Monday, November 16, 2009

From the Writers of ATH, Saying Goodbye and Thank You

As you may have noticed, Windsor hasn’t posted much in the last couple months, and Falco and I have been having a tougher and tougher time getting regular, meaningful posts up there every day. The fact of the matter is that since I moved to Michigan and Windsor and Falco left College Park, we don’t have the time or the access to the team that we did when we lived in the area. Falco may be moving out of Maryland altogether in the near future, and the three of us met together this weekend to discuss the future of the blog.

After much consternation, we have decided to close Around the Harbor, at least for the foreseeable future. The fact of the matter is that we can no longer provide our readers with the standard of content that we hold ourselves to. We may post now and then, but it will be a while until we are able to restart this blog in a meaningful way.

It has been a great run (497 posts to date), and it has been wonderful writing for all of you who have chosen to spend a couple minutes reading our random disparate thoughts on national, Baltimore, and University of Maryland sports. We’ll miss this blog, but we’ll be in the stands as always showing Baltimore pride wherever we go. Thanks for reading, it has made this endeavor worth it.

Go Ravens, Go O’s, and Go Terps!

-Expatriate, on behalf of Windsor and Falco

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ravens' Midseason Forecast

Last year we watched the Ravens play with the thought in our minds that this was a very good team that was just a hair below the elite teams in the AFC. I entered this season wondering whether they could make the leap to the elite level. Unfortunately, they have taken a step back- not just below the Colts/Patriots/Steelers level, but below playoff level in the conference. Don’t get me wrong, this team is still good, but only that. It is easy to look at the 4-4 record and say that of course this team is average as they stand now, but one must look at who their losses have come to. Cincinnati, for all its reputation, is still a division leader, as are Minnesota and New England. By no means are these losses embarrassing, but the idea that this team couldn’t pull out a win in any of these cases in disturbing. I am going to try to take a look at the biggest weaknesses on this team and what will be the difference whether they reach the playoffs or not.

The Secondary: Ed Reed is doing too much and getting hurt in the process, and the troubles of the cornerbacks is well-documented on this blog. While the Ravens have great depth at safety, neither Haruki Nakamura nor Tom Zbikowski are Ed Reed-level safeties. If Reed can’t go, that will be another huge blow to this group. To be honest, the Ravens are not starting cornerbacks who have any history to suggest that they will play better as the season goes on. Unfortunately this Achilles heel should stick around for a while.

The Kicker: One has to wonder whether the Ravens final drive could have been more successful last week against the Bengals if they didn’t have to try to get two scores rather than just one. We will never know, as Steve Hauschka missed yet another key field goal late in the game- and it wasn’t a 48 yarder as it was against Minnesota. He has never been a particularly accurate kicker, and while I didn’t think Stover should have been kept around I didn’t think that Hauschka was necessarily the answer. If a change is made or Hauschka gets his leg or mind straightened out, this could improve as the season goes on.

The Run Defense: I don’t get it. Baltimore used to shut down every running back who attempted to run right at them- now they are being gashed up the middle. This can’t be the result of losing Bart Scott, though revisionist historians would love to say they thought the Ravens should throw the checkbook at him to keep him in town. I worry that Kelly Gregg isn’t playing at his traditional high level, but he has been part of great Baltimore defenses in the past. The only great changes in this defense have been Greg Mattison and a suddenly awful secondary. The logical excuse would be to say that a terrible secondary has led to more players being sent into coverage, but that hasn’t been the case as far as I can see. I can’t explain this, so I have to assume it will get better over the year; but it will have to turn around by Week 12 or Baltimore may want to shop for a new defensive coordinator.

The Offensive Inconsistency:
This isn’t going anywhere. So far this season either the defense holds the opponent under 20 points or the offense goes off- but it has only happened at the same time once this season; against the Broncos. I am not sure if this is a problem with execution or with Cam Cameron failing to adjust to certain teams, but the team can change from week to week from humming along to ground to a halt. However, two of this team’s three games where they scored less than 30 points came against the Bengals, who have two shut-down cornerbacks. This goes back to the weakness of the Ravens receivers, who are unable to matchup with elite corners (with the exception of Derrick Mason) and leave Joe Flacco with very few options. With the right matchups at wide receiver, this offense can be successful. When the corners are above average, this team will struggle offensively. Looking at the schedule, this could mean 3 or 4 more substandard offensive days.

The Browns game should go better on both counts, but with the Colts, the Steelers (twice), the Bears, and the Packers left on the schedule, this team will have a lot of work to do to reach the near-clinching 10-6 record needed to have hope of making the playoffs.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Can Jamarr Robinson take the helm and win?

Maryland does not have much to play for right now. The ACC is out of reach and with a 2-7 record, a bowl is not attainable. Worse, Chris Turner was gone down and has a probable MCL injury, so Jamarr Robinson will take the quarterback position most likely against Virginia Tech. As Scott McBrien said on the Terrapin postgame show, five wins sounds a lot better than two, but the road to try to get there is perilous.

Against N.C. State, Robinson took over for Turner who went down, and he seemed to grow as the game went on. He got more comfortable as the game progressed, going from a player who fumbled the snap and constantly ran the ball to a decent scrambling quarterback that made decent short passes. The sophomore had a lot of work to do, but at the very least he shows some promise in the future for Maryland. With the Terps current WR core, Robinson, Torrey Smith and the rest can get a system together, as most of them will return next season. Robinson was listed as the quarterback of the future, and with James Franklin's system, this is our chance to see him at least for one game.

But the first game for Robinson starting (likely) will be against Virginia Tech, one of the few ranked teams in the conference. The crowd likely will not be happy with the team because of recent losses, but Robinson will need to play well, or at least good enough. The Terps do not want to burn Danny O'Brien's redshirt it at all possible.

Robinson will need to use this time wisely. If Turner can return before the season is over he will, especially in the easiest game left, Senior Day against Boston College. The fact is right now Turner is the better quarterback despite criticisms against him, and he gives Maryland the best chance to win. So Robinson needs to use what time he will get on the field to his advantage, because he will be starting next season no question.

As McBrien said, five wins sounds a lot better than two. But with Virginia Tech, at Florida State and Boston College left, the Terps may be lucky to get one more win before the season ends.

(Photo credit: Maryland athletics)

Monday, November 9, 2009

College Football Blogpoll Week 10

Big rush right now, so here is the poll for this week. If you didn’t read last week’s poll, ATH won the award for the poll that most closely resembled the blogpoll at large- which I am not sure is a great award, but I will take the recognition. In case you haven’t noticed, it is just Falco and I filling out the polls from here on out. Send us your thoughts, any big changes needed?

1) Florida- Took care of Vandy as expected, and without any more serious tests on the schedule, they should get ready for Alabama in the SEC title game.
2) Alabama- Barring a very unlikely slip-up to arch-rival Auburn, the Crimson Tide will steel themselves for a matchup with Florida. The SEC West is all but won.
3) Texas- This sure as hell is a second-half team if I ever saw one. They will need to play 4 quarters if they want to win a National Championship.
4) Cincinnati- Now it starts to get exciting. If Cincy can run the table against their slate of West Virginia, Illinois, and Pittsburgh, that resume will look pretty good. Will Tony Pike be rusty when he comes back?
5) Boise State- That was much closer than it had to be against Louisiana Tech, and they need to end the season with a series of blowouts to persuade voters to give them a shot at the big game.
6) TCU- With their fourth straight whooping behind them, a convincing win over Utah could vault them into legitimate 2008 Utah-esque national title talk. That is, they are deserving but won’t be seriously considered.
7) Georgia Tech- Paul Johnson’s team is entering the stratosphere for this program, but if they can finish the ACC slate and title game with just one loss they could jump the mid-major undefeateds.
8) Iowa- Playing it close week after week finally caught up with the Hawkeyes. This is a team that probably should be lower- it is really disappointing that they couldn’t run the table.
9) Pittsburgh- Tough finishing slate, but that Notre Dame game doesn’t seem quite so threatening anymore. I have liked Dave Wannstedt since his days at Miami, and he should get a lot of credit for turning around the Panthers, though it has taken a few years.
10) Oregon- Wow, way to come down to Earth. I guess this will end speculation of them jumping Boise State in the rankings. Still disappointing, PAC 10 teams have been dropping the easy ones all season.
11) USC- This is way too high for this team… or is it just right? I have no idea, but I do know that there is no way they should be ahead of the Ducks like they are in the AP poll. Reputation goes a long way, and it is too far.
12) LSU- The offense fails them yet again. The defense is solid, and with a bit of maturity at the quarterback spot they could be back on top of the SEC.
13) Houston- That UTEP loss is so ugly, and they only barely beat Tulsa and Southern Miss. Any other year, this is your classic 8-4, 9-3 Houston team. I am just not convinced.
14) Ohio State- With that win over Penn State, the Buckeyes can win the Big Ten if they take out Iowa at home. I guess they could be the best team in the Big Ten, but what does that say about the Big Ten? The Big East might be a better conference.
15) Oklahoma State- They still can’t beat the great teams, but they can beat a few more good teams before the season is out to legitimize their placement here. It’s disappointing that the Cowboys still can’t break through to the upper echelon of the Big 12.
16) Miami (FL)- They are a very good team but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them lose any one game from here on out. However, this team has already come a long way since last season and it looks like Randy Shannon has this team on the rebound.
17) Penn State- Overmatched at home and thoroughly outplayed; what quality win does this team have at this point? I thought it might be Michigan, but… not so much.
18) Utah- The six straight losses are great, but TCU looms large this coming week. They could ruin the Horned Frogs’ hopes at breaking the BCS wide open.
19) Virginia Tech- Very manageable end of the schedule (though I said the same thing before they lost to UNC), but they will kick themselves for this season if they don’t somehow win the ACC.
20) Arizona- Mike Stoops is outcoaching his brother this year, but the last four weeks will be a tremendous test for this team as they wrap up the season. Cal, Oregon, Arizona State, and USC. Enjoy.
21) Wisconsin- This is turning into a vintage Wisconsin team- a punishing running game, a serviceable quarterback, and a powerful defensive front. They aren’t exactly modern-era, btu they’re exciting.
22) BYU- Is BYU here on reputation at this point? They are always a good team and just seem to belong here. That win over Oklahoma is looking mediocre, and their two losses were absolute blowouts, one coming to a terrible Florida State squad.
23) Navy- Who called it? That would be yours truly, and while my analysis was off I will take the correct prediction. Navy is rarely a bad team, and this could be a good year for the Mids.
24) South Florida- They just keep creeping in and out of the top 25, and while I am not sure if they belong here, I will give them the benefit of the doubt. The Big East isn’t looking so bad anymore, huh?
25) Temple- Okay, so why are they here over West Virginia (Falco also threw them a vote)? Because I think it is pretty awesome to have Temple in the top 25. So sue me, it’s the 25th spot. Besides, that Navy win is looking even better.

