Friday, October 21, 2016

Weekend Pregame: Big 12 Hate, Alabama's Upset Alert, and Red Dead 2

Why does everyone hate the Big 12?

Every week this season, I listen to talking heads tell me about how down the Big 12 is. They're no good.  The format of the conference isn't tenable and can't challenge for a playoff spot. They don't play any defense. Without Texas and Oklahoma, this conference is a glorified version of the Mountain West.

But let's look at the numbers. It doesn't take a statistical wizard to figure out that, because the conference is smaller, it will have fewer championship contenders. All things being equal, it should also mean the conference has less pushovers at the bottom of the standings as well.

Breaking the Big 12 out into tiers, we have the following:

The Undefeated -- 
  • No. 9 Baylor 
  • No. 12 West Virginia

The Contenders -- 

  • No. 16 Oklahoma
  • TCU

The Wildcards

  • Kansas State
  • Oklahoma State

The Middlers

  • Texas
  • Texas Tech

The Dumpster Fires

  • Iowa State
  • Kansas

Texas and Texas Tech have some good pieces, but neither plays any defense, so they're probably destined to be .500 teams. Iowa State and Kansas have been scrappy in conference play, but are generally pretty terrible. Kansas State and Oklahoma State have the potential to make things interesting, because of Snyder's defense and Gundy's offense. Each will probably cause one big upset before it's all said and done, but don't necessarily have a team to compete for a championship.

Then, we get to the guys worth talking about. I would argue the team we know the most about is West Virginia -- at least we have results from them worth parsing. Baylor has, literally, the weakest strength of schedule in FBS football. TCU has played six games; they went 4-0 against bad teams (South Dakota State, Iowa State, SMU, Kansas) and 0-2 against good teams (Arkansas, Oklahoma). Similarly, the Sooners lost a game to Ohio State -- no shame there -- as well as the well-watched loss to Houston.

The Houston loss was a real problem, for both OU and the Big 12 at large. Fresh off an appearance in last season's NCAA playoff (we'll come back to that later), Oklahoma dropped it's first game of the year to a G5 school, albeit maybe the best one of the young playoff era. This is the game that's responsible for the current Big 12 narrative.

So why did I take you through all that? Well, to point out the fact that 20% of the conference (West Virginia/Baylor) is undefeated and ranked in the top 15, and that a third team (Oklahoma) is ranked in the top 20 and could still challenge for a conference championship, and maybe even a playoff spot. From a purely mathematical standpoint, even Oklahoma State and TCU could still easily challenge for the conference title.

How many other conferences can say that? How many other conferences have 30% of their conference ranked and still in contention for one of the four playoff spots? How many other conferences still have 50% of their members in the thick of the conference title race? 

For context, the SEC has eight teams (57%) in the top 25, though three of the five are slotted in the 21-25 spots, and appear to be in there simply because AP voters ran out of teams to rank. Ole Miss is 3-3 and still ranked.

The top-heavy Big 10 has four teams in the top 10, but the rest of the conference is a complete mess. The conference could very well win the national championship this year, and have its other three best teams goes 3-0 in prominent bowl games, but the rest of conference? Good luck finding a bowl-winner anywhere in there. Michigan State has fallen off a cliff, Purdue just fired its coach, Iowa is uninspiring. Who's left? Minnesota?

The ACC has three ranked teams. The coastal is approaching greek tragedy territory. The Pac-12? Washington has looked great, but after Stanford and Oregon's precipitous falls, shouldn't we re-evaluate their body of work?

My point is that this is all fluid and up for debate. You might not like the Big 12, and the lack of quality depth after Oklahoma is a legitimate criticism to levy at the conference. But the negatives of this conference have been unfairly magnified, and its three championship contenders have been mysteriously downplayed. This conference doesn't have a legitimacy problem; it has an optics one. 

TCU at No. 12 West Virginia (3:30 on ABC)

TCU is coming off a bye. West Virginia is coming off a beatdown of Texas Tech. The game opened at WVU -4, and the Mountaineers are currently six-point favorites.

Like last week, I could spend time breaking down this game. I would talk about West Virginia's front seven, and how often Tony Gibson blitzes, and how TCU could neutralize that with its excellent run game.

Instead, I'm going to give you a short list of reasons why West Virginia isn't "for real," and whether or not they're legitimate criticisms.

1. West Virginia hasn't played anybody. 

Strength of Schedule is in the 30s. Non-conference wins over BYU, Missouri, and Youngstown State. Sure, that doesn't scream gauntlet, but it's also not a bunch of cupcakes either. It's a solid, standard mix of teams. Let's look at the out of conference schedules for some of the teams ranked ahead of West Virginia:

No. 5 Washington -- Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State.

No. 8 Baylor -- Northwestern State, Southern Methodist, Rice.

No. 1 Alabama -- Southern Cal, Western Kentucky, Kent State, Chatanooga

No. 6 Texas A&M -- UCLA, Prairie View A&M, New Mexico State, Texas-San Antonio

Why, do you ask, does the SEC have four out-of-conference games? Well, that's because they play less conferences games! Conferences like the Pac-12 and Big 12 increase their schedule difficulty by playing 9 conference games. The SEC and ACC only play eight, and fills the ninth spot with a bullshit team.

Context matters. West Virginia's OOC schedule isn't daunting, but it's, at worst, par for the course.

Grade: False

2. The Big 12 doesn't have a realistic chance at the playoff, so there isn't much use getting excited over an undefeated West Virginia team.

The playoff committee has made it very clear that they value strength of schedule and conference champions. An undefeated Big 12 champion will likely get in over a one-loss Pac 12 or ACC champion. It's hard to make those calls without the context of a completed season, but I don't feel that the disparity between conferences is so great that a one-loss Washington team tops an undefeated Big 12 champion.

Grade: False

3. West Virginia is coasting off it's offensive reputation.

Okay, fine, so no one is actually saying that this week. But it is true. Lost in WVU's 50-point outing against Texas Tech's putrid defense was that, prior to Week 7, West Virginia's red zone offense was actually pretty terrible.

