College Football

Gophers’ miracle season continues

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By Larry Fitzgerald
March 8, 2017
GAMEDAY GOLD

 

Do you believe in Miracles? Wow — from 8-23 last year to 23-8? Richard Pitino is just 31-31 the last two years, I remind you, as Gophers men’s basketball coach.

This is his fourth season, and just like Minnesotans, some fans are worried the famous name Pitino, son of legend Rick Pitino of Louisville, will have teams knocking down the door trying to lure him away from Williams Arena. While appearing on Emmy Award-winning TPT Almanac last Friday, I was asked by co-host Eric Escala if the Gophers might lose Pitino because of the team’s success.

After getting smashed at Madison Sunday 66-49 and having their eight-game win streak end, the greatest turnaround season in the country will in my view still land the Gophers and Pitino in the NCAA tournament. This would be his first trip to the NCAA men’s tournament and the Gophers’ first trip to the dance since 2013.

That was the same year Norwood Teague became athletic director and quickly fired legendary former NCAA championship coach Tubby Smith. Smith reached the NCAAs three times in six years and beat number-one Indiana at Williams Arena the only time in school history. Smith led the Gophers to the field of 32.

(Photo courtesy of Larry-Fitzgerald.com)
Nate Mason drives Gophers to NCAAs

Minnesota is a privileged institution. White coaches get contract extensions for what Smith accomplished while Smith was run off campus by a guy like Teague, a predator disgraced and fired on sexual harassment charges that usually land people like that in jail. But being privileged has its benefits.

You see, people around here think they know, and they don’t know squat. They think Minnesota basketball is comparable to North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan State and UCLA. They think the only Division One basketball program in Minnesota is all that. Let’s be clear: It’s not.

Ten times in 105 years the Gophers have reached the NCAA tournament. Remember, three of those NCAA trips were vacated because of academic fraud charges under Clem Haskins. Having said that, I do like this year’s team. Pitino has done a really solid job worthy of earning him the BIG Conference coach of the year. He’s got my vote, and I’m a voter.

The Gophers play with heart. They play together like they enjoy each other, and they lead the nation in blocked shots. They started 15-2 losing five in a row and then reeled off eight straight wins. They beat BIG Conference champion Purdue on the road. They have been in five overtime games and are 3-2. They rebound well, and they are deep.

Junior Nate Mason might be the best guard in the conference. Freshman Amir Coffey has really played well — he’s likely the BIG Freshman of the Year. This is a young team that grew up fast.

The BIG Conference has not gotten much national respect this year. Just three teams have even cracked the AP and USA coaches polls — conference champ Purdue is number 13, Wisconsin number 24 and Maryland number 25. Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois are down by their standards.

The 11-7 Gophers have earned a bye in the BIG Men’s Tournament set for Washington, D.C. this week for the first time ever. I think they will be a tough out and could receive a five seed in the NCAAs. Pitino did a good job not just coaching but cleaning up some of the disciplinary issues from last season. This is a good defensive team.

 

 

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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The brotherhood of blood transcends that of a hockey team for Minnesota Duluth’s Avery Peterson

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By Jimmy Gilligan

DULUTH, Minn. – 

After playing a key role in the University of Nebraska Omaha making a run to its first NCAA Frozen Four in program history in 2014, Avery Peterson shocked his teammates by leaving Omaha midway through his sophomore year to return home to Grand Rapids, Minn.

He wanted to be closer to his older brother Evan, who is battling a rare, terminal genetic brain disease called Metachromatic Leukodystrophy, or MLD. It progressively deteriorates intellectual and motor skills, and affects about one in 40,000 people.

Wanting to play in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) and for a strong program, Peterson officially committed to Omaha in August of 2013, five months after his brother’s diagnosis. At that point, he was largely out of the loop.

“I really didn’t know. My parents kind of kept it away from us kids,” Peterson said. “I don’t think they wanted it to affect us too much, but I knew there was stuff going on.”

After finishing up his senior season at Grand Rapids High School where he received Minnesota high school hockey’s highest honor, Peterson was a key offensive producer as a freshman at Omaha. He went on to record 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) for the Mavericks, but his family — and brother — were in the back of his mind from the get-go.

“It was tough being so far away from my brother,” Peterson admits.

“We had a series in Mankato to start my freshman year and my parents left after the first game. On Saturday (Evan) was just kind of hanging out in the hotel by himself, and it just sort of hit me that he doesn’t have anybody. I know it’s a lot of stress on my parents, ‘cause in a small town like Grand Rapids, there really isn’t much to do there.”

The brothers were close growing up, playing on the same travel hockey team (even though Avery was two years younger), and skating together on their backyard rink. Peterson looked up to his brother, noting that he was the best player on the team — above himself and current University of Minnesota forward Jake Bischoff.

Their closeness, coupled with Evan’s terminal illness, made the 570-mile distance from Grand Rapids to Omaha feel like light years away.

“He really got in a tough situation his sophomore year, but while he was here he was well-liked by his teammates and coaches and did a great job in school,” said Omaha head coach Dean Blais. “It was totally his decision, encouraged by me. We’re in the business to win, but we’re also in the business to develop character.”

After several weeks, the 2014 Minnesota Wild sixth-round draft pick chose to finish up his collegiate career at UMD — a place that felt like home given all the familiar faces. While he could have kept up to game speed by playing somewhere in the USHL last year (while sitting out a year of collegiate action per NCAA transfer rules), he elected to remain close to home and train in Duluth.

“When I came here for my visit, you could just tell it was the place to be. There were so many familiar faces that it was a warm, welcoming feeling there,” Peterson said.

