Friday, July 30, 2010

Does Bo Pelini See Something the Rest of College Football Doesn't?

With college football beat writers focusing on the Big XII this week, the national sports media started throwing up their asterisks over Nebraska's preseason "Top Ten" status.  Yahoo's Matt Hinton (aka "Dr. Saturday") started it on Tuesday by reminding us that Nebraska lost three games last season despite holding the opposition under 17 points:
The old-school preseason hype as a Big 12 frontrunner and darkhorse national candidate still depends on a defense, even minus transcendent interior-line wrecking ball Ndamukong Suh. But there's no doubt that the next step in the "return to glory" timeline will require more consistent competence under center.
SI's Stewart Mandel highlighted Nebraska as the most likely candidate to be the team that doesn't live up to their preseason hype:
I can think of at least one soon-to-be preseason top 10 pick coming off what was, at the time, a very uncharacteristic bowl performance: Nebraska.
Last we saw the Huskers, they were dismantling Arizona, 33-0, in the Holiday Bowl, to cement their first 10-win season in six years. Heisman finalist Ndamukong Suh led another dominant performance by the nation's seventh-ranked defense. That part was par for the course. Quarterback Zac Lee ran 18 times for 65 yards and threw a 74-yard touchdown. Where on earth did that come from?
Then the Columbia Tribune's Dave Matter reported an undercurrent of skepticism from the rest of the assembled Big XII media in Dallas:
No one seems convinced that Nebraska runs away with the North Division. Yes, the Huskers are a heavy favorite, but I heard from more than a few writers something along the lines of, "I picked Nebraska, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Missouri win the thing." If the Tigers had showed up against Navy and won the Texas Bowl, my guess is Nebraska and Missouri split the first-place votes evenly.
Before Husker fans get mad, these writers aren't telling us anything that we already knew.  Remember all the complaining about Shawn Watson last season?  The Husker offense was bad last season.  Not even mediocre.  Bad.  Very bad.  And frankly, I agree that the preseason hype might be a little much.

But at the Big XII Media days this week, Bo Pelini made a point to address some of the concerns people raised last season, saying that Nebraska should see improved production at both quarterback and on the offensive line.  The offensive line was a big focus for me last season, as Barney Cotton was unable to substitute much in the latter half of the 2009 campaign. Now, Pelini says that the depth on the offensive line is "not even close" to where it was prior to now. You don't read about it elsewhere, but four offensive linemen redshirted last season.  Brent Qvale was moving up the depth chart until he got injured late in preseason practice. Add in junior college transfer Jemarcus Hardrick, and suddenly Nebraska's depth just doubled.

We know that it all starts up front, and last season, Nebraska had to "dial it down" on offense.  Tight ends took playing time away from wide receivers and were assigned to help block. Mike McNeill seemingly disappeared at times in the passing game as Nebraska focused on pounding the ball.  In the last month of the season, the only substitution on the line was with Mike Caputo at center, and frequently that was to spell an injured Jacob Hickman.

I understand where the media outside of Nebraska are getting their skepticism; in fact, I share some of it. But what I don't understand is the assumption that "they were bad last year, so they'll be bad this season."  Then these same sportswriters reverse field and point out that both Washington and Texas A&M will be much better in 2010, despite having losing seasons in 2009.

I'm not suggesting that Nebraska's offense will be great in 2010...just that they'll be better. This isn't going to be an offense that's going to put up 45 points a game week in and week out.  But if they can finish off drives and run some more clock, they could become an effective counterpart to a defense that should still be very good, even though they'll sorely miss #93.

I think Bo Pelini sees that.  But until the team actually hits the field, skepticism will remain, and impossible to argue against.

Monday, July 26, 2010

2010 Husker Motto: Finish.

Photo Courtesy of "Unsportsmanlike Conduct" via Facebook
It's a simple message, on those now ubiquitous rubber wrist bands that Lance Armstrong made famous. On one side, it says "Finish"; on the other, "0:01". It's not a message about a conspiracy to defraud the Huskers last season...but rather a message to remind players just how close they were last season...and how far they still need to go.  In 1994, the message was "Unfinished Business".  In 2010, it's shortened to just a reminder to "Finish."

