College Football

Jonathan Lowe

College Football: Seven on the Line (9-21-17)

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By Jonathan Lowe
September 21, 2017

There are some interesting clashes involving Group of 5 schools this weekend.  Houston hosts former Southwestern Conference foe Texas Tech.  Toledo heads to Miami to face a Hurricanes team that hasn’t played in weeks thanks to one of its namesakes.  Likewise, Central Florida returns to the field for the first time since Week 1 (they travel to Maryland).  As the saying goes, though, I put those matchups aside to go “straight chalk” this time around.  I’ll keep checking in on the Mid-Majors during the season.  In the meantime, the bigger names will start to dominate the spotlight.

Split Ends
Michigan at Purdue:  The bad news for the Wolverines is that they had a bit of a tense time putting away Air Force last week.  The good news is that they won’t have to face that triple-option attack for the rest of the regular season.  This upcoming matchup should be more to the Maize and Blue’s liking.  However, I don’t know if I would sleep on the Boilermakers just yet.  Purdue hung with Louisville deep into the fourth quarter in the opener.  Last week, (sigh) they walloped Missouri on the road.  Now, neither of those teams have the defense Michigan sports.  But, if the Wolverine offense is still sputtering (5 offensive TD’s to Purdue’s 14), then we may have a tight game a little later than expected.

Alabama at Vanderbilt: In the SEC, late-September conference games between two undefeated teams isn’t unprecedented.  It appears to be an annual norm, actually.  One happened only days ago (LSU at Mississippi State).  Multiple games will follow the same rules this weekend.  It just so happens that one of them will occur in Nashville.  For the Commodores, this is a position they haven’t been in too often.  There have been 3-0 (and better) starts.  Even with that past, when was the last time that an opponent of this magnitude came to Tennessee’s state capital with the home team having a shot at getting to 4-0?

For the Crimson Tide, this is old hat.  The following is a Public Service Announcement to one Nick Saban…YOU COACH A JUGGERNAUT!  It doesn’t matter that you don’t want to hear it.  It doesn’t matter that you don’t want your players to hear it.  Since your second season in Tuscaloosa (2008):

*Your program has won at least 10 games every season.
*Your teams have competed six premier bowl games.
*Your squads have taken part in the last two College Football Playoffs.
*You have led the school to four national championships.

Now, if we’re comparing your run against those of Knute Rockne, Bud Wilkinson, Tom Osbourne, Red Blaik, or Bear Bryant, then that’s a valid discussion.  But, save one contemporary (Urban Meyer), you are the guy that has dominated the field since the mid-1990s.  The other big-name programs (Ohio State, Michigan, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Penn State, Florida, LSU, Florida St.) have had, at least, one brief lapse of mediocrity over the last ten years.  You haven’t, because you coach a juggernaut.  Does this mean you’re invincible?  No.  But your pretty durn close.  And that makes a big difference going against a team that may be looking for the program’s biggest win in its 113-season (115-year) history.

 

Guards

USC at Cal: It’s nice to see some of the programs in the Pac-12 revive their glorious past (two of those examples are coming up later).  Could the Golden Bears be one of them?  There was a period about 10-15 year ago when the Berkeley school was producing a football program that had numbers next to their name and sniffs on conference title contention.  You can pinpoint 2004 as the prime example.  Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, and the Bears visited Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Lendale White, and the Trojans in a top-10 showdown.  As much fun as it is to reminisce on that matchup, this instance isn’t the same.  Justin Wilcox is in his first year running the Cal program.  They’ve racked up wins over Ole Miss and at North Carolina.  To get to 4-0, though, they might have to depend on a USC hangover after the Trojans’ OT win against Texas.

Penn State at Iowa: Are the Nittany Lions truly back?  They’ve looked the part, with three dominant wins to start the season.  There also seems to be a bit of overconfidence – arrogance, to some – coming from the sidelines.  Whether James Franklin is throwing a wet blanket over a deep-seeded state rivalry or “icing a kicker” in a 56-0 pasting, something’s working.  The reputation of a top-ten program has returned this season.  The program has won 11 straight regular season games.  Oh, and let’s not forget that they’re the defending Big Ten champs.  This  run won’t last forever.  It very well may not even last the whole season.  But going into conference play, the Nittany Lions are pouncing.

There’s a magic to night games in several locales.  However, living in the Upper Midwest, you see Big Ten fans embrace contests under the lights.  Whether it’s Columbus, State College, Madison, or others, these events are well-received.  The same can be said for Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes have pulled off some special results (including last year’s upset of second-ranked Michigan).  This is the third time I’ve featured a Hawkeye game in this weekly blurb.  They smothered Wyoming and survived against Iowa State.  Am I becoming a good-luck charm for them?  As a Cyclone alum, I sure hope not.

Tackles
Mississippi State at Georgia: In a conference full of Tigers, it’s a couple of Bulldogs that are making some early noise.  The ones that hail from Starkville made a huge statement while hosting one of those Tiger squads (the Bayou one).  The blowout win over LSU marked a potential spark of the magic that vaulted this program to a #1 poll ranking (for several weeks) in 2014.  Just like that season offered a breakout campaign for QB Dak Prescott, this one looks to provide a similar path for signal caller Nick Fitzgerald.  The next two weeks could do a lot to vault this team to their own top-five status.

The first matchup for the “Bell” Dogs comes Between the Hedges.  The other ‘Dawgs are flying high after their victory at Notre Dame a couple of weeks back.  That (plus a Week 3 win over Samford) vaults them into the league schedule to come.  Now, as has been the case the last few seasons, UGA is a player for the East Division title.  They just didn’t expect to be running alongside their current 3-0 counterparts.  We knew that Tennessee or Florida would cannibalize the other early on.  The fact, though, that Kentucky and Vanderbilt are the other unbeaten teams in the division is a bit surprising.  This may be the shot for Georgia to make their push back to Atlanta…and beyond.

