Sunday, November 30, 2014

Week 14 College Football Recap: Rankings, Heisman, Playoff Projections

Another regular season is in the books! 14 weeks really passed? That is hard to believe. Look below for a rundown of the last week and a look forward to conference championship games!

Top 25 Poll
Others receiving votes: Air Force, Colorado State, Minnesota, Utah
Dropped from the rankings: Colorado State (19), Minnesota (20), Utah State (25)

25 (17). Marshall (11-1) – They went back and forth with another insane offense, and they came up just short. Going 11-1 still has to mean something, though. If they get a lower level Power 5 team in a bowl, then there could be some fireworks.
24 (NR). Nebraska (9-3) – A late rally secured another 9 win season for coach Bo Pelini, but did not quite secure his job.
23 (NR). USC (8-4) – A big win over freefalling Notre Dame wrapped up a roller coaster season for first year coach Steve Sarkisian.
22 (23). Clemson (9-3) – They finally got over the hump and beat South Carolina when they were favored. This just happened to be the worst Cocks team in recent memory.
21 (21). Auburn (8-4) – They performed admirably in the Iron Bowl and actually had a chance to take over. They might be the best 4 loss team I can remember.
20 (24). Northern Illinois (10-2) – They are just one of those programs that can just win no matter what the makeup of the team is. Once again, they are the best team in the state. (NR). Mississippi (9-3) – They got a surprise Egg Bowl victory, only adding to the strange resume of this (maybe great) Rebel team.
18 (22). Missouri (10-2) – They won the East, cool. They also have no real quality wins.
17 (16). Oklahoma (8-3) – IDLE.
16 (12). Georgia (9-3) – They got upended by the Yellow Jackets in their state rivalry game. Georgia Tech is a tough team to beat, and it was in overtime. This ruined any hope for the playoffs, however.
15 (11). UCLA (9-3) – The Bruins just constantly disappoint late in the year. This is the best Bruin team in more than a decade, and they still finish with 3 losses, including that ugly and semi-embarrassing loss to Stanford to end the year.
14 (13). Arizona State (9-3) – The Sun Devils battled hard against in-state foe Arizona to close the year. This team is going to be a scary opponent for whoever winds up playing them.
13 (18). Boise State (10-2) – Jay Ajayi. Check it out.
12 (14). Georgia Tech (10-2) – They roll into the ACC Championship game on a streak and with a real argument for being a season-ending top 4 team with a win.
11 (7). Mississippi State (10-2) – They could not overcome a furious and angry Ole Miss team in the Egg Bowl. That series always seems to go to the underdog.
10 (15). Wisconsin (10-2) – Beating Minnesota was impressive, and they didn’t even do it in their classic manner. This will be a tough out for banged-up Ohio State.
9 (9). Michigan State (10-2) – Another year, another underrated 10 win team for Sparty.
8 (10). Arizona (10-2) – If they can take down Oregon again, they will be left out of the top 4. But they shouldn’t be. This is one of the most resilient teams I have ever seen.
7 (8). Kansas State (9-2) – Kansas State gets a real opportunity against Baylor to make one last statement and prove once and for all that they are a legit program in that conference. (1). Florida State (12-0) – I am tired of putting them up there even though they suck but continue to win. They are not one of the best teams. It is as simple as that.
5 (6). TCU (10-1) – They spanked Texas on Thanksgiving for one final stake in their claim for a playoff spot.
4 (5). Baylor (10-1) – They were able to barely avoid disaster against Texas Tech, but they survived and…advanced? Maybe they still have to take apart K-State.
3 (2). Ohio State (11-1) – Losing their second Heisman candidate quarterback of the year is a huge blow to the team, but how will the committee react?
2 (3). Alabama (11-1) – Their defense showed serious holes, but their offense looked almost invincible.
1 (4). Oregon (11-1) – Can they be stopped by anyone? Arizona will let us know if that one night in Eugene was a fluke or not.

Conference Championship Games Next Weekend
Bonus Big 12 Game: Kansas State (#7) at Baylor (#4), 4:45PM ESPN – This may decide whether the Big 12 Champ gets in the tournament or not. Baylor definitely should be able to take care of business, but there is also some payback in order here for when K-State was seeking an unbeaten season a couple years back. Who takes it?
PREDICTION: Baylor 34-28
7. MAC: Bowling Green vs Northern Illinois (#20), FRI 4:00PM ESPN2 – This is a fairly uninteresting game, but Northern Illinois can put a claim in for a big bowl invite if Boise State gets upset. Look for a beat down either way.
PREDICTION: Northern Illinois 41-17
6. SEC: Missouri (#18) vs Alabama (#2), 1:00PM CBS – There really is little to look forward to here. We can all hope Missouri pulls an all-time upset and throws chaos into the landscape, but nope. That won’t happen.
PREDICTION: Alabama 48-13
5. C-USA: Louisiana Tech vs Marshall (#25), 9:00AM ESPN2 – LT can score, but Marshall is coming off a loss that is going to leave them inspired and looking for blood. Or it could be a letdown against a team who just dropped 70+ in their season finale. Hmm…
PREDICTION: Marshall 31-30
4. MWC: Fresno State at Boise State (#13), 7:00PM CBS – Fresno has recovered since an ugly start to the year, and Boise has really stomped on everyone since being upset by Air Force early on. This could be a compelling game if Fresno shows up offensively.
PREDICTION: Boise State 38-24
3. PAC-12: Arizona (#8) vs Oregon (#1), FRI 6:00PM FOX – We can all assume that Arizona is going to be able to do the same thing they did the last two times they played, but Oregon is amazing at making adjustments and their offensive line has been shored up.
PREDICTION: Oregon 41-31
2. Big Ten: Wisconsin (#10) vs Ohio State (#3), 5:17PM FOX – Can Melvin Gordon be stopped? Can Ohio State adjust to another starting quarterback? Your guess is as good as mine.
PREDICTION: Ohio State 31-27
1. ACC: Georgia Tech (#12) vs Florida State (#6), 5:00PM ABC – This might not be the best teams, but it is the most compelling matchup. That GT rushing attack against the long win streak. Coastal vs Atlantic. Good vs evil.
PREDICTION: Georgia Tech 24-21