That familiarity stems from Peterson growing up playing alongside and against a number of current teammates including Dominic ToninatoNeal PionkAdam JohnsonKarson KuhlmanJared Thomas and his former high school teammate, Hunter Shepard. Furthermore, Peterson played 27 games under current Bulldog assistant coach Brett Larson, when he was the bench boss for Sioux City of the USHL.

But the real benefit of playing for UMD is that Duluth is just a 90-mile drive down Highway 2 from Grand Rapids, which allows him to go home on off weekends. When the Bulldogs are playing in Duluth, his parents and brother make the trip east. Even though Peterson just saw his first action as a Bulldog at AMSOIL Arena last weekend (Jan. 6-7), his family has yet to miss a home game this season.

Being so close, Evan is able to spend a lot of time at Avery’s house in Duluth, hanging out with his Bulldog teammates, playing video games and living the college life — something the 22-year-old wouldn’t have a chance to do otherwise.

“We played a lot of ‘Chel (NHL 17) over Christmas break, probably too much,” Peterson quips to a passing teammate. “It’s cool to be able to hang out with him in that atmosphere and the guys accept him so well. It’s something that I’m pretty grateful for.”

The brothers also get to spend time on the ice with Duluth Area Special & Sled Hockey, a team coached by Peterson and UMD teammates Sammy Spurrell and Brendan Kotyk.

While his brother and family are certainly appreciative of Avery living nearby, the feeling goes both ways. Because in Avery’s life, his family is far more important than hockey.

After undergoing a bone marrow transplant (of which his sister was the donor) in 2013, Evan appears to be handling his ailment well, although the nature of the disease leaves plenty of uncertainties. Even so, he continues to inspire those around him.

“It’s such a weird disease that you never really know, when people are diagnosed some people last a year, some people last five,” Peterson said. “He’s doing pretty well it seems like, in other areas it seems like he’s gotten worse. But he lives life, and he’s a good role model because he lives it to the fullest every day.”

Immediate Impact

Peterson has only played three games for UMD, having sit out a full year per NCAA transfer rules, but so far his impact has been clear. Head coach Scott Sandelin credited him with providing an extra spark in his debut with the Bulldogs, a 2-1 win over Bemidji State on Dec. 17 — UMD’s first win over their intrastate rivals in four years. In his second game, Peterson scored his first UMD goal, a tally which proved to be crucial in a 2-2 tie with Colorado College Friday night (Jan. 6).

On a team with plenty of depth, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound forward is able to contribute wherever the third-ranked Bulldogs need him.

“I think the intangible things he can bring, he can play center, he can play wing, big strong kid that can shoot the puck,” said Sandelin. “Just having him there, and him bringing that energy and excitement to play was a big lift for our team.”

Toninato, who played for Grand Rapids’ arch-rival Duluth East in high school, agreed with Sandelin’s sentiment, noting Peterson’s large presence on the ice and in a leadership role.

“He’s a big strong body, he uses that body well to protect the puck and he goes to the dirty areas,” Toninato said. “He’s really good on draws, he’s a smart hockey player and he can shoot the puck, so he basically brings it all.

“He’s also a huge locker room guy, and he adds depth to this team on and off the ice. We’re lucky to have him.”

Despite no longer being teammates, Peterson said that he still has a lot of friends in Omaha, and several of them even made the trip to Duluth to hang out this past summer.

While the Mavericks certainly won’t be lodging at Peterson’s house when they travel to Duluth for a series in early February, there’ll still be warm feelings and well-wishes for a former teammate.

“When you play hockey with the guys, you end up being such good friends, so I keep in touch with them,” Peterson said.

Some would even call that bond between teammates brotherhood. But for Avery, that’s a distinction reserved only for Evan.

–#NCHCHockey–
Frozen Faceoff Tickets

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Larry Fitzgerald, Sr.

Tracy Claeys: Gopher scapegoat

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By Larry Fitzgerald
January 11, 2017
GAMEDAY GOLD

 

Usually leadership at NCAA Institutions like Big Ten schools with 45,000 students comes from university presidents. Not at Minnesota, where President Eric Kaler has done his best recently to bungle the important role of the athletic program.

He places academic achievement as his number-one priority, and in many ways under his watch he has undermined the importance of the athletic program, which drives the revenue streams for university athletics.

It’s been called dysfunctional: The clear incompetence and laxity of administration leadership have pushed the Gophers to the verge of being a national joke. Last week, Head Football Coach Tracey Claeys was fired after becoming the first Gophers football coach to win both of his first back-to-back bowl games.

Claeys took over after previous head coach Jerry Kill resigned because of health concerns during the 2015 season; Claeys was his top assistant. In his first full season, he led the Gophers to a 9-4 season with the second-most wins by a Gopher team since 1905, including the 17-12 win over Washington State in the December 27 Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

former Minnesota Golden Gopher football coach Tracey Claeys

Tracey Claeys

When Claeys became head coach, the University did not have a full-time athletic director because Kaler dropped the ball. That was on the heels of longtime respected athletic director Joel Maturi resigning.

Kaler has long been casual in his support of Gophers athletics, and it shows. He has burn scars to prove it. Kaler hired a search committee to find his next AD, which is a sure sign of a president with a lack of commitment to his athletic program and one of the key reasons why the Gophers have not been in the Rose Bowl since 1961.

Norwood Teague was the guy recommended by the committee to the uncommitted Kaler, and he hired him from Virginia Commonwealth. Teague was supposed to elevate the athletic program and was believed to be a great fundraiser.

The first thing Teague did three years ago on arrival was fire as men’s basketball coach the highly respected Tubby Smith, one of the best coaches in college basketball. Smith had won an NCAA Championship at Kentucky before taking the Minnesota job. After six seasons, he was fired.

