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Is this really the most wonderful time of the year?  Most of us still have our football mindset with the NFL season entering its final few lengths and 40 (!) bowls on the menu.  Forgive us if college basketball is somewhat of an afterthought–like getting to the Barnes & Noble and Bath & Body Works for Christmas presents, I’ll get around to the hoop season.  Promise!  Unfortunately while there have been a few gifts in the pre-conference season (I know Maryland has begun Big Ten play and Duke lost its ACC opener to Boston College, but just work with me here), we’ve also been treated to some refugees from the Island of Misfit Toys.  And for the record, a gun that shoots jelly is pretty cool in the long run.  Here are early impressions of the local schools…who’s getting the Star Wars Death Star™ playset and who receives tube socks and a bathrobe this December?

 

Maryland (10-3, 1-1 Big Ten)– hold on.  They actually trailed Division III Catholic 20-18 in the first half?  Ugh.  What’s Nice:  Anthony Cowan has taken ownership (16 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game) of this team while freshmen Bruno Fernando and Darrell Morsell have emerged as major contributors (not unlike last year’s trio of Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson).  What’s Naughty:  they lead the nation in turnovers per game and lack of an effective offense against zones is the nightmare that won’t go away.  Instead of a breakout year, Jackson while posting more rebounds and assists has regressed as a shooter (37% from the field and 25% from three after making 44% from both last winter).  Best Win:  December 3rd at Illinois.  The Illini may not be expected to do much in the Big Ten, but the Terps could ill-afford to start conference play 0-2.  A clutch free throw from Cowan with one second left gave the sophomore a career-high 27 points.  Worst Loss: a 63-61 stumble to St. Bonaventure saw 20 turnovers and 5-of-23 three-point shooting.  Yes, the Bonnies play zone.  Game to watch before conference play:  Friday December 29th UMBC comes to College Park.  The 7-5 Retrievers boast former VCU guard Jairus Lyles (20 ppg & 46% from three-point range) and the kid-brother mentality that Catholic brought to Xfinity Center, only they have more staying power.

 

Georgetown (8-0)– with four wins over MEAC foes, the Hoyas may actually be eligible for that league’s postseason tournament should things end early in the Big East.  Actually, the schedule involves three schools that have already lost eight games, 1-10 Howard and 0-11 Coppin State.  They couldn’t at least bring St. Leo to DC?  What’s Nice:  coach Patrick Ewing said a lot would be expected of Jessie Govan this winter, and the junior has delivered in averaging 23 points (on 63% shooting) and a Division I-best 13 rebounds per game.  The offense is tied for 11th in assists per game.  It’s not “Hoya Paranoia” yet, but they rank third in the Big East in scoring defense, second in defensive field goal percentage and first in stopping the three-pointer.  What’s Naughty:  the schedule gives means “Georgetown Cupcake” is now more than just a thriving business on the corner of 33rd and M (not that I’ve ever been there).  They’re last in the Big East in turnover margin…and that’s going against teams with a combined 21-63 record (with nine wins coming against non-Division I schools).  Best Win: an 82-76 win at Richmond (the Hoyas lone road trip before conference play).  Five in double-figures proves this is more than a one-man team.  Game to Watch before conference play:  the Hoyas host Syracuse Saturday at 12:30 p.m.  CBS will be there.  Even in the final days of John Thompson III, Georgetown was still able to beat its hated rival consecutive years.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange are off to an 8-1 start that includes wins over Maryland and UConn that make one think they’re better than the team picked 10th in the ACC preseason poll…with a loss to Kansas reminding the faithful how much they still have to improve before becoming a contender instead of a pretender.  Saturday they play at Georgetown–an occasional win in this series would be nice.

Virginia (8-1)- reports of the Cavaliers’ demise after London Perrantes graduated and multiple players transferred were premature:  coach Tony Bennett has this team in the top 20 and eyeing a double-bye in the ACC Tournament.  What’s Nice:  Kyle Guy got rid of the famed man-bun and came back to campus even more productive-the sophomore is averaging 17 points per game while shooting 45% from outside the arc.  They lead the nation in scoring defense and almost caused basketballs worldwide to explode in their 49-37 water-drip win over Wisconsin.  What’s Naughty:  Jack Salt is back–and the center from New Zealand has only two more points than personal fouls through nine games (25-23).  Better big man production will be needed when the conference slate begins.  Best Win: the 76-67 victory at VCU.  Forget that the Rams have a first-year head coach.  It’s nice to stay the top dog in the Commonwealth.  Lone Loss: a 68-61 defeat at #18 West Virginia.  No shame in coming up short in Morgantown; the Mountaineers are a good team, even if their coach wears a track-suit.  Game to Watch pre-ACC:  Saturday always-dangerous Davidson drops by Charlottesville.

