That could be interpreted in a few ways: Maybe it means that Rodgers’ skills were declining at age 32. The one most favorable to Green Bay, however, is that the roster around Rodgers has improved and that a bounce-back performance from the QB could lead to big things this season. Last year’s NFC North race seemed pretty straightforward, with the Packers favored to take the division for a fifth consecutive season. But after a 6-0 start, Green Bay sputtered to a 4-6 record down the stretch, leaving the door open for the surging Vikings to overtake them with a victory at Lambeau Field on the final day of the regular season. And just like that, the Packers’ NFC North mini-dynasty was no more.Our Elo ratings consider the North far more wide open this season, although the Green Bay Packers are favored to reclaim the division title. And the Pack might have more reasons for optimism than they did last year. For one, Green Bay’s schedule ranks as the second-easiest in football according to Elo, with plenty of winnable games against weak NFC East and AFC South opponents (and the Packers don’t have to play themselves, either, an underrated aspect of schedule strength for good teams). Also, wide receiver Jordy Nelson is back after an injury wiped him out for all of 2015, and there are the usual reports that running back Eddie Lacy has slimmed down.Despite Green Bay’s reputation as a one-man team, there’s evidence that it was less reliant on quarterback Aaron Rodgers than usual last season. The end-of-season Elo ranking for the Packers usually follows Rodgers’s ranking among quarterbacks in defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR), but last season, Green Bay ranked much better in Elo (eighth) than Rodgers did in DYAR (17th): How will your favorite NFL team do this year? See all of our predictions for the 2016 season » To go with our 2016 NFL predictions, FiveThirtyEight is previewing each division. Here, we look at the NFC North. If the Packers falter again, though, Elo thinks the Minnesota Vikings are poised to take the North. Elo doesn’t know the Vikes lost QB Teddy Bridgewater to a knee injury in preseason, or that they drastically overpaid the Eagles in a trade to bring in Sam Bradford as a replacement. But the damage of that deal will accrue over the long haul; in the short term, Bradford should roughly approximate the production that Minnesota would have gotten out of Bridgewater. And after an otherwise solid offseason, that means the Vikings are on schedule to give Green Bay a run for its money, at least until they have to retool their aging defense.The Detroit Lions are also waiting in the wings after closing out last season with wins in six of their final eight games. The Lions aren’t getting much buzz heading into 2016, and perhaps that’s fair after Calvin Johnson abruptly retired early in the offseason. But the team also ranked among the top half of the league in all three phases of the game last year, and it has the NFL’s easiest schedule this season (according to Elo). The defense is old and Matthew Stafford may not be an Elite QB™ anymore — his most similar retired passers last season were Bernie Kosar, Jeff George, Dave Krieg and Kerry Collins — but it would not be a shock if Detroit finished closer to its 11-5 record of 2014 than the 7-9 mark it posted last season.After this division’s top three, there’s a bit of a drop-off before we get to the Chicago Bears. Chicago hasn’t finished in the top half of the NFL in Elo since 2012, which was (not coincidentally) the last time it had a winning record. Last year, the team continued to be undone by a decidedly un-Bears-like defense — second-worst in football. But Chicago has gone to some lengths to overhaul its D in recent offseasons, so the potential for improvement is there for what was the NFL’s third-youngest defense last year. And the Bears’ offense was surprisingly good in 2015, headlined by a solid passing season for Jay Cutler and a strong ground game (albeit one led by the now-departed Matt Forte). Add in one of the NFL’s easiest schedules, and a Bears renaissance isn’t inconceivable — although it’s unlikely, given the holes in Chicago’s secondary and offensive line.That probably leaves Green Bay and Minnesota as the most plausible division winners, with an outside chance that Detroit will pull off a surprise. But no matter what happens, the NFC North should be entertaining. It’s not the best division in football — it ranks third in average Elo behind the two Wests — and it’s not the most tightly bunched, either — it ranks a distant second behind the NFC East in the standard deviation of team Elo ratings. But it may well combine those two factors — quality and competitiveness — better than any other division in the NFL.VIDEO: How one spurned Rams fan found a new team
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views, policies or position of Atlanta Black Star or its employees Whatever happened to Dwight Howard? Not that indecisive, whining, brooding Dwight Howard of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, now shelved for the playoffs because of back surgery. We all should have gotten our fill of that latest version of the league’s premier big man.Missing for too long now has been the Dwight Howard of 2004, that 18-year-old kid from S.W. Atlanta Christian High School that was appealing in his naivety and inspiring in his humility.That Dwight Howard claimed he would work to change the NBA’s logo to include a cross, that his religious foundation would prevent him from being stained by the grime of professional sports life.All these years later, the logo is the same and Howard is not.He is perhaps the most unlikely case study of how the perpetual spotlight and financial windfall of being a pro sports star can create an oversized spoiled brat. He is that guy because of all the expectations and promise of him not becoming that guy. Hardly anyone would have expected that Howard would father a child out of wedlock and be embroiled in a nasty, public series of law suits over money and custody with the mother, who happens to be one of the mindless “Basketball Wives” (although neither she nor many of the featured women on the show are actually wives, making the show as much contradictory as it is dumb.)Having