Three times Smith led the Gophers to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Smith beat UCLA in the NCAA tournament in his final win, and during the year even upset number-one Indiana at Williams Arena for the first time in school history. Never before in 100 years of Gophers basketball had the men’s basketball coach reached the NCAA tournament three times in six years.

Teague proved in short order that he was in over his head. He was fired after it was discovered that he was a campus sexual predator, harassing women administrators and media females with sexual advances. It was one of the most embarrassing and expensive mistakes in school history. The program has become a laughing stock in college athletics thanks to President Kaler.

For two years, the U of M athletic program has been without a full-time AD. Richard Pitino was hired by Teague to replace Smith. After three years and zero NCAA appearances, last year the young Pitino was 8-23, the worst season in school history.

Not until last fall was Mark Coyle hired as full-time athletic director. He is not the best communicator according to some. He did not hire Claeys, and it showed — he recently barbecued him in a news conference and fired him last week after the football team in September had four Black players accused of sexual misconduct with a female student.

Claeys suspended the players for three games because the university has a student code of conduct policy that allows Title IX investigators to launch their own independent investigation even after university and Minneapolis police had conducted an investigation into the alleged assault of the woman using video and audio of the sexual act captured on tape by the players. No charges were filed.

Three weeks ago, 10 Gopher players were suspended by the university after the Title IX report was issued. The football team’s remaining players announced a planned boycott of the Holiday Bowl game, demanding the 10 players be reinstated. Thirty-six hours later, after meeting with Coyle and reading the 82-page Title IX report, the players withdrew their boycott protest.

After his players announced their planned boycott, Claeys tweeted his support of their right to protest, not of the actions of the accused suspended players. The confusion of Claeys’ support angered some. Coyle used the opening to fire Claeys and hire his own guy, P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-1 season and a trip to the January 2 Cotton Bowl.

Fleck will make $3.5 million a year over the next five years while the suspended Gopher football players await a hearing on their fate and suspensions. Kaler still has job, and his mistakes are evident. His lack of leadership and poor decision-making are clear and are costing this university a small fortune.

 

 

 

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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Larry Fitzgerald, Sr.

Coach Richard Pitino on his Gophers

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By Larry Fitzgerald
December 8, 2016
GAMEDAY GOLD

 

Truth in disclosure: Since Tubby Smith was fired unfairly three years ago by Norwood Teague, the ex-Gophers athletic director, I felt so strongly about how bad that decision was that I stopped covering men’s Gophers basketball. Last year was the worst year in school history at 8-22.

Two weeks ago I ended my protest by covering the Gophers vs. Arkansas at Williams Arena. They won. Before that game, I sat down with Richard Pitino (RP), now in his third season as head coach.

MSR: Congrats on a great start to the season!

RP: Thanks, it’s been a kind of quiet, challenging start to the season.

MSR: The Gophers are better. They are 7-1 and play New Jersey Institute of Technology next at Williams Arena. How are you selling your program and the keys to it?

RP: I would hope that when you talk about playing for the University of Minnesota, you’re obviously talking about a tremendous college experience. And tremendous opportunities outside of basketball if you get your degree from here with all the Fortune 500 companies. To play in the Big Ten if not the best one of the best basketball conferences. And to play in front of our loyal fans.

You talk about all those things. You talk about style of play and the commitment to getting these guys better on and off the court. And, hopefully, winning follows that too. You’re constantly talking about those things with our guys. Our guys love going to school here.

I think that’s kind of an underrated thing here. And they love playing in this arena as well.

MSR: Your dad Rick, head coach at Louisville, is a Hall of Fame coach. Is your goal to achieve some of the things he’s accomplished over the years?

RP: I’m 34 years old and I’m new at this, and to try and mirror a Hall of Famer’s career would make me pretty unhappy. I try to take it day by day.

Richard and Rick Pitino

Like father, like son?

I’ve been provided a tremendous opportunity to be the head basketball coach at a great school a Big Ten school, at a young age. I’m just trying to get better every day and pour myself into our team, my family, and do my best there. The whole trying to be like your dad…you really don’t think about those things.

MSR: Much was made of recruiting and the number of talented in-state high school players that got away from Minnesota. You did get one of the best in Amir Coffey. Can you talk about that?

RP: What’s difficult about local kids is you can’t take them all. You only get 13 scholarships, and you have to identify with the ones that you need. Amir was a guy that we needed. It was extremely important to get him.
It’s early, obviously, but he’s playing well. When you get a local kid and it works — and hopefully it does continue to work — that might be the best local recruiting tool that you can have. We’re going to continue to try and do our best and put him in the position to succeed.

I know the fans locally, they love him if you can see a local kid have success.

MSR: You have a more physical team in 2016-17. Is that what you wanted?

RP: Yes, we’re a much bigger team. If you look at our team, we’ve got more size [with] Amir at 6’-7” at the three spot. That helps. Your four spot is bigger. Reggie Lynch is bigger. That helps in defensive rebounding, and that puts pressure on the defense when you can play inside to out.

I don’t know too many teams in this league if you’re not big that are going to win. If we stay healthy — knock on wood — we’ve got the size to compete. I really do like our size a lot.

Richard Pitino in action court side

Minnesota Gophers head coach Richard Pitino

 

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

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By Jonathan Lowe
December 2, 2016
GAMEDAY GOLD

There’s not much to say.  It’s the two days of the year that provide a lot of joy and celebration.  The trophy games turn into efforts for trophies.  Yes, it’s a wild stretch.  But on Championship Weekend, a lot of wild stuff happens.  Here are the key games and my ill-fated predictions for their outcomes.

