Wednesday, August 31, 2011

UMD Hockey, J.T. Brown To Be Honored at Vikings Game

In case you're wondering about such things, ice is going in at hockey arenas around the country. Amsoil Arena is no exception. The ice was installed early this week, and the defending national champion UMD Bulldogs open captain's practices Friday at the still-glistening facility.

Meanwhile, the honors and accolades just keep on coming in for the 2011 championship team. The Minnesota Vikings announced Wednesday that the team will be on hand for Thursday's preseason finale at the Metrodome, as the Vikings host the Houston Texans in the final tuneup for the regular season.

Also on Twitter, the Vikings announced that sophomore forward J.T. Brown, the son of former Vikings running back Ted Brown, will sound the Gjallarhorn before the game starts. Vikings fans would know if this is normally done by a guest of the team, because it sounds to me like an honor on par with throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game.

(Too bad Brett Favre isn't still on the team. We could have someone throw a ceremonial First Interception in his honor.)

Anyway, as we get close to a month before the puck drops on the 2011-12 season, it's cool to see last year's awesomeness is still getting recognized. As it should be.

2011 College Football Preview: WAC

As usual, my 2011 College Football Preview includes information compiled from a variety of sources, most notably the work of Phil Steele. Check out his preview publications and material on his website. I also scour local newspapers and school websites for updated information, but it should be noted that all information contained in team and conference previews is only current up to the date of that post's publication.

Predicted Order of Finish
1. Fresno State
2. Nevada
3. Louisiana Tech
4. Hawai'i
5. Utah State
6. Idaho
7. San Jose State
8. New Mexico State

Top Storylines in the WAC

Parity at the top, but Fresno will climb the mountain. If there's a benefit to Boise State bolting for the Mountain West, it's that the top of the WAC is as wide-open as it's been in years. I think Fresno State and Nevada are a bit ahead of the rest, but I could be completely off my rocker. No matter what, I expect the WAC to be won by a team that won't be in the league next season (Fresno, Nevada, and Hawai'i all join the Mountain West). Fresno State only returns ten starters, but among them is junior running back Robbie Rouse, who topped 1,100 yards and at least flashed some brilliance in his effort to replace the largely-irreplaceable Ryan Mathews. Derek Carr, younger brother of former Fresno State star David, should take over the offense for the Bulldogs, and I expect he will do many of the things his brother was famous for in college. Pat Hill's defense has struggled for a few years, but senior tackle Logan Harrell and junior linebacker Travis Brown should both be stars as part of a resurgent unit this year. Nevada loses Colin Kaepernick and Vai Taua, along with sack leader Dontay Moch. The Wolf Pack start senior Tyler Lantrip at quarterback, and they have Lampford Mark and Mike Bell at running back, along with seven starters back on defense. They went 13-1 last year, and that probably won't happen again, but there's plenty of reason for hope in Reno.

Another stud quarterback at Hawai'i. He needs nearly 10,000 yards to pass Timmy Chang, and some 6,500 to reach Colt Brennan, but Bryant Moniz is the latest in a long line of big arms to lead the Hawai'i offense. Moniz topped 5,000 yards passing last year, with nearly 40 passing touchdowns, as the Warriors won ten games, including handing Nevada its only loss of the season. The Warriors have Moniz, but little else, back on the offensive side, but Hawai'i is known for quickly reloading. Left tackle Austin Hansen anchors the line, and senior receiver Royce Pollard returns. JUCO transfer Darius Bright will be a main target for Moniz, too. The Warriors have gotten progressively better on defense since 2005, and that should continue this season, thanks to guys like linebacker Corey Paredes and tackles Vaughn Meatoga and Kaniela Tuipolotu. Hawai'i's schedule features Louisiana Tech and Nevada on the road, so its final WAC slate isn't an easy one.

The Rest of the Story

Louisiana Tech is the best hope among the non-leaving teams to win the WAC. The Bulldogs need to settle on a quarterback, but they should be competitive on defense and along both lines. ... Diondre Borel departs, but Utah State gets star running back Robert Turbin back from a torn ACL, and junior receiver Stanley Morrison -- the team's leading receiver in 2009 -- is back off a medical redshirt. ... Idaho narrowly missed out on a bowl game last year after winning the Humanitarian Bowl in 2009, and now the Vandals have to replace four-year starting quarterback Nathan Enderle. Senior Brian Reader has played the position a bit, and eight starters return on defense. ... A 1-12 season hasn't stopped Mike MacIntyre from continuing his work at San Jose State. The Spartans get 18 starters back, because MacIntyre played a ton of freshmen last year. He paid for it with a bad record, but this is going to be a good team very soon. ... Back-to-back ten-loss seasons at New Mexico State should be followed by a better team this season. DeWayne Walker has 16 starters back, and he hit the JUCO ranks hard for talent, but the Aggies still are likely to finish last.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

2011 College Football Preview: Sun Belt

As usual, my 2011 College Football Preview includes information compiled from a variety of sources, most notably the work of Phil Steele. Check out his preview publications and material on his website. I also scour local newspapers and school websites for updated information, but it should be noted that all information contained in team and conference previews is only current up to the date of that post's publication.

Predicted Order of Finish
1. Florida International
2. Troy
3. Louisiana-Monroe
4. Arkansas State
5. Middle Tennessee State
6. North Texas
7. Florida Atlantic
8. Western Kentucky

Top Storylines to Watch in the Sun Belt

The rise of FIU. In 2006 and 2007, Florida International combined for one win in 24 games. The Golden Panthers lost 17 of those 23 games by at least ten points. 2007, though, started the Mario Cristobal era, and the former Miami tight ends and offensive line coach has turned the FIU program around very quickly. Last year, FIU went 7-6, advancing to a bowl game for the first time in their short FBS history. A team that couldn't matriculate the ball down the field for three years finally fielded a passable offensive attack last season, averaging nearly 400 yards and 30 points per game. Reigning league player of the year T.Y. Hilton is back, as is senior quarterback Wesley Carroll. Senior running back Darriet Perry returns after scoring 16 touchdowns a year ago. The Golden Panthers have seven starters back on defense, including leading tackler Jonathan Cyprien, who was first-team All-Sun Belt last year. For once, FIU doesn't have a BCS tour of doom this year, with Louisville the only team from an AQ league on the schedule ... and that's a winnable game. Cristobal's team could win nine or ten games if things go right this year.

Troy stays consistent. Since a 4-7 hiccup in 2005, Troy has been the most consistent team in the league. The Trojans have won 41 games over the last five seasons, including two bowl wins and a win over Big 12 member Oklahoma State in 2007. This year, Troy has eight starters back on a defense that was uneven for most of last year. They'll look to linebacker Xavier Lamb, cornerback Jimmie Anderson, and safety Brynden Trawick to lead the way this year. Corey Robinson earned the starting quarterback job as a freshman last year, and he thrived for the most part, throwing for over 3,700 yards. The offense needs more out of junior back Shawn Southward, but Robinson will improve as he becomes more of a leader and more experienced in the offense. A road game at FIU in late October will probably decide the league title.

Can Arkansas State break through? After another disappointing season under Steve Roberts, the school decided to make a coaching change. The Red Wolves didn't look far to replace Roberts, as they hired offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze to take over the program. ASU will continue the transition to a pass-happy attack under Freeze, one that set a school FBS record with 30 points per game last year (joined FCS in 1992). He has the right quarterback in Ryan Aplin, a dual-threat who totaled 32 touchdowns last year (21 pass), and he will improve on his 61.5 percent completions in his second year as the starter. His top three targets are back, and the Red Wolves have seven starters back on defense. Arkansas State has to play early-season games at Illinois and Virginia Tech, but they get FIU and Troy at home in league play and could be a threat.

Dan McCarney lands in Denton. After former high-school coach Todd Dodge bombed, North Texas took a safe route with its latest coaching hire. Former Iowa State head coach Dan McCarney, a longtime defensive coach, got the job. Expect immediate improvement in many areas, including a defense that made strides last year and returns seven starters. Dodge's spread offense never caught on, largely because the Mean Green had too many issues with injuries at quarterback. The offense won't change much, as coordinator Mike Canales was retained. Sophomore quarterback Derek Thompson returns after his 2010 was ruined by injuries. If the transition is as smooth as expected, the Mean Green could christen their new stadium with a bowl-eligible campaign.

The Rest of the Story

17 starters return for Louisiana-Monroe, and the Warhawks could contend for the league title. Quarterback Kolton Browning played like a freshman at times last year, which made sense because he was a freshman. With so many pieces back, Browning is looking to have a huge season. ... A largely disappointing season ended poorly for Middle Tennessee last year, as the Blue Raiders fell to Miami in the Bowl. MTSU loses eight starters on defense, and projects to start a lot of freshmen and sophomores there. It could be a tough season ... Howard Schnellenberger's last season at Florida Atlantic features a new stadium, which the Owls will open against Western Kentucky after a five-game road swing to start the season. FAU won only four times last year, but could improve if the coaches can find a comfort zone with a starting quarterback. ... It's been a struggle for Western Kentucky since joining the FBS, but Willie Taggart has things pointed in the right direction. The Hilltoppers won twice last season in Taggart's first year, but return 15 starters and have a more manageable schedule. Four or five wins might not be out of reach for WKU.