a child while not married happens; it is not a crime or anything to be ashamed of. But when you have claimed God as your foundation and that you would bring religion into the seedy underworld of the NBA, it just comes off as a little more flagrant, you know?Hardly anyone would have expected that Howard align himself with head-shaking characters like he did in co-hosting an NBA All-Star Weekend party in Orlando with the NFL’s Antonio Cromartie and Willis McGahee, two men who have more than 14 children (that number could be higher) between them by more than a dozen different women. Not good.In the winter, Howard was a mess, one day saying he wanted to be traded, another saying he wanted to stay in Orlando, the next back to being moved. Finally, just as the team was prepared to deal him, he announced he wanted to stay and see what the Magic could do this post season. Through it all, he came off as a spoiled, selfish kid unable to make up his mind. For sure, deciding on where you will live and work is a big deal, one that requires intense thought. But the back and forth showed little regard for anyone else, especially his teammates.Then there was the news that he asked Magic management to fire coach Stan Van Gundy. We learned that through none other than Stan Van Gundy. That was an unprecedented—and questionable—move, but it shed more light on Howard and who he has become. He is not the first player to want a coach run – Magic Johnson got Paul Westhead bounced a year after the Los Angeles Lakers won a title in the 1980s, if you recall. But Howard made a mess of the situation by showing up at Van Gundy’s gathering with the media and trying (unsuccessfully) to present a united front between he and the coach.Now come reports that Howard, after all, does want to be traded before next season. His back surgery may impact his market value now, but his morphing into a sports diva will, too. People around some teams, like the Chicago Bulls, would say they’d rather not have him and what appears to be a “me first” attitude.His last basket as a high school player was a power dunk to cap off another state championship for SW Atlanta Christian. I wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time that it was a symbolic dunk, representative of what his NBA career would be. I was not wrong.But I was not talking about who Dwight Howard would become. At the time, that was not even an issue. He signed autographs with “God bless” beside his signature, “to let people know everything I have gotten is because of God,” he said.In his recently released book for kids, “All You Can Be. Learning and Growing Through Sports,” he wrote: “everything I have achieved is through hard work.”That’s what eight years in the NBA can do. It can—if you allow it, as he has—morph a fun-loving kid who had a whole campus of elementary, middle and high-schoolers looking up to him (and not because of his height) into a self-centered jock. They adored his “one of us” attitude and his smile and playful nature. That was then. . .This does not mean it is over for Dwight Howard, that we have seen the best of him. He’s just 26. There is a lot of good in him. He’s been a blessing to the Orlando community and its youths with his foundation. He has an infectious personality, undeniable talent and strong family ties.Those close to him might even reject the notion that he has changed at all, that money and fame have not swelled his ego. They’d be lying.Curtis Bunn is a best-selling novelist and national award-winning sports journalist who has worked at The Washington Times, NY Newsday, The New York Daily News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The New York Giants are not a particularly good football team — at least going by most surface-level analysis that goes beyond their win-loss record.Before defeating the Detroit Lions 17-6 on Sunday, the Giants ranked 27th in yardage offense, 14th in yardage defense, average in takeaways and pass rush, and were outscoring opponents by less than a point per game and had a minus-five turnover differential. Quarterback Eli Manning was the NFL’s 22nd-rated passer, and the running game had the third-fewest yards in the league.After their impressive win over the Lions, though, the Giants are 8-1 in their last nine games — including their second of two wins over the Dallas Cowboys, the NFC’s current No. 1 seed. If the Giants aren’t better than average-to-middling at passing the ball, running the ball, stopping other teams from gaining yards or making disruptive plays, how are they winning all these games?The short answer: Their defense is built to stop modern NFL offenses.In today’s NFL, short passes have replaced power runs as a NFL offense’s bread and butter. Per ESPN Stats & Information Group, 66.7 percent of this season’s pass attempts — and 38.8 percent of all offensive snaps — have been throws that traveled less than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.As Neil Paine wrote for FiveThirtyEight back in 2014, the Giants’ offensive coaches were targeting a 70 percent completion rate for Manning in the 2014-15 season. He didn’t come close (63.1 percent), but what seemed like a historically high target in 2014 is today a plain reality: Both Minnesota’s Sam Bradford and New Orleans’ Drew Brees have completed more than 70 percent of their passes on the season so far, and several more are within striking distance.With a leaguewide average completion rate of 63.1 percent, per Pro Football Reference, the coaches’ canard about the three things that can happen when you throw the ball has been upended: Now the one good thing happens nearly two out of three times.The Lions are a useful example: Over the past season and a half, Matthew Stafford has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league, largely on the strength of short passes under new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. On the season, 47.7 percent of the Lions’ passes have been thrown less than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which ranks ninth in the NFL. Detroit runs the ball less than any other team but the Cleveland Browns, per Pro Football Reference, and came into Week 15 as the league leader in both average plays per drive and average length of drive. It’s a Woody Hayes-approved