Washington at Colorado: Last season, it looked like a return to 1990.  Around that time, these two “outpost” squads were prominent players in the national championship picture.  It’s taken a while for the Huskies to get back to that level, but they appear to be close, if not there.  This was signified last Winter, when the Huskies made a trip to the national semifinals.  Chris Petersen hopes to reach loftier goals this season.  The schedule, however, will come into question again this year.  With Rutgers, Montana, and Fresno State in the rear view mirror, they’ll need the Pac-12 to really step up their game…as they try to shut their peers down.

The Buffaloes are seeking a measure of revenge.  They lost to UW in last year’s conference championship.  Perhaps the biggest feel-good story of the season, CU has also been on the fast track to program revival.  Mike MacIntyre returned the favor for the time the university allowed him to build the program back up.  And they’re trying to build off of the school’s first 10-win season since 2001.  A win over the Huskies would provide a large building block in the program’s efforts to return to national contending status.

 

Center
TCU at Oklahoma State: A couple of weekends ago, the Horned Frogs showed their road mettle with a win in Fayetteville.  Last weekend, they turned around an early 19-7 deficit to run away from longtime, crosstown rival SMU.  This weekend, they can crash the Big XII party, where the Oklahoma schools are set to stand above the fray of everyone else.  It may be a bit troubling that the Mustangs were able to get 36 on that defense (it limited Arkansas to seven a week before).  This is definitely the week you would want the defending 11 to shore things up.

The Cowboys haven’t really been challenged yet this season.  Their offense put up its second straight 59-point effort last Saturday at Pitt.  Of the schools that have played three contests, Ok State is trailing only one school in scoring at 54.0 ppg (that would be Oregon’s at 56.0 ppg).  But we know this about the Pokes.  Mason Rudolph is just another reminder of the explosive offense this program has.  It’s about gaining more for Mike Gundy’s squad.  It’s about national respect and conference supremacy.  They received a taste of that in 2011, and the folks is Stillwater have waited a while for that sensation to return.

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Gophers ‘rowing the boat’ at 3-0

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By Larry Fitzgerald
September 19, 2017
GAMEDAY GOLD
@FitzBeatSr

 

Little did I know about the name P.J. Fleck until recently. My time might be drawing to an end.

Back in 1992, while doing talk radio on KFAN, the Gophers’ flagship station, I told my broadcast partner Eric Nelson and our listening audience that things were so bad here in the culture of the program at Minnesota that the football program would not go to the Rose Bowl in my lifetime. Here it is 2017 and the team has not won a Big Ten title since 1967 and has not been to the Rose Bowl since 1961.

Imagine three Gopher head football coaches in three years. That sounds as if the program is drifting away in trouble, right? Last year’s sexual harassment issues led to big change for both players and coaches. P.J. Fleck is the new big man on campus; he was hired shortly after Tracy Claeys was fired after going 9-4 and winning back-to-back Bowl games.

Not many Gopher head football coaches over the last 50 years can say that. Fleck was hired by Mark Coyle, the new Minnesota athletic director. “When I was athletic director at Syracuse,” said Coyle, “that’s when I first had a coaching search, and that’s when his name came up. I talked to a couple of coaches, and his name kept coming up.
“When I came to Minnesota a year later,” Coyle continued, “I saw what he did at Western Michigan University, starting 1-11 and then the next year going 13-1. That was awesome, but what really impressed me was [that] academically that team went from a 2.5 to a 3.0.

“I knew that he would take care of things on the field and off the field academically. We had a sense of urgency, so we thought he would be good for our program.”

It is early, but after three weeks the Gophers under Fleck are 3-0, winning 17-7 over Buffalo. At Oregon State the next week the Gophers dominated 48-14. And last Saturday I witnessed at TCF a complete domination of Middle Tennessee 34-3.

Some have been critical of Fleck and his methods. He is very confident when he talks. It’s about faith a lot and about the culture of a program. And “rowing the boat.”

Proof has been in the fast start and what the players are saying, and more importantly what they are doing and the changes. Not many head coaches across this country have won 16 of their last 17 games. P.J. Fleck talks the talk.

His style is different. He came on campus and right away threw away some prized football trophies. That has upset some alumni players. Not everyone is buying what he’s selling, but so far he’s “rowing the boat.”

 

 

Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to info@larry-fitzgerald.com, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.

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Jonathan Lowe

College Football: Seven on the Line (9-15-17)

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By Jonathan Lowe
September 15, 2017
GAMEDAY GOLD

For the first time in almost twelve years, we get to relive one of the greatest games college football has ever seen.  Sure, Texas ain’t what it used to be.  Yes, USC had to go through a rough patch of its own.  But you would think that all this pomp and circumstance surrounding the 2005 national championship game would guarantee us a stirring revival, right?  Eh, maybe.  There are some big, brand-name matchups this week.  However, this may also be the best week of the season for “Major v. Mid-Major” games.  For example:

Split Ends
The Service Academies vs. The Midwest Titans: Please indulge me for a moment. I’d like to bring up two games that will probably be blowouts, but may provide some intrigue on this Saturday in September. The Service Academy schools have all had their flirtations with success. Sure, this isn’t the same type of success that surrounded these programs from the late 1960s backward. However, there is winning football taking place among those ready to serve the country. Navy has had the most success recently. Air Force has been consistently solid since the early-1980s. Now, even Army appears to be getting in on the fun. With last season’s Heart of Dallas Bowl bid, they made just their second postseason appearance since 1996.

