PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

It was brought to my attention after I praised Northwestern’s run to the Big Ten West that their division is subpar, and that’s absolutely right.  The West is far from being the best this fall, as has been the custom since the conference put “Leaders & Legends” into the trash can where it belonged.  But the Big Ten’s Division discussion is far from unique, as each of the Power Five Conferences have long boasted a Darryl Hall as well as a John Oates. (Or, depending on your age and interest: Paul Simon/Art Garfunkel, George Michael/Andrew Ridgeley, Kix Brooks/Ronnie Dunn, Big Kenny/John Rich).  Even the ten-member Big 12 had that issue, as the South won 12 of 15 championship games.

At least the Big Ten West has a ranked team in the Wildcats.  That’s not the case in the ACC’s Coastal where a 4-loss Pitt  is all but headed to Charlotte for a showdown with unbeaten Clemson (that will certainly end well).  The Atlantic Division has won seven straight and is 9-4 in a league set up for Miami and Florida State to face off for the title (and they’ve yet do do so).  Despite the imagined edge, the Atlantic and Coastal have won an equal amount of inter-divisional games this fall.

The Pac 12 division of fortune is similar, with two ranked schools in the North and just one in the South (a #19 Utah that has three league losses).  The North has won six of seven Championship Games and this year looks like more of the same, with a 5-4 South champion an extreme possibility.  The North owns a two-game edge inter-divisonally, with everyone wondering when USC and UCLA will get their respective acts in gear.

You’d expect the SEC to have a marked difference, especially with the West winning seven of eight titles this decade (although it was 5-5 the previous decade and the East dominated the 90’s).  But the East has actually taken seven of 12 inter-division games.  Even Vanderbilt is getting into the act.  Of course, everybody-in the East and West-is and will be chasing Alabama now and for some time.  My only issue is that Missouri is west of the Mississippi River yet plays in the East Division.

Which brings us to the Big Ten.  This year there are three East Division teams in the top 14 with Northwestern repping the West at #22.  The East owns an 11-8 edge and enjoyed a 13-8 advantage last year, but the West won 11 of 21 games in 2016 and the two divisions were even the previous two years.  The East is 4-0 in the Championship Game, a small sample size to say the least.  And that span saw changes at formerly dominant programs Nebraska and Wisconsin.  How long the current divide will last between the divisions might just hinge on how long it takes for Scott Frost to get things going in Lincoln and how long it takes Paul Chryst to consolidate what he’s built in Madison.  Perhaps Urban Meyer (who’s resigned with health concerns before), Mike Dantonio (62 years old) and Jim Harbaugh (mentioned every year with NFL vacancies) won’t be on their current campuses forever.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was conference parity.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange haven’t started 9-2 since 1992, when Marvin Graves was at the peak of his powers.  SU heads to New York City to face #3 Notre Dame, and after the Fighting Irish won their first three games by single digits they’ve been on a roll.  The last time these two teams played, the Orange allowed 50 points.  While I’m hoping its not that bad, it can’t get worse than men’s basketball’s  loss to UConn at Madison Square Garden where somebody spelled a player’s name wrong on the back of their jersey.  Granted, it was only a freshman who played just six minutes.  But the kid’s name was-and is-Buddy Boeheim.  As in the son of the man who has been our head coach for the last 42 years–and has been on campus in one way or another since 1962.  I’m looking forward to buying a game replica Buddy Boheim jersey at Manny’s online.

Saturday’s Games-

Maryland (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) vs. #9 Ohio State (9-1, 6-1), noon (ABC).  The Buckeyes happen to be the only team in the East Division the Terps haven’t beaten since joining the league, and it hasn’t been close:  the average score has been 56-17.  This year OSU owns the number one offense in the Big Ten thanks to the arm of Dwayne Haskins, who has 33 touchdown passes in ten games.  With Kasim Hill done for the year due to a torn ACL, the Terps will start redshirt sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome (who has thrown all of 31 passes this fall).  Expect Anthony McFarland (210 yards rushing against Indiana) to receive the lion’s share of attention, and while the Buckeyes aren’t as sharp on that side of the ball their defense is second-best at getting off of the field in the Big Ten.  Terrapins tumble, 44-14.

