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For nearly a decade professional football fans in The Bay Area have been waiting to see their teams emerge from dormancy. The San Francisco 49ers are currently leading The NFC West while this is the latest in the season that The Oakland Raiders have been over .500 since 2002. Both teams have first year head coaches in Jim Harbaugh (49ers) and Hue Jackson (Raiders) who have brought energy back to the region.
The Raiders lead The National Football League in rushing with 1115 yards and the combination of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush has become one of the best running back tandems in the league. McFadden provides the explosiveness to break long runs while Bush makes defenders think about what is most important to them as he runs over and through them. The Oakland Coliseum is a tough place for opponents to play at any point, especially when The Raiders are relevant.
The Raiders won their home opener against The New York Jets and “The Black Hole” was raucous. The Coliseum was even tougher for The Cleveland Browns who were the first visiting team to play in Oakland following the death of team owner Al Davis. In that game starting quarterback Jason Campbell suffered a broken collarbone which put the season in jeopardy. In typical Raider fashion, they pulled off a last minute trade just before the deadline. The Raiders acquired quarterback Carson Palmer from The Cincinnati Bengals. Palmer became disgruntled with The Bengal organization and he will now look to revitalize himself in Oakland.
The Niners have shocked everyone with their hot start which includes two road comebacks against The Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions. If San Francisco did not have a fourth quarter collapse in week 2 versus The Dallas Cowboys, then I would be writing about this team being undefeated. For the last few seasons The 49ers have had a good defense led by middle linebacker Patrick Willis who is possibly the heir apparent to Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis as the best linebacker in the game. Willis now has help on the outside in the form rookie outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Through the team’s first six games Smith has 5.5 sacks and has made a living in the opponents backfield harassing quarterbacks.
Offensively a ton of credit must be directed in the direction of Harbaugh. After leaving Stanford University, Harbaugh decided to stay in Northern California and become head coach of The 49ers. Harbaugh has been able to do what many have failed to do before him, develop quarterback Alex Smith. Smith has seen his fair share of head coaches and offensive coordinators come and go in San Francisco. Harbaugh has restored the confidence of the former number one overall pick and Smith is turning into a decent NFL quarterback. Smith has only thrown eight touchdowns but more importantly Smith isn’t losing the game for The Niners. Since Smith has been in San Francisco, he has received a heavy dose of criticism from the fans and the media who have questioned his toughness and ability. Now Smith is showing character and ability that some though that he didn’t have.
Smith can’t do it all by himself as The 49ers have a quality offense for the first time since the days of Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens. San Francisco is able to spread opposing defenses out with tight end Vernon Davis and wide receivers Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree. This trio has been causing mismatches all seasons and week by week they are starting to gel into a good unit of receivers.
The 49ers and Raiders are now winning games the fans have become accustomed to seeing them lose. Now both teams have their sights set on the postseason and it is a very good possibility that they both can make the playoffs.
The Pac-12 is better than The NFC West this year as The 49ers have a stranglehold on the division with a 5-1 record. Seven wins won the division last season and San Francisco can accomplish that by showing up for the next few games and doing the tootsie roll. The win over Detroit was also big as it could be the difference in The Lions making the trip to The West Coast if these two meet in the playoffs. A rematch with The Lions could also be on the under card of Harbaugh-Schwartz II as Harbaugh and Lion head coach Jim Schwartz clashed after Schwartz took offense to Harbaugh’s post game reactions after The 49er victory.
The Raiders are in the thick of things in The AFC West. Oakland is only a half a game behind the division leading San Diego Chargers who they swept last season. These teams meet for the first time next month with the division lead more than likely at stake. The Raiders also hold tie-breakers over The Jets, Browns, and Houston Texans due to defeating these teams this season which could loom large down the stretch in regards to The AFC Wild Card picture.
Raider Nation has always been supportive of their Raiders and now that loyalty is paying off as the team is competitive once again. For The 49ers, they struck gold 32 years ago when they made another Stanford head coach Bill Walsh the head coach of The Niners. Walsh went on to build a dynasty in leading San Francisco to three Super Bowl Titles. The script is not finished for either team, but they way that it is playing out, both teams are back on track for success.
