Monday, September 23, 2013

NCHC Preseason Poll: My Votes

Last week, the NCHC posted its inaugural preseason poll, showing Miami on top and UMD sixth. Here's how I voted, with some words on each team.

8. Nebraska Omaha Mavericks

This was tough. I mean, excruciating. But I prioritized a number of things in putting this list together, including scoring balance, defense, and goaltending. I also looked at the fact that UNO appeared to be (again) trending in the wrong direction late last season. The Mavericks went just 3-7 over their last ten games, and two of the wins were over Alaska Anchorage. Also in that span was an exhibition loss to the US Under 18 Team. I don't know what to make of UNO's goaltending, and I just don't think the uber-talented Ryan Walters (Hobey candidate if UNO ends up being better than I'm expecting) and Josh Archibald can score enough to keep the Mavericks out of last place in the NCHC's first season.

7. Colorado College Tigers

If anyone else finishes last in the league, I'd guess it's CC. There's talent here with this group, including the highly underrated Alex Krushelnyski. I think Archie Skalbeck could make a leap this season. CC loses Mike Boivin in the back, however, and I think a lot will end up on the shoulders of freshman Gustav Olofsson (Wild second round pick in 2013) to do things offensively that Boivin (14 goals) did last year. Joe Howe is gone, so the net belongs to Josh Thorimbert for the time being, though he was inconsistent like crazy last year and could get unseated.

6. St. Cloud State Huskies

This was also difficult. There's a ton of scoring talent, with guys like Jonny Brodzinski, Nic Dowd, Kalle Kossila, and youngster Joey Benik, who really emerged in the postseason. Where the Huskies could suffer is the back line, where Nick Jensen departs, leaving Andrew Prochno as the team's top defenseman. He and Kevin Gravel are capable, but the depth isn't as strong here. SCSU was a tough team to figure out, because I do think the experience of last year's Frozen Four run is significant, but the Huskies lost a lot of big-time skill and leadership from that team, and now we'll see if it can be quickly replaced.

5. Denver Pioneers

No more Gwoz means Denver might be slightly less interesting, at least from a reporter's standpoint. But Gwoz doesn't leave a bare cupboard for new bench boss Jim Montgomery. Top recruits like Will Butcher stuck around, and so did senior goalie Sam Brittain, who inherits the No. 1 job for the time being after Juho Olkinuora departed. The Pioneers aren't as deep up front as SCSU, but I think they have more talent on defense and better goaltending. For this Pioneers team, it's going to be all about how they handle the adjustment from Gwozdecky to someone who isn't Gwozdecky.

4. UMD Bulldogs

I believe this team is poised for a rise after a down year. If a No. 1 goalie doesn't emerge, UMD could be in some trouble, but UMD has high-end talent at forward with Tony Cameranesi, Austin Farley, Caleb Herbert, and freshman Dominic Toninato. Andy Welinski is going to be a top defenseman in this new league, and freshman Willie Raskob has a lot of talent. The Bulldogs have to fill some third- and fourth-line holes, but look for this team to display more puck possession, crisper offense, and an improved back line.

3. Western Michigan Broncos

Here's my reach in the poll. The Broncos only scored 87 goals last season, and leading scorer Dane Walters is gone. I'm betting big with this pick on a few things: Chase Balisy becomes a bigger part of the offense, as does Denney Morrison from the blue line; Colton Hargrove emerges as a top-line scoring threat; and Frank Slubowski keeps doing Frank Slubowski things in goal. Andy Murray is a hell of a coach, and it's going to be fun to watch him match wits with guys like Hakstol, Motzko, Sandelin, and Blais on a regular basis.

2. North Dakota

This might be more of a respect vote, because I'm not sure UND has enough defense to win consistently in a tougher league. However, I've wondered this about UND before, and UND's always just fine. North Dakota will do okay this season, too. Rocco Grimaldi will have a huge season, as will Mark MacMillan. There's more than enough talent in the back with guys like Dillon Simpson and Jordan Schmaltz. I do wonder about UND's goaltending, which was shaky at times, but you could do a lot worse than returning two guys who combined for a .916 save percentage.