 

Virginia Tech (9-1)- introducing the high-flying Hokies:  #1 in Division I in shooting and scoring while ranking second in three-point shooting.  Forgive us if we’re getting adjusted to a coach Buzz Williams’ sportscar;  we’re accustomed to pickup trucks in Blacksburg (often with a faulty transmission).  What’s Nice:  Freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a sparkplug from the perimeter (14 points per game and 47% from three) while Chris Clarke’s recovery from a torn ACL is far enough along that the junior is shooting 60% from the field while averaging 6.8 rebounds per night.  What’s Naughty:  tough to find a smudge on this early season–but the Hokies do allow the fourth-most points per game in the ACC. Best Win: a 103-79 neutral-site victory over a Washington team that has since gone on to upset Kansas.  Nice to get a victory on the Madison Square Garden floor.  Lone Loss:  the night before VT fell to Saint Louis 77-71 after getting outrebounded by ten.  Last year rebounding was an issue…it couldn’t be again when they begin league play, could it?  Game to Watch before ACC play: Saturday the Hokies visit #8 Kentucky.  The tipoff is at 2 p.m–but this will go a long way to determining if they’re ready for prime time.

 

George Washington (5-5)- the Colonials have had quite an ambitious pre-Atlantic 10 slate, visiting the likes of Florida State and Penn State while playing holiday tournaments against #15 Xavier and Kansas State.  Sadly they’re 0-4 against those schools.  What’s Nice: sophomore Jair Bolden has emerged as a do-it-all floor general, leading the team in assists while developing into the team’s best three-point threat.   What’s Naughty:  they’re not the best at taking care of the basketball (12th in the conference in assist-to-turnover margin).  Against the VCU’s and better defensive teams in the league that will be a major issue.  Best Win: December 3rd they beat Temple 71-67.  The Owls used to run the A-10 like their private rec-club, so it’s nice to beat the school that won nine tournament titles over a 26-year span before bolting for the AAC.  Worst Loss: a home loss to Rider from the MAAC.  Not the MAC (Mid-American) or even the (Mid-Eastern Athletic) but the Metro Atlantic Athletic-ugh.  Game to watch before league play tips off:  Saturday they host #6 Miami at noon.  Really, does every good December game involving beltway schools have to be this Saturday?

 

George Mason (5-6)- one year after winning 20 games perhaps a year earlier than expected, coach Dave Paulsen’s team is one of nine Atlantic 10 schools that are within one game of .500.  What’s Nice:  Otis Livingston II came back for his junior year with a three-point shot (46% this season as opposed to 34% as a sophomore) while freshman Goanar Mar has produced since opening night for the Patriots.  What’s Naughty:  you think GW has issues with turnovers?  Mason has the most miscues in the A-10 by a wide margin.  Best Win: a 76-72 grand larceny November 29th at James Madison.  They trailed by four with seven seconds left but an Ian Boyd three began a furious finish.  Worst Loss: Tuesday’s 74-51 loss to Georgia Southern.  The Eagles may be 8-2 but shooting 29% and turning the ball over 21 times at home is no way to go through life.  Best pre-conference game remaining:  Sunday they host Penn State.  Beware the Green Machine.

 

VCU (5-5)- coach Mike Rhoades has a lot to live up to in his debut season:  his predecessor Will Wade won 25 games in his first season at the helm, Shaka Smart’s Rams went 27-9 in his first winter as head coach and Anthony Grant’s first team bounced Duke in the first round of the NCAA’s en route to a 28-7 mark.  So there’s obviously no pressure whatsoever.  What’s Nice:  all five losses are to legit programs, including Smart’s Texas team.  Senior Jonathan Williams leads the A-10 with 6.6 assists per game.  They’re also second best in the league at scoring as well as shooting from three-point range.  What’s Naughty:  something intangible feels like it’s missing this season…and it’s going to take a while for this program to come together under their new head coach.  Best Win: an 83-69 win in Maui against Cal.  Pass the poi.  Worst Loss: a 90-67 defeat at Seton Hall.  They turned the Pirates over just twelve times and allowed 55% shooting.  Game to Watch:  Saturday against Bucknell.  The Bison almost won at Maryland-and aren’t scared of anybody.

 

Richmond (2-8)- the Spiders’ run of ten straight non-losing seasons is in danger of not going to eleven.  Triple-threat TJ Cline took Atlantic 10 MVP honors last winter–and this season you’re seeing how exactly valuable he was.  What’s Nice:  sophomore big man Grant Golden has stepped up from a role player to a primary contributor, netting 15 points and 5.8 rebounds per game this fall.  Freshman Jacob Gilyard has become a force on both ends of the floor, averaging 3.1 assists and 2.4 steals per contest.  What’s Naughty:  they’re the worst free-throw shooting team in the Atlantic 10 and have lost five games by double-digits.  Best Win:  the 74-71 win over James Madison snaps a six game slide…hopefully turning the pre-conference tide.  Worst Loss: an 82-76 home defeat to Georgetown.  You don’t often get the Hoyas on your home floor…and with Patrick Ewing’s rebuild this was a golden opportunity.  Game to Watch:  at Boston College Saturday December 23rd-I’m curious because this BC team beat Duke yet lost to Nebraska.  They could easily slip against the Spiders.