Virginia Tech (4-5, 3-3 ACC) vs. Miami (5-5, 2-4), 3:30 p.m. (ESPN).  The last two Coastal Division champs expected to be playing for another spot in the ACC Championship Game this weekend as recently as one month ago.  Instead, it’s a question of which team can salvage its sinking season. While the Hokies have dropped three in a row, the Hurricanes have lost four straight.  But not all slides into oblivion are created equally, as Miami has three one-possession losses in its tumble and Virginia Tech has dropped its three by an average of 20 points.  Tech’s slump can be traced to a defense that’s surrendered 30 or more points five times this fall;  the Cane’s decline can be traced to an offense that ranks 12th in the ACC in passing and a starting quarterback in N’Kosi Perry who hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in over a month.  Cover your eyes.  Hokies hurt a little more, 27-21.

Virginia (7-3, 4-2 ACC) at Georgia Tech (6-4, 3-3), 3:30 p.m. (ACC Network).  The Cavaliers can still win the Coastal Division, but only with two wins and two losses by Pitt.  The Yellowjackets may be out of the running for the division, but Coach Paul Johnson’s option offense will be running all afternoon- they lead the nation with 362 yards per game on the ground.  UVa just coughed up 205 yards rushing– to Liberty.  The home team has also prevailed in seven of eight meetings this decade.   Kippy & Buffy hit the road with a bottle of Cain Five.  The 2014 vintage is 51% Cabernet Sauvignon and 26% Merlot (remaining grapes used are split between Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot).  “The aromas are discrete: fruity—floral—herbal—spicy—and pure. On the palate, the wine has a certain density, but now the tannins have melted and this wine just flows.”  Cavaliers come up short, 33-26.

Navy (2-8, 1-5 AAC) vs. Tulsa (2-8, 1-5), 3:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network).  For just the second time all season, the Mids will face a team with a losing record -their October 6th trip to 1-3 Air Force being the other time.  The Golden Hurricane have lost eight of nine (the one win coming against one-win UConn) and rank tenth in the AAC at stopping the run while allowing 5.0 yards per carry.  Now that Zach Abey is back at the controls of the option offense, one can expect more of the 21-point second half they had against UCF and less of the 3-point first half they scraped together against the Knights last week.  The defense has to put together a solid sixty minutes together against Tulsa offense that ranks 11th in passing, total offense and points per game while allowing the most sacks this fall.  Midshipmen celebrate Senior Day in Annapolis with a 31-19 victory.

Howard beats Bryant, Georgetown gets by Holy Cross, James Madison tops Towson, William & Mary beats Richmond to send Jimmye Laycock out a winner.

Last Week: 6-4.

Overall: 56-36.

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Remember last year when the Redskins went to Seattle with an offensive line held together by duct tape and paper clips, only to bring back a victory from Puget Sound?  Well this past weekend the Burgundy and Gold used rubber bands and masking tape to keep the line semi-solid in a 16-3 win by Tampa Bay.  Instead of losing a second straight game to a fellow future wildcard contender, the Skins are two games clear of a muddled NFC East and are off to their best start in ten years (we won’t mention who was coaching the Maroon and Black that autumn).  This has the feel of 2012 and 2015 all over again:  a first-year starting quarterback at Fed Ex Field exceeding expectations amidst a division ripe for the taking.  Enjoy the ascent, because if there’s anything we’ve learned from 2012 and 2015 it’s that 2013 and 2016 are distinct possibilities.

Turnovers Told the Tale- four takeaways helped keep the Buccaneers out of the end zone.  Josh  Norman’s interception at the goal line on the first drive of the day set the tone.  Greg Stroman’s interception led to the team’s final points of the afternoon.  Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s fumble recovery in the end zone ended another Bucs drive into the red zone.  And Ryan Kerrigan’s fumble recovery inside the ten ended Tampa Bays’ last best chance to rally.  And the Skins did not turn the ball over at all.  The team now ranks third in the league at +11 in turnover margin, and they needed every one Sunday to prevail.

Mr. Smith Goes to Consistency- for the third time in four weeks Alex Smith threw for exactly 178 yards.  The Skins won all three of those games…and are 5-0 when he throws for under 250 yards (1-3 when he crosses the 21st century marker for “productive passer”).  If he throws for exactly 178 yards against Houston, we’ll know the fix is in.

Cousins Comparison- Kirk and company had a bye this past week, but I took my bye last week (writing back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back college basketball previews for WTOP.COM) so let’s revisit how the former Franchise Tagged one fared:  18-22 passing for 164 yards and a touchdown with an interception in the Vikings’ 24-9 win over Detroit.  Minnesota is 5-3-1 and in second place of the NFC North, currently owning the second wildcard.  Cousins for the season owns a passer rating of 102.2 (9th best in the league) while Alex Smith is at 90.7 after nine games (21st in the NFL).

