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Labor Day weekend is upon us after the “Summer of Social Distancing”, or the summer that never really took off.  If August is the “Sunday of Summer”, the early days of September have that early Monday right before sunrise feel:  one wants to doze a little bit longer but the inevitability of the week is going to pull us back to reality whether we like it or not.  The college football season saw two more games Thursday evening, with UAB and South Alabama already giving the Yellowhammer state quite a bit to be proud about three weeks before their premier program (and kid brother-sorry Auburn) begin their seasons of expected SEC and National Championship contention.  Meanwhile, the Big Ten and Pac 12 aren’t doing anything just yet regarding when their seasons will start; I don’t envy the pollsters who have to vote on the Top 25 in this odd buffet-table of a season.

Virginia does not begin its year until September 19 at Virginia Tech; you may have heard somewhere that the Cavaliers beat the Hokies last year for the first time the two became ACC foes.  The good news is my tailgating pals of mine Kippy & Buffy will be back this fall for “socially distant” pregaming as only they can.  And instead of heading to neutral-site Atlanta for a game against Georgia on Labor Day night as originally scheduled, they’ve got the weekend to themselves and the Kentucky Derby (full disclosure: I own a madras jacket and breathable fedora, both of which will be worn this weekend).  The 146th running for the roses on Saturday means the wine & cheese will have to wait as they’re breaking out the bourbon:  Jefferson’s Reserve Manhattan with Luxardo Cherries, served with a single big ice cube (they have a special large ice cube tray she got him for his birthday).

Saturday’s games-

Middle Tennessee at Army West Point, 1:30 p.m (ESPN).  The Black Knights are one of seven independent FBS schools, and unlike Notre Dame they didn’t elect to rent out a conference for the season.  While Army is coming off of its first sub-500 campaign since 2015, the Blue Raiders are coming off of their first losing season since 2011. Coach Rick Rockstill has won 91 games in his 14 years at the helm, and returns nine starters on offense including senior quarterback Asher O’Hara (2,616 yards and 20 TD passing last fall).  They also return five starters from a defense that allowed over 200 yards seven times last fall; not ideal against an offense that ran the ball 86% of the time last fall and brings back three of its top five rushers from 2019.

Presto’s Pick: Army comes up short, 35-28.

SMU at Texas State , 4:30 p.m. (CBSSN).

The Mustangs are coming off of their first 10-win season since 1983; they went 31-3-1 over a three-year span that saw NCAA Probation, multiple SWC titles and an unbeaten season.  But unlike the “Pony Express” that dominated on the ground, this team is led by Texas transfer Shane Buechele (3,929 yards passing and 34 touchdowns last fall).  The Bobcats are have finished either 3-9 or 2-10 the last five seasons and usually are early-season cannon fodder for Power Five Conference teams–even Rutgers (?!) last year.  Furthermore, this “Texas State” is not to be confused with the Fightin’ Armadillos from the movie Necessary Roughness.  Sam Bakula, Sinbad and Kathy Ireland are not walking through that door.

Presto’s Pick: Mustangs in a stampede, 44-17.

Arkansas State at Memphis, 8:00 p.m. (ESPN).

Fans of the local NFL squad get a sneak preview of what a team called the “Red Wolves”.  While they don’t wear burgundy and gold, they do sport scarlet and black uniforms (I was hoping for maroon).  That’s where the similarities end with the team in Ashburn; Arkansas State has reached the postseason nine straight years.  The Tigers have enjoyed recent success as well, sending their last two coaches Justin Fuente and Mike Norvell to ACC jobs.  Former Offensive Coordinator Ryan Silverfield takes over as head coach after authoring the AAC’s second highest scoring attack in 2019;  just as important quarterback Brady White (4,014 yards and 34 touchdowns passing last fall) returns to do more damage in 2020.

Presto’s Pick: Tigers triumph, 42-17. 

Monday Night–

Navy vs. BYU- Monday night, 8PM , ESPN.

Area schools are no strangers to playing on Labor Day, from Virginia Tech-West Virginia at FedEx Field in 2017 to Navy-Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium in 2010.  The Midshipmen will have a new quarterback, although senior Dalen Morris has had three-plus years to absorb the option offense. Morris and the seniors are 14-3 at home during their careers, and the program is 7-5 in openers (5-0 in Annapolis) under head coach Ken Niumatalolo. The Cougars are 3-1 in openers under coach Kalani Sitake; they also have a knack for September surprises, winning on the road at Tennessee last season and at Wisconsin the previous year.  They also return 15 starters, including an offensive line that averages 305 pounds per starter.