Some will remind us that it's insane to lose an Outland Trophy winner (who turned out to be a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate as well) and still expect to contend for a championship. Point taken...but teams lose players all the time in college football. Suh was special, to be sure...but Nebraska may have enough left in the tank to be pretty good on defense. Add in Pelini's proven track record in college football: whether it was 2003 Nebraska, 2004 Oklahoma, 2005-07 LSU, or 2009 Nebraska, Bo Pelini puts an outstanding defense on the field. Even that 2008 defense became ok by the end of the season, especially when you consider how the 2007 season ended defensively.

And yes, Nebraska's offense was putrid most of last season, though injuries help explain things. Zac Lee's arm injury. Roy Helu's shoulder and Rex Burkhead's foot. Offensive line injuries that eliminated any possibility of substitution in the final five games of 2009.  The offense muddled through, and got a little bit better in the Holiday Bowl after a few weeks of healing.  The offense has nine returning starters, and a three-way battle to be the starting quarterback is currently underway.  My money is still on Zac Lee against Western Kentucky, but I'd keep an eye on Taylor Martinez.

One thing I did hear today sent chills down my spine...and for all the wrong reason. Defensive end Pierre Allen mentioned that Nebraska "definitely" could content for a national championship in an interview on KOZN's "Unsportsmanlike Conduct" today. Everybody talks it...even Baylor players mentioned it. But I also remember the last time I heard that coming from the mouths of a Husker player...and how it turned out.  AJ the Huskerh8er loves to draw parallels between 2007 and 2010.  And while I'm convinced this time is different, I also admit I didn't see that 2007 flameout coming like it did.

Looking ahead to this season, I just want to see improvement. Don't talk about it.  Do it. I like the focus on "finishing" each and every game. Finish like they did at Missouri in the monsoon last season. Don't make the mistakes that killed them against Texas Tech and Iowa State. And continually push themselves to be even better, to make that one extra play, gain that extra yard, make that tackle, and make that last second irrelevant. Finish.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Mike Guentzel Returns to Omaha To Join UNO Staff

If UNO hockey fans thought a staff with both Dean Blais and Mike Hastings was a home run, I can only imagine what some folks are thinking tonight with the news that Mike Guentzel is joining the UNO coaching staff for the upcoming season.  Guentzel will replace Nick Fohr, who will return to his old position of director of hockey operations, replacing Dave Noel-Bernier, who in turn is leaving to take a position in the USHL.

If you liked the hire of Mike Hastings, you absolutely have to be ecstatic about adding Guentzel to the staff.  Guentzel's resume speaks for itself.  He got his head coaching start with the St. Paul Vulcans in 1988, and won the Junior A National Championship in 1991.  In 1992, he took over the Omaha Lancers, leading the Lancers to back-to-back championships in 1992-93 and 1993-94.  That 1992-93 season, his top assistant was Hastings.  He then left Omaha to join the staff at Minnesota for 14 years, during which the Gophers played in five Frozen Fours and won three WCHA championships and two National Championships.  He then went on to be an assistant coach with Colorado College two years ago, coaching his son, then became the head coach of the Des Moines Buccaneers last season.

Guentzel was also a top candidate to be the first head coach of the Mavs, and was on my list of leading candidates to take over the Mavs last season.  Guetnzel did work briefly with Dean Blais in 1994 on the US Junior National hockey team, so there's a bit of a background there.

So UNO's staff has one of the most accomplished head coaches in college hockey in Dean Blais, and one of the most accomplished assistants in Mike Guentzel.  And yes, one of the most accomplished junior hockey coaches in Mike Hastings.  And yes...THAT'S a home run staff now.

I don't know how long this staff will stay together at this point; all three coaches have a record of accomplishment. And frankly, I'm not sure you can automatically assume that if Dean Blais were to get hit by a bus that Mike Hastings would be the next head coach:  Guentzel's resume is better.

