Sunday, August 31, 2008

Thome ties Mantle, White Sox avoid Boston sweep, 4-2

MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL

Game played Aug. 31, 2008


The Chicago White Sox snapped a three-game losing streak and averted a sweep in Boston by stifling a Red Sox ninth-inning rally to preserve a 4-2 win. Chicago’s Jim Thome tied former Yankees legend Mickey Mantle for 14th-place on the all-time home run list with his 536th career homer in the first inning.


The White Sox took the lead for good in their first inning. Carlos Quentin doubled off the left-field wall with two down against Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield to set up Thome’s line-drive shot just inside the right-field foul pole for a 2-0 lead.


Boston cut its deficit in half in the fourth inning. August call-up Jeff Bailey singled with one out to left against Chicago starter Gavin Floyd. Bailey took second on Kevin Cash’s single to left and scored on a Jacoby Ellsbury single to right.


The White Sox got that run back in the sixth. Thome hit a two-out ground-rule double to left and scored on Paul Konerko’s double to left to lead, 3-1.


Chicago added an insurance run in the top of the ninth. Alexei Ramirez reached on a two-out bunt single to third and scored on a Joe Crede double into the left-field corner just over Boston’s Jed Lowrie’s glove, just avoiding Cash’s tag on a play at the plate to take a three-run advantage.


Boston made things interesting in the ninth, getting the potential winning run to the plate. Alex Cora drew a leadoff walk from White Sox closer Bobby Jenks. After Ellsbury singled through the right side, sending Cora to third, and took second base on defensive indifference, Lowrie’s groundout score Cora to make the score 4-2. David Ortiz then drew a free pass to get Dustin Pedroia, who came into the game having reached base on his previous 10 plate appearances, to the plate as the winning run. After pinch runner Coco Crisp stole second base, Pedroia flew out to shallow left near foul territory to end the game and strand the tying runs in scoring position.


Floyd (15-6) added another win to his single-season career-high total, pitching 6 2-3 innings, allowing one run on seven hits with five strikeouts and two walks. Matt Thornton and Octavio Dotel worked a combined 1 1-3 scoreless innings out of the bullpen before Jenks came on to earn his 27th save. Quentin, Thome and Konerko all contributed two hits for the White Sox.


Ellsbury led the way at the plate for Boston with a 3-for-4 performance. Wakefield (8-9) took the loss, lasting six innings and yielding three runs on six hits with no walks and three punchouts, retiring nine straight Chicago batters at one point. Manny Delcarmen pitched two scoreless hitless innings for the Red Sox in relief and Justin Masterson pitched the ninth.


Boston left 11 runners on base in the game.


With the season series finale in Chicago’s win column, the Red Sox won the season series 4-3 and took their fourth straight series.


Chicago (77-59) supplemented a tenuous lead in the AL Central, holding a one-game lead over Minnesota at press time. The Red Sox (79-57) are 5.5 games behind Tampa Bay in second in the East and lead the wild-card race by three games over the Twins.


The White Sox begin a three-game set at Cleveland with Clayton Richard slated to pitch Monday night, while Boston, which has won eight of 12, sends Paul Byrd to the hill Monday night to kick off a three-game home series with Baltimore.


Video credit – TBS

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Louisiana Tech pulls upset of Mississippi State, 22-14

COLLEGE FOOTBALL
Game played Aug. 30, 2008

The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs added another upset to the laundry list of surprising outcomes on the first Saturday of the 2008 college football season with a 22-14 victory in 95-degree heat and harsh humidity over SEC foe Mississippi State. The win comes in Tech’s first-ever home contest against a BCS-conference opponent.

Louisiana Tech took the lead for good in the third quarter. Trailing 14-9, Tech’s Chris Keagle’s punt was fumbled by Mississippi State return man Jamayel Smith on the State nine-yard line. Mississippi State’s K.J. Wright then brought down Patrick Jackson with a horse-collar tackle, resulting in a personal foul, before Jackson punched in a six-yard touchdown run. Brad Oestricher’s extra point gave Tech a 16-14 lead.

Tech added to its lead later in the period. Deon Young intercepted Mississippi State quarterback Wesley Carroll and returned it 41 yards, with a late-hit out-of-bounds penalty on State’s Brandon Hart tacked onto the end of the play. Phillip Livas then rushed for a gain of 11. On the following play, State’s Zach Smith late-hit Livas for another personal foul. Oestricher kicked a 28-yard field goal for a 19-14 advantage.

Louisiana Tech closed out the scoring with an important fourth-quarter drive. Tech began the drive on its own 11 before a third-and-seven Taylor Bennett completion to Philip Beck for 12 yards. Jackson rushed for a first down with nine- and three-yard gains on consecutive carries. Bennett rushed for two yards on third-and-one, and on a fourth-and-one play, Jackson spun in the backfield to avoid a tackle before picking up three yards. Oestricher then coolly drilled a 50-yard field goal for an eight-point lead.

Mississippi State posted a 94-yard touchdown drive to draw first blood in the first period. Anthony Dixon picked up eight yards and a first down before Carroll hit Brandon McRae for a 24-yard gain. Carroll rushed for six and a first down, then McRae made another catch for 16. After Aubrey Bell caught a pass for 21, McRae had an eight-yard scoring reception to end the nine-play drive. Adam Carlson hit the point-after for a 7-0 lead.

Louisiana Tech then got on the board with a field goal. Livas returned the kickoff 19 yards. Livas caught a pass for 12, and Jackson rushed for 10 to set up a 48-yard Oestricher field goal to cut the deficit to 7-3.

Mississippi State seemed to take control of the game on a pair of first-half drives. Louisiana Tech was driving on the State six-yard line when Jackson threw an interception to Keith Fitzhugh on a trick play.

Later, Mississippi State started a drive on their own 17-yard line that ended in another score. Backup quarterback Tyson Lee hit McRae for 12. Dixon then rushed for 12 and, on third-and-nine, picked up 31 yards. Bell caught a pass for five on fourth-and-two before making a catch for 13. Hart punched in a one-yard scoring run, and Carlson’s extra point gave State a 14-3 lead.

Louisiana Tech took control of field position on a Keagle 47-yard punt downed inside the State one-yard line before scoring once more before halftime. Livas returned Blake McAdams’ punt 27 yards to the Mississippi State 13-yard line. Bennett hit Jackson for a six-yard touchdown on third down. Oestricher’s point-after was blocked by State’s Tay Bowser, making the halftime score 14-9, with State in the lead.

The final two possessions of the game sealed the contest for Tech. The defense forced Mississippi State to punt, but McAdams’ kick was short and hit Tech’s Stevon Howze in the back, allowing State’s Smith to fall on the ball and regain possession. However, the Tech defense forced another punt, and McAdams booted another short punt, this one traveling only 16 yards, with 3:30 to go.

Tech was able to run the clock almost completely down but was forced to punt with eight seconds to go. Keagle’s 40-yard kick was fielded by Delmon Robinson, who was swarmed under to end the game.

Louisiana Tech, which had lost its last 12 contests against BCS-conference opponents, for a 14-for-39 night from Bennett, with 176 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Jackson picked up 62 yards on 17 carries with one touchdown receiving and rushing. Livas caught six passes for 85 yards.

Carroll was 12-for-25 for 172 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions, for Mississippi State. Lee hit 10 of 15 passes with 85 yards. Dixon rushed for 87 yards on 17 carries. Bell caught six passes for 67 yards, with McRae catching five passes for 65 yards and a score. Terrance Davis made four receptions for 58 yards. Fitzhugh made two receptions defensively.

Derek Pegues, who was first-team all-SEC last year for Mississippi State, did not make the trip while serving a one-game suspension for missed classes for Mississippi State.