Heisman Trophy Watch JT Barrett, QB, Ohio State – Even though he is lost for the season, he had the most prolific quarterback season in Big Ten History, despite not playing the entire season. He deserves an invite.
4. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama – He continues to have monster games in the most important matchups. If he is invited, then this begs the question: What makes him different than Justin Blackmon, Marqise Lee, or Michael Crabtree? He plays for Alabama. That’s about it.
3. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU – He has had an absurd season in that new air raid offense at TCU. He should be a slam dunk choice for third place.
2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin – I think he may need to break the all time rushing record to win the thing, unless Oregon gets taken down by Arizona again.
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon – Barring a loss, he has this thing wrapped up.

College Football Playoff Projections
Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl: Florida State over Michigan State
Cotton Bowl: Arizona over Wisconsin
Fiesta Bowl: Boise State over TCU
Orange Bowl: Georgia Tech over Mississippi State

College Football Playoff Semifinal #1 (Rose Bowl): Alabama over Ohio State
CFB Playoff Semifinal #2 (Sugar Bowl): Oregon over Baylor
National Championship Game: Alabama over Oregon

Thoughts? Predictions for next week? What should the committee do with Ohio State? Hit me up below!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Week 12 College Football Recap: Rankings, Heisman, Playoff Projections

It was another week of crazy college football games that almost shook up the rankings. We are getting teased each and every week, and we still have yet to have a monster top 5 upset, despite #1 TCU trailing most of the game in Lawrence against the Jayhawks. Rivalry games are coming up soon though! Check out the fallout:,fl_progressive,q_80,w_636/bxrcv02kvwvi0v8uoudt.jpg
Top 25 Poll
Others receiving votes: Minnesota, Northern Illinois, Notre Dame, Oklahoma
Dropped from the rankings: Notre Dame (14), Minnesota (21), Clemson (23)

25 (NR). Missouri (8-2) – With their first “ranked” win of the year playing the horrible Texas A&M squad, Missouri is now a couple cakewalks away from winning the East division of the SEC. Best conference in football…sure.
24 (9). Nebraska (8-2) – The story of the past few years showed its head again. Nebraska simply cannot stop a power running attack or win a big game on the road.
23 (NR). Utah (7-3) – After beating Stanford (now 5-5, somehow), Utah continues a very impressive run in the Pac this year. They are one of those teams that you simply do not want to see in a bowl game. (NR). USC (7-3) – The USC offense is absolutely humming. Cody Kessler might be the guy to eventually take them to the top of the Pac-12 South.
21 (15). Duke (8-2) – They dropped a game to up-and-down Virginia Tech, but they still are a consistent team and probably the best team in the Coastal.
20 (19). Colorado State (9-1) – IDLE.
19 (20). Boise State (8-2) – With their only losses coming to Air Force and Ole Miss, and already having beat otherwise unbeaten Colorado State, this team is in the driver’s seat to represent the other conferences in the CFP bowls.
18 (11). Auburn (7-3) – After getting hammered by Georgia, Auburn is suddenly reeling and cannot even find consistency in their run game. If they can somehow take the Iron Bowl, then this will not be a complete disaster season for Gus Malzahn’s squad.
17 (18). Mississippi (8-2) – IDLE.
16 (17). Marshall (10-0) – They keep getting wins and looking pretty average doing it. It is hard to go undefeated, I get it. But how impressive is it really if your best win is a home win against 6-4 Rice?
15 (25). Wisconsin (8-2) – They are not a great team, but they sure looked like one yesterday. Melvin Gordon is a maniac with the ball and is reminiscent of Jamaal Charles when he was at Texas.
14 (24). Georgia Tech (8-2) – This might be the most overlooked team in the nation. They have a pretty decent resume, and they are tough to prepare for. They are among the most consistent teams every season.
13 (8). Arizona State (8-2) – I do not know what it is about traveling to Corvallis as a heavy favorite. Mike Riley gets his guys up for those games. I always thought ASU might have been a tad fraudulent.
12 (16). Arizona (8-2) – They have had one of the stranger seasons to follow. They got the benefit of a team not taking a knee at the end, resulting in a fumble and a missed game-winning field goal negated via timeout, followed by the true game-winner. You know, normal Wildcat stuff… (13). UCLA (8-2) – IDLE.
10 (22). Georgia (8-2) – After slaughtering Auburn and losing Todd Gurley officially for the season/Georgia career, we still have no idea what to expect from this team. They showed flashes of being the best team in the conference, as I predicted preseason.
9 (10). Kansas State (7-2) – IDLE.
8 (12). Michigan State (8-2) – Sparty had an uneventful win, and they still do not have a real signature victory. The teams they lost to are among the top in the rankings, so that warrants spots above teams we know aren’t that good, I suppose.
7 (2). Mississippi State (9-1) – Losing in Alabama is no shame, but they really were outclassed for the duration and looked pretty mediocre, despite what the final score indicates.
6 (1). TCU (9-1) – How exactly can you struggle that much with Kansas? The pressure of being slam dunk top 5 team got to the Frogs, and suddenly it seems inevitable that they will get passed up by Baylor in the standings.
5 (7). Baylor (8-1) – IDLE.
4 (5). Oregon (9-1) – IDLE. (6). Alabama (9-1) – Taking out Mississippi State was a great win for the Tide, but they still cannot win on the road. And they won’t have to. That’s how the SEC rolls.
2 (4). Ohio State (9-1) – They survived some terrible conditions and a tough-minded Minnesota squad to continue a magical run leg by JT Barrett, who is the best Urban Meyer QB since Tim Tebow.
1 (3). Florida State (10-0) – They get it done again, somehow. Miami is a good win. I just wonder how many comebacks this team has in them. I would say that they won’t be able to do it against elite teams, but look at the BCS Championship Game last year…