Things keep looking brighter and brighter for UNO hockey.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Radio Waves

Not sure what was up with Omaha's KOZN-AM ("1620 The Zone") today, but there were unknown fill-in hosts with both Kevin Kugler and Mike'l Severe both on vacation. The fill-in's tried...but frankly, with nothing really sports related going on was pretty much DOA. Pretty disappointing; in fact, I'd suggest that they just pipe in the Cubs vs. Cardinals game tomorrow afternoon.  After today, you do have to admire the job those two do in keeping the show fairly fresh..even in the dog days of summer.  You just don't realize what you've got until it's gone, I guess.

I think that also might explain why KOZN was nominated for the national Marconi Award for "Sports Station of the Year" alongside stations in New York City, Miami, Detroit, and (believe it or not) Bemidji. They certainly do a heck of a job with 7 hours of local sports talk each weekday, plus numerous specials throughout the year. It's easy to take issue with what they might be saying...but at least they are trying, unlike their competition.

I was reminded of this when I saw a tweet from former Omaha sports talk host Matt Perrault, who headed to Des Moines after his Omaha show was cancelled.  Seems he's trying to trying his best to spin things for him:
Today's show. Prime example of why DMS > Omaha to work sports talk. Guests: Ali Farokmanesh (ESPYs) - Sage Rosenfels (camp) on July 16th.
Yeah... right...  I guess the Northern Iowa upset over Kansas was interesting in March...but it's now July.  A guy from Northern Iowa and the Vikings backup quarterback does not make for scintillating radio. But hey, it sounds like he's found his niche.  Good for him that he's found a place in a smaller market where he can succeed.

In hindsight, I do think I may have been a little too harsh on his show's poor ratings.  I recently learned that last summer, KXSP-AM's ratings fell to 0 after Perrault was let go.  Even last fall, the station's ratings were half of what they were the year prior with Perrault's show on the air.  It sure makes me wonder what the point of keeping "Big Sports 590" on the air when it seems virtually nobody is listening to it.

KFAB recently received an extension to be Omaha's affiliate for Husker sports through 2014. Not that it was any surprise.  Certainly KXSP could clear up as much airtime as they could to carry anything and everything Husker related, but the tradition of the Huskers on KFAB counts for something. And frankly, as long as they keep Steve Pederson apologist Jim Rose relegated to the morning show and off the broadcasts, it's fine. And he makes just as much sense as a political commentator now as he did in his days mangling Husker play-by-play calls.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Chick-Fil-A & Atlanta In 2011? Fuhgeddabout it.

I have to wonder if Sean Callahan had a few too many mai-tai's on his honeymoon to Maui. His report via Twitter that Nebraska would play South Carolina in Atlanta in 2011 just didn't seem to add up. Not that I think it's a bad matchup in general; I'm all in favor of scheduling up rather than down. But I also recognize the economics driving football today; Nebraska already has an away game scheduled at Wyoming next season. As much I like the idea of playing a name foe, I just don't see how Nebraska can afford to only play 6 home games in 2011. I haven't seen any recent estimates, but I have to figure that Nebraska nets nearly $4 million from a home football game, even with some of the large guarentees they have to pay opponents to come to Lincoln.  I just don't see the payout from the Chick-Fil-A even coming close to half of that.  The Georgia Dome only holds 71,228 fans, and while television money is big, I don't think that Nebraska's share will be enough to make it financially worthwhile.

Some suggest that this game makes no sense since Nebraska might have a new starting quarterback next season. Personally, I think that's an opinion that makes no sense. Injuries and competition can always result in a new quarterback having to start. In fact, while optimally you'd start a new quarterback at home against Schmuckhead State...that's not always possible. But a neutral site game isn't a bad option...especially with the number of Husker fans who'll likely travel to a game on Labor Day weekend. And besides...what's the worst thing that could happen? Lose? One loss teams frequently work their way back into the national title hunt, and if you are going to lose a game, it's better to lose early than later in the season. Competition makes you better, and you learn more about your team playing a quality opponent than against a Schmuckhead.
Nebraska also gains from the national exposure of this game. Husker fans in exile get a chance to see their team closer to home, and fans in SEC country get to see just how well Nebraska fans support their team. And yes, potential Huskers get a chance to see the team as well. Not to mention that Bo Pelini and his staff can tell recruits that Nebraska will play anybody anywhere to alleviate concerns about playing farther away from home.