Others receiving votes: West Virginia

Friday, November 6, 2009

Free Kicks

Once again the Ravens preview has taken a backseat to a mountain of work-related activities, but I promise to get back on the horse next week. In the meantime, enjoy some Free Kicks to get you through the weekend. Unfortunately I have to start with the Yankees, so get ready for some extra obnoxious New York fans next season while we line up for the kick…

Yankees Win 27th World Series Title
I won’t go into the popular refrain that they bought this World Series title, though I will say that they are perennial contenders because of that payroll- there is no way that much money doesn’t at least put you in the playoffs. This year they were the best team in baseball, though hardly a great story. Most years there is something to rally behind, and last year was the king of that- you had the Tampa Bay Rays with the first winning season in team history and the Phillies who were carrying a 25 year city-wide title drought. This year you had the Phillies as defending champs and the big, bad Yankees. Sure I was disappointed when the Phillies lost, but it wasn’t exactly a heartbreaker either. I just can’t stand the Yankees. My biggest worry is that the Yankees fans will become even more obnoxious, puffing out their chests even more while the nation-wide band-wagoners trade their Red Sox caps for Yankees caps. Either way it’ll be more misery for us O’s fans.

No Ravens Preview, But Here’s a Prediction

The Ravens will not shut down the Bengals the way they shut down the Broncos last week, but I will bet they do a better job on Cedric Benson, holding him to under 100 yards. As for Carson Palmer, he will get his share of big plays down the field, but I think that the Broncos game was a change in attitude for this defense. It gave them the confidence they need and inspired Greg Mattison to send blitzers more often and make use of the Ravens linebackers. I will take Baltimore’s defense to make a stop when it needs to. The offense has adjusted since its last game against the Bengals, and will be able to score on this defense. Joe Flacco has been incredible in pressure situations, and I will take Ray Rice to have a big game this weekend. The nod goes to the Ravens, 27-21.

Hill, Fiorentino, Rodriguez Declare for Free Agency
Rich Hill will look around, but I doubt that he gets a major league contract. Whether it was his health or his throwing motion (or both) we don’t know, but his 2007 performance is looking like a long time ago. This makes two straight seasons that he has struggled mightily and then, late in the season, said he was pitching hurt all year. I still think he can be a great starting pitcher in theory, but he might just be too far gone at this point. He was hanging every pitch over the plate this past season, and there will be a limited number of teams willing to commit a lot of money on a reclamation project. The best place for Hill is a year at Norfolk, and I hope he realizes it.

As for Jeff Fiorentino, he has been good to the Orioles after they mishandled his development three years ago. He deserves a shot at another team and perhaps become an everyday outfielder on another squad- there is no room in the outfield for Baltimore and he has been a class act since he arrived in the organization. Best wishes to him as he goes to yet another club. The Orioles will find a catcher, Guillermo Rodriguez won’t be missed all that much. Matt Wieters has the position pretty safely locked up.

Prediction for the Weekend:
Well, last weekend I recovered with the Oregon win over USC, bringing me to 2-4 in my dicey predictions. So this week, how about I go back to college football. Navy takes on Notre Dame, and excuse me if I want to go for the Midshipmen. The Irish defense has been suspect to say the least this season, and a well-executed triple option can tear that apart. The risk here is that Navy’s defenders won’t be able to keep up with ND’s explosive skill position players and that their undersized defensive line won’t stand up to the Irish offensive line. I agree that this will be a high scoring affair, but Notre Dame makes every game a close call. The nod goes to Navy, 45-42.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Maryland's Coaching Conundrum

It must be accepted at this point that Ralph Friedgen doesn’t have any magic left in that old silk hat. His team can’t protect the passer, they can’t run the ball, and the defense is slow and out of position. Friedgen is saying all the right things of course, that the goal of reaching a bowl game is still in sight, and that the ACC itself is still up for grabs. I don’t hope to imagine how he plans to reel off four straight, but I understand that he has to keep his players motivated. As far as winning the ACC, even I as a Maryland fan shudder at the idea. If a 6-6 team actually won a major conference, commissioner John Swofford should just airmail that automatic bid to the Mountain West Conference. Needless to say, Swofford won’t have to worry about that. Maryland’s schedule will take care of that, and they can thank the ACC for not having Georgia Tech on their slate. Can you imagine this front 7 trying to read and react to the triple option? I shudder to think about it.

But that isn’t the point, and Friedgen is saying what he should. What I take issue with is the future of the program. Ralph has made it known that he isn’t afraid to burn redshirts late in the season or throw whatever players out there it will take to win this season. Why would you mortgage your future to protect a team that is tanking? Two reasons: pride and fear. Pride because regardless of the consequences later, a head coach wants to win and win now, if for no other reason than your own competitive flare. Fear because he is worried about his job and wants to end the season on a high note to convince his bosses to keep him around.

I have seen a lot of coaches do the latter. Heck, on the other side of the Potomac Al Groh makes a yearly exercise of it and has gotten pretty darn good at it. A whole host of other marginal coaches have tried it late in their careers, but I would question whether this particular marginal coach should be worried about it. The athletic department is only barely in the black, an issue we have raised on ATH before and probably will again in the near future. The fact of the matter is that with Friedgen’s contract it just doesn’t make financial sense to keep him around, though it may be easier to sell Maryland’s many unoccupied luxury boxes if they had a “new regime” to rally behind.

Therein lies the bigger problem. Even if Friedgen goes, is James Franklin really the guy to take over? I wasn’t a fan of him being named the Coach-in-waiting at the time, and I would be loathe to find a Maryland fan who is terribly excited to have him as the head coach. Granted, I could be devastatingly wrong, and he could turn out to be a much better head coach than he is a coordinator. Nevertheless, if Franklin wasn’t the head coach, he would be owed $1 million for his troubles. The Athletic Department doesn’t have that kind of money.

But again, this is one season and Ralph Friedgen has taken this program places where it hadn’t been in decades, so it stands to reason that the future might be even brighter down the road. But it doesn’t look like it right now. Penn State has always robbed Maryland of its in-state recruits, and that is understandable. But more and more teams are reaching into MD’s backyard and drawing recruits who one would think at least have thought of Maryland. It worries me that Friedgen’s squad is only one of many teams making a play for MD high school football players, and not the established presence that other teams need to come in and unseat. It isn’t as though Maryland has another in-state school to compete with like Virginia Tech-Virginia, Georgia Tech-Georgia, or even North Carolina-Duke-NC State. With James Franklin also in charge of recruiting in the state, this makes this only a great worry.

In the end it all comes down to money. I would never toss out Ralph Friedgen based on one season or even the slow decline his program has undergone since his first years on the job. It is clear however that the long term health of this program is in jeopardy, with the team thin on both sides of the line despite recruiting classes that have been in the 26th-38th range among recent years according to Rivals. Could some of the energy put into creating those solid classes gone to the non-skill positions? Regardless, the University can’t afford to fire Friedgen or not give Franklin the job before 2012. Terps fans are left to cross their fingers and hope that either the team reverses the trend of the last 5 years or the athletic department suddenly gets into the black.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What Is Going On With Dino Gregory?

Dino Gregory, Maryland's junior forward expected to at least be in the starting lineup to begin the season, did not play in the exhibition, and reports are that he violated team rules. However, Maryland is not revealing what happened, and it looks as if this may be a big problem for Gregory.