Louisiana Tech (1-0), which has now won two straight in the series after winning in Starkville, Miss. in 1996, next travels to Kansas for a Sept. 6 game, while Mississippi State (0-1), which still leads the all-time series 7-3, hosts Southeastern Louisiana on the same date.

Video credit – ESPN2

Friday, August 29, 2008

2008-09 NFL SPECIAL COVERAGE – AFC WEST PREVIEW

Will the Chargers repeat as division champs in the West, or is Denver ready to take the mantle back? With the Chiefs and Raiders each possibly needing big seasons to take their coaches off the hook, can they deliver?

Denver Broncos (last season – 7-9)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 8 – at Oakland (L)
Sept. 14 – San Diego (L)
Sept. 21 – New Orleans (W)
Sept. 28 – at Kansas City (L)
Oct. 5 – Tampa Bay (W)
Oct. 12 – Jacksonville (L)
Oct. 20 – at New England (L)
Nov. 2 – Miami (W)
Nov. 6 – at Cleveland (L)
Nov. 16 – at Atlanta (W)
Nov. 23 – Oakland (W)
Nov. 30 – at N.Y. Jets (L)
Dec. 7 – Kansas City (W)
Dec. 14 – at Carolina (L)
Dec. 21 – Buffalo (W)
Dec. 28 – at San Diego (L)

The Broncos enter 2008 looking to erase memories of 2007, when they posted only their sixth losing record in 35 years. Quarterback Jay Cutler, who had a very average season last year that now looks much better given that he was diagnosed with diabetes over the offseason, now has his disease under strict control. Denver hopes he can improve on an already-reasonable 20-to-14 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio. The offensive line, which has always been the backbone of the Broncos’ offensive unit, has aged considerably in recent years, and the defensive front seven also had a sub-par year as the defense finished 30th in the NFL in run defense last season. Defensive tackle and former Jet Dewayne Robertson is a new acquisition to strengthen that unit and will return to a 4-3 system after playing nose tackle in New York. Defensive end Elvis Dumervil is excellent at rushing the passer but is woefully undersized in run defense. Jason Elam, who spent 15 years as a Bronco, is now in Atlanta, leaving Matt Prater the kicking job. Cutler should have a better year, but the offensive line is highly suspect and the defense likely will not be significantly better against the run, meaning Denver has a (long) shot at a wild-card berth in a very mediocre division but will pose little threat to San Diego.

Kansas City Chiefs (last season – 4-12)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – at New England (L)
Sept. 14 – Oakland (W)
Sept. 21 – at Atlanta (W)
Sept. 28 – Denver (W)
Oct. 5 – at Carolina (L)
Oct. 19 – Tennessee (L)
Oct. 26 – at N.Y. Jets (W)
Nov. 2 – Tampa Bay (L)
Nov. 9 – at San Diego (L)
Nov. 16 – New Orleans (L)
Nov. 23 – Buffalo (W)
Nov. 30 – at Oakland (L)
Dec. 7 – at Denver (L)
Dec. 14 – San Diego (W)
Dec. 21 – Miami (W)
Dec. 28 – at Cincinnati (L)

Kansas City begins 2008 as one of the NFL’s youngest teams, with only 12 players with six years of experience or more. Quarterback Brodie Croyle is beginning to look more and more like a franchise quarterback for the Chiefs and coach Herman Edwards, who is entering his third season as the head man in Kansas City. A young offensive line will make or break this season for the Chiefs and new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. Among the young players who will be expected to contribute immediately are fifth-overall pick defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, rookie running back Jamaal Charles and cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr. Veteran back Larry Johnson remains to provide leadership and carry much of the load after missing half of 2007 with a broken foot. Tony Gonzalez remains a threat at tight end but is mulling retirement after this season, which would signify the end of the career of one of the last great players from the Marty Schottenheimer era in Kansas City. Dwayne Bowe, a second-year player, is the No. 1 receiver. The Chiefs are not going to compete for a playoff spot in 2008, but with a talented young nucleus and strong coaching staff gaining experience, look for them to be right back in the hunt for the West title in the near future.

Oakland Raiders (last season – 4-12)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 8 – Denver (W)
Sept. 14 – at Kansas City (L)
Sept. 21 – at Buffalo (L)
Sept. 28 – San Diego (L)
Oct. 12 – at New Orleans (L)
Oct. 19 – N.Y. Jets (W)
Oct. 26 – at Baltimore (L)
Nov. 2 – Atlanta (L)
Nov. 9 – Carolina (L)
Nov. 16 – at Miami (W)
Nov. 23 – at Denver (L)
Nov. 30 – Kansas City (W)
Dec. 4 – at San Diego (L)
Dec. 14 – New England (L)
Dec. 21 – Houston (L)
Dec. 28 – at Tampa Bay (L)

The Raiders, another young club led by the youngest coach in the league in Lane Kiffin, are a long way from the glory days of the 1970s or even the perennial playoff contenders of earlier this decade. Oakland has posted the worst record in the league in the past five seasons, with only 19 wins during that time. There is a young core that is undoubtedly very talented, led by second-year quarterback and former top overall pick JaMarcus Russell and rookie running back Darren McFadden. The offensive line is a question mark, as is the receiving corps, though second-year tight end Zach Miller is a threat. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall and receiver Javon Walker came over in free agency and should provide veteran leadership; Walker, in particular, is carrying a chip on his shoulder after his departure from division rival Denver but has had issues over the offseason with getting into game shape and also was the victim of an assault and robbery in Las Vegas during the offseason. Kiffin’s job security is shaky at best with trigger-happy Al Davis as his boss. Justin Fargas and Michael Bush also provide depth in the backfield; Kiffin has said that he thinks all three backs can contribute to the offense. Oakland has moments where it seems to be focused on rebuilding with a young core, then the management goes out and acquires big-money, high-risk free agents; until the Raiders settle on a hard-and-fast plan for returning to contention, they will continue to find themselves among the worst organizations in the NFL.

San Diego Chargers (last season – 13-6, lost in conference championship)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – Carolina (W)
Sept. 14 – at Denver (W)
Sept. 22 – N.Y. Jets (W)
Sept. 28 – at Oakland (W)
Oct. 5 – at Miami (W)
Oct. 12 – New England (W)
Oct. 19 – at Buffalo (L)
Oct. 26 – New Orleans (London) (W)
Nov. 9 – Kansas City (W)
Nov. 16 – at Pittsburgh (W)
Nov. 23 – Indianapolis (W)
Nov. 30 – Atlanta (W)
Dec. 4 – Oakland (W)
Dec. 14 – at Kansas City (L)
Dec. 21 – at Tampa Bay (L)
Dec. 28 – Denver (W)

San Diego enters Year Two of the Norv Turner era with one of the most talented rosters in the NFL after winning 14 games two seasons ago under Marty Schottenheimer and taking 10 of 12 to end the regular season last year after a 1-3 start and reached the AFC title game where an injury-riddled squad fought gamely but came up short at then-undefeated New England. The big question so far this offseason has been in regard to the availability of linebacker Shawne Merriman, who has two torn ligaments in his left knee but, after several different doctors’ opinions, has elected to play through it. Merriman is known for his expertise at rushing the passer, which the knee issue should not affect; the potential problem lies in fighting off blockers and stopping the run. Quarterback Philip Rivers, stud running back LaDainian Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates and center Nick Hardwick all suffered injuries during the playoff run that made victories over Tennessee and at Indianapolis all the more impressive but hampered them in the Patriots contest. Tomlinson is back and looks as good as ever, but Rivers has appeared gun-shy in preseason play and Gates and Hardwick are still recovering. Receiver Vincent Jackson proved during the stretch run that he is more than capable of filling the hole left by Gates for the time being, along with receiver Chris Chambers. Darren Sproles and rookie Jacob Hester are competing for carries behind Tomlinson, and both look capable of contributing. San Diego is by far the most talented squad in the division and is among the best in the league, and should be able to advance deep into the playoffs again.