All of the above success is well and good, but it pales in comparison to the rung Michigan and Ohio State are on. Yes, comparatively speaking, the bitter rivals are the best football factories of the Midwest. There are academic standards that do stand above many. However, where the Academies may be taking an upperclassmen course in Pigskin Dynamics, these two institutions are expected to deliver their doctoral theses around Thanksgiving…when they play each other. When schools from these differing groups meet, the sophistication levels aren’t supposed to be close, so to speak.

This weekend, two of those Academies (Air Force and Army) will visit the two football behemoths (Michigan and Ohio State). Of course, the home schools are heavy favorites going into these contests. But how will they handle those triple option attacks that the Academies are so known for? Could either of the visiting teams keep it close at the half? Maybe going into the 4th quarter? Whatever happens, it’s a good time for Academy football. And it could get even better on Saturday.

 

Guards
Illinois at South Florida (Friday): Is the Lovie Smith era showing a bit of progress? The Illini needed a late touchdown to beat Ball State in its opener. The defense shut down Western Kentucky last week. Now, it’s to the road to see where they stand ahead of the conference season. Getting halfway to bowl eligibility would be a big boost this early in the season. For South Florida, it’s a hopeful return to normalcy.

Hurricane Irma left a trail of tragedy and devastation across the state. Football is one of the lowest rungs on the totem pole of importance, but this sport was effected as well. The Bulls did not travel to Connecticut for a conference matchup against the Huskies. This week, they’ll get back on the field, despite the news of more games involving teams across the state being cancelled or postponed. Will this event provide inspiration? Will it show the signs of fatigue and disruption? In any case, let’s hope that it brings a bit of relief.

Oregon at Wyoming: The Ducks have started well in the first year under Willie Taggert. They’ve taken care of business at home. Now, this team heads to unfamiliar territory. But this isn’t the first time this program traveled inland to take on a smaller-branded school. In 2009, the program played on the Blue Turf of Boise. A lot of swagger fell short as the Ducks lost that night, 19-8 to Boise State. Oh yeah, that was the time LeGarrette Blount socked a Bronco player after the game. Ah, memories. I’d be stunned if anything that bizarre happens this time around. The Ducks better be on their guard, though.

Josh Allen had a bad effort in his showcase at Iowa City. The Cowboys couldn’t muster any offense against the Hawkeyes. Allen was smothered by the Iowa defense (23-40, 174 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs). The team got to gain some confidence with a 27-0 win over Gardner-Webb. Allen led the way with 328 passing yards and 2 TD tosses. So, with a chance to host a Power 5 opponent, can momentum filter through from last Saturday? One apparent theme? Allen can’t beat the Ducks on his own (the Cowboys are only rushing for 62.0 ypg).

 

Tackles
Wisconsin at BYU: With their status as an Independent, the Cougars can design the schedule they like. That includes matchups that will keep them on a national stage. Sometimes, it turns out great. Sometimes, it may bite you. The latter seems to be happening right now. Yes, they beat Portland State to begin the year. That, though, has been followed up by being shutout/routed by LSU and falling at the hands of bitter rival Utah. On the heels of all that, in steps Bucky Badger.

Personally, I give kudos to Wisconsin. BYU isn’t as strong of a program as their heyday, but Provo isn’t an easy place to swipe a victory. And this situation isn’t exactly win-win for the Badgers. If the Cougars came into this game with a 3-0, the stakes would be quite better. However, the way things have developed so far, a win for the visitors doesn’t provide a lot of juice. A loss? That would probably slide them way down in the pack of contenders for the national semifinals. It’s a risk that, I believe, more colleges are actually taking (playing true road games against Mid-Majors). In that same vein…

UCLA at Memphis: When was the last time the Bruins made a trip to the Liberty Bowl? The answer (thanks to the UCLA football website) is 1976. This will be the first time that they’ve played in this venue as a true visitor. Last weekend was rather subdued for guys from Westwood. Of course, most any game is hushed after the epic comeback they had against Texas A&M. Josh Rosen put himself back in front of the nation, and hopes to continue that rebound through a Saturday morning kickoff.

We’re not completely sure about the Tigers, yet. They did hold on to beat Louisiana-Monroe two weeks ago. They didn’t play last weekend (game at UCF was cancelled due to Irma). So, they are rested for what could be a huge opportunity. In a division that features Navy, a seemingly improved SMU, and a Houston squad that won at Arizona, there could be a lot of showdowns over the conference run. A win over a storied program with a pro-“stuff” QB would keep them up with the Joneses. Again, I give kudos to the visitors for taking on the matchup. Don’t expect the scoreboard to provide any favors, though.

 

Center
Clemson at Louisville: Last season, Lamar Jackson came into Week 3 looking to prove that he was worthy of the early accolades. See, rolling up big numbers against Charlotte and a rebuilding Syracuse was one thing. If he could do the same to Florida State, the second-ranked team in the country, then things might get serious. Jackson took the sport by storm after the first two performances of 2016. He had the world in his hands after leading the Cardinals to a 63-20 drubbing of the Seminoles. By the end of December, the sophomore won the most coveted individual prize in the game…the Heisman trophy. Now, less than a year later, he has a shot at even more.

Clemson is the defending national champions. They had to battle to return to the title game. They had to figure out a way to beat mighty Alabama. And, along the way, they had to hold off a game Lamar Jackson. The 42-36 thriller not only kept the Tigers alive in the playoff chase. It, for all intents and purposes, shut off the Cardinals’ path to the same goal. This win made sure that Clemson could slip up once (which they did) and still keep a hold of the lead in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. That meant a berth in the league title game, which led to a spot in the national semifinals, which led to…well, you know the rest.

Getting back to the present, the Louisville quarterback again has the opportunity to show he’s worthy. This time around, it’s not just the Heisman race that’s peaking his interests. If he can knock off a defending champ, while achieving some “get back” in the process, then we may be following him much closer through the Fall.