The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun alike have been trying to figure out what happened, but no one at Maryland, coach Gary Williams included, seems to wish to elaborate. On Jeff Barker's Tracking the Terps blog on the Baltimore Sun, he quotes the Washington Post as saying in the summer that Gregory's eligibility might have been in question due to academic issues. But right now it is not certain what is happening or how long Gregory will be out. He is still on the Maryland roster, so he has not left the team, but the situation is a strange one.

Right now, Maryland needs Dino Gregory to be an available player. During the exhibition against Indiana (PA), freshmen big men James Padgett and Jordan Williams both looked strong. Padgett, who started the game, scored eight with four rebounds and two blocks, while Williams off the bench scored seven points (five from free throws) and grabbed six rebounds. Both looked good to start the season. But Maryland does not want to lose its veteran presence, especially on the boards.

The only starter the Terps need to replace from last year is Dave Neal, who became the important forward Maryland needed. Gregory is the only returning big man that can be effective down low. Landon Milbourne is also back, but he is a small forward thet focuses on shooting, not playing below the rim, and the same goes for Jin Soo Choi and Cliff Tucker, who are more shooting forwards that players who can grab rebounds. It is real exciting to see what Padgett and Williams can do, but they will need help before they jump into the fire of the ACC. For Maryland, lets hope that Gregory can return, and soon, or else a lot of pressure will be placed on two rookies.

(Photo credit: Washington Post)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Maryland Basketball Begins Tonight

The Maryland men's basketball team begins its season tonight with an exhibition against Indiana (PA) at the Comcast Center. This is the only exhibition the Terps will have as they will start the regular season on November 13th against Charleston Southern.

Maryland has been voted as having one of the best backcourts in the country and is the best in the conference no doubt. Greivis Vasquez returned after deciding to not head to the NBA and is the leader of the team. But three other guards are important to the backcourt as well. Eric Hayes showed great stuff in the NCAA Tournament, Sean Mosley might be developing a shot to go along with his defense, and Adrian Bowie may be the point guard when Vasquez is off the court. Cliff Tucker can also be mentioned, but he is more of a swing player.

The big question coming into the season will be the Maryland frontcourt. Landon Milbourne will be a starter, but the Terps need to find who will be their big man. Braxton Dupree transferred out to Towson, so he is no longer an option. Dino Gregory is said to be the likely starter, but Maryland's top two recruits, Jordan Williams and James Padgett, will likely be competing for time as well. Williams, the center like player, and Padgett, the athletic forward being compared to James Gist. Also possibly in the mix is Steve Goins, who people believed was going to transfer, but he is still in uniform, and the Chicago center may have more to show. Right now Maryland will need the play in this exhibition to see who their big man will be.

And of course, Gary Williams returns for his 21st season. The greatest basketball coach in Maryland history will be wearing a neck brace due to recent surgery, but he could have a special team with him this year.

For me, I'll be listening to the game on radio, but ESPN Films has a one hour special in their 30 for 30 series on Len Bias tonight. But, Maryland's season begins tonight.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Monday, November 2, 2009

College Football Blogpoll Week 9

Once again, Falco and I complete this poll, with very interesting results. We actually mostly agree until #14 USC, with a few exceptions with how we sorted the Iowa-Cincinnati-Boise State crew and our positioning of Pittsburgh as right behind or right in front of Houston. In that way it seems that we are starting to come to a bit of a consensus on the top 25. We can only hope the rest of the country does too.

1) Florida (2)- A beatdown of a bad Georgia team won’t make them the unquestioned best team, but it is good enough to take the #1 spot for now. Nice to see the offense get going, even against a bad defense like Georgia.
2) Alabama- Only coaching lapses allow two blocks to the same player, no matter how good he is. This team should have lost, but they can redeem themselves with a win over LSU.
3) Texas- Alabama should have lost last weekend, and Texas thumped a very talented Oklahoma State team in Stillwater… but Alabama still has a better resume to this point. I badly want to have Texas jump them, and next week will determine that.
4) Cincinnati- Tony who? Cincy is doing just fine with backup QB Zach Collaros so far. They may want their veteran back against UConn and Pitt, talented squads that make up the Bearcats next two contests.
5) Iowa- They have escaped from so many games and had so many last-minute comebacks that if you showed me snapshots from their various games without the final score I would probably put them at the bottom part of the top 25. But a win is a win. And 8 wins count for a lot.
6) Boise State- I am just waiting for the major conference bias to hit and for Oregon to jump Boise State. Without another competitive game on the schedule (Idaho is the only one with a decent record… maybe Nevada too?), the voters will drop them eventually.
7) TCU- Another big win to an overmatched team, but they are still undefeated and on their way to making the BCS’ life very difficult. They better hope Utah keeps winning, as that is the last resume piece left on the slate.
8) Oregon- So much for the Pete Carroll mystique. This team looks great right now, and any other year they are in the top 5. An astounding 7 undefeateds keeps them out.
9) LSU- Quietly, very quietly, sneaking up the polls with just one loss this season. Should they beat Alabama, they could make an Oregon-esque argument as the best one-loss team. Both just have one loss to an undefeated team.
10) Georgia Tech- Forgotten earlier in the season after a loss to Miami, Tech has slowly moved back up the rankings. As I have said in the past, this is the most fun team to watch offensively, though the defense is a concern.
11) Penn State- They started off with a weak schedule, but the Nittany Lions are proving themselves as a very talented team. How good would they be with half decent opponents no one can say, but they can make a huge statement against Ohio State this weekend.
12) Pittsburgh- Has the much maligned Wannstedt finally started to turn around Pitt? They could be the best team in Pennsylvania. I hope they spent some of their bye week getting ready for Notre Dame in a couple weeks.
13) Houston- They can’t stop any decent offense, but they sure can score. Tulsa next week may be their last major test- too bad they already lost to UTEP or they could be right up with TCU and Boise State, though a with a few more flaws.
14) USC- Why is everyone so bullish on this team? I don’t even know that they should even be this high, but this is where they wound up. If you put them in another team’s uniforms, they would be bringing up the rear of the top 25.
15) Miami (FL)- A come-from-behind win against Wake Forest tells me that this team may be shakier than we thought even after the Clemson game. They should be great next season though.
16) Ohio State- Shredding New Mexico State is one thing; we’ll see if Pryor can get going against Penn State’s defense this weekend.
17) Utah- *Yawn* another win over an overmatched team. Then again, Wyoming did win the first half against Texas earlier in the season. I have no idea how good this team is- good enough to only lose by 7 to Oregon or the one that can barely put away cupcakes?
18) Oklahoma State- Way to come back down to Earth. Until the Cowboys can beat a highly ranked team, they will always be looking up at the Texas & Oklahoma programs in the Big 12.
19) Arizona- The loss at Iowa isn’t looking so bad anymore, and Mike Stoops might finally have a season where he outperforms his brother. However, his Wildcats still have Cal, Oregon, and USC to go.
20) California- This is starting to feel about right for them. It’s upsetting that they could only score 6 points in two games against Oregon and USC, or they might be a team on the rise.
21) Virginia Tech- The toast of the ACC has become toast in the ACC. Can it all rest on Tyrod Taylor? I’ll give some of the credit at least to UNC, but this team has suddenly become a real disappointment.
22) Wisconsin- Sneaking into the top 25 is a Big Ten team whose losses to Ohio State and Iowa are nothing to be embarrassed about, and look on their way to 9 or even 10 wins. If they can reach that level, Bret Bielema might not have to hear the omnipresent Barry Alvarez comparisons.
23) Notre Dame- “What the hell is Notre Dame doing here?” “For lack of better options. Nothing more.” If Navy had won this weekend, they would probably be here.
24) BYU- Same as California, though without the major conference schedule but with a marquee win. Take the balance and Oklahoma’s subsequent two losses and you wind u p slightly behind them.
25) Auburn- I went out on a limb and went for Auburn despite them having lost their previous 3 games before beating Ole Miss. However, does this mean we can finally stop seeing Mississippi slide its way into the poll later this year?

Others receiving votes: South Florida

Friday, October 30, 2009

Free Kicks: Baseball & Unscrupulous Sports Leagues Edition

Work has forced me to delay this until late in the day, but hopefully I can get the most out of another opportunity to look silly this weekend- and no, I am not talking about my Halloween costume. Though maybe that too, we’ll see. Lots to get to, so let’s line up for the kick…

Yanks Even the Series at 1-1
This was still a great start for the Phillies, who have wrested homefield advantage from the Yankees and had a chance to win last night. That was an exemplary performance from Pedro Martinez where I expected him to implode last night, but the Phillies were unable to get runners across when they needed to and that right field wall was again kind to the New York hitters. Of course, it was that same jet stream that helped Utley homer twice in the opener. Now we travel to Philadelphia where the park will again be friendly to power hitters of both teams, and Cole Hamels will look to rediscover his magic from last year’s postseason.

I still don’t trust the back end of the Phil’s rotation, and if they have to go into that bullpen with a tied game in the 8th, I have to think that the Yankees will score first. Not that the Yankees bullpen has been lights out either… Still, the pressure is on Philadelphia to make the most out of their 3 games at home. It won’t be easy to take one (much less two) games in New York in Games 6 or 7.

Brett Favre Returns to Green Bay

Just kidding, I will let every single other sports outlet cover this story. They can have it, I am burned out on Favre.