Up next – 2008 NFC North preview

Some information from ESPN.com and NFL.com was used in this report.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

2008-09 COLLEGE FOOTBALL SPECIAL COVERAGE – SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE AND BOWL PREVIEWS

With the college football season finally getting underway tonight, ZSN brings you the final installment of our 2008 preseason preview series, covering the Southeastern Conference and the bowl season.

Can Georgia live up to its billing as the preseason No. 1 national pick? Will defending national champion LSU, 2006 winner Florida, Tennessee or Auburn take the crown? Can South Carolina or Alabama rebound after underachieving last year? Will Mississippi State build on a breakout 2007 campaign? Can Kentucky, Arkansas, Vanderbilt or Ole Miss make waves in the SEC?


East Division


Florida Gators (last season – 9-4, lost Capital One Bowl)

Schedule (Predicted Outcome)

Aug. 30 – Hawai’i (W)

Sept. 6 – Miami (Fla.) (W)

Sept. 20 – at Tennessee (W)

Sept. 27 – Ole Miss (W)

Oct. 4 – at Arkansas (W)

Oct. 11 – LSU (W)

Oct. 25 – Kentucky (W)

Nov. 1 – vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.) (L)

Nov. 8 – at Vanderbilt (W)

Nov. 15 – South Carolina (L)

Nov. 22 – The Citadel (W)

Nov. 29 – at Florida State (W)


Fifteen starters are back for Florida, led by quarterback Tim Tebow, who became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy in 2007. Percy Harvin and Cornelius Ingram provide more playmakers on offense, along with running back Chris Rainey. The Gators were last in the conference in pass defense in 2007, with a young secondary; this year, they return three battle-tested starters. Florida has got to do a better job of protecting Tebow, who was limited in a loss to archrival Georgia last season; look for coach Urban Meyer to go to a two-quarterback system, with Cameron Newton or John Brantley to take the extra snaps to keep Tebow healthy and fresh. As has been the tradition in the past few years, look for the matchup with the ‘Dawgs to determine the division champion and possibly a national title game berth. Florida will be right there in that discussion.


Georgia Bulldogs (last season – 11-2, won Sugar Bowl)

Schedule (Predicted Outcome)

Aug. 30 – Georgia Southern (W)

Sept. 6 – Central Michigan (W)

Sept. 13 – at South Carolina (W)

Sept. 20 – at Arizona State (W)

Sept. 27 – Alabama (W)

Oct. 11 – Tennessee (W)

Oct. 18 – Vanderbilt (W)

Oct. 25 – at LSU (W)

Nov. 1 – vs. Florida (Jacksonville, Fla.) (W)

Nov. 8 – at Kentucky (W)

Nov. 15 – at Auburn (L)

Nov. 29 – Georgia Tech (W)


Georgia enters the 2008 season as a trendy pick for No. 1. Sophomore tailback Knowshon Moreno is an early Heisman favorite, joined in the backfield by solid quarterback Matthew Stafford. Sixteen starters return from the club that took Hawai’i apart in the Sugar Bowl last season. Mohamed Massaquoi and Kenneth Harris lead a deep receiving corps. The O-line is young and the kicking game is suspect, with a very difficult schedule, as is nearly always the case in the SEC. Coach Mark Richt has delegated the play-calling but is still excellent at team and crowd motivation and has a flair for the dramatic, as seen in the team celebration he initiated in the Florida game last year and the unveiling of the black jerseys prior to the Auburn contest. If the Bulldogs can navigate their way through a schedule full of landmines, they have what it takes to become national champions.


Kentucky Wildcats (last season – 8-5, won Music City Bowl)

Schedule (Predicted Outcome)

Aug. 31 – at Louisville (L)

Sept. 6 – Norfolk State (W)

Sept. 13 – Middle Tennessee (W)

Sept. 27 – Western Kentucky (W)

Oct. 4 – at Alabama (L)

Oct. 11 – South Carolina (L)

Oct. 18 – Arkansas (L)

Oct. 25 – at Florida (L)

Nov. 1 – at Mississippi State (L)

Nov. 8 – Georgia (L)

Nov. 15 – Vanderbilt (W)

Nov. 29 – at Tennessee (L)


Thirteen starters, only five of which are offensive players, return from a club that knocked off then-No. 1 LSU in triple overtime, lost four of five to end the regular season and then bounced back to beat depleted Florida State in the bowl game. Among the six offensive starters gone is NFL draftee Andre’ Woodson, who set an SEC record with 40 touchdown tosses as a senior and 79 in his career, a school record. Receivers Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson and tight end Jacob Tamme are also gone, along with running back Rafael Little and SEC leading tackler Wesley Woodyard, who made 139 stops in 2007. Derrick Locke and Tony Dixon lead a deep backfield for Kentucky. Sophomore Mike Hartline will succeed Woodson under center after the ultra-talented Curtis Pulley was dismissed from the team for an undisclosed violation of team rules over the summer. With an untested quarterback, a young offense and a less-than-stellar defense, look for a rebuilding year for the ‘Cats.


South Carolina Gamecocks (last season – 6-6)

Schedule (Predicted Outcome)

Aug. 28 – NC State (W)

Sept. 4 – at Vanderbilt (W)

Sept. 13 – Georgia (L)

Sept. 20 – Wofford (W)

Sept. 27 – UAB (W)

Oct. 4 – at Ole Miss (L)

Oct. 11 – at Kentucky (W)

Oct. 18 – LSU (L)

Nov. 1 – Tennessee (L)

Nov. 8 – Arkansas (W)

Nov. 15 – at Florida (L)

Nov. 29 – at Clemson (L)


Sixteen starters return to a team that finished with six wins last year, which would have to be considered a decent season if not for the fact that the Gamecocks started 6-1 and then lost five straight to end the season, missing bowl play. Both the offensive and defensive units were weak, with the offense finishing 77th in the FBS in yards per game and the 101st-rated rushing offense, and the defense yielding 209.3 rushing yards per game, including an SEC-record 323-yard performance by Arkansas’ Darren McFadden, with the Hogs totaling 541 yards on the ground alone in that contest. Quarterback Blake Mitchell and running back Cory Boyd are gone; Mitchell, though generally inconsistent, was the only USC quarterback to ever defeat conference foes Florida, Georgia and Tennessee and hated intra-state rival Clemson. Senior Kenny McKinley returns on the perimeter after posting a team-record 77 catches last year. Junior Tommy Beecher was named the starter over Chris Smelley, who started six games last year, and Stephen Garcia, though Smelley likely will take plenty of snaps again. The Gamecocks will improve, but not dramatically; a question to bear in mind is, entering his fourth year at Carolina, how much longer will coach Steve Spurrier remain motivated and willing to try to build a consistent winner?


