Tuesday, May 20

Don't Look (me up) Now...

As a preface, I've heard the chorus to that song probably 50-100 times the last two weekends alone. Rise Against's "Prayer of the Refugee" that is. When you follow so-called "e-sports" stuff like that tends to happen. So excuse the weird title, halfway expect some sort of followup on that comment in the next two weeks, and let's get rolling.

Doooooooooown.... ok, now it's out of my system.

Anyway let's take a look at the sports landscape as it stands today. In the NHL, the Stanley Cup Finals will feature one of the ultimate good vs evil stories with Pittsburgh facing off against Detroit. The NBA features absolutely no surprises with Detroit vs Boston in the East and San Antonio vs Los Angeles in the West. Officially, the NBA has been dead to me for a few years now... indeed, while I've followed the series online, I've probably watched parts of 5 games total this season. Manchester United won the premiership. That's something I actually care about (yes, really).

If boring as hell to watch on TV until August, the MLB at least provides something I could care to blog about. But alas, May baseball to me is the end of spring training. I mean, it's fun to go to the games but when you look at two of the last three NL champions, you realize that the season starts in mid/late July.

So that leaves us with the king of sports, college football. Spring practices are providing us with a small amount of information... let's see what's the hype in the Big 12.

Last season was the best instance of divisional parity the Big 12 has seen since Colorado upset Texas in a rematch in 2001, while conference-best Nebraska was left out due to tiebreakers. (That's not just my opinion; it's fact.) Anyway since 2000 we've had Oklahoma win the conference championship game five times and lost it once. The other two seasons, Texas won one and lost one. Again, in my opinion, the South team was better every time - so it makes sense that they won six of eight with one loss coming down to the final seconds. Some of the victories have come by scores of 70-3 and 42-3; even last season against a very good Missouri team, Oklahoma dominated 38-17. Nonetheless, it was a North team, Kansas, who won their BCS bowl and finished with the best record when all was said and done, and Missouri went on to an impressive 38-7 victory in the Cotton Bowl, setting the bowl's rushing record in the process. I wouldn't call the North better; Oklahoma was pretty clearly able to beat Missouri consistently, Texas did have yet another 10-win season, and Texas Tech did go on to yet another crazy bowl comeback and a strong finish for the divisional #3. But the North was no longer the redheaded stepchild to a superior South. There was parity, and parity's a good thing. It's party with i in the middle.

This season, the theme in the Big 12 is more of the same. The teams who were good last year will be good this year... those who weren't, won't be. The biggest changes in record will be more due to strength of schedule than anything else. (Here's looking at you, Kansas.)

Colorado is heading for a winning season.
Verdict: False

The Buffs really have not found suitable replacements for star CB Terrence Wheatley nor leading rusher Hugh Charles. The aerial attack should be improved with a better offensive line, basically the same receiver corps, and another year under everybody's belt. However, in the pass-heavy Big 12, the Buffs attack is still rather average and they're going to be weaker on the ground and more suspect in coverage than the top half of the conference. Talent-wise, there's no reason the team couldn't win 7 or 8 games, except that West Virginia and Florida State are two nonconference foes and the conference slate includes a visit from Texas and trips to both Kansas and Missouri (and A&M, for whatever that's worth). Avoiding Oklahoma and Texas Tech is nice, but realistically the Buffs would be lucky to go 1-4 in the aforementioned games, and they're still not the type of team who can just expect to win the rest of their games.

Iowa State won't finish last in the North division.
Verdict: False

The Cyclones lost Bret Meyer and Todd Blythe. They already finished 3-9 last season and it'll probably be about that kind of year again as they have to replace the bulk of their offensive production with those two losses alone.

Kansas is a legitimate two-sport school.
Verdict: True, but...

Look, I love what Kansas did. As a Big 12 fan, Oklahoma continues to embarass the conference in the BCS and the Jayhawks basically stepped up in a big and completely unexpected way to save face for the other 11 teams last season. (credit Texas and Missouri with big bowl wins too) But let's look at the situation for 2008: Kansas loses arguably the best corner in the NCAA, a 1000-yard receiver, a 1000-yard rusher, and both tackles on the o-line. One of the softest schedules in the NCAA has been beefed up to include a visit to South Florida and divisional games against Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech. As always, Missouri is on the schedule. I can see anything from 3-2 to 1-4 in those games - meaning, Kansas is looking at 8 or 9 wins in the regular season, realistically. It's not bad by any means, but don't expect them to be playing in January. Sorry, guys.