With a record of 0-4 to start the season The Miami Dolphins have not gotten off on the right foot. Head coach Tony Sporano is worrying about his job security and quarterback Chad Henne is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Matt Moore is stepping in at quarterback to replace Henne. Moore will become the thirteenth starting quarterback for The Dolphins since Dan Marino retired in 1999. For 17 seasons Marino lit up The Miami skyline with amazing passing stats as he retired as one of the most prolific passers in National Football League history. The Dolphins were a consistent playoff contender and they made one Super Bowl appearance in 1984. Since Marino retired The Dolphins have made the playoffs three times and winning one playoff game.
It is very difficult for any team to win in professional football when they have constant turnover at the quarterback position. The Dolphins have continuously made the mistake of bringing in quarterbacks to stop the bleeding instead of trying to develop a franchise guy. The list reads from players such as Cleo Lemon to A.J. Feeley and we cannot forget about Joey Harrington. These are some of the stop-gap guys brought in to fill Marino’s shoes. The jury is still out on Henne and the shoulder injury puts everyone in a bind. There aren’t any guarantees that Sporano will be back next season as majority owner Stephen Ross was courting then Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh about bringing his talents to South Beach in January. Harbaugh stayed in The Bay Area and signed with The San Francisco 49ers. Ross took a ton of backlash in the media and subsequently gave Sporano an extension to his contract which was basically “hush money” as it was Ross’ way to say we goofed by looking for a head coach when we still had one under contract.
The Dolphins drafted Henne in the second round in 2008. Since The Dolphins drafted Marino in the first round of The 1983 NFL Draft, The New Orleans Saints are the only team in The NFL that have not drafted a quarterback in the first round. Fans want to get behind this team and the organization needs that franchise quarterback to sell the public on. If Ross fires Sporano, then a new regime will more than likely want to draft a quarterback and start fresh. The Dolphins look like a team that will pick in the top ten of next April’s NFL Draft unless they get things turned around soon. The more that they lose, the more the people in South Florida will start talking about current college quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Landry Jones, and Matt Barkley as possible replacement in Miami.
Attendance is down at Sun Life Stadium and The Dolphins record doesn’t help the situation. The Dolphins won only one home game last season and it was another inconsistent season from the quarterback position as Henne threw 15 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. The Dolphins are trying to catch up to division rivals The New York Jets and New England Patriots who have their franchise quarterbacks in Mark Sanchez and Tom Brady respectively. Marino was that man for so long and he casts a large shadow over The Dolphins. Many quarterbacks have come and gone and not been able to step in and come close to Marino’s greatness. The Miami Dolphins are long overdue in finding that guy to return them to prominence in The AFC.
The Texas A&M Aggies finally had their wish granted as they are now members of The Southeastern Conference. Texas A&M president Dr. R. Bowen Loftin can say whatever he wants to say publicly about doing what is best for the institution, but this is all about money and with The O’Jays performing in College Station, The Aggies got the payday that they always wanted. In the process they got away from the shadow of The Texas Longhorns. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side and The Aggies will soon realize this as it relates to football.
When you think of Texas A&M football, you think of a team that continuously takes a back seat to The Longhorns. The Big 12 Conference was formed in 1996 and The Aggies found early success by winning The Big 12 South in 1997 and 1998. In ’98 The Aggies defeated The Kansas State Wildcats for their only Big 12 Title. Since then The Big 12 South was dominated by The Longhorns and The Oklahoma Sooners as both schools represented The Big 12 South every year in the title game until 2010.
The Big 12 has always been a top heavy conference with Oklahoma and Texas carrying the banner of success. The Aggies have found themselves in the middle of the pack in The Big 12. Now they will travel to The SEC which has produced the last five BCS Champions as well as being a much tougher football conference. The Aggies will most likely be placed in The SEC West along with The Alabama Crimson Tide, Auburn Tigers and LSU Tigers. These three teams have won three of those five BCS crowns.