Top 5 Games for Next Weekend
It is going to be an ugly week for games, since it is the annual tune-up game week for the SEC. I hate that…
5. Mississippi (#17) at Arkansas, 12:30PM CBS –Arkansas got its first conference win in the last two years, and it has one of the top teams in the division traveling to their place. It could be an interesting/ugly game.
PREDICTION: Arkansas 13-9
4. Louisville at Notre Dame, 12:30PM NBC – Notre Dame is going to have quite a gut check, but they aren’t exactly playing for a big bowl invite anymore. Louisville has been a pretty solid team all year. This is just going to be an old fashioned battle.
PREDICTION: Notre Dame 31-30
3. Kansas State (#9) at West Virginia, THU 4:00PM FS1 – West Virginia has been tough at home all year, giving Baylor its only loss among other fine efforts. Kansas State rolls in with one conference loss and a bye week. This should be quite a show.
PREDICTION: Kansas State 38-31
2. Arizona (#12) at Utah (#23), 12:30PM ESPN – Here is another key game in the Pac-12 South. Arizona is riding one of those strange waves of emotion, and Utah just saved their season with a tough fought victory over Stanford. Look for a physical game in this one.
PREDICTION: Utah 17-13
1. UCLA (#11) at USC (#22), 5:00PM ABC – The Battle for LA is back and has implications. Both teams are playing their best football, and both quarterbacks are rolling. I can’t wait to see this scene.

Heisman Trophy Watch
5. Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall – When all is said and done, he may have led the only undefeated season of the 2014. He has been doing it for four years. In a year where all of the secondary candidates have flaws, he has none. He just hasn’t played anyone.,qitok=tnbfiEOu.pagespeed.ic.aqswjl3nXV.jpg4. JT Barrett, QB, Ohio State – He had another monster game and broke the school record for touchdowns. He has three more games to keep piling up those stats.
3. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State – After shaving some points in the first half again, Winston turned it on and had another “amazing” comeback on the road. He needs to leave.
2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin – Breaking a record set by LaDainian Tomlinson in college will vault you up the Heisman rankings no matter who you are. Gordon simply was already having an all-time worthy season and career, with his absurd YPC above 8.0 for his time at Wisconsin. 408 yards against a ranked Nebraska all but guaranteed his invite.
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon – Suddenly, with Dak Prescott losing and looking bad doing it, Mariota seems like a shoo-in, assuming they make the CFP.

College Football Playoff Projections
Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl: Boise State over UCLA
Cotton Bowl: Ohio State over Mississippi
Fiesta Bowl: TCU over Mississippi State
Orange Bowl: Georgia over Michigan State

College Football Playoff Semifinal #1 (Rose Bowl): Alabama over Baylor
CFB Playoff Semifinal #2 (Sugar Bowl): Oregon over Florida State
National Championship Game: Alabama over Oregon
Anti-SEC Scenario:
1. Alabama loses the Iron Bowl to Auburn
2. Mississippi State loses the Egg Bowl to Mississippi
3. Georgia drops the game of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate to Georgia Tech
4. Missouri loses to either Arkansas or Tennessee
5. Georgia beats Mississippi in the SEC Championship Game with 3 losses
#1, #2, and Missouri wins the SEC Championship Game with a loss to Indiana on their ledger. Either way, the SEC would likely get shut out and we would all rejoice.

Thoughts on this weekend? What are your favorite college football rivalries? Is the Heisman race over? Comment.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Citizenfour (2014) Review