Jeff Datz Hired as O’s Bench Coach

I am no expert on MLB coaching staffs (though I wouldn’t be surprised if Falco knew all about them), but this seems like a solid hire to me. He has 29 years of major league experience, he has been a player (something Trembley was not and at times could have taken away from his legitimacy in the clubhouse), and most importantly, he played as a catcher. He will be able to serve as a mentor to Matt Wieters but is not a “hot” manager-in-waiting who will threaten Dave Trembley’s authority. Yes, he was with the Indians when they went into free fall over the last couple seasons, but I won’t fault the bench coach for the team’s failure. Datz is a good pickup, and seems to know the game. He isn’t a flashy name, but who were you expecting, Davey Johnson?

Sports Leagues Silencing Critics Instead of Changing for the Better
Okay, so the SEC is now fining coaches who criticize the refs following a set of massive gaffes that helped Alabama and Florida stay undefeated in recent games. The Redskins have banned signs in the stadium after fans started criticizing the ownership. Bud Selig has shut the door on expanded replay right as his umpires commit horrible mistakes in the postseason. Earlier this season, the Coaches Poll mulled making their ballots secret to avoid criticizing coaches for their individual ballots that were self-serving or uninformed. It seems like every league is electing to punish their critics or hide their acknowledged failings rather than confront them and make change for the better. They would rather sit back and hope that nothing goes wrong for the rest of the season, and we over time forget until the next controversial move.

Believe it or not, the SEC, Redskins, MLB, and the Coaches Poll officials could learn something from an unlikely league- the NHL. Hockey has not been afraid of changing rules- even in the middle of the postseason- in order to make the game better. When did these leagues forget that there was a game involved, a sport that needed to be nurtured and maintained even as players, coaches, and schemes changed? The integrity of sports has been violated by their only arbiters, the leagues and conferences that support them. We the fans are left with this intentionally imperfect product, with the commissioners’ pride taking precedence over what made the games great to begin with.

And the lack of signs in the stadium? Come on Dan Snyder, a big boy like you should be able to handle a little bit of criticism. If you can handle watching the team you put together, you should have a pretty thick skin by now.

Weekend Prediction:
Should I even do this anymore? Okay, I will take another shot at this after getting burned since my first attempt. Looking at the sports landscape, I try to take picks that I still think will happen but are a little bit of a stretch. I am not going to sit here and predict Arizona over Carolina or Jacksonville over Tennessee, but how about taking another stab at college football? I am drinking the Oregon Kool-Aid, as they have thumped every team since Boise State, and regardless of the Pete Carroll love-fest USC has not looked consistently great for any stretch this season. The nod goes to the Ducks, 38-35.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ravens-Broncos Preview: Taking Down an Upstart Undefeated

I am going to take a different approach to the preview this week- I am going to talk about one major point for each part of the offense and defense (rushing and passing games) and what the Ravens will have to do in order to win. Because after all, isn’t that what we really care about? This team is good enough that if it plays up to its talent in every phase of the game, every game is more than winnable.

My Mildly Informed Analysis:

Broncos Pass Offense vs. Ravens Pass Defense
Kyle Orton is an effective but not terrifying quarterback. Compared to the other QB’s the Ravens have had to face this year- Favre, Palmer, Brady, and Rivers come to mind- Orton just doesn’t compare. However, he has tall, strong receivers to throw to who can make any quarterback look good. The key in the passing game is not only going to be the ability of the cornerbacks to contain Denver’s threats in Eddie Royal and Brandon Marshall, because they won’t, but it will be Dawan Landry and Ed Reed’s commitment to their assignment. I have seen way too much freelancing in the secondary with Reed trying to make plays outside his assignment and Landry biting up on play action. A desperate playmaker will often try to compensate for a weak overall unit by taking more risks- but that often works against the team and allows long touchdowns. The Ravens cornerbacks are not good enough to handle being all alone, the safeties need to be disciplined.

Broncos Rush Offense vs. Ravens Rush Defense
Some have voiced a concern over Tavaris Gooden’s size and whether he is too slight to be an inside linebacker, but I think this is too much worry over making another Bart Scott and not enough looking at what Gooden does well. Smaller, quicker linebackers can be great at stopping the run provided they have the lanes to penetrate to the ball carrier. I have seen Ray Lewis hit too often and taken out of the play, and I put this on the defensive line. Ngata is playing fine, but Kelly Gregg is not the dominating tackle he was two years ago. In the Ravens’ defense, unlike other systems, the DT’s job is not to rush the passer, but it is to occupy the interior offensive lineman and allow athletic linebackers (like Gooden) to penetrate to the running back. That has not been happening, and I see it as the reason that the Ravens have allowed two consecutive 100 yard rushers. It doesn’t matter who carries the ball for Denver- if Baltimore does not control the line of scrimmage, especially inside, they won’t be able to stop the Broncos on the ground.

Ravens Rush Offense vs. Broncos Rush Defense
Ten rushes for Ray Rice? Even against a rush defense like Minnesota’s you need to keep pounding the football just to keep the defense honest. McClain? McGahee? The Ravens made a great comeback at the end of the game, but Joe was being pounded back there when Jared Allen & Co. didn’t have to watch for the run. Flacco was cool under pressure in standing in the pocket despite getting hit, but he won’t be able to keep that up forever. It is okay to run the football once every few plays, Baltimore needs to do what made them great. Despite this, Rice is quickly becoming the next Brian Westbrook with his ability to do so many things on the field, from pass blocking to making linebackers miss in the open field. However, this side of the ball comes down to the offensive line returning to form with (hopefully) Jared Gaither moving back into the left tackle spot and Michael Oher taking his superb play of late to right tackle. That will not only protect the quarterback (as we will discuss later), but it will open up opportunities for Willis McGahee off-tackle rushes or the occasional stretch play to Rice where he could threaten to break a big play. With McGahee and McClain in the fold, Rice has the complementary backs to help him become even more effective than Westbrook, who has suffered being the undivided attention of whatever defense he’s lined up against.

Ravens Pass Offense vs. Broncos Pass Defense
Champ Bailey has rediscovered his old form and Brian Dawkins is showing that he still has plenty of gas left in the tank. If the Ravens try to throw at the Broncos secondary all afternoon, they will turn the ball over. No 43 pass attempts this week, and no dropping back 43 times against Elvis Dumervil at linebacker, who has a whopping 10 sacks so far this season. The Ravens offensive line will have to come together quickly to regain their rhythm and work as a unit to keep the Denver pass rush at bay. Utilizing Todd Heap over the middle could keep the linebackers in a short zone and draw attention away from Derrick Mason. I worry about the passing game if Flacco can’t sling the ball to Derrick Mason on a regular basis. If Champ Bailey can shut him down and keep him to 4 or fewer catches, I don’t see how Joe Flacco will get going. If need be he will find other targets, like Rice out of the backfield (or how about swing Rice into the slot receiver spot after the team lines up and get him matched up on a linebacker?) or Mark Clayton. The key here will be Flacco using all of his weapons and getting the ball out of his hands quickly. Of course, in order to do that his receivers need to get in position and catch the ball. I am still not sold that they can do that.

Special Teams
Okay, so I have never considered this before in the preview (because they were too long already), but I found an interesting statistic that I wanted to pass along. Despite being roughly tied with the Ravens in punting distance, Denver ranks second to last in the league in punt coverage, allowing 14.6 yards per return. Baltimore comes in at 7.7 yards per return. That could wind up being a difference of 7 yards of field position each time the teams trade possessions. This is why Lardarius Webb is so important. Not only will he be called upon to take a greater role in the secondary, he will have the opportunity to put the Ravens in great field position if he can break one. With the way the offense has been performing at times, this could be critically important.

The Rundown

Baltimore can score, but how consistently? The offense went into hibernation two weeks ago for 2 ½ quarters after falling asleep at the wheel for a whole game against the Bengals. Was that an aberration? The defense has shown that its flaws are not cosmetic, but are fundamental shortfalls that will haunt this team throughout the season. Will it hold together long enough to contain Marshall, Royal, and running back Knowshon Moreno? I just don’t think so. People keep saying the Bronco’s aren’t that good, yet they keep winning. The offense will once again have to put up big numbers for this team to win. This game was a really tough one to call, and against my better judgment, here's the pick:

The nod goes to the Ravens, 31-28.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Maryland Football In Deep Trouble, Including the Future

It is obvious that there are problems with the Terps football squad right now. At 2-6, the team is one loss away from being non-bowl-eligible, which look likely with their remaining schedule including ranked Virginia Tech plus a road game against Florida State. A loss to Duke last Saturday was the ultimate lowpoint, but the whole season has been a nightmare for Maryland.

The backups don't even look good. A number of young players have had to start. At the skill positions, like running back and wide receiver, the Terps look fine for the future, but at others, like the linemen, the team looks very poor. It is not helped that the backups lost a game against Fork Union this past week.

It is hard to see what can be done in the long term, but some things can be done in the short term to try to help. Part of the problem is that it is hard to see where you should try new things; the Terps have two road games but one of the home games is against Virginia Tech, the toughest game left on the schedule. The coaching staff is in place; nothing anyone can do about that. The school would need to spend around six to seven million plus to fire the whole staff; money which the athletic department does not have.