three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense, except when Stafford drops back it’s 7.4 yards and the cloud is a vapor trail.But in Week 15 he ran into the New York Giants.Stafford quickly discovered his array of screens to backs, tight ends and receivers weren’t going anywhere, as New York sniffed them out and schemed them away. Though pass rushers Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul have drawn well-deserved attention for their work up front, it’s the back seven’s outstanding coverage that has suffocated pass-happy offenses such as the Lions’. On Sunday, the Giants defensive backs flew to the ball and wrapped up: Safety Landon Collins, corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, corner Eli Apple and safety Andrew Adams each were among the leaders in solo tackles for the day.The Lions abandoned the short pass and tried to establish the run. It didn’t work.Per Tim Twentyman of the team’s official site, nine first-down runs by the Lions gained a total of just 19 yards. And while Stafford has thrown nearly half of his attempts less than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage this season, against the Giants that figure was just 35.9 percent.Forced to throw fewer, deeper passes, Stafford’s effectiveness numbers were down across the board: He completed just 61.5 percent of his passes, per ESPN.com, posted an NFL passer efficiency rating of 71.8 and a QBR of 69.2. These numbers were all down from his season averages to that point of 66.7 percent completion rate, 97.8 rating and 72.5 QBR. His usual method of moving the chains denied, a quarterback under serious MVP consideration led his team to just two field goals.Over the course of the season, the Giants defense has allowed the second-lowest completion rate, and second-lowest passer efficiency rating, of any in the league, per Pro Football Reference.It’s little wonder ball-control teams such as the Lions, the Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles have done so poorly against them. Pass-reliant, hurry-up offenses such as the New Orleans Saints’ haven’t fared well, either; the Saints scored less than half their season average in Week 2.Offenses that go downfield more aggressively and more often, like Washington’s and Pittsburgh’s, have fared better against New York. But it’s impossible to argue with the results: The Giants defense has now allowed an average of just 17.9 points over their first 14 games — and they’re getting trending stingier at the best possible time.Check out our latest NFL predictions.
Like any good trilogy, we’ll get a high-stakes finale when the Tide and Tigers face off in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day. For us fans, we can only hope it’s more Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and less Godfather Part III. So what differences should we be on the lookout for this time around?Clemson changed its game plan — and got betterAs my colleague Dan Levitt and I wrote about early in the season, Clemson had to revamp the way it played this season after losing quarterback Deshaun Watson to the NFL. Watson’s replacement, Kelly Bryant, wasn’t as polished a passer as his predecessor — he averaged about 95 fewer yards per game through the air than Watson did in his final college season1All of the numbers referenced in this story use pre-bowl statistics. — but he was more proficient with his legs, racking up more rushing yards than Watson and scoring nearly twice as many touchdowns on the ground. 201612-1+10.8+2.4+13.7+7.3+1.4+7.5+0.4 Bryant wasn’t a Watson clone — but he was almost as goodKey statistics for Clemson starting quarterbacks in 2016 and 2017 EPA = Expected points added, a measure of offensive productivity that accounts for the value of yards gained, field position and down/distance.Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group OffenseDefense 201711-1+5.4+10.1+15.7+7.7+4.7+11.2+0.6 All numbers are before bowl games. Total EPA on offense and defense may not equal sum of rushing plus passing because of penalties.Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group 2017Kelly Bryant43.580.7+4.5+1.4-0.9+0.3+5.3 201712-1+4.8+5.4+10.9+7.6+4.8+12.4-0.9 2016Deshaun Watson51.082.3+6.3+0.5-0.5+0.6+6.9 201613-0+4.4+6.4+10.1+11.8+6.6+18.3+0.7 YearRecordPassRushTotalPassRushTotalSpecial Tms Over the last two seasons, the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide have faced each other twice for the College Football Playoff championship. To say the rivalry has been as close as it gets would be an understatement: The teams split the national championships at one apiece and were nearly even on total points as well. (Alabama has a slim 76-75 lead in aggregate scoring.) In terms of total contributions, Bryant wasn’t quite able to match Watson’s output of a year ago. But in combination with the Tigers’ other skill-position talent (specifically running backs Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster), he led a Clemson offense that compiled over 30 more rushing yards per game in 2017 than it had the year before. In turn, that improved run game helped the Tigers’ offense absorb Watson’s departure with a loss of fewer than 3 expected points added (EPA) per game. OffenseDefense That dominant 2016 Alabama squad was built around a fearsome defense that ranked among the best in college football history, allowing a paltry 248 total yards per game during the regular season and holding opposing passers to a Total Quarterback Rating of 11.4 — both marks ranked No. 1 in the FBS. This season, those numbers are up to 258 and 20.9, respectively, which still count among the best in the country, but also helped contribute to a defense that was more than a touchdown worse per game by EPA than it had been in 2016.Fortunately for Alabama, its offense nearly improved enough to offset that defensive decline. According to EPA, QB Jalen Hurts and the Tide passing game was worth a full point per game more this year than last, with Hurts rising from 41st nationally in QBR to sixth, and receiver Calvin Ridley cracking the top 40 in receiving yards per game. Moreover, the Crimson Tide rushing attack churned ahead for more than 20 extra yards per game this season, with a greater depth of contributions (eight