Directed by
Laura Poitras

            It is difficult to find meaningful ways to critique Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour.  The documentary isn’t simply about Edward Snowden and the events of June 2013, when Snowden became a household name and frequent topic of conversation at dinner tables across America and the globe – the documentary is Edward Snowden.  With the exceptions of a 20-minute prologue and 20-minute epilogue, Snowden dominates nearly every moment of screen time, whether it’s him in front of the camera discussing the classified documents he leaked or whether it’s his words on a black screen in the form of encrypted email messages sent to Poitras.  Citizenfour doesn’t attempt to recreate the events leading to Snowden’s public downfall – the camera is there with him every second of the way.  It is a little like watching the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination – sure, the image may be grainy and imperfect but as you’re watching it, you begin to realize you’re watching not just a film strip but history being made before your eyes.
Much of the media coverage surrounding Snowden has remained ambivalent about his actions as a whistleblower and enemy of the state.  Was he a hero for exposing the government’s intrusive surveillance policies, or was he a disgruntled traitor?  This chasm within the Snowden narrative is no doubt due in large part to the conflicting public attitudes in the United States; according to one NBC News poll conducted in May 2014, more Americans opposed Snowden’s actions than supported them.  But three days later, a poll by Tresorit revealed that 55 percent of respondents felt Snowden was justified in exposing the NSA’s mass data-mining programs.  Certainly Snowden would likely find support among libertarians and conspiracy theorists fearful of governmental overreach, but does mere support necessarily translate to exemption from standing trial? 
There is no such ambiguity in Citizenfour; it is clear from the very opening moments of the film that Poitras and her colleagues believe the CIA has overextended its powers and Snowden’s actions, however unlawful they were, may represent the only forcible means of resistance to NSA.  And yet what makes Citizenfour so compelling is that in spite of Poitras’ allegiance to Snowden (an allegiance which granted her closer access to Snowden than practically anyone else on the planet), there remain many unanswered questions about Snowden, the leaked documents, NSA policy, and just how massive a surveillance network is at the control of a few select individuals in great positions of political and military power.  Poitras does not overtly attempt to sway viewers into sympathizing with Snowden; instead, one walks away from Citizenfour with the distinct impression that Snowden represents only one relatively minor pawn in a giant maelstrom that, unless stopped, will produce many more troubling pieces to come. 

The opening of the film introduces a collage of several major figures and events leading up to the Snowden leaks.  We witness a federal case in San Francisco where a government lawyer cloyingly argues the NSA is not required to be held accountable at a judicial level since its operations must remain classified.  We briefly meet William Binney, a former technical director for the NSA who is now its most outspoken critic.  We see Occupy Wall Street meeting, where protestors are told to limit their use of credit cards and metro passes because they contain data which can be monitored and tracked by authorities.  The point of these scenes, I think, is to illustrate that Snowden’s actions were not unprecedented and did not emerge out of a vacuum – that the cultural climate (not too many years removed from the Patriot Act) was already rife with skepticism that the internet truly provided privacy and a democratic platform for free speech. 
Citizenfour shows that what made the Snowden leaks so staggering were two major points: First, that they linked NSA surveillance directives with the complicit actions of giant telecoms such as Verizon and AT&T representing millions of consumers; and second, that they contradicted virtually everything the NSA had said about its surveillance programs in sworn testimony before Congress (we see excerpts from this now-infamous exchange).  Furthermore, Snowden’s leaks showed that the NSA’s power was recklessly unchecked and uncalled for, given that 90 percent of citizens surveyed represented no significant safety or terrorist threat.  And most troublesome of all, the leaks contained President Obama’s explicit seal of approval.   
But generally speaking, this is the stuff we already know.  What Citizenfour offers is a firsthand look at the seven days in June 2013 in a cramped Hong Kong hotel room, when Snowden agreed to meet in secret with Poitras and two journalists, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill.  For the first couple of days, no one is really sure what to do.  Snowden talks a little about his background at the NSA and explains the inner-workings of a few of the NSA’s most sophisticated and vast mining programs.  The four agree that at some point during the week the leaks will have to go public through Wikileaks, but after that happens, no one is sure what will happen next.  In frank discussions, they consider the difficulties in revealing Snowden’s identity; while they accept his inevitable legal repercussions, they agree that once Snowden becomes the public face of the leaks, U.S. authorities will strategically shift the focus away from the NSA and toward a menial personality examination.
So what exactly do we learn about Edward Snowden?   Very little, in fact.  We learn he was born into a military family in North Carolina, but was raised in Maryland, that he held a variety of positions within the CIA and had top-level clearance, and that he is worried about his girlfriend’s well-being.  He wears a white tee-shirt most of the time and sits on his bed.  He looks painfully normal.  He unplugs the phone in the room and puts a towel over his head on occasion.  In one incredible sequence, the hotel fire alarm begin to sound and Snowden and Greenwald anticipate authorities bursting into the room (we later find out that it was only a fire drill).  He has a lot to say about the NSA and after being asked why he engaged in the leaks, he appears genuine in his insistence that he cares about average Americans and the threat of government surveillance to the foundations of a democratic society.  He is not an anarchist or a terrorist or an ideologue, just a normal guy who gradually became very cynical about the work he did without the ability to critically probe why he was really doing it.

