It’s a new era in the Big Ten, with Nebraska joining the conference, a divisional split put into place and a championship game scheduled for the RCA Dome in Indianapolis this December. What could be more appropriate for a new era conference than for the two newest members to meet in Indy? Penn State and Nebraska both have a shot.
The Nittany Lions may have been in the league for 18 years, but they still maintain their own unique Eastern identity. They’ve had a lot of success since joining the league in 1993, but only three conference championships (1994, 2005, 2008). With a defense loaded with experience and Matt McGloin with several games starting experience under his belt at quarterback, Penn State can get past Leaders Division rivals Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Buckeyes were going to need to rebuild the defense even in the best of circumstances and the complete turmoil that enveloped the program and cost them head coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor make it unlikely they can think about any more than eight wins. Wisconsin is very good, solid on both lines, deep at running back and new quarterback Russell Wilson in from N.C. State. I think they’re a notch behind Penn State, but in UW’s favor, they host the season finale with the Lions on Thanksgiving weekend.
Unlike Penn State, Nebraska is favored to win its division, the Legends. The Cornhuskers are also favored to win the conference title and presumed Rose Bowl bid (unless they each the BCS National Championship Game) based on their rankings in most national polls. I’m not as sold. Bo Pellini’s got himself a good team, built around shifty quarterback Taylor Martinez and a tough defensive front four, but they do have three sophomores breaking in the offensive line and while the back seven defensively has talent in linebacker Lavonte David and corner Alfonzo Dennard, they are not deep. Nebraska is beatable. Michigan State and Michigan would be possible candidates, but there are flaws with both. The Spartans are projecting four sophomores into the lineup, including up front where they are very young. MSU will score points with Kirk Cousins and a dynamic cast at the skill positions, but not enough to win a division. Michigan is a more intriguing case. There is experience at defense, but with their past history it’s not positive experience. And whether Denard Robinson can adapt to a pro-style offense—or head coach Brady Hoke will adapt his system to the brilliantly elusive Robinson—remains to be seen.
The team I really see as the dark horse challenger is Northwestern. The Wildcats are ready to step up and have a breakout year. Dan Persa is back at quarterback and has a great receivers tandem in Jeremy Ebert and Demetrius Fields. The defense is going to be much better and the offensive line will hit the ground running. I’m stepping out onto a limb and picking Northwestern to win the inaugural Legends Division title.
That would set up a Penn State-Northwestern game for the Rose Bowl bid and I daresay the Notebook is the only outlet in the world predicting this. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen. I’d expect the Lions to go the Rose Bowl. Wisconsin will win 10 games and end up with an at-large BCS slot, while Northwestern settles for the Capital One Bowl. Further down the conference ladder, Iowa will win seven games as they rebuild the defensive front and make a bowl game, while Purdue will improve to 5-6 wins and be right on the cusp of the bowl party. Illinois will be a disappointment and Indiana and Minnesota continue their perpetual rebuilding projects. But the big stories will be in State College, where Joe Paterno returns to the top and Evanston, where Northwestern produces its best team since the 1995 Rose Bowl squad.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES PREVIEW
The hype has come down on the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason as they struck both quickly and repeatedly in the short free-agent signing period after the lockout ended in late July. The Eagles added corner Nnamdi Asomagha and defensive end Jason Babin to the starting lineup and signed Vince Young to back up Michael Vick at quarterback. Philly is now showing up as the NFC favorite in some sportsbooks, and at worse the top challenger to Green Bay. But is the hype justified?
I don’t see it. When I look at the Eagles I see a good football team, one that will make the playoffs and looks like a good contender to win the NFC East. And maybe, if all breaks well on the injury front they can make a Super Bowl run. I can say the same things about Atlanta, New Orleans, Tampa Bay and maybe even Dallas if I’m feeling generous.
Babin gives Philly a great dual presence at defensive end as he joins Trent Cole on in pressuring both edges. But linebacker is a big weakness, and fourth-round pick Casey Matthews (brother of GB’s Clay) is projected to start. Asomagha joins Asante Samuel to make a great corner tandem. But the safeties are a problem.
Go over the offense and you find a similar mix of potential and problems. The left side of the offensive line is in very good hands with Jason Peters and Todd Herrman. But with Michael Vick being lefthanded it’s the right side that’s most important here, in protecting the blind side and coach Andy Reid has to hope Winston Justice can stay healthy and rookie guard Danny Watkins can grow into the job quickly. There’s no real downside to the skill positions, where Vick runs an offense that has a great package of receivers with DeSean Jackson going deep, Jason Avant underneath and Jeremy Maclin the most complete package. If the offensive line can protect Vick on their own, tight end Brent Celek could be freed up to play a greater role in the passing game.
Ultimately, Vick must stay healthy and I’m very skeptical that his body frame and style of play will lend itself to starting all 16 games. If Vick misses 3-4 games that can be the difference in the push for homefield advantage in the playoffs or a first-round bye. And that can be the difference in whether you beat Green Bay or go home. I have my doubts the Eagles can be the next NFC Champs.
PHILLIES’ OFFENSE GAINING STEAM
Is it possible that the best team in baseball is getting better as the postseason draws closer? Philadelphia is 83-45 and holding a six-game lead over Atlanta, even with the Braves playing good baseball of late. The Phils have only lost two series since the All-Star break and in one of them it took two ninth-inning rallies by the Nationals to pull it off. Philadelphia’s pitching is their calling card, and it’s been that rarity in sports in being a group that’s lived up to the hype. Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay have dominated, Roy Halladay has pitched well when healthy as has Kyle Kendrick. They’ve uncovered a gem in Vance Worley and the bullpen has come together. But the big development in Philadelphia is that this offense is starting to click as a unit.
For several years Philadelphia had the reputation of a team that slugged its way to wins and that reputation was deserved. Then, as the offense lagged much of last year and got off to a sluggish start this year, a new team image took hold—the one where starters went 7-8 innings and they scored enough to win. We might have to reverse perceptions again, because Philly has a lot of players hitting well.
No one’s hit better all year than centefielder Shane Victorino and he continues to post on-base percentages over .400 and slugging numbers over .600 since the All-Star break. Chase Utley swung the bat well, and even though he’s cooled a bit, his second half stats are still strong. Carlos Ruiz has been effective at getting on base and before going on the DL with an injured groin, Jimmy Rollins was swinging a very good bat the top of the order.
But no one was better than Hunter Pence, the big trade deadline acquisition. Pence has a .402 OBP and .520 slugging since coming over from Houston and his addition is a big reason the Phils have moved into the NL’s top six in slugging, after wallowing in ninth much of the spring and summer.
There’s just no weaknesses on this Philadelphia team right now and the hope for opponents was that they could do what San Francisco did in last year’s NLCS and silence the bats. In the postseason, it’s possible, when good pitching tends to trump good hitting. But it’s looking a lot less possible or likely than it was even six weeks ago.
*It's a big weekend in horse racing coming up. At Saratoga on Saturday, the biggest race of the summer, the Travers Stakes is set to go. Known as the MidSummer Derby, the Travers features Preakness winner Shackleford and Belmont champ Ruler On Ice, along with Coil, who recently won a $1 million purse in the Haskell Stakes. Then on Sunday, Del Mar hosts the Pac-Classic, the biggest event of the year on the prestigious SoCal circuit. Visit Bloodhorse.com for updates on the doings here and at major tracks around the country.
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