Peterson Provides Production- he didn’t gain 100 yards, but the Skins main threat on the ground rushed for 68 yards–including two first down scampers in third and short situations.  His 672 yards through nine games is already more than his numbers from the last two years (and three teams) combined over 13 games played.

Catching On- Maurice Harris led the team with 5 catches for 52 yards, following up his 10 reception effort against Atlanta.  With 26 catches this fall, the third-year pro has already more than doubled his career numbers.  Not bad for a fringe roster player.

Third and Two Halves- the Skins went 0-for-4 on the money down in the first half and 5-for-9 after intermission.  Alex Smith completed 5-of-8 passes while getting sacked once, moving the chains twice.  The running game moved the marker on 3-of-4 plays (Peterson twice and Kapri Bibbs once).  Smith’s top target?  Maurice Harris and Josh Doctson each notched a pair of catches on two targets–each moving the chains once (Doctson’s grab was for a touchdown).  Yardage breakdown:  2-for-2 on short-yardage, 1-for-5 on intermediate (4 to 6 yards needed) and 2-for-6 on long-yardage.  Almost 50% of the third downs needed seven or more yards-less than ideal.

D gets a pass- so they gave up 501 yards…but when it mattered they stopped the Buccaneers shy of the end zone each time.  Mason Foster led the way with 10 tackles while Preston Smith and Matt Ioannidis notched sacks.  Plenty to be happy with, but also plenty to work on moving forward.

Extra Special Teams- Dustin Hopkins nailed his three field goal attempts (unlike his Tampa Bay counterpart Chandler Catanzaro who missed two of three and was cut) with a long of 43 yards.  Tress Way averaged 49.4 yards per punt, but that merely graces the surface.  Four of his five landed inside the Bucs’ 20 with Way’s three second-half kicks landing at the four-, six- and 13-yard line.

Flying Flags- eight infractions for 52 yards gives the team 64 for 624 yards (9th and 4th most in the NFL). Of the five on the offense, two were false starts while the other three were holds (the Skins 21 holds this year are the most in the league).  Morgan Moses had one of each while recent pickup Jonathan Cooper had a pair of holds.  The two defensive penalties (neutral zone infraction and a hold) came in the fourth quarter and were luckily wiped out by Ryan Fitzpatrick’s third turnover of the day.  The special teams’ flag was an illegal formation on a kickoff.  Costliest penalty?  Those two that kept the Bucs’ late drive alive.

Dissecting the Division- the Skins own a two-game lead in the NFC East and due to conference record would be the fourth seed “if the playoffs began today”, which they obviously do not.  Dallas (4-5) owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with Philadelphia thanks to Sunday night’s win and is in 10th place of the conference–the Eagles holding down 11th.  The New York Giants may be in last place of the division but depart the conference basement with their Monday night victory in San Francisco.

NFC East no Longer Least- despite the worst winning percentage (.444) of the league’s eight quartets, the Skins’ division after a 3-1 week at least moves into lock-step with the NFC West (17-21) and AFC East (18-22).  The NFC South (21-15) continues to be the best bunch, even with a 1-3 week that saw Tampa Bay squander 501 yards of offense, Atlanta lose to Cleveland and Carolina get crushed by Pittsburgh.  The Interconference Contest (that means absolutely nothing) is also tied at 22 wins apiece.

 

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Two weeks ago I was amazed at how Kentucky for the first time since 1977 was going to finish with a winning conference record.  Well, those Wildcats are going to have to take a back seat to a school that wrapped up a Division title-with two weeks in the regular season to spare.

Northwestern’s 14-10 win at #21 Iowa clinches their first West Division title, putting the Wildcats within one victory of their first Big Ten championship since 2000. It’s easy to sell this year’s team short. They lost to Akron, a school that had last beaten a Big Ten team two years before the conference was founded in the 19th century.  They were 1-3 at the start of October–and that one win was a four-point Labor Day weekend victory over Purdue.  Northwestern needed overtime to edge then-winless Nebraska and a fourth quarter touchdown to beat Rutgers (!) in October, and it felt as though whatever division hopes they had were a mirage.  But nobody told the school with the smallest enrollment and tiniest stadium (21,000 and 47,330 respectively) in the Big Ten.  And the little program that could beat ranked foes Wisconsin and Iowa en route to its first division title.  Now coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team waits to see if they’ll face #4 Michigan or 8th ranked Ohio State in the championship game at Indianapolis next month.  I wouldn’t sell them short…

Alma Mater Update-  Syracuse is 8-2 and #13– the rarest air this program has graced since 1998.  An unbeaten record at home!  And a winning mark in the ACC for the first time since SU joined the league…Camping World Bowl here we come!  The Orange face #3 Notre Dame and always-tough Boston College the final two weeks of the season…and both games are away from the dome.  Who’s talking about basketball?