Teams are rarely able to make consecutive SEC Championship Games due to the competitive nature of the conference. If a team slips up they have several teams nipping at their heels to knock them down a peg. In 2009 The Tide went undefeated as BCS Champs. Last year they suffered three conference losses. The Tide then showed their dominance by steamrolling The Michigan State Spartans in The Capital One Bowl 49-7. If The Tide were in another conference like The Big 12 they probably would have qualified for a BCS bowl game. This season the defending BCS Champs Auburn have already lost a game before conference play as LSU and ‘Bama are ready to overtake them in the division.
Since 2000, The Aggies have met four SEC schools in bowl games and lost each game by a combined score of 146-92. Last season’s Cotton Bowl displayed that LSU had too much team speed for Texas A&M as The Tigers won 41-24. In the last two seasons, The Aggies have played another SEC team The Arkansas Razorbacks at Cowboys Stadium only to lose both contests. To add fuel to the fire, A&M’s Big 12 brethren Oklahoma and Texas have lost three BCS Championship Games to The SEC which proves the talent gap etween both conferences.
If you’re going to beg the prom queen to dance with her, then you need to be able to keep up. The Aggies are staring at 7-5 consistently in The SEC. This is only The Western Division as The Florida Gators will consistently be waiting in Atlanta at The SEC Championship Game if A&M can run the gauntlet in The West. For me this poses the question why would anyone want to join The SEC? Bottom feeders in the conference such as The Vanderbilt Commodores and Ole Miss Rebels are thankful for 6-6 which is a testament to them surviving the conference.
A&M had a good thing going in The Big 12 as they are starting to pick up steam under head coach Mike Sherman. Sherman is making The Aggies respectable once again as they are becoming a team that expects to play on New Year’s Day every year. The glory days of former Aggie head coach R.C. Slocum and “The Wrecking Crew” defense in The Southwest Conference are gone. I understand that The Aggies are tired of being pushed around by Texas on and off the field, but a winning season in The Big 12 along with a trip to The Holiday Bowl will look great once A&M is struggling to make The Independence Bowl in The SEC. The Aggies were not happy with the revenue sharing for all teams in The Big 12. The Longhorns launched The Longhorn Network which was expected to provide funding for all Big 12 schools. Loftin wanted a payout that he feels will help his school and kicked the tradition of constantly losing to Texas aside for a chance to be dominated by The Crimson Tide. Loftin will always be remembered in College Station for this move, how people remember him is yet to be seen.
Once upon a time in Major League Baseball teams wanted to emulate The Baltimore Orioles. From 1964 to 1983 The Orioles won 90 or more games 16 times. During that time The Orioles made the playoffs eight times while winning The World Series three times. Now if The Orioles were to win 75 games we would see a parade around Camden Yards.
Baltimore last made the playoffs in 1997 and have since become second class citizens to The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in The American League East. The Orioles have suffered through long losing streaks against both teams. The Orioles had a span over several years in the 2000’s in which they had a winning record versus every other division in baseball except for The AL East.
Teams besides The Yankees and Red Sox can win in this division as The Tampa Bay Rays have proven this by making the playoffs twice since 2008 including a trip to The World Series. The Rays have been able to develop their minor league talent while The Orioles have not. Instead of developing talent, The Orioles have gone the way of bringing in high paid players that are washed up or just couldn’t get The Orioles out of the rut..
In 2004 The Orioles signed free agent shortstop Miguel Tejada as he was looked at as being the big bat in the middle of the lineup. Tejada won an MVP award as a member of The Oakland Athletics in 2002 and put up similar numbers in his first few seasons in Baltimore. Tejada couldn’t carry the load by himself as the lineup around him was putrid and subsequently The Orioles still floundered in futility.
In 2005 Baltimore traded for right-fielder Sammy Sosa. Sosa was brought in from The Chicago Cubs as many in The Oriole organization thought that Sosa still had something left in the tank and that he would improve ticket sales. All Sosa did was show that once “the juice” wasn’t in him anymore that he didn’t have the pop in his bat. Sosa finished the season with 14 home runs and another dreadful season had plagued Baltimore.
