College Football Can Learn From Hoops

One of the highlights of the early college basketball season was Duke at Wisconsin. Two top-5 teams battled it out at the Kohl Center as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. This annual event featuring marquee match-ups of teams from each conference got me thinking: Can you imagine if Oregon had to play at Alabama the first weekend of the college football season?

I understand football is a more taxing sport and hence the cupcake and creampuff non-conference slate for many teams. But rarely do we get marquee non-conference match-ups in late August or early September. For every Wisconsin vs LSU and Michigan State at Oregon, there’s a Tennessee-Chattanooga at Alabama. College football teams understand one loss can ruin a dream of the 4-team playoff and a chance at a title. But look at the teams in the final 4, 3 with 1-loss, only 1 undefeated team. You can bet Florida State would have been a higher seed had they played at Baylor and lost a close game than squeaking out wins vs the lowly teams in the ACC all year.

Basketball teams understand that losses early don’t kill their chances. They can boost RPI, Strength-of-Schedule and other metrics the tournament committee loves by scheduling tough games in November/December because they’ll most likely get in the tourney anyway. Now with a playoff system in football, especially one that mostly likely expands to 8 teams, it would benefit all teams, and fans, to play heavyweight opponents early in the year.

Some of the more memorable moments in a season can start early. Also, we’ll have a better gauge on the teams if they play true opponents, rather than FCS and weak FBS teams. Michigan State at Oregon was a huge game early this year. The result gave us a better indication of each team’s true level. Michigan State vs directional Michigan school du jour does not help the committee determine their place among the elite.

I’d love to see college football, especially powers like Alabama, Ohio State, Auburn, Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon, USC commit to games like this. The SEC/Pac 12 football weekend would be epic Can you imagine Alabama having to travel to Eugene in late August, Auburn at USC, Ole Miss at UCLA?!

The 4-team playoff has already taken what makes “March Madness” work (limited participants, controversy, selection shows). Now they just need to create the early-season drama in the same fashion. Get it done, FBS!

Badgers, Gophers Showdown for the West

It’s been a long time since fans could say the rivalry game between Minnesota and Wisconsin meant anything more than the Axe. The longest running rivalry in Division I, now the FBS, hasn’t had many moments like Ohio State-Michigan with the winner having a leg up for the Rose Bowl and/or the Big Ten Championship. But this year the winner will take home Paul Bunyan’s Axe AND a chance at a Big Ten Championship, earning a spot in the title game versus Ohio State in Indianapolis.

Badgers Rolling

Wisconsin is used to this spot. They’ve been the big brother in this rivalry since 1993, constantly beating up on the Gophers and toying with their spirit. They are the prohibitive favorite again. Heisman candidate RB Melvin Gordon has been on fire. But the play of QB Joel Stave has been a difference maker since their early season losses. Connor McEvoy struggled throwing in a marquee match-up vs LSU, but Stave has solidified the QB spot and has been able to keep defenses honest against Gordon and the running game. As usual the offensive line is dominant, as is the defense. The Badgers are #1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense and total defense. They’ve found the tradition of Bucky once again, power running and stalwart defense.

Upstart Gophers

Minnesota is in unusual territory, having a shot at a Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl berth, and at minimum a Jan 1st bowl game. The blueprint for Minnesota’s success is very similar to Wisconsin’s, a pounding ground game and solid defense and special teams. However, none are at the level of Wisconsin just yet. RB David Cobb has been outstanding behind a good offensive line, but Cobb tweaked a hamstring in a 28-24 win at Nebraska last weekend. The improved secondary has been a huge plus for Minnesota. Outside of an ugly loss to Illinois, the Gophers have lost to 2 teams in the FBS Playoff, TCU & Ohio State. Minnesota comes in with an edge and feels they can win in Madison. Flawless execution are going to be needed and perhaps a huge special teams play could be the difference.