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Jonathan Lowe

College Football: Seven on the Line (9-9-17)

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By Jonathan Lowe
September 9, 2017
GAMEDAY GOLD

OK.  I didn’t leave you folks much time to chew on this week’s games.  Heck, if you’re a regular to the site, you may not see this until after kickoff.  But in all of this revelry, there are more important issues at hand.  Some of the games scheduled for today had to be postponed or cancelled due to the impending threat of yet another catastrophic hurricane set to hit American shores in less than two weeks.  While most of the country gets to sit back, sit up, and cheer vociferously, we should keep the people of South Florida in mind as they get ready to deal with the behemoth that is Hurricane Irma.  And let’s not forget those in Southeast Texas starting to get lives back on track after the devastation that was Hurricane Harvey.  As tough as it is to move forward in this post, here are today’s highlights.

Split Ends
Utah at BYU: I’m going to spend a a brief amount of time on this (and the next) matchup.  Most rivalries are built on proximity and conference affiliation.  This is one of those cases.  After the brief hiatus a couple of years back, the “Holy War” got back on the regular-season stage last season.  For the better part of 90 years, these programs fought over conference supremacy.  More recently, this game has been setup for later-season status points and year-round bragging rights.  But I’m glad that it’s still kickin’.  This rivalry just feels natural.  Really, it’s about as natural as…

Iowa at Iowa State: Some rivalries are, well, just built on proximity. As many of you readers know, I have a personal stake in this game. Spending four years of my life in Ames, this day was marked on the calendar every year. Many of my peers would make the trek to Iowa City every other year, while making our home site as uncomfortable as possible on those other occasions. And while only about a two-hour drive lies between the two campuses, the football programs only spent four years battling it out in the same conference (1907-1910). This game is purely for bragging rights. And, truthfully, that’s probably the way it should be.

Guards
Boise State at Washington State: For quite a while, WSU was a bit of an outpost. Sure, the University of Idaho is a stone’s throw away. However, when you looked at college football in that part of the country (from the Cascades to the Bitterroots), you relied on the Cougar program for your fix. Then, a little-known school in the city of Boise said, “Hmm, why don’t we give this D-IA football a try.” The Bronco program has been building for a long time. From Junior College to a short NAIA stint to lower divisions of the NCAA, BSU had a pretty good history before stepping into the higher division of college pigskin. Once the move was made, the program quickly gained attention. First, it was for their trademark Blue Turf. After a while, it was due to them being able to rack up a ton of wins and some pretty impressive bowl trophies. This weekend, could the Broncos take a step toward becoming the place to go for college football in the Inland Northwest?

TCU at Arkansas: No, it’s not Oklahoma-Alabama. This game, though, could be a launching (or stall-worthy) point of the early season for each team. That appeared to be the case for the Horned Frogs last year. They entered this particular matchup a top-15 team. After the double-overtime loss in Fort Worth, Gary Patterson’s team didn’t look quite the same. Yeah, they rebounded against Iowa State and SMU. However, the team lost 5 of their last 8 to finish with a pedestrian 6-6 record (6-7 if you include the Liberty Bowl loss to Georgia). On the other side, the win was supposed to be a coming out party for the Razorbacks. They rose into the Top 25 that next week, then inside the Top 20 before alternating wins and defeats for the rest of the regular season. As these teams head into the rematch in Fayetteville, the Horned Frogs look to return to their above average standards, while the Hogs try to finally turn the corner under Bret Bielema.

Tackles
Stanford at USC: This game may not ask the “What’s Your Deal?” question anymore, but it is still a BIG deal when speaking to the importance of West Coast pigskin. The Cardinal got a week off after their trip Down Under. The Trojans got out of the gate slowly, needing a big finish to prevail against Western Michigan. Now, it that was last year’s MAC-champion Broncos, OK. But the new-look WMU — minus quarterback Zach Terrell and coach P.J. Fleck — should have been a little easier to handle for USC. But Sam Darnold has a chance to boost his Heisman stock again if he carves up the Cardinal’s stingy defense. And a victory here might mean more for Trojans in the long term. Both teams will play Notre Dame. Both will travel to Pullman. However, Stanford has a regular season edge by hosting Washington in early November.

Auburn at Clemson: When these two squads opened the 2016 season on the Alabama Plains, one set of Tigers were “reeling” while the other set was “smarting”. The team that sports mostly navy had folks wondering if its head coach had lost the magic that guided the program to a national title game. The team that sports mostly orange looked to turn the bitter loss of that championship opportunity into positive momentum. Auburn, the losing squad, found out that it could still play with the top of the title-contending list. Clemson, the winning squad, discovered a propensity for nail-biting finishes. This year, one set of Tigers should be back, while the other set of Tigers should be reloaded. This game will let us know which Tiger narrative is closer to the truth.

Center
Oklahoma at Ohio State: Just a few months ago, this was being touted as a battle of coaching legends. Bob Stoops had the chance to save some face against a man that didn’t just beat him on the Oklahoma plains, but also in a national title game. But Stoops’ sudden retirement now brings a matchup of “Grizzled Veteran vs. Rising Rookie”. Lincoln Riley began his Sooner head coaching career with a runaway victory over UTEP. The second stanza will be a little trickier to write. All the while, Urban Meyer has been rolling along. The Buckeyes had first-half struggles at Indiana. The second half proved a little more fluid on offense, easing any tension that may have been around in the first thirty minutes. A win at the Shoe should provide an answer, although muted, to Alabama’s win over Florida State.

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Jonathan Lowe

College Football: Seven on the Line (2017 Opening Weekend…sort of)

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By Jonathan Lowe
September 1, 2017
GAMEDAY GOLD

 

With the beginning of the college football season happening last Saturday, this does feel a bit awkward (even though I missed getting this out by Thursday’s games anyway).  You can’t say “Happy College Football New Year!”  There aren’t enough fireworks yet to compare it to the Fourth of July.  Of course, Thanksgiving actually falls in the sport’s calendar.  So…happy College Football President’s Day?  We promise lots of touchdowns and half off of a new mattress?  Sounds plausible.  Anywho, tonight (Friday) kicks off my list of intriguing games for the first full week of the season.