Maryland (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) lost quarterback Kasim Hill to injury and fell 15 points behind Indiana-twice-before rallying to take a late lead over the Hoosiers.  Unfortunately, IU’s offense woke up to drive for a go-ahead field goal and backup quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome fumbled on the Terps’ last possession in a 34-32 loss.  The road to bowl eligibility just got a lot tougher.  Terrapin Triumphs: Anthony McFarland rushed for a career-high 210 yards.  Tyrrell Pigrome completed 10 of 13 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown and also made plays with his feet coming off of the bench.  Tre Watson tallied seven tackles plus an interception to direct a defense that held the Hoosiers to 3 for 12 on third down. Terrapin Troubles:  Four turnovers-the first three leading to 17 IU points and the fourth extinguishing any hopes for a victory in the final minute of regulation.  Ten penalties for 93 yards- life is tough enough in the Big Ten…but when you beat yourself it’s even more difficult.  Next:  Saturday at noon against #8 Ohio State.

Virginia (7-3, 4-2 ACC) didn’t make things easy of its fan base at Scott Stadium.  Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team took a while to get going, falling behind Liberty on the first possession of the game outscoring the Flames 21-7 after intermission en route to a 45-24 triumph.  UVa can still win the Coastal Division, but need a 2-0 finish plus a pair of Pitt losses.  Cavalier Congrats:  Bryce Perkins threw for two touchdowns while running for two more scores.  Both of Perkins’ TD passes were to Joe Reed who also returned a kickoff 90 yards for touchdown.  Jordan Ellis had his first 100-yard rushing game since September.  Juan Thornhill tallied 13 tackles while Robert Snyder posted 11 stops with a sack.  Three takeaways for the defense and just one penalty for the team.  Cavalier Concerns:  allowing 24 points to…Liberty?  The Flames scored on three of their five first half possessions, with the other two resulting in a missed field goal and an interception in the red zone.  UVa allowed 205 yards rushing…and their next foe will try to exploit any weaknesses on the ground early and often.  Next: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against 6-4 Georgia Tech.

Virginia Tech (4-5, 3-3 ACC) was still in control of its path to the  Coastal Division heading into their game at Pitt…only to run into a Panthers team that appears to be destined this fall.  The 52-22 loss eliminated the Hokies from the division race and put their bowl hopes on life support.  Yes, they face a fading (four straight losses) Miami team followed by the annual duel with Virginia (they haven’t lost to the Cavaliers since joining the ACC)- but the margin for error is ridiculously thin.  Hokie Highlights:  Ryan Willis threw for 231 yards and three scores on a turnover-free day while also leading the team in rushing.  Oscar Bradburn averaged over 40 yards per punt.  Hey-in a 30-point drubbing, you look for what you can get.  Hokie Humblings:  The defense coughed up 492 yards on the ground and allowed 31 points in the first half.  This is the fourth time this fall that the D has allowed 40 points or more and the primary reason why instead of talking division title this year’s team is on the precipice of bowl elimination.  Next: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. vs. 5-5 Miami.

Navy (2-8, 1-5 AAC) rallied after falling behind to #11 UCF 21-3 at intermission.  While they were able to reach the endzone three times in the second half, it wasn’t enough as the Midshipmen lose 35-24 and are officially eliminated from bowl eligibility.  The good news is the run through the gauntlet is over.  Midshipman Medals:  The offense converted 8 of 13 third downs and scored touchdowns on three of four second-half possessions.  Taylor Heflin led the defense with 14 tackles.  Owen White averaged 54 yards per punt.  Midshipman Miscues:  Zero sacks as the defense was unable to make McKenzie Milton uncomfortable to any degree (he completed 17 of 21 passes).  The run defense allowed 5.7 yards per carry on the afternoon.  Next:  Saturday vs. 2-8 Tulsa.  The Mids’ last five opponents currently have a combined-eight losses.

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There are those who will be saying with Maryland showing up ranked ninth by the writers and tenth by the coaches in the preseason that the Terps are back.  If so, when exactly did they leave?  It says a lot about a program’s high standards when a 26-8 season plus a trip to the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game and a loss in the NCAA Tournament Second Round registers as a “less than ideal year”.  Since the Terrapins broke through and won the 2006 National Championship, they’ve been a deep March fixture.  Players change, from Kristi Toliver to Alyssa Thomas.  Assistants change, from Jeff Walz to Tina Langley.  Conferences and rivals change, from Duke in the ACC to Ohio State in the Big Ten.  Arena names even change for Comcast to Xfinity.  But with a few rare exceptions every March coach Brenda Frese has her team in contention for conference titles as well as playing to reach the third weekend of the Big Dance.