Tennessee Volunteers (last season – 10-4, won Outback Bowl)

Schedule (Predicted Outcome)

Sept. 1 – at UCLA (W)

Sept. 13 – UAB (W)

Sept. 20 – Florida (L)

Sept. 27 – at Auburn (L)

Oct. 4 – Northern Illinois (W)

Oct. 11 – at Georgia (L)

Oct. 18 – Mississippi State (W)

Oct. 25 – Alabama (W)

Nov. 1 – at South Carolina (W)

Nov. 8 – Wyoming (W)

Nov. 22 – at Vanderbilt (W)

Nov. 29 – Kentucky (W)


Fourteen starters are back for the defending SEC East champion Volunteers and coach Phil Fulmer, who is the dean of SEC coaches, entering his 17th season as the head man and 34th overall in Knoxville, Tenn. with the nation’s highest career winning percentage among active coaches with at least 10 years under their belt at a .766 winning clip. Quarterback Erik Ainge is gone to the NFL after starting 37 games for Tennessee, leaving junior Jonathan Crompton, who has played in 14 contests, the starting job. Receivers Lucas Taylor, Josh Briscoe and Austin Rogers lead a talented receiving corps, and senior running back Arian Foster, who ran for nearly 1,200 yards and 12 scores, also returns. Five veterans who started at least six games last year are back on the O-line, which allowed only four sacks last year, lowest in the FBS. The defense, though not particularly deep and maybe not among the conference’s elite, should be solid again. Though they do not appear to be quite on the same level with SEC East rivals Georgia and Florida, the Vols should again compete for the division title.


Vanderbilt Commodores (last season – 5-7)

Schedule (Predicted Outcome)

Aug. 28 – at Miami (Ohio) (W)

Sept. 4 – South Carolina (L)

Sept. 13 – Rice (W)

Sept. 20 – at Ole Miss (L)

Oct. 4 – Auburn (L)

Oct. 11 – at Mississippi State (W)

Oct. 18 – at Georgia (L)

Oct. 25 – Duke (W)

Nov. 8 – Florida (L)

Nov. 15 – at Kentucky (L)

Nov. 22 – Tennessee (L)

Nov. 29 – at Wake Forest (L)


Vanderbilt returns 10 starters, only three of which are on offense, to a team that fell one win shy of bowl eligibility, with heartbreaking losses by three points to Georgia on a last-second field goal, seven to Kentucky and one to Tennessee, which was particularly disheartening because the Volunteers had to score 16 fourth-quarter points and survive a missed Vandy field goal as time ran out to pull off the win. Receiver Earl Bennett, who left early for the pros, was three-time all-SEC, making over 75 catches in each of his three seasons with the Commodores. All-SEC linebacker Jonathan Goff is also gone. Chris Nickson and Mackenzi Adams split time under center last season and will compete again for the starter’s job. It looks like another rebuilding season for the ‘Dores.


West Division


Alabama Crimson Tide (last season – 7-6, won Independence Bowl)

Schedule (Predicted Outcome)

Aug. 30 – vs. Clemson (Atlanta) (L)

Sept. 6 – Tulane (W)

Sept. 13 – Western Kentucky (W)

Sept. 20 – at Arkansas (W)

Sept. 27 – at Georgia (L)

Oct. 4 – Kentucky (W)

Oct. 18 – Ole Miss (W)

Oct. 25 – at Tennessee (L)

Nov. 1 – Arkansas State (W)

Nov. 8 – at LSU (L)

Nov. 15 – Mississippi State (W)

Nov. 29 – Auburn (W)


Fifteen starters are back for coach Nick Saban’s club a season after what must be considered one of the most underachieving seasons in Alabama history. The Crimson Tide was sitting at 6-2 and ranked 17th in the country before losing four straight to end the regular season, including the now-infamous home loss to Louisiana-Monroe and a defeat at the hands of rival LSU after winning by a touchdown with less than three minutes to play. D.J. Hall, the school’s all-time leading receiver, is gone, along with five strong defensive starters, including end Wallace Gilberry and cornerback Simeon Castile. The offensive line will be strong, which should help out quarterback John Parker Wilson, who had an outstanding 2006 season but played inconsistently last year. ‘Bama will continue along the road back to national relevance with a solid finish.


Arkansas Razorbacks (last season – 8-5, lost Cotton Bowl)

Schedule (Predicted Outcome)

Aug. 30 – Western Illinois (W)

Sept. 6 – Louisiana-Monroe (Little Rock, Ark.) (W)

Sept. 13 – at Texas (L)

Sept. 20 – Alabama (L)

Oct. 4 – Florida (L)

Oct. 11 – at Auburn (L)

Oct. 18 – at Kentucky (W)

Oct. 25 – Ole Miss (W)

Nov. 1 – Tulsa (W)

Nov. 8 – at South Carolina (W)

Nov. 22 – at Mississippi State (L)

Nov. 28 – LSU (Little Rock, Ark.) (L)

Coach Bobby Petrino returns to the college game, taking over a team that returns six starters on each side of the ball. Petrino comes to Arkansas after a stellar tenure at Louisville, where his teams posted a 41-9 record in four seasons, and a less-than-stellar time with the NFL’s Falcons, where he didn’t even finish a full year before quitting. Heisman finalist Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, a pair of first-round draft picks, are gone from the Hogs’ backfield, along with fullback Peyton Hillis and receiver Marcus Monk. Senior quarterback Casey Dick is the unquestioned leader of the offense after Mitch Mustain’s transfer last offseason; Dick has 34 career touchdown passes, third on the Razorbacks’ all-time list. There is no question Petrino is among the best in the business as a play-caller and overall offensive mind; the question is, given his “love-‘em-and-leave-‘em” history, will he stick around long enough to lead Arkansas to prominence? This year looks like a mediocre season for the Hogs.


Auburn Tigers (last season – 9-4, won Chick-fil-A Bowl)

Schedule (Predicted Outcome)

Aug. 30 – Louisiana-Monroe (W)

Sept. 6 – Southern Miss (W)

Sept. 13 – at Mississippi State (L)

Sept. 20 – LSU (W)

Sept. 27 – Tennessee (W)

Oct. 4 – at Vanderbilt (W)

Oct. 11 – Arkansas (W)

Oct. 23 – at West Virginia (W)

Nov. 1 – at Ole Miss (L)

Nov. 8 – Tennessee-Martin (W)

Nov. 15 – Georgia (W)

Nov. 29 – at Alabama (L)


Eight offensive and seven defensive starters return to a squad that knocked off bitter rival Alabama for the sixth straight season last year and defeated Clemson in the bowl game with a largely-new offense to end the season. A burning question to open the year will be who will take the majority of the snaps, the athletic sophomore Kodi Burns, who split time with departed quarterback Brandon Cox in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, or transfer junior Chris Todd, a more traditional passing quarterback who started his career at Texas Tech. New offensive coordinator Tony Franklin came over from Troy and installed a good portion of his spread offense before last year’s bowl game, which was unequivocally the Tigers’ best offensive performance of the year. Receivers Rodgeriqus Smith and Montez Billings will play a larger part in the offense than they did in former coordinator Al Borges’ system. The defensive line, one of the best in the conference, leads a defense that, as usual, will be outstanding under coordinator Paul Rhodes, who took over after the departure of coordinator Will Muschamp for Texas. Auburn, dangerous as always, will be in the mix to win the West, one of the toughest divisions in all of college football.