1. Miami RedHawks

No-brainer, in my view. These polls are impossible, especially with new league alignments, but Miami has the most returning talent in all phases, and it's not like the CCHA was a scrub league last year. Scoring will be balanced, and they have high-end skill guys like Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber back, along with defenseman Matthew Caito and goalies Ryan McKay and Jay Williams. This is a well-coached team that expects to be on top of its league, and I think Miami might be the team to beat, nationally as well as in the NCHC.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

NCHC Preseason Poll; UMD 6th

UMD has been picked to finish sixth in the NCHC preseason media poll. The survey was filled out by 16 voters, two representing each NCHC team.

Here is the scoop from the new league. I'll post my votes this week.
In the Inaugural National Collegiate Hockey Conference preseason poll, Miami University was picked to win the conference, as announced today at the NCHC Media Day at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn. The poll was voted on by a total of 16 media members who regularly cover NCHC teams, two from each institution’s market.

Miami received a total of 115 points, including a league-best seven first-place votes. The RedHawks posted a 25-12-5 record last season and reached the NCAA Midwest Regional final. Miami returns 17 lettermen from last season’s team. North Dakota was second in the poll with 109 points and five first-place votes. UND was 22 13-7 overall last season, reaching the NCAA West Regional final. UND returns 18 lettermen from last season’s squad. St. Cloud State, after reaching the NCAA Frozen Four for the first time in school history last season, was third in the poll with 99 points and four first-place votes. The Huskies return 22 lettermen from last season’s team the finished 25-16-1 overall.

Denver was fourth in the preseason poll (66 points), followed by Western Michigan (61), Minnesota Duluth (43), Colorado College (42) and Nebraska Omaha (41).

Place   Team (1st-place votes)            Points
1.      Miami (7)                    115
2.      North Dakota (5)        109
3.      St. Cloud State (4)      99
4.      Denver                        66
5.      Western Michigan       61
6.      Minnesota Duluth       43
7.      Colorado College        42
8.      Nebraska Omaha         41

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

2013-14 WCHA Predictions

We'll go league-by-league through the western half of our realigned college hockey nation, starting with the league UMD (and many others) left.

The WCHA might not be as strong as it once was, but it houses at least one legitimate top-15 team, and a couple others that would like to stake a claim.

10. Alabama Huntsville Chargers

Mike Corbett takes over as the Chargers' head coach, and obviously there are high hopes that the move to the WCHA will provide the program with much-needed stability. However, that stability might take some time to show itself on the ice. UAH definitely benefits from no longer living such a nomadic existence, but the Chargers aren't ready to contend in a Division I league just yet. There are some building blocks here, with guys like forward Jeff Vanderlugt back, and UAH is young, so the future certainly is better.

9. Lake Superior State Lakers

It could be a struggle out in Sault Ste. Marie this season. The Lakers lose a lot of high-end guys from a so-so 2012-13 squad, most notably leading scorer Domenic Monardo and runner-up Nick McParland. Their depth was hit by the early departure of power forward Kellan Lain. Senior goalies Kevin Murdock and Kevin Kapalka return, and they might have to carry the team early while it finds some offense.

8. Northern Michigan Wildcats

The Wildcats have to shake off some losses, especially the early departure of goalie Jared Coreau, who could have been a real leader on this team had he not turned pro. Junior forward Reed Seckel can score (13 last year), but who sets him up with Matt Thurber gone? And who plays goal with Coreau and his 38 games gone to the pros? Lots of questions for Walt Kyle to answer as his team starts up in a new league.

7. Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves

New administration and a new coach for UAA, as Matt Thomas takes over for the fired Dave Shyiak. If Thomas can get the culture changed, this could turn around quickly. There is talent, especially with sophomore Blake Tatchell, junior Scott Allen, and senior Matt Bailey up front. Thomas needs to straighten out his blue line and find consistent goaltending. Community support wouldn't hurt, either.

6. Alaska Nanooks

UAF snuck over .500 last year, and wasn't really written out of NCAA contention until late in the season. However, leading scorer Andy Taranto departs. Sophomore goalie John Keeney played 27 games last year and should carry the load again in '13-14. Senior forward Cody Kunyk could be in for a big season.

5. Ferris State Bulldogs

Last year in Florida was my first chance to see Ferris State in person, but these Bulldogs have always impressed me from afar. The chances for veteran coach Bob Daniels' team in the new WCHA depend the development of some young forwards. Seniors Garrett Thompson and Cory Kane return, but they need help from guys like Kenny Babinski and Dakota Klecha to add scoring balance. CJ Motte returns in goal after a strong sophomore season.

