  He is another guy that has done it in big games and still can be dominant at times.  He, like Melancon is also a free agent after this season, so why not try to get something in return for him?

The final 3 guys on the list are 3 bats, Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez and David Freese.  All 3 of these guys can be upgrades for teams that are looking for some versatility or some pop off the bench.  You aren’t going to get much return for these 3, but you will get something.  Again, all 3 of these guys are free agents to be, so why not get something in return for them while you can?

I would encourage Neal Huntington and the Pirates to try their best at moving all 6 of these players before the deadline.  They aren’t part of the future but can help the team be better in the future. 

I would also encourage Huntington to use the time after these trades to let the young guys in the system get their feet wet.  If you are trading Joyce, Rodriguez and Freese, bring up Josh Bell and Alen Hanson and play them.  Bell should be the everyday 1st baseman, with John Jaso available to give him a day off here and there.  Hanson takes the role of Rodriguez and is capable of playing behind both Mercer and Harrison, which should get him on the field 3 or 4 games a week, plus pinch hit opportunities.

Moving Melancon means finding a new closer.  Tony Watson, here is your chance to prove yourself.  You want the closer role in 2017 win the job in August and September of this season.  If Watson isn’t the man, priority #1 in the offseason is already upgrading the bullpen, but not it is finding a closer to lead the way.

Liriano leaves a spot open in the rotation.  Hopefully by the time these trades are made the Juan Nicasio and Jeff Locke experiences are over too.  Bring up Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl and let them learn on the job this season.  It is better they take their poundings in meaningless games against Major League hitters in August and September of a throw away season, then bringing them up next year and have them learn on the fly when the season could mean something.

The future is now with this organization.  If the Pirates want to be serious contenders next season, it starts now.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

College Football Chaos is coming... Hopefully

Why was there such surprise from college football fans when the 1st College Football Playoff Rankings were released a few weeks back? You didn’t think a 1-loss Alabama team should be in the playoff ahead of 8 other undefeated teams?  What about Notre Dame and their resume that lacks a big win?
Guess what, it doesn’t matter what you think.  ESPN runs the College Football Playoffs.  They pick the teams and given the chance, they are picking big names like Alabama and Notre Dame.  Look at last year, #3 TCU beats Iowa State 55-3 the final week of the season and they DROP 3 spots in the standings to make room for Ohio State, who jumped up from #5 (outside the playoff) to #4 (in the playoff).  Who do you think gets more eyes on the television, Urban Meyer and Ohio State or TCU?  Who has a bigger fan base?  Who has a rich football tradition and who is still somewhat new to the national picture in college football?
Yes, Ohio State won the national championship, I realize that. But does that justify them even getting into the playoff?  TCU then went on to beat the #9 team in the nation 42-3 in their bowl game.  How do we know they don’t do the same thing to Alabama in the Playoff Semifinal?  That #9 team that TCU beat was Mississippi.  The same Mississippi team that handed Alabama their only regular season loss last season.  Last year it was Ohio State, this year it is Notre Dame.
Notre Dame brings eyes to the television.  ESPN knows this.  That is why if Notre Dame wins their last 2 games, they will be in the playoff, deserving or not.
That is also why I am hoping for mass chaos over the final few weeks of the season.  Consider these possibilities, this is what I’m rooting for.
wins their final 2 regular season game. Finish regular season 12-0
North Carolina wins last 2 games of regular season. Finish regular season 11-1
Both teams finish 12-1.
wins out in regular season, finishes 12-0.
Michigan State wins out in the regular season to finish 11-1.
Ohio State loses to Michigan State, but beats Michigan. Finishes 11-1
All 3 teams from Big Ten have 1 loss. 2 coming in the final 3 weeks.
Iowa wins out, going 12-0
Ohio State loses both of their final 2 games, finishing at 10-2
Michigan wins their fins 2 games, finishing 10-2
Michigan State beats Ohio State, but loses to Penn State
2-loss Michigan gets bid over 1-loss Iowa?
Iowa loses to Nebraska, finishes 11-1
Ohio State wins out. Finishes 12-0
Both tied at 12-1
loses to Florida State, finishes the season 10-2.
Alabama wins out, going 11-1
Both teams from SEC have 2 losses
Florida loses to Florida State, finishes the season 10-2.
Alabama loses to Auburn, finishes 10-2.
Florida wins out, goes 11-1.
Alabama loses to Auburn, finishes 10-2.
Mississippi wins out and finishes 9-3.
Arkansas loses 1 of their last 2, finishes 7-5.
SEC Champ has 3 loses.