But is Edward Snowden really that selfless and heroic?  Let’s forget the obligatory high-minded rhetoric from John Kerry and others about being a traitor to the United States for a moment.  As I watched the film, I found myself wondering what other motivations, if any, led Snowden to leak the NSA’s classified information and, in effect, ending his life in the United States.   Although you never get the sense in Citizenfour that Snowden is sniffing for a book deal or appearance on Oprah, something undeniably seems unsettling about him.  I found myself wondering why it was him and not someone else chose to come forward with this information.  Why did it take so long?  What is the real reason behind the reluctance to talk about himself, and why doesn’t he mention any channels he went through within the NSA chain of command?  Isn’t one of the lessons of this cynical postmodern world that everyone has a price and a bottom line?  And yet in that initial skepticism, I found myself wondering if that wasn’t precisely what the U.S. government wants me to think about Edward Snowden.  It’s always easier to place blame on the public actions of a single individual rather than the classified actions of anonymous ones. 
Citizenfour includes only peripheral references to Obama.  Snowden talks about his personal disappointment at the President and toward the end of the film, we see a brief clip of Obama admitting that while the Snowden’s questions were valid, his methods were not.  Of course, what Obama excludes from this statement is events such as the San Francisco federal court case at the beginning of the film, where the plaintiffs attempted to use legal channels to file complaints with the government, but were ultimately unsuccessful (even when they received the support of judges).  Also overlooked is if tried in the United States, Snowden would be charged with violating the Espionage Act, a grossly overinclusive, vague, and virtually indefensible charge stemming from World War I.  Why hasn’t Obama overturned (or at least attempt to overturn) this anachronistic and censorious mandate?  Although he is not intended to be the direct center of blame, Obama comes off worse in this film than Dinesh D’Souza and anyone at Fox News could have ever hoped for.  As an Obama voter in 2008 and 2012, the events depicted in Citizenfour are extremely disheartening and will leave a permanent tarnish on a once-hopeful presidential legacy.
Poitras states at the beginning that Citizenfour is the third part of a trilogy examining America after 9/11.  Snowden reached out to her after seeing the first film in her trilogy, My Country, My Country (2006).  Poitras is never seen on camera nor does she speak, but the written narration informs us she is now under strict surveillance by the Department of Homeland Security.  Snowden is of course in Russia and will be forced in all likelihood to stay there indefinitely.  How this film was ever produced and released by a major distributor (HBO Films) for a national theatrical release – keeping in mind the security risks associated with Snowden and Poitras – is beyond me.  All I know is that somehow miraculously, Citizenfour exists in complete form as a great documentary and public record of history for everyone to see.  And it should be the duty of every American to see it.  

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

2014 at Halftime: The NFL Mid-Season Report and Awards


           Remember the good ole days when the biggest offseason storylines from the NFL were limited to treatment of concussions and long-term effects of brain injuries?  With the unresolved sagas of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Breaking Bad-style de-evolution of Roger Goodell into a Vince McMahon-like league villain, it’s safe to say those days are gone.  There has been, however, some good football to come out of the 2014 season at its mid-point – it just hasn’t involved any of the following: Geno Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jay Cutler, Thursday Night Football, professional football in Washington D.C. and Oakland, London games played at 6:00am PST, and ghosts of Bill Gramatica.

Biggest Surprise: There are a few viable candidates here.  The Cleveland Browns are somehow 5-3 despite 0 yards being gained from Johnny Football, the non-reinstatement of their best receiver, injuries to their second-best pass catcher (Jordan Cameron), playing in a super-competitive division where everyone is above .500, and having a bottom-three rush defense.  And yet Cleveland has victories over New Orleans and Pittsburgh, along with two last-second losses to the Ravens and Steelers.  Their lone bad performance all season came against the Jaguars in Jacksonville (go figure).  And perhaps most amazingly of all, Mike Pettine has not even been fired yet!
            You could also go with the Buffalo Bills (5-3 in spite of a bad draft, major injuries on offense and defense, and Kyle Orton as QB) or the Miami Dolphins (also 5-3 with dominant victories over New England, Chicago and San Diego, with Ryan Tannehill turning into a white Michael Vick).  Or you could go with DeMarco Murray, a guy who suffered through severe sprained ankle, foot and MCL injuries the last three seasons before reaching a career high in rushing yards for a season . . . through the first nine games of 2014.  He is on pace for 2,000 rushing and 440 receiving yards while taking the title of unquestionably the NFL’s best runningback. 

            But the winner here has to be the only team to have held Murray under 100 yards in a game, which is precisely what the 7-1 Arizona Cardinals did last week.  If you were to ask at the beginning of the season which NFC team would start out with the best record through eight games, I realistically would have picked eight other teams before the Cards (Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, Green Bay, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta).  It’s not as though the Cardinals are statistically blowing opponents away; the Cardinals rank dead last in pass yards allowed, 5th worst in rushing offense, and have only outscored their opponents by a total of 36 points.  Hell, they’ve had to turn to the likes of Drew Stanton, Logan Thomas, and Larry Foote to cement key wins.  They are winning games for two primary reasons: They don’t turn the ball over (six turnovers through eight games) and they know how to win close games.
            Of course on the flip side, you could make the case that moving forward the Cardinals still have to face the 49ers, Lions, Chiefs and two games against the defending champs.  They still have a 35-year-old quarterback who has never won a playoff game and an offense that has eclipsed 30 points only once.  But you could also point to how they have the best secondary in football with the fearsome combination of Cromartie-Peterson-Matthieu and how Deone Bucannon is a viable defensive rookie of the year candidate.  In a year when everything that could go wrong for Seattle and San Francisco has gone really wrong, Arizona has stepped in out of nowhere and played better than anyone could have expected (in its last 17 games, the Cardinals are an amazing 14-3).  I expect nothing less than this team to go on a 2008-like playoff run, and if that is the case, Arians seems like a shoo-in for Coach of the Year, while Palmer (11 TDs, 2 INTs, 99.3 QB rating) could be a front-runner (along with Arian Foster and Kyle Orton) for Comeback Player of the Year.