separate Alabama rushers gained at least 100 yards) that amounted to nearly 4 extra points per game by EPA. Overall, the Alabama offense was second only to Oklahoma’s in efficiency, a year after it ranked only 24th in the country.In other words, both Alabama and Clemson have altered their strengths since the last time we saw them face off in the College Football Playoff. Whether things will play out more like they did in 2016 (an Alabama win) or 2017 (a Clemson victory) is still up in the air — but with greater balance from both teams, the ingredients might be in place for Part 3 of the trilogy to somehow surpass the all-time classics we saw in Parts 1 and 2. More importantly, Clemson’s defense made major strides in 2017, led up front by a unit composed exclusively of first- or second-team All-ACC linemen. Tiger defenders recorded 3.4 sacks per game (third-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision), held opponents to 3.1 yards per rush (ninth-lowest in FBS), yielded the sixth-fewest total yards per game in the country and improved their overall performance by 4.9 points per game according to EPA.Clemson wasn’t an awful defensive team the last time it faced Alabama, but this regular season the Tigers might have had the best defense in the nation. That defensive development helped Clemson post a superior point differential (adjusted for schedule strength) than the Watson-led national championship squad did a year ago. In other words: This is probably the best of the three Clemson teams that have appeared in the College Football Playoff.Alabama isn’t the best ever anymore, but they are better on offenseUp until they faced Clemson in the championship game, the 2016 Crimson Tide were riding high. In fact, according to our Elo ratings, they’d put together the greatest peak performance of any college football team since the AP poll began2In 1936. when they defeated Florida in last year’s SEC championship (and then increased their Elo record when they beat Washington in the playoff semifinal). But we all know how that ended for them — with Nick Saban shaking his head in disbelief as Watson produced a comeback for the ages and delivered the Tigers their first national title in 35 years.Alabama regrouped in the way Alabama usually regroups, which is to say they shot right back up to No. 1 for most of 2017 as well. But, statistically, they were not quite as dominant as a season ago: Going into the playoff, Elo considers the 2017 Tide to be 29.9 points per game better than an average FBS team, which is not only a far cry from their mark this time last year (40.2) but also ranks just fourth in the country this year, behind Clemson (32.6), Georgia (31.3) and Oklahoma (30.0). According to Sports Reference’s power ratings, this is Alabama’s worst season since 2010, a year they were relegated to the unacceptably non-prestigious Capital One Bowl. Although most programs would kill for a “down season” like the one Alabama is having, it’s still worth noting that this rendition of the Crimson Tide has been less dominant than usual.But like their counterparts at Clemson, the Tide have also tweaked their playing style in a way that makes their continued greatness especially impressive. All numbers are before bowl games. Total EPA on offense and defense may not equal sum of rushing plus passing because of penalties.Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group YearRecordPassRushTotalPassRushTotalSpecial Tms YearPlayerPlays/GmQBRPassingRushingSacksPenaltyTotal How Clemson shifted its strengthsExpected points added per game by category for Clemson, 2016 and 2017 EPA/Game How ’Bama changed its focus from defense to offenseExpected points added per game by category for Alabama, 2016 and 2017
Every NBA game between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers is a contrast in styles. While the Pacers rely heavily on a starting lineup featuring two traditional big men, the Heat employ a multitude of flexible lineups favoring speed and shooting. This contrast presents advantages and disadvantages for both teams; each game, each team has to either make the other team adjust or adjust themselves.Through the first three games of Eastern Conference finals, the Heat were making the adjustment, using lineups with two traditional big men far more often than they did during the regular season. And though the Heat won two of the first three games, it didn’t work too well.Miami Heat Minutes Played And Point Differentials, By LineupThe Heat regularly use just three players who could reasonably be categorized as bigs: Chris Andersen, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem. With Andersen unavailable in Game 4 because of a calf injury, the Heat were forced to stay small. They used the combination of Haslem and Bosh for just six minutes together about 13 percent of the game, a single stretch in which they outscored the Pacers by one point. Over the remaining 42 minutes, the Heat’s smaller lineups outscored the Pacers by 11 points. The Heat beat the Pacers 102-90 and lead the series 3-1.For the most part, the Pacers have outscored the Heat when Miami has two big men on the floor; the less Miami does that, the better off it is.Playing these small lineups helps spread the floor, opening driving lanes for the Heat’s ball handlers and stretching the Pacers’ defense. In Game 4, that stretch effect (and the open lanes that resulted) were one of the main factors in the Heat’s series-high 34 free-throw attempts. The Pacers complained about the officiating, but the Heat’s free-throw rate in Game 4 was roughly as far above their season average against the Pacers as their free-throw rate in Games 1 and 2 was below it.The Heat’s small lineups also coincided with the best game in the series from Bosh — 25 points on a 76.2 true shooting percentage. This development shouldn’t have been unexpected. Across the season, Bosh’s true shooting percentage was about 8 percentage points higher when he played without either Andersen or Haslem as compared with when he played alongside one of them.Game 4 gave the Heat firm control over the Pacers and the rest of the series, but it also provided an emphatic reminder: The Heat are at their best with a small lineup on the floor, even with its inherent drawbacks.