In both of these conferences there are still so many possibilities, I just checked out some of the extremes.
In the PAC-12, there are only 5 teams that can possibly play in the conference title game.  2 of the teams already have 2 losses, the other 3, each have 3 losses.  We could conceivably have conference champion that have 3 or 4 losses.
Stanford could finish 8-4, win the title game and finish at 9-4
USC could end up the same, 8-4 in the regular season, but a 9-4 conference champion.
Oregon, Utah and UCLA could all finish 9-3, meaning a 3-loss conference champion.
The Big XII at least has a possible playoff team remaining, but they also backloaded their schedule so that every team that has a chance has to play a brutal schedule down the stretch.
Here is what the Big XII schedule looks like the final 3 weeks.
#6 Oklahoma State – vs #10 Baylor, vs #7 Oklahoma
#7 Oklahoma – vs #18 TCU, @ #6Oklahoma
#10 Baylor - @ #6 Oklahoma, @ #18 TCU, vs Texas
#18 TCU - @ #7 Oklahoma, vs #10 Baylor
Sure Oklahoma State could run the table and be undefeated after this stretch and play their way into the playoff.  Or all 4 teams could end the season 10-2 in a 4-way tie.  Nice job Big XII!

We didn’t even mention Notre Dame yet.  With 2 games left, the Irish still leave plenty of questions, a lot of which sit with their opponents and schedule this season.
Notre Dame could still lose to Boston College today or Stanford next week.  But even if they win out, who is their best win (Temple, USC, Stanford, Pitt, Navy)? Tough to find one in that group.  Even worse would be for Notre Dame to win out, but Clemson loses once or maybe even twice.  They have hung their hat on having the best loss.  Well if Clemson suddenly isn’t #1, then what does Notre Dame have going for them?
What if Notre Dame wins out AND Oklahoma State wins out?  Who does the committee take, an undefeated Big XII champ or a 1-loss Independent team?

Oh yeah… What about Houston, they are still undefeated too. If chaos ensues, does a 2-loss Power 5 team get in over an undefeated Houston team? A Houston team that would have 2 wins over Power 5 schools and 2 wins over ranked opponents and the same “best win” as Notre Dame (Navy).

Lots of question still to be answered over the last 3 weeks.  I don’t know what will happen, nobody does, but I do know who I will be rooting for. 


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Pirates Scheduling News

The Pirates made 2 scheduling announcements today.  The 1st announcement, that Major League Baseball has selected the Pirates and Cardinals to officially open the season, moving the game from its originally scheduled date of Monday April 4th, to an ESPN Broadcast Sunday afternoon game.  Typically, ESPN kicks off the season with a Sunday night game, but this game will be a 1:05 1st pitch to kick off the season.  With the season opener moving up 1 day, the rest of the series adjusts as well.  The series was originally scheduled Monday, Wednesday, Thursday.  This now changes to playing Sunday, OFF DAY Monday, play Tuesday and Wednesday, OFF DAY Thursday.  The Pirates then travel and play in Cincinnati for a weekend series beginning Friday.

Obviously, this is a huge honor and recognition for the Pirates to be selected for this game, but the 1st thing that I thought of was how this allows Hurdle to set up his rotation.  If the Pirates would elect to, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t, they don’t need to throw their #5 starter until GAME 8 of the season. Considering the large question marks regarding the Pirates starting pitching staff for the 2016 season, I think this could be very beneficial.  This also allows the Pirates to throw Cole 3 times in the teams 1st 9 games.  I know that people may complain about pushing him too much early in the season, but he is the ace of your staff and he would still be going on full rest for all of these starts.  The way the Pirates have started off the last 2 seasons, I would say it would be a good idea to push Cole to make these starts.  The Pirates were 21-26 in April over the last 2 years, which is 5 games UNDER .500.  They were a combined 63 games OVER .500 after April in those 2 seasons.  For whatever reason, the Pirates get off to slow starts, this may be something that helps to avoid that again in 2016.

Another small benefit from this scheduling means that the team could elect to carry an extra bat for the 1st 7 games of the season.  Being that the Pirates play in Detroit for games 7-8, I’m guessing that they will opt to keep an extra bat, since they will need a DH.

As for the 2nd announcement made today, the Pirates will be playing in Puerto Rico this season.   The Pirates and Marlins are scheduled to play a 4-game series in Miami from May 30th to June 2nd Major League Baseball, assuming with the Miami Marlins, moved the 1st 2 games of that series to Puerto Rico.  The move was to celebrate Roberto Clemente, as all of Major League Baseball will celebrate Roberto Clemente Day on May 31st.

My only hope is that the celebration of Roberto Clemente Day is kicked off by Major League Baseball announcing the retirement of the number 21 league wide. It would be long overdue.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Playoff Preview

The good news about the 1st CFB Playoff rankings that were unveiled earlier this week is that there is still plenty of time for all of these rankings to work themselves out.  Of course there has been a lot of 2nd guessing, 1-loss Alabama and Notre Dame teams ahead of 8 undefeated teams, 2 SEC schools but no PAC-12 or Big XII teams are two of the more common complaints.  But as I said, luckily it will all play out on the field. 