MAC Championship: Ohio vs. Western Michigan
This game usually has some flair to it.  And if you’re the statistical favorite, be anxious about raising the trophy.  Since 2000, the team with the worse of the two records won more than you would think (7-6 in favor of the worse record, with 3 years where the records were the same).  All I’m saying is that the Broncos should be weary.  The Bobcats will look to keep that trend out in front, but WMU is playing for more than just a showcase spot on New Years’ Eve or Day.  If the Broncos win, it would give them only their second outright MAC crown in program history (the other was 1988, and they shared the title in 1966).
My Prediction: Western Michigan (27), Ohio (24)

Pac-12 Championship: Colorado vs. Washington
The Buffaloes are the story of the season.  They’re looking to make the “worst-to-first” their own in a very tough way by doing it in a 12-team college football conference.  This CU team reminds many of the glory days of this program throughout the 1990s.  For the ultimate prize, they’ll look to top a program that hasn’t seen much sustained success since…well, the early 1990s.  Most feel that the Huskies should be into the national semifinals with a victory.  Everyone knows they’ll be out with a loss.
My Prediction: Washington (24), Colorado (20)

American Championship: Temple at Navy
If Western Michigan stumbles, the Midshipmen could be there to pick up the slack and represent the Group of 5 in a New Years’ Six bowl.  One question, though.  What happens if the Middies lose to Army next Saturday?  The CFP committee might delay that particular announcement until after the Army-Navy game on the 10th.  For Temple, this is the second straight season that they’ve found themselves on the road for the conference title game.  Last year was a magical season for the Owls.  This time, they’d like to show that the magic has stuck around.
My Prediction: Navy (27), Temple (20)

Big XII Championship (de facto): Oklahoma State at Oklahoma
The Sooners have rebounded very well from their early 1-2 start.  Eight straight victories have them on the precipice of another conference crown.  It appears that Bob Stoops has too much traffic in front of him to make a return to the national semifinals.  The real intrigue might come around if the Cowboys win.  Remember that Week 2 loss that wasn’t?  Could that controversial result against Central Michigan come back into question if Bedlam goes Mike Gundy’s way?
My Prediction: Oklahoma (48), Oklahoma State (44)

SEC Championship: Alabama vs. Florida
Basically, this is only a question of “Coronation or Potential Cracks in the Armor?”  The Tide are in.  If that’s not the case, I’ll sing the song “Barbie Girl” in public…in a Speedo.  No matter how much ranting Nick Saban does, I’m sure that he has a good idea his team will be playing in either Atlanta or Glendale on New Years’ Eve.  For Florida, like last week, this game is for pride.  Pride wasn’t enough to lift the Gators over Florida State.  Will it lead to a better result against the mighty Tide?
My Prediction: Alabama (24), Florida (10)

ACC Championship: Clemson vs. Virginia Tech
The Tigers are in the same position that Washington is in.  If they win, Clemson will solidify their position as a national semifinalist (a return trip for them).  A loss means that they, and the ACC, will be shut out of the running.  A convincing win led by their senior QB could also put DeShaun Watson back into discussion for the Heisman Trophy.  I understand that Louisville’s Lamar Jackson still has the clearest path, but he doesn’t have another opportunity to show off his dynamic skills.
My Prediction: Clemson (41), Virginia Tech (23)

Big Ten Championship: Wisconsin vs. Penn State
The last two years, this game has had a fairly significant impact on the seeding for the CFP.  This season, it’s not that the conference won’t be represented.  It’s that this game may not even matter when everything settles on Sunday.  The Nittany Lions and Badgers weren’t supposed to be here.  However, wins over Ohio State and LSU (respectively) set the stage for this.  The Buckeyes (and, perhaps, Michigan) appear to be participating in the playoff AHEAD of the conference champ.  Does Penn State (lost big to Michigan) have a gripe?  Does Wisconsin (lost close to both) have a gripe?  Will the noise be enough to create some change to the postseason system in the near future?  Signs point to no on all accounts.
My Prediction: Wisconsin (20), Penn State (16)

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Jonathan Lowe

College Football: Seven on the Line

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By Jonathan Lowe
November 24, 2016
GAMEDAY GOLD

Here’s to turkey.  Here’s to side dishes.  Here’s to four-day weekends.  Here’s to time for family.  Here’s to arguments, awkward, political, and otherwise.  And, of course, here’s to pigskin.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.  Now, on to the games!

 

Split Ends
The Big Ten West Showdowns: The last few weeks, this division has been very muddled.  Wisconsin controls its own fate.  Nebraska is hoping for one Badger slip-up.  Iowa and Minnesota are out of the running, but they could make things very confusing.

The Hawkeyes and Huskers take the stage first (Friday afternoon).  The Gophers and Badgers get a night to sleep on the results from Lincoln (they play Saturday afternoon).  If the road team’s can pull off upsets, we’ll see a four-way tie for the division title.  That would do wonders for Nebraska, whom would win a trip to Indianapolis.  It would also close out Wisconsin’s slim chances for a national semifinal spot.

Florida at Florida State: The Gators are hoping this will be a positive tune-up for next week’s SEC Championship Game.  Next Saturday, the offense will probably face the stiffer test of the two sides of the ball.  This week, that appears to be the defense’s issue.  Deondre Francois isn’t as dynamic a freshman quarterback as Jameis Winston was, but he still presents a ton of problems for opposing defenders.  And that’s before even taking Dalvin Cook into account.  The junior tailback now tops the Seminoles’ all-time rushing list.  He can also be a threat in the pass game, averaging more than 14 yards for he catch he makes.

While the Gators have bigger stakes on the line next week, the Seminoles have a lot of pride in their camp.  Funny fact I learned this week (from sources other than my brain; ahem, thank you Worldwide Leader)…if FSU wins this game, it will be the first time that a four-year senior class has defeated both Miami and Florida all four seasons (a combined 8-0 record).