Kansas State will go three straight seasons without losing to Texas.
Verdict: True

Texas isn't on their schedule. *groan* okay that was a bad hype line. But how do you hype K-State, honestly? They lose a 1000-yard rusher and their top receiver, Jordy Nelson. The key games will be Louisville and Texas Tech in the first half of the season - particularly the Louisville game will be one where the Wildcats are underdogs but might be able to pull it off. There's a 15-day stretch when the Cats face Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri and you can expect that to be ugly.

Missouri is a legitimate national title contender.
Verdict: True!

I'm not gonna lie, I'm excited about the 2008 season for Missouri. Chase Daniel is back and with him return Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman, Danario Alexander, and Tommy Saunders. It's not the ridiculous volume of talent they have at WR and TE last season, but it's still more that sufficient given Daniel's mechanics, Coffman's size, and Maclin's speed. The questions on the offensive side of the ball will be at line (3 lost starters) and running back. Of the latter, I like Jimmy Jackson to be able to step in and give some punch, and De'Vion Moore had a great spring practice. On defense, 10 starters return from a unit that found itself in the second half of the season.

What about the schedule? Missouri opens against an Illinois team who may be searching for an offensive identity without star RB Rashard Mendenhall. The rest of the nonconference schedule isn't worth looking at, and the conference schedule is notably without Oklahoma and Texas Tech. There are road trips to Texas and a hosting of Kansas to consider, as well as a possible conference championship game matchup with Oklahoma, Texas, or Texas Tech.

Missouri can go to the BCS Championship game with a 12-1 record as long as they don't lose after the Texas game. With the increased importance of the voter polls (compared to the last time the voters' #1 and #2 didn't go to the championship), it will be hard for a program like Missouri to be ranked in the top two if they lose a late game. The Tigers still do not have the respect as a program that LSU, Florida, USC, Ohio State, and the like have built over the seasons.

Nebraska win't allow 70 points in a game in 2008.
Verdict: True

I'm tempted to say "maybe" but surely Texas Tech won't run up the score that much, will they? The bottom line is that despite bringing in a great DC, the Huskers also lost five starters on each side of the ball. For an already suspect defense to lose Ruud and McKeon at LB and Grixby as their top corner, Pelini will be looking at a modest defensive improvemnt being offset by a modest offensive decline. Sure, Ganz has shown that he can replace Keller, but I'm worried about what the losses of Maurice Purify and Terrence Nunn means for the receiving corps. This team is looking at 5 or 6 wins again, but give Bo time.

Baylor will win a conference game in 2008.
Verdict: Maybe

But looking at their nonconference schedule, Baylor's also in for a 10-loss season.

Oklahoma will follow up their regular season with a BCS bowl victory.
Verdict: Depends

Despite not really being a Sooners fan, it just kills me to see this team kick the crap out of their regular season opposition only to choke away BCS bowl after BCS bowl. Texas and Missouri stomped their bowl opponents last season - it's not like OU is going through these seasons untested; they've been legitimate choke artists.

Offensively, OU is in the strong position of having an outstanding QB, outstanding offensive line, and a solid RB corps despite the loss of Allen Patrick. They will need to replace Malcolm Kelly at WR but do have a decent corps with a standout tight end, Jermaine Gresham. Defensively, however, they suffer four huge losses (Curtis Lofton at LB and Reggie Smith, Marcus Walker, and DJ Wolfe in the secondary) and return just five starters in total. Nonetheless, OU is certainly the favorite to win the Big 12 South and I'd give them better odds than anyone else of winning the conference crown, given their 2-0 record against Missouri last season with both teams expecting little change in their overall quality. OU won't be the best team in the country with the holes they'll have in the secondary, but if they face a team without a great passing game (Va Tech, Georgia?) in a BCS bowl they could have a matchup advantage.

Oklahoma State is bowl-bound in 2008.
Verdict: False

Despite the influx of juco's to shore up their defense, Oklahoma State is reeling from the losses of Dantrell Savage and Adarius Bowman. Competency does not replace excellence, and these were the Cowboys' positions of excellence in 2007. Games against Washington State, Texas A&M, and Colorado could be the difference between 5 wins or 8 wins; I'd bet on 6.

