The NFL was kind enough to schedule a Thursday Night Football game between two of the poor sisters of the AFC East, Buffalo and Miami. Both teams have struggled with consistency and both have 5-4 records and are tied for second in the division behind New England who is 7-2. Once again the fan bases in the AFC East are looking at quarterback Tom Brady having an MVP caliber season and head coach Bill Belichick putting together a strong defense as they once again look like a favorite to go deep in the playoffs.
Since 2001, the division has been in a stranglehold of the Belichick and Brady led New England Patriots. The Patriots have won the division every season save for 2002 and 2008. In both seasons the Patriots still tied for the division lead in victories but missed the playoffs on tie-breakers. Also, 2002 was Brady’s second season as a starter and 2008 was when he played just one quarter of football being sidelined the entire season with a knee injury.
In Buffalo, the Bills are still lamenting the end of the Marv Levy era in the late 1980s and early 1990s where the Bills went to (and lost) four consecutive Super Bowls and were an almost automatic double-digit winning team. Since Wade Phillips was run out of Western New York following the 2000 season that saw him run the Levy machine into the ground, the Bills have topped .500 just once when they won nine games in 2004.
The Bills have finished 7-9 or worse every season since that nine win season. They have run through head coaches looking for a winner starting with Philips (1998-2000), Gregg Williams (2001-2003), Mike Mularkey (2004-2005), Dick Jauron (2006-2009). Chan Gailey (2010-2012), and now Doug Marrone (2013-present). With five wins through nine weeks, this is the most successful team in Buffalo in a decade.
The Dolphins have been struggling as well since having Don Shula and Jimmy Johnson running the team from 1970 to 1999. Dave Wannstedt had four winning seasons and two trips to the playoffs carrying on the Jimmy Johnson plan after Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Marino retired. Replacing Marino has been Quixotic quest as Jay Fiedler, A.J. Feeley, Gus Frerotte, Joey Harrington, Cleo Lemon, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, and Matt Moore (among others) failed to pick-up the Marino mantle. Miami is pinning their hopes on 2012 first round draft pick Ryan Tannehill to become their quarterback of the future.
Miami tried everything to turn around the franchise, even bringing in Bill Parcells to lead the football operations. They tried college coach Nick Saban in one of the biggest disasters in turning over a franchise to a coach who belongs in college (see Washington and the Steve Spurrier disaster in 2002). Parcells led them to the playoffs in 2008 where they lost in the Wild Card round (again, no Tom Brady that year) and since then they have won 7, 7, 6, 7, and 8 games. In head coach Joe Philbin and Tannehill’s third season together the Dolphins are hoping they begin making strides.
In New York, the Jets came the closest to knocking the Patriots off the top of the division. After Bill Parcells tried to leave the Jets to Belichick in 2000 and Belichick instead resigned as “HC of the NYJ” and bolted to the Patriots. After a year of Al Groh in 2000, Herm Edwards had some productive season making the playoffs three times before the team bottomed out with four wins in 2005. The Jets raided the Patriots and stole the “Man-Genius” Eric Mangini where they immediately won ten games before losing in the Wild Card round in 2006.
Two more less than stellar seasons led to importing the brash and arrogant Rex Ryan from the Baltimore Ravens. He brought an aggressive and blitzing style of play to a franchise in desperate need of someone who “wasn’t brought in here to kiss Bill Belichick’s Super Bowl rings”. The Jets reached the AFC Championship in the first two years of Ryan’s tenure (making the playoffs as a Wild Card both times), but since the 2011 season the Jets are 24-34 without making the playoffs. The 2011 season was the last time the Jets scored more points than they allowed and are 2-8 through ten weeks of 2014.
The three AFC East teams are all in various phases of building and re-building. All three have spent high draft picks on quarterbacks in the past three years as the Dolphins spent their top ten pick in 2012 on Tannehill, the Bills invested their 2013 first round pick on E.J. Manuel, and the Jets spent a 2013 second round draft pick on Geno Smith. Smith and Manuel are sitting on the bench a year and a half in after flaming out as starters and have been replaced by veteran re-treads Michael Vick and Kyle Orton.
What is most striking is the way all three teams have suffered by focusing on their own short-sighted views being stuck in the AFC East. All three franchises have invested heavily in the running game and the defensive line. Curious.