The Mountaineers move the ball fine, but when they're bunched up in space near the end zone, the offense starts to sputter. In a way, watching WVU's red zone offense is a bit like trying to pee on command -- you try so, so hard that nothing really comes out. They haven't been loose. If West Virginia really has figured something out, great. But without better offensive execution, this team may struggle to score against elite defenses. 

Grade: True

4. West Virginia, like most Big 12 teams, doesn't play any defense.

If you have made a "West Virginia and defense? lolz" joke this week, you obviously have not watched this team.

Grade: False

Other games to watch:

No. 6 Texas A&M at Alabama.

Do you want to know how hard the media has doubled down on Alabama this year? Seven different times on seven different shows, this week, I have been forced to endure "is this Saban's best team ever?" I don't even know if this team cracks the top 5 of Saban squads.

The sixth-ranked team in college football is getting NINETEEN points against Alabama. We are barreling toward an over-correction. Give me the Aggies. Not, like, to cover. Give me A&M to win.

No. 22 North Carolina at UVA

According to the national weather service, there is not currently a hurricane over Charlottesville, so the Tarheels stand an excellent chance at winning this game and exerting some control over a lame Coastal division.

No. 23 Ole Miss at No. 25 LSU

Be honest, AP voters. Did you guys just run out of teams to rank?


Here's video of Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy this week, where he goes full-on Clint Eastwood and blames cell phones and technology for parity in college football. No, seriously. It starts at the 16:10 mark. He finishes his statement by stating, "I know that seems a little extreme." Uhh, yeah.

"There are two theories when arguing with women, and neither one works." 

If you've had the misfortune privilege to read some of my gaming reviews or listen to me ramble about video games, you know I consider high-level games to be a subsection of literature. Well, this week, a new bestseller was announced, via the following trailer.

I consider the original Red Dead Redemption to be one of the five best games ever created. It dealt with themes like the value of one's past and the price of progress in civilization. It is, simply put, a masterpiece. It has far-reaching influence -- most notably, the new HBO show Westworld, which pulls from Michael Crichton's original source material as well as 2010's Redemption. And now, we're getting a sequel.

I have no idea whether Rockstar can recapture the nuance and depth of protagonist John Marston. But it looks like this sequel pulls inspiration from The Magnificent Seven, so for that alone, plus the pedigree that Rockstar brings from its previous iteration, I'm all in.

Debts and Diseases Double-Down

3-2 last week, plus some bonus cash if you followed by BYU +7/Under parlay last night, so good for you guys. Don't spend it all in one place.

This week, we're feasting on some supremely questionable SEC lines, which don't make any sense at all. We shall shamelessly take advantage!  (Or, perhaps, lose all the money we made last week, because Vegas is smarter than all of us, and don't you ever forget it.)

$:  Ole Miss +7.5/LSU

$$: Arkansas +10.5/Auburn

$$$: Texas A&M +19/Alabama

Chalk play of the week: Ohio State -19.5. Sure, there could be a hangover after a big road win at Camp Randall. But 4-2 Penn State is the definition of a paper tiger, and the Nittany Lions just don't really have the personnel to hang with Ohio State. Ohio State should win by 3+ touchdowns, which mean you can feel relatively confident pulling the trigger on a relatively modest line, all things considered.

Bonus play: Kansas State +1 at home. Snyder's team has been undervalued for about three years now. You're getting points at home. Take it and run.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Weekend Pregame: New Job Catharsis & Potential Road Pitfalls for JMU, WVU

Back and better than ever.

After an extended absence, Chase for Greatness will be up and running for the forseeable future. Today, I'll be doing my usual in-season preview of this weekend's slate of games, with some new additions. But first, some announcements.

Many longtime readers of the C4G blog may already know this, but for those that don't -- last month, I accepted a position as the Sports Editor at the Page News and Courier. It's a weekly paper based in the Valley that serves Page County. My job is primarily centered around high school sports, but I'm also free to write feature stories, sports commentary, outdoor sports stories, or whatever else I feel fits into the wide world of sports. Every week, I take the Sports section from 2-3 blank pages of InDesign pixels and turn it into a newspaper. It's similar to my role at the Breeze back in 2012-2013, but with more creative freedom.

If you've been around since the beginning, you know that this blog was originally created in February 2011 (over five and a half years ago!) for the purpose of eventually generating a real-world sports writing job. It's been a strange and circuitous path, but I'm finally here. For those that have stuck with me in the lean times, I thank you.

And speaking of the lean times... if you're a regular here at the Blog, I don't have to tell you that C4G has been on life support for a little while now. Every few months, I manage a strong writeup -- the consortium pieces with JMU Sports Blog et al. have been loads of fun, and writing one-off analysis pieces for softball or basketball certainly have served their purpose -- but my heart hasn't been in it for a little while now. I don't mind admitting that. It's not because I don't still love sports, and it's not because I've gotten away from writing. Simply put, I was working too many hours at too many jobs to put worthwhile time into this blog.

Your time is valuable, and there's a lot of places you can go for quality sports analysis on the internet. I'm not going to waste your time by shitting out half-assed commentary.

Fortunately, that's no longer issue. A return to journalism means more free time for me, and, consequently, more commentary on here. I'm looking forward to writing more... but, in the spirit of personal evolution, I'm going to tackle more than just sports. After all, my conversational topics go far beyond the realm of Bridgeforth Stadium, so why not branch out past how gross the JMU run game is?

I've already got some creative nonfiction dialed up for later this year, as well as an Op/Ed that will drop the first weekend of November. And, of course, new sports ideas.

Always with the sports.

Finally, more free time means more #PushupsAndPilates. I'm not entirely sure that one actually matters here, though.