 

Navy (9-3)- this could be the Midshipman team that ends a near-two decade NCAA Tournament drought.  Ed DeChellis directed the program to its first winning conference season since 2009, and this fall they’re off to their best start of any team in the Patriot League.  November and December mean little in one-bid league’s come March, however.  What’s Nice:  the stifling defense allows the fewest points per game in the Patriot League and they’re the best rebounding team in the conference.  Senior Shawn Anderson leads the Mids in scoring, rebounding and assists while passing the 1,000 career points barrier last month.  What’s Naughty:  the Mids rank last in the Patriot League at defending the three…and in a conference of Davids it’s often the slingshot that causes the most damage.  Best Win: opening night against Pitt. Yes, the game was in Annapolis and the Panthers may be a mess under second-year coach Kevin Stallings, but they’re still an ACC opponent.  Worst Loss: falling to 8-4 Penn, 7-4 FGCU and #6 Miami is nothing to be ashamed about.  One cannot help but feel this Midshipmen team is something special.  Last game before league play:   Thursday December 21st against Lipscomb- the Bisons are off to a 6-4 start that includes losses at Alabama, Texas and #24 Tennessee.  Should be a good test.

 

American (3-6)- can the Eagles overcome a slow start to contend in a Patriot League that features not only a Navy program hitting its stride but the usual bully Bucknell that returns four double-digit scorers?  A young roster has turned the first two months of the regular season into a “getting to know you” process for coach Mike Brennan’s team.  What’s Nice: the one-two punch of Larry Motuzis and Sa’eed Nelson (each averages 19 points per game) has provided the bulk of the offense.  What’s Naughty: ninth in the conference in rebounding margin and defending the three, eighth in scoring and scoring defense as well as assist-to-turnover ratio.  Best win: 74-70 at New Hampshire November 21st.  When you play seven of your first eight away from DC, life can be rough on the road.  Sa-eed Nelson netted a season-high 26 points that night.  Worst Loss: a 100-89 loss to St. Francis (PA). Shoot 56% and still come up short?  At least this wasn’t against the 2-7 St. Francis (BKN) Terriers.  Game to see: they host Mt. St. Mary’s from the one-bid Northeast Conference.  Should be a truer test than trips to West Virginia and Marquette.

 

Howard (2-10)-  DO NOT accuse the Bison of stocking their schedule with non-conference W’s.  Just the opposite:  coach Kevin Nickelberry’s team has played 9 of 11 games on the road.  As the song plays, “they’ve been everywhere, man.”  Trouble?  They’ve had their share, man– from a 106-69 thumping at Gonzaga to an 81-67 loss at Georgetown.  Never paid their fair, man?  Well, these are buyout games.  What’s Nice:  freshman guard RJ Cole leads the team with 19 points and 6 assists per game-including 30 in their win over Washington Adventist.  He’s one of five players in the nine-man rotation in their first year with the program.  What’s Naughty:  it’s a shooter’s game and the Bison rank 341st in field goal percentage.  Gotta Watch:  no more home games in 2017–so if you can get a good rate there’s that game against Hawaii December 29th.

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Well…at least we’re no longer dealing with hypotheticals.  The 30-13 defeat at the Los Angeles Clippers–I mean Chargers–drops the Redskins to 5-8 and out of contention thanks to having a worse conference record than Atlanta.  The 2018 season sort of begins this week with three auditions before we mercifully put the 2017 campaign out of its misery.  Who’s ready for OTA’s?

Captain Kirk-the Franchise Tagged One completed 15 of 27 passes for 151 yards and one touchdown with one interception while getting sacked twice.  The offense posted a season-low nine first downs and 201 total yards.  It wasn’t pretty.  Star Trek Episode Equivalent:  “And the Children Shall Lead” featured attorney Melvin Belli and little else.

Running Wrong- the ground game was held to 65 yards on 21 carries-the seventh time in nine games since the bye where the team failed to reach the century mark.  Samaje Perine after consecutive 100-yard games has been held to 83 yards on 29 carries.  But barring a monster finish from Kirk Cousins, Perine is going to lead the team in rushing for the season.

Receiving Core Values- Josh Docston and Jamison Crowder each caught three passes for 34 yards.  Not a lot of there there.  Meanwhile, DeSean Jackson caught 4 passes for 41 yards in Tampa Bay.

Third and Done- the Skins converted 2 of 12 money downs en route to defeat…and failed to move the chains on all six third downs after halftime.  Cousins completed 3 of 9 passes for 2 conversions while getting sacked once and missing the marker on a scramble.  Perine was stuffed on a 3rd & 2 in the first quarter.  Josh Doctson was the #1 option with one conversion/catch of four targets.  Yardage breakdown:  0-for-4 on short-yardage, 1-for-4 on 3rd & 4-6 yards needed, 1-for-3 on long-yardage.

D earns an F- for the second straight week, fourth time in five games and seventh time since the bye week the Skins allow 30+ points.  LA scored the first five times the had the ball…and on the sixth were stopped inside the five as time expired.  Explosive plays coughed up include 51 and 75-yard completions while the Chargers also tallied a 33-yard run.  Deshazor Everett tallied 11 tackles and then complained to the press about how lax practices have been. Zach Brown made ten stops but is banged up heading into the final weeks of the season.  Third down?  The Chargers converted 4-of-6 on short-yardage, 1-for-3 on 3rd & 4-6, and 0-for-5 on long-yardage.