Presto’s Pick:  Midshipmen come up short, 31-27.

Last Year: 88-36. 

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“If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind.”  Not exactly “If you’re not first–you’re last”, but Virginia Tech is taking a long look at itself after a second straight underwhelming season and third consecutive bowl defeat.  The Hokies went 10-4 in Justin Fuente’s first year in Blacksburg, but are 14-12 over the last two seasons.  They needed to schedule a buyout bonus game with Marshall to keep the bowl streak alive in 2018 and saw their decade-plus dominance of intrastate foe Virginia end last November in a turnover-filled affair at Scott Stadium (as if Cavalier National Championships in men’s basketball and lacrosse weren’t enough to stomach).  So the question facing the program is were the last two years a hiccup or a harbinger?

The key to last season’s turnaround from a 2-2 start with shaky wins over Old Dominion and Furman to one that was within a victory at Virginia from winning the Coastal Division was a quarterback switch;  sophomore Hendon Hooker did not throw an interception in his first six starts (all wins) before tossing a pair that afternoon in Charlottesville.  Turnovers told the tale in 2019, with the Hokies losing the ball nine times in eight regular season wins and 13 times in four losses.  And instead of quantity (the Hokies ranked 11th in the ACC in passing yards) there was quality (Virginia Tech ranked fourth in passing efficiency).  Hooker in the seven game regular season sample last fall gave them that;  now he has to progress instead of regress like former Hokie QB’s Josh Jackson and Ryan Willis after their initial years in the starting role.

What Hendon Hooker doesn’t have at his disposal is an experienced ground game. Sophomore Keyshawn King (79 carries for 355 yards) is the only returning running back with more than 20 attempts in 2019, but coach Fuente has found reliable ball-carriers over the last four years to step up-from Deshawn McClease to Steven Peoples.  Graduate transfer Khalil Herbert and junior transfer Lee Marco are other options.  Hooker does get two of his top three targets back, including leading receiver Tre Turner (34 catches for 553 yards and four touchdowns).  The offensive line’s strength is on the left side, with juniors Christian Darrisaw and Lecitus Smith setting the tone.

The Hokies defense will have a different coordinator for the first time since 1994 due to the retirement of Bud Foster.  The longtime assistant went out on a relative high note, as the unit improved across the board from 2018: from 106th in FBS to 46th best in stopping the run and from 98th to 42nd in total yards allowed.  Justin Hamilton takes over the unit after coaching the safeties in 2018;  that’s his only season of FBS coaching experience.  If you want experience, look no further than the ten returning starters led by middle linebacker Rayshard Ashby.  The junior paced the team with 120 tackles in 2019 and was voted Second Team All-ACC one season after receiving Honorable Mention.  Junior Chamarri Conner and Ashby ranked 1-2 on the team in sacks last fall;  while defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt doesn’t pile up stats the senior provides the necessary presence in the middle every effective defense needs.  Defensive backs Jermaine Waller (three interceptions) and Divine Deablo (one INT) have also shown the ability to make plays in the secondary.

The Hokies’ original September slate was going to feature non-conference games against Liberty, Penn State, Middle Tennessee and Northern Alabama.  The 2020 modified schedule has Liberty coming to Blacksburg November 7th.  The “new opener”, September 12th against NC State has been moved to the 26th amid COVID-19 concerns.  This means the Hokies will start the third draft of the 2020 season against the school they’re used to wrapping up November with in defending Coastal Division Champion Virginia.  The shuffled schedule deletes rebuilding Georgia Tech for middling programs Wake Forest and NC State, plus a December 5th date in Blacksburg against Clemson.  The Hokies have dropped five straight games to the Tigers in an era where Dabo Swinney has turned the ACC into his personal playpen.  Hokie fans aren’t expecting a miracle that day, but they are hoping for a season that places the previous two in the aberration category.  Hiccup or harbinger?

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We never learned what would have happened if Captain Ahab had caught that white whale.  Much like Indigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, when you spend so much energy and focus on a goal one wonders what is next?  For fifteen years the Cavaliers chased the white whale that was Virginia Tech; the losses to their in-state foe ranged from embarrassing blowouts (five by 29+ points) to heartbreaking defeats (five by less than a TD), from deficient defense (allowing 35+ points five times) to underwhelming offense (scoring fewer than 10 points five times with three shutouts).  For fifteen falls UVa spent Thanksgiving weekend punching sand–until last year’s comeback win at Scott Stadium.