Unless Chick-Fil-A and ESPN can up the ante on this game, I don't see this game happening. But if the organizers of this game can make the money work for this game, it's a game worth pursuing.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tuesday Night Beer: The Heat is Getting To Some Folks

I guess I've never understood people making themselves miserable in the summertime because football season doesn't start until September. Maybe they have a one track mind...or maybe they consider football season to be like Christmas when you were a kid. (Or in the case of my daughter, it's her birthday, which is still five months away.)  Football season will be here soon enough, and there's plenty of things to keep us occupied.

Over at CornNation, I've been working on the opponent previews.  Trying to dig up something on South Dakota State is a good way to get your mind off of college football.  I think I can see Dave Matter's point when he says that "he can wait for preseason camp"...

If you are starving for some Husker news, here's a little bad news.  Chase Harper didn't get his coursework completed, so he's headed back to junior college this fall.  Disappointing, yes...but he still will have two years of eligibility left.  My guess is that he's close to qualifying, so he'll play at Navarro Junior College this fall, and be ready to enroll next spring. 

Want a sign the heat is getting to some folks?  Nebraska expatriat TB over at BringOnTheCats has a little toungue-in-cheek warning for Big Ten fans about Husker fans. Have some fun as the commenters take their shots...but remember...please don't feed the trolls.

Personally, the one thing that is really starting to irritate me this summer are the minute-long commercials from a local financial planning firm. (Warning: veering off into politics here...) I really shouldn't be so bothered by them; after all, this country was founded on free speech, and frankly, they're supporting local sports talk shows, which anymore is becoming a rare thing. But that opening trumpet blast grates on me like nails on a chalkboard, then I'm subjected to 50 seconds of political venting offered up in condescending fashion. Then a quick 10 second blurb for their services, followed by their trademark slogan "We won't try to sell you anything."

Of course...when someone spends all that money on advertising, of course they are trying to sell you something. Perhaps it's a shrewd marketing plan: attracting potential customers by appealing to the outrage some feel over the direction of this country.  For me, it has just the opposite effect; if I want to hear that type of talk, I'd be listening to any of the other talk shows on the radio at that time of the day (Rush, Beck, Becka, Hannity, etc...) instead of sports talk. And frankly, if I'm looking for investment advice, I'm not looking to get a political lecture. Besides, one of the biggest problems this country faces is the increasing polarization.  The folks on the right keep trying to label President Obama as a "socialist" or even a "communist"...yet the folks on the left are disappointed that Obama hasn't been more liberal... even calling him a "Reagan Democrat".

In today's world, is there any room for moderation anymore?

Sorry about that folks...just had to get that off my chest.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Is "College GameDay" Jumping the Shark With a 3rd Hour on ESPNU?

USA Today's Michael Hiestand reports this evening that ESPN is going to add a third hour to "College GameDay" on Saturday mornings.  The first hour will air on ESPNU at 8 am central time with Erin Andrews as the host.  Hours two and three will be on the ESPN mother ship with Chris Fowler as the host.

Anybody sense that GameDay is becoming ESPN's version of the Today show? (Good lord...what happens when they add the fourth hour with Kathie Lee and Hoda?)  If Fowler sits out the first hour, I certainly expect 74 year old Lee Corso to sit out the first hour as well.  And what about Kirk Herbstreit; he has to do double duty on Saturdays anyway with the ABC PrimeTime game that evening.  My guess is that hour one is Andrews and some other analysts in the ESPN stable...perhaps auditioning the eventual replacements for Corso and Herbstreit.  But does a third hour on ESPNU without the major personalities water down the show? And will college football fans get up even earlier to be there for the first hour on a channel that most people don't get?  (That first West Coast broadcast could be in the dark, going on the air at 6 am locally!)