The Dolphins brought in running backs Mike Gillislee and Knowshon Moreno and spent draft picks on Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller. The Jets brought in Mike Goodson, Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson from other franchises while drafting Joe McKnight and Bilal Powell. The Bills invested a first round draft pick on C.J. Spiller and found diamond in the rough Fred Jackson. They also traded for Bryce Brown from Philadelphia and Anthony “Boobie” DIxon from San Francisco.
The Dolphins have edge rushers Olivier Vernon, Dion Jordan (#3 overall pick in 2013), and Cameron Wake with big bodies Earl Mitchell, Jared Odrick, and Randy Starks inside. The Bills have edge rushers Jerry Hughes and Manny Lawson to go with big pocket pushers Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Mario Williams. The Jets invested first round picks in defensive tackles Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson to join big run stuffer Damon Harrison. They have edge rushers Jason Babin, Calvin Pace and first round draft pick Quinton Coples.
All three teams have invested heavily in the running game and in a defensive line capable of generating pressure without having to blitz. Hmmmm. Sounds the game plan the New York Giants used in two Super Bowls to upset the heavily favored Patriots. A sound plan to invest that way to beat New England, but not so great at winning enough games to make the playoffs. Or win a Super Bowl.
Are the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins trying to beat the Patriots twice a season or win the Super Bowl? To me, it looks like they are looking to beat New England and struggling without a balanced defense and strong passing attack.
Getting beat repeatedly by the same team for a decade and a half can be frustrating, but it does not need to be an obsession. This obsession is stagnating three teams that could be playoff contenders with a better plan instead of all falling into the same trap.
Belichick wins again.
I’ll start with the records. I tabulate these myself, so they could be a game or two off for each conference (especially the “group of five” conferences, due to membership changes). If there is a reliable database somewhere, let me know though.
Best records overall
Big Ten 38-16
Big XII 25-11
Best records vs. FBS
Big XII 19-9
Big Ten 29-16
Best records vs. BCS-conference*
Big XII 7-7
Big Ten 11-13
Notre Dame went 9-4 against the FBS and 6-4 against the BCS conferences, although Temple really shouldn’t count.
*This includes Notre Dame since special provisions were made for them under the BCS. The American (AAC) was an automatic bid conference last season, so they still qualified. The AAC was the only conference outside of the “Big Five” (ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac-12, SEC) that won more than 1/4 of its games against “Big Five” teams last year. Being that its membership continues to change and is now essentially what the CUSA was a few years ago, I did think it was fair to remove them starting this year. The new Playoff contract also treats them along with the CUSA, MAC, MWC, and Sun Belt (referred to as Group of Five).
I think it’s fair to say the major teams have consolidated themselves into the Big Five conferences. There were 10 fewer teams in the Big Five overall just 11 years ago, so what used to be a competitive Big East has been absorbed by the other conferences (Temple is an exception, but they were removed from the Big East effective in the 2005 season before being invited back to join what became the AAC) . There were a couple of teams that competed in the Big East recently there were not absorbed (such as Connecticut, South Florida, and Cincinnati), but South Florida and Connecticut are still fairly new to the FBS (with transition years in 2002 and 2003, respectively). Cincinnati was in the CUSA as recently as 2004, but I’ll admit they would probably fit in playing in a Big Five conference. There have always been a few outliers since the BCS started though.
Overall rankings and reasoning
Anyway, no surprise, but #1 goes to theSEC. It’s really no contest whatsoever based on those numbers alone. 16 more wins than the Pac-12 versus only two more losses. Even if you whittle it down to BCS-conference opponents, it’s 7 more wins versus two more losses.
It gets a little better when the AAC teams are eliminated, but one of those SEC wins was over Central Florida. That’s better than the Pac-12’s best out-of-conference wins Notre Dame and Wisconsin (which South Carolina also beat). Oklahoma St. (beaten by Missouri in the Cotton Bowl) was also better than those two teams.
Being that the they were the only other conference worth discussing for #1, the Pac-12 takes #2.