 

Last winter Maryland was hamstrung with graduations (All-Americans Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones) and transfers (National Freshman of the Year Destiny Slocum the big loss) as well as injuries (Blair Watson’s torn ACL torpedoed hopes for a fourth straight Big Ten title).  This fall coach Frese has reloaded with two highly touted freshmen plus a transfer to fill out a roster with four returning starters.  “I don’t know if a coach is ever comfortable going into a season because I think we always see our holes and weaknesses,” coach Frese said, “but I think the ones we couldn’t cover up last year we’ve been able to fill.”  In other words, the Terps are back–picked to finish first in the Preseason Big Ten poll.

Junior Kaila Charles enters her third year as a starter.  The Glenn Dale, Maryland native went from peripheral contributor as a freshman to primary weapon as a sophomore, leading the team with 18 points and 8 rebounds per game last winter.  “She really grew up and became a leader for us last season,” Frese said. “We’re sliding her a little bit more so out on the perimeter–really looking to use her versatility.”

For Charles to be able to flex outside, the coach needs more consistent production from the likes of senior Brianna Fraser and junior Stephanie Jones.  Both showed flashes last year.  If not, bring on freshman phenom Shakira Austin.  “She gives us a look that we didn’t have last year,” Frese said. “The size, the ability and the talent.  Six-foot-five.  Long, fluid, active—and really has a chance to be really special in our program.”  Two years behind Charles at nearby Riverdale Baptist, Austin might not be thrown into the starting lineup like her fellow alum was as a freshman but will definitely see major minutes as the season progresses.

The other impact freshman, Taylor Mikesell, started both exhibitions for the Terps.  The guard from Masillon, Ohio has already made her mark as one of the program’s hardest workers.  “The biggest problem I have is trying to get her out of the gym,” Frese said. “Whether it be shooting the ball from the three-point line or her ball-handling, she’s going to be able to give us a lot of versatility at the off-guard and point guard position.”  Sophomore Channise Lewis started at the point last season and averaged six assists per game while learning the college game on the fly;  she’s back a little wiser.

The X factor this season may rest once again on the ACL of Blair Watson.  The junior was just beginning to blossom when she went down to injury last January, and was fully cleared for practice last month.  At her best, Watson is the difference-maker on both ends of the floor that every championship-level team needs.  If we’ve learned anything from previous knee injuries to Terps from Lauryn Mincy to Brene Moseley, it takes more than a calendar year for a player to return to form.  But Watson on limited minutes could be a huge weapon off the bench this winter.

The pre-conference slate includes a road game at #10 South Carolina as well as games against Georgia and Georgia Tech.  League play tips off at Penn State December 28th, and this year’s Big Ten will feature a rebuilding Ohio State (minus Kelsey Mitchell and the crew that won the league last year) as one of five schools also receiving votes in the preseason rankings.  The only other conference school currently in either Top 25 is Iowa (rated 13th by the writers and 17th by the coaches).

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

As a kid, there was a stretch when I wanted to run for President.  Kind of came with the territory of growing up in New Hampshire and watching the nation’s first Primary up close and personal.  Last weekend I learned what it was like to run for President–as Walter Mondale.  Presto’s Picks went 1-8 as I felt like George Costanza in that “I should do the opposite” episode of Seinfeld.  The Navy pick saved me from a complete shutout–and in retropsect a winless week would have been an achievement to admire:  perfection in reverse.

In Division I FBS there are no winless teams…but there are nine one-win schools whose brotherhood I joined last weekend.  Hopefully listing this rogues gallery will serve as a cleanse before this week’s breakdowns:

UConn (1-8, 0-5 AAC)- the Huskies’ only win was a game where they allowed 49 points to FCS Rhode Island, and they cough up an FBS-high 627 yards per game.

North Carolina (1-7, 1-5 ACC)- a three-point win over Pitt is the only non-blemish for a Tar Heel team that’s 123rd in turnover margin.

Rutgers (1-8, 0-6 Big Ten)- what happened to the team that opened with a 35-7 thumping of Texas State?  The Scarlet Knights rank 130th in passing efficiency- the lowlight at Maryland where they tossed five interceptions to two completions.