We are going to breakdown the rankings and figure out what exactly we can expect as the season continues.

1) CLEMSON TIGERS (8-0, 5-0 ACC)
Next Game: SAT vs #16 Florida State
Best Win: vs #5 Notre Dame 24-22
Worst Loss: N/A
Biggest Remaining Challenge: #16 Florida State this week
Clemson has been probably the most consistent team both week to week and unit to unit on the field.  The Clemson D is one of the top in the nation and the O can also put up points with the best of them.

2) LSU TIGERS (7-0, 4-0 SEC)
Next Game: SAT @ #4 Alabama
Best Win: vs #10 Florida 35-28
Worst Loss: N/A
Biggest Remaining Challenge: #4 Alabama this week
LSU has done it with a power running game and a stingy defense all season.  Saturday in Tuscaloosa will be the Tigers biggest challenge to date.  A win against Alabama will put them in the driver’s seat in the SEC West.

3) OHIO STATE BUCKEYES (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten)
Next Game: SAT vs Minnesota
Best Win: @ Virginia Tech 42-24
Worst Loss: N/A
Biggest Remaining Challenge: vs #7 Michigan State 11/21
Ohio State is the Florida State of this season.  They have not been very impressive, but they keep winning.  Like FSU last year, they probably don’t deserve to be in the rankings, but as long as they win, the defending champion will have a spot reserved in the playoff.

Next Game: SAT vs #2 LSU
Best Win: @ #19 Texas A&M 41-23
Worst Loss: vs #18 Mississippi 43-37
Biggest Remaining Challenge: vs #2 LSU this week
Alabama is a very good team that is not deserving of this ranking.  If they beat LSU on Saturday, then you put them here, but their bad home loss weighs more for me than their handful of good but not great wins.

Next Game: SAT @ Pitt
Best Win: @ #22 Temple 24-20
Worst Loss: @ #1 Clemson 24-22
Biggest Remaining Challenge: @ #11 Stanford 11/28
Notre Dame is not the best 1-loss team.  They will get a chance to earn that title the last game of the season against Stanford.  ND always puts together a tough schedule, but this year none of their opponents lived up to expectations, making it tough to get a good read on the Irish.

6) BAYLOR BEARS (7-0, 4-0 Big XII)
Next Game: THUR @ Kansas State
Best Win: @ Texas Tech 63-35
Worst Loss: N/A
Biggest Remaining Challenge: @ #8 TCU 11/27
Baylor has pounded everyone they have faced, but unfortunately they have played nobody.  Their 3-game stretch in Mid-November will be a make or break stretch for the Bears.

Next Game: SAT @ Nebraska
Best Win: @ #17 Michigan 27-23
Worst Loss: N/A
Biggest Remaining Challenge: @ #3 Ohio State 11/21
Michigan State has been tried and tested, but just keeps winning.  In my eyes they have been the best team in the Big Ten.  When they face Ohio State in Columbus in 3 weeks it will not only be for the Big Ten East, but also likely a playoff spot.

8) TCU HORNED FROGS (8-0, 5-0 Big XII)
Next Game: SAT @ #14 Oklahoma State
Best Win: vs Texas 50-7
Worst Loss: N/A
Biggest Remaining Challenge: vs #6 Baylor 11/27
TCU has not been as dominant as Baylor in their wins over bad opponents.  The Big XII back loading the conference schedule is not doing anyone any favors.  TCU finishes with 3 Top 15 opponents in their final 4 games.

9) IOWA HAWKEYES (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten)
Next Game: SAT @ Indiana
Best Win: @ Wisconsin 10-6
Worst Loss: N/A
Biggest Remaining Challenge: Big Ten Championship Game 12/5
Iowa should be the overwhelming favorite to win the rest of their games.  If that happens, does an undefeated Iowa team from a very weak Big Ten West make the playoffs?

10) FLORIDA GATORS (7-1, 5-1 SEC)
Next Game: SAT vs Vanderbilt
Best Win: vs #18 Mississippi 38-10
Worst Loss: @ #2 LSU 35-28
Biggest Remaining Challenge: vs #16 Florida State 11/28
Florida finally has an explosive offense to go with a tough defense.  The Gators have already clinched a spot in the SEC Title game against most likely the winner of ALA/LSU this week.  That could give them a chance for a rematch against LSU.

At this time last year, Ohio State was ranked #16, so there is still a lot of time for change in these rankings.  Some other teams to keep an eye on outside of the Top 10 are Stanford and Oklahoma.  Stanford still has 2 or 3 games to help their cause and Oklahoma still has games against 3 undefeated teams to state their case.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Week 8 Review

We are 8 into the college football season and I look back and wonder, have we learned anything yet about this season?

