NOTRE DAME LOOKS TO CONTINUE TURNAROUND
In late October last year, Brian Kelly looked ready to add his name to the list of coaches who’ve tried futilely to bring Notre Dame back to consistent prominence since Lou Holtz left town following the 1996 season. The Irish lost consecutive games to Navy & Tulsa—both good programs, but hardly acceptable when you aspire to what Notre Dame wants to be again—and tragedy struck the program when video assistant Declan Sullivan died in a tower crash when high winds knocked it down. The school was rocked to its core.
I don’t like to segueway casually from the death of a young student to a team’s football fortunes, but Notre Dame finished the season strong, beating Utah, Army and USC to finish at 7-5 and then they beat Miami decisively in the Sun Bowl. Now the Irish are back for more have the team to make a bigger run in 2011.
Notre Dame will be experienced, with 11 seniors and 21 upperclassmen projected to start. Quarterback Dayne Crist is now familiar with Kelly’s high-octane attack, and all his receivers are back, namely favorite target Michael Floyd. The fact Crist missed the final three games of last year mean Tommy Rees got valuable experience as his backup. The offensive line has four starters back and give lone setback Cierre Wood the chance for a solid year running in a system that opens up a lot of room for a back if he can make plays in space.
An improved defense keyed ND’s strong November, as they gave up just 22 points in the last three regular season games and the personnel is back to keep that going. Kelly’s defense is experienced at all three levels, and there’s young talent moving up as well. Prince Shembo, the one non-upperclassman starter, is at linebacker at a potential breakout player. New freshman Aaron Lynch up front and Ishaq Williams at linebacker will get chances to play. Between the new recruits and mainstay LB Mante Te’O there are playmakers in the front seven.
The schedule never does Notre Dame any favors—the one downside of having all your games on NBC, as the network wants saleable games—and this year is no different. Even the home opener on September 3 against South Florida is no gimme and trips to Michigan and Pitt come early on. A run at a national title, the goal Kelly was brought in to achieve, is still a longshot, but the coach has done it at Cincinnati and he’s got a better team now than he ever has before. At the very least, returning to a major bowl game is a feasible goal this year in South Bend.
WASHINGTON PUSHES FOR WINNING SEASON
If the only teams that matter in baseball are the 12-13 clubs that have realistic playoff hopes, than the Washington Nationals have nothing to play for right now. But if you believe that goals like a winning season and finishing out of the lower echelon of your division are worth fighting for—and that those goals mean more for some teams than for others, then Washington is entering a critical stretch of season.
The Nationals have not had a winning season since moving to the nation’s capital from Montreal in 2004.The organization hasn’t had once since 1994 when the then-Expos had the best record in baseball at the strike which wiped out the rest of the year. The team has been mostly hopeless since that year and its relocation, but this season has the chance to be different. The Nats are 56-61 and part of a joust with the Marlins and Mets for third in the NL East and have a chance to put down a solid benchmark in their building program.
No player in baseball is more underrated than first baseman Michael Morse, whom we discussed in Monday’s look at the NL MVP candidates. It also bears noting that Jayson Werth is finally starting to hit, after spending the first months after getting his 7-year, $126 million contract in the tank. Werth will never play up to that ridiculous contract, but with a .380 on-base percentage over the last month, he’s no longer a drag on the lineup and his power is starting to come back too. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has been locked in at the plate since returning from the disabled list, and Rick Ankiel has been swinging a good bat. The Nats could use their young players up the middle—catcher Wilson Ramos, second baseman Danny Espinosa and shortstop Ian Desmond—to start hitting down the stretch. Ramos and Espinosa in particular, are players who have to produce if this team is to win.
Pitching-wise, the big news in this organization is the rehab outings of Stephen Strasburg and it’s likely he’ll be back in the bigs for September, along with some other pitching prospects that manager Davey Johnson wants a look at. The big-league rotation has done a very credible job all year. While veteran Livan Hernandez and young Jordan Zimmerman are starting to a struggle a bit right now, that’s offset by good outings from Ross Detwiler and even the return of Chien-Ming Wang. The latter was one of the top pitchers in the American League with the Yankees from 2006-07 and is trying to rebuild his career. In his first three starts he’s averaging five innings a pop with a 3.60 ERA. On Friday night in Philadelphia he faces Roy Halladay, what once would have been a showdown of AL East aces when the latter was in Toronto while Wang was in the Bronx.
If Washington is going to make a run at a winning season now’s the time. They have to at least slow down the Philadelphia freight train over the weekend (Saturday night’s game is on the MLB Network at 7 PM ET) and then take advantage of a 10-game homestand after that. Going into the offseason with a winning record under their belt and a full season of Strasburg to look forward to would do wonders for baseball inside the Beltway.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS PREVIEW
Tampa Bay was one of the surprise teams of the league last year, going 10-6 and competing for a playoff berth to the season’s final week. They come into this August optimistic and that good feeling is justified.
Josh Freeman was the difference-maker for this team a year ago. The big athletic quarterback could always make the plays he needed to make down the stretch and with Freeman still being young we can believe he’ll only get better. The same is true for his supporting cast at the skill positions. Mike Williams had a big rookie year at receiver and fellow rookie Aurelious Benn showed progress. Rookie running back LeGarrette Blount showed he could be a good power running back in the NFL. Notice a trend? That’s a lot of good players who still have plenty of room to grow and get better.
The offensive line has two Pro Bowlers in left tackle Donald Penn and right guard Davin Joseph. There’s no real weak point in this unit. And on the other side of the line of scrimmage, Tampa has taken the same approach as with its skill guys—they’re loading up on quality draft choices and going young. Last year it was Gerald McCoy and the former Oklahoma tackle gave some stability to the interior. This April, coach Raheem Morris addressed the perimeter. Ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers were the first two draft picks and they’ll both get every chance to play. Mix in playmaking linebackers like Quincy Black and Geno Hayes and you have a destructive front seven.
Tampa’s secondary is a problem. Eventually they’ll have to figure out a way to field a unit without Ronde Barber in it, but that won’t be this year. Unfortunately for now the veteran corner is the only obvious strong point. In a division where Drew Brees and Matt Ryan lurk, this must clearly be Priority #1.
The Buccaneer formula a year ago was to be patient on both offense and defense and eventually set Freeman up to pull a rabbit out of his hat. That’s a tough approach to make work two years in a row, but there’s so much room for improvement here that Tampa can likely grow beyond that. It’ll be tough to make a big step forward in the W-L record, but if they hit 10 wins again, it almost surely means playoffs.
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