All of the futility can be attributed to Oriole owner Peter Angelos. Angelos became the owner in 1993 and since that time The Orioles have only won a division title once. The Orioles have a history of producing Hall of Famers such as Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken, and Jim Palmer. When these players came through the organization it was no surprise that the team won. One factor behind The Orioles not winning is the fact that they have not had any starting pitching.
This season The Orioles pitching staff ranks last in earned run average in The American League at 4.88 Mike Mussina was the last dominant Oriole pitcher at the top of the rotation and he bolted town to play for The Yankees in 2001. The fans of The Orioles want to see the team get back to “The Oriole Way” which was all about them winning.
Current manager Buck Showalter is trying to change the culture but it is a tough task when players are accustomed to losing. Baltimore has promise in catcher Matt Weiters who was the team’s first round pick in 2007. Weiters has 20 home runs in 2011 and has the ability to be a 30 home run player in the lineup. Center-fielder Adam Jones is another player that gives The Orioles hope for the future with his ability to cover ground in the outfield and his performance at the plate. Jones won a Gold Glove in 2009 and made The All-Star Game that season.
Jones and Weiters cannot do it by themselves as this team needs pitching. In order to compete with The Yankees and The Red Sox they must address this. The Rays have been able to develop pitchers such as David Price, James Shields, and Matt Garza which has allowed them to be a thorn in the sides of Boston and New York. Showalter knows that his guys are competing, but they have to get over that hump with the pitching. Until they do Baltimore will continue to flounder in the cellar of The AL East.
When The Big East Conference was formed in 1979 it was built on tough basketball teams and more importantly tradition. That tradition went out the window when The Syracuse Orange and Pittsburgh Panthers decided to leave The Big East in favor of The Atlantic Coast Conference. The almighty dollar rules the landscape of college sports despite school presidents saying otherwise. There is no loyalty to the fans, only to the bank accounts of schools presidents.
The Big East was dealt a blow in 2004 and 2005 when The Miami Hurricanes, Boston College Eagles, and Virginia Tech Hokies left The Big East in favor of The ACC. The move was strictly a football move for The ACC to have the 12 teams required for a conference championship game. Of the three schools Boston College was the only team that had deep ties to The Big East as it is a school located in The Northeast which is flooded with schools from The Big East.
The Big East was able to take the blow as former commissioner Mike Tranghese was able to lure The Cincinnati Bearcats, Louisville Cardinals, Marquette Golden Eagles, South Florida Bulls, and DePaul Blue Demons away from Conference USA. The move was needed to keep the conference alive in football and it made the conference a basketball superpower. These teams would join with the likes of The UCONN Huskies, Georgetown Hoyas, as well as Pitt and Syracuse to make The Big East one of the toughest conferences in America for college basketball.
Anyone who is a fan of college basketball enjoys The Big East Tournament as rivals clash for a week at The Garden and now those rivalries are dead. In the early years of the conference, Syracuse clashed with Georgetown and The St. John’s Red Storm. In the 90’s The Huskies would go at it with Syracuse, St. John’s and The Villanova Wildcats. For the 2000’s Pitt and UCONN staged epic battles in The Big East Championship. We also cannot forget about great individual performances from Gerry McNamara putting Syracuse on his back in 2005 as a nine seed on the way to the conference title. UCONN guard Kemba Walker recently outdid McNamara by leading The Huskies to The Big East Title by winning five games in five days at MSG last season.
When Pitt and Syracuse decided to bolt for a payday, it was indeed the day that college basketball died. This would have never been thought of when Lou Carneseca, John Thompson, and Rollie Massimino roamed the sidelines in The Big East.
For Pitt and Syracuse they will soon realize that the move was a mistake. These two teams bring a large contingent of fans with them to New York City. Both schools have plenty of alumni that work in the area as well. It is a common practice for fans to work in the morning and head over to The Garden for the games in the afternoon and evening. Good luck with that now as The ACC Tournament is generally held in North Carolina in the backyard of The North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils.