JMU at New Hampshire (12pm kickoff)

A confession: I picked against JMU here. Like, everywhere that I possible could. I took the Wildcats on JMUSB's prediction thread. I picked against the Dukes in my Pigskin Pick Em panel in the PNC. (That's the Page News and Courier. Get used to seeing that acronym, you city folks.) I scratched "Cats over Dogs, soz Jmaddy" inside a bathroom stall in Warren Hall on Wednesday. I do not think JMU will win this game.

It's not like New Hampshire has a better team. Defensively, the team is gap-sound. They do what they're supposed to, though it's been against unimpressive competition. 

Offensively, they're pretty unimpressive -- think of the San Francisco 49ers offense, but with less protesting and more camo.

On second thought, that'd probably be a fairly accurate contrast between the entire city of San Francisco and the entire state of New Hampshire, if we're keeping it one hundred. 

If you're measuring talent against talent, JMU wins in a runaway. But JMU hasn't won at New Hampshire since topping the Cats 42-23 in 2006, and I just have one of those amorphous gut feelings that the streak doesn't get broken here. There's something about Durham, New Hampshire that seems to vex the Dukes. So I'm taking the happiness hedge. Sorry bout it.

For context, here is a compilation of the last five games against UNH:

11/9/13 -- New Hampshire defeats JMU, 33-17

JMU was shut out in the first half. Birdsong pulled it within 20-17 early in the fourth quarter, but that's as close as the Dukes would get. One week later, JMU lost "The Stony Brook Game." One week earlier, Mickey Matthews notched his last win as the JMU head coach, a 31-21 Homecoming Weekend win over Villanova in the Burg.

11/5/11 -- New Hampshire defeats JMU, 28-10

This is the Jace Edwards team that's better than you remember. They beat Eastern Kentucky in the playoffs before losing to a team out west that nobody paid any attention called North Dakota State, 26-14. At the time of the game in Durham, JMU was ranked No. 13. The Wildcats were No. 9. JMU didn't score after the first quarter.

Fun fact: previewing this UNH game was my first article for the Breeze. The article was called, "Dukes Pack Hope on New Hampshire." At the time, it didn't look like JMU would make the playoffs. The offensive line was young as hell and couldn't block with any kind of consistency.

Bonus fun fact: did you know Jace Edwards came from Texas' Midland Lee High School? AKA the "bad guys" from Friday Night Lights?

10/16/10 -- New Hampshire defeats JMU at Bridgeforth Stadium, 28-14

35 days removed from The Game To End All Games (#twentyonesixteen), JMU loses a second home game. It lost to Delaware at home two weeks earlier. The Dukes were ranked No. 7 at the time, and did not score at all in the second half.

9/8/07 -- JMU defeats New Hampshire, 41-24, at Bridgeforth Stadium.  

If you're looking for the last time JMU beat the Cats anywhere, here it is. Rodney Landers scrambled for a 9-yard touchdown run with 20 seconds left before halftime. New Hampshire scored on the opening possession of the second half, then JMU throat-punched them with 24 unanswered points to end the game. 

Wait a minute. The last time JMU beat New Hampshire, the Cats were undefeated and ranked No. 1? AND IT WAS TEN YEARS AGO TO THE DAY? 

Shit. Can I take back my pick?

West Virginia at Texas Tech, 12pm.

Well, of course these games are at the same time. After all, they're both critical road tests at critical junctions in critical seasons for both teams. Both are contending for national conference championships. Let's put them in the same time slot!

Personal battles aside, I'm not going to spend much time previewing this game. Frankly, I like the lack of national media exposure this year. All you need to know is that Texas Tech has a sick offense, a quarterback with an injured throwing shoulder, and one of the worst defenses in FBS football. Per Football Outsiders, Texas Tech ranks 109 in S&P+ adjusted defense. 

West Virginia, per usual, has some nice offensive mojo.

Past that... I'll just leave you with this: Undefeated and Unnoticed, WVU Presses Forward...

Other Games to Watch:

No. 2 Ohio State at No. 8 Wisconsin 

What's this strange feeling in my loins? Am I... excited? For Big 10 football?  I'm going to call my primary care physician.

No. 10 Nebraska at Indiana

Add Nebraska to the list of teams that are being vastly overlooked. The Huskers are undefeated in mid-October, and it feels like nobody is talking about them.

Then again, they play in a conference with Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State, so maybe we don't need to. (They play at Camp Randall in two weeks and in Columbus the week after that, so we can all feel justified in ignoring them in a few weeks.)

Kansas State at No. 19 Oklahoma

Kansas State is the best team that you won't watch all year. Which is a shame, because Bill Snyder will probably retire at the end of the season, and they'll go back to being awful for the forseeable future.

No. 1 Alabama at No. 9 Tennessee

I'm not a believer in this Alabama team. They're even more mediocre at quarterback than usual, and their secondary is vulnerable. I'm not saying Tennessee is going to get them, because this Vols team is the most overrated team of the young playoff era... but someone is going to beat this team. I have a suspicion it's going to be Texas A&M. This is not a vintage Bama team. I'm unconvinced they're going to make the playoff.

No. 17 Virginia Tech at Syracuse

Justin Fuente is doing a hell of a job at Virginia Tech, so let's all give credit where credit is due. But isn't this the same team I watched piss their pants against Tennessee in Bristol, like, a month ago? Now, Danny Kanell is running around calling them National Championship contenders? Can we all relax a little on the "Tech is Back" rhetoric?

No. 12 Ole Miss at No. 22 Arkansas


USC at Arizona

Dana Holgorsen is looking better and better, huh? Rich Rod's squad went south realllll quick. Sorry, Kenzie.

Iowa State at Texas

Some people said Charlie Strong was coaching for his job last week against Oklahoma. That seemed like a short-sighted thing to say. This week, it doesn't. If Texas loses at home to Iowa State... boy, bye.

Pitt at UVA

If I didn't already have two games to watch, two Aquatics In-Services to run, and other Saturday night shenanigans in the works, me and my Eat Shit Pitt shirt would take up an ever-so-haughty residence inside the confines of Charlottesville, Virginia. 

Villanova at Richmond

Ugh. Can they both lose? 