I’m actually going to award #3 to the ACC. They’re behind the Big XII in winning percentage against the Big Five, but look how many more games. There are more teams, but it’s approximately an average of one more opponent for every two teams. Ohio St., Georgia, and Auburn are a pretty good top of the list. Of course, LSU was the only team other than Florida St. to beat Auburn all year. Georgia’s only other out-of-conference loss was to Nebraska in the bowl game, and of course Ohio St.’s only other loss was in the Big Ten championship game.
Also, the ACC’s losses are pretty solid. The only bad ones were Northwestern (which beat Syracuse), Ball St. (which beat Virginia) and ULM (which beat Wake Forest).
Despite not having the best strength of schedule, I’m going with the Big XII as #4. Except for the FCS losses, every other loss was to a bowl team. North Dakota St. (one of the FCS losses; the other was Northern Iowa) probably could have been a bowl team had the Bison played in the FBS. I’m not going to pretend Maryland and Rice were very good but these are the rest of the FBS losses: Central Florida, Iowa, Oregon, LSU, Ole Miss, Missouri, and BYU. The wins were similar in strength to those of the Big Ten, who I’d put 5th.
As mentioned, the AAC was #6, due largely to Louisville and Central Florida.
#7 is a bit of a surprise. I’m going with theSun Belt (SBC), which had a winning record in non-conference games. The only thing the Sun Belt got seriously wrong was letting in Georgia St., which lost to three FCS teams. There were a total of 12 combined losses to the SEC and Big XII, and all but a couple of those were to bowl teams. There weren’t any huge wins, but the SBC represented itself well against the other conferences: 4-2 against CUSA, 3-0 against the MAC, 1-0 against the MWC, and 5-1 against independents.
Speaking of Independents, I would put theindependents apart from Notre Dame after the Sun Belt, but since they’re not really a conference we can call them #7.5. The main reason they’re not even higher is because Idaho, New Mexico St., and Old Dominion were included last season.
CUSA is #8. North Carolina (lost to East Carolina) and Maryland (lost to Marshall) were decent wins, but there wasn’t much else to write home about. There were a very high number of losses, include two to South Alabama, which had just fully joined the FBS. There were three other losses to Sun Belt teams, three losses to MWC teams, and four to MAC teams.
#9 is the MWC. Most of Big-Five-conference opponents were in the Pac-12, but there was only the one win over Washington St. The only other FBS win was over Rutgers. There was one other win of substance by Utah St. over Northern Illinois in the bowl game, but I think that was mostly the Huskies being let down by the loss to Bowling Green for the MAC title. There were also some bad losses to Utah, Colorado, UTSA, and Texas St.
The #10 MAC only won 11 games over the FBS. It won 10 games over the FCS but lost two. Northern Illiniois beat a decent Iowa team, but the other three wins over BCS conferences were Connecticut, Virginia, and Purdue. Ohio had three wins over the CUSA, and Bowling Green had one. Also, Toledo beat Navy. Not really an impressive group of wins there.
In the comments on my blog, someone gave a website that breaks down records against teams ranked at the time, teams that finished the season ranked, wins against teams that won 7 or more, wins against teams that won 10 or more, etc. It looks like my numbers above are accurate, at least from the ones I compared. The only thing the site doesn't do as compared to the chart I keep is break down the matchup of one conference to another, which I think is useful in my analysis. The site also gives an overall strength of schedule (for last season, the SEC was first and the Big XII was second), but I'm not sure how that's computed. I think that's just averages. I look a little bit more at the extremes: marquee wins and embarrassing losses. I also consider who the teams are and where they fall in the conference. There is an example this weekend when Tennessee plays Oklahoma. That won't be a mark against the SEC if Tennessee (who was 12th in the SEC last year) loses. It's not the same as if Alabama or Auburn were playing Oklahoma (who finished tied for second last season in the 10-team Big XII) or if Tennessee were playing Iowa St. (who finished tied for 7th with two conference wins).
I partly thought of some of the points of discussion below based on reading a blog from B.O.B. here. There is a group of FCS teams that deserves respect. He singled out one of them in his blog, but I elaborate on a few more examples. LSU used to avoid playing any FCS opponents, and I'm certainly in favor of avoiding the mediocre or bad ones, but I think it can be a really good experience to play ones that are among the best of their subdivision. So that's what I meant in the comments about the teams being better to play than the likes of Southern and Grambling. I wasn't talking about seeking out some recruting edge. LSU has routinely played in-state FBS opponents (they play one on Saturday, in fact), so I really don't think they're more worried about Southern and Grambling. The better FCS teams give different looks and expose weaknesses. I think they're more difficult to plan for in some ways. In LSU's case, there is usually not a serious risk of losing, but all it takes is a bad game and for the FCS team to be particularly good and it could happen. Michigan was a program in much better shape than it is now and had an otherwise successful year when it lost to Appalachian St.