Biggest Disappointment: It’s hard to find an example of a disappointing team in the group of five AFC teams with losing records (Jets, Texans, Titans, Jaguars, and Raiders).  I don’t think anyone expected New York to be 1-8 at this point but I also don’t think many people realistically estimated substantial growth from Geno Smith or considerable help from 34-year-old Michael Vick.  They’ve also played only one sub-.500 team all season – the Raiders – which accounted for their lone victory.  Their October16 loss to the Patriots on a short week – a loss eerily mirroring their questionably-officiated, game-winning FG victory from last yearwas their 2014 season.  Meanwhile, I would argue that the Jaguars and Raiders are playing much better football than their record would suggest.
            That leads us to the NFC.  A cumulative record of 9-7 for the two best teams of 2013 (the Seahawks and 49ers) has to be considered a disappointment at some level, but both teams have suffered through throngs of injuries on both sides of the ball, along with a pair truly agonizing losses to the Rams.  If you had told Saints fans their team would be 4-4 at the break, you’d be met with some groans . . . but this would be amended after you told them that New Orleans is still the odds-on favorite to win the NFC South.  Atlanta and Carolina are certainly suffering through painful seasons after their successes in 2012 and 2013 respectively, but neither was exactly the Super Bowl favorite coming into 2014.

            Believe it or not, the only team that truly fits the bill for disappointment is the 3-5 Chicago Bears.  They are the very definition of an erratic and frustrating team: 0-3 at home, 3-2 on the road; blowout losses to the Dolphins and Packers, yet a truly impressive victory in San Francisco against the 49ers on national television; statistically outstanding seasons from Jay Cutler (17 TDs, 95.8 QB rating) and Matt Forte (1,000 total yards) but 9 fumbles by Cutler and only 3 rushing touchdowns for Forte.  Most beguiling of all, the Bears haven’t suffered any serious injuries outside of Peanut Tillman, meaning one of two things: Either (A) their starters really are just that bad, or (B) the team has lost focus due to turmoil in the locker room and lack of leadership on the parts of Cutler, Brandon Marshall, and Marc Trestman. 
            For the second half of the season, the Bears do get treated to home games against the Vikings, Buccaneers, Cowboys, Saints and Lions, meaning they have ample room make up ground in the NFC North.  But there’s no way of predicting which team will show up on the field on any given day – the one that held the Falcons to under 300 yards of total offense or the team that gave up 21 points to the Patriots in a span of48 seconds.  Is it too late to call up Josh McCown again?

Team to watch in the Second Half: Once again, the disappointing first halves for the Seahawks and 49ers suggest that both teams are more than capable of righting the ship in time for playoff runs virtually everyone banked on going into the season.  Meanwhile, someone has to win the NFC East and while history would suggest that Eli Manning and the Giants can be the beneficiaries of injuries to Nick Foles and Tony Romo, New York has also lost three straight, has to fly to Seattle this weekend, and hasn’t defeated a team over .500.
            There is, however, a 2013 playoff team that no one is talking about because Brady-Manning-Luck have overshadowed the race in the AFC.  This team has victories over the Dolphins, Patriots, and Chargers, and close losses to the 49ers and Broncos.  So yes, while everyone in Jayhawk country spent the majority of the month of October rooting for their incredible baseball team (or rooting unsuccessfully against their odious governor), you could make the case that quietly the 5-3 Kansas City Chiefs are playing the best football in the NFL right now. They have found a legitimately frightening two-headed beast at runningback with the combination of Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis, while Alex Smith is completing over 67 percent of his passes – most of which are going into the arms of breakout tight end Travis Kelce (419 yards, 4 TDs).  On defense, Justin Houston and Tamba Hali have remained healthy and fearsome, combining for 16 sacks, and the Chiefs defense has given up the fewest points in the AFC (138).

            The problem?  Kansas City has been absolutely incapable of creating turnovers.  Of the five (you read that correctly, five) takeaways they’ve forced through eight games, three came against one opponent (the Patriots, on that memorable Monday night stampeding). Due to the impressive ball control abilities of the offense, the lack of takeaways hasn’t received a lot of notice, but the upcoming return of Eric Berry (out of the lineup since Week Two) should help a secondary that gets stabs at Kyle Orton and Derek Carr twice . . . but also Russell Wilson, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, and Ben Roethlisberger.  I’m picking Kansas City here not so much because their schedule is favorable (which it is anyway) but because this is a legitimately talented team with playoff experience that is seriously going under the radar. We all now know what teams in KansasCity – along with their tremendous fans – are capable of.

Coach of the Year: Arians, for the reasons stated in the “Biggest Surprise” category.  But a close second would be Jim Caldwell, who has somehow turned the Lions into the best defense in football.  I don’t have complete faith in their 6-2 record, since two of those games were super-fluky wins over the Saints and Falcons, but Caldwell has done an amazing job of turning around a team that hasn’t had a top-ten defense since 1983.  All the more impressive is that defensive players haven’t revolted in wake of Ndamukong Suh’s lame-duck year.  I guess I just don’t understand how Caldwell is such a good coach – does he motivate his players through stern looks and unrelenting stares into empty space? 