Split Ends
Colorado State vs. Colorado: This may be one of the most underserved rivalries in FBS.  Sure, the Rocky Mountain Showdown has really been a Rocky Mountain Beatdown over the decades (the Buffaloes lead the series 64-22-2), but the “brotherly” animosity stretches the roughly 45 miles between campuses.  Last season, the Buffs used a 44-7 whuppin’ as a spark plug to its most successful season in 15 years.  It resulted in a 10-win campaign, a Pac-12 South title, and a top ranking of 9th in the country.  But CU graduated its all-everything QB, Sefo Liufau.  This means that the Rams, who blew out Oregon State in one of the few “Pre-Opening Week” openers, could be in line to institute a little get-back on Saturday.  CSU QB Nick Stevens now becomes the veteran signal caller in this matchup, and he’ll look to rebound from a disastrous performance (6-20, 31 yds., 2 INTs, 0.6 QBR) last season.

Appalachian State at Georgia: One year ago, the Mountaineers pushed Tennessee to the bitter end in Knoxville.  In my estimation, they missed a big opportunity to get the biggest victory of its FBS lifespan.  Now, App State has another chance to knock off a historical SEC brand name in its own backyard.  They don’t return as many starters as they did off of their 11-2 2015 season, but key starters are back from last year’s 10-3 campaign (including QB Taylor Lamb and leading rusher Jalin Moore).  On the other sideline, the Bulldogs have their own multi-punch offense, with QB Jacob Eason and the backfield tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.  You’d also have to think that Kirby Smart will have his guys on edge.  They know that a well-hyped Volunteer squad had to pull out last year’s victory in OT.  The Mountaineers couldn’t provide another scare, could they?

 

Guards
Wyoming at Iowa: A year ago, I thought that Craig Bohl needed one of those breakout seasons to feel safe about another season (and beyond) in Laramie.  Boy, did he deliver.  The Cowboys finished with a share of the MWC’s Mountain Division crown and, based on tiebreakers, earned a spot in the conference’s championship game.  The program also made its first bowl appearance since 2011.  Going into this season, Cowboy signal-caller Josh Allen is not only an All-American candidate.  He’s being looked at as the potential #1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.  Plus, this team is headed to a place that’s lost some of its mojo over the last few years.

I don’t know if many folks know what to expect from the Hawkeyes this season.  Two years ago, they shocked everyone (admit it die-hard Hawk fans, you too) by riding an undefeated regular season into the Big Ten Championship game.  Last year was good, but still a slide back at 8-4.  The real problem, though, might be the expectations of holding serve at Kinnick Stadium.  Since 2012, the Hawkeyes have lost an early-season, non-conference home game four out of five years.  That includes last year’s walk-off stunner at the hands of North Dakota State.  And what should happen the next season?  In walks the same coach that built the Bison program which knocked you off the season before.  Hmmm…

Troy at Boise State: I’m just going to continue down my list of MWC Mountain Division contenders, if you don’t mind.  The Broncos have been voted the favorites (yet again) to represent the de facto East Side in the league’s title game.  But they welcome in another worthy Mid-Major opponent to open the season.  The Trojans aren’t the favorites to win the Sun Belt, but they are in the mix, ranking second in the league’s preseason poll.  Both teams come into this matchup with proven quarterback play (Brandon Silvers for Troy; Brett Rypien for BSU).  Both teams will also hope to get a leg up on the other.  We don’t know if Colorado State, Appalachian State, or Wyoming can knock off their Power 5 opponents.  We do know that the winner of this game should have a quality win on its resume be season’s end.  That would be a helpful factor when parsing through candidates for the Group of 5 spot in the New Years’ Six bowls.

 

Tackles
West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech: In this part of the world, it’s more about the Backyard Brawl (WVU-Pitt) and the Commonwealth Cup (Va. Tech-UVA).  However, this battle for the Black Diamond Trophy has some history to it as well.  The two programs have met 51 times going into Sunday night’s matchup.  They played every season for 32 consecutive seasons, but their 2005 meeting was the most recent in the series.  This matchup features two teams coming off of 10-win seasons and sporting new leaders under center.  The Mountaineers will rely on Florida transfer Will Grier.  The Hokies announced that redshirt freshman Josh Jackson will take the helm.  Neither team is considered a favorite in the top-heavy conferences that play in.  Va. Tech will play Clemson and at Miami later in the season.  WVU will have to contend with the Oklahoma schools.  A win, though, could be a good kickstarter to another successful season.

Michigan vs. Florida: I’m not quite sure what to make of Jim Harbaugh.  At times, his eclectic outlook of life provides a chuckle.  At times, that same aloofness makes him somewhat insufferable.  I believe it’s the latter feeling that Jim McElwain has toward the Head Wolverine at this point.  Besides the verbal back-and-forth about which players will make it on the field Saturday, there’s opportunity for each program in this game.  Both are trying to re-establish themselves as rightful owners to their respective conference crowns.  To get there, both will have to overcome their most bitter (and, right now, more talented) rival.  The winner of this game in Jerry Jones’ palace will at least get their momentum headed in the right direction as they ultimately eye the end of the season.