Think about it, all the questions that fans ask themselves as the season goes on are still unanswered.  So in this weeks’ review I am going to do my best to answer them or at least try to answer them.

Before we get started on that though, there are 2 other matters that we DO KNOW that need to be discussed.  First, did you see the end of that Florida State – Georgia Tech game?! If not, check it out!

2 weeks in a row now, a last second special teams play goes completely haywire and results in a possible CFB Playoff team losing.  Last week Michigan, this week Florida State.

And how can we not mention the mess at Miami?  Lose by 58, the worst loss in school history.  Fire Al Golden (which we all knew was coming).  Now where does Miami go?  As you know I love coaching searches and the domino effect it has nationwide, I just didn’t think we would have so many openings in the middle of the season.  Normally in college football coaches almost ALWAYS last the season, simply because the number restriction put on by the NCAA for coaches allowed per team.  It isn’t very easy to replace a head coach when every coach is stretched thin already with their prior duties.  We knew it was bad for Golden at Miami, but this bad?

Okay, on to the important questions of the season, not who is going to replace Golden, that is for another time (I plan on writing a coaching rant soon).

The top offense in the country, Baylor, is now going to be without their starting quarterback Seth Russell for an extended period of time, can they still win without him?  Can they make it to the CFB Playoff without him?
First instinct is to say, “No way, Baylor is done!” But then you take a closer look and see that Russell’s backup is not terrible.  I realize that isn’t a ringing endorsement, but the thought behind that is, “How good do you really need to be in that system at Baylor?”  Each of the last 6 years Baylor has averaged over 40 points a game and that is with 4 different quarterbacks.  So is it the player or the system, I’m leaning towards system.  That being said, the backup in question, Jarrett Stidham, is a true freshman that was the 6th ranked dual threat QB in the country last year and had offers from pretty much every school in the country.  He chose to play at Baylor and for Art Briles.  In limited time this year Stidham has gone 24-28 (85.7%!!!!!) for 331 yards, 6 touchdowns and no interceptions.  He has also run for 26 yards and a touchdown.  There will obviously be a drop off from Russell, a guy who has played in the system for 3 years and has over 300 more pass attempts then Stidham, a guy who was playing high school ball at this point last year.  Luckily for Stidham this injury came at the best possible time.  Baylor is off this week before going on the road to Kansas State Thursday November 5th.  Kansas State has yet to win a Big XII game this season.  He will get extra time and extra reps before he plays in that K-State game, then he will get a long week with extra reps before his 1st test, Oklahoma, which is still 3 weeks away.  Is it an ideal situation for Baylor, no, but can they still win?  Yes, I think they can.

Is Washington State under Mike Leech actually good?
Simple answer, YES!  Mike Leach has been off the radar since being fired at Texas Tech in 2009.  While at TTU, he never had a losing record and went 84-43 in 10 seasons.  In his first 3 seasons at Washington State, he was 12-25 and was surely on the hot seat entering his 4th season at the school.  After losing the season opener to FCS Portland State, that seat only got hotter.  Since that game the Cougars have won 5 of 6 including road wins at Oregon and Arizona.  WSU is now 5-2 overall, and 3-1 in PAC-12 play entering this week’s game with Stanford who is the only team ahead of them in the PAC-12 North.  As long as QB Luke Falk and WR Gabe Marks stay healthy, this could be a special year in Pullman.  2 more wins this season and it would give them the most wins since 2003.