Special Situations- Tress Way averaged 43.4 yards per punt–with three in the 20 and no touchbacks.  Nick Rose missed one of his two extra points.  Bashaud Breeland had a 35-yard kickoff return.  The punt coverage team was ripped for 22 and 27-yard scampers by Travis Benjamin.

Flying Flags- just four infractions for 43 yards, with three of the four coming against the defense and the other on special teams.  What–no holds or false starts?  Who are these people?!?  The ones that hurt came in the first quarter on the Charger’s first touchdown drive–an unnecessary roughness against Ryan Anderson and facemask against Josh Norman combined for 25 of the 92 yards on the possession.  That put the Chargers up 10-0 and the Skins wouldn’t get closer than a touchdown for the rest of the day.  Bashaud Breeland remains the most guilty party (7 penalties for 66 yards).

Dissecting the Division-  Philadelphia (11-2) clinches its first NFC East title since 2013 lost quarterback Carson Wentz to a torn ACL.  Their tenuous hold on the #1 seed will have Nick Foles at the controls.  Dallas (7-6) is one win or one Redskins loss away from clinching second place…and stands in 10th place of the NFC because they lose tiebreakers to Detroit and Green Bay.  The pokes also have to leapfrog Seattle and Atlanta to make the postseason–not impossible but not completely likely.  The Skins are 12th in the conference and can still slip into last place of the division with three losses plus three wins by the Giants.  The New York Giants at 2-11 are in 16th place of the conference and one week after scoring 17 points in a loss at Oakland were held to 10 points in a loss at home to Dallas.  Thank goodness Eli is back in the lineup.

Conference Call– the NFC owns a 32-22 edge with two weeks of interconference play remaining and the Bengals/Browns playing three of those games.  One feels confident for the old guard this fall.  The best division remains the NFC South that is a combined 30-22 with three potential playoff teams.  The AFC North (23-29) is the worst, although the AFC West and South are both 24-28.  The NFC East?  How about a 5th best 25-27?

Elimination Island- Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and Denver joined the Redskins and others Sunday…while Houston was a late add after figuring tiebreakers between multiple 7-9 teams.  Pray it doesn’t come to that… 

So much for “Gotta win five to stay alive”.  So much for going through tiebreakers after week fifteen while hoping Carolina would come back to earth.  The Redskins made December almost meaningless for the sixth time in nine years by losing 38-14 at Dallas.  It wasn’t just a bad loss; it was a defeat that exposed this team and roster.  The 2018 season in theory begins now.

Captain Kirk- the Franchise Tagged one completed 26 of 37 passes for 251 yards and 2 touchdowns while tossing a pair of interceptions (one in the red zone) and losing a fumble.  He was also sacked four times behind an offensive line held together by duct tape and paper clips.  Episode Equivalent:  “Spock’s Brain”- a disaster on the scoreboard despite Kirk’s best efforts.  He didn’t write the script where aliens came on board the Enterprise and hijacked Spock’s brain–only to have Dr. McCoy re-insert said organ later in the hour.

Running Aground- it was bound to happen sooner or later.  The recently resurgent running game managed just 56 yards on 19 carries against the Cowboys-with Samaje Perine being held to 38 yards on 12 tries.  Perine will be the third runningback in four years to lead coach Jay Gruden’s team in rushing.  Meanwhile, the guy who was replaced by the guy who was replaced by the guy Perine replaced as the #1 back fared nicely for the Cowboys.  Alfred Morris ran for 127 yards against his former team.  Ouch.

Ryan the Receiver- it’s something when Ryan Grant is your leading receiver. You cannot make the postseason when Mr. August is your top target in December.

Third Down the Drain- the stat sheet says they converted 6 of 14 third downs…but the offense didn’t move the chains until they were down 17.  Cousins completed 7 of 11 passes for 4 conversions while getting sacked once and scrambling for the marker once.  Ryan Grant was the top target (3 conversions on 3 catches and 4 passes thrown to) while recent pickup Byron Marshall also caught 3 of 4 passes on third down but was short each time.  Marshall also ran for a late first down on 3rd & 1.  Yardage: 3-for-4 on short-yardage, 2-for-4 on 3rd and 4 through 3rd and 6, 1-for-6 on 3rd and long.

Zach Meets Mr. Morris- you don’t mess with Preston’s Perspective’s pop-culture references.  Earlier this year we saw the Vikings come to FedEx Field with former kicker Kai Forbath…and showed no mercy (I’ll let you know when he’s had enough).  This past week we saw Mr. Morris blast through the Redskins defense like it was an ATV race at the Malibu Sands.  Alfred gained 80 of his 127 yards after halftime…and the Cowboys converted 7 of their last 10 third downs (and 4 of 5 in the second half).  Not an ideal day for the defense that now ranks 22nd against the run and allows the third most points in the league.