 

Guards
Auburn at Alabama: Thanks to Georgia, the Iron Bowl has lost a bit of its sizzle.  Now, I wouldn’t tell that to the face of anyone from the Heart of Dixie.  However, what appeared to be another battle for an SEC West crown has turned into a shot to provide one-half of the ultimate spoiler.  The Tigers would love nothing better than to end the Tide’s repeat hopes, but they can’t.  If ‘Bama loses Saturday, they should still get into the CFP by beating Florida in a week.

I don’t believe that would matter to Tigers fans.  They would have bragging rights for the next year.  They would have overwhelming faith in coach Gus Malzahn and the direction of the program.  And the result may sew up a spot in one of the other New Years’ Six contests.  Larger goals might have been tossed out of the window, but, for some, nothing’s better than successfully pulling your rival’s goals out along with yours.

Wyoming at New Mexico: Since the beginning of the season, it was a foregone conclusion that Boise State and San Diego State would meet in the Mountain West title game.  That conclusion is still a possibility, but the foregone portion could be forbidden if Craig Bohl’s team can squeak out one more victory.  The road has been this team’s bug-a-boo, though.  All three losses have come from outside of Laramie, and Albuquerque doesn’t intend to be a friendly host to the Cowboys.

The Lobos know they’ll have to a step above to defeat a squad that has victories over EACH of the conference’s division favorites.  However, they may like the fact that Wyoming allows more yards (455.9) than they gain (447.1) on average.  The stakes all depend on Friday afternoon.  By Saturday’s kickoff, Bob Davie’s team will know if they even have a pulse for a share of the Mountain Division.  But for a team that struggled to a 2-3 start, that pulse has to feel pretty strong at this point.

 

Tackles
Washington at Washington State (Friday): There have been some important Apple Cup matchups.  The 2001 game is still the last time both teams were ranked going into that contest (Wazzu fell out of this week’s rankings after losing to Colorado).  The 1992 game was the second-to-last in the college career of Cougar QB Drew Bledsoe.  The 1983 Cougars denied that year’s Huskies a shot to go to the Rose Bowl, stunning UW in Seattle.

The most important edition of this long-standing rivalry?  That could have occurred in 1936, when the sixth-ranked Huskies shutout the twentieth-ranked Cougars, 40-0.  It turned out to be the only time in conference history that these two schools finished first and second, respectively, in the league standings.  It was the Pac-10 at that time…with the membership roster including Montana and Idaho.  With a trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game at stake, this could be the biggest renewal of the series in 80 years (minus one day, to be exact).

Toledo at Western Michigan (Friday): Sometimes, the schedules just work out perfectly.  Sometimes, there’s no letdown from the schools favored to meet in a season-ending showdown.  The MAC West title comes down to these two teams.  The Rockets are one touchdown (five-point loss to Ohio) and one field goal (two-point loss at BYU) away from being where WMU is currently at.  The undefeated Broncos know that a loss in either of the next two weeks will end any shot they have at a New Years’ Six bowl bid.

With weather conditions expected to be fairly tame for Friday afternoon’s kickoff, I believe this matchup is headed for a shootout.  The Broncos are extremely balanced in their surge to 508.9 yards (262.7 passing, 246.2 rushing) and 43.8 points per game.  WMU’s Zach Terrell should top 3,000 passing yards for the season.  He has 27 TD throws to accompany 1 (ONE) interception.  And he may not be the better QB in this matchup.  Toledo’s Logan Woodside can reach 4,000 passing yards in this game and add to his 40 TD total (with only 7 INTs to boot).  What a way to decide a division title.

 

Center

Michigan at Ohio State: There’s no way to avoid this game.  Really, there hasn’t been any way to avoid this game since Labor Day.  It’s probably more of a surprise that these two teams have each lost a game rather than rolled into this contest unblemished.  The squads have some things in common.  The Buckeyes are a little better getting up and down the field (493.1 ypg to 451.1).  They each rank highly when it comes to changing the scoreboard.  Ohio State shares the fifth-best spot when it comes to scoring offense (43.8 ppg).  Michigan stands at 11th-best (42.3 ppg).

However, it’s on defense where both of these teams shine.  Both are in the top four when it comes to stuffing opponents’ driving abilities (Wolverines lead the nation at 245.6 yapg; Buckeyes are 4th with 279.8 yapg).  The same holds true in respect to keeping scores down (Wolverines top the game with 10.9 papg; Buckeyes tied for third at 13.0 papg).  Michigan will need to rely on that “D” with questions surrounding the health of starting QB Wilton Speight.

The Buckeyes have the better, healthier offense.  They have the home-field advantage.  They have the series momentum (have won the last four straight and, technically*, 11 of the last 12).  Those are just the kind of odds that Jim Harbaugh relishes.
*Ohio State’s 2010 win vacated due to ‘Salegate’ sanctions.

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Jonathan Lowe

College Football: Seven on the Line

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By Jonathan Lowe
November 17, 2016
GAMEDAY GOLD

We’re getting down to the home stretch.  Some teams are trying to scramble to get that extra game (and those extra practices) accompanying a bowl bid.  Others have bigger goals in mind.

 

Split Ends
San Diego State at Wyoming: This is a game that could take a couple of different turns.  If the Cowboys are able to win, this could be a preview of the Mountain West title game.  Yes, Craig Bohl’s team would still have to find a season-finale victory in Albuquerque, but the division crown would still be theirs for the taking.

If the Aztecs can stay unbeaten in-conference, then Boise State would have the inside track to Mountain Division representation.  SDSU has already guaranteed their place in the MWC Championship Game, three clear of the rest of the West Division with two to play.  Now, it’s about preparing for a conference title shot.  That preparation begins, and probably ends, with star running back Donnel Pumphrey.  He’s closing in on 2,000 rushing yards for the season and could get a few votes for the Heisman Trophy.  A big night in Laramie would help that effort.