LSU Tigers (last season – 12-2, won BCS Championship Game)

Schedule (Predicted Outcome)

Aug. 30 – Appalachian State (W)

Sept. 6 – Troy (W)

Sept. 13 – North Texas (W)

Sept. 20 – at Auburn (L)

Sept. 27 – Mississippi State (W)

Oct. 11 – at Florida (L)

Oct. 18 – at South Carolina (W)

Oct. 25 – Georgia (L)

Nov. 1 – Tulane (W)

Nov. 8 – Alabama (W)

Nov. 22 – Ole Miss (W)

Nov. 28 – at Arkansas (Little Rock, Ark.) (W)


Few teams in the nation could lose six defensive starters and have a FCS transfer starting at quarterback and still be the seventh-ranked team in the nation in the preseason. Then again, not every team has quite the veritable treasure chest of talent as the defending national champion LSU Tigers, led by coach Les Miles, who became the latest of five current SEC coaches to win a FBS national championship. The Tigers have gone 34-6 since 2005, the best three-year stretch in LSU history. The Tigers became the first two-loss FBS national champion in the BCS era, both defeats coming in triple overtime, one at then-No. 17 Kentucky and the other at home to unranked rival Arkansas. Seven starters return on offense, though quarterback Matt Flynn, rusher Jacob Hester and leading receiver Early Doucet are not among them. Trindon Holliday, Charles Scott and Keiland Williams provide unrivaled depth in the backfield. The big story this offseason has been talented quarterback Ryan Perrilloux, who was suspended, then reinstated, then dismissed altogether this offseason for violations of team rules. His departure leaves the job to Harvard transfer Andrew Hatch, who has thrown two passes in his LSU career and is, as such, the most experience quarterback on LSU’s roster. LSU will have its greatest success if Hatch plays a similar style to that of Flynn and 2003 national-champion quarterback Matt Mauck, both of whom were not overly talented passers but excelled at leadership and game management. If Hatch can do that, LSU will not miss a step from its current pace set as the best conference program of the decade.


Mississippi Rebels (last season – 3-9)

Schedule (Predicted Outcome)

Aug. 30 – Memphis (L)

Sept. 6 – at Wake Forest (L)

Sept. 13 – Samford (W)

Sept. 20 – Vanderbilt (W)

Sept. 27 – at Florida (L)

Oct. 4 – South Carolina (W)

Oct. 18 – at Alabama (L)

Oct. 25 – at Arkansas (L)

Nov. 1 – Auburn (W)

Nov. 15 – Louisiana-Monroe (L)

Nov. 22 – at LSU (L)

Nov. 28 – Mississippi State (L)


Coach Houston Nutt takes over after leaving division foe Arkansas under interesting circumstances, particularly the Mitch Mustain situation. He will have 16 returning starters, nine of which are back on defense. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is an important departure, leaving as Ole Miss’ fifth-leading all-time rusher despite only wearing a Rebels uniform for two years after a transfer from Indiana. Texas transfer Jevan Snead is a definite improvement over Brent Schaeffer and Seth Adams, who shared the quarterback job last year. The offensive line returns four starters, the strength of the offense. The Rebels are improving but at this stage still have to be considered the weak link of the West.


Mississippi State Bulldogs (last season – 8-5, won Liberty Bowl)

Schedule (Predicted Outcome)

Aug. 30 – at Louisiana Tech (W)

Sept. 6 – Southeastern Louisiana (W)

Sept. 13 – Auburn (L)

Sept. 20 – at Georgia Tech (W)

Sept. 27 – at LSU (L)

Oct. 11 – Vanderbilt (L)

Oct. 18 – at Tennessee (L)

Oct. 25 – Middle Tennessee (W)

Nov. 1 – Kentucky (W)

Nov. 15 – at Alabama (L)

Nov. 22 – Arkansas (W)

Nov. 28 – at Ole Miss (W)


Fourteen starters are back on a unit that reached bowl play for the first time since 2000 after winning only 17 games in the previous six seasons. Coach Sylvester Croom enters his fifth season in Starkville, Miss. with a 17-30 mark, a reflection of Croom’s willingness to endure initial mediocrity in order to build a solid foundation to compete later, which they are doing now. Defensive end Titus Brown is gone, but defensive back and Jim Thorpe Award watch list member Derek Pegues, who has 10 career picks, leads the defense. Sophomore Wesley Carroll took over the starting quarterback job in the middle of the year last season and was named to the conference all-freshman team, going 137 passes before throwing his first interception. Expect Croom and company to continue to solidify the Bulldog program with another bowl trip.


Conference championship game: Georgia advances to the BCS national championship game with a revenge win over Auburn in Atlanta, becoming the third SEC team in as many seasons to reach the title tilt.


Bowl predictions

Given a third straight crack at the SEC in the national title game, can Ohio State bring home its first trophy since 2002? Can Utah pull off its second BCS victory? Will Clemson, Texas Tech, Wisconsin or South Florida complete strong seasons with BCS wins? Which conferences will dominate bowl play?


Dec. 20

New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque, N.M.Hawai’i over New Mexico

St. Petersburg Bowl, St. Petersburg, Fla.Cincinnati over Tulane

Las Vegas Bowl, Las Vegas – BYU over Oregon

Congressional Bowl, Washington – Navy over Toledo


Dec. 21

New Orleans Bowl, New OrleansFlorida Atlantic over Southern Miss


Dec. 23

Poinsettia Bowl, San Diego – TCU over Louisville


Dec. 24

Hawai’i Bowl, HonoluluFresno State over Arizona


Dec. 26

Motor City Bowl, DetroitBowling Green over Northwestern


Dec. 27

Meineke Bowl, Charlotte, N.C. – Virginia over Pittsburgh

Champs Sports Bowl, Orlando, Fla.Wake Forest over Penn State

Emerald Bowl, San FranciscoOregon State over Notre Dame


Dec. 28

Independence Bowl, Shreveport, La.Texas A&M over Arkansas


Dec. 29

Papajohns.com Bowl, Birmingham, Ala. – West Virginia over Louisiana Tech

Alamo Bowl, San AntonioIowa over Oklahoma State


Dec. 30

Humanitarian Bowl, Boise, IdahoBoise State over Louisiana-Monroe

Texas Bowl, HoustonColorado over UCF

Holiday Bowl, San DiegoOklahoma over Arizona State


Dec. 31

Armed Forces Bowl, Fort Worth, TexasHouston over Wyoming

Sun Bowl, El Paso, TexasCalifornia over Texas

Music City Bowl, Nashville, Tenn.Mississippi State over North Carolina

Insight Bowl, Tempe, Ariz.Nebraska over Purdue

Chick-fil-A Bowl, Atlanta – Virginia Tech over Tennessee


Jan. 1

Outback Bowl, Tampa, Fla.Auburn over Michigan State

Capital One Bowl, Orlando, Fla. – LSU over Illinois

Gator Bowl, Jacksonville, Fla.Connecticut over Boston College

Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif. – USC over Wisconsin

Orange Bowl, Miami – Clemson over Utah


Jan. 2

Cotton Bowl, Dallas – Missouri over Alabama

Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn.Tulsa over South Carolina

Sugar Bowl, New OrleansTexas Tech over Florida


Jan. 3

International Bowl, Toronto – Rutgers over Ball State


Jan. 5

Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz.Kansas over South Florida


Jan. 6

GMAC Bowl, Mobile, Ala. – Central Michigan over Memphis


Jan. 8

BCS National Championship Game, Miami – Georgia over Ohio State. Yeah, the Ohio State vs. SEC speed storyline is a bit overplayed by this point. With that said, until they prove otherwise, the Buckeyes are beginning to look like another regular-season power and BCS pretender in the mold of Oklahoma, which was unsurpassed in big-game success toward the early part of the current decade but has not been the same since back-to-back national title game losses after the 2004 and 2005 seasons at the hands of LSU and USC.


One last word: When opening kickoff rolls around, the previews we’ve run during the past two and a half months have to be taken with a grain of salt. Or, they can be thrown out the window altogether. Anything is liable to happen between the lines, which is the best thing about college football.


Welcome to football season! The NFL preview series continues tomorrow with a breakdown of the AFC West.


Some information from The New York Times and ESPN.com was used in this report.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

2008-09 NFL SPECIAL COVERAGE – NFC WEST PREVIEW

Will Mike Holmgren lead the Seahawks to another division title in his final season on the Seattle sideline? Can surprise starter Kurt Warner help the Cardinals take the next step after a .500 mark last season? How improved will the 49ers and Rams be after posting two of the worst records in the league last year?