Kicking and Screaming- NO longer shall we use the term “Special Teams” regarding the kicking game that fumbled a punt and allowed a punt return for a touchdown.  Nick Rose connected on both of his extra points and Tress Way averaged 42.6 yards per punt, so they’ve got that going for them.

Flying Flags- SEVEN penalties for 43 yards.  And if you’re counting that’s 24 over the last three games.  Two infractions were rather costly:  a pass interference on Kendall Fuller turned a 3rd & 1 into a 1st & 10 and the Cowboys would score two plays later…while a pass intereference against Bashaud Breeland (he had another PI declined) set up a 1st and goal at the 1.  Then there was that “12 men on the field” flag where there may have been 14 on the field for the Skins.  Not what you need in the fourth quarter on the road.

Dissecting the Division- Philadelphia’s loss to Seattle means the Eagles won’t clinch the NFC East just yet–but at 10-2 they need only one more victory or a Cowboys loss to wrap up the division.  Philly does slip behind Minnesota into the #2 seed (Vikings have a better common opponents record).  Dallas moves a game ahead of the Skins for second (and owns the head to head tiebreaker) and is in 10th place of the NFC, two games out of the wildcard.  The Burgundy and Gold remain in 11th place thanks to a better conference record than Arizona;  a loss to the Chargers plus victories by Seattle and Carolina make the elimination official.  The NY Giants drop behind San Francisco into dead last of the conference…and are one more loss plus a Redskins win away from securing the NFC East cellar one year after making the playoffs.

Interconference Connection, Dominant Divisions & More- the NFC owns a 28-20 lead, meaning they’d have to go 3-12-1 in order to lose the Conference contest.  Cleveland and Cincinnati are playing five of those remaining 16 games so I’m going to say that might not happen.  The NFC South is a combined 28-20…while the AFC West has withered away to 21-27 over the last month.  The NFC East?  Tied for fifth with 23 wins.

Home for the Holidays- joining previously eliminated Cleveland, San Francisco and the New York Giants this week is Chicago.  The Bears lost 15-14 to the Niners as their former kicker Robbie Gould kicked five field goals before  replacing Dr. Houseman as Chief of Staff and purchasing Kellerman’s where his first act was firing Johnny Castle.  Sweet revenge, indeed.

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Start spreading the news.  Bryce Harper’s leaving next winter for New York, where he’ll sign as a free agent and achieve his childhood dream of playing for the Yankees.  Of course the Nationals could re-sign him for $500 million dollars over ten years with Teddy Roosevelt Island thrown in as a signing bonus, but it won’t happen for the five-time All Star and 2015 MVP.

Why New York?  Why the Yankees?  It’s been a badly kept secret that Bryce Harper grew up idolizing Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle–to the point where he wore the number 7 when playing youth baseball.  When #7 wasn’t available one year, he wore 16 (1+6).  He now wears 34–do the math.  Even in today’s era of 30 Major League teams, the world of baseball to a point revolves around the Bronx and the new house next to The House That Ruth Built.  Harper appreciates the game’s history and to play every day for the sport’s signature franchise (sorry, Dodgers and Cardinals fans) wouldn’t just be the cherry on top to an already sweet career, but a ridiculously awesome sundae.

What also makes the Yanks a potential landing spot as opposed to the Cubs or simply staying in DC is the fact that they play in the American League.  Harper’s MVP season is the only one in his career where he’s played 150 or more games.  Having the designated hitter option when he might be nicked up or dealing with a tight hamstring would be a nice bonus.  It’s also 314 feet down the line from home plate to the right-field foul pole at Yankee Stadium…as opposed to 335 at Nationals Park.

Could he fit in?  USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported last December that Harper’s agent Scott Boras would be seeking a contract in the neighborhood of ten years in length with the price tag of $400 million dollars-at a minimum.  Who has money?  Naturally, the Yankees are in the #1 media market in the nation–but only have the 7th-highest payroll entering 2018, according to spotrac.com.  After spending freely on big-name players during the latter half of Derek Jeter’s career when it appeared they were only a player or two away, the Yankees tightened their belts this decade and focused on drafting as well as player development.  That focus left the franchise with a talented nucleus–including a pair of right-handed hitters (Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez) who can bat before and after Harper.  Both players are still in their pre-arbitration timetable:  Judge is 25 and fresh off of a 52-home run season while Sanchez turns 25 over the weekend and hit 33 homers in his first full season as a regular.  Put Bryce in that mix and you have a 3-4-5 combination only fantasy teams dream about.  Current leftfielder Brett Gardner is 34 and would be entering a team-option year in 2019.  Whether Harper or Judge plays left or right, the Yanks would be set on the corners for some time.

The New York Yankees also potentially represent stability for a free agent looking at the landscape:  whoever becomes their new manager will be the team’s third skipper since 1995.  Dave Martinez will be the fourth manager (following Davey Johnson, Matt Williams and Dusty Baker) Harper will have played for as he enters his sixth season in the bigs.  Perhaps paying top dollar for a manager has its dividends after all.

FOR OTHER POTENTIAL HARPER DESTINATIONS, GO TO THE SPORTS PAGE AT WTOP.COM. 

