Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Big 12 season preview: Kansas

Quarterback: Jordan Webb is the guy. Last year, Kansas started with Kale Pick, turned the ball over to Webb after the disastrous opening loss to North Dakota State, then eventually had Quinn Meacham play significant minutes, including in the comeback win against Colorado. Pick is still on the roster, but now as a wide receiver, and Meacham is Webb's back-up. (Note: Highly touted recruit Brock Berglund is still on the team but is sitting out the fall to deal with a legal issue in Colorado. He apparently will rejoin practicing with the team in the spring.)

Running backs: If there is a reason to get excited about Kansas football, it’s due to the number of quality RBs on the roster. James Sims returns after gaining 742 yards in his freshman campaign. Highly touted recruit Darrian Miller will play as will Brandon Bourbon, who redshirted last season. Kansas must be able to run the ball and control the clock if the team hopes to improve upon last year's three-win season.

Defense: A huge question mark is the interior where KU has been hurt by a lack of depth. The linebacking crew is solid with Steven Johnson, transfer Darrius Willis and Huldon Tharp, who returns from a season lost to injury. And, the secondary will be stronger after a breakout year in 2010 by Tyler Pattmon who teams with Greg Brown, Keeston Terry and Bradley McDougald. The key, though, will be Kansas' interior defensive line given the shift to a 3-4 defense.

Coaching: To say the jury is still out on Turner Gill would be an understatement. Gill has proven that he can recruit but an opening day loss in 2010 to North Dakota State coupled with huge losses to Baylor and Kansas State did not sit well with fans hoping for improvement after 2009’s five-win season under former coach Mark Mangino. Kansas also lost defensive coordinator Carl Torbush, who resigned due to health issues, during the off-season. Gill is safe, for now, given the long-term deal he signed under the regime of former Athletics Director Lew Perkins. But, the howls from fans will only grow louder if improved play, and game coaching, isn’t seen on the field.

Best pre-game meal: The Burger Stand—gourmet burgers and fries in downtown Lawrence.

Schedule: It’s tough. The Jayhawks open with McNeese State, a better-than-average opening opponent, followed by Northern Illinois, who is picked to win the MAC West. They then travel to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech. In the conference, KU plays Texas Tech, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Baylor at home; on the road they journey to Texas, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M with Missouri on November 26 in Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, MO. It’s important that Gill find ways to win at least two home league games, i.e., Kansas State, Baylor or Tech.

Prediction: 4-8 overall; 2-7 in the Big 12.

Next up: We'll look at the rest of the Big 12 tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Big 12 season preview: Kansas State


Newcomers: A key story out of Manhattan is the debut of the Brown brothers—running back Bryce Brown and linebacker Arthur Brown. The story has been well-documented--both are now at KSU after stops at Tennessee and Miami, respectively. Look for Bryce to make the most immediate impact, taking over at RB for the departed Daniel Thomas. Arthur was considered a disappointment at Miami and will be looking to get his career back on track under head coach Bill Snyder.

Quarterback: Collin Klein is the guy and is a player who has received Snyder’s pre-season praise. The former wide receiver started two games last season including a big win over Texas. If Klein continues to improve and Brown is the real deal at RB, then the ‘Cats will be formidable on offense.

NFL genes: Look for true freshman Ian Seau to get snaps at the defensive end position. The Wildcats' highest-rated recruit is the nephew of NFL great Junior Seau.

Trend line: KSU has won seven, five, five, six and seven games over the past five seasons.

Best post-game libations: Head, of course, to Aggieville after the game.

Schedule: It will be very hard to duplicate the seven win total of last season. Kansas State opens with Eastern Kentucky and Kent State before traveling to Miami, FL. In conference, KSU has tough home games against Baylor, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, plus road trips to Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. They also journey again to Lawrence for their in-state rivalry game, a match-up which KSU must win if it has any hopes of another bowl appearance.