Has there been any conference that has proven they deserve at least one spot in the CFB Playoff, regardless of who their eventual champions in?
Of course we could go crazy here and use ridiculous examples of why no conference is safe, but that would just be a waste of time.  Plus, even without going overboard it isn’t a sure thing that any conference is safe.  We are going to just focus on the teams that remain undefeated or have just 1 loss, because nobody with 2 losses is going to make the playoff.  Let’s go conference by conference.
ACC: (Clemson, Duke, Florida State, North Carolina & Pitt)
Clemson is the front-runner in the ACC and if they stay undefeated it will be very difficult to keep them out of the playoff.  However, if they do stumble along the way, I find it hard to believe that there would still be a spot for an ACC team.  Florida St losing to Georgia Tech last week all but eliminates them from contention.  They do still have 2 big road games to help their cause, playing Clemson and Florida.  One key for both Florida State and Clemson is that whoever wins the ACC Coastal division be 11-1 or 10-2 going into the conference championship game.  Duke, North Carolina and Pitt are all still undefeated in the ACC from the Coastal division, but they also all still play each other, starting this week when UNC travels to Pittsburgh.  Pitt has a slight advantage in the ACC race, as they are 4-0 in conference play, where both Duke and North Carolina are 3-0.  Pitt’s lone loss is to an undefeated Iowa team, which certainly helps the Panthers.  They also have a chance to make a statement with 1 last non-conference game against Notre Dame next week.  Pitt gets North Carolina at home and travels to Duke in November.  North Carolina, who’s lost to South Carolina the 1st week of the season looks a lot worse now than it did 6 weeks ago.  UNC’s fate will be determined in their next 2 games as they host Duke next week after their Thursday night game with Pitt this week.  Duke, also with just 1 loss, lost to Northwestern, which like UNC looked better a few weeks ago than it does now.  The best case for the ACC is to get Pitt into the championship game at 11-1, with that lone loss being to an undefeated Big Ten team.  The ACC then needs the winner of the FSU-Clemson game to run the table and win the ACC Championship game.  Anything less probably leaves the ACC out of the playoff picture.
Big XII: (Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU)
The nice thing about the Big XII is that they have a balanced schedule where all 10 teams play each other.  The downfall is that they do not have a championship game and that leaves the potential for a tie atop the conference like last year, when Baylor and TCU were both left out of the playoff after finishing tied for 1st place.  The interesting thing to consider in this instance is that the conference also set up the scheduling that none of these 4 teams have played each other yet.  They won’t play this week either.  The Last Man Standing Contest in the Big XII begins November 7th.  Oklahoma is the 1 team in this group that already has a loss, and it was an ugly one, losing to rival Texas.  The Big XII could be on the outside looking in once again this year when the playoff teams are announced if Oklahoma runs the table, giving every team at least 1 loss.  A tie atop the standings could also prove to be damaging to the Big XII.  The Big XII will be rooting for either Baylor, TCU or Oklahoma State to make a clean sweep over the next month, giving them a clear cut candidate for the playoff.
Big Ten:  (Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State)
The Big Ten, like the Big XII will have a chance to sort itself out on the field.  Michigan State and Ohio State still are yet to play, and the winner of that (and the EAST) will most likely square off against Iowa.  The Hawkeyes would have to lose 2 of their last 5 games and have Wisconsin win out for them not to make the Big Ten Championship.  Now the biggest question is does an undefeated Iowa team get into the playoff?  Iowa’s best non-conference win is Pitt.  Their best win of the season will be in the Big Ten Championship if they end up undefeated.  I don’t know if that is good enough.  If either Ohio State or Michigan finish the season unbeaten, they will certainly get into the playoff.  One interesting scenario is what if Michigan beats Ohio State? If that happens, there is a chance that there is a 3-way tie for the Big Ten East between Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.  A Michigan-Iowa Big Ten Championship Game would not be good for the Big Ten.  It would also open up the possibility of a 1-loss Ohio State or Michigan State team getting into the playoff without even playing for the conference championship.
PAC-12: (Stanford, Utah)
This is about as simple as it gets, Utah is in the PAC-12 South and Stanford is in the PAC-12 North, those are the only 2 teams with a chance to play in the playoff from this conference.  The winner of the championship game gets in, the loser is out.  That is, if both of these are the 2 teams that are representing their divisions in that championship game.  Utah plays in the tougher division, but they have already played USC and Arizona State.  Their biggest remaining game is UCLA, which could steal that bid to the conference championship game with a win.  The PAC-12 South is another division (like the Big Ten East) that could have a sloppy tiebreaker in play.  Utah is currently in 1st place, but UCLA, USC and Arizona State are all just 1 game back.  In the North, Stanford has a 1 ½ game lead over 2nd place Washington State and could all but wrap up the division with a win in Pullman this week.  The downfall for Stanford however could be their regular season finale, a non-conference game against Notre Dame.
SEC: (Alabama, Florida, LSU)
If one of these 3 teams win the SEC, they will be in the CFB Playoff.  Florida has the easiest path, playing in the SEC East.  Florida will still have to beat Florida State to close out their regular season, then whoever comes out of the SEC West.  Both LSU and Alabama still play each other (November 7th) as well as others from the SEC West.  If any of these 3 schools win out, they will be in the CFB Playoff. 

Has there been any conference that has proven they should be in consideration for 2 of the 4 CFB Playoff spots?
This is something a lot of people have talked about, especially about the SEC, but honestly I think it will take a lot to convince anyone that one conference deserves half of the bids to the playoff.  The playoff is already set up that 1 conference champion is left out, if 2 teams from one conference get in, that means 2 champions will be left out, while 1 team that didn’t win their conference makes it.  I don’t think this is likely to happen this year, but let’s take a look at any of the possibilities.
The ACC is widely considered the weakest conference of the Power 5, fair or not, and many think that even an undefeated Clemson would be the one left out if all the other conferences have high ranking teams.  That being said, I think it is safe to say that the ACC will not have 2 entrants into the playoff this season.  The best the ACC could do this year would be to have 2 1-loss teams.  It would take convincing for the selection committee to put in 1 team from the ACC with 1 loss, let alone 2.
Big XII:
The Big XII has a chance for 2 playoff spots after getting shut out last year, but it will take some crazy happenings for it to fall in place.  The 2 likely candidates are Baylor and TCU.  Both schools are undefeated and have been near the top of the rankings all season.  These 2 play the 2nd to last week of the season AT TCU.  The only way I see both teams making the playoff is if they play each other in a closely contended game and the home team (TCU) wins.  Then again, that exact thing happened last year, with Baylor winning a 61-58 showdown at home last year and both teams were still shutout.  However, that is when they both had 1 loss.  Maybe an undefeated TCU and a 1-loss Baylor team could make it this year, if everything else falls right for them.