The 41,911 fans who filed into AT&T Park on June 8 got lucky. It was a perfect, 74-degree Sunday afternoon (instead of the notoriously fickle San Francisco weather), and the sky was filled with glorious sunshine. Those in attendance got a taste of baseball glory, too. The Giants beat the Mets 6-4 that day, making it five wins in a row for Los Gigantes. With that win, they improved to 42-21. A year after stumbling to a 76-86 record, the Giants owned the best record in baseball.They’ve been terrible ever since. San Francisco has lost 16 of its last 21 games, the worst record for any major league team during that time. After owning a 9.5-game lead in the NL West on June 8, the Giants have given most of it up, clinging to a half-game lead on the Dodgers. You can find all kinds of reasons for that swoon. Injuries forced journeyman Tyler Colvin and light-hitting rookie Joe Panik to take on regular playing time, with predictably bad results. Mike Morse, an early-season terror at the plate, hasn’t hit a lick for the past month. And closer Sergio Romo turned into a piñata, becoming former closer Sergio Romo in the process.Few could have predicted such a sharp and sudden drop. But one indicator did suggest that regression was coming, sooner or later: cluster luck.In a late-May Grantland column, I wrote about the concept of cluster luck as a way to explain how a series of good (or bad) events coming one after another can propel or punish a team:Joe Peta, a former Wall Street trader, presented cluster luck in his book, Trading Bases. Essentially, the concept boils down to this: When a team’s batters cluster hits together to score more runs and a team’s pitchers spread hits apart to allow fewer runs, that’s cluster luck. Say a team tallies nine singles in one game. If all of those singles occur in the same inning, the team would likely score seven runs; if each single occurs in a different inning, however, it’d likely mean a shutout.You’ll sometimes hear a broadcaster talk about a team that scores in bunches, or a pitcher who knows how to scatter hits. But those streaks don’t tend to last very long, since these aren’t sustainable skills for most teams, or players. So when a team has high cluster luck numbers, it usually means its luck isn’t going to last long. Losses are likely around the corner.Sports analyst Ed Feng, proprietor of ThePowerRank.com, calculates cluster luck by using the Base Runs formula to compare actual runs scored and runs allowed to expected runs scored and runs allowed. When that Grantland article ran just over a month ago, Feng had found that the 32-19 Giants ranked second in the majors in cluster luck. And while Giants hitters had bunched hits together about as well as an average team’s hitters would, their pitchers had been astoundingly fortunate, giving up 22 fewer runs than you’d expect over their first 51 games.1Three days after my Grantland article ran, the excellent Colorado Rockies blog Purple Row published an article that noted how the Giants had put up better numbers than any other team both in high-leverage pitching and hitting situations. So cluster luck wasn’t the only factor at work, nor the only one likely to regress.On Wednesday, Feng updated his cluster luck rankings. Below is the ranking of the 30 teams from luckiest to unluckiest:Whatever luck the Giants had earlier in the season, these latest numbers show that their good fortune has almost completely evaporated. A lot of that pullback falls on Romo. From May 29 to June 28, the team’s erstwhile closer allowed 12 hits in nine and two-thirds innings — subpar numbers for a closer, but not necessarily fatal ones, assuming those hits were spread out. They were not. Romo worked four straight perfect innings from June 4 through June 12, with all 12 of those hits coming in just six appearances. All told, opponents blasted him for 10 runs in those six appearances, netting a 16.88 ERA. The biggest beating came on June 13, when the Colorado Rockies clobbered him for four hits, drew a walk and tallied five runs in just one-third of an inning.2The Rockies have been a house of horrors for Romo this year. His past four outings against them netted this line: three innings pitched, 11 hits, 11 runs.The Giants are a talented team, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them contend for the NL West title, and maybe even make a run at the World Series. They have a young ace in Madison Bumgarner, Tim Hudson enjoying a late-career revival, Tim Lincecum suddenly pitching masterfully, All-Stars Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval heating up after lousy starts, excellent first baseman Brandon Belt due back soon after a long stint on the disabled list, and a general manager who’s made lots of aggressive trades in his 18 years at the helm. The cluster luck regression has come, yet they’re still hanging onto first place.We could see more teams experience cluster luck pullbacks, starting with Seattle. The Mariners boast plenty of front-line talent themselves, with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma at the top of the rotation. Robinson Cano is performing about as well as a guy with six home runs can, and 23-year-old Mike Zunino is emerging as a top defensive catcher and dangerous power hitter. Underrated third baseman Kyle Seager is putting up career-best numbers, and the bullpen is leading the American League both in ERA and in fielding-independent metrics. This is also a team with lots of holes, one that has 36-year-old banjo hitter Endy Chavez leading off every day, to name only the most glaring problem. Yet the Mariners are on fire, having won four in a row, 10 of their last 12, and 27 of their last 43 games.That’s what happens when your hitters bunch together hits better than any other team. Through Tuesday, the Mariners had scored 31 more runs than you’d expect from a club with average hit distribution. That Tuesday game offered a Ph.D.