 

Center
Florida State vs. Alabama: I’m sure you already know that Nick Saban has never lost to one of his former assistants.  Thanks to SB Nation, I’m certain that you’re aware of the thrashings that have taken place in these matchups.  That includes Bama’s 38-0 victory over Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State team in a national semifinal and two wins (by an average of 26 ppg) over McElwain’s Gators in SEC title games.  You already know this.  But you also know that Jimbo Fisher might be different.  He’s already done a fabulous job of following the legendary Bobby Bowden, amassing a 78-17 record since taking over (an .821 winning percentage).  And that notation comes after his national championship and subsequent semifinal appearance.  The Seminoles have the talent to guide Fisher to another title.  However, the mystique of Saban is potent, and the command in these situation is powerful.  We’ll see which team gets a leg up on the rest of the country after Saturday’s showdown.

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Greatest week in sports?

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By Larry Fitzgerald
April 4, 2017
GAMEDAY GOLD

It’s arguably the greatest week in sports. The cry of “play ball” is ringing across the United States with the boys of summer. Major League Baseball kicks off, all 30 teams, and in Minnesota the Twins open against the Kansas Royals at Target Field.

Last year, the Twins dropped 103 games, while the Royals have been in two of the last three World Series. The Twins play 162 games — baseball is indeed a marathon not a sprint.

The NCAA Men’s basketball championship game takes place this week as North Carolina 32-7 goes for their 6th National Championship against Gonzaga 37-1.

The Tar Heels lost last year’s title game to Villanova at the buzzer. They will try to do what Kentucky did in 1997-98, win the title after losing it the year before.

It’s also Masters week, the un-official beginning of the golf season. Due to back issues, Tiger Woods will miss the historic 20th anniversary of becoming the first Black man to win a major championship. He won the Masters by a record 12 shots.

Friday, April 7, is the 13th Annual Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund Benefit (CFMF). The event is one of the biggest local happenings in Minneapolis, in honor of this journalist’s late wife and mother to Larry Fitgerald, Jr. and Marcus Fitzgerald.

Carol was a tireless Minnesota Department of health STD investigator. She had passion for caring and sharing and fighting for people. She died April 10, 2003 of breast cancer. Since that year, through the CFMF and Larry Fitzgerald First Down Fund annual events, the Fitzgerald family has raised close to $2 million to benefit organizations locally and nationally that assist in HIV prevention, breast cancer awareness and urban education.

The sports-themed gala features NFL Man of the Year and 10-time Pro Bowl star Larry Fitzgerald, Jr. He is the first Minnesota-born athlete to win the Walter Payton award; he will be on-hand to sign autographs. Also, CFMF grants will be awarded to this year’s winning community organizations.

The event features a live and silent auction of incredible sports memorabilia. North Point Health & Wellness CEO Stella Whitney-West, one of Carol’s best friends, will be the keynote speaker, with Mike Phillips as the headline entertainer.

Phillips has played with Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder, and at the inaugural balls for both President Clinton and President Obama. It’s an incredible sports week highlighted by this annual event.

The 13th Annual Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund Benefit Gala takes place Friday, April 7, at the Minneapolis Event Center, 212 SE 2nd St., Minneapolis. All proceeds go to the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund Benefit. Call 612-770-4575 for more information.

On Saturday, April 8 from 12 to 3 pm, community members are invited to the 13th Annual Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund Community Celebration at Martin Luther King Center, 4055 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis. For tickets call 612-619-0102.

 

 

Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to info@larry-fitzgerald.com, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.

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Four teams desert-bound for Final Four

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By Larry Fitzgerald
March 30, 2017
GAMEDAY GOLD

Over the years I’ve grown very fond of Arizona with so many golf courses and resorts, and between November and March you can get away from the stress that goes with winter and the bad weather. Arizona is the spring home of 15 of Major League Baseball’s training sites in Tempe, Scottsdale, Tucson, Mesa and Phoenix from February to April — MLB baseball from sun up to sun down virtually all over the state.

Father & Son at the Final 4 ..North Carolina and Gonzaga reach the final…

Arizona is loaded with things to do, and it’s crowded this week, Sunday, March 26 through Wednesday, with the NFL Annual Spring Owners meetings at the historic Biltmore Resort where many presidents and royalty and the elite have stayed over the years when they are in town. The owners are expected to vote on the Oakland Raiders’ proposed move to (Sin City) Las Vegas.

If Oakland were to receive approval of the league, they would be the third NFL team in 12 months to move. Previously, the Rams left St. Louis for Los Angeles and the Chargers left San Diego for Los Angeles.

The National Hockey League just placed an expansion franchise in Las Vegas. For professional sports, this is the first time. The controversial move appears to open the door for potential issues and problems related to gambling.

This weekend’s NCAA Men’s Final Four is set for Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, the home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. Four of the best basketball teams in the nation and their fans are making plans for the Final Four.

The NCAA Men’s Final Four features North Carolina, the Tar Heels, in their record 20th Final Four. With just two number-one seeds remaining, North Carolina, with their remarkable history and rich tradition, are clearly the favorite. Close your eyes and just think for a minute if South Carolina, the clear Cinderella of the four teams, found a way to first beat Gonzaga and then North Carolina.

The other number-one seed, Gonzaga (36-1), at the Final Four for the first time, has one of the country’s strongest basketball programs but never a Final Four. They were the country’s last unbeaten team and were ranked number one in the nation for several weeks.

South Carolina, another first-time Final Four team, knocked off Duke early and have remained hot and focused. Oregon (33-5) from the Pac 12 have had a remarkable season. This is the first Final Four for the Ducks since 1939. That was the year the NCAA tournament began, long before the theme of March Madness.

Again, the players play, and as exciting as this is for CBS, TBS, TNT, the sponsors and the NCAA, fans and media alike, the reality is this: Only the coaches get rewarded financially.

Roy Williams of North Carolina gets $5 million a year as Tar Heels coach plus another $200,000 for getting his team to the Final Four and $250,000 if the Tar Heels win. Frank Martin of South Carolina makes $2.5 million per year. He is getting a $100,000 bonus for getting his team to their first Final Four. If he wins the title he gets another $200,000.