Before I post my other thoughts on that topic, I gave some more thought to his divisions there. Most of them are good, but I wouldn't put the Texas teams with the Southern California teams. That doesn't make sense tradtionally or geographically. The traditional teams to group together are the Pac-8. So that's the Pac-12 minus Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Arizona St., all of whom are much closer to Texas than the Southern California teams are. Utah is the only one that comes within a couple hundred miles of being as far. The four relatively new Pac-12 teams also in general have more experience playing the relevant Texas teams. I can also tell you that the Southern California teams want it the way I'm suggesting as well because they would not agree to the Pac-12 divisional alignment unless it was guaranteed they would both play all three of the other California teams every year. I don't think they really care whether they play Arizona or Washington teams, but it even seems to me (at least if you talk to USC fans) that the Oregon opponents are a bigger deal than the Arizona ones. Anyway, here's my regularly scheduled blog...
This isn’t the main thing I’m going to write about, but I heard it after I published my blog about the LSU-Wisconsin game. Since Les Miles took over at LSU, the Tigers are 22-21 when trailing in the fourth quarter, the only team in the FBS to have a winning record during that span (apparently, they don’t count the last-second loss to Clemson as “trailing in the fourth quarter”; but no one else comes close regardless). Miles is also back above the 80% mark as head coach of the Tigers. After winning 85% in his first three seasons, Miles’ winning percentage had fallen to 77.3% after the 2009 season. The Tigers are attempting to finish with double-digit wins for the fifth consecutive year since then. It would be Miles’ 8th overall in 10 seasons.
By comparison, Nick Saban won 75% of his games at LSU and had two double-digit-win seasons in five years, falling just short of a third on the last play of his stint at LSU. I understand Saban didn’t take over a program in the same shape; but he was still considered a strong success overall, so building on his tenure is still something to be proud of. Not many coaches can step into a situation like that and improve it, so Miles deserves a good deal of credit.
I don’t have too much to say about the Sam Houston St. game itself, but although LSU won extremely easily, that was not necessarily the expected result.
Ameer Abdullah’s great run with 20 seconds left saved Nebraska from potential embarrassment.
After the Nebraska-McNeese St. game (if you missed it, Nebraska scored the winning touchdown with 20 seconds left with the Cowboys essentially one tackle away from forcing overtime), I want to talk a bit about FCS opponents. They really vary. A number of the scores were pretty close. Of course, you also have your 70-point wins against such opponents as well.
Sam Houston St. went to the FCS championship game in the 2012 season, so they could have been among the best teams this season. I was looking at the margins Sam Houston St. won by that season. They won seven games by 35 points or more and beat Southeast Louisiana, 70-0. I think there is as much of a gap between the top and bottom of FCS as there is of FBS. Maybe Sam Houston isn’t as high on the scale this season; but the team they lost to in that championship game, North Dakota St., seems to be about the same after the Bison’s 34-14 win over Iowa St. So I don’t think there is a real appreciation of that.
Most people dismiss the opposition right off the bat. I know a Kansas St. fan who just assumed North Dakota St. was nothing to worry about last year, for instance. There is a general lack of appreciation of the fact that if you play a playoff-level FCS team, there is a good chance that team will be clearly better than a low-level FBS team.
One of those teams that is routinely toward the bottom of the FCS is Nicholls St. (which just lost to Arkansas , 73-7), but even they have a recent win over an FBS school. They beat Western Michigan last year, but when they played would-be bowl teams, the results were more predicable: losses to Oregon, 66-3, and to ULL, 70-7.
