Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Thoughts on Week 1

Week 1 in the NFL has come and gone, and the Dolphins are 0-1 again. For the 3rd consecutive year, the 'fins start the year with a bad note. This year, the loss was extra painful as it came against the division rival New York Jets. Also, for the 4th straight year, there was a new QB under center. Chad Pennington wasn't awful, going 24 for 43, 251 yards with 2 TDs and 1 INT during a last minute, possible game winning drive. Not awful, not great. What may have hurt Pennington and the Dolphins the most was the lack of a running game. The surprising return of Ricky Williams to the starters role garnered just 10 rushes for 46 yards. Ronnie Brown only ran the ball 6 times. Meanwhile 8 different Dolphins caught passes. 17 rushing attempts to 43 passing tries is rarely a good sign. But the Dolphins were only down 6 points at halftime. Hopefully when the 'fins travel to Arizona, they can produce a more balanced, more effective offensive game plan.

The defense also played well, but not great. They held the Saint-to-be Brett Favre to just 194 yards passing, although he did throw two Favre-esque prayers that were answered, while the Dolphins secondary watched in awe. But in the 4th quarter, as the offense tried to mount a comeback, the defense held its own, recording 3 straight 3 and outs. Again, Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and Anquan Boldin will provide another solid test next week in the desert.

An opening day loss is not the end of the season. There are good things to be taken from this game, as well as lessons to be learned. After the trip to Arizona, Miami travels to the Brady-less Patriots before the bye in week 4. Oh yes, and after the bye week, San Diego comes calling before the schedule lightens a bit. Didn't anyone tell Roger Goodell and the NFL powers to be that the Dolphins won just 1 game last year? Watch out, 0-4, the Dolphins are back.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Gators Down Canes - Immediate Thoughts and other NCAA Football Observations

For the first time since 1985, the Florida Gators have defeated the Miami Hurricanes. The final score was 26-3, but the game itself was much more competitive. As I watched this game, intently, a few things stuck out to me...

For the Hurricanes: Miami has a blindingly bright future. Robert Marve looks like the real deal. The defense held up against, and at times looked better than, the Florida offense. Constant pressure on Tebow for the first 3 quarters. Miami committed no turnovers, a huge key, especially for such a young team. The overall team speed could lead them to an ACC title if not this year, in the very near future, especially when you see VA Tech lost to East Carolina, Clemson completly overwhelmed by Alabama last week, Wake Forest needing a miracle over the SEC bottom feeder Ole Miss, N.C. State get blown out by a less then impressive South Carolina, and Maryland losing to Middle Tennessee. I was very impressed by Miami. As I type, Florida State leads Western Carolina 62-0. It looks as though Miami and FSU could be on their way back up to join Florida as perennial powers.

For the Gators: Yikes. I'll go ahead and assume that Urban Meyer and the Gators were holding back, not wanting to show the SEC their full playbook. But 9 points through 3 quarters is not something you want to show Tennessee or Georgia or LSU... As good as Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps, and Kestahn Moore were against Hawaii last week, they were non-existant this week. I don't recall hearing Emmanuel Moody's name once. Why? Even Herby or Musberger failed to bring it up. Maybe I missed it. But only 89 rushing yards for Florida. If they hope to compete in the SEC, that will have to improve. Aaron Hernandez took a big step into the starting tight end role. As for the defense, big impressive showing. Yes, the 'Canes offense moved the ball fairly well on the ground, at times. But in the end, the stats show only 61 yards gained rushing for the Canes. When Miami fell behind in the 4th and went to the air, the Gators defense looked even better. It's funny to think that Florida's secondary might be a bigger strength then the front 7, but at times it looked that way tonight. Only 79 yards gained through the air against the Gators. I hate to say it, but I think the defense outdid the offense tonight. Not that that's a bad thing... not at all.