Friday, August 26, 2011

2011 College Football Preview: SEC

As usual, my 2011 College Football Preview includes information compiled from a variety of sources, most notably the work of Phil Steele. Check out his preview publications and material on his website. I also scour local newspapers and school websites for updated information, but it should be noted that all information contained in team and conference previews is only current up to the date of that post's publication.

Predicted Order of Finish
East Division
1. South Carolina
2. Georgia
3. Tennessee
4. Florida
5. Kentucky
6. Vanderbilt
West Division
1. Alabama
2. LSU
3. Arkansas
4. Mississippi State
5. Auburn
6. Mississippi

Top Storylines to Watch in the SEC

Whose year is it this time? Lately, there's no doubt the SEC has dominated college football. Whether it's Florida, Alabama, LSU, or Auburn, the conference has owned the big games in the sport, and it will probably continue to, even if rumors of expansion end up unfounded. This year, it appears the West is best again, as Alabama and LSU (before players ran into trouble in the final days before the season starts) look like favorites in the national championship picture, and it's not like Auburn is going to stink in its title defense. I have to go with Alabama, with Trent Richardson running the ball and hopefully staying healthy this season. The Tide have sophomore AJ McCarron at quarterback now, but expect him to be just as solid and efficient as Greg McElroy was. Throw in that defense, one that includes studs like Dont'a Hightower, CJ Mosley, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Dee Milliner, and it makes sense that a team breaking in a new quarterback could be favored.

As for LSU ... News as I was writing this post that LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson and a teammate have allegedly run afoul of the law doesn't help the Tigers' cause in the West. Neither does the tough break dealt to offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's. For LSU to succeed -- assuming Jefferson doesn't skate on whatever charges end up being filed -- they obviously have to find a new quarterback. Jefferson was often the object of scorn from the fans over his uneven play, but he was starting because he was the Tigers' best option. Now, we'll see if Jarrett Lee or Zach Mettenberger can take over and get the job done. It's not like LSU has a layup of an opener. They play Oregon at a neutral site. So right out of the chute, the quarterback situation will be emphatically tested, and their national championship hopes could disappear quickly if things don't go well.

Auburn's title defense will probably not go wonderfully. The Tigers picked a good time to win a national title, because this team was decimated by departures and graduation. Look for running back Michael Dyer to shoulder a huge load in the offense, coming off a 1,000-yard season as a true freshman. No Cam Newton means Barrett Trotter is likely to run the Tigers' offense. Trotter isn't as big or athletic, but he can throw, and he's no slouch running the ball. Just with the missing pieces (eight starters gone on each side of the ball), it's going to be tough for Auburn to repeat last year's run. A schedule that features roadies to Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia probably makes it impossible. Auburn should be a bowl team, so they won't repeat Texas' fall from the title game to 5-7, but they aren't going to be a BCS bowl team, it doesn't appear.

What will Charlie Weis' impact be at Florida? The former Notre Dame coach takes over the Gators' offense under new head coach Will Muschamp. While it didn't exactly crash in the first year post-Tebow, Florida wasn't nearly as good in 2010. They dropped 100 yards and a touchdown per game off their 2009 averages, with the yardage losses split between rushing and passing (the passing game took a slightly bigger hit). Seniors John Brantley and Jeff Demps will man the backfield again, and with Weis on board, it seems this offense will transition to more of a pro-style attack. Throw that change in with only ten returning starters and Muschamp's lack of head-coaching experience, and you have the recipe for a tough season in Gainesville. Florida has highly-touted players all over, but they need to replace four offensive line starters and three defensive line starters. Muschamp has four winnable games in September, but October starts with a visit from Alabama, and it doesn't get much easier from there.

The Rest of the Story

I'm not sure if Stephen Garcia can stay out of trouble long enough, but I know that South Carolina is the best team in the SEC East. The Gamecocks have come a long way the last year or so, and a lot of it is due to recruiting. Steve Spurrier got a huge contribution out of true freshman back Marcus Lattimore last year, and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is poised to do that this year. ... Georgia could be a real darkhorse contender. The Bulldogs have talent all over the field, some potential impact freshmen, and a schedule that features the toughest games -- South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Auburn -- at home, with Florida in Jacksonville as usual. Isaish Crowell could be this year's Lattimore. ... Tennessee hasn't been good in a while, but they'll make a positive stride this season. 13 starters return, Derek Dooley appears to have his quarterback in Tyler Bray, and the Volunteers play five of six at home to start the season. I don't see them being nearly good enough to challenge South Carolina or Georgia, but they'll improve. ... If you're looking for a potential sleeper, don't discount Kentucky. The Wildcats lose starting quarterback Mike Hartline and ten-touchdown back Derrick Locke, but return ten starters to a defense that was pretty good a year ago. That defense stands to improve dramatically. It starts up front, where they're experienced, but still a tad young. ... I expect that new coach James Franklin will do a good job with the Vanderbilt program, but I don't think it will be instant gratification. The Commodores were a mess last year, and while they have a ton of experience with 19 starters, it will take time to adjust. ... I like this Arkansas team, but they'll miss Ryan Mallett at quarterback. The loss of running back Knile Davis to an injury is devastating, too. We'll see what Bobby Petrino can do with junior quarterback Tyler Wilson. ... It was nice to see Dan Mullen get Mississippi State to a bowl last year, and it seems they have a good-enough team to get to one again. But how good will they be? They'll miss Chris White on defense and Derrick Sherrod on the offensive line, and it doesn't help them that a road game at Auburn and a home date with LSU are on the docket in the first three weeks. ... Despite the presence of transfer quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, last season was a disaster at Mississippi. The Rebels went 4-8, only 1-7 in league play, and allowed 35 points per game. Now, Houston Nutt has to replace seven defensive starters, and he has to find a new quarterback. In the SEC, this doesn't sound like a road map to a bowl.

2011 College Football Preview: Pac 12

As usual, my 2011 College Football Preview includes information compiled from a variety of sources, most notably the work of Phil Steele. Check out his preview publications and material on his website. I also scour local newspapers and school websites for updated information, but it should be noted that all information contained in team and conference previews is only current up to the date of that post's publication.

Predicted Order of Finish
North Division
1. Oregon
2. Stanford
3. Oregon State
4. Washington
5. California
6. Washington State
South Division
1. Arizona State
2. USC
3. Utah
5. Arizona
6. Colorado

Top Storylines to Watch in Pac 12

Lots of newness. There are two new teams. New divisions. New league name. Lots of excitement in the Pac 12 over everything that happened this summer. Newcomers Utah and Colorado stand to experience slightly different fortunes in their first years. Utah has 12 starters back, lots of stability with seventh-year coach Kyle Whittingham, and a new offensive coordinator in Norm Chow who knows a thing or two about this conference. Junior quarterback Jordan Wynn is joined in the backfield by freshman running back Harvey Langi, who should make an impact along with junior John White, a junior college transfer. Colorado has 16 starters back, but new coach Jon Embree has quite a lot of work to do in rebuilding a program that hasn't made a bowl since 2007, and hasn't played in a major bowl since 2001. The Buffaloes were 5-7 in Dan Hawkins' last season, and unless senior quarterback Tyler Hansen takes better care of the ball and stays healthy, CU will struggle in the transition.

Oregon reloads. After a run to the BCS title game, the Ducks return only 11 starters, including just five on a defense that played much better most of the season than it was given credit for. I expect Oregon to ride their offense a bit this year. Quarterback Darron Thomas returns, as does running back LaMichael James. Thomas is only going to develop better passing skills with more experience, and James is coming off a 1,700-yard, 21-touchdown season. There's a lot of talent in that backfield, and while Auburn did a great job slowing the Ducks' frenetic pace, Thomas made a few plays in the passing game to keep them alive in the game. On defense, the Ducks allowed 519 yards to Auburn, and it might get worse this year without Casey Matthews and Talmadge Jackson. That Nov. 12 game at Stanford will be a doozy.

Luck's shocking return leads to ... With a new coach on board (David Shaw replaces Jim Harbaugh), and half the starters gone, this could be a rebuilding year for Stanford. Of course, Andrew Luck's decision to return changes all that. Leading receivers Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen are gone, but running back Stepfan Taylor is back, and Luck still has incredible ability. How will Luck build off last year (70 percent completions, 3,300 yards, 32 touchdowns, only eight picks)? He's going to get better, and he's going to be in the Heisman chase. With defensive leaders Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas, and Delano Howell all back, the Cardinal could be even better on defense than they were a year ago, when they slowed virtually everyone but Oregon and USC. And Luck will be in New York when the Heisman gets handed out.