Virginia Tech at Notre Dame: Despite losing to Georgia Tech last weekend, the Hokies still have the Coastal Division title on their racket.  That will be decided next week.  Saturday, though, it’s all about denial.

Will a bowl game make an offer to a 5-7 Fighting Irish team?  The generous allotment of games allowed three such squads to go last year.  But, to get there, they may very well need this game.  A trip to the Coliseum to face red-hot USC doesn’t bode well for Brian Kelly’s kids, and 4-8 wouldn’t bode well for their postseason chances.

 

Guards
Louisville at Houston (Thursday): The Cardinals continue to get “disrespected” by the CFP Committee.  Even with Clemson’s loss to Pitt, Louisville couldn’t crack into the projected national semifinals.  They would need the Tigers to slip up once more to to gain some favor.  A Clemson loss to Wake Forest (Saturday) would give Bobby Petrino’s team the Atlantic Division crown.  A Clemson loss to a bad South Carolina team (next Saturday) would be a killer when it comes to strength of schedule.  One sure thing…Louisville has to get by this game and Kentucky to have any shot.

The Cougars are hoping to gain back a sliver of the national spotlight that they earned at the beginning of the season.  They are a prime example of how hard it can be for Group of Five programs to hold the sport’s attention.  Tom Hermann has managed to steady the course after his team took on one good loss (Navy) and one bad one (SMU).  However, despite their 8-2 record, this team has become an afterthought.  Quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. hasn’t been the revelation that this week’s counterpart (Lamar Jackson) has been over the last two-plus months.  But it should be fun to see what Ward can show off in person.

Florida at LSU: For Florida, this game means everything.  A win in Baton Rouge means a second straight SEC East title.  A loss on the Bayou means that Tennessee can swipe the crown away with a sweep of Missouri and Vanderbilt (think of the Vols as Penn State South).  For LSU, a win might help them garner one of the Primetime Bowl selections as the second-best team out of the conference.  And with the two defenses that will be on display, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first team to 13 points wins.

 

Tackles
Arkansas State at Troy (Thursday): The Sun Belt champion will still have work to do if they want to claim that distinction, but the Trojans would be an arms-length ahead if they hold serve again.  On Saturday, Troy answered a late go-ahead touchdown by Appalachian State with one of their own (App State scored with 3:29 to play, while Troy went back in front with 1:09 remaining).  The 28-24 Trojan victory set the stage for another showdown in southeastern Alabama.  If they can get past the Red Wolves (5-0 in the Sun Belt, 5-4 overall), then the Trojans are in the driver’s seat for the conference championship.  Yes, there are two more games that Troy would have to maneuver, but you gotta have a dream.

Oklahoma at West Virginia: The Sooners are the the Big XII’s best chance to reach either the Peach or Fiesta Bowl.  They continue to put themselves in position to make a stunning comeback into national contention.  It may be too late, though.  With four Big Ten and two ACC Atlantic Division teams ahead of OU in the committee’s standings, Bob Stoops’ squad will need help from a lot of outside forces to make the improbable possible.

They’re in better position than the Mountaineers, however.  Personally, I don’t believe West Virginia has ANY shot at making the CFP’s national semifinals.  About four weeks ago, a season-ending epic was looming between WVU and Baylor.  The Bears haven’t kept up their end of the bargain, losing their last three in a row.  The Mountaineers, while better, couldn’t stay unblemished themselves.  A win over the Sooners would help ease the sting of an earlier loss to Oklahoma State.  Then, they would turn to root for OU when Bedlam strikes in two weeks’ time.

 

Center

Washington State at Colorado: I started out by discussing one potential conference preview, so why not end with another?  If you told me that a Week 12 meeting between the Cougars and Buffaloes could be replayed on Championship Weekend, I wouldn’t have believed you.  But, after Washington’s loss to USC, here we are.  Let’s get this straight.  Unless Utah or the Huskies can’t hold their own at home, the conference championship contest will be decided next Friday in Pullman and next Saturday in Boulder.

It will be fun, though, to see what wins out.  Mike Leach’s “air raid” attack is finally established for the Cougars, with Luke Falk (3,610 yds, 33 TDs, 6 INTs) at the helm.  On the other side, Mike MacIntyre has turned the Buffs defense into the conference’s most stout bunch.  They are the Pac-12’s best in passing yards allowed (176.3 per game) and total yards allowed (308.4 per game), while sharing the honors for best scoring defense (with Washington at 17.9 points per game).  This should be intriguing.

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Jonathan Lowe

College Football: Seven on the Line

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By Jonathan Lowe
November 4, 2016
GAMEDAY GOLD

This week’s intro is simple.  The Cubs have won the World Series.  Anything is, indeed, possible.  That is all.

 

Split Ends
Boise State at Wyoming: The Broncos are in familiar territory, even though it has been a bit.  After fending off BYU, BSU is standing at 7-0, something the program achieved six times in an eight-year stretch.  The last time it happened, though?  2011.  Can the Broncos keep this momentum going as they are still eyeing a Mountain West showdown with San Diego State?

Georgia Tech at North Carolina:  The Tar Heels are still tied atop the ACC’s Coastal Division.  That’s in record only, though.  They’ll need Virginia Tech to lose somewhere along the way before a conference title game berth can be obtainable.  The Yellow Jackets are basically out of the running, but they could have a huge say in how the race finishes up.  The Ramblin’ Wreck visit both division leaders over the next nine days.

Iowa at Penn State: The Nittany Lions are starting to soar a bit.  The national ranking has them feeling good.  The fact that they’re one game back in the Big Ten East has them excited.  The hope for a 10-win season still has a pulse.  That all goes away with a loss on Saturday.  Going into Saturday, the Hawkeyes are in a three-way tie for second in the league’s West Division.  If Iowa can win in Happy Valley, and Nebraska can’t in Columbus, we could be in for a really fun finish through Thanksgiving (with Wisconsin and Minnesota also in the mix).