Debts & Diseases Double-Down

We close the Pregame with a new segment called the Debts & Diseases Double-Down. To quote C4G paragon Norm Macdonald -- "Sure, they call gambling a disease, but it's the only disease where you can win money."

I'm here to assist you in the eradication of your student loan debt, or the purchasing of that new flatscreen. Perhaps your bank can interest you in a house you can't quite afford? Do those jaguar commercials tickle your villainous fancy? Get yourself some vanity items! You deserve them. Make America Gaudy Again.

Anyway, here we go. Don't bet it if you don't got it.

$: Rutgers +6/Illinois

$$: Iowa State +14.5/Texas

$$$: Wisconsin +10.5/Ohio State

Chalk Play of the Week: San Jose State -2.5 over Nevada. It's not quite #pac12afterdark, but San Diego State is a solid team that's barely giving up anything at home. Wake up Sunday morning to find your winnings.

Bonus Play: Central Michigan at Northern Illinois, Under 64.5.  This actually comes via Tom Fornelli, who is my #1 favorite follow on Twitter. Hilarious guy. Anyway, he picked this one out in his Pick 6 column for CBS Sports, and I think he's dead on the money here. 

And so ends another glorious Weekend Pregame. Enjoy the pageantry. Ain't nothing like college football.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Stop What You're Doing and Prepare for the JMU Softball Regional

JMU softball opens regional play on Friday in Harrisonburg, marking the second straight year our eternal overlords at the NCAA will command three unfortunate schools to endure the unfriendly arms of the Friendly City. Veterans Memorial Park is all but guaranteed to sell out, so if the box office is still open, why are you still reading this stupid blog? Go get an all-weekend pass for $25.

In Case You've Been Under a Rock, JMU is good at softball. Like, really good. Like, beat-Tennessee-by-slaughter-rule-in-February-before-the-team-really-even-found-its-stride good.

The Dukes can score runs well enough -- they've always been pretty good at generating offense, even dating back to the Katie Flynn days -- but it's the pitching that makes them legitimate national championship contenders. Senior Jailyn Ford and sophomore (sophomore?!) Megan Good form arguably the best 1-2 combination of starting pitching anywhere in the western world. Both are All-Americans; both have ERA's under 1.0; both have pitched a perfect game.

Oh, and they're not just one-trick ponies, either. When they're not in the circle, they can light it up at the plate as well, which leads to some pretty mind-bending sports stats.

Leave it to Mattie Jones and K-Dub to pull out the heavy guns.

They're battle-tested.  In the not-too-distant future, there should be a JMU-based 30-for-30 aimed at mid-major athletic departments that features how the Bourne & Co. drafted a schedule as a little guy and came out seeded as a giant. Here's a list of teams JMU beat today, all of which made the NCAA tournament, but zero of which actually played JMU in Harrisonburg:

  • UCF (ranked No. 17 at time of game)
  • Auburn (Ranked No. 5 at time of game)
  • Oklahoma State
  • Fordham
  • BYU
  • Arizona (JMU beat them twice)
  • Ohio State
  • Arizona State (Ranked No. 21 at time of game)

They ain't afraid of nobody.

The Regional Schedule features an ACC cousin (North Carolina), an in-state foe (Longwood), and a sub-.500 group of nerds that got lost on the way to chess club (Princeton).

Seriously though, there isn't a lot to see here. An intra-state matchup later in the weekend could be the type of bloodbath that is fun for three or four innings, but ultimately gets boring, and you end up anxiously counting down Good strikeouts with a mountain of paper K printouts, just so you can get back to the parking lot to shotgun Keystones. The probable matchup with North Carolina carries the most sex appeal, if only because JMU has some noteworthy postseason history with the Tarheels.

All you need to know about the Harrisonburg regional is that JMU is a -600 favorite to advance to the Super Regional, while the field is +400. And speaking of odds...

A Sure Bet... if you've got $5,000. At several online sportsbooks, you can actually bet the NCAA softball tournament. As of this posting, only lines for the first crop of regional games have been posted, which means that only JMU vs Princeton is available. To win $100, you'd have to bet $5,250 on JMU. That's a hard square bet, simply because the up-front money is so high, but it's about as close to a guaranteed Franklin as you're likely to find in gambling. 

(Also of note -- JMU is the second-biggest favorite on the board, behind only Tennessee at -7500. Though when you consider that Florida has been taken off the board altogether for its opener vs Alabama State, the Dukes would likely be the third-biggest favorite on a full board.)

Similar story, different ending.  Last year, JMU softball hosted a regional, but got tripped up by an unexpectedly good NC State squad. Expect an undercurrent of measured expectation, and a predictable narrative arc of senior redemption. 

For all the literary cliches, though, this team has earned the praise it's garnered. They've obliterated almost every team they've played; the only conference loss they took was a 15-inning marathon game against a capable Elon team. (I have to imagine that, after a game that's more than twice the length of a normal match, players on both teams would have been happy to surrender, just to get off the field.)

When you combine the relatively weak competition that's headed for the Harrisonburg Regional and the dominance that JMU has pitched with, it's a fairly safe bet to look forward to what could potentially be in the Super Regional. Which is...

Purple and Gold v. Purple and Gold. If seeding holds, JMU will host LSU -- yes, that LSU -- in Harrisonburg at the Super Regional level. I'm prepared to make the argument that this would be the biggest home game in the history of JMU athletics.

But to get there, the Dukes have to take care of business Friday, Saturday, and Sunday against a crop of beatable teams. The forecast is calling for rain on Saturday, but who the hell cares? JMU Athletics saved the best for last this year. Get out there and watch some history. The WCWS is waiting.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Everett Withers bails on JMU for Texas State

In my head, I have a complicated relationship with Everett Withers. He's clearly a gifted hype man, the sort of guy you'd want spotting you on the bench press or pumping you up in the corner of a boxing ring in between rounds. He's got some pretty neat slogans. He can string letters and numbers together with the best of them. He's got a knack for hash tags.