Best Team: Come on.  This isn’t really all that tough, is it?  A month ago, the New England Patriots were sitting at 2-2.  They had two blowout conference losses, a home game against the Raiders they should have lost, and a borderline-unfair win against Matt Cassel and the Vikings the same week the Adrian Peterson scandal broke.  The beloved Belichick-Brady era seemed on its final ropes, as everyone had started predicting as long as five years ago.  “Trading Logan Mankins a week before the season was a terrible idea!” They chimed.  “No one can catch the ball other than Edelman and Gronk!” They proclaimed.  “They’re too old/slow/banged up/inexperienced/unmotivated/overmatched/untalented!” They insisted.
            It’s amazing to me that in year 14 of Brady-Belichick experiment people still don’t seem to realize that the Patriots feed off when the media criticizes them.  No way they can beat the Greatest Show on Turf in an indoors Super Bowl?  Not a problem.  No way they can recover from the penalties and repercussions of SpyGate?  No big deal.  No way they can win games after Brady goes down in the first quarter of Week One?  Nobody cares.  Take your pick of adversity and criticisms this team has faced: Losing Wes Welker and Randy Moss, the Aaron Hernandez saga, Gronkowski’s injuries, Brady’s age, bad officiating, bad drafting, 4th-and-2, and the Manning Brothers (good times and bad). 

            And yet after that shellacking by the Chiefs, the media still insisted that the Patriots were done for.  Don’t get me wrong.  That Kansas City game was terrible.  But as awful as that game was for Tom and company (and the fans that had to watch it), New England has responded with precisely that much more intensity, anger, and outstanding play – and they have done so in spite of losing their best rusher (Stevan Ridley), their best tackler (Jerrod Mayo) and their best defensive lineman (Chandler Jones).  They put up 43 points on the Broncos and the Bengals; Tom went 150 passes without throwing an interception (the one he did throw last week was a tipped pass); and with Brandon Browner back in the lineup, the secondary is pretty clearly the best in the AFC.  And the losses of Wes Welker, Aqib Talib, and Logan Mankins?  Not exactly the first thing on Pats’ fans minds anymore . . .
            So here’s the real question: How far can this team really go?  We’ve heard all these glowing praises before, but the Pats always find ways to shoot themselves in the foot with injuries and inexplicably poor play in January.  They have an incredibly tough slate of games coming up (at Indianapolis, at Green Bay, at San Diego, home for Detroit and Miami; meanwhile, Denver gets Oakland twice).  They haven’t run the ball especially well without Ridley and we all know Gronk could have a fluke injury at any point (every game there’s at least one “hold-your-breath-for-dear-life” moment like this one).  Peyton Manning won’t forget last week any time soon.  But for the time being, I’d take this group against any other team in the league, and the tough schedule will help keep them disciplined in their quest for title #4.

MVP: This is a tough one.  Prior to the last few weeks, the obvious candidate was Murray, a guy who legitimately seemed unstoppable in the rare Adrian Peterson/Jamal Lewis-in-2003/Barry Sanders mode.  And of course Murray could still win it, but two things will almost certainly need to happen: He will need to break the 2,000 rushing yard mark and the Cowboys will need to make the playoffs. 
            Murray supporters will also need to root for more mediocre play from perennial MVP candidates like Brady, Manning, and Aaron Rodgers, but I think the real favorite here has to be Andrew Luck.  He’s on pace for 5,484 yards, which would pass Manning’s record breaking mark from last season.  He has accounted for at least two total touchdowns in every game this season, and hasn’t exactly been able to rely on the ground game of Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw (even though the latter has played better than anyone expected).  If the NFL’s PR campaign wants to brand the league as guys who take the game seriously, have no off-the-field issues, and who are universally loved by seemingly everybody, then Luck is precisely the player they would want to bestow the league’s highest individual honor on.  And let’s be honest – this Colts team is hardly loaded with talent, and a total of zero people were seriously panicked after Indy’s 0-2 start or their defensive meltdown against the Steelers.  Luck just promotes that kind of confidence in this team.
            I write all this and yet (you’re going to hate me for this) my MVP vote goes to Rob Gronkowski.  Simply put, he is the most explosive offensive weapon in football.  You can’t put a linebacker on him because he’s too mobile, but you can’t put a safety on him because he’ll run him over.  You can’t protect against his run-blocking because he’s too dominant, and there’s no way you can guard against him with one-on-one coverage.  And then there are plays like these which he makes once or twice per game, which no one can possibly defend against.  In his five years in the league, no team has sufficiently figured out how to cover him, and if you don’t believe me, take a look at his career game log: 31 five-catch games, 15 100-yard games, and 35 games with a TD. 
            Gronkowski has been the best player in football in 2014 and this is true even considering how limited he was in the Pats’ first four games (he still managed three TDs).  With a healthy Gronkowski, the New England offense is historically great, and this isn’t even factoring in the receiving play of Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, and Shane Vereen.  He has systematically redefined the position he plays – how many players can you say that about?

            So there’s my mid-season report and I’m still not wavering from the Super Bowl pick I made at the beginning of the season: 31-30 Patriots over Seahawks.  Comments?  Questions?  Not enough time spent talking about how great New England is playing?  Write them below! 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Week 10 College Football Recap: Rankings, Heisman, Playoff Projections

We had another great week of college football in week 10. The top teams in the nation got pushed, and there were some stunning upsets that all but ended the seasons of a couple teams. Check out the fallout below.