In the end, a win is a win for my alma mater. It wasn't pretty, especially for 3\4ths of the game. But the Gators got past the 'Canes for the first time in the last 6 tries and now head into SEC play. They will take a week off before heading up to Knoxville for a showdown with the Volunteers. Miami also has a week off before they go up against Texas A&M. The Aggies have already lost to Arkansas State (who?) and barely held off mighty New Mexico today. Look for the 'Canes to steal that one. Then they will begin ACC play. 3 straight home games beginning with North Carolina, before hated Florida State comes to the Orange Bo... I mean Dolphins Stadium. If FSU's showing today is any indication of their season, watch out. Florida Atlantic put up big numbers in their win against UAB, 49-34. QB Rusty Smith got back into his rhythm after a rough game in Texas last week. Smith went 21 for 34, 325 yards, and 3 TDs. Charles Pierre lead the ground attack, rushing for 138 yards and 2 TDs.

Other NCAA thoughts; what happened to the Big East? #8 West Virginia got dominated by East Carolina, 24-3. And it wasn't as close as the score indicated. #19 South Florida needed an overtime touchdown to get past UCF. The same UCF that only managed 7 points through 3 quarters in week 1 against I-AA team South Carolina State. UCONN also needed a late, 4th quarter comeback AND overtime to get past Temple. While that sounds like a great basketball storyline, this is football. Temple football... Syracuse lost to Akron, and Pitt held off mighty Buffalo. Not the Bills, the Bulls. Last week, Louisville got spanked by a down Kentucky team, and Pittsburgh, some pundits favorite to win the league, lost to Bowling Green. Yikes. Lots of talk this week has been about a down ACC this year, but when you really look at it, it's not that bad. The ACC went 2-4 against IA teams last week. But when you take a closer look, there's reason to be calmed. The losses were against top 10 teams Alabama and USC, as well as an East Carolina team that should now be favored to be one of those BCS-crashers. The Big East, on the other hand, has reason to worry. The University of South Florida is the frontrunner to make a BCS bowl... yikes. I could go on and on about college football, but I'll stop here. And I hate to say it, but watch out for the Big 10. The "top 2" are actually looking extremely vunerable, while the rest of the league is making giant strides. Ohio State managed a late comeback against in-state "rival" Ohio U. It was ugly. Michigan escaped with a win against another Ohio team, Miami (Ohio). A win is a win, but both teams will need to make huge strides if they are planning on contending for the Big 10 title. Penn State looks unstoppable. After a 66-10 throttling of Coastal Carolina in week 1, the Nittany Lions continued their attack with a 45-14 beatdown of Pac-10 team Oregon State. Wisconsin is coming off of an easy 51-14 win over another MAC team, Marshall. Illinois, coming off of a tough loss to a very solid Mizzou team last week, ran up 47 points against Eastern Illinois. Even Minnesota dismantled the same Bowling Green team that went into Pitt and won last week, 42-17. This could be a fun conference to watch in October.

Next week! Florida, Miami, and UCF have the week off. South Florida has the key matchup in the Sunshine State, as they head off to face Kansas. Florida State welcomes Chattanooga, a.k.a. cupcake #2 to Bobby Bowden Field, and FAU will need another big day from Smith and Pierre if they hope to upset Michigan State in East Lansing. Oh yea, and I think there's some game out in California... Ohio State vs. USC? If OSU plans to show up like they did today against Ohio U, they might as well not bother booking a flight. Can't wait!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Panthers' News

The Florida Panthers kept the offseason interesting by acquiring Toronto Maple Leafs' defenseman Brian McCabe and a fourth round draft pick in the 2010 draft in exchange for Mike Van Ryn.

The outgoing Panther, Mike Van Ryn, was lost for a majority of the 2007-2008 season. Last offseason, he had surgeries on both wrists, and he played in only 20 games before being placed in the injured reserve list in November, when he had yet another surgery. His best year in Florida came in '05-'06, when he was a +15 and accumlated 37 points (8 G, 29 A). There have been questions all offseason about his durability.