 

Guards
Florida at Arkansas: This game really boils down to one factor for each team. For the Gators, it’s about keeping their necks out in front of an unlikely contender. Fortunately, the only SEC opponent to beat them (Tennessee) has fallen off the table. This means that the last team that may stand in the way of the division title is…Kentucky. And with a scheduled home game against LSU now changed to a road game, any chance to stay in front of the dwindling pack will be quite appreciated.

For the Razorbacks, this is an opportunity to save some pride. The Hogs have had a mixed bag against ranked combatants this season. Their two narrow wins (at TCU, vs. Ole Miss) have been offset by two pretty big losses (vs. Texas A&M, vs. Alabama) and one embarrassing defeat (last week at Auburn). Now, they can play spoiler twice in an eight-day stretch as both Florida and LSU will visit Fayetteville. How will Wooo Pig Sooie respond?

Oklahoma State at Kansas State: Since losing in controversial fashion to Central Michigan, the Cowboys have been fighting to get back in standing. No, not in the Big XII. That race hadn’t started yet. They were looking to get back in good enough national standing to where that loss would possibly become a badge of scorned honor rather than a season-defining gash. After beating West Virginia last weekend, Okie State can start to eye Bedlam with a little more twinkle in their eyes.

The Wildcats, ever the steady ones, hope to dull that luster and earn their own reward (a bowl berth). Now, Bill Snyder should be able to forge a sixth win out of the remaining schedule (the ‘Cats still play Kansas down the road). However, a win over the ‘Pokes would only help to raise their own profile (a home win would tie them up with OSU in the conference standings).

 

Tackles
Alabama at LSU: The Crimson Tide are the overwhelming top dog in the first CFP ranking of the season. From a dominating win over USC, to a comeback victory at Ole Miss, to dispatching of three straight conference contenders, Nick Saban’s squad has kept true on the road to a repeat. This is the last of a brutal four-game stretch that has placed the Tide in four separate cities. If they can get out of Baton Rouge with a victory, there’s a chance to breathe leading up to the annual Iron Bowl.

Quietly, it appears that the Tigers have gotten over the firing of former coach Les Miles, at least on the field. After the mind-numbing loss to Auburn, interim coach Ed Orgeron has guided this team to three straight wins (with an unplanned bye week inbetween). Now, with a reworked schedule, things could get interesting for LSU. If they can somehow work up enough Bayou Magic to beat ‘Bama, they’ll end the season with a trio of games that could revive their national standing (at Arkansas, vs. Florida, at Texas A&M) and, ultimately, justify their preseason ranking.

Air Force at Army: To be honest, it feels good to discuss all of the Service Academy teams being north of the .500 mark. The Falcons have been in that mode for some time now. Since the program became affiliated with a Division I-A (at the time) conference, they’ve completed nine losings seasons. That goes back to 1980 (36+ seasons ago), when the WAC welcomed them into its league. During that span, the program has participated in 22 bowl games. A win at Westpoint would make them eligible for number 23.

For the most part, the Black Knights have mainly stayed independent of conference affiliation. They were a part of Conference USA for a brief, seven-season stretch (1998-2004). But whether this program was part of a league or not, it was far from its heyday of the 1940s. Over that same timespan (1980-Present), Army has had nine WINNING seasons and five bowl appearances. This makes Saturday’s game all the more exciting for the Cadets. One more win will give send this program to an area where it has only been once in the last two decades.

 

Center

Nebraska at Ohio State: When does your team claim a spot in the coveted position of this here blog? One such situation…when a game to essentially clinch your division leads into a game that is seen as a “loser-out” in the national semifinal picture. The Cornhuskers couldn’t succeed where the Buckeyes did, winning an overtime game in Madison. However, Mike Riley’s squad is still the team to beat in the Big Ten West. If they win out, there’s no reason to believe that they wouldn’t be in one of those coveted New Years’ Eve bowls. But it’s a tall order asking them to recover from a grinding defeat at the Horseshoe.

While this game may mark Nebraska’s last real obstacle of the regular season, the Buckeyes still have that little rivalry match to play out a couple of days after Thanksgiving. Looking at Michigan’s schedule ahead of their trip to Columbus (Maryland, at Iowa, Indiana), OSU appears to need this result just to stay in touch of the Wolverines by the holiday weekend. Although the vaunted offense has only scored less than 30 points twice all season, those occurrences happened in the last two games. Urban Meyer is hoping to break out against the Blackshirts on Saturday night.
 

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Jonathan Lowe

College Football: Seven on the Line

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By Jonathan Lowe
October 28, 2016
GAMEDAY GOLD

The college football in-season calendar is fairly regulated.  September gives us a peek at where teams stand on a national landscape.  The pieces figure out where they’ll line up.  October is the beginning of the “regional” shift.  Teams retreat to their leagues to find out where they stand amongst their peers.  November is a month of definition.  Conference races turn away from the jockeying phase and become more crystalized.  The 2016 campaign is about to enter that realm, as we stand on the precipice of Halloween.  Let’s just say that, this week, a lot of divisional races will be shifted.

 

Split Ends
Boise State at Wyoming: The Broncos are in familiar territory, even though it has been a bit.  After fending off BYU, BSU is standing at 7-0, something the program achieved six times in an eight-year stretch.  The last time it happened, though?  2011.  Can the Broncos keep this momentum going as they are still eyeing a Mountain West showdown with San Diego State?