Big Ten:
The Big Ten has a few different ways that I could see them landing 2 teams in the playoff (even though I think the conference as a whole is very overrated).  The first way is if an undefeated Iowa wins the Big Ten Championship game over an undefeated Ohio State or Michigan State.  In that instance, I believe that Iowa gets in by default, but I think the loser of that game also has a strong case to make the playoff if there are no other undefeated conference champions to pick from.

The PAC-12 is much like the ACC where they may not even get 1 team in the playoff let alone holding out hope for 2.  The PAC-12 may even have a tougher hill to climb than the ACC however.  Where the ACC has the potential of 2 1-loss teams, there is no chance of that in the PAC-12.  With no undefeated teams remaining and just Utah and Stanford with 1-loss, the best the conference could do is 1 remaining 1-loss team after the conference championship game.

The SEC has 3 teams that could end the regular season with 1-loss, 2 of them which would end up in the SEC Championship.  I think there is a distinct possibility that the winner of the SEC Championship and the 2nd place SEC West team or, if Florida wins the SEC Championship over an undefeated LSU team, both of those teams make the playoff.  Obviously this would all depend on how the other conferences finish, but I feel like this is the most likely situation for 1 conference to claim to playoff spots.

What 1-loss teams are in the best position to make a serious claim at a playoff bid?
Notre Dame as an independent has a lot working against it when it comes to the playoff selection committee, but they have put themselves into a good position this season.  Their only loss is to an undefeated Clemson team on the road.  They have also played just enough other Power 5 teams to make themselves warrant their high ranking.  At the beginning of the season their schedule looked brutal, but teams like Georgia Tech and Texas have not lived up to their preseason expectations, allowing the Irish to get to this point in their schedule with just 1 loss.  Notre Dame still has 3 games remaining over ranked teams, all on the road.  If ND can run the table they would have to be considered one of the top 1-loss teams in the country.  There are 10 teams remaining from Power 5 conferences (plus Notre Dame) that have just 1 loss.  Let’s see how they would rank with the rest of the 1-loss teams in the country at this point.

1) Stanford would be my top 1-loss team right now.  They are playing as good as anyone in the country and their only loss came in Week 1, when ESPN forced them to travel east and still play a noon game (I’ve discussed this in the past, I’m not a fan of this).  Stanford has already beaten USC on the road and have a 21-point win over UCLA under their belt.  They close the season with home games against Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame.  The last game will be a make shift elimination game for playoff contention if both enter that game still with just 1 loss.

2) Alabama is my number 2 team and I think there is a pretty big drop off between 2 and 3.  Alabama has looked great at times this year, but also very un-Alabama like other times this season.  Their loss came at home against Mississippi.  They didn’t look like a playoff team this week at home either, when they needed a last minute touchdown to beat a pretty average Tennessee team.  The good thing for Alabama is that they still have plenty of opportunity to prove themselves with upcoming games vs LSU and at Mississippi State in back to back weeks.  If they take care of those 2 and the final 2 regular season games, they will also get a highly ranked Florida team in the SEC Championship Game.

3) Florida got on the map after pasting Ole Miss 38-10, just 2 weeks after Mississippi beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa.  The Gators then pounded the 2-time defending SEC East Champion Missouri, 21-3 on the road.  Florida also had a solid showing, losing to LSU by 1 touchdown, while playing with their back-up QB.  Florida should only improve as new QB Treon Harris gets more reps and more comfortable in the offense.  Playing in the SEC East, they have a pretty easy road to the SEC Championship game, they do however still have their end of the season rivalry game with Florida State, another 1-loss team.

4) Notre Dame as mentioned above, has put themselves in a good position to claim a playoff spot with just 1-loss.  They do still have 3 road challenges ahead, when they take on undefeated Temple this week, 1-loss Pitt next week and another 1-loss Stanford team the final week of the season.

5) Florida State is ranked in this position right now, but they still have 2 games on the road against Clemson and Florida, which could certainly knock them from playoff contention.  The Seminoles started the season slow, but had been playing better before tripping up last week on the road to Georgia Tech.