Another step at ASU. After three straight non-bowl seasons and a lot of disappointment, it looks like Dennis Erickson will have a very strong team at Arizona State this year. The Sun Devils have 15 starters back, which should help support 6-8 quarterback Brock Osweiler. He takes the reigns after Steven Threet was forced to step away from football because of concussions. Osweiler should be well-protected, as the whole offensive line is back, and he has a lot of weapons at his disposal. Running back Cameron Marshall and wide receiver Mike Willie have loads of talent. The Sun Devils have a favorable schedule, with USC and Oregon State at home, and only Oregon and Utah looking like difficult road games. Erickson's defenses have been plenty competitive in recent years, and as long as that trend continues, there's no reason ASU can't be in the mix for the league title and a significant bowl.

Tough times at UCLA. Fourth-year coach Rick Neuheisel was supposed to fix a lot of these ills. Instead, the UCLA program continues to flounder in mediocrity. The Bruins have been to one bowl in Neuheisel's three years, and that was an EagleBank Bowl bid in 2009 that materialized only because Army couldn't win its last game and gain eligibility. This year, UCLA has 17 starters back, including nine on offense, but there is one guy Neuheisel needs more than anyone else. That's junior quarterback Kevin Prince, who was injured much of last season and ineffective when he was healthy. Without him, it won't matter how many yards Johnathan Franklin runs for, and it won't matter who good the defense -- which stunk last year -- is. Neuheisel is an offensive guy, and he has to develop a quarterback or risk being out of a job.

The Rest of the Story

Oregon State seems to always outperform expectations, but after a 5-7 season, the Beavers need to rebound this year. Junior quarterback Ryan Katz should have more time to throw behind an experienced line this season. ... No more Jake Locker at Washington, but the Huskies still have a pretty good team. Sophomore Keith Price takes over at quarterback, and junior running Chris Polk is going to be a star ... Due to stadium renovations, California is playing home games at San Francisco's AT&T Park. Like Oregon State, the Golden Bears were uncharacteristically bad last year, going 5-7. Unless Buffalo transfer Zach Maynard is the answer at quarterback, though, things might not improve as quickly. ... I keep thinking Washington State will improve, and nothing really happens. Paul Wulff is 5-32 in Pullman, but there are signs of light here. He has a quarterback in Jeff Tuel who can play, and the Cougars will be better on defense. Unfortunately, they might not be good enough to win more than three or four games. ... USC is still not eligible for a league title or a bowl game, but they're going to be dangerous this year. The Trojans have a developing star in junior quarterback Matt Barkley, and sophomore receiver Robert Woods is coming off a great season. They should be good enough to battle Arizona State for the South title. ... I'm not sure what to make of Arizona. I like Nick Foles as a quarterback in this offense, and Juron Criner is a hell of a good receiver. I'm just no sure the Wildcats have enough pieces on defense to win more than three or four league games in this conference. They can make a minor bowl, but I'm not sure they're better than that.

WCHA Grows, CCHA Dies

The imminent end of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association is nothing to celebrate. Good people -- from commissioner Fred Pletsch all the way down through the league's media relations staff to its officials -- will be out of work with the league ceasing to exist after the 2011-12 season.

However, the events of Thursday, which saw the Western Collegiate Hockey Association formally invite the five teams left in the CCHA for the 2013 season, are events that should be saluted by the college hockey world as a positive step.

The WCHA's move dissolves a league that has developed its own tradition and played some great hockey, but it might go a long way toward saving a couple programs who were facing uncertain futures.

The programs involved are Alaska, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, and Western Michigan. Obviously, Western Michigan has been talked about as a candidate to join Notre Dame in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, but until the Irish make up their mind what league to join, WMU can't do anything.

Lake Superior State and Alaska were quick to accept the invite. They had been pushing to join the league, and so this was probably not a surprise. Assuming WMU and Notre Dame join the NCHC, and Bowling Green accepts the WCHA invite, you're looking at a ten-team league that seems to resemble something I recommended as the NCHC news was breaking.

Could the ten combine into one league? I don't see why not. Put the Alaska teams (Anchorage and Fairbanks), Bemidji State, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud State in one division, then stick the upper Michigan teams (Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, and Northern Michigan) in a division with Bowling Green and Ferris State. Each team plays four games against divisional foes (two home, two away), and one series (home or away) against each team in the other division. 26 league games total. That's doable. Financially, though, this could be a nightmare. You'd have to have the league tournament on a campus site, or it won't draw. And if it's on a campus site, it won't draw the same kind of television interest it would if it were at a pre-determined site.

Looking at the situation, I still think this is the solution that makes the most sense. Yes, the Minnesota teams would have to play two road series per season against Alaska teams. However, the league could probably figure out a way to do the scheduling so teams can just stay up there and play both series in back-to-back weekends, and at least one of them per year could do that while on break from school if you plan it right.

It limits the out-of-division travel, which limits flights for the Michigan schools and Bowling Green. Surely, there will be some assistance for the Minnesota teams that have to subsidize two flights to Alaska every season, whether that comes from UAA and UA(F) or from the league in general. No matter what, though, it seems the WCHA is at least setting up the possibility of a two-division league.

Something else is accomplished here ... you have a lot of these schools in situations where they've struggled on the ice lately. Ferris State had a pretty good team this past season, and they've had three winning seasons the last four years. But the Bulldogs haven't made the NCAAs since 2003, and they drew just 1,700 a game last season. Lake Superior State hasn't been very good in a while, and their attendance has sagged as a result. Bowling Green was looking at the end of their program a couple years ago. Michigan Tech has -- well, you know they haven't been good. That's well-documented around here.

The point? You've put them in a position where they can much more realistically compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Take out St. Cloud State, which has been very successful over the years, and you have nine schools that largely lack success in recent years. Alaska-Anchorage hasn't been in the NCAA Tournament since joining the WCHA, and its 16-18-3 record last season is the best the school has had since then. Alaska has one NCAA appearance (2010), and just seven winning seasons since Don Lucia left in 1993. Bemidji State has four NCAA trips and a Frozen Four appearance since going Division I, but only one of those four NCAA trips came without winning the CHA tournament, and that league was never good.

Ferris' 2003 NCAA appearance still stands as the only in school history. Bowling Green hasn't made it since 1990, when some guy named Jerry York was the coach. York left in 1994, and the Falcons have posted three winning seasons and nine 20-loss seasons, including six in a row. Lake Superior State hasn't "gone dancing" since 1996.

Michigan Tech's last NCAA appearance was in 1981, when new coach Mel Pearson was a senior. MTU has posted one winning season since 1993. Minnesota State has four winning seasons and one NCAA trip while a member of the WCHA; they joined in 1999. Northern Michigan has a .555 winning percentage since joining the CCHA in 1997, but the Wildcats have made just two NCAA appearances in that time.

For all these programs, there's at least the chance that improved odds of an NCAA bid will help them draw fans, keep them competitive for recruits, and help the bottom line. Unanswered questions remain about the actual league structure, as well as the postseason tournament.

But in the end, this was probably the best move for the future of all of college hockey. Now, we need to work on Alabama-Huntsville. I was worried about them two years ago, and that hasn't changed.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Matt Cooke Efforts to Become Hockey Player

Contrary to general belief, Matt Cooke can play hockey at a high level. He's been a consistent offensive contributor in his career, and has chipped in some key goals, including in the playoffs.

His behavior on the ice, though, is more often that of a petulant twit, one who can't stand the thought of someone on the other team displaying a high skill level. One who just can't play the game clean ... can't avoid crossing the line and making a headline.

A recent profile of Cooke by Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review doesn't talk about Cooke refusing to change his style of play. It doesn't reference Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma playing more of the part of "enabler" than anything else.

Instead, Rossi got Cooke to open up about health struggles his wife, Michelle, was going through for a good chunk of last season.
However, from Jan. 2 through March 20, the day doctors cleared Michelle to again attend a Penguins game, Cooke never had a chance to take a breath. His wife, who had four surgical procedures to remove a mass three-quarters inch in diameter that clogged her left kidney's exit valve and infected her lungs and diaphragm, couldn't take a deep one.

Game-day naps were jettisoned for tending to Reece, 10, and Jackson, 7. (Gabby, 18, was attending high school near Bellville, Ontario.) Practices were a brief respite from handling the duties of father and mother while Michelle recovered.

From that experience, Cooke has decided to do what he can to turn over the proverbial new leaf (not Leafs, just leaf).

Cooke said he has reviewed 20 hours of hits — his own and those by others such as Rangers forward Ryan Callahan — so he could learn how to deliver a legal check.

Cooke said his new approach to hitting would have changed the way he approached McDonagh. He could have gone after the puck — McDonagh was in the process of dumping the puck from the neutral zone into the offensive zone — with his stick blade. Cooke said if he "had to hit (McDonagh), I'd hit his hands with my body.