What does one do for an encore? Unfortunately for the University of Virginia football team, there’s no pirate ship to captain.  And with the ACC doing away with divisions for 2020, there’s technically no Coastal crown to defend.  But there are expectations nonetheless; expectations created from the continued improvement during the first four years of head coach Bronco Mendenhall.  The Cavaliers have won more games in each of his succeeding seasons in Charlottesville, and last year’s 9-5 mark was the team’s best since 2007.  The win over Virginia Tech provides a ton of mojo as well.  And with 15 returning starters, the bar in Charlottesville was understandably high- especially with the Labor Day night season opener against a top-ten Georgia on national TV.

Unfortunately the Cavaliers will not battle the Bulldogs to start a season which now has ten conference games and puts their traditional season-ending showdown with the Hokies in September as the season opener for both schools.  For the time, the coach is focused on preparing his team while keeping his players safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  “I’ve never run a practice structure like we’re currently running,” Mendenhall said.”There’s really nothing about our program that looks the same as what a normal organization looks like. I’ve erred really, really far on the side of caution and safety.”

The major difference between Mendenhall’s program and previous regimes in Charlottesville has been consistency as well as good fortune at quarterback;  he’s had two starting quarterbacks over the last four years and both have been transfers who turned out exceptionally well.  This year represents a departure as for the first time since arriving on the grounds Mendenhall will start a quarterback he recruited out of high school to UVa.  Sophomore Brennan Armstong emerges as the first string quarterback, but he’s no ordinary sophomore.  The Shelby, Ohio native has three spring practices under his belt after enrolling in January 2018 and redshirted after appearing in just four games as a true freshman.  Armstrong beat out Mississippi State transfer Keytaon Thompson for the nod.  “Throughout camp Brennan just comes here everyday and and works,” sophomore tight end Grant Minsch said. “He’s studying and staying late. He’s throwing balls with every receiver he can; all the tight ends and runningbacks.  He’s just been doing more and more every day.”

Armstrong won’t have three of the top four receivers from last year to throw to, with junior Terrell Jana (74 catches for 886 yards and three touchdowns) his top returning tight end and Billy Kemp (35 receptions for 289 yards and a score) the returning wide receiver who saw the most play in 2019.  Junior runningback Wayne Taulapapa (473 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing last year) spearheads the ground game.  A veteran offensive line returns, one that has been at full strength this summer.  “Man has it been fun to have a healthy offensive line and have healthy offensive line numbers and be able to practice the run game at a higher level than we ever have and not be worried about injury,” Mendenhall said. Right tackle Dillon Reinkensmeyer may be the most experienced (37 career starts), but center Olusegun Oluwatimi (Honorable Mention All-ACC in 2019) is the pivot point of this unit.

Eight starters return to a defense that ranked third in the ACC in points allowed and fourth in yards surrendered in conference play.  The strength of this unit rests in the linebacking corps, with senior Zane Zandier entering his third year as a starter.  In 2019 he led the team with 108 tackles, was tied for third with five sacks, and boasts one of the coolest nicknames in college football. “We all know ‘ZZ-Stop’ is being an aggressive, loud person of our defense,” senior safety Joey Blount said. “But he’s grown into a role of taking charge of the younger guys, really taking a lot of them under his wing.” Yes, he said “ZZ-Stop”.  I’m going to be using this early and often in 2020.  A pair of Silver Spring natives, Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor, have also received preseason All-ACC attention.  Blount leads a veteran secondary.

As mentioned, the season kicks off at Virginia Tech.  I have a feeling the Hokies will be extra-ready for this one.  After the September 19th opener, the Cavaliers have a week off before visiting preseason number one Clemson.  Thrown into the schedule are trips to Miami and Florida State, sleeping giants that have enjoyed better days but are always capable of winning on their home turf (UVa was schooled last year by the Hurricanes and have won just once in Tallahassee).  Forget about exceeding last year’s success; matching it will be a challenge enough.

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College football’s season like none other is already underway with Central Arkansas and Austin Peay; meanwhile the rest of the sport holds its breath while trying to hold a massively modified season.  College football coaches are all about moving on to “Plan B” and preparing for every contingency.  But has there been anything in his career that could have prepared Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo for 2020?  “I’ve been coaching 31 years and let me just say this: NO,” Niumatalolo said. “There’s nothing that prepares you.  I think about all of us–who would have ever thought that there’s something that shuts down the world? I don’t think anything prepares you for that.”  So they’ve been extra cautious this summer, leaving nothing to chance.  “Being on a military installation so to speak it helps you being that our campus is surrounded by a wall and gates.  The bubble is literal, so to speak,” Niumatalolo said. “You gotta eat differently, you gotta get ready for practice differently. You have to finish practice differently. Those are things we have been planning for since March; follow all of the safety guidelines.”  It’s against this backdrop that Navy prepares for the upcoming season, one with hope but still with a handful of questions.