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There’s another weekend before the bowls?  Really?  Conference championships are decided Friday and Saturday with the area schools mostly idle-unlike last December when Virginia Tech was bettered by eventual national champ Clemson and Navy lost to Temple (ugh) at home (double ugh).  At least we have James Madison (unbeaten and top ranked defending champ James Madison, that is) in FCS Playoff Action.  So even though one’s school might not be in action this weekend, you can still insert yourself into the conversation.

 

Friday’s Game:

Pac-12 Championship- #10 USC (10-2) plays #12 Stanford (9-3), 8 p.m. (ESPN).

At stake: neither has a great shot at making the College Football Playoff, and with the Rose Bowl serving as one of the semifinal games the winner won’t even get a trip to Pasadena.  Plus, this game is at 5 p.m. local time…on a Friday?  Even the MAC gets a Saturday kickoff.

Rematch?:  USC won 42-24 September 10th.

Who to Watch: Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold began the year as the Heisman favorite, and Cardinal runningback Bryce Love is a strong contender for the honor.  Both have nightmares of being drafted by Cleveland.

Notable Fact: unlike the other leagues, the Pac-12 name actually reflects its membership number.

Presto’s Pick:  Trojans triumph, 31-17.

 

Saturday’s Games-

AAC Championship- #14 UCF (12-0) vs #20 Memphis (10-1), noon (ABC).  

At stake: the right to be the really angry “group of five/Mid-Major” school left out of the playoff despite a conference title and a great record.  Plus the winning coach takes a leap in the “hot coaching commodity contest”.

Rematch?: UCF won 40-13 September 30th.

Who to Watch: UCF’s McKenzie Milton sounds like a shirt from Vineyard Vines…but the dual threat quarterback is averaging 326 yards passing per game this month and has run for a TD in five straight games.  Tigers QB Riley Ferguson is just as impressive.

Notable Fact:  both teams beat Navy and the Knights routed Maryland in College Park.

Presto’s Pick: Knights tame the Tigers, 37-28.

 

Big 12 Championship- #3 Oklahoma (11-1) vs #11 TCU (10-2), 12:30 p.m. (FOX)

At Stake:  Sooners need a win or they’d likely slip behind Alabama and out of the playoffs. Horned Frogs need a win plus a measles epidemic to make the Final Four.

Rematch?:  Oklahoma won 38-20 November 11th.

Who to Watch: OU quarterback Baker Mayfield is on his way to the Heisman Trophy, while TCU defensive linemen Ben Banogu and Ross Blacklock will try to keep him off-balance.

Notable Fact:  the Big 12 is the only conference to have a championship game despite not having divisions, which is why the conference championship game was created in the first place.

Presto’s Pick:  Sooners stumble, 44-38.

 

FCS Second Round-#1 James Madison (11-0) vs #10 Stony Brook (10-2), 2 p.m. (ESPN3)

At Stake: a berth in the quarterfinals and bragging rights between conference foes that haven’t met since 2015.

Players to Watch: Bryan Schor led the Dukes to the National Championship last year and picked up where he left off this fall.  Seawolves running back Donald Liotine led the CAA in scoring.

Notable Fact: home teams went 5-3 last weekend in the first round of the tournament after going 17-5 in 2016.

Presto’s Pick:  Dukes dominate, 34-16.

 

SEC Championship- #2 Auburn (10-2) vs #6 Georgia (11-1), 4 p.m. (CBS).

What’s at Stake:  automatic berth for the winner…with the knowledge that Alabama will be sweating until Tuesday evening.  Loser knows they had a chance and blew it.

Rematch?:  Auburn won 40-17 November 11th.

Who to Watch:  Kerryon Johnson ran for 167 yards against Georgia three weeks ago, while Bulldogs tailback Nick Chubb was held to 27 yards on 11 tries.

Notable Fact:  CBS announcer Brad Nessler used to call Atlanta Falcons games at their old stadium–not the Georgia Dome but Fulton County Stadium in the 1980’s.

Presto’s Pick:  Tigers by a nose, 23-20.

 

ACC Championship- #1 Clemson (11-1) vs #7 Miami (10-1), 8 p.m. (ABC).

At Stake:  the winner makes the Playoff while the loser should be cursing their loss to a sub-500 Syracuse or Pitt.

Rematch?:  No.  Although in 2015 the Tigers torched the Hurricanes 58-0 in Al Golden’s final game as coach. Enter Mark Richt.

Who to Watch: can Miami QB Malik Rosier bounce back from his subpar effort against Pitt?  Clemson DE Clelin Ferrell had 8 sacks to finish second in the ACC…and will have a say in Rosier’s play.

Notable Fact: this is Miami’s first-ever trip the ACC Championship Game–while Virginia Tech has been to the most (3-3 in six appearances).

Presto’s Pick: Tigers triumph, 30-22.

 

Big Ten Championship- #4 Wisconsin (12-0) vs #8 Ohio State (10-2), 8 p.m. (FOX).