Texas will win the Big 12.
Verdict: False

The Longhorns simply lost too much talent on both sides of the ball to outplay Oklahoma in a 12 game season. Offensively, they must replace a 1,600 yard rusher in Jamaal Charles, along with their best receiver (Limas Sweed), one of the best TEs in the country (Jermichael Finley), and their leading receiver (Nate Jones). Throw Billy Pittman's name in with that, and you've got some real holes to fill at the skill positions. The players stepping up into these positions are all good, but all a slight downgrade. The offensive line loses just two players but both were excellent. Looking at the size of the 08 line, though... good god. Try an average of 6'5" 310 - a senior, three juniors, and a sophomore. Bottom line: with improved play from McCoy, this offense can be better than it was last year, but if McCoy plays like he did last season then there will be trouble.

Defensively, Texas returns just four starters. They have a new DC, and the secondary they lost wasn't that good anyway. I'm not that concerned about the front seven, because those are very strong recruiting areas for Texas who always seems to be able to replace DL's and LB's. Indeed, new starters like Roy Miller, Sergio Kindle, and Roddrick Muckelroy have extensive experience, and the linebackers in particular read like a who's who of we would have started at just about anywhere else last season. Henry Melton successfully transitioned from bruising RB to a speedy DE, and should restore some of the once-fearsome pass rush. From what I've been reading, Texas's DL and LBs are being underrated by 10-20% in most previews. However, the secondary is truly frightening - for Longhorns fans. Ryan Palmer is the only returning starter and he wasn't all that last season. This group seems a little small which could be a real issue when they face a team like Missouri. Texas' defense will probably rely heavily on Muschamp's coverage schemes and blitzes to take the heat off of their back four.

With Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Kansas all on the schedule, Texas will face four top 25 opponents from their conference alone, which is somewhat reminiscent of the SEC. What's really at stake here is Texas' seven season streak of 10+ wins. If the Horns go 2-2 in that stretch (I'm assuming this eliminates them from winning the South), then they cannot lose more than one other game counting their bowl and still reach 10 victories. Despite a notable dropoff around the 6/7 spot, the Big 12 has a crazy top 5 right now and that will make this the toughest season in that stretch should Texas keep it up.

Texas A&M is a better place without Dennis Francione.
Verdict: Undeniably True

I've never been a big Aggies fan, but honestly, how do you replace a class act like RC Slocum with Dennis Francione? Is all that rambling about tradition and what it means to be an Aggie a bunch of bull? Well, perhaps it's not after all. A&M finally said enough is enough, asking Francione to resign in the heat of a newsletter controversy and of course disappointing bowl losses. Mike Sherman will be brought in formerly from the Green Bay Packers, another organization steeped in tradition and all that stuff that makes an Aggie feel all warm inside. It's a good fit and I'm happy for the players, the fans, and the university.

On to the football team. Stephen McGee, Jorvorskie Lane, and Mike Goodson all return on offense, and so we would expect the unit to be it's inconsistent yet explosive self despite six new faces in total. Sherman has stated an intention to get Goodson more of a featured role in the offense, which has to be a good thing for this unit's production. Joe Kines promises to bring a more aggressive approach to defense, reminiscent of how the Aggies used to play in the 90s, but don't expect instant change overnight. This is not a program that has had outstanding recruiting the past few seasons; they will simply get more out of what they have than they have been recently.

The Aggies are probably in for five losses this season, but they're definitely back on the right track.

Texas Tech will win the Big 12 South.
Verdict: False

If it was going to happen any year, it would be this year. The Harrell to Crabtree combo will continue to be devastating in 2008, and 10 starters return on offense. They did lose a receiver - like those don't grow on trees in Lubbock. Defensively, TT returns eight and their two losses in the secondary are replaced with a pair of seniors - Marcus Bunton at CB and Anthony Hines at SS. Really, their biggest loss might be Alex Trileca at kicker who of course is the man who sent the Insight Bowl to overtime with a career-long kick two years ago in one of the greatest bowl comebacks ever. Overall we're looking at a sick offense and an above-average defense.

The schedule avoids Missouri but does take trips to Oklahoma and Kansas. Texas is a home game and the nonconference schedule is the utter joke you'd expect from Texas Tech. (Eastern Washington, SMU, and Massachussetts - nice) With that in mind, there probably is a 30-40% chance that they'll win the division. Make no mistake, though, the Red Raiders would be huge underdogs against Missouri who can go toe to toe with them in an aerial battle while also running the ball and playing defense.

So why won't they win the South? Oklahoma has vastly superior offensive and defensive lines. Because of that, I like the Sooners in their head to head matchup, and it's unlikely OU will lose two conference games if they beat Texas Tech.