"It wasn't intentional," he said, "but there is no excuse."

Cooke, unlike after previous controversial hits, asked Penguins general manager Ray Shero if he could attend a discipline hearing the next day in Toronto. He didn't try to excuse his behavior before NHL brass, Shero said.

Cooke even sent an apologetic text to McDonagh.

"Matt was still upset for a couple of days after that hit," Michelle said. "That was the difference I noticed. This (hit) bothered him."

She said her health scare and the brief change in his in-season dynamic with the kids provided her husband "perspective."

That perspective, Cooke said, is the reason to believe he is a changed man, that he can play hockey the right way.

He is aware the proof will be in his play. He knows he cannot slip up.

He maintains this Matt Cooke is different.

"I'm sure it all happens for a reason," he said. "It all affects you in one way or another. I can't pinpoint and say when (Michelle) was in the hospital and immediately after hitting (McDonagh) that there was this moment, but ...

"I've got this chance, and I need to look at it as an opportunity to show everybody that I can change my approach, that I can play within the rules. The rest of my career can be proving that it's possible to change. It has to be about that. There's no excuse for it not to be about that."

I'm more than willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. I'm just one guy who loves hockey and follows it religiously, and I have never respected how Matt Cooke plays the game. It isn't a recent development. It isn't something that started with the hit on Marc Savard. Or the unpunished knee-on-knee hit on Alex Ovechkin.

It started with his idiotic behavior in Vancouver. He's been truculent throughout his career, but not the kind of truculent I like. It's that over-the-line truculent that only his teammates and fans can appreciate. No one else wants anything to do with it.

If Cooke is capable of erasing the dirty hits from his M.O., he has plenty he can contribute to the game. He is unquestionably tough, willing to get his hands dirty and work hard, and he can skate.

But he has to stop the dirty hits -- and it's not just a coincidence or a series of unfortunate events -- before anyone is going to listen to what he has to say. For now, these words ring hollow with non-Penguin fans worldwide, and even with some Penguin fans.

The onus is on Cooke to prove his words are more than words, by turning his words into actions. It's not going to be as easy as it sounds, but it's a responsibility he must take seriously, because his future as a hockey player might rely on his ability to change a long track record of bad behavior.

(Stick tap: Puck Daddy)

WCHA, CCHA Meet Again; Trent Palm Signs Pro Deal

Greetings ... we're inside of six weeks until the UMD hockey season opens with an exhibition game, and less than a month away from the first trip to the rink to check out captain's practices.

It all seems to happen so quickly.

Anyway, 2013 brings a lot of change to the college hockey landscape, as the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and Big Ten begin play, and the WCHA and CCHA cease to exist as we know them now.

With 12 schools currently in limbo -- for the sake of argument, I'll include Western Michigan but not Notre Dame on that list -- there is more change coming to the sport. It's just a matter of time, and a matter of "what."

11 of the affected schools -- minus Alabama-Huntsville -- met in Chicago Tuesday. The remnants of the WCHA and CCHA are at least discussing the possibility of a merger. According to a WCHA press release, the schools had an agenda at the meeting "that included sharing information about each other, engaging in productive discussions about the challenges that each institution and each conference face, and seeking common ground to work together for the betterment of the parties involved and of college hockey in general."

In issuing a joint statement, WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod and CCHA Commissioner Fred Pletsch said, “This was an important and productive meeting, for all involved parties. We asked everyone in attendance to be open, honest and frank in discussing their concerns, hopes and visions for the future of their respective programs. We recognize that where there is change there is also opportunity. We plan to continue our discussions in the future and to continue to explore all options.

“One crucial thing that came out of the joint meeting today was the word ‘commitment’. All of these institutions are totally committed to fielding the most competitive and successful programs possible and to provide the best possible experience for their student-athletes.”

Topics discussed in the joint meeting agenda included sharing of institutional and hockey program information (including financial, facilities, community support, staffing and travel), scheduling and championship scenarios, and membership and league affiliation (including league size, automatic qualifiers, etc).

In attendance at the joint meeting were administrators from the University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Bemidji State University, Bowling Green State University, Ferris State University, Lake Superior State University, Michigan Technological University, Minnesota State University, Mankato, Northern Michigan University, St. Cloud State University and Western Michigan University.

Obviously (at least it's obvious if you read this blog regularly), my concern here is that UAH was not included in these talks. It worries me a lot, because there appears to be no movement afoot to get the Chargers in a league. Hopefully, this will change, because it benefits no one to see this program go away.

Outside of that, there is little here that is negative. The 11 schools (assuming Western Michigan isn't actually tied to Notre Dame in any way) would do well to form a league. Find a way to deal with the travel costs, and all 11 will probably find a way to sustain themselves going forward.


Former UMD defenseman Trent Palm has signed a deal with the Chicago Express of the East Coast Hockey League. The Express are in their first season. Palm played 123 games at UMD, including 28 as a fifth-year senior. Surgery for hip and abdominal problems forced Palm to take a medical redshirt for the 2009-2010 season.

He saw special-teams time, even played forward for a bit, and was paired with Drew Olson for most of the Bulldogs' run through the playoffs and NCAA Tournament last season.

Monday, August 22, 2011

2011 College Football Preview: Mountain West

As usual, my 2011 College Football Preview includes information compiled from a variety of sources, most notably the work of Phil Steele. Check out his preview publications and material on his website. I also scour local newspapers and school websites for updated information, but it should be noted that all information contained in team and conference previews is only current up to the date of that post's publication.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Boise State
2. TCU
3. Air Force
4. Wyoming
5. Colorado State
6. San Diego State
7. New Mexico

Top Storylines to Watch in the Mountain West

The new guy. As the Mountain West mourns the losses of Utah and rival BYU, the league is still strong, thanks to the addition of Boise State from the WAC. The Broncos have been a monster in college football for some time, posting a staggering 61-5 record over the last five years, with three of those losses coming in 2007. Three-year starter Kellen Moore is back under center for Boise, carrying a TD-interception ratio of 99-19 into this season. That's solid. Senior running back Doug Martin is back, as is senior receiver Tyler Shoemaker. Senior left tackle Nate Potter has been first-team All-WAC twice, and he's an odds-on favorite for similar honors in the MWC this year. Chris Petersen's team returns seven starters on defense. Among them are senior tackles Billy Wynn and Chase Baker, senior ends Tyrone Crawford and Shea McClellin, and linebackers Aaron Tevis and Byron Hout, both seniors. This is a serious national championship contender, and it doesn't hurt them at all that key MWC games against TCU and Air Force will both be contested on the blue carpet.

The lame duck. Boise is in, and Fresno State and Nevada might be on the way soon, but the loss of TCU will hurt the league in a way, because they no longer have a foot in the door in Texas. TCU's decision to move to the Big East was controversial in a way, in large part because of the league's decision to move a home game against Boise to Idaho after TCU announced it was departing. On the field, this figures to be a tough season for the Horned Frogs, who posted back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons (only loss was the 2009 Fiesta Bowl to Boise), and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl last year to complete a 13-0 campaign. As usual, TCU will be led by its defense, which hasn't allowed more than 20 points per game in a season since 2004. Linebackers Tanner Brock and Tank Carder are back, as is defensive end Stansly Maponga. The offense took some hits, as quarterback Andy Dalton -- the school's all-time leading passer by nearly 3,000 yards -- departed, along with leading receiver Jeremy Kerley and top offensive linemen Marcus Cannon and Jake Kirkpatrick. Going to Baylor and Air Force right out of the chute won't help matters, but I still think there's a decent chance TCU will be unbeaten when they head to Boise Nov. 12. It's not too early to get excited about that one.

Air Force is doing it ... again. It's probably a bit insulting now to talk with amazement about how Air Force -- with stringent admissions standards and often an undersized team -- continues to remain more than competitive in today's college football landscape. Instead, this has become old hat. The Falcons have not won fewer than eight games in any of their four years under coach Troy Calhoun, and there's no reason to think they will struggle to hit that number again this year. Senior quarterback Tim Jefferson returns for a fourth year at the controls, something rather unprecedented in the Air Force system. And, yet, it's the second class in a row that's featured a four-year starter for them (Shaun Carney from 2004-2007). Jefferson can throw enough to keep defenses honest, and he's the kind of run threat you expect from the option offense. Senior back Asher Clark returns after a 1,000-yard season, and junior Wesley Cobb should also see plenty of carries. Eight starters are back on defense, including nose tackle Ryan Gardner, a key figure in the team's 3-4 defense, one that struggled mightily to defend the run last year (over 200 yards per game). An experienced secondary helps keep teams from running away with games. An early home date with TCU will tell us a lot about this Air Force team, one that has a realistic shot at ten or more wins.