In early September, I thought this was a make-or-break season for Wyoming coach Craig Bohl.  It appeared that time was running low for the man that built North Dakota State into a dynasty at the FCS level.  Turns out, the Cowboys are making the time work for them this year.  Other than understandable road losses to Nebraska and Eastern Michigan (wait…did I really just say that?!?), the posse has rallied quite nicely.  Whether they win or lose on Saturday, you should expect this program to make it first bowl appearance since…hey, 2011!  A win on Saturday could have them in line to play for their first outright conference title since 1988.  High times in Laramie could be on the way.

West Virginia at Oklahoma State: It’s the latest edition of “Coach & the Coordinator”.  I have to admit, the Mountaineers are better than I thought they’d be.  Ever since their back-to-back scares against BYU and Kansas State, Dana Holgorsen’s crew has been pretty dominant.  Holding Texas Tech’s offense to 17 points?  Beating usually stingy TCU by 24?  Those are some impressive results.  They haven’t received a ton of respect from the national media (…or even me).  They might not until they play Oklahoma on Nov. 19th (including mine).  But a win in Stillwater will go a long way toward garnering it.

The Cowboys have scored less than 30 points twice this season.  They’ve lost both of those games.  Mike Gundy’s team has surpassed the 30-point mark five time this year.  They’ve won all of those contests.  That, folks, is what you would call a “significant number.”  The Mountaineers have proven that they can slow down a dynamic offense.  Can the Cowboys find a way to do the same?

 

Guards
Navy at South Florida (Friday Night): I talked about both of these teams last week.  The Midshipmen had themselves a tussle against Memphis, pulling away from the Tigers in the third quarter to keep a comfortable edge until the end of the game.  The Bulls couldn’t keep their momentum rolling, falling in Philadelphia to a Temple team that continued turning their own fortunes around.  On Friday night, the two division leaders meet in Tampa for what could be a preview of the AAC championship.

When looking at things from the Navy sideline, this is the second in a stretch of games that is tricky to maneuver.  Sandwiched between the Bulls and Tulsa is a neutral-site game against Notre Dame.  And despite the (approaching-) awful year for the Irish, the Middies will still need to get over their bug-a-boos when it comes to facing the Golden Domers.

Tulsa at Memphis:  That’s right.  I’m once again reaching into the recesses of the American Athletic Conference.  With how the season has played out to this point, these appear to be the last two challengers to Navy’s impending division crown.  The Tigers are already playing from behind, their loss at Navy looming as a death knell if they can’t protect their home field on Saturday.

The Golden Hurricane can separate themselves as the main division contender, but they have to be a little less giving.  For a squad on the verge of a bowl game, you would think that TU would be a little more stingy than the 32.1 ppg that they allow.  As far as offense is covered, they’re good.  A balanced attack (260.1 passing, 223.7 rushing) helps to light up the scoreboard to the tune of 39.7 points a game.  But they’ll need just enough D to survive what promises to be a shootout at the Liberty Bowl.

 

Tackles
Clemson at Florida State: The Tigers just keep going.  They survive the trip to Auburn.  They get a bit staggered against Troy.  They hold off Louisville and N.C. State.  Now, after a week off, Clemson awaits what should be the last big hurdle on their way to the ACC Championship Game.  The remaining schedule should provide some pushback (Syracuse, Pitt, and Wake Forest are a combined 14-8 heading into this weekend), but not to the level of FSU.

The Seminoles aren’t technically out of the Atlantic Division race at this moment.  They will be if they lose on Saturday.  Coming into the season, this was the game earmarked as the de facto division decider.  No one could have seen Louisville disrupting that idea.  Now, Jimbo Fisher’s team is trying to avoid something that has only happened once (technically twice) in the program’s history…lose to Clemson in consecutive seasons (lost three in a row from 2005-2007).

Washington at Utah: The Huskies have put in a lot of work to become a top-five team.  Chris Peterson’s squad came into the campaign with a top-fifteen ranking.  They’ve built on that thanks to the nation’s second-best scoring margin (+33.0 ppg against FBS teams).  UW did have one close contest (a seven-point, overtime win at Arizona), but the majority of their victories have been decided long before the final whistle.  However, for all of that hard work, they’re tied with their cross-state rival for the Pac-12 North lead.

The Utes have put in a lot of work to become a top-twenty team.  Kyle Whittingham’s team started the year unranked with some big losses on the offensive side of the ball.  Quarterback Travis Wilson and running back Devontae Booker ran out of eligibility after last season, so it has been up to Troy Williams and a trio of rushers to carry the load in 2016.  The Utes haven’t missed a beat, gaining wins with a whole lot of grit (+6.0 ppg against FBS teams).  However, for all of that grinding work, they’re tied with the team that they entered the conference with.

The totality of the situation…a victory for either team keeps them a neck ahead of their respective chasers.

 

Center

Nebraska at Wisconsin: As I said at the beginning of the post, we’ve got a lot of divisional claims up for bid this weekend.  The Big Ten West is one of those divisions.  All of the worry from last year’s 5-7 regular season?  That’s gone for Cornhuskers coach Mike Riley.  The swagger has quickly returned to Lincoln.  And while, at the moment, it feels a bit like Iowa’s run last year, the Huskers could step that up a notch over the next ten days.  Before they set their sights on a trip to Columbus, though, they’ll have to put divisional priorities first.

The Badgers have the best two-loss combo in the country. Unfortuately, they both occurred during Big Ten play. An out-of-conference defeat (even to an up-and-down LSU squad) may have hurt Bucky from a national standpoint, but it would have left them in better shape to make a conference title game run. Now, they can’t just rely on great things happening to them through the rest of the regular. They have to be the recipients of a disastrous two-week stint from the Huskers to keep the championship appearance hopes alive. Paul Chryst’s team can start that stint if they can take down Nebraska in Madison.

 

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