Pitt and Syracuse should look long and hard at Boston College as The Eagles were constantly in the mix for a conference crown while in The Big East. They made the move to Tobacco Road and The Eagles are now an afterthought. The Panthers and Orange will be able to win in The ACC, but the sizzle that was created when these two played the likes of St. John’s, Georgetown, UCONN, and Villanova is gone. For college basketball it is the equivalent of not seeing The Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys in the same division. Rivalries are what make sports successful and we have seen some great ones wiped away. The Big East “was” a great conference for college basketball.
In the constant carousel at the the top of The American League Central Division, The Detroit Tigers have emerged with their sights set on fall baseball. In 2006 The Tigers surprised everyone by winning The American League Pennant before bowing out to The St. Louis Cardinals in The World Series. 2009 saw The Tigers blow the division lead down the stretch to The Minnesota Twins. The Tigers are in better shape this time. They have an ace at the top of the pitching rotation in Justin Verlander. They also have a manager who is a winner in Jim Leyland, a big bat in the middle of the lineup in the form of first baseman Miguel Cabrera and a strong supporting cast.
All Verlander has done all season is become one of the best pitchers in the game. Verlander’s record is 23-5 and he is closing in on baseball’s triple crown for pitching as he leads The American League in wins, strikeouts (238), and earned run average (2.36). Verlander will more than likely win The AL Cy Young Award this season as well as pitch Game 1 of The American League Division Series for Detroit.
Verlander has pitched at least six innings in every start this season which is appreciated by the bullpen. The Tigers do have relief in the bullpen in the form of closer Jose Valverde. Valverde is 43/43 in save chances this season and his electric fastball can make the best hitters look like little leaguers. The combination of middle relievers Daniel Schlereth and Joaquin Benoit have solidified the seventh and eight innings as the duo has combined for 34 holds before turning things over to Valverde.
The key for Detroit is someone else besides Verlander in the starting rotation needs to provide a solid effort. Verlander can only pitch twice maybe three times in a playoff series depending of how far The Tigers go. Right-hander Rick Porcello has started to shake off the inconsistency that plagued him during the first half off the season. In his last four starts, Porcello has given The Tigers four solid outings by pitching at least six innings in those games. In those outings The Tigers have won all four games with Porcello picking up the win in three of those games. The Tigers will also need more consistency from right-hander Max Scherzer. Scherzer has been up and down with an earned run average that has remained above four for the majority of the season.
Miguel Cabrera is having a typical season which finds him in the top ten for home runs (26), runs batted in (97), and batting average (.332). Cabrera is not doing it by himself this year as catcher Victor Martinez has provided protection for him in the lineup as Martinez is hitting (.324). Going into the postseason The Tigers will need a better offensive output from center fielder Austin Jackson. Jackson burst onto the scene in 2010 as he had a batting average of .293 and finished second in the voting for The American League Rookie of The Year. Jackson’s average has hovered around .250 for the season, but he has 11 triples this season. Going forward it will be key for Jackson to get on base as he is a threat to steal bases and he can put more pressure on opposing pitchers who are trying to pitch to Cabrera and Martinez.
Manager Jim Leyland is a winner as he is doing his magic again. Leyland’s teams in Pittsburgh fell just short of The World Series in the early 90’s. Leyland won it all with The Florida Marlins in 1997 and took The Tigers to The World Series in 2006. Leyland’s Tigers were the best team in The American League in 2006 until they limped to the finish line. They made it as a wild card and ran through The New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics.
This Tiger team can do the same if not better. They have separated themselves from The Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians and now it is just a matter of time before they can clinch the division. Verlander’s season ranks up there with great Tiger pitchers such as Denny McLain and Jack Morris who both helped The Tigers win The World Series.
Verlander has already solidified himself in the regular season, now for him and his teammates it is time to do it in October. For the potential teams to make the playoffs in The American League, The Tigers will be one tough team to eliminate.