NL CY YOUNG RACE
Last year the National League Cy Young race was won by Philadelphia's Roy Halladay, who needed a strong closing push to win the award. This year it won't require as much, because the Phillies' ace holds a handy edge on the rest of the field as we come into the season's final six week. With a 15-5 record, a 2.53 ERA and having piled up 184 innings of work, Halladay is a runaway favorite to win his second straight Cy Young and third overall.
Halladay's 15 wins and 184 innings both lead the league, while his ERA sits at third, even though he pitches in a very hitter-friendly park. More to the point, the two pitchers above him in this stat–Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto and San Francisco's Ryan Vogelson–have nowhere near the kind of innings you should need to win a Cy Young. Cueto has been nothing short of dazzling when he's been on the mound, with a 1.89 ERA, but he missed most of the first two months. Vogelsong has been the great find for an already pitching-rich team, but his 127 innings is actually one fewer than Cueto's
Philadelphia hasn't had a shortage of pitching as they've lived up to the preseason hype that it would be one of the great rotations ever. That means Halladay isn't doing it alone, and Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee will both finish high up in the final balloting. But both trail their teammate in wins, ERA and innings. Both are close enough in workload and wins to make up the gap. Lee has 0.29 points to make up in ERA, whiile Hamels is much closer at only .09 behind. As such, he would have to be considered the #2 finisher right now among startersand have the best chance of anyone in the NL to catch Halladay.
The aces in San Francisco, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain have been very good, but not quite at the same level as Halladay or even Hamels, and probably Lee. San Fran's a little easier for pitchers. Lincecum, with 11 wins and a 2.64 ERA should finish in the Top 5, while Cain is outside that realm.
Closer does offer a viable option in Pittsburgh's Joel Hanrahan. The Pirate stopper has been nothing short of dominant, nailing down 30 of 32 opportunities with a 1.16 ERA. The two blown saves lead me to still keep him behind Halladay–it's harsh, but a perfect year for a closer is doable–Jose Valverde in Detroit is on track–but I'd consider it a tossup between Hanrahan and Hamels for second.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS PREVIEW
It never quite totally clicked for New Orleans last season, and while they were still a good football team, winning 11 games and making the playoffs, it always seemed like they were just on the cusp of being right back to the Super Bowl-caliber team they were in 2009 when Drew Brees led the Saints to the top. A disappointing playoff loss in Seattle was an all-to fitting end for an up-and-down team done in by the lack of a consistent running game.
That the Saints are going to throw the ball effectively is a given. Brees is the best quarterback outside the Brady-Manning duo and he has a good corps of receivers in Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Devery Henderson. If you give Brees time, he picks you apart. If you blitz him, he burns you. New Orleans is going to score points, but the question will be if they can establish a consistent ground game to control tempo and also make sure their meal ticket behind center doesn't take too many hits. Both of those issues start with the offensive line. Jermon Bushrod at left tackle and Jahri Evans at right guard were outstanding in the Super Bowl year, but inconsistent last season. That needs to change. Finding a reliable #1 running back will be a chore. Pierre Thomas is listed as the starter and he can do the job if he gets blocking, but durability is a problem for a team that was ravaged by injuries at this spot last year. Darren Sproles, imported from San Diego to be the backup is a little shifty guy, more appropriate as a change of pace and a pass-catcher. And Chris Ivory is similar to Thomas. Sean Payton will need to use his creativity to get each player in the right situations and maximize productivity that way.
There have to be concerns defensively, at least in terms of discussing returning this team to Super Bowl-level. Will Smith must come up with a big year at defensive end, and Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter have to be reliable on the corners. Pro Bowl play is possible from all three, but so is inconsistency. Without a pass rush, the Saints have serious problems and Smith has to provide it. Even with a pass rush, quarterbacks have to see the outside taken away and Greer and Porter have to get that done. I think the defense will be decent, but I'm skeptical this unit can really be Super Bowl caliber again in 2011.
MISSISSIPPI STATE LURKS IN THE SEC WEST
Mississippi State stepped up with a solid year in the rugged SEC West a year ago, winning eight games and then giving Michigan's Rich Rodriguez an unceremonious ending to his Wolverine career with a 52-14 thrashing in the Gator Bowl. It was enough to get head coach Dan Mullen–a one-time Florida assistant–prominently mentioned in the rumor mill when the Gators hired a new coach, and with a lot of experience back in the fold, the Bulldogs are set for another strong year in 2011.
All success in football is built up front and Mississippi State is strong on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The defensive front looks particularly tough, with three starters back, while the offensive line brings back four. The line will set the tone and enable a good group of skill players to make some plays. Quarterback Chris Relf is a runner/passer combo in the mold of some of the most successful college quarterbacks in recent years (Cam Newton, Tim Tebow, Vince Young) and has all three of his top receivers back. Not only that, but the top two running backs return and both are seniors. Vick Ballard and Robert Elliot make a good 1-2 punch for Mullen in the backfield.
Defensively, if that experienced front four gets a pass rush, opposing quarterbacks won't be able to rely on secondary mistakes to bail them out. All four starters back in the defensive backfield. In fact the only area this team lacks experience is at linebacker, where all three starters will be new. Experience isn't the problem in Starkville. I think the concern has to be whether there's enough true playmaking talent to win games in this conference. If they played anywhere else–even the SEC East for that matter, I wouldn't worry about as much. But the West means Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Arkansas. That's an unforgiving schedule and being smart and tough might not be enough to win those games. Even if it doesn't, it will still be enough to win the games they should win. Pencil the Bulldogs in for another eight-win campaign. And maybe with a break or two, they could even crack double digits. We'll know quickly–they go to Auburn and then host LSU on September 10 & 17.
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