Everything you need to know for the great sports weekend coming up is right here. The MLB Division Series start Friday with the American League and the National League follows suit on Saturday. Then we’ve got our usual college football and NFL previews. All packed in one 2,300-plus word post…
MLB DIVISION SERIES PREVIEWS
The biggest thing that strikes me about this series is what's being overlooked. Amazingly, one of these things is Yankee ace C.C. Sabathia. The talk about the Tigers has been the danger of facing Justin Verlander. And I agree with this, as evidenced by the fact I picked Verlander for MVP. But when these two aces square off Friday night, and perhaps again in Game 4 or 5, it's hardly a given that Detroit will simply coast to two wins. The other overlooked item is less surprising and it's how deep the Tiger offense is. With Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta, Detroit's offense is not as far behind New York's as might be believed. And if we consider park effects–Comerica Park is a pitcher's park, while Yankee Stadium is a hitter's paradise–the Detroit lineup might even be better. This series is a tremendous breakout opportunity for the overlooked everyday players on the Tigers, particularly Cabrera. I like them to finagle a split in the Bronx and then sweep a pair at home to advance in four.
It's a rematch of a 2010 Division Series matchup that saw the road team win every game, including Cliff Lee beating David Price twice. Lee's nowhere to be found, but both teams have very deep and balanced starting rotations. C.J. Wilson has been pitching very well for Texas in the second half and gets the ball on Friday. No pitching matchups beyond that have been settled, and both teams will benefit from being able to move quality starters in the 4-5 spots to the bullpen, where they're each a little short of help. The offenses are defined by Evan Longoria for Tampa and Josh Hamilton for Texas, but the Rangers have a lot more support for their man, and for that reason they end the homefield jinx that existed last year, grab the first two in Dallas and then close it out in four.
If any lineup can stand a chance against Philadelphia's Big Three of Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, it's the St. Louis attack. With Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols in the middle, along with Rafael Furcal red-hot at the top and pesky hitters like John Jay and David Freese sprinkled in, St. Loo represents a challenge. The Phillie offense still has the same there-and-gone issue that plagued them last season and ultimately did them in against San Francisco in the NLCS. However, the Cardinals pitching is nowhere near what the Giants pitching was last year, especially with Chris Carpenter having to pitch Wednesday's regular season finale and likely not available until the series returns to St. Louis for Game 3 next Tuesday. Great pitching beats great hitting and that sends the Phils forward in a three-game sweep.
Milwaukee looks like the superior team on paper, with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder anchoring the lineup, Rickie Weeks setting the table, Zack Greinke at the top of the rotation and John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez in the bullpen. Arizona counters with Cy Young candidate Ian Kennedy and MVP dark horse Justin Upton, but would seem to lack depth. The same way they seemed to lack the pitching depth to beat out San Francisco in the NL West. Arizona is playing its best baseball and its rotation has come together with Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter filling in roles. But Milwaukee isn't without pitching depth themselves, with Yovani Gallardo, Shawn Marcum and Randy Wolf. The best of the Division Series matchups, this one goes the distance and the Brewers advance in five.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL SATURDAY TV PREVIEWS
Texas A&M-Arkansas (Noon ET, ESPN)
I'm concerned about Texas A&M's running game coming into this one. After getting out to a 21-3 lead last week against Oklahoma State, they weren't able to get Cyrus Gray established, and consequently Okie State got back into the game and eventually won it 30-29. So set aside the legitimate concerns about how focused the Aggies will be a non-conference affair in a neutral environment (this one's at The Palace in Dallas). Are they left relying exclusively on Ryan Tannehill to gun them to victory each week? If that's their game, it's one Arkansas can play well, with Tyler Wilson spreading the field in Bobby Petrino's offense. The Hogs can't get physical, as was shown last week in Alabama, so A&M is unable to knock them off the ball and establish the run it's anyone's game. The guess here is to go with the SEC team to capitalize on someone else's letdown spot.
Clemson-Virginia Tech (6 PM ET, ESPN)
This one could be a preview of the ACC Championship Game in December. Clemson took control of the Atlantic Division with its win over Florida State last week, while the Coastal remains wide open and looking for a leader, a circumstance that favors the division's most consistent program in Virginia Tech, as well as the one who has its toughest defense. This game also features a clash in styles. Clemson has beaten Auburn and FSU with its offense, as Tajh Boyd has stepped up with a breakout year throwing the ball and if Andre Ellington's hamstring is healthy he gives the Tigers another threat, both running the ball and catching it out of the backfield. Virginia Tech is playing shutdown D, but at the same time, they haven't been able to move the ball against even porous defenses like East Carolina. I like the combo of defense, homefield and Frank Beamer over offense and a team due to letdown somewhere in a tough three-week stretch. But I'm not sure I'd feel the same way if these teams meet again on a netural site in Charlotte come December.
The 3:30 ET window is filled with a series of interesting games, although I don't know if any of them would keep me away from the baseball playoffs unless I was a fan of the teams involved. The best of the batch is Auburn-South Carolina (3:30 ET, CBS). We're still trying to figure out what to make of the Tigers, and the Gamecocks are trying to show they can be consistent enough to win the SEC East for a second straight year. South Carolina's defense has to show it can get the job done against a good offense, and even without Cam Newton, the Tigers are moving the ball behind the running of Michael Dyer. I like South Carolina to win a good one, but I'm still not really sold on Steve Spurrier's team this year.