And in all seriousness, Withers was much-needed cough medicine. Bitter to the taste, but otherwise curative of what ailed JMU. The culprit in this particular case? The locker room behind the south end zone got a little too stale, just a little too complacent, under Mickey Matthews. It's football. It happens. And Withers' extra pep in his step fixed those problems, come what may.

But let's call this what it is. It's a shitty, savvy business decision from someone who's too smart to get exposed this early in his career. In the stock trade, you buy low and sell high. Your moves are dictated by the arc you feel your stock is on. When you're in a business like coaching, decisions are made along the same rubric. He may be coming off back-to-back playoff losses as a home favorite, but Withers' stock was arguably at peak height. He gets the credit for landing an ACC quarterback transfer. He gets the credit for centering that quarterback in a video game offense. He gets the credit for bringing College GameDay to an FCS school.

You sell high on that. It's that simple. All the other details, like the alumni love and the media disconnect? That doesn't matter. It's a cutthroat business, and this is a cutthroat business decision. Fans line up to make excuses for him here; he could be a god. But to him, that FBS head-coaching tab is more important, in the grand scheme of things.

I'm not going to break this down for you guys much further than that. By now, the Withers-to-Texas-State news is already almost 24 hours old, and the Internet has had plenty of time to digest the facts and spew up a football field’s worth of frothy hot takes.

What is undeniably horrible here is the timing. Coaching departures are just part of the business, but leaving a few weeks before National Signing Day, and six days after tweeting about how thrilled you are to bring in a top-tier recruiting class, is objectively shitty.

Past that, all that's left are the I-Told-You-So's. I try not to do this too much of that, because nothing is more annoying than a guy rubbing it in your face when you're already low. But back when I was writing columns for the Breeze, I penned this prophetic masterpiece:

"Matthews and his staff can’t be absolved of all responsibility. The lack of a forward passing game at JMU has become so publicly mocked, it’s nearly clichΓ©. Calling plays out of the shotgun in short yardage situations has become a regularity. The defense, for all its talent, simply couldn’t cover anyone, and incomplete passes were often a result of happenstance rather than actual defensive prowess.

Most damningly, the offense failed to develop an identity as quarterbacks were shuffled and reshuffled like so many decks of cards. Mix in the option, the wildcat, zone-reads and numerous other play calls, and it’s unclear whether JMU oversees a football team or a Bertie Botts Every Flavored Bean factory.

As a result, CAA blogs and message boards are full of snide young alumni, living in their Northern Virginia lofts, parading on about how Matthews should be fired immediately. I think they should get back to their cubicle and concentrate on their spreadsheets. Inducing a coaching panic is the last thing the program needs right now.

While the expectations weren’t met and the class of 2013 will graduate without a home playoff game, Matthews deserves his fan base’s trust. I’m not a believer in national championships buying free rides, but there just isn’t enough here to trade an admirably devoted coach Matthews for some young up-and-comer who will only see JMU as a stepping stone."

I don't think I'm lobbying for us to send Mickey an offer sheet or anything, but I do feel a little bit like Alfred in The Dark Knight. Walking out of my secret underground shed where I write this blog, like, yeah, but I did bloody tell you.

Look, it's going to get worse before it gets better. JMU is going to lose recruits. And the more recruits that decommit and depart, the more enticing it's going to be for other recruits to jump ship, too. There's a certain element of self-sustaining chaos that will be in play over the next few weeks, until a hire is made and the athletic department can stop the bleeding.

The good news is that, after briefly talking with a couple of people this afternoon, I feel reassured that there is an actual plan in motion, and not just crisis communication, control-the-narrative bullshit. JMU is aggressively pursuing people, and it doesn't seem like anyone is off limits. (Seriously, though, stop holding your breath for Chip Kelly, because that shit just isn't happening.)

I suppose I'll end with one final thought on Everett Withers, before he goes in the sin bin with the rest of the sports unmentionables. I'm reminded of the Michael Jordan commercial where MJ speaks to a few dozen aspirational teenagers, looking for insight into how to be better.

"Maybe it's my fault," Jordan says. "Maybe I led you to believe my game was built on flash, not fire."
Jordan's voice trails off.

"Or maybe, you're just making excuses."

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I've misjudged Everett. Maybe he's more than a good-not-great coach who was gifted a one-in-a-million quarterback situation. Maybe he let me believe his talents were more throat than brain.

Then again, I haven't been wrong yet. And today, in Harrisonburg, nobody is making excuses for Everett Withers any longer.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Consortium VI: JMU Prepares for Colgate in the FCS Playoffs' Round of 16

Tomorrow's clash between JMU and the fightin' Tubes of Colgate toothpaste is the first December football game inside Bridgeforth Stadium in quite some time. So to get you primed for it, I've gathered another gaggle of talking heads. And we're going to, ya know, talk.

Your panelists today:
  • Wayne Epps, Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning Breeze
  • JMU Sports Blog (Don't pretend like you don't know.)
  • Dylan Garner, Sports Producer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch
  • Luke Wachob, JMU Alum and former Breeze Opinion Columnist
  • Me. Part-time journalist, full-time drunk fan.

1. Armed with a 9-2 regular season record, JMU football is feeling refreshed after a five-day Thanksgiving holiday. The team is playing in December for the first time since 2008; on the other hand, injuries and miscues threaten to take the title-contending Dukes out of Harrisonburg as soon as next weekend. So to this point, has JMU overachieved, underachieved, or performed right at expectations? 

Wayne Epps: I have to say that JMU is performing right at expectations. I expected the Dukes to build on last season’s experience, and here they are with a national seed this year and another home game. You certainly can’t be mad at a 9-2 record either. Yes, there was the undefeated run earlier in the season, and what could’ve been the opportunity for a higher seed if that run stretched longer. But if the goal is to make the playoffs and have a chance at a national championship, the Dukes have accomplished that. Plus, they’re in a better spot than they were last year. Now, after the first-round bye, JMU is four wins away from the ultimate prize.