6) Oklahoma is still in contention to win the Big XII, but their lone loss was a bad one, losing to Texas while the Longhorns were in the midst of playing their worst football of the year.  The Sooners still have a chance to prove they belong, as they have 3 games left against undefeated teams (TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma St).

7) Utah is a team that I’m still not completely sold on.  Their best wins are against overrated Oregon and Cal teams as well as beating Michigan in Week 1.  That was not the same Michigan team that has taken the field recently in Ann Arbor.  With a pretty weak remaining schedule, UCLA looks like they would be the only team that could challenge the Utes.  Utah would still have a PAC-12 Championship game with Stanford if they survive the final 5 games on their schedule.

8-10) Duke/UNC/Pitt I don’t think that any of these teams are really a threat to make a run to an 11-1 finish of the regular season.  All 3 are still undefeated in the ACC Coastal division, but I don’t think it is out of the realm of possibility that the division winner still loses 1 more game.  These 3 teams all still play each other, so things should sort themselves out, but I wouldn’t consider any a real threat to be sitting with 1 loss at the end of the season, putting themselves in playoff talk.

A slow week, only 1 game on the schedule is between 2 ranked teams.

North Carolina @ Pitt – Thursday 7:00pm, ESPN
Oregon @ Arizona State – Thursday 10:30pm, ESPN
USC @ Cal – Saturday 3:00pm, FOX
Oklahoma State @ Texas Tech – Saturday 3:30pm, ESPN
Notre Dame @ Temple – Saturday 8:00pm, ABC
Stanford @ Washington State – Saturday 10:30pm, ESPN

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Pitt Panthers Mid Season Report

We are now at the mid-way point in the college football season, so I wanted to go back and take a look at the 1st 6 games for the Pitt Panthers.

Pitt is 5-1 for the 1st time since the 2009 season, when the Panthers started 9-1.  Of those 5 wins for Pitt, 3 of them have come against teams that beat them last year (Akron, Virginia, Georgia Tech).  They also have wins against Youngstown State, who they lost to the last time the two teams played in Paul Chryst’s debut and Virginia Tech, who was considered to be one of the two favorites in the ACC Coastal this season (Georgia Tech the other).  Pitt has played 4 of 6 games on the road, winning 3 of them.  The Panthers only loss has come to an undefeated Iowa team on the road in a game that ended on a 57-yard field goal to give the Hawkeyes a 27-24 victory.

The Panthers are 3-0 to start conference play, something that last happened in 2010 as a member of the Big East.  Pitt still has 5 ACC games remaining on the schedule, to go with a non-conference game against Notre Dame. 

The Pitt offense suffered a major loss in the 1st half of the 1st game of the season when they saw the reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year, James Conner, go down with a season ending knee injury.  They have also seen their returning starter at quarterback, Chad Voytik, get replaced by graduate transfer Nate Peterman.  The offense has not been the same without these 2 players on the field.  It currently ranks 105th in the nation in total offense, averaging 346 yards per game.  Last year the Panthers were 40th in the country, averaging nearly 100 more yards per game.

Peterman offers a different style of play than Voytik.  Peterman has a bigger and better arm than Voytik, but really seemed to struggle grasping the system early on, making many fans, myself included, wonder why he was the choice over Voytik.  I think the biggest problem with the offense has come in the many differences between the Peterman and Voytik.  The thing that made Voytik so good last year was his running ability.  Last year he had 2 games in which he ran for over 100 yards.  Peterman isn’t that type of player.  He is a pocket passer, which Voytik is not.  Although both quarterbacks are learning a new system under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, this system is a much better fit for Peterman than Voytik.  Peterman has gotten better in each of his last 3 games as quarterback, with his 3 touchdown performance against Georgia Tech on Saturday being his best game of the year.

With Conner out for the year and a new quarterback at the helm, a lot of defensives have stacked the box to take the run away, while also trying to shutdown Tyler Boyd, thus forcing Peterman and the inexperienced wide receiving corp to beat them.  To this point nobody has been able to take Boyd out of the game, as he has 41 of the teams 91 receptions, despite being suspended for the season opener.  Also, the trio of Qadree Ollison, Chris James and Darrin Hall have been just good enough at running back to keep the running threat in play.

The play of the offensive line coming into the season was a question mark due to injuries.  Since then, the Panthers have stayed somewhat healthy and the unit as a whole has performed well.  Pitt has allowed just 14 sacks in 6 games this season and have averaged just over 5 negative plays per game on the offensive side of the ball.  Considering some of the more high profile type offenses in the country like, West Virginia, Boise State and Arizona State all average nearly double that, 5 isn’t all that bad.  Nationally that ranks around 50th out of the 127 teams in college football this season.

Basically, the offense is a work in progress.  It has been just good enough to this point in the season to produce the results necessary for this team.  This is a young and inexperienced unit that will only get better the more they play together as a group.  That is a good thing for this Panther team.