Prediction: 5-7 overall; 3-6 in the Big 12

Tomorrow: University of Kansas

Monday, August 29, 2011

Big 12 season preview: Missouri

It's time for "real" football to begin, fans. We start out this week, prior to college football's kickoff on Thursday night, previewing local teams Missouri, Kansas State and Kansas. Today we focus on the Missouri Tigers.

Season Preview: MISSOURI

Biggest question mark: James Franklin takes over for Blaine Gabbert which means the Tigers’ offensive look will likely be a bit more run-oriented from the QB spot versus pass-oriented. The departure of Tyler Gabbert may actually be a good thing as it eliminated any question as to who would start at quarterback—this is now Franklin’s team. Franklin is talented, had some highlights last season (e.g., the leading rusher against Colorado) but only threw 14 passes in 2010.

Tight End U.: Missouri once again has a stud tight end—this time it’s Michael Egnew who is being picked as another all-conference TE.

Defensive losses: The Tigers lost Aldon Smith but still have talented rushers in Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith.

Best tradition: MU claims to have been the first school to have a Homecoming. This year, the Tigers' Homecoming opponent is Iowa State on October 15—the 100th time the school will celebrate this tradition.

Best pre-game meal: Booches--the best burgers in Columbia.

Schedule: Arizona State will be a very tough road opponent on September 9. In the league, MU faces Oklahoma and Texas A&M on the road. The Tigers also need to be careful with a road visit to Baylor on November 5 prior to returning home to face Texas and then Texas Tech. The annual Border War with Kansas will once again be played in Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, MO to finish the regular season schedule.

Prediction: 8-4 overall, 6-2 in the Big 12

Next up: Look for my season preview of Kansas State in tomorrow's The View from Section 10.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

It's time to officially worry, Chiefs fans

The headline of this morning's Kansas City Star sports section lead story is "It's Hard to Watch." Actually, it's much worse than that--it's painful to watch.

It's time for Chiefs fans to go into official worry mode. I, for one, bought into head coach Todd Haley's laissez faire attitude about the preseason. However, I expected the Chiefs to show a bit more last night--to play the starters longer, to look more serious about the outcome, to look better prepared, to actually try to win the Governors Cup in their annual preseason matchup with the St. Louis Rams.

What we got were the starters playing more minutes and not looking effective. What we got was a blocked field goal late in the game after a Ram turnover within the Chiefs' red zone. What we got were two neutral zone penalties, in a row, to end any chance of the Chiefs winning the game.

It was a sloppy effort in the third game of the preseason which typically is the time when coaches begin showing more and planning for the regular season opener. The usual hope is that game three is the key tuneup so that the regulars can be held back for the final preseason matchup prior to game one.

There were highlights last night--just not many. Derrick Johnson once again showed his freakish athleticism with an interception that put the Chiefs into position to win the game. Rookie QB Ricky Stanzi made a very nice touchdown throw. Justin Houston was a beast on defense. And, Jeremy Horne was impressive at wide receiver.

Look, I know the Chiefs only won one preseason game last year prior to their AFC West championship. This feels very different. The Chiefs don't look prepared and Haley's insistence on using these games as nothing more than a scrimmage is a big gamble. It's a gamble because the Chiefs must start 2-0 against the Bills and at Detroit--their schedule is very tough and a lack of momentum, and confidence, going into weeks three, four and five against San Diego, Minnesota and Indianapolis, prior to the bye week, will effectively end any chance of repeating as conference champs.

The Chiefs need to bring it this week at Green Bay.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday morning coffee

- The fan economics of the NFL drew columnist Sam Mellinger's (Kansas City Star) attention this morning in his piece titled "Chiefs Face Business Crisis." Mellinger hit it on the head with this statement, "Using the Team Marketing Report numbers, going to 10 games at Arrowhead Stadium would cost more than $3,500 for a family of four. For that money, you can buy a 42-inch LCD television with surround sound, three leather home theater chairs, the Sunday Ticket package to watch every game, and still have nearly $150 per week to spend on beer and food." That, in a nutshell, is the issue locally--the Chiefs do not derive enough revenue from suite, sponsorship and advertising sales, thus forcing a greater emphasis on the fan to pick up the revenue slack. And, a game made for TV has now become a better experience at home given the technological advances of high definition television, DVRs, sound quality, and the web, which provides multiple options for checking stats and the play of your Fantasy Football team.