4. Bemidji State Beavers

Always a well-coached group, Tom Serratore and the Beavers might benefit greatly from the sport's realignment. BSU just didn't have the talent to consistently compete with the likes of North Dakota, Minnesota, and others (their odd hex on UNO notwithstanding). The Beavers, however, do have the talent and work ethic to make noise in this league. And with junior Andrew Walsh, they have the goalie.

3. Bowling Green Falcons

People in this part of the land might not have noticed, but man has Chris Bergeron done a nice job with this program. The record (39-73-14) is underwhelming, but the Falcons look ready to make some strides. Juniors Ryan Carpenter and Dajon Mingo lead the offense, and the Falcons have experience all over the ice. The one exception is goal, where Andrew Hammond is gone.

2. Michigan Tech Huskies

Mel Pearson should have his best this this season. The Huskies have high-end forwards like Blake Pietila, Alex Petan, Tanner Kero, and David Johnstone all back. The early departure of Jujhar Khaira should only be a small dent in the group. Defense and goaltending lacked last season, but the hope is improved depth between the pipes and further development from defensemen like Riley Sweeney and Justin Fillion should help matters.

1. Minnesota State Mavericks

Even if I wanted to, I'm not sure I could make an argument against MSU being the prohibitive favorite in the WCHA. Mike Hastings got this team to the NCAAs last year, and they're only going to be better. JP Lafontaine, Matt Leitner, Zach Lehrke, Max Gaede, and Bryce Gervais are among the top forwards, and the Mavs sport a strong group of defensemen led by Zach Palmquist. Not only is MSU legit in this league, but the Mavericks should be in most preseason top tens. Justifiably so, too.

Friday, September 13, 2013

UMD Football: Bulldogs Must Slow Upper Iowa's Offense

WATERLOO, Iowa -- That's right. After (nearly) eight years, it's back on the UMD football beat, at least for one week.

The Bulldogs are at it Saturday night in Fayette, about an hour's drive from here in Waterloo, taking on Upper Iowa in a Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference game.

I've called 293 UMD men's hockey games, a couple UMD women's hockey games, and a slew of high school hockey games since the last time I threw on a headset and called a football game.

I'm equal parts excited and nervous ahead of Saturday, largely hopeful I won't sound like a bumbling idiot who can't get his sports terminology straight.

The Bulldogs beat Sioux Falls 32-7 last week, but Upper Iowa presents challenges that Sioux Falls did not, and you're making a serious mistake if all you do is look at the Peacocks' record from last season (2-9) and just shrug this game off as an easy UMD win. There are challenges afoot for the Bulldogs Saturday, and many of them surround the UIU offense.

The Peacocks run a fast-paced offense that works a lot without a huddle. It's an offense that clicked in a few games last season, rolling up over 40 points in an incredible 106 total plays against Sioux Falls. UIU also topped 90 plays in a game against Minnesota State-Moorhead. For the season in 2012, Upper Iowa averaged nearly 75 plays per game.

"If you let them get a couple first downs, they're a little tougher to defend," veteran defensive coordinator John Steger told me this week. "Plus they'll wear you out a little bit because you can't substitute, and we can't get some of our packages on the field."

"They're a high pace, up-tempo offense," head coach Curt Wiese said. "Definitely a concern is making sure our defense is aligned, that we can slow their tempo offensively."

UIU likes to run out of one-back sets with three wide receivers and an H-back/tight end type on the field. The Peacocks will also spread the field with four and five wide receivers, and they'll let their junior quarterback, Cole Jaeschke, sling the rock around.

It was nearly a recipe for upsets last year, but UIU couldn't finish close games with teams like Southwest, Winona State, Wayne State, or Sioux Falls. The Peacocks gave up late scores to lose to Wayne (field goal with 2:14 left), Southwest (TD with :25 left), and Bemidji State (TD with :40 left). They had chances against Winona and Sioux Falls, but couldn't get the job done or make the key stop.

"I think that's a message to our kids," Wiese said. "Upper Iowa's a team that can sneak up and beat you."

Jaeschke threw five scoring passes in last week's win over Minnesota Crookston, a game where about all that went wrong for Upper Iowa was a couple missed field goals from close range and two botched extra points.

UIU outgained Crookston 565-61 and was never threatened. That won't happen this week.

As good as the offense is for the Peacocks, it's had problems staying on the field. And their defense has struggled to get off of it.