Sometime in the rest of the schedule Jamarr Robinson should play at quarterback. He is almost guaranteed to be the front runner next year, so he should be the one playing some time, plus you don't want to burn Danny O'Brien's redshirt right now. At running back, play Caleb Porzel. He looks better than Davin Meggett and Gary Douglas, but allow Da'Rel Scott some time if he is healthy. But Porzel is the best healthy back right now with his good speed.

For other positions, play some people that do not have redshirts to burn. Let's see some new linemen play, or some new linebackers, just to see what they can do. Nothing to lose in some cases. But it is important to save some of the freshmen. One of the reasons some teams have been so good is that they can save their freshmen until later.

Enjoy the bye week, NC State is in two weeks.

(Photo credit: McClatchy-Tribune)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

College Football Blogpoll Week 8

No Windsor this week- where has he gone? Falco and I made the poll for this week. Major areas of disagreement? Houston, Mississippi, Central Michigan, and Oregon had some decent margins, but we mostly agree at the top. Your thoughts? Remember, you can see all of the results of each week's compiled College Football Blogpoll at the CBS Sports blogpoll.

1) Florida (2)- They may have gotten a couple more “controversial” (that is, wrong) calls go their way, but they win and they looked a lot better than Alabama. At this point, it’s just week-to-week to determine who is #1.
2) Alabama- Tennessee should have won that game. Twice. I know that blocking those kicks shows that Alabama is the better team- and they are, but there is no reason they should have even been in that position. LSU could give them fits.
3) Texas- Thought about moving them to #2, but they haven’t looked great just yet. If they can thump Oklahoma State, then we can talk about perhaps them jumping one of the SEC competitors.
4) Boise State- Tied with Cincinnati, and for no good reason I kept Boise State on top. I can’t determine which one of these teams are better. If Oregon beats USC, Boise State stays here.
5) Cincinnati- They will have enough good-but-not-great opponents in the Big East to validate why they belong in the national championship discussion. This team sure doesn’t seem to miss Tony Pike all that much.
6) Iowa- They keep winning, though they only barely escaped East Lansing with a victory. Beat the Buckeyes later in the season and there won’t be many reasons to keep this team out of the National Title picture.
7) TCU- They got their first big win, and they did it in style. Thumping BYU in Provo was a huge statement, and one that the voters should remember if the Horned Frogs beat Utah the same way.
8) LSU- Tied with USC, but I gave LSU the nod. Why? Their lone loss is to the #1 team in the country, and they beat Washington. USC didn’t. How are the other polls not seeing this?
9) USC- The defense didn’t look great, and for the second straight week they escape with a win. How are they #4 in the AP poll and coaches polls? I don’t get it.
10) Oregon- The Ducks rank here because of what I see as underrating by Falco. This weekend should solve the question of whether USC should be ahead of Oregon, but Oregon’s only loss came on the road to an undefeated Boise State team. No reason that as of today, Oregon should be behind SC.
11) Georgia Tech- Tied with Penn State, but I will give it to the Yellow Jackets based on their strength of schedule. Even in a down ACC, they have played and beaten most of the solid teams in the conference.
12) Penn State- Absolutely throttled a Michigan team that is looking more and more like last year’s squad. Still, it was a huge win in a tough environment.
13) Oklahoma State- Tied with Va. Tech, and this was a tough one. One squad has a bad defense, one has a bad offense, one has a great defense, one has a great offense. Fair or not, Tech has 2 losses so State gets the nod.
14) Virginia Tech- They will have a very manageable schedule going forward, but that offense is still shaky. With the Big 12 schedule hitting its toughest point for Oklahoma State, Tech will have plenty of opportunities to jump them.
15) Miami (FL)- Clemson can, at times, be the best team in the ACC. They can also be the worst. This was one of the latter kind of games. This is a young team with a great future in front of them, especially next year.
16) Pittsburgh- Does Wannstadt have this team back in contention? They have a brutal last three games of the season with West Virginia, Cincy, and Notre Dame. An early seven point loss to NC State keeps this team from being undefeated- they are very quietly creeping up the rankings.
17) West Virginia- Tied with Ohio State, but I think this team is more balanced than Ohio State. They took control of UConn late and have a good shot in the Big East. Late season show1downs with Cincy and Pittsburgh will tell us how good this team is.
8) Ohio State- I still don’t trust this team. Pryor could throw a pick any time he drops back, though the coaching staff is slowly adapting the offense to him (that is, adding the spread-&-shred). The defense is fantastic.
19) Houston- I guess the win over Oklahoma State needs to count for something, but Falco and I had a major disagreement on this one. I put them down at the tail end of the top 25, but they are hardly among the more impressive mid-majors.
20) South Carolina- Tied with Utah, but Utah just hasn’t been that impressive even in their wins this season. South Carolina may have two losses, but they are doing it in the SEC. This one was real close.
21) Utah- They aren’t the worldbeaters of last year so far, but they do only have one loss so far. Their seven point loss to Oregon is looking pretty good right now.
22) Central Michigan- Another one-loss mid-major, but I like them a lot. Falco and I had a bit of a disagreement, which led to Central dropping this week. Maybe it’s the Midwest bias of mine, but they lost in Week 1 and are the best team in Michigan, for whatever that counts.
23) BYU- Tied with Mississippi, but despite their blowout losses at home, the Cougars have at least beaten someone of note (Oklahoma). As for Ole Miss, they have beaten no one of any consequence. Falco ranks them, but I left them off.
24) Mississippi- Why are they here? I guess it would have something to do with winning all of 2 games against major conference opponents and losing to Alabama and South Carolina, two respectable teams. Not a fan of this pick so much…
25) California- They beat up on the little guys, but get blown out by the big players. If I didn’t look at margin of victory, I might have put these guys in my poll as well. Their only losses are to Oregon and USC, and there is no shame in that… but they were absolutely crushed in both games…

Others receiving votes: Navy, Arizona

Update: Spiffy presentation I realized that I should probably be using!

RankTeamDelta
1 Florida 1
2 Alabama 1
3 Texas
4 Boise State
5 Cincinnati
6 Iowa
7 TCU 4
8 LSU
9 Southern Cal 1
10 Oregon 1
11 Georgia Tech 1
12 Penn State 2
13 Oklahoma State 3
14 Virginia Tech 1
15 Miami (Florida) 8
16 Pittsburgh 2
17 West Virginia 3
18 Ohio State 3
19 Houston 3
20 South Carolina 3
21 Utah
22 Central Michigan 3
23 Brigham Young 6
24 Mississippi
25 California
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: Texas Tech (#24), South Florida (#25).

Friday, October 23, 2009

Free Kicks: Abbreviated Kinda Late in the Day Edition

Okay, today might be a once in a lifetime moment for Free Kicks- I am going to be defending the Yankees and the defending a Buckeye (kind of). Windsor is coming up to see the Penn State-Michigan game, and so you may have to put up with a Michigan mention next week if the Wolverines take down the Nittany Lions. Probably won’t happen, but I can dream. Let’s line up for the kick…

Unlikely Yankee Apologist

I won’t be the guy to pile on Girardi for keeping A.J. Burnett in the game after the Yankees took the lead in the top of the seventh. Through six innings, Burnett had only thrown 80 pitches, and hadn’t allowed a run since the first inning. I prefer a manager let his starter keep pitching until he shows that he is slowing down or struggling. Burnett had been solid since his disastrous first, and deserved the chance to go out there. Granted, he then put the first two runners on board, but New York still held a 2 run lead at that point. That vaunted Yankees bullpen allowed not just those baserunners to score, but then tacked on one of their own.

And what would have happened if he had brought in a reliever at that point and they had given up the lead on their own? We would be toasting Girardi for not letting Burnett stay on a roll. Baltimore fans have watched Dave Trembley give his starters a quick hook and lose the game as a result. He made a judgment call, and it went the wrong way- it has gotten to the point that we inherently question every pitching call Girardi made last night because of the Yanks revolving bullpen door a couple games ago. He hasn’t been particularly solid in his decision making in the playoffs, but he stuck with his starter, and I won’t fault him for that.

An Overrated/Underutilized Buckeye

Terrelle Pryor has been under fire (and rightly so) for his deplorable performance with Ohio State this year, his poor play dragging down a team that could easily be undefeated with their staunch defense and overall talent. If you recall, Pryor was adamant that he wanted to play in a pro-style offense to increase his draft stock. However, he did this assuming that he could play in a pro-style offense. He assumed that he had the accuracy, poise, and arm to stand back in the pocket, read defenses, and deliver the ball to his receivers in tight windows. One problem: he wasn’t ready for it, still isn’t ready for it, and is asking to be put into a role he isn’t comfortable with. No matter how hard he wants to be Peyton Manning, he isn’t. He’s a better version of Pat White- and that isn’t anything to shy away from.

It seems that the Buckeye coaching staff is relenting to what was obvious two years ago about Pryor’s talents, and have begun incorporating the zone read into their offense- incidentally the foundation of the Rich Rodriguez offense that has made mobile quarterbacks so successful. And if Pryor was worried about lacking the opportunity to throw in Rich Rod’s offense, he could look no further than Tate Forcier’s success this season. But Pryor is getting what he wanted, with teammates telling reporters “He couldn’t do any worse.” This #1 recruit, the “LeBron in Cleats” may be wasting his talent the same way a great writer tries to be a math major and fails miserably despite their best efforts. OSU will turn it around, but only after they start calling the right plays, and forcing Pryor to start playing to his strengths.