Rocky Long returns. Well, to the league, that is. Long is the new head man at San Diego State, taking over for Brady Hoke after he moved on to Michigan. Long coached at New Mexico for a decade, taking the Lobos to five bowls in seven years before being shoved out the door. The Lobos are 2-22 since. Long takes over a team that Hoke did a tremendous job with, getting them to nine wins and a bowl win over Navy last year. The Aztecs do have senior quarterback Ryan Lindley back after a tremendous season last year, and running back Ronnie Hillman returns after tearing up defenses as a freshman, but SDSU loses six starters from a Long-led defense that had some struggles a year ago. That's the new head man's priority: get more out of that defense, including a lot more big plays. A winning season is a solid bet here, but they'll have to make quick strides defensively to match the nine they won in 2010.

The Rest of the Story 

I'm hitching up to the Wyoming bandwagon. The Cowboys return 14 starters, have an emerging star in back Alvester Alexander, and should be significantly better on defense. If Dave Christensen can find a quarterback, he'll have a team capable of going bowling for the third time since 1993. ... Colorado State should also be a lot better this year. The Rams suffered through a 3-9 season, but now-sophomore quarterback Pete Thomas made strides each start. Just think about how much better he will be thanks to last year's experience. ... There's no doubt that Mike Locksley is in trouble at New Mexico. He has a better team on paper, but they're 2-22 the last two years and not looking to be better than four or five wins this year. Doesn't help that former UNM coach Long is now a head man for a league rival. ... Former Montana head coach Bobby Hauck is trying to build UNLV into a contender, and one year won't show those results. Look for the Rebels to play a ton of young players as Hauck stocks the shelves with his players. For now, though, only marginal improvement can be reasonably expected after a 2-11 campaign.

College Football: BlogPoll Preseason Ballot

I've been doing the BlogPoll for a few years now, so this isn't new to anyone, and doesn't require a lot of explanation.

With preseason ballots due soon, here is my first stab at one. If you're indeed new to this, you can comment or tweet or whatever to get your thoughts in. Argue for or against teams, argue for teams that aren't rated, just don't name-call. That's all I ask.

As they say in NASCAR, have at it.

2011 College Football Preview: MAC

As usual, my 2011 College Football Preview includes information compiled from a variety of sources, most notably the work of Phil Steele. Check out his preview publications and material on his website. I also scour local newspapers and school websites for updated information, but it should be noted that all information contained in team and conference previews is only current up to the date of that post's publication.

Predicted Order of Finish
East Division

1. Ohio
2. Temple
3. Kent State
4. Miami
5. Bowling Green
6. Buffalo
7. Akron

West Division

1. Northern Illinois
2. Toledo
3. Western Michigan
4. Central Michigan
5. Ball State
6. Eastern Michigan

Top Storylines to Watch in the MAC

New regime, same Huskies? Jerry Kill may be gone to Minnesota (with both coordinators going with him), but Northern Illinois is still loaded for another run at the MAC title. The Huskies return eight starters on offense for new coach Dave Doeren, the former co-defensive coordinator at Wisconsin. One of them is quarterback Chandler Harnish, who stands to set the school's all-time passing yardage record if he stays healthy. Senior back Jasmin Hopkins hopes to pick up where departed star Chad Spann left off. Spann scored 22 touchdowns on the ground and ran for nearly 1,400 yards, so his shoes are going to be tough for Hopkins to fill. Doeren's challenge comes on defense, where NIU loses nine starters, but projects to start eight juniors and seniors. The schedule is tough, with Army (home), Kansas (road), and Wisconsin (neutral) in back-to-back-to-back weeks before the MAC season starts.

How good will Western Michigan be? The Broncos went 6-6 last year, but Bill Cubit returns 15 starters, including eight on a defense that got better throughout last season. It culminated in the Broncos yielding just ten points in the last two games (both wins). The key to Western's further improvement this season is junior quarterback Alex Carder, who threw for 30 touchdowns last year. Leading receiver Jordan White (94 catches, 1,400 yards, ten touchdowns) is back. With so many bodies back, it will be hard for Western not to run the ball better. Sophomores Tevin Drake and Brian Fields lead the running game this year. Middle linebacker Mitch Zajac and Miami transfer Doug Wiggins, a safety, are the key players on that defense, one that will be tested right away with games against Michigan and Illinois, along with Central Michigan, in the first month of the season. Road trips to Northern Illinois and Toledo will make it a tough division to win this season.

Ohio might be a quarterback away. Since taking over at Ohio, Frank Solich is 40-36, but his Bobcats have made three bowl games in five years. This year might be the best team he has fielded there, meaning it could be the best team Ohio -- a school currently sporting an all-time bowl game record of 0-5 -- has ever had. The Bobcats return their linebackers intact, have loads of potential on the defensive line with senior Curtis Meyers and junior Carl Jones, and have all five starters back on the offensive line. Senior Donte Harden and Iowa State transfer Beau Blankenship should at least be able to match what Ohio got out of their running backs last year. The question is at quarterback, where Boo Jackson graduates third on the school's all-time passing yardage list. Sophomore Tyler Tettleton and redshirt freshman Kyle Snyder appear to be the top two quarterbacks on the depth chart. Tettleton is probably a slight favorite to start, thanks in part to his athleticism. The schedule isn't terribly meaty, so Ohio should be favored in the East and should get to another bowl this season.

Temple in transition. No more Al Golden at Temple, as the young prodigy ended a very impressive five-year run at what had become one of the worst programs in the country and moved on to Miami. Former Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio takes over. Golden didn't leave the cupboard bare for Addazio, as the Owls won eight games last year (inexplicably did not get a bowl invite), and they return 12 starters. The offense should be energized by the return of running back Bernard Pierce, whose 2010 season was washed away by injuries. Quarterbacks Mike Gerardi and Chester Stewart are back, with Gerardi possibly favored to start because of his advantage over Stewart in accuracy. All-MAC defensive end Adrian Robinson is back, as is senior cornerback Kee-Ayre Griffin, who should contend for all-league honors. Temple is an interesting team because they have so much talent, and the key to their season being a success will be how quickly they adjust to Addazio.

The Rest of the Story

Even with a new coach in Darrell Hazell, Kent State could be a real darkhorse contender this year. The Golden Flashes had a great defense last year, but couldn't score points. Look for improvement there, and possibly Kent State's first bowl since 1972. ... No more Mike Haywood at Miami, and the RedHawks try to build off a ten-win season with new coach Don Treadwell. His experience tutoring the offense at Michigan State -- where Sparty has been a pretty good running team over the years -- should help at Miami, where the RedHawks averaged 98 yards per game rushing last year. ... 14 starters return for Dave Clawson at Bowling Green. The Falcons won twice last year, but should at least double that as sophomore quarterback Matt Schilz grows up. ... It was rough for Buffalo last year, but you can expect the offense -- a huge problem last year -- to get significantly better in the second year of Jeff Quinn's spread attack. ... Akron won once last year, and losing the entire rushing attack from last year won't help them improve immediately. Look for coach Rob Ianello to play a lot of freshmen and sophomores, something that will help him in a year or two, but not as much in the here and now. ... Don't spend a lot of time overanalyzing their heartbreaking bowl loss to Florida International, because Toledo will be a MAC contender. Tim Beckman gets 18 starters back, had virtually his entire offense intact, and the Rockets project to start four seniors in the secondary. Those are good things, for sure. ... Central Michigan struggled last year with Mike Enos as the new coach. His second year will be smoother, with junior Ryan Radcliff set at quarterback, junior receiver Cody Wilson back, and some impact players on defense. ... Former Elon head coach Pete Lembo is going to try to turn things around at Ball State, where Brady Hoke's departure led to two awful seasons under Stan Parrish. This might take some time, but Lembo did good things at Elon, and he should get the job done here, too. ... Eastern Michigan hasn't had a winning season since 1995. They haven't won more than four games in a season once since then. Ron English is 2-22 in two seasons, and while the Eagles appear to be improved on paper, there is still a long way to go for English to get EMU caught up in terms of talent with the rest of the MAC.

Friday, August 19, 2011

2011 College Football Preview: Conference USA

As usual, my 2011 College Football Preview includes information compiled from a variety of sources, most notably the work of Phil Steele. Check out his preview publications and material on his website. I also scour local newspapers and school websites for updated information, but it should be noted that all information contained in team and conference previews is only current up to the date of that post's publication.

Predicted Order of Finish
East Division
1. Southern Mississippi
2. Central Florida
3. UAB
4. Marshall
5. East Carolina
6. Memphis
West Division
1. Houston
2. Tulsa
3. SMU
4. Rice
5. Tulane

Top storylines to watch in Conference USA

Case Keenum's return to a loaded Houston team. Keenum's senior season was cut short last year, so he successfully gained a medical redshirt from the NCAA and is back again. He's already passed Kevin Kolb on Houston's all-time passing yards list, and the NCAA record is within reach if he can make it through this season without any problems. The Cougars need to replace three starters in the secondary, where Texas A&M transfer Colton Valencia becomes eligible at safety. But they have plenty of talent elsewhere, especially with senior receivers Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier and senior running back Bryce Beall. Keenum is familiar with this offense, his targets, and he is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. Don't count him out of the Heisman race if he can stay healthy, and don't count Houston out as a darkhorse BCS contender. With UCLA, East Carolina, and SMU at home, the schedule is incredibly manageable. A Nov. 26 game at Tulsa will likely decide the division title.