Top 25 Poll
Others receiving votes: Clemson, Georgia Southern, Minnesota, West Virginia, Wisconsin
Dropped from the rankings: West Virginia (20), East Carolina (24)

25 (23). LSU (7-2) – IDLE
24 (21). Boise State (6-2) – IDLE
23 (12). Georgia (6-2) – The Bulldogs at times look like the best team in the nation, and then they get blown out by a horrible Florida offense. I don’t know what to make of this team anymore. (NR). Iowa (6-2) – Iowa opened some eyes with their dismantling of a normally pretty solid Northwestern squad. They are the dark horse in the conference.
21 (NR). Oklahoma (6-2) – Trevor Knight and company got back on track with a huge offensive day against Iowa State. The Big 12 is insane.
20 (22). Colorado State (8-1) – This is a team that we really don’t know much about, but they keep piling up wins in a really decent Mountain West Conference. They are a program on the rise.
19 (14). Mississippi (7-2) – Ole Miss gets their first home loss of the year at the hands of Auburn. It’s hard to believe that they have lost two in a row after those magical first 7 games.
18 (18). Marshall (8-0) – IDLE
17 (17). Utah (6-2) – The Utes got a hard fought road loss at ASU. The Pac-12 South is up for grabs. They are all taking each other out.
16 (19). Duke (7-1) – Duke is rolling right now. They look better than they did last season and is clearly the 2nd best ACC team.
15 (8). Arizona (7-2) – For the first time, the slow offensive start for the Wildcats translated into a loss. UCLA was able to just confuse and shut them down all game.
14 (25). UCLA (7-2) – I really wish I could figure this team out. They are up and down and still the most talented team in the conference.
13 (16). Nebraska (8-1) – They won a sluggish game, but that was mostly due to Abdullah getting injured early on. They get a week off for him to get right before a key matchup in Madison.
12 (13). Ohio State (7-1) – This team is really hitting its stride and is as scary as any team in the nation with JT Barrett at the helm.
11 (10). Michigan State (7-1) – IDLE
10 (15). Arizona State (7-1) – They got one of the more impressive wins of the weekend with their gutsy victory over Utah. This team, aside from a disastrous special teams effort against UCLA, looks like one of the elite teams in the nation.
9 (11). Baylor (7-1) – The Bears continue to roll all over the weak teams and battle with the good teams. I love following that conference.
8 (6). Alabama (7-1) – IDLE
7 (5). Notre Dame (7-1) – They struggled mightily against Navy, as they usually do. Some games this team just decides to go through the motions. Remember the UNC game?
6 (9). Oregon (8-1) – The Ducks were able to open it up against Stanford for the first time in a while. This team is constantly improving.
5 (7). Auburn (7-1) – Winning in Ole Miss is nothing to take lightly. They looked like one of the nation’s elite, aside from their inconsistent pass defense. (4). Kansas State (7-1) – What makes this K-State team different than the previous ones is that this team really can score.
3 (3). TCU (7-1) – TCU got another very impressive road win in Morgantown. It is hard to fathom that it really only took two years for this program to take over the Big 12.
2 (2). Florida State (8-0) – They got another scare and another huge comeback. They can’t win it all if they come out like that against a decent team.
1 (1). Mississippi State (8-0) – They still deserve to be #1, despite a lackluster effort against Arkansas. They get a glorified bye next week before heading to Tuscaloosa.

Top 5 Games for Next Weekend
5. Oregon (#6) at Utah (#17), 7:00PM ESPN – Oregon is not the best road team out there, and Utah is typically very tough to beat at home. I am really intrigued by the clash of styles as well.
PREDICTION: Oregon 34-27
4. Alabama (#8) at LSU (#26), 5:00PM CBS – This matchup has become an annual thriller. Even though LSU is down, they proved that they can still take care of a top ranked team in Death Valley. Can they slow up the Tide offense?
3. Ohio State (#12) at Michigan State (#11), 5:00PM ABC – Last year, in the B1G Championship Game, this game was uncompetitive. I can’t see that being the case this year. Michigan State seems incapable of losing a conference game, but this Ohio State team is frightening.
PREDICTION: Ohio State 34-30 Notre Dame (#7) at Arizona State (#10), 12:30PM ESPN – This is one of the marquee matchups of the season. ASU is coming in hot, and Notre Dame just nearly lost to Navy. What does that mean?
PREDICTION: Notre Dame 24-10
1. Kansas State (#4) at TCU (#3), 4:30PM FOX – This is the game that will likely decide the conference. K-State is still unbeaten in Big 12 play, and TCU has an offense that is relentless. This should be a stunner.
PREDICTION: Kansas State 23-21

Heisman Trophy Watch
5. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin – It is hard to get in when you are on a team that has a couple losses, but he is having a ridiculous season.
4. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State – He is actually asked to do a lot more for this Seminole squad, and he is racking up the Heisman moments once again. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska – The injury should not take him out of contention. If he still comes back and carries his team to a conference title, then he should be a shoo-in nominee.
2. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State – He had a shaky effort this week, but he is the best player on the best team. That is almost always enough to get invited.
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon – He has been unbelievably efficient, and he finally beat Stanford. He is and should be the frontrunner.

College Football Playoff Projections
Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl: Mississippi State over Colorado State
Cotton Bowl: Baylor over Ohio State
Fiesta Bowl: TCU over Auburn
Orange Bowl: Oregon over Duke

College Football Playoff Semifinal #1 (Rose Bowl): Kansas State over Florida State
CFB Playoff Semifinal #2 (Sugar Bowl): Alabama over Notre Dame
National Championship Game: Alabama over Kansas State

What did you think of this weekend? Rankings? Heisman predictions? Let me know below!