-level course in what happens when your hitters click at the same time. Coming into the sixth inning, Seattle clung to a narrow 3-1 lead. The first two batters of the inning reached on a walk and an infield single, followed by two straight groundouts by the lineup’s 1-2 hitters. Then, an outburst. Cano doubled. Seager doubled. Logan Morrison doubled. Zunino doubled. Michael Saunders singled. Finally, Ackley capped the monster inning with a sixth straight Mariners hit, this one an RBI single. All told, Seattle scored seven runs on seven hits in the sixth, an incredibly tough feat to pull off without the benefit of a single homer.None of this is meant to suggest that the Mariners will fall into an immediate slump, the way the Giants did.3Or that teams with poor cluster luck numbers like the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels and Pittsburgh Pirates will suddenly go on monstrous winning streaks and steamroll the rest of the league. There are good reasons to like the chances of all three of those teams, to varying degrees. They have the best pitcher in the American League, and a supporting cast that’s getting increasing contributions from younger players. After sweeping the lowly Astros, they now play seven straight against the struggling White Sox and Twins. And they recently called up top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker from the minors, a far better fifth starter than Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer or others Seattle might have considered.Still, the Ms probably shouldn’t settle for the roster they have now. They already opened the vault for Robinson Cano last winter, and they’ve got the ample TV revenue they’ll need to go after other big talents. The cluster luck beast is lurking in the shadows, and the trade deadline is coming up. Might as well try to fight back.
Members of the OSU women’s volleyball team during a game against Michigan on Nov. 14 at St. John Arena. OSU lost 3-0. Credit: Giustino Bovenzi | Lantern photographerInjuries and illness have taken a toll on the Ohio State women’s volleyball team as the season has worn on, as it has lost five of its last eight matches.This week has been no different for coach Geoff Carlston’s team, as an illness has made its way around the roster. Nonetheless, the No. 16 Buckeyes (21-7, 10-6) will try to get back on track when they travel west to battle with Iowa (12-17, 2-14) on Wednesday at 8 p.m.“We’ve been trying to back off a lot,” Carlston said. “It’s hard to sharpen the blade when you can’t do it. As a staff, we’re trying to find a balance between trying to keep us healthy, but it hasn’t seemed to work.”Freshman setter Taylor Hughes has been in and out of the lineup since suffering an elbow injury on Oct. 21, while senior outside hitter Katie Mitchell has missed the last two games with an illness.To rediscover its form on the court after an ugly loss to Michigan on Saturday, Carlston said OSU just needs to get back to believing in itself.“I think we just have to remind ourselves that we’re a pretty good team and we’ve had a really good journey so far,” Carlston said.Much of the Buckeyes’ early-season success was fueled by the team playing with a chip on its shoulder. Senior outside hitter Elizabeth Campbell said “getting back to that underdog mentality” is crucial to get back to the winning ways. “We just need to get back to our fundamentals, stay focused,” junior outside hitter Kylie Randall said. “We still have a lot of games left … we still definitely have a chance to improve.”In the first meeting of the season between OSU and Iowa, the Buckeyes came out victorious in four sets, marking their 13th straight victory against the Hawkeyes.After posting a 10-3 record in nonconference play and garnering national attention in the form of votes in the coaches poll, the going started to get tough for Iowa in conference play, winning just two games against Big Ten foes.However, OSU has seen that records don’t mean much, evidenced by its Nov. 6 loss against a Maryland team that entered the game with a 2-11 conference record.“Especially if we’re kicking and scratching with our health, it’s a tough match,” Carlston said of the upcoming tilt against the Hawkeyes. “They run a very fast offense (and) they’ve given a lot of teams problems.”Iowa picked up its only two conference wins recently against Rutgers on Oct. 31 and Indiana on Nov. 4. Then, on Nov. 7, the Hawkeyes took then-No. 16 Purdue to five sets before falling.Campbell said she believes OSU will have its work cut out for it in defending the quick-paced attack of Iowa.“They have a pretty distributed, fast offense, so just being ready defensively in our blocking game to be up fast and challenge their tempos,” she said.The Hawkeyes currently rank third in the conference in service aces per set with 1.20. To combat that strength and bring home the win, Campbell said the Buckeyes are prepared to be “challenging the passing lanes” all match long. What’s next?A big rematch is set to be on tap for OSU on Saturday, when it is set to travel to Madison looking to complete another season sweep against Wisconsin. Back on Sept. 27, the Buckeyes defeated the Badgers in Columbus in five sets. The first serve is scheduled for 2 p.m.