 

The first question facing the Midshipmen on the field this summer was who was going to be the starting quarterback.  Malcolm Perry (1,084 yards passing and 2,017 yards rushing) graduated and is trying to stick on the Miami Dolphins roster in the NFL, leaving more than a few candidates vying for the vacancy.  But instead of sophomore Perry Olsen or junior Chance Warren, it’s senior Dalen Morris who has emerged as the first string QB. “He’s just been the best so far at operating the offense; he’s just been the best in reading, throwing the ball where it’s supposed to go,” Niumatalolo said. “I’ve always believed that the number one trait or characteristic of a great quarterback is decision-making.”  While Olsen and Warren may have higher upside, the Navy option offense needs to be directed by sure hands.  It’s no accident that in Niumatalolo’s dozen years in Annapolis the six team’s directed by senior starting quarterbacks have gone 53-25 while the other six have posted a 44-34 composite mark.  A recent example of the senior starter succeeding after sitting was 2016 when Will Worth taking over for the injured Tago Smith and directing the Midshipmen to their only AAC Division title.  Morris appeared in four games over his first three seasons, and has had the benefit of learning behind Perry as well as Zach Abey.  “When you’re young and you come in you think you can make every throw and make everybody miss,” Morris said. “But as you start to grow and learn the system more you can make better decisions and trust the people around you.”

The people around Morris begin with a fullback rotation consisting of junior Jamale Carothers (734 yards on 6.6 per carry in 2019) and senior Nelson Smith (571 yards while averaging 4.9 per attempt); the duo combined for 21 touchdowns last year.  Starting slotback candidates include seniors C.J. Williams, Keoni-Kordell Makekau, and Myles Fells.  The trio combined for 640 yards on 120 carries in 2019; in the post-Malcolm Perry world one can easily see more attempts this fall.  Leading receiver Mychal Cooper (18 catches for 380 yards and 2 touchdowns) is back as is Ryan Mitchell (8 receptions for 183 yards and a score).  The offensive line has to replace three starters, but they had to replace four last year and still led the nation in rushing.  Seniors Peter Nestrowitz and Billy Honaker return.

 

The Mids’ defense made great strides last year under first-year coordinator Brian Newberry, allowing 112 fewer yards per game than in 2018 while holding foes to 94 yards under their season average.  The blitzing, shifting look notched 30 sacks and 22 takeaways last fall and returns seven starters.  The keystone to the unit again will be middle linebacker Diego Fagot, who led the team with 100 tackles as a sophomore.  He was also second with 5.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. “Not only is he a physically gifted linebacker, he’s super-smart,” Niumatalolo said. “His football IQ is really, really high so that allows us to kind of tinker with things that you normally wouldn’t do on defense.”  With a full year at the position under his belt, Fagot expects to be that much sharper this fall. “I have the liberty to play as fast as I can whereas last year I had to take off a little bit,” Fagot said. “Sometimes I wouldn’t take those chances to run to break through the gap and make the tackle- I would just kind of sit back and see what the runningback does.  Whereas this year I know there’s someone outside who will force the ball back in if I don’t make the play so let me just take this chance.”  The Mids return six other starters on the defensive side of the ball, including the entire secondary.

 

The schedule begins on Labor Day night against BYU; the Midshipmen were originally slated to face Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland August 29th before the matchup was moved stateside.  It looked as though the Mids would face the Fighting Irish in Annapolis for the first time ever, until the ACC (which Notre Dame is competing in football for this year only) mandated that non-conference games “must be played in the home state of the ACC institution”.  So instead of opening their game this weekend against their longtime foe (the two schools have played every year since 1927), Navy will face the Cougars for the third time in school history (they’re 1-1 with a win in 1978 and a loss in 1989).  But just like the season like none other, the program adjusts to a change of venue and then opponent for its opener.  “It went from the ‘down’ of not playing Notre Dame here to ‘Okay, where do we go from here?’ and just looking at our options.” Niumatalolo said. “We’re excited to be able to play a really good football program that’s got a national brand.”