JMU Sports Blog: From a total body of work perspective, I think 9-2 is in line with even some of the more optimistic fans' expectations heading into the season. The MVC might be the top league in the FCS, but the CAA is no slouch. We certainly didn't expect JMU to run the table and would have taken 9-2 and playoff seed in a heartbeat if they were offered to us back in August. 

However, JMU's play under Vad Lee up until the Richmond game was so stellar, that the hype and expectations were growing to unseen levels. I certainly thought that a National Championship could be in the cards. Since Vad's injury, the "Deathstar" offense has been far less frightening. A Championship or deep playoff run is still possible, but it seems a little less likely than it did a few months ago. Long story short, the team has performed right at preseason expectations, but is falling short of peak expectations when Vad and the offense were hitting on all cylinders.

That was basically two full paragraphs of hedging the fence and not really answering anything. You're welcome. 

Dylan Garner: This was a team that was built, at least strategically, to take advantage of Vad Lee’s skill set in a juggernaut offense. It certainly succeeded, and even with his exit from the lineup, the system is still working very well. I would say they performed at the level that everybody thought they could. Did I necessarily expect a team this strong? Not really. But to say they overachieved might take away from the great mix of talent this team fields, particularly on offense.

Luke Wachob:  Overachieved. If you followed JMU during the late Mickey Matthews era, you know how little preseason hype is worth. Every year is tough no matter what you did the year before, and you have to love playing at home in December. Period. 

Chase Kiddy: I don't disagree with anything that was said above. And I want to add the caveat that any fan who says JMU had a bad regular season is a spoiled, whiney brat who needs a reality check. JMU won the CAA, nabbed a first-round bye, and has (statistically) the best offense in FCS football. Check, please. Thanks for a great year, Everett and Co.

But... couldn't I still make a case that this team has underachieved? Six weeks ago, this team had a legitimate shot to go undefeated and start its own dynasty. The Dukes are still dancing in December, so it's easy to lose sight of what's happened over the last month, but the reality is the following: 

  • The Dukes are only conference champions by virtue of William & Mary losing on the last day of the regular season.
  • JMU's defense ranks in the back half of all FCS units, despite having the opportunity to pad the stats against some pretty awful teams (Elon, Albany, Morehead State).
  • JMU is only guaranteed one home game. If seeding holds, the Dukes will be on the road for the remainder of the playoffs, despite the fact that JMU received first-place votes for the first two thirds of the season.

Look, I'm not saying JMU had a bad season, or that the team shouldn't be proud of their accomplishments. When your best player goes down for the season, expectations have to be re-calibrated. But I don't want to pretend that September and October never happened, either. You can cast a lot of the crash back to Earth on Vad's injury, but the defensive shortcomings? That's the reason for both losses, and that's nothing but failing to perform.

2. JMU has a date with Colgate, uber-methodical champions of the Patriot League, on Saturday at 1pm. Which player is most critical to JMU's success this weekend?

WE: Sophomore quarterback Bryan Schor. Through his first three starts, Schor has proved himself capable at piloting the Dukes’ offense. Even in the loss to the College of William & Mary, JMU was up 41-37 heading into the game’s final minute before a late touchdown run reversed the outcome. The offense may not be producing at the same clip it was with redshirt senior Vad Lee at the helm, but Schor is doing his thing and helping to put the Dukes in position to win games.

JMUSB: I guess Bryan Schor would be the name that first jumps out, but choosing the QB seems like a bit of cop out. I'm pretty confident he'll continue to take care of the ball and will make the plays he needs to when given the opportunity. For me the most critical thing is that his lineman give him protection he needs when passing and open up holes for the running game. So I could choose one particular lineman, but really I think it's the entire line as a unit that will dictate the outcome of this game. If JMU's offensive line dominates the line of scrimmage, the playmakers will take care of the rest.

DG:   I’m going to go with junior wide receiver Brandon Ravenel. Colgate’s weakness on both sides of the ball is the passing attack. The Raiders defense ranks 102nd in among FCS teams in passing yards allowed per game, and they’ve been particularly susceptible to the dink-and-dunk. They don’t allow the yards per play that the other teams dredging in the bottom of the FCS do, but a look at the sheer number of completions they give up makes it seem like they’ll give Ravenel and Bryan Schor plenty of room to work with. Ravenel has two options. He can take the space they give him and make them pay with first down after first down, or he can buck the trend with his big-play ability. I’d expect the former, but regardless, if JMU’s offense puts up 40+ once again, it wouldn’t surprise me to see his numbers jump off the stat sheet.

LW: It’s a quarterback’s sport, so the answer is Bryan Schor. Putting that aside, the JMU defense needs to be sharp against Colgate’s run-first attack, so look for leading tackler Kyre Hawkins to have a big day.

CK: How about Taylor Reynolds? I don't have an official stat on this, but when the dude makes plays, JMU wins. It's pretty much that simple. If JMU can trust their DBs in single coverage, the defense can stack the box and win the line of scrimmage. If JMU gets exposed on the back end, though, it could be a long afternoon.

3. What does Colgate need to do to beat JMU?

WE: Run the ball well. The Raiders rank last in the seven-team Patriot League in pass offense with 190.8 passing yards per game. But led by junior quarterback Jake Melville’s 837 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, Colgate has the Patriot League’s top-ranked rush attack with 196.8 rush yards per game. Meanwhile, JMU gives up an average of 184.4 rushing yards per game, which is eighth out of 12 teams in the CAA. 

Colgate has multiple other run threats besides Melville too. Senior running back Demetrius Russell has 544 yards and six touchdowns, sophomore running back James Holland has 532 yards and a team-high 13 touchdowns and junior running back John Wilkins has 448 yards and three touchdowns. JMU gave up a season-high 321 rushing yards to Villanova in the regular season finale, so the Dukes will be looking to rebound against the Raiders.