Can Tulsa get by Houston in the West? Change came at a bad time for the Golden Hurricane, as Todd Graham's move to Pittsburgh came right before signing day. That shouldn't greatly impact this year's team, as UT returns 18 starters, including ten on offense. The lead dog is quarterback G.J. Kinne, who has flourished since transferring from Texas. Kinne pitched 31 touchdown passes last year, and still found time to lead the team with 561 rushing yards. Tulsa used a committee approach to running the ball last year, with three backs totaling at least 335 yards as the team averaged over 200 yards per game on the ground. Look for sophomore Trey Watts to carry more of that load this season. New coach Bill Blankenship has plenty of experience in the program, but this is his first rodeo as a college head coach. He sure has a lot of players who have played significant snaps in the past, but that's not a guarantee of anything in a division which includes Houston and SMU. Another double-digit win season looks likely, but the non-conference schedule may prevent that in the end.

Southern Miss tries to bust the BCS, too. Houston isn't the only team capable of a big season in 2011. Southern Mississippi has pieces in place on both sides of the ball, along with a pretty favorable schedule. Quarterback Austin Davis is in position to break Brett Favre's USM career passing record early in the season, sophomore Kendrick Hardy could be on the verge of stardom, and wide receivers Kelvin Bolden and Quentin Pierce are all returning from last year's team, which averaged nearly 37 points per game. The defense should be better, thanks to seven returning starters, including the top four tacklers and star linebacker Korey Williams, who plays all over the field. The favorable schedule includes only one real tough non-conference game (at Virginia), along with a bunch of winnable games at home (SMU, Central Florida, Rice). It's not inconceivable that USM could meet Houston in a battle of 12-0 teams for the Conference USA title.

Can UAB get to a bowl? Last year, Alabama-Birmingham showed improvement in many areas, but still took a step back in record, going from 5-7 in 2009 to 4-8. The school decided to keep coach Neil Callaway, who has the lowest salary of CUSA coaches, and possibly the worst facilities to work with. Despite those handicaps, the Blazers could be improved enough to qualify for a bowl this season. It helps that teams like East Carolina, Marshall, and Memphis are still in a bit of transition in the East Division. UAB has to deal with non-division games against Tulsa and Houston, but they get Southern Miss and Central Florida at home, and senior quarterback Bryan Ellis returns to lead the offense. His line is virtually intact in front of him, including senior left tackle Matt McCants. Expect Ellis to be more efficient, and the running game will improve. Callaway's defense gets a jolt with new coordinator Tommy West (former Memphis coach), and it helps that West gets to work with nine returning starters.

The Rest of the Story

After an 11-win season, Central Florida only has ten starters back. Luckily for George O'Leary, one of them is sophomore quarterback Jeff Godfrey, who is only going to get better after a very good freshman campaign. ... Marshall has to replace quarterback Brian Anderson, but I still think they could find a way to a bowl game, assuming they survive an incredibly difficult league schedule that includes non-division games against Tulsa and Houston, both on the road ... A tough non-conference schedule (South Carolina, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Navy) could keep East Carolina from going bowling, but it also doesn't help that a defense that allowed 44 points per game lost four starters off the front seven. Big things will happen with Dominique Davis back to lead the offense, though. ... They won one game last year, and Memphis is not going to be good this year, either. Larry Porter's rebuilding job continues with another season of double-digit losses more than likely here. ... Expect huge numbers out of June Jones' offense in year three at SMU. He finally has the personnel he wants in place at all the key positions. That said, their defense still won't be good enough to overcome Houston and Tulsa, both of whom SMU plays on the road. ... Rice could be a surprise team, but it will take a Herculean effort out of their defense. Michigan transfer Sam McGuffie and sophomore Taylor McHargue are more than capable offensive stars, and the Owls could very well hit 35-40 points per game. The problem is that they're also likely to allow those types of numbers. ... Steady improvement has been the way at Tulane recently, but it's time to make a real move in the right direction. Bob Toledo gets 14 starters back, and one of them is emerging star back Orleans Darkwa. He also gets leading tackler Trent Mackey back on defense, and both units should improve statistically. ... Mike Price only has two starters back on offense at UTEP. All-time leading passer Trevor Vittatoe departs, as does leading receiver Kris Adams. The Miners might have to ride their defense, which gets nine starters back and might take a huge leap forward from the average unit they had a year ago.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Miami, NCAA Both Look Awful

Yahoo! Sports reporter Charles Robinson has done some pretty damn good work over the years, but his takedown of the University of Miami football program Tuesday might be the best yet.

Robinson's story can be found here, and a follow-up column from Dan Wetzel is here.

The basics ...

In 100 hours of jailhouse interviews during Yahoo! Sports’ 11-month investigation, Hurricanes booster Nevin Shapiro described a sustained, eight-year run of rampant NCAA rule-breaking, some of it with the knowledge or direct participation of at least seven coaches from the Miami football and basketball programs. At a cost that Shapiro estimates in the millions of dollars, he said his benefits to athletes included but were not limited to cash, prostitutes, entertainment in his multimillion-dollar homes and yacht, paid trips to high-end restaurants and nightclubs, jewelry, bounties for on-field play (including bounties for injuring opposing players), travel and, on one occasion, an abortion.

Also among the revelations were damning details of Shapiro’s co-ownership of a sports agency – Axcess Sports & Entertainment – for nearly his entire tenure as a Hurricanes booster. The same agency that signed two first-round picks from Miami, Vince Wilfork and Jon Beason, and recruited dozens of others while Shapiro was allegedly providing cash and benefits to players. In interviews with federal prosecutors, Shapiro said many of those same players were also being funneled cash and benefits by his partner at Axcess, then-NFL agent and current UFL commissioner Michael Huyghue. Shapiro said he also made payments on behalf of Axcess, including a $50,000 lump sum to Wilfork, as a recruiting tool for the agency.

In an effort to substantiate the booster’s claims, Yahoo! Sports audited approximately 20,000 pages of financial and business records from his bankruptcy case, more than 5,000 pages of cell phone records, multiple interview summaries tied to his federal Ponzi case, and more than 1,000 photos. Nearly 100 interviews were also conducted with individuals living in six different states. In the process, documents, photos and 21 human sources – including nine former Miami players or recruits, and one former coach – corroborated multiple parts of Shapiro’s rule-breaking.

Miami's response was, well, underwhelming.

Miami coach Al Golden, who was hired in December, acknowledged Tuesday that some of his players may have made mistakes.

"We'll stay focused. I'm certain of that," Golden said. "We're disappointed but we're not discouraged. And again, there's going to be a life lesson here. We're talking about allegations from a man that's behind bars, now. If these do hold some truth, then we'll deal with them. There's no other way to do it."

Current Miami players were not made available to comment Tuesday, and will not be made available before Wednesday's practice, the university said.

This is a severe indictment of "The U," as Mike DeCourcy writes.

“We didn’t have any suspicion that (Shapiro) was doing anything like this,” Dee told The Palm Beach Post. “He didn’t do anything to cause concern.”

That’s a painfully soft defense against charges so profound. Whereas Memphis took the NCAA’s approval of Rose’s eligibility as a sign that he was—you guessed it—eligible, Dee has nothing more to offer than this to explain his department’s failure to notice the apparently rampant rule-breaking in a football program with such an appalling past it warranted near-constant scrutiny.

It always seemed incongruous, Dee’s presence as infractions committee chair. He was athletics director at Miami when more than 50 football players were alleged to be among the participants in a massive fraud of the federal Pell Grant system, when the Hurricanes later were banned from playing in a bowl game and stripped of dozens of scholarships.

The problem is that this isn't just an indictment of Miami. You see, once is an accident, twice is a trend, and the NCAA's way of doing things has been called into question too many times recently for the questioners to be in the wrong.

Dee, you may recall, was the Committee on Infractions chairman for USC's much-publicized case last summer involving former stars Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo. It was Dee who, in announcing some of the stiffest penalties of the last 20 years (a two-year bowl ban and 30 docked scholarships), closed with the preachy reminder that "high-profile athletes demand high-profile compliance."

Dee, Miami's AD during most of the period covering Shapiro's allegations, is retired and no longer under NCAA jurisdiction. Still, it seems only fair he should spend a day at USC's Heritage Hall wearing a sandwich board with the word "Hypocrite."

See if this sounds familiar: "We didn't have any suspicion that he was doing anything like this. He didn't do anything to cause concern."

I'm fairly certain I heard Pete Carroll say something to that effect, repeatedly, about Bush's time at USC. He insisted there's no way he or anyone else at the school could have known that Bush's parents were living the high life in San Diego -- a defense Dee and his committee sharply rebuked.