- Speaking of Fantasy Football, our draft was held last week--earlier than normal which heightens the difficulty given this strike year where teams are trying to quickly get in shape and player moves seem to be magnified.

- Also early was Sports Illustrated college football preview issue, which hit my mailbox this past week. SI's annual preview usually arrives the week before the first game. This year, the weekly mag's preview not only came early, but it supplements a special, conference-specific edition which was published for the first time. SI picks Alabama as the national champion followed by Oklahoma, LSU, Stanford, Oregon, Florida State, South Carolina, Boise State, Nebraska and Texas A&M.

- In the "If" department--if Nebraska had not fled the Big 12 for the supposedly greener grass of the Big Ten, we might have been treated to a NU-OU conference championship game in December. The two traditional rivals played each other twice in the history of the Big 12's post-season conference championship with Oklahoma winning both times.

- How'd you like to be the kid taking over at quarterback at Gardner-Edgerton High School in Kansas, following stud athlete Bubba Starling and all of his accomplishments? Talk about a tough job...

- I don't fault John Harbaugh one bit for playing through the end of the game on Friday night versus the Chiefs. Kansas City head coach Todd Haley apparently took exception to Baltimore scoring late in the Ravens' 31-13 exhibition win. Harbaugh explained that it was a good situation to evaluate player talent as well as to let guys, who are trying to make the team, score in a late-game situation. Harbaugh noted that "if this had been the regular season, we would have been on a knee."

- The Nebraska band is going to have to learn a lot of new music. NU's band traditionally plays the fight song of the opposing team when an opponent ventures into Memorial Stadium. This year, NU will have to learn the Big Ten fight songs for Ohio State, Michigan State, Northwestern and Iowa.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

More thoughts on conference realignment

You know what the fallacy is about the discussion of four "super conferences?" The answer is that there won't truly be four super conferences unless the whole conference system is blown up and realignment begins with a clean sheet of paper.

Follow my logic for a moment:

- There currently are six primary conferences, or BCS qualifiers--the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12. These six conferences have a total of 66 teams and that does not count key independents like Notre Dame and BYU, plus perennial contenders like Boise State and TCU. In total, there are 70 teams which constitute the major programs in college football.

- If the idea is to get to four super conferences of 16 teams each, that means that six teams in the current arrangement will be left out. What it also means is that working within the current conference alignment, and simply trying to fit new teams here and there, results in weak teams getting a pass and others being left without a chair once the realignment music stops. For example, does anyone think that Duke, Wake Forest, Northwestern or Vanderbilt qualify as historically one of the 64 top football programs in the country? Each of those schools would get a pass because they currently reside in a conference which seems to be safe to poaching, or who is actively doing the poaching. Conversely, a school like Iowa State is frequently mentioned as one who will be relegated to a non-BCS conference, should the Big 12 ultimately implode. Yet, ISU football has had 10 post-season appearances compared to four for Vanderbilt, eight for Duke, eight for Northwestern, nine for Wake Forest and nine for Indiana. Locally, Kansas has had 12 post-season appearances and Kansas State has had 14--better than any of these schools whose status apparently is safe in the SEC, ACC or Big Ten.

Beyond that, there is the issue of television agreements and the resulting revenue. Ballooning conferences to 16 teams means that, in most cases, the TV revenue pie would be split 16 ways. That's less money than schools currently receive unless the TV deals get re-negotiated. And, given the dollars already being paid by the networks, I'm not sure that's a sure thing.