Anyway, I’ve noticed the quality of FCS opponents on LSU’s schedule of late. The Tigers played Furman last year, and while that’s not typically one of the top FCS teams (although they are competitive in one of the top FCS conferences), they still did a decent job. LSU only led by four at halftime and didn’t lead by more than 11 until less than 17 minutes remained in the game. The Paladin defense folded after that, and LSU ended up winning by 32; but that was still a better exercise than Kent St., whom LSU led 31-7 in the second quarter, or UAB, whom LSU led 35-7 in the second quarter last season. LSU let both teams back into the game a little bit before pulling away, but I don’t think that’s the same kind of pressure.
In 2012, LSU blew out Idaho, 63-14, but then struggled to beat Towson, 38-22, two weeks later. Towson failed to make the playoffs that year despite only losing twice in FCS play, but they advanced to the FCS finals last year (they also lost to the Bison of NDSU) after again only losing two games in FCS play. They played no FBS opponents last season, however.
A similar combination of results took place in 2010 when LSU beat McNeese St., 32-10, after trailing in the second quarter and leading only 16-10 after halftime. The Tigers then went on to beat ULM, 51-0, later that season. LSU plays ULM next week, by the way.
LSU had only played an FCS opponent twice in the previous six seasons, both times being against Appalachian St. In the first meeting in 2005, the Tigers, who would win the SEC West, only led the Mountaineers 14-0 after three quarters before pulling away slightly in the fourth to win, 24-0. Appalachian St. at one point drove to the LSU 15 while it was still 14-0 (before missing a field goal), so the game was in doubt for a long time despite the lack of points. The Tigers had easier wins that season @Mississippi St., @Vanderbilt, @Ole Miss, and in the bowl game against Miami. LSU also blew out North Texas at home by more than twice that margin in that season.
So if I wanted to give LSU a test in a given year, I’d pick a top-20 FCS team over a bottom-20 FBS team every time. Just something to keep in mind.
Also, McNeese wasn’t the only team with a good result last week. Eastern Kentucky got the only win (over Miami U.), but there were some others that were in doubt fairly late. Stony Brook gave Connecticut all they could handle. Rutgers only beat Howard by 13. Eastern Washington was neck-and-neck with Washington the whole game, falling short by only 7 points. Southern Mississippi only beat Alcorn St. by 6, and UNLV only beat Northern Colorado by a single point.
Finally, I don’t think Missouri St. made Oklahoma St. too nervous, but I thought it was interesting that the Bears only lost by 17 after the Cowboys were a touchdown short of beating Florida St. in Week 1.
By the way, LSU plays McNeese St. and Eastern Michigan next season. I would not be surprised if they had more trouble with McNeese St.
If you celebrate, what is on your Easter dinner menu!
Typically still reeks of winter in these here parts of the USA...
This year is no different.
As each year passes my tolerance for the cold and snow takes a hit.
Now I understand the method and madness of the “Snow Birds”
A group of blue haired early bird diners that leave the cool North about mid October and head south to where the weather suits their flashy clothes.
They return in late April or early May wearing winter coats to protect themselves against the harsh 50+ temps so often seen in April.
I’m not one of them yet…but I can see the transition…beginning to take shape.
I'm ready for some baseball.
The AL East is shaping up to be a real race this season.
Toronto (74-88 5th place)
The Blue jays disappointed their fans last season after going on a spending spree and selling their field manager John Farrell to rival Boston (where he led the Red Sox to the World Series Championship by the way!!!) The Jays need to win the fans back and win on the field.
The Blue Jays starting pitching will be the key to any success this season. The opening day starter is slated to be R A Dickey and the rotation as is looks now will be:
RA Dickey 14-13 4.21
Mark Buehrle 12-10 4.15
Brandon Morrow 2-3 5.63
J A Happ 5-7 4.56
Todd Redman 4-3 4.32
And, Kyle Drabec competing for the 5th starter
The Jays will hit the ball and score runs but without a pitching ace it could be another long season in Ontario.
Edwin Encaracion 1B, Jose Baustista, RF and Adam Lind,DH lead a group including Reyes SS, Laurie 3B, Cabrera LF , Rasmus CF, Navarro C and Izturis 2B
OH projects the Jays to win 74 games and finish dead last again.
New York (85-77 tied 3rd place)
Yankees made some off season moves to try to get back to the top of the AL East.
Additions Jacoby Ellsbury from Boston, Carlos Beltran OF, Brian Roberts 2B and Catcher Brian McCann. Derek Jeter will be back for his last season on a retirement tour.