Junior running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) runs through a hole during a game against Indiana on Oct. 3 in Bloomington, Indiana. OSU won 34-27. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo EditorEzekiel Elliott has been the metronome for the Ohio State offense this season. Whenever the unit has started to miss a beat, the junior running back has been there to steer the offense back, keeping the unit in time. There have been inconsistencies in pass blocking, the quarterback carousel and injuries, but through it all, Elliott has not wavered once.“We’re certainly not in this situation without Zeke,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said of the team’s 10-0 record after Saturday’s 28-3 win over Illinois. “There is some issues, the back-and-forth at quarterback, but he’s the one constant.” Rather than it being an intangible concept, the consistency of Elliott’s production is quantifiable by way of his nation-leading 15 consecutive games of over 100 yards rushing, dating back to last season. It’s this mark of consistency that elevates him into an elite category. “That’s again what makes him different than a lot of people,” running backs coach Tony Alford said. “There aren’t the highs and the lows. When he comes to play, he comes to play, no matter who it is and where it’s at.” Elliott burst onto the college football scene during OSU’s three postseason games, rushing for over 200 yards and at least two touchdowns in each contest. He has been highly touted since then, as many regarded him as a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy going into the season. He solidified his place among the nation’s best on his first carry of the 2015 season: an 80-yard touchdown against Virginia Tech. For Alford, he doesn’t think Elliott should just be mentioned as one of the best; he thinks the junior owns that crown.“I’m biased, mind you, but you’re looking at a guy that I believe is the best player in the country,” Alford said. And it’s because of this that Alford finds himself in a predicament. With Elliott’s unrivaled ability, Alford said he has trouble balancing how many reps the St. Louis native should be getting in games while getting the proper amount of rest. When Elliott’s on the field, defenses have to account for the many ways he can impact the game, which is why Alford has trouble striking the right balance. Even though Alford isn’t the play-caller, the decision is up to him, and the coach admits that Elliott has maybe been playing a little too much. But Alford said Elliott is a good communicator, so it makes his job a little easier. “He’s pretty good about telling me how he feels, especially throughout the week,” Alford said, adding that if Elliott does alert him of any fatigue, the coaching staff backs off his reps. Through 10 games, he is averaging 24 touches — including 22 carries — per game, which is a pretty heavy workload. But even so, as long as it doesn’t affect his health, the other players love having him out there as much as possible for all of the different ways he impacts the game. “When he’s popping out six, eight, nine yards, on first and second down, that’s what you love,” redshirt sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett said. But it isn’t just on rushing attempts. Despite being able to make guys miss with his agility or blast through them with his power or dart by them with his speed, arguably Elliott’s most important contribution to the offense is when the ball is not in his hand. On Barrett’s six-yard touchdown run against Illinois, the quarterback took the snap and sprinted out to his left. Elliott was out ahead and dove at the legs of an Illini defender, knocking the player to the ground and allowing Barrett to waltz across the goal line without being touched. “The huge thing that separates him from anybody is the way he plays without the ball in his hands and with it in his hands, is the exact same,” senior left tackle Taylor Decker said. “He’s going full-speed, 100 percent, nobody wants to take a hit from him.” Decker jokingly said that based on the blocks that Elliott routinely throws, the running back might have missed his calling on the gridiron. “He should’ve been an offensive lineman,” he said laughing.Except, he isn’t. He’s a running back, a potential first-round pick and a Heisman trophy candidate, and, possibly, one of the best to ever don scarlet and gray. After his performance against Illinois, Elliott moved into third all-time in career rushing yards for OSU with 3,565. When considering it all — the blocks, the catches out of the backfield and the explosive runs — Meyer said the decision is easy when it comes to whom he wants on his team. “I know if I had my choice of any tailback in the country,” he said, “I’ve got mine.”