The easiest way to "fix" this is to hope for the following, in priority order:

- Lure Notre Dame and TCU to the Big 12. Yes, getting the Golden Domers to look west is swinging for the fences, but that's what the league needs to signal its stability. It's also one place where Notre Dame could potentially land and keep its NBC television package--the precedent in the Big 12 already exists given Texas' Longhorn Network. As for TCU, they went to the Big East to gain BCS qualifier status and are a more natural fit with their former Southwestern Conference brethren. These moves puts the league back to 12 teams and reinstitutes a key money-maker for the conference--the post-season football championship. (Can you imagine a Notre Dame-Texas championship game in Cowboys Stadium?)

- Add Boise State and BYU to the Pac 12. Yes, I know that the Cougars want to be an independent but scheduling challenges and the lack of automatic BCS qualifying may be enough to get them into the Pac 12. And, Boise State deserves to be in a BCS conference.

- Add Army and Navy to the Big East. This is more of a "nice to have" than a necessary move. The annual clash between the service academies is part of college football history and deserves to keep its continued place as a key, post-Thanksgiving end to the regular season.

These moves provide a place for the primary 72 college football programs, and they offer realignment in a way which does not require wholesale change. Are there programs who perhaps are better aligned elsewhere (e.g., Clemson into the SEC?) Sure, but it's my belief that there is a need for "less is more" in order to retain current, key rivalries; existing future schedules; and to restore a sense of normalcy to college football, even though there is also an acute need for radical change as to how the sport is governed.

Will this happen? It's highly doubtful...because it's too logical.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The U

It's easy to shake your head and "tsk-tsk" at the latest revelations on Yahoo Sports about the University of Miami and booster Nevin Shapiro. And, it's easy to simply think of Shapiro as a wealthy "jock sniffer" who liked hanging with the U's athletes, many of whom migrated to Coral Gables from urban, inner city environments. It all seems part of the Hurricane mystique which began back under the football helm of guys like Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson and Butch Davis, and had a prior booster like rapper Luther Campbell acting as the 'Canes sugar daddy.

Let's focus though, shall we, on the adults involved in this soap opera. We hear a lot in collegiate athletics about the "student-athlete" and many a coach talks about the joy of positively impacting the life of a young man. How then can you explain the alleged actions of coaches and administrators who were involved in this orgy of glitz and greed? Did they simply get caught up in the bright lights offered by Shapiro, his riches, his homes and his toys, or were they motivated by the need to succeed, at any cost? Is that what it's come to in the primary college revenue sport of football?

Judging by the 100+ hours of interviews which Shapiro has provided coupled with what we now know happened at Ohio State, Tennessee, Oregon, USC and other recent NCAA rules violators, the state of college football is in a mess.

Yes, there will be strong declarations for an overhaul of "the system" and a demand for harsh penalties. Perhaps the issue is deeper than that--maybe the hypocrisy is in believing that football is anything but a developmental league for the NFL. This isn't to condone what happened at Miami or with "tatto-gate" at Ohio State. It's simply to acknowledge that the sport of college football has grown to a point where it means too much, financially, to institutions of higher learning and the conferences to which they are affiliated.

Do I have an answer? No--none that I want to publicly proclaim just yet. The point here is to acknowledge that the problem may be far greater, and different, than simply trying to punish the offenders while keeping the present system in place. What's required here has to be much more dramatic and has to acknowledge that more than punishment is needed to save the credibility of this great college sport. True reform must take place--by responsible adults acting in the best interests of the institutions, the student-athletes, the students and the supporting alumni and fans.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Conference realignment...again

I'm not sure there is a story these days--news, sports, entertainment, anything--that showcases the change in how "information" gets reported like the college sports conference realignment story of the past 14 months.

These past 10 days we've been subjected to the so-called solid news that Texas A&M was defecting from the Big 12 and heading to the SEC. Doug Gottlieb, a well-considered talking head on ESPN and ESPN Radio, said it was a done deal, and also said that Missouri would be headed south too. Others mimicked Gottlieb's report until Sunday's revelation that A&M was, indeed, staying put--at least for now.