McCabe is entering his 13th season in the NHL. He's scored at least 20 points every year, including three consecutive 50-point seasons from 2004-2007. He has averaged 49 points over the last 3 seasons. He had fallen out of favor in Toronto, both with the GM and the fans. The Leafs have been looking to unload his contract for awhile now, and Florida has the space. While he is 4 years older then Van Ryn, he is an immediate offensive upgrade, as well as a solid, veteran presence on the blueline. McCabe is just another leap forward in solidfying what has been one of the worst defenses in the league the past few years.

Brian may have said it best himself. "“I’m excited about coming.’’ McCabe said. “There’s a great group of young guys here and a good mix of talent. Bringing in Cory Stillman, a guy with two Stanley Cups, and the acquisitions of Ballard and Boynton is a big upside. With myself added, and Jay Bouwmeester, who is one of the best defensemen in the league, hands down, I think we have one of the best defensive units out there. Plus you have an All-Star goalie."

The Cats defense will likely play at least 3 new faces in the starting lineup; McCabe, along with offseason signees Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton. Alongside them are returning starters Jay Bouwmeester and Bryan Allen. Noah Welch or Karlis Skrastins will probably be the 6th defensman. GM Jacques Martin promised to improve the defense this year. He has given it an entirely new face. First game is October 10.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Welcome to the Swamp...

On Saturday, the Miami Hurricanes travel north to renew their rivalry with the my alma mater, the Florida Gators. I can't wait. While the Hurricanes lead the series by a few games overall, recent history is forgettable for Gator fans like myself. 2 embarrassing bowl games and a debacle in the now demolished Orange Bowl in 2003 are memories I wouldn't mind erasing. But this is 2008.

As I watch Vanderbilt beat the Ol' Ball Coach for the 2nd consecutive year, I am reminded that this is a new college football. Upsets are as likely as blowouts, it seems. This Miami team that ventures into the Swamp is talented, there is no doubt. Young, yes. Inexperienced, very. But there is no lack of potential, speed, or talent. But this isn't a state high school championship they're coming to play. This isn't Glades Central they're lining up against. This is the Orange and Blue versus the U.

As my esteemed colleague E.J. points out, college football is a game of emotion. And while the 'Canes might be too young and stupid to realize how big of a challenge this will be for them, you can bet the farm that Saint Meyer will be educating the current Gators on this matchup's recent history. There will be film sessions of the 2004 Peach Bowl. There will be DVDs made and passed out showing Sebastian the Ibis on the field celebrating with the U before the 2000 Sugar Bowl was over. While some of these players may not have grown up knowing this was THE rivalry in the state pre-1987, they will know now. Both teams will come into this game angry. This will be a rivalry game, have no doubts.

But this is the difference. Of the 100 players on Miami's roster, 40 or either true or redshirt freshman. 21 true freshman played in Miami's opening game against Charleston Southern. It may not have helped that they were able to sleepwalk their way to a 52-7 win. The last thing they need to be thinking is, "Hey, we just scored 52 points, we're unstoppable!" A freshman QB is starting his first collegiate game... ever... in the Swamp... at night... on national TV... The talent is undeniable; in 2006, he broke Tim Tebow's Florida State High School records in passing yards and touchdowns. But his receiving core is questionable, at best. There's no question that Miami's running game is the key to their upset chances. Time of possession will be a key stat on Saturday night. Unless of course the Gators score on 3-4 minute drives all night long...

Welcome to the Swamp. In Florida's opening win against Hawaii, the Gators scored touchdowns on offense (4 rushing, 1 passing), defense (2 INT returns), and special teams (punt return). 11 different Gators rushed to combine for 238 yards on the ground. 11 different players. Harvin didn't play, remember. Major Wright, Wondy Pierre-Louis, and Joe Haden have the Gators secondary looking much improved already, while Brandon Spikes and Carlos Dunlap lead the front 7 that looks quicker and faster then last season's defense.