JMUSB: Run the ball effectively. Colgate doesn't want to get into a track meet with the Dukes. The Raiders can't match JMU's athleticism and aren't built to win a shootout in the air. Their strength is running the ball. JMU struggles stopping the run and has a bad habit of letting poor tackling turn 3 yard gains into long TD runs. Colgate can win if it moves the ball on the ground and has a few clock eating touchdown drives. 

DG:   Trigger warning -- if things go Colgate’s way, this could be a Jacobi Green situation all over again. The Raiders run the ball a lot, and they have a bunch of different people to run it with. Richmond showed the world what happens when the Dukes can’t control a runner. Don’t think Colgate hasn’t watched clips from that game over and over.

LW: Beat up the Dukes' front-7 and run the ball down their throats. I can’t pretend I’ve been watching Colgate games, but judging from James Hollande’s 4 TD runs in their win over UNH, it looks like they might have the team to do it.  

CK: Every coach I've talked to this season talks about running the ball effectively and winning the Time of Possession game against JMU. That's important, but I think the precursor to that is recognizing the holes in the short passing defense and exposing them. Because of JMU's defensive scheme, there are easy holes underneath that quarterbacks can find and unload into on almost every play. Quarterbacks who are confident in their ability to locate those holes on 3rd and 5 can keep their offense on the field, draw the Dukes' linebackers back into coverage, and spread the defense too thin, effectively setting up a winning ball-control strategy. So running the ball is key, but when you're playing JMU, you've got to pass to set up the run.

4. How far could JMU realistically go in the playoffs? What's the ceiling for this year's team?

WE: I could see JMU stringing together a couple of strong performances and making it as far as the semifinals. The Dukes’ offense is still potent and can still outscore teams. But a trip to the semifinals could mean a duel with the top seed in the bracket, a high-powered Jacksonville State University team. That would be too big of a hurdle this year.

JMUSB: Realistically, JMU could win the whole damn thing. I'm not sure how likely it is, and it's probably less likely than it would be if Vad were still playing, but the bracket sets up nicely for a run. All of the MVC teams are on the other side, as are Richmond and William & Mary. There are plenty of good teams remaining and no doubt, JMU could lose to any one of them. But JMU could also beat any of them. There is no clear cut favorite or single team that is heads and shoulders above the rest. If the Dukes win Saturday, they'd have a very winnable game against McNeese St or Sam Houston. At that point they'd be in the semifinals, playing with a ton of confidence, and anything could happen.

DG:  The 2003 Kansas City Chiefs, my favorite NFL team (don’t judge me), succeeded with two things. 1) They featured a stupidly powerful offense led by Priest Holmes, Trent Green and Tony Gonzalez. 2) The defense had one job -- just get the damn ball any way you can. Gamble on interceptions, and hit the other guy hard enough so that you can force fumbles (they had a +19 differential). Luck ran out for that team as soon as the playoffs hit... go figure. Maybe college football is a better avenue for a team like this to succeed. Maybe not. I’ll say a national championship appearance is the ceiling, but a title? I’m not going to be the one to predict that.

LW: With Vad, I thought JMU could go all the way. They might have been underdogs at times along the way, but the offense was so explosive that anything seemed possible. As impressive as Schor has been, it’s not enough for me to trust this defense once they’re playing top-tier offenses or forced to go on the road. I’ll take each game as it comes.

CK: It obviously depends on what kind of help JMU gets from other teams. I'm iffy about JMU playing McNeese State on the road; I definitely don't think they could survive a trip to Jacksonville without a huge defensive turnaround. But if upsets reign, and the Dukes draw some combination of Sam Houston State, Chatanooga, and/or the Citadel instead, anything truly could happen. Personally, I like them to advance to the quarterfinals before bowing out. It's not a National Championship, but with a season-ending injury to the star quarterback, it's not nothing, either.

5. Game prediction for Saturday?

WE: JMU 42, Colgate 35. Colgate could still have a solid day on the ground, but I think the rested JMU offense, which still leads the Football Championship Subdivision, will be too much for the Raiders at Bridgeforth Stadium.

JMUSB: Schor and the offense pick up the pace a bit, the defense tackles better, and the Dukes' athleticism eventually is too much for Colgate to handle. JMU 38 - Colgate 24.

DG:    Colgate 17:38 JMU. Chase would be pissed if I didn't make some sort of stupid musical reference before the end.

LW: The Dukes versus toothpaste? Gimme the Dukes all day! 30-20.

CK: Give me the Dukes big. I may be a naysayer for the big picture, but I think Colgate is out of steam. Beating New Hampshire in Durham is one thing; beating a rested JMU at (hopefully) sold-out BFS is another matter altogether. Dukes, 42-20.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Rumors of their Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Some Thoughts on WVU vs JMU, and more

Don't you just love that mid-November sports saturation? That mythical weekend where Friday basketball flows into Saturday college football? And then there's NFL Sunday? And then on Monday, there's... more basketball?

November has historically been one of my favorite sports months for all of the obvious reasons. And there's been so much shit going on lately that I had to put down my legal pad and pen, set aside my storyboards, and poke my head out of my self-imposed sports sabbatical. I mean, have you heard some of the shit you cretins spout out of your face-holes when I'm not writing on this blog? Good grief.

It's time to fall back in line, hooligans.

JMU Football:

I'd like to start with this, because... WHAT?

Seriously? Who started this? Because this is why we can't have nice things.

Lobbying to fire a head coach after he loses two games to ranked opponents, even when it's in a defensively atrocious fashion, is why players and media types laugh at fans. Etymologically, they might be the same, but a fan and a fanatic have two completely separate connotations. Don't be a fanatic. Don't be an asshole. Be a hard-nosed, passionate, still-sensible fan.

Right. On to the Dukes. Look, I'm not going to lie to you. I'm pretty sure I've sold my stock in "JMU, the National Title Contender." My good friend Taylor Mickelberry, proud Double-Duke and current Illinois resident, was oh-so-happy to inform me back in early October that he had already bought tickets to Frisco. Taylor, as I sometimes tell his girlfriend, is a lunatic.