Arizona Cardinals (last season – 8-8)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – at San Francisco (W)
Sept. 14 – Miami (W)
Sept. 21 – at Washington (L)
Sept. 28 – at N.Y. Jets (W)
Oct. 5 – Buffalo (L)
Oct. 12 – Dallas (L)
Oct. 26 – at Carolina (L)
Nov. 2 – at St. Louis (W)
Nov. 10 – San Francisco (W)
Nov. 16 – at Seattle (W)
Nov. 23 – N.Y. Giants (W)
Nov. 27 – at Philadelphia (L)
Dec. 7 – St. Louis (W)
Dec. 14 – Minnesota (W)
Dec. 21 – at New England (L)
Dec. 28 – Seattle (L)


Coach Ken Whisenhunt, entering his second season as the Cardinals’ head man, has named Kurt Warner the starting quarterback for Arizona after supposed franchise quarterback Matt Leinart lost the job with a poor preseason. Warner, a two-time MVP who filled in most of the 2007 year after Leinart went down with a shoulder injury five games into the year, threw for 27 touchdowns against 17 picks. Warner is also 12 years Leinart’s senior and is entering the final season of his Cardinals contract. Running back Edgerrin James is still more than capable as a game-breaker out of the backfield, though there is little depth behind him. Injuries were a factor in Arizona’s inability to finish off a playoff run last year, though the Cardinals posted their best record in recent years. Arizona has the talent to challenge Seattle for the division title but will have to settle for making a run at a wild-card berth.


St. Louis Rams (last season – 3-13)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – at Philadelphia (L)
Sept. 14 – N.Y. Giants (L)
Sept. 21 – at Seattle (L)
Sept. 28 – Buffalo (L)
Oct. 12 – at Washington (W)
Oct. 19 – Dallas (L)
Oct. 26 – at New England (L)
Nov. 2 – Arizona (L)
Nov. 9 – at N.Y. Jets (W)
Nov. 16 – at San Francisco (L)
Nov. 23 – Chicago (L)
Nov. 30 – Miami (W)
Dec. 7 – at Arizona (L)
Dec. 14 – Seattle (L)
Dec. 21 – San Francisco (W)
Dec. 28 – at Atlanta (L)


Coach Scott Linehan returns a season after St. Louis posted the second-longest losing streak to begin the season in the NFL last year. Unfortunately, things still look relatively bleak, as the offensive line and defensive front seven are thin and the offense led by quarterback Marc Bulger lacks playmakers on the edge, with Torry Holt the only proven threat among the receiving corps. Running back Steven Jackson, another key component, has missed time in training camp due to dissatisfaction with his contract. Tight end Randy McMichael, who caught 39 passes in 2007, will have to emerge as an even bigger threat for St. Louis to have any semblance of a strong offense. Bulger will also have to improve his touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio after throwing for 11 scores against 15 picks last year. Anticipate another long season for the Rams, whose dominance in the early part of the decade is growing ever farther into the past.

San Francisco 49ers (last season – 5-11)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – Arizona (L)
Sept. 14 – at Seattle (L)
Sept. 21 – Detroit (W)
Sept. 28 – at New Orleans (L)
Oct. 5 – New England (L)
Oct. 12 – Philadelphia (W)
Oct. 19 – at N.Y. Giants (L)
Oct. 26 – Seattle (L)
Nov. 10 – at Arizona (L)
Nov. 16 – St. Louis (W)
Nov. 23 – at Dallas (L)
Nov. 30 – at Buffalo (L)
Dec. 7 – N.Y. Jets (L)
Dec. 14 – at Miami (L)
Dec. 21 – at St. Louis (L)
Dec. 28 – Washington (W)


The 2008 campaign begins in San Francisco with coach Mike Nolan surprisingly electing to go with J.T. O’Sullivan as the starting quarterback over former No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith, who has been largely underwhelming thus far in his three seasons in the NFL. O’Sullivan has a bit of an edge because of his time last year in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s system in Detroit, while Smith and the ‘Niners spent much of 2007 at odds over Smith’s separated shoulder situation, which Smith finally underwent surgery on in December. The offensive line provided little help, yielding 55 sacks, tied for most in the league, last year. Frank Gore will have to step up in the backfield after rushing for only three touchdowns in the final 14 games of 2007. Isaac Bruce is reunited with Martz after their “Greatest Show on Turf” days in St. Louis, with some promising receivers providing depth. The quarterback mess can do nothing but hurt the 49ers, even if O’Sullivan has a great statistical year. Until players, coaches and management can all get on the same page and develop some level of trust, San Francisco is not going to climb above third place in the division.

Seattle Seahawks (last season – 11-7, lost in divisional round)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – at Buffalo (L)
Sept. 14 – San Francisco (W)
Sept. 21 – St. Louis (W)
Oct. 5 – at N.Y. Giants (W)
Oct. 12 – Green Bay (W)
Oct. 19 – at Tampa Bay (W)
Oct. 26 – at San Francisco (W)
Nov. 2 – Philadelphia (L)
Nov. 9 – at Miami (W)
Nov. 16 – Arizona (L)
Nov. 23 – Washington (W)
Nov. 27 – at Dallas (L)
Dec. 7 – New England (W)
Dec. 14 – at St. Louis (W)
Dec. 21 – N.Y. Jets (W)
Dec. 28 – at Arizona (W)


Coach Mike Holmgren enters his 10th season in Seattle having already announced that he will be leaving after this season, with defensive backs coach and former Atlanta head man Jim Mora Jr. slated to take the reins in ’09. The Seahawks have won the last four NFC West titles but have faced plenty of injury issues in the offseason. Matt Hasselbeck has suffered back trouble in the preseason and has not played much, giving extra reps to backup Charlie Frye. Receiver Bobby Engram enters the year with a shoulder injury that should sideline him for at least the first two regular-season games, opening opportunities for the rest of the receiving corps, led by Deion Branch and Nate Burleson. All 11 starters are back from last year’s defense, which will probably have to be the team’s rock while the offense is in transition, with defensive end Patrick Kerney, linebackers Julian Peterson and Lofa Tatupu and corner Marcus Trufant all returning Pro Bowlers. Shaun Alexander is gone from the backfield, with Julius Jones and Maurice Morris set to split carries. Seattle has some questions, but they benefit from playing in one of the weaker divisions in the NFL, with Arizona providing the only real threat to take the crown. Look for the Seahawk veterans to step up and lead the team to another division title.


Up next – 2008 AFC West preview


Some information from ESPN.com was used in this report.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

2008-09 NFL SPECIAL COVERAGE – AFC NORTH PREVIEW

Can the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger win the division title again in the always-wide-open North, or will Derek Anderson and the Browns take the crown after surprisingly falling just short of the postseason in 2007? Can Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson and the Bengals stay healthy and out of trouble long enough to reach the playoffs? Will Kyle Boller, Troy Smith or Joe Flacco take the majority of the snaps for this year in Baltimore, and can they ride a dominant defense back to postseason football?