Prediction: The Gophers rush defense is 6th and the pass defense is 8th in the Big Ten. However, most fans would rather see the pass defense tested than see a motivated Melvin Gordon. Wisconsin’s defense was stout at Iowa and vs Nebraska in back-to-back wins. Minnesota is more physical than both those teams. The two teams are even in Punt Return and Kick Return avg. But MN has an edge in INTs, Punting, Kick Coverage, while WI has the better FG kicker. I don’t see the pass rush being a huge key because both teams will primarily run the ball. Since the game is in Madison, you have to like the Badgers to make another trip to the Big Ten title game and face Ohio Sate.

Wisconsin 27

Minnesota 21

Packers Take Place Atop NFC North

Thanks to another huge day from QB Aaron Rodgers and the defense, the Green Bay Packers have moved into a 1st-place tie with Detroit in the NFC North.

The offense set the tone early, the defense took over and the Packers dismantled the Philadelphia Eagles 53-20. The Eagles had come in leading the NFC in scoring average and with a 7-2 record. But with Mark Sanchez leading the offense in a frigid Lambeau Field, I was shocked the line was only GB -5.5. The Packers jumped out to a 30-6 halftime lead and never looked back. Rodgers finished 22-for-36 for 341 yards and 3 TDs. Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson both went over 100 yards receiving. Rodgers has yet to throw an interception at home this season. I repeat: RODGERS HAS YET TO THROW AN INTERCEPTION AT HOME THIS SEASON.

The Lions lost at 9-1 Arizona Sunday in a defensive slugfest to drop to 7-3, tied with GB. So who has the advantage heading into the final 6 games of 2014? Here are 3 reasons GB will win the NFC North (though I do think both will make the playoffs):

1. Experience – GB has all the experience when it comes to winning games in December, earning playoff spots, and winning playoff games. Detroit has none of those. Rodgers, Matthews, Peppers, Nelson and maybe more importantly, Coach Mike McCarthy has loads of experience in tough, cold games when a win gets you in.

2. Power Running Game – Eddie Lacy hasn’t had a stellar year, but he is the epitome of ground and pound. His size and power will be important in cold games, when weather is a factor and the opponent is tired and battered from a 16-game season. Detroit’s Joique Bell is another physical runner, but the Lions primary back is Reggie Bush when healthy. I trust Lacy to get me 3 yards when I need 2 more than Bell.

3. Schedule – Detroit now has to go to red-hot New England for a date with one of the AFC’s best. They follow that up with a relatively easy stretch with 3 straight at home vs CHI, TB and MIN. However, if they come out of that at 10-4, the Lions finish the season at CHI and at GB to end the year. The Lions will most likely be 10-6, maybe 11-5 if they win at CHI. The Packers get the Patriots at home after traveling to Minnesota this weekend. Their final stretch includes vs ATL, at BUF, at TB and vs Detroit. I don’t see them losing any of those final 4. At worst the Packers go 11-5. At best, they win out and finish 13-3, easily winning the division.

5 Things I Like: Gopher Hoops Preview

Here is my quick look ahead at the 2014-2015 Minnesota Golden Gophers Basketball squad.

In Richard Pitino’s 2nd year he looks to build off an NIT Championship with 4 starters returning. He’ll need that experience to play well and the newcomers to grow up in the pre-conference schedule to make the NCAA’s out of the rugged and deep Big Ten.

Here are 5 things I like about the Gophers heading into their season tip-off versus #8 Louisville in Puerto Rico.

1. Backcourt – Returning your starting backcourt is always a good thing. More experience for Deandre Matheiu and Andre Hollins should help against bigger backcourts in the Big 10. Pitino likes the smaller, quicker guard comobs, not unlike his father’s teams at Louisville. Matheiu and Hollins have to cut down on the turnovers and Hollins has to stay healthy for this team to really take off.

2. Young Guns – Sophomore guard Daquein McNeil might be the most improved player on the team. He showed an assertiveness in the exhibition games unseen last season. McNeil’s defense can be counted on. Freshman Bakary Konate, a 6’11″ center from Mali, plays like former Louisville and current Timberwolf center Gorgi Dieng, but is further along than Dieng was as a freshman. His wingspan and shot-blocking will be helpful when Elliot Eliason comes off the court. Konate may not be ready immediately though. Watch for 6’1″ freshmen guard Nate Mason and 6’8″ forward Josh Martin to improve and fight for minutes off the bench, especially against early-season cupcakes.