Andrews will also be part of the prime time announcing crew, likely meaning that Lisa Salters will transition to another ABC/ESPN broadcast team.  With both Herbstreit and Andrews being scheduled to work both GameDay and the evening broadcast, look for GameDay to be even more closely linked to the prime time game.  (Wow...if I wanted to get some page view hits...I would have put "Erin Andrews" in the title, but I'm not pimping this blog out for cheap hits!)

Many Husker fans are expecting GameDay to return to Lincoln for the Nebraska-Texas game...but there is one potential obstacle:  there won't be a Saturday Night Football game on ABC on October 16th.  ABC will be televising a NASCAR race from Charlotte that evening.  That doesn't mean that GameDay won't be in Lincoln, but rather that the game won't be televised by ABC that evening.

My bet?  Look for an 11 am kickoff  on ABC with GameDay immediately preceeding it on ESPN.  Second bet? A primetime broadcast on ESPN that evening, starting likely at 5:30 or 6 pm.  ESPN apparently has a Pac-10 game scheduled for 9:15 pm, so look for an ESPN timeslot to be open prior to that game.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

I Could Not Care Less About LeBron James

As a sports fan who gave up on the NBA as a sport about 18 years ago, I think I now know what non-Husker fans go through this week. Every time I turn around, it's D-Wade this, Bosch that, and now tonight, the LeBron James "Rose Ceremony" on ESPN.

I don't follow the NBA; I freely admit it.  When I hear "Bosch"...I think spark plugs, not a basketball player. (And yes, I know it's "Bosh".)  The point is; I don't know a thing about Bosh and why he's a big deal. This week's soap opera doesn't do a thing to change my mind; it's yet another reason why I'm not sure the Not Basketball Association can really be considered a sport anymore.  About the time NBC took over the television package, the personalities began to eclipse the game itself, and I turned it off.

So tonight, ESPN will delve one step closer to WWE territory when Stuart Scott takes the Mean Gene Okerlund role as the interviewer in tonight's ESPN ceremony. I won't be watching. When sports talk (especially our local guys Matt Schick, Nick Bahe, Kevin Kugler, and Mike'l Severe) go into it, I'll turn off the radio.  In fact, knowing what's happening today, I may not even turn it on in the first place.

Wake me up when this thing is over...

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Sunday Night Dessert: Looking Ahead, Not Behind

Count me as one of the folks excited to see Zesto formally announce their new location just behind right field of the new downtown TD Ameritrade Park. Just because the College World Series is leaving Rosenblatt doesn't mean that every tradition has to end as well. I've got to admit, I'm a latecomer to the Zesto tradition. Last fall, after taking my kids to the zoo the morning of the NU/Virginia Tech game, we decided to have lunch at Zesto...and I now see why folks have raved about the place. Not sure why this place faded as a national chain, but the Omaha version has an absolutely deadly hot fudge shake. Needless to say, that first day they are open in North Downtown, I'm there for lunch, weather permitting.

Nice to see that in all of the mourning for Rosenblatt, the World-Herald did balance out their coverage a bit by pointing out how the CWS really has outgrown the area around Rosenblatt.  AJ's photo of traffic says it all.

I noticed that the Omaha Royals announced the attendance for the final Independence Day fireworks game as 23,657. Judging from highlights on television, that was tickets sold, not actual bodies in the seats since most of the bleachers remained covered. Even so, it should be interesting to see how this tradition moves forward next year.  The World-Herald hasn't announced anything yet, but if I had to bet, my money would be on the fireworks show being downtown at TD Ameritrade Park with a new independent league team. Maybe Omaha will have two blockbuster fireworks shows next season, as I'm sure the Royals will find a way to put on a decent show no matter what.

One thing is for clear, with berm seating limiting attendance to around 8500 fans at last report at BFE, there will be a 15k drop in attendance next season for the Independence Day game even if the Royals sell out in Sarpy County.  To put it in perspective, to make up for that lost 15k from fireworks night, the Royals will have to sell an extra 208 tickets every other game.