Baltimore Ravens (last season – 5-11)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – Cincinnati (W)
Sept. 14 – at Houston (L)
Sept. 21 – Cleveland (W)
Sept. 29 – at Pittsburgh (L)
Oct. 5 – Tennessee (L)
Oct. 12 – at Indianapolis (L)
Oct. 19 – at Miami (W)
Oct. 26 – Oakland (W)
Nov. 2 – at Cleveland (L)
Nov. 16 – at N.Y. Giants (W)
Nov. 23 – Philadelphia (L)
Nov. 30 – at Cincinnati (L)
Dec. 7 – Washington (W)
Dec. 14 – Pittsburgh (L)
Dec. 20 – at Dallas (L)
Dec. 28 – Jacksonville (L)


The big story for the Ravens this year is their three-man quarterback derby. Kyle Boller, the man with the most starting experience with over 40 NFL starts, Troy Smith, who ended the 2007 season as the starter, and Joe Flacco, a rookie from Delaware, are battling it out to win the job under center, which the team has said may not be settled until the regular season opener. Smith looks like the favorite because of his success late last season and a good offseason, and while the coaching staff says a starter has been picked, that secret has not been revealed, though the decision is presumed to be down to Boller or Smith. Jim Harbaugh, a first-time head coach, has taken the reins after coach Brian Billick, who led the Ravens to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV, was dismissed after last season’s disappointment. Harbaugh is running an intense, physical camp after an aging team performed sluggishly, especially on offense, throughout much of 2007. The 2007 season was a big disappointment after returning their typically-stellar defense and much of the same offensive personnel from a 13-win 2006 playoff team. Defensive back Ed Reed, who has been dealing with shoulder trouble, are back to lead that defensive unit, and linebackers Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and fiery Bart Scott which must be considered one of the best in NFL history because of their dominance, year-in and year-out. Running back Willis McGahee, defensive linemen Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata and left tackle Jared Gaither, who has the unenviable job of replacing retired future Hall-of-Famer Jonathan Ogden, have all suffered leg injuries during the preseason, all of which are not expected to be serious. Fullback Lorenzo Neal, who has familiarity with the offense because of his time in San Diego with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, has joined the team. Suggs, unhappy at receiving the franchise tag, has missed a chunk of training camp and may not be ready for game action. Overall, this looks like a rebuilding team, though they will be back to competing for the division in short order.


Cincinnati Bengals (last season – 7-9)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – at Baltimore (L)
Sept. 14 – Tennessee (L)
Sept. 21 – at N.Y. Giants (L)
Sept. 28 – Cleveland (W)
Oct. 5 – at Dallas (L)
Oct. 12 – at N.Y. Jets (W)
Oct. 19 – Pittsburgh (W)
Nov. 2 – Jacksonville (L)
Nov. 9 – at Houston (L)
Nov. 16 – Philadelphia (L)
Nov. 20 – at Pittsburgh (L)
Nov. 30 – Baltimore (W)
Dec. 7 – at Indianapolis (L)
Dec. 14 – Washington (W)
Dec. 21 – at Cleveland (L)
Dec. 28 – Kansas City (W)


Cincinnati will begin the 2008 season after an interesting offseason. Wide receiver Chris Henry, who has had several brushes with the law, and linebacker Odell Thurman, who failed a substance abuse test, were both released. Then, star wideout Chad Johnson demanded a trade, which was not granted; Johnson now claims to be perfectly happy in Cincinnati. Henry was then re-signed earlier this month after some Bengals receivers’ injury issues but was suspended for the first four games of the season after his fifth arrest in three years. The offense has been explosive over the past few years, though Carson Palmer’s interceptions increased dramatically last year to a career-high 20, due in part to a weak running game. However, the defense has been porous at best for the last several seasons; coordinator Mike Zimmer, the third man to lead the unit in five years, has introduced a 4-3 set with an emphasis on stopping the run and providing pressure. The defense has a solid nucleus but is very young and has had trouble with fundamentals, particularly tackling. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has had hamstring trouble, and Henry will again provide depth with Johnson in the receiving game. Coach Marvin Lewis is back for his sixth season after his first losing record last year, though he has a 42-38 mark with the Bengals. Rookie linebacker Keith Rivers held out much of the summer but sis return in time for the preseason opener at Green Bay, reporting 10 days late. Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry form a strong running attack, though each was injury-riddled in 2007, contributing to Cincinnati’s struggles running the football, with Kenny Watson further providing depth. Both ends of “Johnson & Johnson” have had some trouble staying healthy so far, with Chad undergoing ankle surgery to remove bone spurs and a shoulder injury in a preseason contest against Detroit, though he is expected to be ready for the regular season, and Rudi again dealing with hamstring issues; furthermore, veteran fullback Jeremi Johnson reported to camp out of shape and faces an uphill battle perhaps just to make the team. Tight end Ben Utecht came over from Indianapolis and will be another threat in the aerial game. Offensive tackle Stacy Andrews is battling veteran Willie Anderson for his starting spot, as an aging Anderson, who is a former Pro Bowler, deals with injuries. This team already looks like it cannot stay healthy on offense, which is bad news for the Bengals, whose defense will never be confused with any of the all-time greats. Lewis is not on the hot seat yet, but may be after a long year in Cincinnati.


Cleveland Browns (last season – 10-6)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – Dallas (W)
Sept. 14 – Pittsburgh (W)
Sept. 21 – at Baltimore (L)
Sept. 28 – at Cincinnati (L)
Oct. 13 – N.Y. Giants (L)
Oct. 19 – at Washington (W)
Oct. 26 – at Jacksonville (L)
Nov. 2 – Baltimore (W)
Nov. 6 – Denver (W)
Nov. 17 – at Buffalo (W)
Nov. 23 – Houston (W)
Nov. 30 – Indianapolis (L)
Dec. 7 – at Tennessee (L)
Dec. 15 – at Philadelphia (L)
Dec. 21 – Cincinnati (W)
Dec. 28 – at Pittsburgh (L)


The Browns are back on the national stage for the first time since their 1999 rebirth after surprisingly contending and falling just shy of a playoff berth in 2007. An important question that was raised before last season has still not been answered definitively: Can quarterback Derek Anderson hold off 2007 first-round pick Brady Quinn for the long-term starters’ job? Anderson, who went to the Pro Bowl last season, threw for over 3,700 yards with 29 scores, but also tossed 19 picks. Anderson interestingly received a three-year deal before the season, so presumably the front office and staff have committed to him for the time being. The defense ranked third-to-last in the league last year and hired a new defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker, the former Browns secondary coach. They are weaker and younger in the much-maligned defensive backfield after trades and injuries, but they have become tougher in the front seven after the acquisition of Shaun Rogers from Detroit. Receiver Donte’ Stallworth will undoubtedly help Anderson and the offense after coming over from New England in free agency. Tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and return man Joshua Cribbs, both Pro Bowlers, have mentioned their desire for new contracts that has so far gone unresolved, though neither player is raising a stink over it; this could be a sign of greater professionalism, chemistry and leadership than has been seen among Cleveland’s stars in years past. The record will not sparkle as much as last year’s, but the team is solid again and will compete for a playoff berth, which it could reach, with help.


Pittsburgh Steelers (last season – 10-7, lost in wild card round)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – Houston (W)
Sept. 14 – at Cleveland (L)
Sept. 21 – at Philadelphia (W)
Sept. 29 – Baltimore (W)
Oct. 5 – at Jacksonville (L)
Oct. 19 – at Cincinnati (L)
Oct. 26 – N.Y. Giants (W)
Nov. 3 – at Washington (W)
Nov. 9 – Indianapolis (W)
Nov. 16 – San Diego (L)
Nov. 20 – Cincinnati (W)
Nov. 30 – at New England (L)
Dec. 7 – Dallas (L)
Dec. 14 – at Baltimore (W)
Dec. 21 – at Tennessee (W)
Dec. 28 – Cleveland (W)


The Steelers, last year’s division champions, look to build on the success of coach Mike Tomlin’s first season. The defense was the best in the NFL last season, with most of its core returning. They have a difficult schedule, as their opponents had a collective winning percentage of .598 last season. As always, the division record will be key; their 5-1 mark against the North last year helped give them the division crown over Cleveland, which finished with the same record. Pass protection has been a hot topic, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has absorbed 93 sacks over the past two seasons. The line has had some injury trouble over the offseason, but some new blood is expected to strengthen the unit. Speedster Willie Parker is back after breaking a leg and missing most of last season, with draftee Rashard Mendenhall providing depth, an issue after Parker’s injury last year. Safety Troy Polamalu has had hamstring issues over the offseason but should be back and ready to go in plenty of time for the season opener; punter Daniel Sepulveda, who tore an ACL, is not so lucky and will be out for the year. The Steelers return almost everyone from the team that dominated the AFC North last season, making them the prohibitive favorite to take the division again.