3. Squirrel – Junior college transfer Carlos Morris is the real deal. He’ll fill Austin Hollins’ spot in the starting line-up but plays a little different. Morris will provide a little more explosiveness on offense. If he can get after it on defense as well as Hollins, the Gophers should be tough to score against.

4. Frontcourt Balance – Eliason is a shot-blocker who has grown more athletic thanks to Pitino’s strength coach. Walker asserted himself offensively last year at times, including against preseason All-America Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin. As long as those two stay healthy, the experience, size and off/def balance should present problems for opposing teams and advantage when matching up for Minnesota. A big test looms tonight, 11/14, in the first match-up against Louisville and their athletic bigs. Junior Joey King can be counted on to make shots from the outside and play outstanding defense. He’ll need to improve his rebounding to elevate his game personally.

5. Coach Richard Pitino – I’ve been a huge fan of Pitino’s since his first summer on the job. You could instantly see a difference in recruiting efforts, specifically in NY and other areas MN was not present. The physical demands and expectations he placed on his players made a difference in Eliason, Walker, Joey King and more. His style of play, not unlike his mentors (Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan) is uptempo and demands a lot of his guards. In today’s basketball landscape, guards dominate and win games in March. Pitino is preparing his team as such and I like what I saw in year 1.

Is the Soldier Field nightmare nearly over?

The Minnesota Vikings come out of their bye rested, rejuvenated and with a chance to get back to .500. The only thing standing in the way is the Chicago Bears. But the 2014 Bears have been letting anyone and everyone walk, run, pass and do pretty much whatever they want.

You’d think this would be the best opportunity for the Vikings to win at Soldier Field for the 1st time since 2007. The Bears defense is awful. Jay Cutler is giving the ball away. And the offensive line is letting Cutler get hammered.

But Vikings fans know all too well not to get too haughty. Yes, the Bears are down, but they still have more offensive talent than Minnesota. And Vegas oddsmakers have the Bears as favorites. Even with how bad the Bears have looked recently, I can’t say I would favor the Vikings either. If anything it’s a pick ‘em game.

So what is it about Soldier Field that gives the Purple so many troubles? Is it the long, poorly manicured turf? Is it simply Chicago has had better teams than the Vikings?

Whatever it is, it could be over Sunday. Or it could be the 7th straight defeat in the Windy City against the worst Bears defense in years.

5 Things I like: MN Timberwolves

The NBA season has started. Sometimes it’s hard to notice amongst the ever-growing NFL coverage. And even among NBA teams, it’s hard to follow teams without Cavaliers, Lakers, Knicks and Bulls on their jersey. The Timberwolves went through a whirlwind of changes in the off-season. The Kevin Love saga is over, 1st overall pick Andrew Wiggins is here, Ricky Rubio still can’t shoot, and Flip Saunders is VP of Basketball Operations, Head Coach, and probably cooks the food in Target Center.

Here are 5 things I’ve liked thus far in the 2014-15 edition of the Timberwolves (currently 2-2):

1. 4th Quarter Defense. The demise of the team last year was their inability to get stops at the most important part of the game. The Wolves horrible record in close games was an obvious flaw because of their porous end-of-game defense. Part of the problem was personnel. Kevin Love was immune to defense, Kevin Martin had a hard time getting stops on 2-guards. Nikola Peckovic is a bruising center, but not a rim protector. But they didn’t have a player who could guard the 2 or 3 position where most of the best NBA players play (Carmelo, LeBron, Durant). Andrew Wiggins provides much more athleticism, albeit raw ability. He should become a key defender late in games. For some reason, former coach Rick Adelman also didn’t like having Rubio in late in games because of his inability to hit big shots. But taking him off the court removed a solid defender, a top 3 steals guy, from the defense. Saunders seems content to let Rubio roam defensively late in games.