San Jose State (1-8, 1-4 MWC)- a 50-37 win over UNLV keeps the Spartans out of last place in their division.  Their achilles is running the ball (130th and last in the nation).

Bowling Green (1-8, 0-5 MAC) and Central Michigan (1-9, 0-6) meet Saturday in Mount Pleasant.  Movable object or stoppable force?  The Falcons rank 129th in points allowed while the Chippewas are 129th in total offense.

Conference USA’s Three Stooges- slapstick at the bottom of the standings has UTEP (1-8, 1-4) getting their only win of the year against Rice (1-9, 0-6).  The Owls have a sacrificial lamb game at LSU later this month while the Miners play Western Kentucky (1-8, 0-5)  the same day.  Pick your poison…

Alma Mater Update- the Orange blasted Louisville–improving to 7-0 at home and 8-2 on the season.  Forget about the Pinstripe Bowl– I’m thinking Camping World Bowl!

Saturday’s Games-

Maryland (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) at Indiana (4-5, 1-5), noon (Big Ten Network).

The Terps are one win away from bowl eligibility, and with #8 Ohio State and #21 Penn State on the horizon this is their last best chance to secure a holiday destination.  The Hoosiers are coming off of consecutive one-possession losses to Penn State and Minnesota–and have two weeks to prepare.  Sophomore Peyton Ramsey is completing 68% of his passes this fall- and threw for three scores last year in a loss to the Terps.  Maryland has yet to show that they can pass the ball and are coming off of a season-low 26 yards rushing.  Everything tells me that the Terps come home from Bloomington empty-handed. After last week, everything tells me to go opposite what everything tells me.

Terrapins Triumph, 26-21.

 

Navy (2-7, 1-4 AAC) at #11 UCF (8-0, 5-0), noon (ESPN2).

The gauntlet ends for the Midshipmen as they meet a school that has won 21 straight games.  One of the reasons why the Knights are unbeaten is they don’t beat themselves: their +14 turnover margin ranks second nationally.  Causes for confidence include the fact that UCF did allow 226 yards on the ground to Temple last week…and the Mids can’t be as bad as they were against Cincinnati.  Sadly for Navy the defense has to deal with McKenzie Milton, who has thrown for 300+ yards four times this fall-and the junior is also a threat on the ground (seven touchdowns rushing).  This trip to Orlando is more “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” and less “Carousel of Progress”.

Midshipmen sink, 44-16.

 

Virginia (6-3) vs. Liberty (4-4), 3 p.m. (ACC Network).

The Cavaliers go outside the ACC for the final time this fall, hosting an independent Flames team that has allowed over 40 points four times in their last five games.  Look for the offense to sort itself out, or at least roll up some yards while attempting to do so.  The final home game at Scott Stadium has Kippy & Buffy breaking out white wine for a non-conference foe one final time, and this week it’s a bottle of 2017 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc.  “Tightly structured, with strong, vigorous passionfruit and lime flavors, woven with steely acidity, and obvious potential.”

Cavaliers live up to their obvious potential in a 45-20 win.  

 

Virginia Tech (4-4, 3-2 ACC) at Pitt (5-4, 4-1), 3:30 p.m. (ESPNU).

Does anyone want to win the Coastal Division?  Pitt is the third team to have the lead in the last three weeks, a turnover that began when the Hokies were steamrolled on national TV five days before Halloween.  They gave up 465 yards rushing that night–and surrendered 219 yards on the ground last weekend in a loss to Boston College.  The one thing Pitt does well offensively is run the ball, whether it’s Darrin Hall (229 yards against Virginia last week) or Qadree Ollison (192 yards against Duke October 27th).  The Panthers may be 5-4 but their losses have come to unbeatens Notre Dame and UCF as well as #21 Penn State.  Yes, there’s that defeat at North Carolina one can’t explain but the Tar Heels just seem to have their number.  Just like Pitt seems to always play well against the Hokies (four one-possession games in the last four years).

Hokies slip under .500 with a 19-17 loss.

 

Howard handles Norfolk State, Georgetown beats Bucknell, Richmond slips to Maine, William & Mary loses to Villanova, James Madison beats Rhode Island, Towson tumbles to Elon.

Last Week:  1-8.  It’s Morning in Picksland?  Or more appropriately, quicksand.

Overall: 50-32.  