Up next – 2008 NFC West preview


Some information from ESPN.com was used in this report.

Monday, August 25, 2008

2008-09 NFL SPECIAL COVERAGE – NFC SOUTH PREVIEW

After ending up on the outside looking in after the Brett Favre sweepstakes, can the Buccaneers and Jeff Garcia win another division crown? Can the Panthers keep Jake Delhomme healthy long enough to win the South? How improved will Atlanta be after a 2007 season full of chaos and controversy? Will New Orleans return from injury problems of its own last year to the form it showed in the franchise’s best season ever in 2006? Part two of our NFL preseason preview series spotlights one of the NFL’s toughest divisions, the NFC South.


Atlanta Falcons (last season – 4-12)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – Detroit (W)
Sept. 14 – at Tampa Bay (L)
Sept. 21 – Kansas City (L)
Sept. 28 – at Carolina (L)
Oct. 5 – at Green Bay (L)
Oct. 12 – Chicago (L)
Oct. 26 – at Philadelphia (L)
Nov. 2 – at Oakland (W)
Nov. 9 – New Orleans (L)
Nov. 16 – Denver (L)
Nov. 23 – Carolina (L)
Nov. 30 – at San Diego (L)
Dec. 7 – at New Orleans (L)
Dec. 14 – Tampa Bay (L)
Dec. 21 – at Minnesota (L)
Dec. 28 – St. Louis (W)


Everyone in Atlanta has to be glad that 2007 is finally over, after beginning the year with the Michael Vick dogfighting controversy, then dealing with coach Bobby Petrino’s defection back to the college game at Arkansas without even finishing an entire season. Most importantly, the team seemed leaderless much of the season and finished last in the division when many had been predicting so much more before the Vick incident. The Falcons drafted quarterback Matt Ryan with the third overall pick as the man of the future, but he has yet to beat out Chris Redman for the 2008 starting assignment, with Joey Harrington and D.J. Shockley also providing depth under center for new coach Mike Smith. The cupboard is nearly bare of veterans, with a number of big-name, expensive veterans let go after last year. Michael Turner came over in free agency and looks to be the focal point of the offense, with Jerious Norwood likely to be more involved as well. Veteran linebacker Keith Brooking will provide leadership for a unit that has a lot of improving to do if Atlanta is to compete in the near future. With such a young roster, a new coach, an unsettled quarterback situation and a ridiculously tough division, it looks like another long year for the Falcons.


Carolina Panthers (last season – 7-9)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – at San Diego (L)
Sept. 14 – Chicago (W)
Sept. 21 – at Minnesota (W)
Sept. 28 – Atlanta (W)
Oct. 5 – Kansas City (W)
Oct. 12 – at Tampa Bay (L)
Oct. 19 – New Orleans (W)
Oct. 26 – Arizona (W)
Nov. 9 – at Oakland (W)
Nov. 16 – Detroit (W)
Nov. 23 – at Atlanta (W)
Nov. 30 – at Green Bay (L)
Dec. 8 – Tampa Bay (W)
Dec. 14 – Denver (W)
Dec. 21 – at N.Y. Giants (W)
Dec. 28 – at New Orleans (L)


Carolina is ready to see what happens if all of its stars can stay healthy for an entire season, after going 8-8 and 7-9 the past two years. The Panthers have back many of the key cogs from a 2003 Super Bowl season who have been unable to consistently remain on the field in Carolina uniforms, including quarterback Jake Delhomme and receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad, who returned this offseason from Chicago. The Panthers signed 11 free agents, including Muhammad and receiver D.J. Hackett, bringing in some new hungry blood and replacing some players who had been injury-prone, such as linebacker Dan Morgan after suffering concussion trouble, and others who had seemingly become complacent. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, a rookie who underwent offseason toe surgery, will lead the backfield. An altercation between the fiery Smith and defensive back Ken Lucas will result in Smith missing the first two regular season games, and Smith has had anger issues in the past, raising questions about if there are chemistry issues in the locker room. For this team, the time is now, as most of the team’s core players are beginning to age. Look for the Panthers to make a serious run at the playoffs this season.


New Orleans Saints (last season – 7-9)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – Tampa Bay (L)
Sept. 14 – at Washington (W)
Sept. 21 – at Denver (L)
Sept. 28 – San Francisco (W)
Oct. 6 – Minnesota (W)
Oct. 12 – Oakland (W)
Oct. 19 – at Carolina (L)
Oct. 26 – San Diego (London) (L)
Nov. 9 – at Atlanta (W)
Nov. 16 – at Kansas City (W)
Nov. 24 – Green Bay (W)
Nov. 30 – at Tampa Bay (L)
Dec. 7 – Atlanta (W)
Dec. 11 – at Chicago (L)
Dec. 21 – at Detroit (W)
Dec. 28 – Carolina (W)


Much like in Carolina, the 2008 season begins in New Orleans with questions of what might have been if certain key players could have remained healthy last year. Stud rushers Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush both missed significant chunks of 2007 as the Saints finished one game under .500. Quarterback Drew Brees leads an offense that was still among the league’s best statistically last year but will be infinitely more effective with a running game, which will be boosted by the addition of Pierre Thomas. The defense has been improved in camp, due in large part to new line coach Ed Orgeron, who enters the NFL after being fired as the Ole Miss head man. Jonathan Vilma and rookie tackle Sedrick Ellis, a first-round draft pick who finally made it to camp after contract issues, are expected to contribute on the defense. Coach Sean Payton looks to take the Saints back to the playoffs after the 2006 season yielded an NFC title game appearance. New Orleans will be improved, but will have to fight off a number of other conference squads for one of the final NFL playoff berths.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers (last season – 9-8, lost in wild card round)
Schedule (Predicted Outcome)
Sept. 7 – at New Orleans (W)
Sept. 14 – Atlanta (W)
Sept. 21 – at Chicago (W)
Sept. 28 – Green Bay (W)
Oct. 5 – at Denver (L)
Oct. 12 – Carolina (W)
Oct. 19 – Seattle (L)
Oct. 26 – at Dallas (L)
Nov. 2 – at Kansas City (W)
Nov. 16 – Minnesota (W)
Nov. 23 – at Detroit (W)
Nov. 30 – New Orleans (W)
Dec. 8 – at Carolina (L)
Dec. 14 – at Atlanta (W)
Dec. 21 – San Diego (W)
Dec. 28 – Oakland (W)


Things are finally getting back to normal in the Tampa Bay organization after the failed attempts to acquire Brett Favre from the Packers. However, the Buccaneers have a solid quarterback situation in their own right, with Jeff Garcia, a Pro Bowler who provides stability and dependability under center, returns a season after leading the surprising Bucs to the division crown and the playoffs. Four other quarterbacks are still around as well, including veterans Brian Griese and Luke McCown, rookie Josh Johnson and Chris Simms, who has essentially described his relationship with coach Jon Gruden as irreparable and will likely be dealt or released before the season begins. With the defense still nearly as strong as ever, especially against the pass, there is no reason why Tampa Bay shouldn’t win another division title, though they play in possibly the toughest division in football and will have to fight off the hard-charging Panthers and Saints.


Up next – 2008 AFC North preview


Some information from ESPN.com was used in this report.