So save your money. Don't buy train tickets to Texas for January, even if you're thinking that the Valley gets a tid bit nippley after New Years. Don't hold your breath. Don't light candles after church. JMU is not winning it all without Lee. Etch it in stone. It's done.

But it doesn't mean that the program isn't on the upswing. Everett Withers made the playoffs in Year 1. He's still got a very real shot at the program's first playoff win since 2011. He's all but locked up the first set of consecutive playoff appearances since 07-08. But even at 9-2, I'm not convinced JMU can back into a playoff seed without some miraculous help from around the nation. So let's focus on what is going to become a theme for this blog post: obtainable goals.

JMU needs to beat Villanova, lobby for a home playoff matchup, and win a post-season game in Harrisonburg for the first time in seven years.

If the Dukes can accomplish those three things, they'll have dialed the clocks back to 2008. The season will have been an unmitigated success. And from there... can't anything happen?

WVU Football: 

As October was wrapping up, you'd be excused if you had no idea what West Virginia's record was, or whether or not they were any good. They were 3-4, including an 0-4 October performance in Big 12 play, and hadn't won a game since scalping a dreadful Maryland squad back in September by a score of 45-6.

What was the Mountaineers' October slate of games? @Oklahoma. Vs Oklahoma State. @Baylor. @TCU.

So, yeah, they went 0-4. Three road games against Top 15 teams, plus a home matchup with what could potentially be the Big 12-winning Cowboys. That OSU game, by the way, ended up going to overtime. Was I in Morgantown that day? Of course I was . THE CURSE OF MY FANHOOD. IT'S REAL.

By the time the blowout in Waco went final, Mountaineer fans were done. Fire Dana! Buy out Rich Rod! Bring in someone that can win three road games, each one 2,000 miles away, in four weeks! What are we doing?

Isn't it time to check our expectations at the door? West Virginia fans have had a few years now to adjust to the Big 12, and if one thing is clear, it's that the Wild Wild West is definitely not the Mild Mild (Big) East. Some years, even with a great defense and a strong running game, West Virginia just won't have the tools to win the title. Living in reality isn't lowering your expectations -- it's being a responsible fan.

And yes, West Virginia does have a solid defense and a strong running game. Even without All-American Karl Joseph -- who I still think get's drafted before Day 3 despite the season-ending injury, by the way -- the Mountaineer D has looked like one of the best units this program has fielded in my lifetime. Meanwhile, Smallwood is climbing draft boards, and the offense is averaging 225 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 18th in FBS football. It also ranks as the No. 1 reason West Virginia nearly doubled up Texas over the weekend, 38-20. Did you ever think you'd see the day where a Holgorsen-coached quarterback only threw the ball 12 times?

West Virginia (5-4) closes its regular season schedule with home games against Kansas and Iowa State, along with a road tilt in the Little Apple with Kansas State. I'm inclined to make the argument that these are the three worst teams in the conference. So pitch your fuss if you'd like, but after all the October wining, the Mountaineers are positioned to have a shot at a 9-4 season. With the team's best player gone and an average quarterback under center, that's nothing to sneeze at.

Men's Basketball: JMU vs West Virginia (Monday, 7:00pm @Charleston Civic Center)

JMU fans will probably point to the fact that this is hardly a neutral site, being in Charleston. West Virginia fans would probably argue back, noting that setting the game a stone's throw from Huntington would make it Marshall territory more than anything else. More importantly, the Civic Center hasn't exactly been a bastion of great basketball for the Mountaineers over the years -- a number of foul-laden rock fights with the aforementioned Thundering Herd come to mind.

So, hey, JMU fans. Listen. I'm in your corner here. The Dukes went to Richmond and beat the hated Spiders, and that feels like a big, emotional win. And it is! It's even true that there's more than just emotion behind the win; there's some solid numbers to back up how great JMU played. We could start with the fact that, even without its best post player, Madison smacked Richmond on the boards.

That's great. Really! It's early, but I'm thinking JMU could contend for a conference title, and maybe even a sneaky NCAA upset this year. This squad ticks all the boxes -- inside-out play, a strong ball handler (Curry), a grindy post-player (Dalembert), and a dangerous X-factor (take your pick -- Brown, Kent, Cabarkapa). I believe it could be a special year.

So please also believe me when I tell you that West Virginia is going to obliterate JMU tonight.

This whole #PressVirginia thing? It's not a joke. They're going to be so far inside Curry's personal space, they might walk off the court with intimate knowledge of his love life and ATM balance. With Dalembert out, West Virginia is going to smash the boards so hard, I expect players to be picking glass out of their skin during the post-game press conference. Do you see what I'm getting at here? It's not going to be pretty.

It's just not a good matchup, folks. West Virginia has a big frontcourt, and they foul a lot during their press. JMU does not handle a press well, does not shoot well from the stripe, and is missing its best frontcourt player. Sometimes, it's that simple.

Best of luck to both teams tonight. My only rooting interest is that both teams end the game still healthy.

And if you insist on being that guy? The guy who makes me choose a team? Well, I guess you've got some reading to do.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Value of Struggle: On My Friend, Alison Parker

It’s 6:58pm on a Thursday night, and we are, very literally, a couple of minutes away from an hour-long budget meeting. Fifteen of us are uneasily rocking back and forth in our rolling chairs in the bleakly dank basement of Anthony-Seeger Hall, just a few feet back from South Main Street in Harrisonburg, Virginia. As college journalists, this is our proud, outdated home, where we gather four times a week for not enough money and not enough recognition. Our budget meeting – a biweekly gathering to discuss the litany of section stories the editorial staff has lined up – is going way longer than usual. On this particular evening, you can chalk that up to Torie, our editor-in-chief, who is eviscerating our story ideas, one after another, like neatly lined paper lambs to the slaughter. Torie’s just doing her job – the more scrutiny a story idea undergoes, the better it’s likely to turn out, of course – but that hard reality doesn’t make this particular night any less agonizing.