 

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Welcome to the cordial Commonwealth.  Okay, so Virginia-Virginia Tech and Richmond-VCU aren’t exactly polite affairs.  To the Cavaliers and Spiders, the Hokies and Rams will always represent the new kids on their respective conference block–even though Virginia Tech is the ninth most senior member out of 15 ACC schools and VCU has dominated the A10 since joining.  VCU and Richmond can show off their Cinderella runs, from the Spiders upset of Syracuse (first time ever a #15 seed beat a #2) to the Rams run from the “First Four” to the Final Four seven years ago.  And the ACC duo can try to conceal scars from Tournaments past, from the Hokies landing on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble four straight years to the Cavaliers loss as a #1 seed to #16 UMBC this past March (for those living under a rock, the first time that happened in the men’s tournament).  It just gets fun when these schools play one another.  For those curious, days of reckoning this winter are January 19th in Charlotte, February 18th in Blacksburg, as well as February 13th and May 2nd in Richmond.

 

Virginia- the Cavaliers bring back plenty of talent (not just one, but three players named Preseason all-ACC), lofty expectations (5th nationally including a pair of first-place votes), and the Elephant in the Room from this past March.  UVa’s had March meltdowns in the past under coach Tony Bennett, but losing multiple times to Michigan State or slipping to a double-digit seeded Syracuse pales in comparison to coming undone in the second half to UMBC after entering the Big Dance as the tournament’s #1 overall seed.   You may have heard that a top seed had never lost to a #16…until last year.   So those ghosts will make a reappearance in March.

Until then, Virginia has to compete in an ACC that boasts five other schools in the Top 25.  Thank goodness they have Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter back.  Guy despite cutting his famed man-bun averaged 14 points while shooting 39% from three-point range as a sophomore.  Jerome led the Cavaliers with 20 points in the opening-night win over Towson while Hunter notched a double-double against the Tigers.  Back for one more go-around is six-foot-10 New Zealand enigma Jack Salt:  the big man made 64% his shots last winter but over the season had 10 more personal fouls than made baskets.

 

Virginia Tech- the Hokies are coming off of consecutive NCAA Tournament berths for the first time since 1986.  They also begin the year ranked 15th, the school’s highest ranking since the 1995-96 season.  How huge is this turnaround that coach Buzz Williams has undertaken?  Last year’s 10-8 ACC mark was the third straight year the Hokies had finished with double-digits in conference wins–something that had never previously happened in program history.  They reached postseason play perhaps a year early in 2016 and made the NCAA Tournament a year before everyone thought they would the next March;  does this current team have what it takes to advance to the second weekend of the tournament?

Preseason All-ACC second teamer Justin Robinson returns for his senior season;  last winter he notched 20 points and 7 assists in the Hokies’ 61-60 overtime win at Virginia.  Six-foot-ten forward Kerry Blackshear (13 points and 6 rebounds per game as a sophomore) looks to be the main threat inside;  he’ll need to take a bigger role on the boards at returning leading rebounder Chris Clarke was suspended indefinitely from the team last week.  That vacuum might mean bigger things sooner for four-star recruit Landers Nolley II.

 

 

VCU- coach Mike Rhoades’ first season was rather un-Ramish.  For the first time since 2000 (and their days in the CAA), VCU did not post a winning conference record.  Instead of playing for an Atlantic 10 Tournament championship like they had the previous five years they were in the league, the Rams and their throng of fans headed home from Capital One Arena Friday afternoon following a loss in the quarterfinals.  VCU was picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic 10:  not as bad as it sounds when one realizes there are 14 schools in the A-10, but nowhere near what this program is accustomed to.

Isaac Vonn had 16 points with 8 rebounds in the Rams’ 69-57 season-opening win over Gardner-Webb.  Mike’L Simms was the only other player to score in double figures.  Six-foot-six guard Vince Williams could be the impact player needed if VCU is going to play its way back to the Atlantic 10’s top-tier and return to forcing its fans to stay in Brooklyn (site of this year’s A-10 Tournament) into the weekend.

 

Richmond- the Spiders also had an off-year, and much more drastic than their cross-town rivals.  The first losing campaign in 11 years saw a nightmarish 2-10 start only matched in surprise by a 9-9 league finish.  But Chris Mooney’s team beat VCU twice and was also the last local (GW, GMU & VCU) school standing when they gave St. Bonaventure all they could handle in Friday’s quarterfinal.  Not like that sort of thing doesn’t get noticed the Commonwealth’s capital.

First Team All-Atlantic 10 center Grant Golden is back.  The junior posted a double-double in an overtime loss to Georgetown–the Spiders visit the Hoyas November 28th.  Jacob Gilyard is the primary triggerman in the motion-offense;  junior Nick Sherod went from eight to 14 points per game last winter and will be a factor on the perimeter this season.