In the middle of all the excitement, look at this system of amateurism which the NCAA exploits. This is grossly unfair to the hard-working players, and it’s been this way for far too long.

 

 

Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to info@larry-fitzgerald.com, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.

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March Madness makes NCAA a bundle!

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By Larry Fitzgerald
March 15, 2017
GAMEDAY GOLD

 

When do the athletes — most of them Black — get their fair share?

 

Many years ago my mother, Sally Fitzgerald, taught me how to value a dollar. “Practice trying to save 25 cents out of every dollar,” she said. “It’s a great financial strategy — it challenges you to keep an eye on your money.”

My biggest disappointment in seeing former President Barack Obama leaving the White House after eight years was that no investigation of the NCAA was done. If Black Americans were ever to receive reparations in this country, that is the pool of money to take it from. I thought the government could dive into the NCAA pool and try to go about rewarding us as a people for slavery.

Everyone gets all excited about March Madness and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. It’s all about the seeding. The NCAA selection committee had many questioning its seeding. Defending Champion Villanova (31-3), Kansas (28-4), Gonzaga (30-1) and North Carolina (28-7) are all number-one seeds.

Billions of dollars are generated over the next three weeks with 68 teams playing to the Final Four in Phoenix and eventually a National Champion. The Gophers (24-9) are back in the NCAAs as a number-five seed Thursday in Milwaukee versus Middle Tennessee. Middle Tennessee pulled a huge upset last year as a number-15 over number-two Michigan State.

The Big Ten gets seven teams led by number-four Purdue and number-seven Michigan, the regular season and tournament champs. Wisconsin is seeded number eight — how is that? They beat the Gophers twice and finished ahead of Minnesota, Maryland, Michigan State and Northwestern. Yes, for the first time ever the Wildcats are in the money.

I have always been curious where the money goes that’s generated annually by the NCAA. I have long referred to them as the most corrupt organization in sports. That opinion has not changed.

College football and basketball generate enormous amounts of money for the 300 Division I programs across the USA. The wealth gets lost in athletic budgets funding the other sports teams and individuals and million-dollar salaries to primarily White coaches.

Universities and the television networks work hand in hand with the sponsors — apparel and shoe companies. Good to see Samuel L. Jackson, Charles Barkley and Spike Lee in those Capital One NCAA-themed spots.

Yes, I was hoping that former President Obama, because he loves sports, would have poked into this growing gravy train of wealth generation, especially considering that the majority of the labor force is Black players under the guise of amateurism.

When the great Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in sports during the spring of 1947, White America did not see us as human, much less as equals. Major League Baseball called it an experiment, remember? However, they knew we could play.

We as a people were segregated back then, spending our hard-earned money supporting the Negro Leagues. Our dollars were unified then and went around in a big circle within our community.

Nobody gave a hoot about the NCAA tournament in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Not until the late 1960s did the growth spurt begin. It’s still growing, the enormous wealth is staggering, and we don’t get a dime.

Sure, a handful of players get drafted each year first-round to the NBA, and others get their educations and start careers. But believe me, 60 to 70 percent of these thousands of athletes never overcome this.

That’s why my excitement is tempered watching the games. I have all these questions, and the NCAA says the exchange of a free education (scholarships) is fair compensation. I’m no Johnny come lately. I have seen where the Wild goose went.

I have echoed these sentiments before. We are supposed to be happy with what we do get. It’s a vicious cycle that has gotten out of control. When, I ask, are we ever allowed to touch the ceiling?

 

Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to info@larry-fitzgerald.com, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.

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Eric Nelson

SPORTS NUGGETS: Cold and snow make for one cool MLS opener in Minnesota

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By Eric Nelson
March 15, 2017
GAMEDAY GOLD

MINNEAPOLIS -Sports Nuggets from the snowy Twin Cities…

Minnesota Loons MLS soccer team at TCF Stadium in Minneapolis

Minnesota Loons take the field

•Flakes and Loons: Minnesota United’s first-ever MLS game in the Twin Cities was a dud on the scoreboard. Atlanta United FC thumped Minn U 6-1 Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium. But in every other way the match was epic. The snowy day produced great visuals in the venue and on ESPN2. Snow and soccer are a rare combination, but thanks to the Minnesota elements, this historic match was a unique snapshot in time for Minnesota sports fans…

•Crowd Count: The attendance was an impressive 35,403 – the largest soccer turnout in the Land of Lakes since 1984 when the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Minnesota Strikers played before 52,621 at the Metrodome. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the temperature was 20 degrees, tying the 2013 MLS Cup in Kansas City for coldest game in league history…

MLS fans in the snow at the Loons home opener

Minnesota United fans at the home opener

•Slow Start: Minn U (0-2) has clearly struggled this season. In games against Portland and Atlanta the Loons have been outscored 11-2. Meanwhile, Atlanta – also an MLS expansion team – won its first-ever match. The snowy pitch did not deter F Josef Martinez who scored three goals for AUFC…

•Quality Opponent: It’s a good news, bad news scenario for the Minnesota basketball team. The good news is that the Gophers (24-9) are a 5th seed in the south region. The bad news is they face a solid opponent in 12th seed Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders are 30-4 and have won back-to-back CUSA titles. They are led by F Jacorey Williams (17.3 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game), F Reggie Upshaw (14.5 ppg and 6.8 rpg) and G Giddy Potts (15.8 ppg and 5.5 rpg)…

•Quick Trip: The game tips off at 3 pm CT Thursday at Bradley Center in Milwaukee. It’s only 337 miles from Minneapolis to Milwaukee on I-94, so Gopher Nation should be well represented in Wisconsin…