When Pat Narduzzi came to Pitt, most people figured he would bring his tough, physical and stingy defense with him, they just didn’t think it would produce so quickly.  With a lot of the same players back from last year, the defensive side of the ball has put up considerably better numbers.  The Panthers are allowing 60 yards and 5 points less per game this season.  In just 6 games, they have also already surpassed their total sack numbers from last year (19 to 22).  Pitt is ranked in the top 20 national in 1st Downs Allowed (6th), Passing Yards Allowed (12th), Sacks (3rd), Tackles for Losses (19th), Total Defense (17th).

Two of the players this season that have helped the defense improve are freshman safety Jordan Whitehead, who leads the team in tackles and senior defensive lineman Ejuan Price, who has been a menace in opposing backfields, leading Pitt tackles for losses and 2nd on the team in sacks.  Whitehead, a highly touted recruit last year, has come right in and contributed immediately.  Price, has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, but finally seems healthy and playing to his potential.

The Pitt defense has been what has kept the Panthers in games this season while the offense was trying to find its footing.  That is a complete role reversal of the two units from last year, when the Pitt offense had to outscore their opponents because their defense couldn’t stop anyone.

The one area that Pitt could certainly improve at on the defensive side of the ball is in the takeaway department.  Pitt has only forced 8 turnovers this season (2 fumbles, 6 interceptions).  The Panthers only forced 14 turnovers all of last season, so they are ahead of that pace, but that is still well below the national average.

This unit has been a pleasant surprise for the Panthers this season and they have needed it to be with the offense being sluggish at times.  The defense is playing fast and aggressive and the more success they have the more confidence the players will get.  The defense has been very good this season and should get even better as the season progresses.

The Pitt Special Teams unit hasn’t been all that special this season.  While they have had their moments of greatness, they have been just average for the most part so far.  Pitt has scored 2 touchdowns on PT this year, a kick return for a score in the opener vs Youngstown State and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown at Iowa.  In the kicking game, although Chris Blewitt made a clutch 56-yard FG to win the game against Georgia Tech, he has just been okay overall this season, going just 6 of 9 in field goals.  He has made all 21 extra points, but if you are a scholarship kicker in division 1 football, you should make all your extra points.  The punting of Ryan Winslow has been good, but not great.  He has shown the ability to place the ball and have some touch punting inside the 20, but he hasn’t done it on a consistent basis.  In the return game, Pitt hasn’t been great on returns or on kick coverage.  I guess the best way you can look at it is that they are averaging about 7 yards more per kick return than allowed and almost 3 yards more per punt.  That net yardage can add up and shift field position, which is never a bad thing.  The Panthers have blocked 3 kicks this year, which is tied for 2nd in the nation.  That is obviously pretty good.

For me the having an excellent Special Teams unit is a bonus.  Special Teams can be a game changer for you if you do things right.  At the same time, it can cost you a game if you do things poorly.  Pitt has done just enough on special teams to impact games for a positive, while not having their special teams cost them any games.

Another season, another coaching staff.  That is just the way things have gone at Pitt in the past 5 years or so.  The excitement that came in with Pat Narduzzi and his staff has certainly not worn off to this point.  One of the things that Narduzzi preached early on and has continued to talk about was changing the mindset of this team.  He wanted them to expect to win and be confident.  I feel that the Panthers have done that in every game this season.  In years past, Pitt would not have been 5-1 at this point.  They have only outscored their opponents by an average of 6 points, yet are still 5-1.  That means that they are winning close games.  They are winning in the 4th quarter.  That has historically been when Pitt decided to fold.  Not this year.  I think the coaching staff is the reason.

Pitt has 6 games left beginning this Saturday at Syracuse.  After that, the Panthers leave Heinz Field just once, a road game against Duke.  That means Pitt gets 4 of their final 5 games at home.  If Pitt can get past Syracuse this week, they will be 6-1 with 5 of those 7 games on the road.  Coming home for that final stretch could be the difference for this team.  They will get North Carolina at home in a game that should greatly impact the ACC Coastal division.  With both undefeated in ACC play, the winner will be in the driver’s seat going into the final month of the season.  They also get Notre Dame at home.  The Irish have much more talent than Pitt this season, but that hasn’t stopped the Panthers in previous years against Notre Dame.  Pitt has won 2 of the last 3 at Heinz Field between these 2 teams and each of the last 6 meeting have been decided by a touchdown or less.

In the Panthers final 6 games they have 3 games in which they should win (Syracuse, Louisville, Miami), 2 games in which could go either way (UNC, Duke) and 1 in which they will be considered an underdog (Notre Dame).  That said, we know how Pitt works, they could go 1-5 with their lone win being against ND and I don’t know if I would be surprised.  Either way, it should be a fun final 6 games.