Last year, Upper Iowa averaged barely 26:30 of possession per game. Contrast that with a UMD team that may have run fewer plays per game (70.8 compared to UIU's 74.6), but one that averaged holding the ball for over 33 minutes per game. There were a few games last year where the Peacocks either didn't hit or barely hit 20 minutes of possession. That's a recipe for getting worn out on the other side of the ball when you're playing a team like UMD.

The Bulldogs are content to make stops defensively, then let redshirt freshman quarterback Drew Bauer and sophomore transfer Eric Kline lead the team on long drives as the big heavies in front lean on an Upper Iowa front that isn't blessed with a ton of size or depth.

Both quarterbacks played in the USF win last week, and Wiese said both will play again.

"Overall, thought Drew played extremely well, was confident on the field," Wiese said. He went on to add he thought Kline led "the most important drive of the game. Made a fourth down pass and a third down pass. Played composed."

The Bulldogs got great line play last week, despite starting two freshmen on the offensive front. Left tackle Peter Bateman could quickly become a cornerstone player for a program that churns out all-conference linemen the way Penn State churned out linebackers back in the day. No one thought it was going to be easy to replace a player of Jake Bscherer's caliber, but Bateman got off to a great start in the opener.

When you consider that left guard Andrew Muer is already an all-league and potential All-America player, as is stalwart right tackle Tom Olson, you can see why there's so much optimism about the offensive line. Center Grant Schnobrich is out this week, so junior Andrew Pattock will start.

UMD's other line, the defensive one, was outstanding last week. They routinely got pressure rushing just three, which puts a smile on Steger's face.

"That allows us to do a lot of things," he noted. "When we get them in second and long and third and long, we can pressure people."

That's a big key on Saturday. If the defense can continue to stop the run like it did against the Cougars (Sioux Falls ran for a whole 11 yards all night), it'll force Jaeschke to go to five-step drops and throw the ball downfield. His career accuracy numbers aren't eye-popping, so getting him away from the bubble screens and quick passes that dominate this offense would be a win for the Bulldogs.

One way to do that, as Steger and Wiese both pointed out, is to get the offense off schedule. That means get them into second and long and third and long. It negates the running game, ruins any hopes of gaining traction with play-action, and a defense like the one Steger runs here is going to feast on an offense that is rendered basically one-dimensional.

I expect that UIU will have a good crowd and a pumped-up team for Saturday. It's the home opener, and they'll pull out all the stops to try to get the upset win that eluded them last year.

In the end, if the Bulldogs execute as capable on both sides of the ball, that upset will continue to elude the Peacocks.


Pregame on The Fan 1490 and the Bulldog Sports Radio Network is set for 5:30 Saturday, with kickoff around 6. New starting this weekend: Fans can listen to the live stream on their smart phones. Once the game stream is activated (around 5:20pm), you can use your phone browser, log on to, and find the box on the right side that says "Listen to UMD Football."

(That image rotates with other local sports we carry, but it all routes to the same webpage, which is this one.)

Tap that link, and it'll take you to our stream menu. Find the UMD game, tap the "Watch/Listen Live" icon, and you're good to go. We tested this new toy on an iPhone and an Android phone, and it worked just fine.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

2013 NFL Predictions

Federal law requires that all sports blogging types submit NFL season predictions, despite the fact that the NFL becomes more difficult to predict every season.

Look around the eight divisions. There might be some races that "look" like slam dunks, and there are actually a couple that appear to be real-life slam dunks. However, keep a few things in mind:
  • In a normal season, there is a playoff turnover of around five teams. In fact, last year broke a 16-year run of there being at least five new teams in the NFL playoffs.
  • Every other year since 2007, there has been a six-team turnover in the playoffs. This is the "other" year, so the pattern says there will be six new teams in the tournament.
When you read all the predictions from so-called experts, count the number of "new" teams they put in the playoffs. If it is fewer than four teams turning over from last year to this year, ignore the prediction completely. As MMQB pointed out, more than half the playoff field (61 of 120 teams) has turned over in the last decade.

That's where this becomes difficult. If you aren't picking four teams to turn over, you probably aren't going to be right. But it's often very difficult to find the teams that will miss out to make room.

With all that in mind, here we go on another season of incorrect NFL predictions.

1. Dallas
2. NY Giants
3. Washington
4. Philadelphia

Romo. Romo. Romo. Romo. Romo. I'm putting my chips to the middle, betting on Tony Romo. Help me. Don't be shocked if Philly jumps Washington. I think Chip Kelly is going to do some things there.