Prediction for the Weekend:
Why do I keep doing this? I keep going out on a limb and getting crushed out here, but I will keep throwing them out there and see what happens. I am 1-3 now, in stark contrast to the 5-1 Ravens predictions. Well, I will return to college football to feature the matchup of mid-major ranked teams- how often does this happen in mid-season? TCU will travel to BYU, and while I would love to say that the Horned Frogs will show that they belong in the top 10 with a convincing win on the road, I can’t go there. I am going to give this one to BYU at home, where, Florida State game not withstanding, it is a very difficult place to play. TCU gets winded in Utah, and BYU takes it 34-21.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Arizona Fall League Gives O's Fans Glimpse at the Future

This morning, in reading the box scores for the Arizona Fall League (a bye week for the Ravens will do that to you) a thought popped in my head. By mid-season next year, the Orioles could have the following position players: Matt Wieters (C), Brandon Snyder (1B), Josh Bell (3B), Nolan Reimold (LF), Adam Jones (CF), Nick Markakis (RF), and veterans Brian Roberts and Cesar Izturis in the middle infield. Add in Chris Tillman, Brad Bergesen, and Brian Matusz into the starting rotation and this is a team well deserving of the oft-used “Baby Birds” moniker. I know that management has stated that both Snyder and Bell could use another year in the minors, given what transpired over the past season I would not be surprised at all to see either or both of them in the starting lineup in June. This of course will pose its challenges for manager Dave Trembley, but what else is new? Whatever you give the man, he will have to produce wins. After all, he is the one controlling the hitters and pitchers… or something like that.

Given the free agent pool out there, the kind that makes Russell Branyan seem like a decent investment, it is more than likely that whoever the Orioles put on the corners will struggle, be he Ty Wiggington or some other low cost veteran. This will push the battle at the corners into the season, and if the O’s stand mired 10 games below .500 in June, count on the Orioles to call up a couple young bats.

However, Bell and Snyder are giving management some reasons for optimism. Josh Bell has been on a tear from both sides of the plate (historically the switch hitter has struggled against lefties), going 12-20 in 5 games with the Phoenix Desert Dogs. He is hitting for power, as expected, but has put up good results against both righties and lefties. Of course, the sample size is small, but he will need to learn to hit better against southpaws if he is going to avoid matchup problems in the majors. This deficiency has been in his scouting report since he was a 2005 high school pick, and will always be there- but it would be good if the O’s can help him narrow this somewhat.

Brandon Snyder got hot late in Norfolk, but it couldn’t keep his average above .248 at the O’s Triple-A affiliate. He is finding his power in a smaller ballpark in Arizona, but he is going to need time to adjust to AAA pitching. Snyder has taken a long road through the minors, and apparently has improved his defense at both 1st and 3rd to make him more versatile for the Orioles- he began his minor league career as a catcher before a host of surgeries forced a move. Looking back, I am certain he’s glad not to be stuck behind Matt Wieters at this point in his career.

The foundation of this team will still be pinned on the development of Tillman, Matusz, Bergesen, Hernandez (wherever he ends up) and the not-yet-arrived Brandon Erbe’s and Jake Arrieta’s of the farm system. Pitching is how you win in the AL East or any other division. But if Snyder or Bell can become protection in the lineup for Nick Markakis, this team could solve one of their biggest problems from within, even if it might take a little longer than plucking a free agent bat out of the bargain bin.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What We Learned: Vikings 33, Ravens 31

Sorry for the delay, but this loss took longer than others for me to digest. Here are my processed and hopefully detached comments on the Ravens-Vikings game. By the way, I did call a 2 point Vikings win, but I didn’t think it’d quite go down like that. I think I would have rather taken the 17 point beat down than a heartbreaker like that, at least when it comes to maintaining sanity.

The Ravens defense isn’t getting any better.
Brett Favre or no Brett Favre, this secondary is awful, which is one preseason prediction that I deeply wanted to be wrong on. It doesn’t matter how fast your cornerbacks are if they can’t cover, just like it doesn’t matter how fast your wideouts are if they can’t catch. Right now, Dominique Foxworth, Fabian Washington, Frank Walker, Chris Carr, and even safety Dawan Landry are just getting front row seats to some blistering passing attacks. How did it occur to Ozzie Newsome & Co. that this was a good group to go into the season with? Landry has been a huge disappointment this year, and Ed Reed has been a nonfactor so far this season. Reed is talented, but I think he is trying to cover the entire field rather than sticking to his side, and it is getting him burned. Stay disciplined, Ed, and they will go to you eventually.

However, the front seven deserves some of the blame as well. They haven’t been as good rushing the passer as their reputation would say over the past few years, and it is showing this season. They were able to harass Favre, but too often their blitzes just didn’t hit home at all. This unit needs to be at 100% in order to compensate for the lapses in the secondary.

Joe Flacco has arrived.

I can’t deny it anymore, I can’t rip him for sailing passes, and I can’t talk about baby steps towards him becoming a top tier QB. He will have bad days, but his poise, accuracy, and decision-making were beyond anything I have ever seen out of a Ravens quarterback. Yes he started slow, but so did the entire offense. The way he hung in the pocket until the very last second in delivering that late-game dump-off pass to Ray Rice was executed to perfection. I cannot recall such a tremendous jump from Year One to Year Two for a QB’s progression, and based on his performance in putting the Ravens in a position to win the game was incredible. His supporting cast consisting of an aging Derrick Mason, a slowing Todd Heap, and a host of skill position players who would be on most teams practice squads hasn’t helped him out much- imagine what he could do with a great set of receivers? Sadly that may have to take second chair to the needs in the secondary this offseason.

This team is the best of the average.
What I mean by that, is the Ravens still can’t deliver a complete game against the top tier of AFC teams, which is disappointing considering that if the defense hadn’t experienced such a massive drop-off this year this team would probably be 6-0. However, this team finds themselves in familiar territory from the last few years- good enough to contend, but not an elite team just yet. Looking at the schedule, I see them playing 5 more times against teams that I would call “very good” or better. Indianapolis, Denver (6-0 will do that for you), Pittsburgh (twice) and Green Bay/Chicago (one of these teams is going to take a leap, I don’t know which one) all will be major tests for the Ravens. You could throw Cincy in that list, but I won’t. Not yet. That said, I still think this team is more talented than, say, the Jaguars, Texans, or Jets, all of which are also 3-3 right now. A lot of things will change in the next few weeks- if Baltimore can reach even mediocrity out of their cornerbacks, this team will go to the playoffs. Perhaps they can watch some extra film over the bye week.

Yes, we should be concerned about Steve Hauschka.
I won’t spend too much time on this, but Hauschka was brought in originally to handle kickoffs and to work on his accuracy. He is still just 1-3 from beyond 40 yards this season, and only won the starting job in preseason because of the spectacular failure of Graham Gano. Distance doesn’t mean a whole lot if you miss the goalposts. It was only one kick, but his track record indicates that there could be a whole lot of “only one kicks” in his future

Monday, October 19, 2009

College Football Blogpoll Week 8

No polls from Falco and Windsor this week, so prepare to see the magnitude of my poll when left on its own. Early in the season this had some odd and often contentious results between the three of us, but lately it is fallen closer to the norm as the resumes of these teams have gotten a bit broader. The biggest change? I had to put Alabama ahead of Florida after Florida turned in another lackluster win while Alabama thumped a superior team. Teams 20-25 are, as always, tough to rank, so please let me know if I omitted anyone. There’s plenty of time for edits before the final ballots are submitted to the blogpoll on Wednesday morning