What happened to the notion that any story had to have two confirmed sources before being reported? Who are all of these "unnamed sources" who are being referenced in the various internet and traditional media reports?

The focus on "now" has created a new journalism (and, no, not the "new journalism" pioneered by guys like Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and others) which has being first as the key objective--not being right. I find it all very disturbing, never mind the fact that realignment in general is an unsettling topic. (More on that in a future post.)

We saw the same focus on immediacy last summer when the story changed hourly on whether Texas and its state brethren were fleeing the Big 12 for the Pac 12 or other environs. The same shifting news reporting occurred with the drama about Nebraska and Missouri coupling with the Big Ten.

Social media is partially to blame here given that any one of us with a Twitter or Facebook account can "report." The consumers' growing desire for immediate gratification is another reason for this shift in how news gets reported. Personally, I'd love it if there was some sort of scorecard so that we as consumers of news could better know who's been an accurate reporter, and who's batting less than .500. I doubt that would cure the issue but it would certainly bring some accountability to those who so flagrantly throw around reports, portrayed as facts, but which are anything but.

That's my two cents...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Section 10: On vacation

Hey, loyal readers--I'm out on vacation but will be back, posting again, the week of August 15.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The top 100 U.S. golf courses

GOLF magazine has again issued its list of the top 100 golf courses in the U.S. and the world and, once again, there is only one in this region which made the cut on the national list.

Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, KS is ranked 16th, the same place that it occupied in the last rankings in 2009. The next closest to Kansas City are Southern Hills (#35), in Tulsa, OK, and Bellerive (#87), St. Louis, MO. Another is Sand Hills in Nebraska--about as far out in the middle of nowhere as a quality course can get.

The top ten includes the usual suspects: Pine Valley, Pine Valley, NJ; Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, CA; Augusta National, Augusta, GA; Shinnecock Hills, Southampton, NY; Pebble Beach, Pebble Beach, CA; Oakmont, Oakmont, PA; Merion (East), Ardmore, PA; Sand Hills, Mullen, NE; National Golf Links of America, Southampton, NY; and Pinehurst (No. 2), Pinehurst, NC.

Good luck if you want to play any of these courses--the top ten list is either (a) ultra-exclusive or (b) more expensive to play than your monthly mortgage.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The on-deck circle

Remember in Little League, when you made the jump up from the "little kid" leagues to the league where typically one wore a full uniform, got to sit in close-to-real dugouts and, most cool of all, got to spend time in a real on-deck circle awaiting a turn at bat? What made the on-deck circle so cool, for Little Leaguers of old like me, was the weighted bat and the "doughnuts"--the plastic, weighted contraptions which encircled the bat just like the major leaguers'--in the on-deck circle.

In Little League, acting like a major leaguer was half the battle. Not only did we mimic the uniform style of the time with how we wore our socks and bended the bill of our cap, but the routine of major league players was copied in the on-deck circle as well. One of the coolest things was to tamp the ground with the bat, just like the big leaguers, ridding the bat of the weight and thus preparing a Little League batter for battle.

Alas, that whole memory of old was jarred today in reading the Wall Street Journal where a story on the physiology of hitting revealed that weighted bats and doughnuts actually made one's swing slower than the expected snap we figured was a consequence of warming up with something heavier. Coop DeRenne, a physical education instructor at the University of Hawaii, has research which shows that increasing or decreasing the weight of one's bat by 10%-13% decreases bat speed from three to five miles per hour.

Many hitting instructors are apparently aware of this phenomenon yet are reluctant to mess with players' routines. The majority feel that the on-deck circle is the province of the player--that what the player wants to do there takes precedence over coaching or better understanding physiological insights.

What then would DeRenne say to batters, knowing that they are typically hooked on this illusion that weighted acoutrements help them prepare for their next at bat? "I'd tell them, 'Why are you so smart while you train and so dumb in the on-deck circle?'"