2. Anthony Bennett & Shabazz Muhammad. These two gained notoriety for their physical transformations. But their overall improvement on defense, shooting and conditioning has been a surprise to me. Bennett looks more like what Cleveland expected with the 1st overall pick in the 2013 draft. Injuries and health problems gave him fits in his only year with the Cavs. ‘Bazz is providing some scoring off the bench. His true asset to this team is his ability to provide a spark on offense. However, I’m impressed with his overall effort on defense and in rebounding. So far Muhammad has exceeded my expectations in his year + with the Wolves.

3. Gorgi Dieng emergence. Dieng is the perfect complement to Peckovic. He’s a rim protector, shot blocker, and can make the 15-18′ jump shot. These are all opposite to what Peckovic excels at. Dieng provides flexibility and depth to Saunders’ frontcourt. If he needs a shot blocker in at the end of games, Dieng can provide that. If the Wolves need to stop the pick n roll, Pek is better served on the floor. I love Dieng as the future center for the Wolves, but right now he feels the perfect, and much-needed role off the bench.

4. Kevin Martin seems rejuvenated. Martin was a disappointment in my mind in 2013-14. He was apathetic on defense and didn’t provide as much scoring as one would have hoped. Some of that could be due to Love’s insistence to be the primary scorer on a bad team. But Martin has changed. It appears he has a renewed interest in defense and knocking down key shots. His late-game performance against the Bulls brought back memories of Sam Cassell. He dropped 26 points in a road win Wednesday night vs the Brooklyn Nets and is emerging as the offensive leader this team needs and expects.

5. Mo Williams. Williams is a crafty veteran player who has made big shots wherever he’s been. He’s the combo guard the Wolves thought JJ Barea would be, but he’s much better distributing as point guard, and taking good shots as the off guard. Williams veteran leadership will go a long way with Rubio, Wiggins, Zach Lavine, and Anthony Bennett. I love his game. He can be paired with Rubio at the end of games because he can take the big shot that Rubio can’t, while not losing much defensively. He’s a key cog in the development and success of the 2014-15 Wolves.

I could probably make a list of 10 things I don’t like about the Wolves this season, but hey, it’s early and they’re 2-2. Lot of optimism on this Wolves team. If Flip can push the right buttons, keep Pek healthy, and bring the kids along this could be a very exciting team. Even Bill Simmons has them high on his “Must Watch” list. Optimism is high at Target Center…at least for now.

 

My early-season League Pass MVPs are Minnesota and Phoenix. I'm sending 2 Ewing Theory committee members to 'Sota on Monday.

— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) November 2, 2014

Young Vikings Turn the Tables

The Minnesota Vikings have played a tired song for their fans the past few years. It goes something like this.

We’ll tease you with a solid defensive effort for 58 minutes.Our offense will be conservative because we don’t trust our QB. We’ll allow our opponent to hang around just long enough. Then, we’ll turn the Boyers, Ortons, & Glennons of the world into Montana, Unitas, & Elway and you’ll beat us with a fine 2-minute drill.

This script played itself out again Sunday, as the Vikings let a game-long lead slip away with 2:02 on the clock. After a dominant 56 minutes the Vikings defense wilted to future Hall-of-Fame candidate Mike Glennon. The Buccaneers are terrible, especially when RB Doug Martin left with an injury, but they looked awfully explosive and took advantage of some penalties to take a 13-10 lead with just over 2 minutes to go.

But this time it was different. It took the youngest players on the Vikings roster to assert themselves, to will the team to victory. It wasn’t Chad Greenway, Brian Robison or Greg Jennings making the big plays. It was Teddy Bridgewater throwing to Cordarrelle Patterson to move the ball close enough for Blair Walsh to kick the game-tying FG. And in OT, even though Tampa won the toss and got the ball first, it was Anthony Barr stripping the ball and returning it for a game-winning TD.