1) Alabama- They were dominating yet again, and I couldn’t hold back anymore, letting the Tide jump to #1 on my ballot.
2) Florida- Still undefeated, still defending champs, but looked sloppy against Arkansas. They should put teams like that away easy.
3) Texas- The defenses came to play this weekend, and I will attribute the close score to the strength of the rivalry… but Colt McCoy wasn’t playing anything like a Heisman QB. They will have to be more impressive to stay at #3.
4) Boise State- As long as they keep winning I will try to avoid dropping them just because of their conference. It looked dicey against Tulsa, but that was a long trip for Boise in a hostile crowd, and Tulsa is no pushover at home.
5) Cincinnati- Took out South Florida with their backup quarterback. Even if Tony Pike can’t go for a couple weeks, they shouldn’t have any problems against Louisville and Syracuse.
6) Iowa- The Hawkeyes are the best in the Big Ten, but I worry that this team could just as easily give one (or two) away before the season is out.
7) Miami (FL)- Miami is back on track, and their win over Georgia Tech gives them the edge in the Coastal Division. There aren’t many more challenges left on the schedule, but they had their fair share of competition in the first 4 weeks.
8) LSU- No shame in losing to Florida, but they need to get this offense on track to have a chance of winning the SEC.
9) Oregon- They would be smart not to overlook Washington this week as they prepare for USC.
10) USC- This Trojans team is not as good as in years past, but they were better against Notre Dame than the score indicated. If they overcome Oregon State and Oregon in the next two weeks, their National Title hopes could be reignited.
11) TCU- The Horned Frogs haven’t played any talented teams yet this season, and even struggled against Clemson. If they beat BYU this weekend, it could put them in the top 10 for me.
12) Georgia Tech- This team can score a lot of points, and I thought the disciplined Hokies defense would stifle them. I was proved wrong,
13) Virginia Tech- Tyrod Taylor just fell back to Earth, and it wasn’t just because of the Yellow Jackets defense. If the Hokies don’t win the ACC, they can look at their quarterback; it’s the only glaring weakness on this team.
14) Penn State- Does Minnesota count as a good opponent? They get some respect back if they can beat Michigan this weekend in Ann Arbor.
15) Ohio State- If Tyrod Taylor fell back to Earth, Terrelle Pryor fell down a well. So how’s that pro-style offense working out for you, Terrelle?
16) Oklahoma State- Creeping back up the rankings, but they have the meat of the Big 12 schedule still left in front of them. If Dez Bryant isn’t reinstated, the Cowboys can forget their already slim chances of winning the South.
17) BYU- TCU awaits, where BYU could burst the BCS bubble that was popped for them by Florida State earlier this season.
18) Pittsburgh- Quietly working their way through the Big East, but the schedule gets a lot tougher after this.
19) Central Michigan- Putting together great performances in an admittedly weak conference, and Dan LeFevour is playing like a top tier quarterback.
20) West Virginia- Suddenly showing up at #20 is West Virginia, a team that I wanted to leave for dead a long time ago. But with a lone loss at Auburn, the Mountaineers could make noise in the Big East.
21) Utah- The 7 point loss to Oregon looks pretty good now; and they are 5-1. They could give BYU and TCU fits later on this season.
22) Houston- I want this mid-major to drop out, and I kept them off my ballot last week. This feels high for them, and it probably is, but they have resumed their winning ways.
23) South Carolina- Yea, they got snuffed out by Alabama, but no one expected anything else. I won’t hold it against them
24) Texas Tech- They have a few blemishes on the record, but overall this is a classic Mike Leach Texas Tech squad, which belongs in the 20-25 range.
25) South Florida- I guess? Kansas, Notre Dame, Oregon State, Cal, and any number of other teams could have gone here.

No others receiving votes, as it’s just my poll this time around.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pregame: Maryland vs. Virginia

As Expatriate said, we all are busy this week, so this preview will be shorter than normal.

After last week's loss to Wake Forest, Maryland returns to College Park for homecoming as they take on the Virginia Cavaliers. Both Maryland (2-4) and Virginia (2-3) have had rough starts plus both coaching staffs are on the hot seat, but UVA has won its last two against UNC and Indiana and will be favored to win the game.

In scouting Virginia, they are led by Jameel Sewell, a senior quarterback from Richmond, a player who runs as much as he passes. Their main rusher, Mikell Simpson, is likely out with a neck injury, which will will hurt as he is a solid rusher and good pass catcher. The Cavs have not been able to develop a second tailback, so it may be a running back by committee to see who gets the ball on the ground. With the field very wet and more rain on the way, someone will need to be able to run the ball.

On defense they are led by redshirt freshman linebacker Steve Greer, who has 37 tackles and five for loss. Senior nose tackle Nate Collins could give the Terps trouble, with two sacks on the year.

Key to the game:
It has been raining heavily in the past three days in the state. The field will be soaked and the conditions will be favorable to running the ball constantly. Both sides have issues with running as the starting tailback for each side is out with injury. For Virginia, they will need Sewell to lead the charge from the QB decision, and Maryland will need to figure out their tailback position and get control on the ground.

Prediction:
If Maryland can get a steady gameplan that does not involve constantly throwing the ball in the rain, then I believe their strength at tailback should give them the slight edge. But this game could easily go either way.

Maryland 13, Virginia 10

Friday, October 16, 2009

Free Kicks: Making up for Light Blogging Edition

Alright, so this week has been a bit light on the blogging angle, but hopefully we will be able to rebound next week. Work called for Windsor, Falco and I, so this Free Kicks will try to make up for it. Let’s line up for the kick…

No Preview this Week…
But I will at least take a stab at predicting the game this weekend. Believe it or not, I think that the prime weakness for this team is the defense, just when the offense has come around. This offense has the ability to score, and will tweak things here and there to get the production that the squad did over the first 3 games. The defense has not looked great in any of the 5 games so far this season, and after a certain point one has to look at production of the unit so far. I am terrified of what Brett Favre could do against this secondary, but one also has to wait for Brett to “Favre” a game away at some point this season. With Adrian Peterson running the ball, Favre’s best efforts to lose the game might be a moot point. Offensively, the Ravens could struggle against the Minnesota front 4, especially if Gaither isn’t at full strength. Anytime you have to shuffle the line around to replace a single player there is a big change in chemistry and it is not preferable against a talented group like the Vikings. This may go to Joe Flacco’s arm to win it… and if Aaron Rodgers can’t win it with his arm, I don’t think Joe can. If this was at home for the Ravens, I might look at it differently, but I think the Ravens will find ways to score, but not quite enough. Favre will either make this close or blow this one out; I go for the former.

The nod goes to the Vikings, 23-21.

The Phillies take Game 1 from the Dodgers
Boy, did I ever miss that Dodgers-Cardinals series! Either way, the defending champions are quietly showing the rest of major league baseball that they shouldn’t be overlooked- I have never seen a defending champ so undercovered when they have performed so well this season. While I still worry about the back end of the Phillies bullpen, Brad Lidge is 3 for 3 in save opportunities in the postseason. I still think the Dodgers will come back and make this series interesting (6 games), but I feel like the Phillies are the better team. They have been more consistent throughout the season, they have a deeper pitching staff (which doesn’t count for as much as it should with all these off-days), and have a lineup that one has to respect 1-8. Today’s game will be worth watching if you can get it at its 3:30 start time (Who does that for an MLB playoff game?) when Pedro Martinez takes the mound. Who would have thought at the beginning of the year that Pedro would get the ball for Game 2 of the NLCS. He wanted to play for a contender, and he has helped keep them one. We will see if the veteran has enough in the tank for a strong postseason performance. My bet is he does.

Cincinnati Takes Down South Florida, Boise State Escapes Against Tulsa
The unusual suspects keep marching toward the BCS headquarters, though Boise State has a significantly easier path there. Cincy defeated a very talented South Florida team, though one has to wonder whether Matt Grothe would have been able to put up a better fight against the Bearcats. Having seen both these games, I think Boise State was a bit off their game against the Golden Hurricane, and I think that a malaise could start to form for a team that is expected to win out. For Cincinnati, the Big East is not what it used to be (or ever was), but there are some very good teams in the conference. Pollsters are already criticizing Cincy for their schedule, citing the lack of many ranked teams. However, Pitt and West Virginia could easily be ranked by the time the play Cincinnati. Regardless, neither team has “Oklahoma” or “Ohio State” or “Notre Dame” on their jerseys, so let’s not get too excited. That Rutgers evisceration in Week 1 is looking better and better as the Scarlet Knights have been undefeated since. I don’t like Brian Kelly in the slightest, but I dislike the BCS even more.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Midweek Ravens News and Notes

Coming off of another heartbreaking loss, the Ravens feel a long way off from that "Number One" team everyone was talking about a few weeks ago. With the loss to Cincinnati, the Ravens lost their post as the leader in the AFC North, and Joe Flacco finally looked average. So now standing at 3-2, the Ravens are in a precarious position-- do they win and regain positive momentum? Or do they move to 3-3, and start to look like an average team that just got off to a hot start? Here are some thoughts on some things that might have an impact on just which direction the team takes.

The Tyree signing was fantastic, and not because he's famous. David Tyree was made famous by his legendary catch in the Giants' Super Bowl win, but he's made his living on ace special teams play. Signing Tyree gives the Ravens an immediate upgrade at gunner for special teams coverage, neatly taking the place of Brendon Ayanbandejo who was lost for the season. And certainly this week, against the electric Percy Harvin, the Ravens need that kind of performer.

Derrick Mason takes responsibility for his catchless Sunday. It might've been Joe Flacco, it might've been the play calling, but Derrick Mason finally did the right thing in taking responsibility for his catchless game on Sunday. While the Ravens can't afford for Mason to not show up in the passing game, they even more cannot afford for him to start grumbling as he has in past seasons. Mason is the leader for this receiving corps on and off the field, and this unit needs his fighting attitude to be effective. He rallied the receivers around the negativity coming from the national media early in the season, and he needs to rally again.

Ladarius Webb needs more playing time. I know that he's very unpolished, but the Ravens' soft cornerbacks are getting beaten up consistently and other offenses are taking advantage. Don't put him into complex zone coverage, but every now and again, he could be used very effectively in tight man coverage and jam receivers at the line. Maybe it's change for the sake of change, but this secondary needs it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

College Football Blogpoll Week 7

No poll from Windsor this week, so Falco and I just tallied our totals, and oddly enough we had the same top 5. We had some disagreement towards the bottom, but honestly it could have been anyone from 20-25. There seem to be about 6 or 7 teams that I think could go undefeated, and probably 3 or 4 will. How great would that be in throwing a wrench in the BCS? Just keep peppering it and eventually it will have to give in. Right? We can dream. Anyways, here is the poll for this week.