The American Athletic Conference due to the departure of Connecticut will not have divisions in 2020, and the Midshipmen are fortunate not to be facing either team ranked in the AP Preseason Top 25 (#20 Cincinnati and #21 UCF).  Their recent West Division nemesis Memphis comes to Annapolis November 14; the Tigers have won two of three against the current crop of Navy seniors and have captured the West three years running.  But even in a season like none other, there are still those two words that define each autumn: “BEAT ARMY”.  After three straight losses in the series, the Midshipmen beat Army West Point last December.  They’ll have a chance to do so again December 12th in Philadelphia.

 

 

 

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There are some things the COVID-19 pandemic can’t affect.  One of them is the fact that my car needs to be inspected and registered each August.  The last three years I’ve made the annual trek to the dealership for the State Inspection, and while I wait I try to avoid the mindless mid-day TV by working on my college football previews.  In fact, I’m sitting down right now drinking a complimentary coffee punching the keys on the laptop with the Beatles “It’s All Too Much” playing on my earbuds.   It’s an unheralded gem, trust me.

But this year there’s no wondering what sort of leap Maryland will make under second-year coach Mike Locksley, or trying to figure out if the Terps will have a quarterback start every game of the season for the third time since 2003.  There’s also no scouring the rosters and websites for information on James Madison as the Dukes prepare to mount another run at the FCS mountaintop, which is a shame: JMU has made the playoffs six straight years under three different head coaches.  Same case with the rest of the local CAA schools (apologies to Towson, Richmond, and William & Mary).  Georgetown and Howard?  No deep-dives into the Patriot League and MEAC.

There isn’t even the “Week Zero” I like to make fun of as only college football can trumpet its tradition and then modify it in a ridiculous manner.  Navy was supposed to play overseas last weekend; instead their game with Notre Dame went from Ireland to Annapolis to canceled.  Speaking of the Fighting Irish- they’re actually joining a conference this year.  Evidently the “tradition” they had been married to as an independent will take a back seat this fall so they can use the ACC to fill out their schedule, before resuming their previous hypocrisy of using the league solely for their non-football sports.  And talking about “tradition”, while this season’s Rose Bowl will be used as a Playoff Semifinal the two leagues who traditionally vie for Pasadena will be sitting this fall out.

The Big Ten announced August 11th that they would be postponing all fall sports less than a week after releasing the conference schedule; I was this close to breaking down the Labor Day weekend Terrapins-Iowa showdown.  But wait- last Friday there were reports of the conference discussing they’d start up football Thanksgiving weekend- so they might play this fall after all. The Pac 12 followed the Big Ten’s lead earlier this month; I wonder what they’ll do if their longtime Rose Bowl brethren officially come back?  Meanwhile the SEC, Big 12 and ACC plow forward (and don’t forget the AAC, Sun Belt, Conference USA and some Independents) in the face of the scrutiny one can only imagine one gets when one holds a collision sport season during a pandemic.

All told, nine of the schools in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25 will not be playing games this fall.  Can you truly determine a champion when 40% of your Power Five schools aren’t participating?  And what about the schools who play spring seasons-or the winter ones?  But just like my car needs the new sticker, we will press on with the 2020 season. Eleven games will kick off between this Thursday and Labor Day night.  It’s all too much…

 

August 31 and Labor Day weekend do not always go hand in hand, but those are two key signposts in a normal baseball season.  This year they represent a trading deadline and a little over the halfway mark of the regular season. By losing five of six games they’ve dropped to under 12-19 which puts them on pace for 23-37 on the season. It’s also the equivalent of 19-31.  And unlike 2019 Stephen Strasburg is not pitching every fifth day this September.  The final day of August this year is also the MLB trading deadline, but these deals are even more difficult to make because the prospects usually thrown into late-summer swaps would normally be playing minor league ball instead of behind closed doors at training sites like Fredericksburg.  Traditionally the trading deadline in DC has meant attempting to upgrade a sagging bullpen;  this year the Nats relievers own a 4.32 ERA (14th in MLB).  But as bad as this season looks now and as logical as it would be to turn one’s eye towards 2021–they’re not completely out of contention.

Santangelo Math- the MASN TV analyst mentioned on the air that with the shortened schedule, each game is now worth “2.7” games on a 162-game slate.  So the Nats are now “32-51” for what it is worth.  In order to reach the equivalent of last year’s 93-win team they’d need to post a 22-7 mark this month.  The shadows grow longer as summer comes to a close.