But no, those were the words of Dee himself, Tuesday, to the Palm Beach Post, in regards to Shapiro's allegations. Seriously. The same guy whose committee lamented the access outsiders had to the Trojans' locker room and sidelines also told the Post that, " [Shapiro] would come by, ask to go out to practice and we would send one of our staffers to accompany him."

And the problems with the NCAA all start at the top.

With college athletics burning down before our eyes, Emmert has only thrown handmade Molotov cocktails on the inferno since becoming NCAA president in October.

During his embarrassing 10-month tenure, he’s overseen Connecticut being placed on probation in basketball and the Huskies winning the national championship less than two months later.

Auburn won the BCS title in January, but only after the NCAA restored the eligibility of former star quarterback Cameron Newton, who had been declared ineligible for his father’s shopping of him to Mississippi State for $180,000 in an attempted pay-for-play scheme. The Tigers, however, remain under NCAA investigation.

Oh, and there’s Oregon, the loser of January’s BCS title game, which is also under NCAA investigation for a $25,000 payment it made to Will Lyles, who claims he was paid for his influence with his recruits.

Let’s also not forget Ohio State’s lying and cheating in football, which the NCAA also reportedly still is investigating.

This is a painful time to be a college sports fan. Even if you're a fan of a school that hasn't been caught with the proverbial hand in the cookie jar, you have to think it's just a matter of time.

Either that, or you're a fan of something like the Tulane football program that is simply not any good, and you aren't worried about cheating. You're just wondering if your program will ever figure out how to cheat enough to be successful like everyone else win.

It's a sad reality. College football is fantastic fun, great drama, and the passionate crowds and bands make for a superb atmosphere. There are some who argue it's more fun to watch college football than it is the NFL.

However, until the NCAA figures out how to get some control over the sport, it will never reach its full potential. And, no, raising the APR standards won't make the sport cleaner. In fact, that move will probably make for more academic fraud problems than we've heard about lately.

Thank goodness the media has a guy like Charles Robinson around, because he has unearthed two huge scandals in college sports, and there are probably dozens he could look at next. At some point, the NCAA has to take concrete steps to prevent such scandals, or everyone involved will suffer -- even if it's just guilt by association.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The NHL's Combative Conundrum

For those who haven't heard, Winnipeg Jets center Rick Rypien was found dead Monday in Alberta.

While no one has said anything specific about the cause of death, we know it apparently isn't suspicious, and it was described in one report -- since edited -- as a suicide.

This isn't going to be a rant about the end of fighting in hockey. It's also not an indictment of the sport. Every sport has people who have struggled with addictions or other problems. For Rypien, depression was the real-life fight. For Derek Boogaard, it was addiction. That they died at a young age does not make hockey bad. It does not make hockey a sport that kills young people.

It makes hockey players human beings who are sometimes vulnerable to human tragedies.

However, there is a very real problem facing the NHL and the sport in general. It's a problem that I'm quite uncomfortable bringing up, when Rypien died just a day ago. It's a problem, however, that needs to be addressed soon, before it spirals out of control.

See, Boogaard and Rypien shared a common thread. They may have never fought one another, but they did take part in plenty of fights in pro hockey.

And it's that facet of the sport that is now under the greatest scrutiny.

It sounds crass to use the deaths of Rypien or Boogaard -- men whose families are grieving over their deaths -- as some sort of example as to why the NHL needs to ban fighting, however we have to talk about this, before someone on the outside makes us.

Peter Raaymakers of Silver Sevens -- a Senators blog on SB Nation -- wrote an incredibly compelling piece on fighting Monday, obviously unaware that another NHL enforcer-type player would end up dead later in the day.

Probert suffered a fatal heart attack at the young age of 45 after collapsing onboard a boat on Lake St. Clair. His brain was donated to science, and researchers at Boston University found that he suffered from a degenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE isn't like, say, heart disease of cancer; it doesn't kill people directly. It's a bit more like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease), in that it's a degenerative disease that is believed by most (not all, I should note) to slowly take its toll on those affected by leading to depression, memory loss, and symptoms of dementia.

Probert's widow Dani doesn't think fighting is what cause Probert's CTE, but instead has suggested it's the many bodychecks that hockey players take during a career. It is true that there isn't a definitive causal link between fighting and CTE, but fighting definitely increases your chance of sustaining head injury, and the more head injuries you suffer, the more at risk you are for CTE.

There's a lot of good info in there about the toll that this job -- enforcer -- takes on the bodies of those who participate.

As Greg Wyshynski notes ...

If the NHL banned fighting tomorrow, would another player ever take a painkiller? Or a sleeping pill? Or both? Would another NHL player drink a bit much to calm his nerves while popping a pill? Would another NHLer succumb to depression given the agony and ecstasy of his profession and the excruciating time away from family that comes with the gig?

The bottom line? The NHL could ban fighting, and this could still happen. We could still be looking at guys under 30 meeting an all-too-premature demise, and we'd still be sitting here wringing our hands, trying to figure out how to keep it from happening again.

It's just that we wouldn't have the ready-made fighting connection. We'd have to ban something else, like half-shields or whatever.

What would happen if the NHL banned fighting? Would people stop going to the games? Unlikely.

The end of the Minnesota Wild's sellout streak may have come in their first year post-Boogaard, but the two items are incredibly unrelated. The Wild's sellout streak ended because the economy tanked and the team sucked. If both of those things hadn't happened -- say, had the team been good or the economy stayed healthy -- the streak would probably still be alive. But people had to make tough decisions with their extra money, and "pay $75 a game to watch a bad team" wasn't too appealing to them. That's understandable.

Do you think the Florida Panthers struggle to sell tickets because their players don't get in enough fights? Or is it because the team hasn't made the playoffs in what feels like 100 years, and they don't have any real stars they can market?

However, what is the price the NHL pays by banning fighting?

Yeah, a guy like Boogaard -- whose only job was to protect his team's skill players with the occasional fight -- might not be able to find work, but someone will have to draw an NHL salary to replace that spot in the lineup. So that's not much different.

I don't care what team it is. Ticket sales will not noticeably suffer. Yeah, fans stand when the fight starts. I get that. But they aren't going to stop attending games because there isn't a fight to cheer for anymore. If that was the case, we wouldn't sell out as many playoff games as we do.

However, what is the on-ice effect? I mean, Matt Cooke is bad enough when he knows he might have to fight a tough guy to answer for the cheap shot he threw a month prior. Now, you're telling me that the NHL will be solely responsible for policing the sport. I know that Brendan Shanahan hasn't had a chance yet to show he can do the job better than Colin Campbell (well, let's set the bar higher than "does the job better than Colin Campbell"), but I'm not of the mind to automatically trust the NHL's discipline system because Campbell is no longer running it.

Cooke isn't going to just stop playing, so either the sport has to police itself in some way, or the league has to do a (much, much) better job of policing behavior like that which Matt Cooke is sometimes guilty of. It's that simple.

I hear the frustration over fighting, and the potential problems it can cause for its participants. But until someone answers the question of "What will we do with (fill in name of your least favorite pest, ala Cooke/Gillies/Lapierre/Torres/etc.)?," I just can't sit up here on my pedestal and say fighting has to go.

Is there a way for the NHL to eliminate gratuitous Colton Orr vs. Brian McGrattan bouts that only happen because the combatants are on opposing teams and the two guys are willing to fight? Or the goalie fights that somehow got back into style last season? Probably. And maybe that's the direction we go in.

But the league can't just ban it. Matt Cooke needs to be made to answer for that illegal hit he just threw, and it shouldn't be solely Brendan Shanahan's job to make sure that happens.

Should the deaths of Rypien and Boogaard change the way you view fighting? That's ultimately up to you, but just remember that it might not be as easy as it all looks. And banning fighting won't stop players from running into trouble off the ice that could ultimately lead to more tragedies like these.

Cris Carter Tries to Take Back Mind-Numbing Thoughts on Calvin Johnson

Last week, ESPN's Cris Carter made some waves by saying something really dumb.

I suspect this will become the norm at ESPN, if it hasn't already. The network has tried so hard to hire a large stable of former players and coaches to analyze the NFL that those hired can't possibly have their own voice or their own personality. There's no room to breathe with such a population of analysts ... no opportunity for one of them to step out and become a reliable voice of reason or source of interesting takes.

They're all the same, just like ESPN probably wants.

For Carter, Friday presented an opportunity to step out and say something interesting. It was a chance for him to take a stand and stake his claim to a larger audience.

He tried. And failed.

On ESPN Radio, he was asked about the top five receivers in the NFL. He failed to put Calvin Johnson on that list.

“Calvin Johnson, he’s very, very good at Madden and Tecmo Bowl or whatever they’re playing now,” Carter said. “But on film, when I watch film, and I break down the film, he’s not to the point of these guys yet.”