Other mid-afternoon games include Baylor-Kansas State, as the explosive Robert Griffin takes on a Wildcat team riding high after upsetting Miami. In the ACC, its Georgia Tech taking its explosive running offense to N.C. State, where the Wolfpack are increasingly inept and Tom O'Brien's days there look numbered. The Big Ten has Michigan State-Ohio State, two teams we're still trying to get a handle on. Those three games are all ABC regional telecasts, while Versus has an interesting game at 2:30, when Nevada goes to Boise State, a rematch of last year's Black Friday Shocker when the Wolfpack upset the Broncos in overtime. The guess here is that revenge reigns in a big way on the blue turf against a Nevada team that's competitive, but not at last year's level.
Alabama-Florida (8 PM ET, CBS)
Both of these defenses look really good early on, and while Alabama's offense looks to be the better unit, is it enough to overcome the raucous atmosphere that will be in Gainesville for prime-time? 'Bama quarterback A.J. McCarron handled a loud road environment in Penn State, but this game will be against a defense with considerably more speed. On the Florida side, even at their best, the offense has not been able to get the ball outside to the receivers. The running back combo of Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey has been enough to carry them so far, not only rushing, but catching the ball out of the backfield, where Rainey has emerged as a big threat. I really have my doubts they can make this work against the Tide defense. But I also doubt that McCarron can continue to be as error-free as he has been. Even though Alabama is my pick to win the national championship, I've felt all along they would lose a game on the way. This is the spot. Florida in a defensive nailbiter.
Nebraska-Wisconsin (8 PM ET, ABC)
Another wild prime-time atmosphere will be on hand in Madison as Top 10 teams battle in the Big Ten opener and another game where a rematch in December is very likely, as these two teams are on opposite sides of the conference's new divisional split. The Cornhusker defense has not looked up to snuff early on, especially against Washington, and the Badgers should be able to move the ball with Russell Wilson spreading the field out and then the traditional UW running game being able to pound with Montee Ball and James White. But I'm also skeptical about Wisconsin's defensive speed and it's easy to see Taylor Martinez having a huge game getting to the outside. Because I'm a UW fan I don't want to pick this game. From my perspective, I like the matchup and certainly being in Camp Randall is big edge. But coming off age as a fan in the 1980s, it's still surreal to see Bucky as a 9-10 point favorite over Nebraska and I've never stopped expecting the worst to show up.
NFL SUNDAY TV PREVIEWS
Detroit-Dallas (1 ET, Fox)
There isn't a true "national" game on Fox this week, with coverage split up fairly evenly, but this is the game Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are going to, so on that basis it's the top game on the docket. And on the merits it's pretty good too. As well as Detroit is playing offensively, they need a better running game this week or Demarcus Ware is going to be able to tee off on Matthew Stafford. Conversely, if the Lions can even do a little bit to slow the pass rush of the Cowboys, they should be able to exploit the vulnerable Dallas secondary with little difficulty. On the other side of the ball, the Detroit defensive line is much better than the Dallas offensive line and I see them taking away the running game and again putting all the pressure on Tony Romo, just as was the case Monday night. It's still hard to envision Detroit winning on the road in Dallas, but that's the past, not the present talking. The Lions are the better team, the Cowboys are on a short week off an emotional win and Detroit wins it.
Pittsburgh–Houston (1 ET, CBS)
TV analyst Warren Sapp, formerly a star defensive tackle for Tampa Bay when they won the 2002 Super Bowl, set the cat down amidst the pigeons when he said the Steelers are basically finished. This game will tell us a lot about whether Sapp is right. I'm not ready to go that far, but I see where he's coming from. Pittsburgh had problems in the offensive line even during their Super Bowl run last year and they couldn't even run it down Indianapolis' throats last week. The Steelers have serious problems on the corners and at free safety. Joe Flacco lit them up in Week 1 and now they deal with an explosive offense that has Andre Johnson on the outside. Pittsburgh doesn't even have the luxury of focusing on the pass, because Ben Tate is ensuring the Texans have a sound running game to provide balance. But lest we think Pittsburgh's the only one with something to prove, Houston faces a test of their own. They're the new favorite in the AFC South with Peyton Manning out, and I'd like to see some evidence they deserve that status. A big home win over a fading power would provide that evidence.
Denver-Green Bay (4 ET, CBS)
This is the game most of the country will see, although New England-Oakland will more likely be a competitive game. You should never say never in the NFL, particularly on a home underdog, but it's very difficult to come up with a rational way that Denver can win this game. The only way they can pressure Aaron Rodgers is to bring Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller and leave their corners exposed one-on-one, a situation that the receiver-laden Green Bay should have no difficulty exploiting. Denver doesn't run the ball well enough to control tempo, so it's really about just hoping that the Packers have "one of those days". Those days do happen and it shouldn't surprise anyone if Kyle Orton can get opened up and make something open. I'm left to think of a quote by the 1930s author Damon Runyon who reminded that the race does not always go to the swiftest nor the fight to the strongest…but that's still the way to bet it.
NY Jets-Baltimore (8:20 ET, NBC)
Now this is a big-time matchup, with the final result possibly reverberating into January in the joust for homefield advantage. Both the Jets and Ravens have learned the hard way about the importance of homefield–they've each piled up road wins in the playoffs, but not enough to make it through to the AFC title. For tonight, the Jets run defense has to be a lot tougher than they were last week, when Darren McFadden rushed for 170 yards in Oakland, and they need to commit to establishing the run themselves. To date, the New York rush attack is non-existent and that's too much pressure to put on Mark Sanchez in a road environment against a defense like the one he faces Sunday night in Charm City. Baltimore has a lot more options offensively. They can run the ball with Ray Rice and if they can keep the Jets' blitz packages at bay, there will be options down the field to Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Overall, I believe the Ravens are a more complete offense, they are further ahead defensively right now and they're playing at home. Tough homecoming for Rex Ryan at the place where he made his name as a defensive coordinator.