I'm superstitious, I don't like being favored. I don't like expectations. I was nervous before the Hawaii game. I'll be nervous before the Citadel come to Gainesville in November. I'm nervous now. Miami has speed, they have talent in the right places. I won't be surprised at all to see a tight score at halftime. But this is Florida vs. Miami. This is high school rivalries bleeding into collegiate hatred. This is making up for the last 6 times these two have met. This is a defense looking to prove they won't be the reason Florida doesn't have a title shot this year. This is the fastest, most explosive, weapon filled offenses college football may see. Ever. This is Gator country. This is the Swamp... only Gators get out alive.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Hurricanes Fan's Perspective on UM-UF

The big day is fast approaching. I've been circling this date on my life calendar since the Canes last met the Gators in the 2004 Peach Bowl. The rivalry resumes in Gainesville. Although I am a graduate of both schools, there's no real struggle here - I've been a Hurricanes fan all of my life. I love the Gators, have several Gator shirts and other assorted memorabilia, and am a proud member of the UF Alumni Association. But I'm studiously avoiding all of those items strewn around my apartment as the day approaches. I grew up on Gino Torretta, Lamar Thomas, Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp, the Rock, Tremain Mack, Ryan Clement, Danyell Ferguson, Dan Morgan, Reggie Wayne, and Santana Moss.

Miami has the series lead at 28-25, including claiming victory the last 6 times the teams have faced. Yet I've never as a Canes fan felt more David to another team's Goliath. When was the last time the Canes were 3 TD underdogs? Nary a commentator has given Miami the slightest chance to prevail on Saturday in Gainesville. The deck, to be sure, is stacked against a UM victory - the abysmal 2007 season, a freshman QB that's never taken a college snap, playing 18 freshmen in last week's romp against Charleston Southern, going up against the reigning Heisman trophy winner, the #5 team in the country, and a team just 2 years removed from the most recent championship. Taking off the orange-and-green glasses, and applying strict rationality to the upcoming game, my head gives the Canes no chance at all.

But my heart says otherwise. Kirk Herbstreit likes to say that college football is a game of emotion, and that is one reason that the Canes do have a chance on Saturday. For all of their inexperience, the Canes may be too young and dumb to know that they are statistical longshots to win on Saturday. The freshmen who played last week were carefully picked by Coach Randy Shannon for their old-school, tough-as-nails approach to the game. In fact, one of the glaring things about the 2008 newcomers is that they've already taken leadership roles on this team. Guys like Jacory Harris, Marcus Forston, Sean Spence, Jordan Futch, Brandon Harris have been supplanting many of the upperclassmen as vocal leaders. They were winners in high school - the first three haven't tasted defeat in 3 years - and they will not accept a repeat of the Hurricanes' 2007 season on their watch.

Crazy things happen in college football. See Appalachian State over Michigan and Stanford over USC in 2007. See East Carolina over Virginia Tech and UCLA over Tennessee in 2008. The game increasingly does not go as scripted as parity takes over the college football landscape. Moreover, there is a very real chance that the Gators, knowing their strategic advantages, are not taking the Canes too seriously. Chris Rainey recently said that both FSU and UM suck. Louis Murphy actually went as far as to suggest that Florida is the real "U" (his comment was funny because it was based on how many championships the Gators have won; someone should advise him that the current count is Miami 5, Florida 2, thank you). With success comes pride, and excessive pride can lead to cockiness (the pride cometh before the fall, I hear). I'm not saying the Gators as a whole are cocky, or that that would even make a difference - just that some of their players' comments indicate as much. The Canes have been offered prime bulletin board material. We'll see if they can harness their rage into a colossal upset on Saturday.

So, the two in-state rivals resume their dance on Saturday. The Gators have all of the talent in the country on their side. The Canes will play the inspired underdog. U ready?