At Stake:  a Badgers win would lock up a playoff berth as welll as quiet naysayers about their soft schedule.  A Buckeyes victory would likely send Alabama to the Playoff-making OSU fans whine about not being included despite winning their league (a criteria ignored last year when they made the playoff and Penn State was excluded).

Rematch?: they didn’t meet this year-but the Buckeyes butchered the Badgers 59-0 in 2014.

Who to Watch:  OSU QB JT Barrett led the Buckeyes to the national title as a freshman–he’ll play Saturday despite having “minor” knee surgery this week.  Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor is the league’s leading rusher, averaging 7 yards per carry and 150 yards per game.

Notable Fact:  Maryland has as many conference championship game appearances as Michigan.

Presto’s Pick:  Buckeyes blow up the bracket, 24-20.

 

Playoff Party—

#1 Clemson vs #4 Oklahoma

#2 Auburn vs #3 Alabama

 

Last Week: 2-1.

Overall: 74-25.

 

Just when you thought this year would blow up (after the opening day sleepwalk loss to Philadelphia) or catch fire (after the dominant win over Oakland), the Redskins are back in familiar territory.  Yes, they’re 5-6 for the sixth time in 13 years.  But you know what?  Four of those years saw the Skins somehow surge into the playoffs-with 2010 being the outlier.  There is a path to get to the postseason that involves a 5-0 or 4-1 (with the loss coming to Denver or the LA Chargers) finish.  Just like 2005, 2007, 2012 and 2015 they have the NFC contenders right where they want them.  Unless they lose to Dallas on Thursday night.

Captain Kirk- the Franchise Tagged One completes 19 of 31 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns…while tossing an interception and getting sacked six times.  The pick-six brought back memories of last year, but once again despite a depleted receiving corps Cousins delivers.  Star Trek Episode Equivalent:  “The Gallileo Seven”, where Kirk spends most of the hour trying to get Spock, McCoy and Scotty back on board after a shuttle craft mishap.

Running with a Purpose- Samaje Perine ran for 100 yards…meaning that for the first time since Alfred Morris in 2013 a Redskins runningback passed the century mark in consecutive weeks.  In 47 carries over the last two games, he’s lost yardage just three times.  If this can be the new normal– we may have something.

Threes a Crowder- Jamison Crowder led the receiving corps with 7 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown.  On a team where the best receiver is an injured Jordan Reed, the ideal #3 guy is turning into a #1 as of late with double digits in targets three times and 100+ yards through the air twice in the last month.

Third Down Doubts- wouldn’t you know Crowder was on the receiving end of all four Skins third down conversions?  The team moved the chains on 4 of 15 tries, passing 12 times (Cousins went 8-11 with one sack, one touchdown and one interception) and running three times (short each instance, although on 3rd & 27 there aren’t a lot of plays available).  Crowder was the top target with 4 conversions on 4 catches in 5 passes thrown to.  Yardage Breakdown:  1 for 3 on short-yardage, 1 for 4 on 4 to 6 yards needed and 2 for 8 on long-yardage.

Case for the Defense- Zach Brown once again led the team in tackles with nine stops while Ryan Kerrigan tallied two sacks.  They held the Giants to 2 for 14 on third down, sacking Eli Manning twice on the money down while holding him to 2 for 10 passing (and two conversions).  A nice bounce-back for a D that had allowed 30+ points in four of five games.

Special Situations- Nick Rose converted on both of his field goals and extra points while Tress Way averaged 44 yards per punt. The returns weren’t spectacular but not disasters.  Move along…

Flying Flags- EIGHT PENALTIES?!?!  And that was with two declined (both of them holds by Ty Nsekhe that didn’t help Perine gain one yard or Cousins not get sacked).  Six on the offense and two on special teams.  Three false starts and two delays of game.  The most costly infraction?  A delay of game against Cousins that turned a 3rd & 13 into a 3rd & 18 right before Kirk threw his pick-six.

Dissecting the Division- Philadelphia (10-1) after crushing Chicago are now just a Dallas loss away from wrapping up the NFC East.  They’re also in the driver’s seat for the #1 seed in the NFC–owning a one-game lead over Minnesota.  Dallas’ free-fall minus Ezekiel Elliott continues with their 28-6 turkey of a loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.  Their October win at FedEx Field keeps them in second place over the Redskins…although they’re now 10th in the NFC.  The Skins are right where they want to be for their finishing kick–and although they may be in the conference’s 11th spot, they’re gaining ground.  The NY Giants remain in last place at 2-9 and are two losses away from clinching last place…while awaiting the random San Francisco win that moves them into dead last in the conference.

Conference Call- the NFC owns a 28-18 lead over the AFC with Carolina (4-0) and the Los Angeles Rams (3-0) doing their brethren proud…while Chicago is somehow 2-0 against Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  The NFC South owns the best composite record at 27-17, while the AFC West is worst at 19-25.  The NFC East continues its middling 2017 at 22-22, good enough for fourth place.