1) Florida (2)- They are undefeated, have finally beaten a marquee opponent, and have the best player in college football. Alabama fans will have to hold on a minute before they take the top spot.
2) Alabama- Also undefeated, but Ole Miss was not a good team to begin with. Jevan Snead has about as much poise and confidence as a 14 year old kid asking out the homecoming queen. They beat themselves as much as Alabama beat them.
3) Texas- Fell behind early but wound up crushing Colorado. They are now stuck behind Alabama and Florida, but could jump them with a convincing win over Oklahoma.
4) Boise State- They keep winning, but are Tulsa and Idaho really the toughest games left on the schedule? That, if nothing else, will keep them out of the title game.
5) Virginia Tech- The Alabama loss looks like ages ago for this team. If Tyrod Taylor learns how to run this offense smoothly they could be back at the National Championship doorstep.
6) USC- Even with Barkley back and healthy under center, the Trojans will still have their share of challenges in a suddenly strong PAC 10.
7) Cincinnati- They could prove that they are a contender with a win at South Florida. The Big East isn’t great, but the Bearcats will get their opportunities to prove themselves.
8) Iowa- Tied with LSU for points, but gave it to Iowa by virtue of being undefeated. This team doesn’t win pretty, but they keep winning.
9) LSU- Still a great team, and can win the SEC if they get their offense back on track.
10) TCU- This feels high for an untested mid-major, but they will get to battle Utah and BYU before the season is out.
11) Ohio State- Winning on offense, winning on defense, winning on special teams. Since losing to USC the Buckeyes have been scary. Terrelle Pryor still looks like he just doesn’t belong in that offense.
12) Miami (FL)- They’ve rebounded nicely from their whooping at the hands of the Hokies, and I don’t see another loss on the schedule if they keep playing like they have.
13) Penn State- 5 wins, but against Akron, Temple, Eastern Illinois, Syracuse, and Illinois. That is pathetic for a major program like the Nittany Lions. There are a lot of teams in Div 1-A that could be 5-1 with that slate of opponents.
14) Oregon- And we all left them for dead after Boise State. That loss isn’t looking so bad anymore, and this team could keep USC’s hands full on Halloween night.
15) Kansas- Tied with Oklahoma State, but gave it to Kansas due to the tie and because the Cowboys didn’t look that impressive in their win over A&M.
16) Oklahoma State- But then again, neither did Kansas over Iowa State.
17) BYU- I am skeptical of this team, but they do just have one loss. Still, if Florida State was a fluky loss then it was one gigantic fluke.
18) Nebraska- Is Nebraska back? Not yet, not until they beat a great team. But they are starting by beating the okay teams, which is all you can do.
19) South Florida- Tied with South Carolina, blah blah undefeated. I want to see how this team handles Cincinnati on Thursday night.
20) South Carolina- The loss to Georgia isn’t quite as excusable anymore, but they are still 2-1 in the SEC and have won 4 straight. Sadly, that will almost certainly end this weekend against Alabama.
21) Oklahoma- Does their resume say they belong here? No. But this is unfortunately where pedigree comes in. Look on the field with Sam Bradford, and you know this team is better than its record. They have a good shot against Texas.
22) Georgia Tech- This team could easily be out of the rankings altogether. But if they beat Va. Tech this weekend, they could be back in the teens.
23) Utah- How did they wind up back here? It’s #23, and that is down at one-loss mid-major territory. This may also be a memory of last year that won’t quite go away.
24) Central Michigan- Tied with Houston, but Central’s loss came against a major conference team 2 time zones away in the first week of the season...
25) Houston- ...and Houston’s came to 2-4 UTEP a couple weeks ago. Y’all come to your own conclusions.

Others receiving votes: West Virginia, Auburn

Monday, October 12, 2009

What We Learned: Bengals 17, Ravens 14

It was not a goo day for the state of Maryland. No matter where you went, the pain of football was evident, the Ravens lost, the Redskins lost, the Terps lost. In Baltimore this loss was very painful and now many people are in panic-mode. Obviously we are only five weeks in, but with the strength and depth of the AFC, things could be problematic for the Ravens soon, especially with Minnesota coming up.

Things We Learned:
The Reason the Ravens Lost: The Bengals Played Better
It was not the referees or anything like that; the referees were fine. Give all the credit in the world to the Cincinnati Bengals. Their defense stuffed the Ravens offense and allowed next to nothing except one somewhat-fluke Ray Rice touchdown pass. Joe Flacco was constantly being pressured and the running game was not enough to win. Then on the flip side, the Bengals offense was constantly on the attack and led an 80-yard drive to win it all. Had the defense been off the field a little more, then everything for the Ravens might have been fine, but Carson Palmer is too good to be kept down. The Bengals played a great game and legitimately beat the Ravens, no two ways about it.

Conservative Offense? With no McGahee?
Cam Cameron chose a strange time and way to put a conservative offense on the field. Ray Rice did fine, but Willis McGahee saw almost no time on the field, and the Ravens kept running at strange times. Before this, Joe Flacco kept airing the ball, and although the complaint was that he was throwing too much, at least that offense was effective. The offense was terrible, and the reason why the Ravens were in bad shape all game. We hope that Cameron didn't lost confidence in Flacco for the game.

Next Draft: Ravens Need a Cornerback
There is no two ways about it. The current cornerbacks cannot handle the air attacks on the top teams. So far Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and Carson Palmer all ripped apart Dominique Foxworth and Co., and next Brett Favre may have the chance. Although the unit is not bad, it is clear the Ravens need a top-tier, tall cornerback to cover the most dangerous receiver.

Ravens Need to be Ready for Minnesota
The Ravens have a problem, they are 3-2 and a number of AFC teams look solid, including two others from the AFC North. 11-5 might not be enough to secure a wild card berth. Minnesota is a perfect 5-0 with a solid passing attack led by you know who. Plus, Adrian Peterson is one of the best backs in the game. The defense will need to be ready plus Joe Flacco will need to get out of the funk; the Vikings will not be generous.

Harbaugh's Ravens are Disciplined
Obviously we are disappointed with the field play plus some of the hits. But after the game, the Ravens were not complaining about the refs or anything like that. They focused on what they did wrong. They know they have to improve, which is a good quality for this team to have.

(Photo credit: Baltimore Sun)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Postgame Report Card: Wake Forest 42, Maryland 32

Maryland's short reign atop the Atlantic Division is over with the loss to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. The Deacs had the type of team that could beat Maryland, a strong passing team against a weakened secondary, and they exploited this advantage over and over again.

It is hard to place blame in correct places. Wake Forest is just a better team, could the secondary have really stopped Riley Skinner? Could the Terps running game be effective with the "running back by committee?" But some things clearly went wrong, and Maryland's season could be finished soon. In this report card, the fourth quarter will not be discussed much, because the game was out of hand by then, and Wake clearly let up some. The first half was a complete disaster, being down 35-10, and the Terps had pretty much no hope of coming back after that.

This report card will be mainly based on the first half and right to the point, as the result of the first half tells the whole story.

Offense - Total Grade: C-
Quarterbacks: C-

Chris Turner did well in the second half, when the game was over. During the first half he could not keep drives going and was only marginally decent on throws.
Running Backs: D
Davin Meggett had two decent runs, including one for a touchdown. As a unit, 13 runs for 27 yards.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: C-
Just like Turner, effective when it no longer mattered. They could not get open enough in the first half.
Offensive Line: C-
Without Bruce Campbell, the line could not get much penetration against the experienced Wake defensive front.

Defense - Overall Grade: D
Defensive Line: D
Was constantly blitzing for Riley Skinner, and almost never succeeded.
Linebackers: C
Alex Wujciak seemed to be the only player on defense that got big plays. The rest of the unit was not effective.
Secondary: F-
Torched all day by Riley Skinner and his receivers.

Special Teams - Overall Grade: A-
Kicker/Punter: A
Every time he plays, Nick Ferrera continues to impress. Converted a 50-yard field goal, punted for average of 40 yards and converted all three extra points.
Coverage and Returners: B+
Torrey Smith had a huge return to set up Maryland's first drive which ended in a touchdown, and the coverage on all other players was fine.

Coaching - Overall Grade: D+
Offensive: D
James Franklin did not have a good gameplan and clearly does not trust the running game at all. Worse, he burned Caleb Porzel's redshirt with two rushes, and he clearly does not look ready. Obviously with the injuries to Campbell and Scott things are bad, but Franklin's gameplan continues to trouble Maryland.
Defensive: C
It is hard to blame the coaching, because what was Don Brown to do? Maryland can't risk dropping seven each time because of Skinner's skill plus Maryland's weak secondary, so Brown tried to blitz the heck out of Wake which is the better idea than dropping everyone back. The problem was the blitzes were never much different than the others, and they were all picked up.

MVP: Alex Wujciak
The only defensive player that was a legitimate threat to the Wake Forest offense.
LVP: Cameron Chism
I have to choose one; Chism was constantly getting beat on coverage, but many players on the secondary could be put here.

Maryland returns next week for their homecoming game against Virginia.

(Photo credit: AP)