Oregon won the Pac-10 the last two years, including a trip to the national championship game last year. Stanford thundered to an Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech, and both the Ducks and Cardinals finished in the Top 5. With the conference having expanded by two teams and instituted a league title game, it’s Oregon and Stanford who are seen as the solid favorites again. But I’m skeptical and see this as a wild league where you can literally make a case for almost anyone to end up with the Rose Bowl bid.
Chip Kelly’s offense at Oregon still brings back Darron Thomas at quarterback and Heisman hopeful LaMichael James in the backfield, but Kelly has a very young defense that’s soft up front. Stanford has its own Heisman candidate in quarterback Andrew Luck, and underrated runner in Stephan Taylor and a veteran secondary. But the leader, head coach Jim Harbaugh is now in the NFL rebuilding San Francisco and there are holes on both lines. If neither Oregon or Stanford is set to run away with it, where are the other contenders?
The two preseason favorites are both in the North Division, where Washington, Cal and Oregon State have dark-horse possibilities. Washington and Cal are the opposite of Oregon and Stanford. The Huskies and Golden Bears have holes at quarterback and running back, but look pretty good everywhere else. Oregon State has the line play on both sides, along with quarterback Ryan Katz and exciting receiver James Rodgers. And even though the Beavers won only five games last year, it was 2009 they took to Oregon to the wire in a battle for the Rose Bowl. All three of these programs are on good footing, but I really like the direction Washington has shown under coach Steve Sarkisian. They’ve stepped up and won big games, beating USC twice and knocking off Nebraska in last year’s Holiday Bowl. I’m looking for the Huskies to win the Pac-12 North.
In the South the teams are not as strong but the race is no less balanced. USC could have a bounceback year under Lane Kiffin, with respectable play in the trenches and a strong year from quarterback Matt Barkley. Crosstown rival UCLA should have the kind of year that keeps Rick Neuheisel employed, with a defense that improves drastically. Whether the Bruin offensive line gels and blocks for running back Jonathan Franklin will go a long way toward deciding how good the team will be. Arizona State has no such problems up front. Dennis Erickson is loaded with talent on the offensive front, but getting the weaponry to take advantage of that is a concern, as is the defense in general. Utah and Colorado join the conference this season and while both could get bowl bids neither is likely to win a championship. Utah’s secondary is too young and Colorado’s defense overall leaves much to be desired. For the South I see a new-era conference race coming down to an old-fashioned rivalry with USC-UCLA settling it in the season finale.
I’ll give USC the nod to meet Washington in the only conference championship game to be played at the site of the team with the better record. But Sarkisian has shown he can beat the program where he worked as offensive coordinator during the gravy days, and he does it again here. I picked Washington last year and jumped the gun. I’ll give them another chance to show them their championship material and pick them to punch their ticket to Pasadena.
DOES THE RED SOX-YANKS SERIES MATTER?
I’ve been a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation since 1997 and with the Yankees in Fenway Park for a three-game series starting tonight, you know where I’m at—in front of the TV set, albeit a couple hours behind on tivo after getting home late. The Sox and Yanks are again in a tight race for the AL East title, but this year it really does beg the question of how much it really matters.
Both teams are running away from the rest of the league for the wild-card berth. While the AL East taking the wild-card is nothing new—the division has won it 13 times in 17 years, last missing in 2006. The Red Sox and Yanks have walked hand-in-hand together into the playoffs eight times. But in those other seasons at least one of the teams had their playoff berth in significant doubt coming down the stretch. Not so this time around, where each has been on cruise control for several weeks already.
The question of how it matters boils down to two questions—does winning the AL East give you an edge in the playoffs, and does the pride of winning the division matter. The first question has answered beyond a doubt and we can say winning the East matters not one whit to your chances of winning a World Series. We had this same discussion last year when it was New York and Tampa blowing away everyone else. The Rays won the division and lost in the Division Series to Texas. New York advanced and lost to Texas in the League Championship Series. This year’s pairings are shaping up to pit the AL East champ against Detroit, meaning the reward for surviving this race will be facing Justin Verlander twice in a best-of-five series. Those are just a couple anecdotal examples, but the general body of work in the playoffs suggests homefield advantage is a minor edge at best.
So how much does it mean just to win the AL East—forget about what it means for the postseason. How much does it mean in of itself? I think most fans would say they want their team to win the division, for the same reason players would say the same thing—winning is the point of sports. What are you going to say, that you’re indifferent? Furthermore, there’s no guarantee either of these teams are even going to make the World Series much less win it, and the team that wins the East at least will have won some type of title for their trouble in 2011. It’s that motivation that leads me to still check in how the Yankees are doing, even when they’re not playing the Red Sox.
Now that’s all well and good to talk about wanting to win the division, but when the rubber hits the road, how much of it does anybody really mean? Let’s take three hypotheticals…
#1: It’s the last week of the season and letting your rotation pitch out normally means Josh Beckett/C.C. Sabathia would pitch on the final day of the season. Do you juggle the starters to make sure the ace is ready to pitch Game 1 of the playoffs, even if the division title is still up for grabs on the final day?
#2: On that final day, presuming the race is still in the balance, do you summon Mariano Rivera/Jonathan Papelbon for a six-out save?
#3: For players with nagging injuries in September, do you push them because they’re in a division race or let them rest and heal with an eye to October?
For me, on 1 and 2, I’m taking the long view. I want Beckett in Game 1 of the playoffs and Papelbon fully rested to do that same six-out work in the postseason. For #3, I’d push a little bit—I recall in 2007 getting a little annoyed when I thought the Red Sox were overly cavalier about letting Manny Ramirez work his way back from a hamstring injury—but even here if push comes to shove, I wouldn’t drive a player too hard.
Now I’m still somewhat of a purist even in this era of expanded playoffs. If someone with my outlook is only willing to make minimal concessions to a division race, what are the vast majority of fans who aren’t purists going to think? What are the management and players of both teams, focused on winning in the World Series as the only measure of success, thinking? I’m sure they’re going to try and win simply because they’re competitors, but at day’s end, I’m equally sure those three litmus test questions are going to point to October being the sole focus. Which means these games right now might be interesting and entertaining if you’re a Sox or Yanks fan, but they don’t matter as much as the college football games that will kick off later this week.
*It's Closing Week at Saratoga as the track runs through Labor Day, while Del Mar out west is set to wrap it up September 7. Live racing resumes Wednesday. Visit Bloodhorse.com for updates on the doings here and at major tracks around the country.
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