The song and dance have become tiresome for Viking fans. “Same ol’ same ol’ Vikings,” they say. Sunday was different. The team feels different with Teddy at the helm. He’s not a finished product, but at least you feel he’ll stay composed long enough to move the ball. Bridgewater did get lucky when a Buccaneer DB dropped an INT chance on the final drive. However, he made the throws when he had to. Barr, on the other side of the field, had a relatively quiet day until the final play. His size, speed and strength are foreign to observers of the Vikings LB spot in the last 25 years.

For at least a day, the young kids turned the course of Vikings football on its head. For at least a day, it wasn’t the “same ol’ Vikings.”

 

Prep FB Playoff Preview, 3rd-Ranked New Life VB, East Ridge Boys Soccer in State


Host Steve Hartman is joined by Bulletin sports editor Jace Frederick to break down the 7-seed Woodbury vs 2-seed East Ridge football matchup in the round of 32. Park looks to pull an upset as they visit Lakeville North for a playoff matchup with the 2-seed Panthers. New Life Academy is the top-ranked volleyball team in Section 4A thanks to a 26-game winning streak and overall record of 28-2. The East Ridge boys soccer team is the top seed in the state tournament as they take the field Wednesday versus Duluth East in Chisago Lakes.

Gophers almost pull a “Gopher”

For any Gopher football fan the homecoming game versus Purdue almost became another in a long list of “Same Old Gopher” moments. During the past 50 years the Minnesota football program has lost in impossible ways. They’ve been able to grab defeat from the jaws of victory.

It seems as if every time fans get excited about this program and its direction an unimaginable loss occurs. It could be waiting for that breakout performance against a perennial power, see Michigan 2003. Or possibly the huge win versus your biggest rival who has now become a national power, Wisconsin 2005. Or perhaps it’s the strong start followed by a long losing streak, see 2008 and the 7-1 start.

Saturday, every fan clad in Maroon & Gold thought this game vs an awful Purdue team was that day. The statistics said Jerry Kill was 0-22 at Minnesota when trailing at halftime. However, this program seems to be turning a corner. My opinion is they could still lay an egg at Illinois this coming Saturday, but it’s doubtful. Purdue could be the wake-up call they needed. And losing their final 4 games to Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin wouldn’t surprise anyone.

Regardless, Kill has the Gophers winning games they lost in the past. For fans to truly get on board though, they have to beat Illinois and Iowa. Road losses to the Cornhuskers and Badgers are allowed, as is a home loss to the Buckeyes.

All fans really want is progress. Beating Iowa or Wisconsin (or BOTH!) and winning all the games you’re expected to would be just that and get you back-to-back 8-4 seasons. Progress.

Get Rid of Thursday Night Football

The carnage of the Packers 42-10 victory of the Ted-less Minnesota Vikings was hard to watch. Even Packer fans must have found other, more interesting things to do or watch. I mean, awful network shows like “Bad Judge” were on. I’m sure there was a bad singing reality show to watch too.

Unfortunately, this has become a trend. Thursday Night Football was awarded to CBS in 2014 with a bid of $275 million. So far CBS execs and NFL fans have been rewarded with an average margin of victory of 29 points. TWENTY-NINE points. No game has been closer than 20 points. Pretty soon fans will stop watching this horrendous excuse for pro football, where parity and intriguing match-ups are what keeps fans engaged. When the fans stop watching the ad revenue goes and the Thursday Night product disappears.

That would seem like the natural order of things. But I’m willing to bet NFL players make a stand and use the power of their CBA to stop this madness before the ad revenue goes. The NFL continues to tout its concern for “player safety” but unleashes the athletes without proper rest and recovery from brutal games on Sunday. Three days of rest to go pound your body again?! Seems ridiculous and it is.

Thankfully, the contract with CBS is only for a year. I can’t see the players standing for this abuse for another year. And since the product on the field is failing too, it SHOULD be an easy decision for the NFL. But will it work? Will they be reasonable, a large jump for them to make? My opinion is players are starting to mail it in on Thursday Night Football, hence the blowouts. Why risk a career or 1 game out of 16 when you’re not feeling anywhere close to 100%?

It’s not worth it to players. It’s not worth it for fans. But will the money still be worth it to the NFL?