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By George, that was one rough opening night.  Which was more painful, George Mason’s 72-71 loss at home to Penn or George Washington wasting a 22-0 first half lead in their defeat to Stony Brook?  Never mind, as GW compounded it by losing to Siena Thursday evening.  The Patriots and Colonials will battle twice in Atlantic 10 play, with GW going to Fairfax January 26th and Mason heading to Foggy Bottom March 9th.  Meanwhile, DC houses two more Division I programs…and American visits Howard December 8th.  Both teams are rebuilding:  the Eagles are looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 while the Bison have a 26-year Big Dance drought.  Of the four, George Mason has the best chance of making waves this winter while the other three have hopes-for the moment.

 

George Mason- the Patriots enter coach Dave Paulsen’s fourth year at the helm, meaning every player in the program is someone brought to Fairfax by his efforts. “There’s just a comfort level that the kids have and a comfort level that I have with the kids,” Paulsen said, “What we’re starting to see when is when the players enforce the culture, when the players can help correct some things on the side.”

Mason has improved from 12th to 7th to 5th in the Atlantic 10 over the last three years;  this fall the Patriots return all five starters and have been picked to finish 4th in the A10’s Preseason Poll.  Paulsen returns all five starters and every significant bench player from last winter.  This is a team built to contend. “We talk a lot about playing two-tempo basketball:  being able to push it in transition but also be able to really execute on the offensive end.”

Leading the returnees is guard Otis Livingston II: the senior was named Preseason all-Atlantic 10.  While his 17 points per game paced the Patriots last winter, Livingston’s coach feels they’ve only scratched the surface.  Paulsen said, “We really challenged Otis to become a complete point guard in the truest sense.  To assert himself more defensively and pressure the ball…and continue to be aggressive scoring the basketball.”

Livingston will have plenty of options at his disposal:  Jaire Grayer led the team in threes while the 6-foot-5 guard was also the best player on the boards.  Six-foot-seven Minnesota mountain man Goanar Mar looks to build off of what was a productive freshman season in the post.  Paulsen said, “I do think we’ll have better balance–we pretty much lived and died on the perimeter last year and I think we’ll be able to throw the ball inside and get some easy buckets in there as well.”

That they’re picked 4th in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll is nice, but the coach expects a long winter with many twists and turns.  “There’s always a team that does very well and always a team that doesn’t perform as well as expected–but there’s no easy night”, Paulsen said.  The schedule has Mason playing defending A10 regular season champ Rhode Island once (on the road) and tournament winner Davidson at home.

 

George Washington- Maurice Joseph’s team was picked to finish 13th in the conference after losing their top three scorers off of last year’s 15-18 team.   Stepping into the vacuum of the graduating Yuta Watanabe and Patrick Steeves plus the transferring Jair Bolden (bound for South Carolina), 6-foot-8 forward Arnaldo Toro.  The junior from Puerto Rico led the Colonials in rebounding last winter and will be expected be the primary post presence moving forward.  Getting him the ball will be Baltimore product Terry Nolan Jr.:  the preseason Atlantic 10-All Defensive Team guard was fifth in the conference in steals as a freshman.  The season begins with a bang as GW faces top 25 teams Virginia and Michigan in November.

American- the Eagles were extremely young last year and it showed in a 6-24 finish (3-15 Patriot League).  But after taking those lumps coach Mike Brennan’s team returns a nucleus of Sa’eed Nelson (Preseason Player of the Year), senior Larry Motuzis (15 points and while leading the team in threes) and sophomore Sam Iorio (15 points while leading the team in rebounding).  Despite the experience, the Eagles are picked seventh in the conference…with everybody chasing Lehigh and Bucknell.  Games to watch include trips to George Mason (November 9th) and George Washington (December 27th).

Howard- forgive me for being shy about the Bison.  This program was THIS CLOSE to breaking through with James Daniel leading the nation in scoring and his teammates leading the country in untimely injuries.  Kevin Nickelberry has rebuilt the roster and has HU picked to finish fourth in the MEAC (keep in mind they have one winning conference record since 2002) and once again boast a high-powered backcourt.  Preseason MEAC Player of the Year RJ Cole looks to build on one incredible freshman season (his 24 points per game ranked 7th nationally) while junior Charles Williams (20 points per game last winter) can fill it as well.  Upper Marlboro, MD native Zion Cousins led the Bison with 7.1 rebounds per game as a freshman.  If he can develop a better offensive game, Howard might just finally find a way to turn from pretender to contender.