The Yankees return a few veterans and will hit the ball and score runs. Their fate still falls into the hands of the pitching rotation led by CC Sabathia. Tanaka cost a lot but the Yanks are planning on him being a big part of their bounce back year. His first pre season performance, 2 shut out innings with 2 hits and 3 K’s was positive. His fast ball hit 94 once and was basically 92-93. His curve was more of a show me pitch than a K pitch but his splitter looked nasty. Overall it was a good outing.
The starting rotation:
CC Sabathia 14-13 4.78
Hiroki Kuroda 11-13 3.31
Ivan Nova 9- 6 3.10
Masahiro Tanaka 24-0 in the Japanese league he played in last season
David Phelps 6- 5 4.98
There was optimism that Michael Pineda would be available but after missing the past two full seasons he is yet to throw off a mound in anger, his last season was with Seattle in 2011 when he posted a 9-10 record and a 3.31 era.
If Tanaka can live up to his billing and CC can bounce back from a sub par ‘13 season, the Yankees will be in the mix in a very competitive division. OH says they will win 92 games and take a wildcard spot to the playoffs.
Baltimore (85-77 tied 3rd place)
The O’s off season wasn’t as splashy as the Yankees, GM Dan Duquette is optimistic that the O’s can make up the distance between them and the Red Sox and win the division. The lineup has everyday potential All Stars Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Nick Markakis
The starting rotation is solid but not spectacular, featuring:
Ubaldo Jimenez 13-9 3.30
Chris Tillman 16-7 3.71
Wei-Yin Chen 7-7 4.07
Miguel Gonzalez 11-8 3.78
Bud Norris 10-12 4.18
Tommy Hunter will be depended on in the closers roll with only 4 saves last year.
OH says this Baltimore team will be competitive but will end up in 4th place just over .500 on the season with 83 wins
Tampa ( 92-71 2nd place)
The Rays finished five behind the Red Sox in 2013 and will come back as strong as ever.
Longoria, Wil Myers, James Loney, Ben Zoberest and Logan Forsythe (from SD) will have to lead an offense that needs to score enough to win. As usual the Rays hopes are hanging on their always superior starting pitching. With a rotation of:
David Price 10-8 3.33
Alex Cobb 11-3 2.76
Matt Moore 17-4 3.29
Chris Archer 9-7 3.27
Jake Ordozzi 0-1 3.94 ( over from KC with Wil Myers)
Will fill the five spot with Jeremy Hellikson recovering from elbow surgery.
Grant Balfour with 38 saves in 2013 is the closer
The Rays will compete for the AL East title with Boston and New York but their 90 wins will place them 3rd and out of the playoffs
Boston ( 97-65 first place & defending WS Champion
The Red Sox will be coming back in John Farrell’s second season with lots of expectations. Off season loss of Jacoby Ellsbury to the Yankees opens the door for Jackie Bradly Jr to battle for a starting job in CF. Steven Drew turning down $14 mil to stay and play for Boston has opened the door for Xander Boagarts to show what he’s got at SS. Who will lead off is the biggest question the Sox have going into ’14. Ellsbury was the only true leadoff man on the roster. Personally I’d like to see Dustin Pedroia give it a shot. This team has a knack for getting on base and scoring runs. Other questions are; will David Ortiz and Mike Napoli hit as they age, will Shane Victorino and Jonny Gomes be clutch, will Will Middlebrooks hit (other than off field with his hot girlfriend Jenny Dell) and can the aging catching combo hold up for the season.
The rotation is mainly intact from the ’13 champions
Jon Lester 15-8 3.75 (contract year)
Clay Buchholz 12-1 1.74 (fragile)
John Lackey 10-13 3.52 (stay focused)
Felix Dubront 11-6 4.32 (stay away from food)
Jake Peavey 12-5 4.17 (recover from his fishing injury)
Brandon Workman 6-3 4.37 ( pick up where he left off)
Closer Koji Uehara 21 saves 1.09 era will be back.
The chance of repeating isn’t ever good but winning the AL East is within the Red Sox reach, 95 wins will do it and I think it does.
Next Week: AL Central and West previews
Turn your clocks ahead this Sunday and think SPRING