•Purple Defections: The NFL is a revolving door league as players are always coming and going. Minnesota lost a couple of former top draft choices to free agency as WR Cordarrelle Patterson (Oakland) and OT Matt Kalil (Carolina) signed with other teams. Kalil was the fourth choice in the 2012 NFL draft and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. However, that was his pinnacle moment for the Vikings. In four other seasons, Kalil’s productivity dropped off because of injuries and sub-par play. Patterson, meanwhile, was a first round selection in 2013 and played in two Pro Bowls. He was very good on kickoff returns and punt coverage, but below average at wideout…

•Publicity Hounds: Give the NFL credit – the Shield has a knack for staying in the news cycle year-round. March used to be dominated by NCAA hoops, the NBA, NHL and MLB spring training. But, thanks to free agency, the NFL garners plenty of attention, stealing headlines from those other sports…

•Tasty Golf: Twin Cities restaurant mogul Wayne Kostroski has come up with another creative way to aid those in need. Kostroski – who started taste of the NFL during Super Bowl week – is staging the first-ever Taste of the Master Chefs in April. Kostroski has lured some of the top chefs on the globe to Augusta, GA for the Masters golf tournament. It’s a charity event, with all of the proceeds going to the Salvation Army of Augusta. Tickets cost $150. For more info go to www.tasteofthemasterchefs.com

•Fab Four: The NCHC’s fourth annual Frozen Faceoff starts Friday at Target Center. Western Michigan plays 2nd ranked UM-Duluth at 4 pm followed by North Dakota and top-ranked Denver at 7:30 pm. The defending champion Fighting Hawks won the Frozen Four last season and their appearance means plenty of No Dak fans will invade the Twin Cities…

•Pioneer Spirit: Denver (28-6-4) has won 13 games in a row and is paced by D Will Butcher, who is one of 10 players up for the Hobey Baker Award…

•Puck Stopper: Bemidji State G Michael Bitzer is also a Hobey Baker finalist. Bitzer is the WCHA player of the year and led the Beavers to their first-ever conference title and MacNaughton Cup. Bitzer had a sparkling goals against average of 1.40, a WCHA record…

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Thomas U. Tuttle

Start the Madness

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by Thomas U. Tuttle

It’s that time of year again for basketball fans, tourney time, those giddy days of intense college hoops known as March Madness – which leads, for a select few teams, to April gladness (or sadness). Yes, the semifinals take place on April Fools Day (the 1st) with the finals on the 3rd, all in Phoenix Arizona.

The usual suspects are at the fore, as expected. Duke looks tough, although inconsistent at times and with a wildcard star (Grayson Allen) who tends to act out crazily on the court (check out the videos of his purposely tripping players during regular season contests). Kansas, Villanova, North Carolina and Gonzaga are the top seeds in each region, with all but Gonzaga (in my opinion) a threat to win the tourney.

Much has been made of the fact that no dominant teams have emerged this year as heavy favorites to make a title run. Defending champion Villanova (who won a title-game thriller last year) comes in at 31-3, but similar to Gonzaga, doesn’t get tested on a week to week basis like several of the other contenders. North Carolina looks good to me, but two of their losses are to Duke and they looked bad in those defeats.

The Big Ten is represented well, with seven teams at the party but most of those unlikely to dance for long – I don’t envision a scenario where a team from the Ten makes it to Phoenix, unless Michigan continues to astound as it did to close the season. Or if Wisconsin’s underrated and eighth-seeded senior squad gets hot right now and uses a perceived lack of respect to get rolling.

Minnesota is a good club this year, but will miss Akeem Springs (injured against Michigan State and out for the duration) and has a tough opener against giant-killer Middle Tennessee State. They knocked out a two-seed last year (MSU) and bring back a number of starters from that squad. A Gopher win probably brings them Butler, always solid and a victor over #1 seed Villanova earlier in the season. The sweet-sixteen is doable, but getting there is going to require strong, consistent play for it to happen.

My alma mater Northwestern has made the tournament for the first time, which you have been made aware of by throngs of NU media alums. Stephen Colbert, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Brent Musberger, Michael Wilbon, Christine Brennan, Etc…Etc… There has been a lot of attention paid to the Wildcats accomplishment – too much, and I can’t fault anyone for being exhausted by the Cat mania. Hey, I’m an alum and I’m tired of all the blather regarding this squad. Yes, I’m proud they knocked off Maryland and didn’t back into their first NCAA tourney, but the hammering by Wisconsin in the semi’s of the Big Ten tournament was discouraging – and a big reality check. The Cats play Vanderbilt and should be one and done.

Minnesota goes off at 100-1 odds in Las Vegas to win the tourney, while Northwestern lists at 300-1. Hey, are you kidding me? While the Gophers could somehow pull off a surprise or two, and Northwestern could conceivably win a game, I’d make the odds something like 1000 to one for the Goph’s and maybe 10,000 to one for the Cats. It ain’t happening and for anyone who thinks it will, I’ll take your money.

A few years ago, when Minnesota made their run to the semifinals under Clem Haskins and (unfairly) had to forfeit the season, I put $20 on Arizona’s Wildcats to win the whole thing – back in November. When I showed up in Nevada to watch the final four, I put a few more dollars on AZ to win it all. They did, and I was paid well both ways. What fun, and I owe eternal gratitude to my buddy “Hondo” in Tucson who saw that train coming.

This year, Arizona is back, and they are good. I’m going to stick with them to take me back to the promised land. I like UCLA, too, but not quite as much. My thinking is that the number-one seeds are not going to win it this year – not like last year, when they all showed up strong. The exception is North Carolina, who might be ready for this despite the disappointing Duke defeats. Those bad losses could be a motivator for the Tar Heels.

And Duke Blue Devil head-case Grayson Allen can really play – if he stays under control and provides the leadership his team thrives on, Duke could pull off something special.
But count me among the Wildcat backers – just not Northwestern’s breed of basketball Cat. The Arizona Wildcats to win it at home in Phoenix.

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