Active Ohio State student-athletes have never been allowed to appear in corporate advertisements. That will change for the Buckeyes and all Division I student-athletes if the NCAA Division I Athletic Council passes proposed legislation, which would allow game clips of current players to appear in advertisements. The council is expected to vote today at the NCAA convention in San Antonio. The relationship between the corporation and the university would have to be clearly stated. For example, Nike Inc., which outfits OSU’s athletic teams, could use highlights from this football season in its ads as long as it included something like “a proud corporate sponsor of Ohio State athletics,” said Michael Rogers, NCAA Amateurism Cabinet chairman. The cabinet is in charge of drafting the proposed legislation to alter current standards of amateurism, but it is not the only council involved. “This is a highly collaborative process,” Rogers said. “You try to get all of the stakeholders involved.” In doing so, he said, the cabinet reviewed proposed legislation from previous years along with feedback from university presidents and input from student-athlete advisory committees. “I know the issue but I’m just going to have to think about that,” OSU President E. Gordon Gee said in an interview with The Lantern. “I’m not a corporate guy. I’m an old- school guy. I don’t believe in playoffs or anything. Anything that is a slippery slope toward professionalization I have to be very careful about.” Despite the reduced restriction on the use of student-athletes’ images, many limitations will remain. “Direct endorsement is clearly prohibited, (and) then there are some other limits and … consents that have to be obtained,” Rogers said. “The last thing we are trying to do is exploit student-athletes.” Others argue that the new legislation will do just that. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany firmly opposes the legislation and told The Chronicle of Higher Education it was “the essence of exploitation.” Rogers said he understands his committee’s decision will be controversial. With “something like this you are never going to come up with a piece of legislation that everyone thinks is perfect,” he said. “What you try to do is strike the right balance.” If the athletic council feels that balance has been struck and passes the legislation, it will move on to the Division I Board of Directors for final approval. The committee can also choose to defeat the rule change or send it back to NCAA members for further review. If that is the case, Rogers said he expects his committee to be responsive. “I’ll be interested to see what they say and respond accordingly,” he said. “If we need to retool it or tamper it in some fashion, we can certainly do that.” The OSU compliance office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its stance on the legislation.
The Ohio State Buckeyes are one of only four remaining undefeated teams in college football, but coach Urban Meyer said he has not addressed the topic of potentially being named national champions by the Associated Press with his team. Meyer said he tries “not to control what we can’t control,” since the team is banned from postseason play this season, and that his team’s focus is on playing Wisconsin Saturday. “They know what’s coming,” Meyer said of Saturday’s game. “Our guys know where they’re at.” Redshirt senior cornerback Travis Howard said he and his teammates are approaching the season “one game at a time.” “What we can control is just to go out there and beat every team that we face,” Howard said. “For right now … everyone is just focused on this one opponent, and that’s Wisconsin.” Meyer called this Saturday’s contest, which will kick off at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., at 3:30 p.m., a “rivalry game.” “It’s a rivalry game because we have to understand who you’re playing and what they’ve done the past few years,” Meyer said. “They’re a very good team.” Last season, the Buckeyes defeated the Badgers 33-29 at Ohio Stadium. In 2010, the Badgers handed the Buckeyes their only loss of the season at Camp Randall. The 2012 season was later vacated by the NCAA as part of sanctions that resulted from Buckeyes players exchanging OSU football memorabilia for free tattoos. Senior defensive end John Simon said the matchup with the Badgers is a “huge game” for the Buckeyes. “This is going to be a tough, tough game for us,” Simon said. “We know they’re going to come in with a chip on their shoulder … we’re doing everything we can this week to prepare and we’ll be up to the challenge.” There is one potential achievement the Buckeyes can control: with a win on Saturday, the Buckeyes clinch the Big Ten Leaders Division title, even though Wisconsin has already clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game due to OSU and Penn State’s postseason bans. Meyer said that he will discuss that with his team. “That’s real important to us,” Meyer said of winning the division title. The Buckeyes clinched a share of the divisional championship after Penn State’s 32-23 loss at Nebraska. Injury update After missing the Buckeyes’ last four games with a broken right fibula, redshirt senior linebacker Etienne Sabino is back in the starting lineup, Meyer said Monday. Sabino, sophomore Ryan Shazier and senior Zach Boren, who moved to linebacker from fullback following Sabino’s injury, are the team’s starting linebackers as of Monday, Meyer said. Meyer said senior linebacker Storm Klein will also play off the bench. Freshman cornerback Armani Reeves, who plays on the team’s kickoff coverage unit but has missed the past four games due to injury, is back this week, Meyer said. The news was less positive for freshman running back Bri’onte Dunn, who Meyer said is out for Saturday’s game with an MCL sprain. Meyer said the injury did not require surgery, and that his return for the season finale versus Michigan is questionable. Meyer said starting center junior Corey Linsley is “still a little banged up, but he hopes Linsley will be back at full strength by Wednesday. He also said redshirt senior safety Orhian Johnson was “good to go” for Monday’s practice after suffering a head injury against Illinois.