ESPN Radio’s Mike Greenberg pointed out that Johnson has played with lousy quarterbacks, but Carter wasn’t buying it.

“I made eight Pro Bowls,” Carter said. “I made it with five different quarterbacks. They weren’t always great. So I don’t want to hear the excuse that I’m not playing with a great quarterback.”

Face, meet palm.

I'll set aside the fact that he took a veiled shot at the quarterbacks he played with in the NFL.

Instead, let's focus on the lunacy that is his comment on Calvin Johnson. If he's only good on video games, why did the Jets and Packers -- among others -- routinely double him last year, even though both teams had elite players in their secondaries?

Sorry, Cris, but they weren't doubling him just because they could. They also weren't trying to confuse whoever Detroit had at quarterback. They did it because Calvin Johnson -- as he has shown time and time again -- is good enough to beat you, even when you do double-team him.

Monday, Carter saw the error of his ways. Sort of.

On Monday’s edition of ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike in the Morning, the show on which Carter uttered his controversial comments, the two Mikes talked about the reaction to Carter’s opinion, with pretty much everyone who has weighed in taking the position that Carter was flat wrong.  They capped the discussion by pointing out that Carter had called the studio with this message regarding Johnson: “[H]e’s right there with the top five.  I may have given Reggie Wayne a gift.”

In other words, Carter apparently opted not to admit in real time that he had inadvertently overlooked Johnson, choosing instead to stubbornly support an inherently flawed argument.  Three days later, with no way out of the maze, Carter issued a mea culpa which the two Mikes laughed off as they went to a break.

I guess this is the closest thing we'll get to a "correction" out of the Worldwide Leader.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Report: Adam Robinson Transfers to UMD

According to an Iowa newspaper report, former Iowa running back Adam Robinson is transferring to UMD.

Robinson led the Hawkeyes in rushing the last two years, but missed the team's Insight Bowl win over Missouri last year for disciplinary reasons.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz announced Monday that Robinson had been dismissed from the Hawkeyes one week after he was arrested for marijuana possession. The coach said he would have no further comment.

Robinson, 21, was charged with possession of marijuana on Dec. 27 in his hometown of Des Moines. The Iowa State Patrol said Robinson was a passenger in a vehicle pulled over for not having a front license plate. A trooper detected a marijuana odor from the vehicle, then found marijuana after a search.

Robinson was suspended for Iowa's win over Missouri in the Insight Bowl for failing to comply with team policies. His arrest came the night before the bowl game, leaving the Hawkeyes (8-5) with an unwanted distraction they overcame in beating the Tigers 27-24.

UMD has not made a habit out of taking on transfer students, to the point where the rosters of the Bulldogs and Delta State were constructed in very different ways ... something that was brought up as a potential storyline heading into the Division II title game last December.

Robinson may have chosen UMD because of some local ties. Robinson is from Des Moines, and UMD coach Bob Nielson is a Marion, Iowa, native. Nielson started his coaching career at Wartburg, where he worked his way up to head coach from 1991-1995 until he moved to UW-Eau Claire and eventually UMD.

There are two Iowans currently on the UMD roster, both offensive linemen.

Robinson will join the Bulldogs in 2012. Another Division I transfer, former West Virginia running back Zach Hulce, is on the roster for this season. Hulce's WVU career was plagued by injuries after he transferred there from a junior college.

The Bulldogs open the 2011 season Sept. 3 at Augustana

Friday, August 12, 2011

2011 College Football Preview: Big 12

As usual, my 2011 College Football Preview includes information compiled from a variety of sources, most notably the work of Phil Steele. Check out his preview publications and material on his website. I also scour local newspapers and school websites for updated information, but it should be noted that all information contained in team and conference previews is only current up to the date of that post's publication.

Predicted Order of Finish
1. Oklahoma
2. Texas A&M
3. Texas
4. Oklahoma State
5. Missouri
6. Baylor
7. Texas Tech
8. Kansas State
9. Iowa State
10. Kansas

Top Storylines in the Big 12

Texas is king; will they play like it? With Colorado and Nebraska gone, the Big 12 has ten teams. Texas is the league's crown jewel, owners of their own (somewhat controversial) television network. But the Longhorns are coming off a 5-7 season, and there are some issues to resolve if they are to return to the top of the mountain. For one, quarterback Garrett Gilbert has to cut down on the turnovers. Secondly, the Longhorns could stand to find a feature back. Unless Gilbert -- assuming he beats out the likes of Case McCoy for the starting job -- is set to become a Vince Young/Colt McCoy type who can run this offense and be the alpha dog, they need someone in the backfield to step up. That could be highly-touted freshman Malcolm Brown, who has impressed the Texas veteran players so far. The Longhorns have talent all over the field, but the offense will sputter if Gilbert struggles, and Gilbert will likely struggle if Texas doesn't find a running back to carry the load the way Ricky Williams and Cedric Benson did in years gone by.

Can Justin Blackmon do it again? In an otherwise non-descript season for Oklahoma State, wide receiver Justin Blackmon was special last year. He caught an incredible 111 passes and scored 20 touchdowns, numbers that will be difficult to build on, or even match, though it helps that triggerman Brandon Weeden returns, and running buddy Josh Cooper, an outstanding possession receiver, both return for OSU. Oklahoma State also brings back its entire offensive line intact, and there are some strong pieces on defense like cornerback Brodrick Brown and linebacker Shaun Lewis. I'm not sure they can win 11 games again, but the Cowboys are definitely a threat in a league that has one top dog (Oklahoma) and a bunch of teams with question marks.

Oklahoma is a heavy favorite. There is no getting around this, really. Junior quarterback Landry Jones threw for over 4,700 yards last year, and he's on track to become OU's all-time leading passer by the team's second game this season. The Sooners do have to replace dual-threat back DeMarco Murray, but there is an impressive stable of backs ready to take a shot. There are indications OU will use a group of guys to fill the position, instead of a single feature back. That opens the door for true freshman Brandon Williams to make a huge impact. Junior Jermie Calhoun could also be a guy to watch, along with sophomore Roy Finch. Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills return to catch Jones' passes, and eight starters are back on defense to improve a unit that allowed 362 yards and 22 points per game last year. those aren't bad numbers at all, but it's expected that OU will be just as dangerous defensively as they look to be offensively. Don't overlook the loss of tackle Trent Williams, even though he primarily played on the right side.

We'll keep seeing how good Robert Griffin III is. Baylor hasn't exactly been known for producing legendary quarterbacks over the years. In fact, until 2010, something called J.J. Joe was the school's all-time leading passer. That is no more, thanks to now-junior Robert Griffin III. Griffin shook off the torn ACL that ruined his 2009 season by making The Leap last year. He hit two-thirds of his passes for over 3,500 yards with 22 touchdowns. He chipped in eight rushing touchdowns for an even 30 on the season. He showed his potential brilliance in ten starts as a true freshman in 2008 before the injury washed away 2009. Last year, Baylor reached a bowl game for the first time since 1994, losing to Illinois in the Texas Bowl. Griffin led the Bears to a win at Texas, their first in Austin since 1991, when that Joe guy was the quarterback. Griffin has a chance to take Baylor to consecutive bowls for the first time in 20 years, and he is only going to become a bigger name in Waco with every game he wins. The Bears have 14 starters back, could field an elite offense in the Big 12, and are a far cry from the outfit that was routinely getting blown out in conference play even a few years ago.

The Rest of the Story

Mike Sherman has his quarterback at Texas A&M, and it's Ryan Tannehill. The senior took over for the last six games last season and made a huge difference for a then-struggling team. With receivers Jeff Fuller and ryan Swope both back, this offense could be scary good. ... The loss of Blaine Gabbert will be felt at Missouri, though there's no doubt that sophomore James Franklin is a talented quarterback. What will also be interesting is how the Tigers replace impact players Aldon Smith and Andrew Gachkar from the defensive front seven. ... They might not run the same mad offense in Lubbock, but Texas Tech can still score points. I expect they'll be a little wobbly this season as they continue to adjust to Tommy Tuberville's ways. Look for the defense to be vastly improved. ... Transfers like Bryce Brown (Tennessee), Meshak Williams (JUCO), and Justin Tuggle (JUCO) will make an impact at Kansas State, but the Wildcats will feel the loss of star running back Daniel Thomas despite Brown's presence. ... Iowa State continues to get better on defense, but Paul Rhoads will again struggle to get his team's offense up to snuff. Losing dual-threat quarterback Austen Arnaud won't help matters on that side of the ball, but the Cyclones do have seven starters back on defense, including linebacker Jake Knott, who is capable of 150 tackles this season. ... Last year started with a whimper for Kansas, as they lost 6-3 to North Dakota State. They then scored 24 points in their last three games of the year, losing by a combined 69 points. They were outgained by 131 yards per game, including a staggering 219 in conference play. 15 starters return, but this isn't going to get better fast.