Sayonara, Season- three teams are now officially done for 2017.  San Francisco was already eliminated from postseason possibilities (trust me, I went through the model where they reach 7-9 and tie Seattle and Arizona for 2nd in the West).  Cleveland and the New York Giants join the Niners with losses.  The Redskins and Chicago are also eliminated from their respective division races.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

As the regular season winds down, another is just beginning to fire up–literally.  The coaching carousel has already been in motion for a few weeks and hit full stride this past weekend with name schools pink-slipping their program architects.  While the Pac- 12 caught the biggest fish in Chip Kelly, nowhere was the coaching carousel spinning faster than in the SEC.  Arkansas fired Bret Beilema before he could leave the field after the Razorbacks lost to Missouri.  Texas A&M joined in the mix by firing Kevin Sumlin, although the school showed restraint and waited at least until after he had left the field.  Florida and Tennessee jumped on the carousel early by giving their coaches walking papers during the season.  It’s worked out for the Gators, who landed former assistant and current Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen.  You can’t say the same for the Volunteers, who had to back off from hiring Greg Schiano amidst massive protests.  And Mullen’s departure from Starkville-not the easiest place to win-means there will be six SEC schools with first-year head coaches in 2018.  And that doesn’t count Ole Miss, who took the interim tag off of Matt Luke.

Fantasy Field– losses by Alabama and Miami turned the bracket of 8 upside-down:

#1 Clemson (ACC)-#8 USC (Pac-12)

#4 Auburn (SEC)-#7 Miami (wildcard-3)

#3 Wisconsin (Big Ten)-#5 Alabama (wildcard-1)

#2 Oklahoma (Big 12)-#6 Georgia (wildcard-2) 

Naturally the automatic berths would not be set until Championship Weekend…with windows of opportunity for Ohio State, TCU and Stanford to play their  way in.  While Clemson or Oklahoma could conceivably still make the field after losing in the ACC or Big 12 title game, the Georgia-Auburn loser and likely Wisconsin if they fail to win the Big Ten title would be on the outside looking in.  Meaningful games in December instead of conference title games as window dressing.  Novel concept.

Alma Mater Update- the season ends with a 42-14 loss at home to Boston College.  A second straight 4-8 campaign that this year came against one of the toughest schedules in the nation.  I’m ready for hoops.  And wings. Hopefully with an 8-to-4 drummie to flat ratio.

Navy (6-5, 4-4 AAC) began the area action over the weekend by losing to Houston 24-14.  Instead of like the last two years where this determined the West Division champ, this tilt was merely an appetizer for some interesting games (UCF-South Florida-WOW).  Midshipman Medals:  D.J. Palmore tallied 8 tackles to lead the defense that held the Cougars to 3 for 13 on third down.  Malcolm Perry ran for 82 yards and a touchdown.  Owen White averaged over 40 yards per punt and landed a pair of kicks inside the 20 with no touchbacks.  Midshipman Miscues:  the offense sputtered after halftime, converting 1 of 7 third downs while gaining just 69 yards on 30 carries.  Pass protection allowed three sacks on 11 drop-backs.  Steven Dunbar ripped the Mids’ secondary for 8 catches and 142 yards.  Next: December 9th against 8-3 Army.  Only the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is up for grabs.

 

Virginia Tech (9-3, 5-3 ACC) kept the Commonwealth Cup for a 14th straight year by blanking Virginia (6-6, 3-5) 10-0.  For those scoring at home, that’s back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back to back wins over the Cavaliers.  “Friends” was still on TV showing first-run episodes when UVa last prevailed in what has become an annual hour of agony.

Hokie Highlights: the offensive line helped churn out over 202 yards on the ground while not allowing a sack.  Tremaine Edmunds tallies 9 tackles and two sacks to help the defense hold the Cavaliers to 4-15 on third down.  Hokie Humblings: a shutout on the road against an in-state rival?  They get a pass for putting just 10 points on the board.

Cavalier Congrats: Micah Kiser (19 tackles) and Quin Blanding (17 stops) continue to be the bright spots on a UVa defense that was much-improved this fall.  Lester Coleman averaged 43.9 yards per punt.  Cavalier Concerns: the running game allowed four sacks and on 16 other registered runs gained just 20 yards.  On a night that the Hokies had just a pair of scoring drives, UVa didn’t cross midfield until late in the 2nd quarter and didn’t convert a 3rd down in the second half.

 

Maryland (4-8, 2-7 Big Ten) saw its season come to a close with a 66-3 loss to #10 Penn State.  The Nittany Lions scored on four of their first five possessions to take control before scoring on their first three drives of the second half.  According to coach DJ Durkin, “the Texas game feels like eight years ago”.  Terrapin Triumphs: DJ Moore catches 8 passes for 100 yards, breaking the single-season record set by Geroy Simon in 1994 while also passing the 1,000-yard mark for the year.  Senior Jermaine Carter wrapped up his career with 11 tackles.  Terrapin Troubles: third down was a black mark all year as the team ranked last in getting off the field on defense and moving the chains on offense–and against Penn State they converted 1 of 15 attempts while allowing the Nittany Lions to 11 of 17 money downs.  Trace McSorley carved up the Terps defense to the tune of 205 yards in the first half.  They also fumbled four times-losing two of them that the Nittany Lions turned into touchdowns.