1. Green Bay
2. Detroit
3. Minnesota
4. Chicago

The Packers are probably the best team in this division, but they better stay healthy. Especially You-Know-Who. Detroit is a darkhorse. Reggie Bush makes an impact. I don't trust Minnesota's quarterback or secondary.

1. New Orleans
2. Carolina*
3. Atlanta
4. Tampa Bay

I think Sean Payton and Drew Brees pick up the pieces and have a big year. This isn't a knock on Atlanta, but I think they're old in some key spots and I still think Matt Ryan is a tad overrated.

1. San Francisco
2. Seattle*
3. St. Louis
4. Arizona

Seattle edges St. Louis for a Wild Card spot, but if the Seahawks don't get healthy at wide receiver, this result could flip. San Fran is still the top dog with the best coach (ugh) in the division.

1. New England
2. Miami
3. NY Jets
4. Buffalo

Closer than you might think, but the Patriots have too many weapons at this point. Jets edge the Bills in the most compelling third place race in AFC East history.

1. Cincinnati
2. Cleveland*
3. Baltimore
4. Pittsburgh

What? Yes. Bengals are ready to assume the perch. Browns will shock the world, while the Ravens suffered too many offseason departures to be a playoff team again. Don't fret. They'll be back shortly.

1. Houston
2. Indianapolis
3. Tennessee
4. Jacksonville

Ugly. Houston could clinch this in Week 11. Colts can't repeat last year's magic.

1. Denver
2. Kansas City*
3. San Diego
4. Oakland

Easiest division to pick, which means this will be horribly wrong somehow. Kansas City was remarkably unlucky last year, and Andy Reid will make sure that doesn't repeat itself.

1. New Orleans
2. San Francisco
3. Dallas
4. Green Bay
5. Carolina
6. Seattle

Seattle over Dallas
Carolina over Green Bay
New Orleans over Carolina
San Francisco over Seattle
New Orleans over San Francisco

1. Houston
2. Denver
3. Cincinnati
4. New England
5. Kansas City
6. Cleveland

Cincinnati over Cleveland
New England over Kansas City
Cincinnati over Denver
Houston over New England
Houston over Cincinnati

New Orleans over Houston

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Wisconsin Badger Football: What We Know

Already covered the Gophers. Now it's Wisconsin's turn.

Here's what we know about the Badgers.

The coach changes, but the mentality doesn't.

There have been some rumblings out of Madison that indicate Gary Andersen is going to be easier on the local beat writers than Bret Bielema was. Outside of that, not much is changing.

Andersen wants this team to play strong defense and run the hell out of the ball. Sound familiar?

The Badgers aren't going spread/five wide/throw 60 times a game anytime soon, unless you control the team in a video game. And even then it would look weird.

We don't know who the quarterback is.

I'd love to provide insight here, but I can't. I think both Joel Stave and Curt Phillips are going to see time in the first two games, which are presumed layups against Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech. Andersen knows he has to figure out which guy is his guy before a Sept. 14 game at Arizona State.

Stave has a good arm, but has yet to show consistent accuracy, especially deep. Phillips doesn't have the arm strength, but he's a better runner. With a consistent deep threat in Jared Abbrederis, there's no reason Wisconsin can't be effective throwing the ball. And the better UW is in that regard, the more openings guys like James White and Melvin Gordon will have to carry the rock.

White and Gordon are both good, but Gordon will be the man by the end of the season.

The running game will survive without Montee Ball. White knows this offense inside and out, but Gordon is going to end up being the bell cow. He has decent enough size, but his speed is off the charts. He'll break more big plays than White, and while the temptation will be to limit his carries early, that big-time big-play potential will win Gordon about a 60 percent share of the carries he and White get by midseason.

The defense will be very good.

I like some of the pieces on this defense, most notably Ethan Armstrong and Chris Borland. Bielema was such a highly-touted defensive coach that it's easy to dismiss Andersen's credentials in that area. Coordinator Dave Aranda will dial up the right mix of fronts and coverages to confuse quarterbacks and put players in good positions.

I don't know what the ceiling of this team is.

I could see the Badgers posting another 8-5 type season. Really, I could, and I don't think it would be a grand disappointment.

It's also conceivable that UW could win 11 games, losing only to Ohio State (sorry, I don't see it happening). I'm not sure Andersen could ask for a better debut.

No matter what, much of Wisconsin's success is going to ride on the arm of someone. Probably Stave, because he has all the upside at this point.