Dissecting the Division- Atlanta (19-14) isn’t just the only NL East team with a winning record, the Braves are also the only club with a positive run differential.  That’s good enough for the number three seed this fall.  Miami and Philadelphia (14-15) are tied for second, with whoever takes the tiebraker earning the fifth seed and the loser taking eighth. The New York Mets (15-19) are a game and a half back while the Nats may be in last but are just three games out of the playoffs.

O’s Woes- sorry, but we’ve put “Break up the Birds” on the bench for the moment. Eight losses in ten games have the O’s four and a half games out of a playoff berth at 14-19. The seventh best offense in the bigs couldn’t carry the 19th best pitching staff forever.  Even though they’re not on pace to match last year’s record-305 (113 over a 60-game season) home runs, they are allowing 46 which is tied for sixth most in the majors.  And now Tommy Milone’s been traded to Atlanta.  They didn’t even give me time to get to the team shop to purchase my jersey.

Anthony’s Song (Movin’ Out)- Tony two-bags came down from his .531 mountaintop to hit in a .188 valley last week, dropping the former Nationals third baseman’s batting average to .299.  He’s still leading the team with 24 walks.  The Angels are 12-23 and are tied for the second-worst mark in the majors.

Last Week’s Heroes- Trea Turner hit .519 while scoring a team-high six runs.  Howie Kendrick hit .375 with a homer and five RBI and while Juan Soto is no longer hitting .400 he batted .346 with two homers and five RBI.  Adam Eaton was dropped in the batting order to sixth and drove in a team-high seven runs.  Max Scherzer struck out 11 over six innings while directing the Nats to their lone victory of the week.

Last Week’s Humbled- Austin Voth started twice last week and allowed 11 runs over 5.2 innings. Anibal Sanchez allowed five runs in five innings in his lone start, and Erick Fedde has become a human rain dance (his start last week was truncated due to mid-game rains while his start in Atlanta was rained out). Asdrubal Cabrera hit .143 while Luis Garcia batted .158.  Carter Kieboom was optioned to the training site after striking out 20 times in 64 at bats without an extra base hit.

Game to Watch- Wednesday Max Scherzer pitches against the Phillies;  if the Nats are going to find a way back into the playoff picture they’re going to need to climb over the Phillies.  And in a season where so many things are going wrong, Max Scherzer represents what can go right.

Game to Miss- Saturday the Nationals face NL East-leading Atlanta while Labor Day weekend offers a different distraction:  the Kentucky Derby was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns earlier this year and even thought they won’t be having fans at Churchill Downs, it’s the DERBY.  There may even be a Bus Captain decked out in madras jacket and breathable fedora enjoying a Manhattan or Mint Julep.  Plus, Erick Fedde is supposed to start and if there’s anything we’ve learned it’s that Fedde on the mound means a monsoon in the skies.

While Elvis made his movie debut with the bang of “Love Me Tender”, his final film ended his cinematic career with a whimper.  “Change of Habit” represented another departure with more a drama; it almost feels like a TV movie of the week in scope and production.  I’ve mentioned multiple times how it’s a shame Elvis didn’t try for quality of movies over quantity of paydays;  it’s also a shame he didn’t continue making films of this style in the 1970’s.  It would have also been nice if he had produced one “true” studio album a year in the 60’s instead of relying solely on his soundtrack material for releases; four top ten hits from 1969-70 prove that he only needed quality songs.

“Change of Habit”- March 12, 1969. 

Gross- $10.3 million adjusted for inflation, according to ultimatemovierankings.com, the 111th highest-grossing film of the year.  

IMDB Rating: 6.1 out of 10.

Rotten Tomatoes- 66% Audience Score. 

Role: John Carpenter, an inner-city doctor who you just know is going to break out in song.

“Three nuns walk into a clinic”…but this movie is far from a laugh a minute.  Mary Tyler Moore leads a trio of nuns who ditch their traditional gear from street clothing in their quest to aid the community; they feel the local residents might not seek the help of the Church.  There’s plenty of reluctance from an old-school priest, and they’re also harassed by loiterers.  But in the mix Dr. Carpenter and company deal with an autistic girl, a boy with a speech impediment, and a man beaten up by loan shark heavies.

Wouldn’t you know that Carpenter falls for Sister Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore), before finally learning that she’s a nun.  Of course she has feelings for him as well.  One of the other nuns comes head to head with the loan shark and the third protests the local store for discriminatory pricing.  Finally, Sister Michelle enters the church where Dr. Carpenter is singing “Let Us Pray”. She looks at John and then statues of Jesus Christ and then back at John.  We never know if she remains Sister Michelle or becomes Michelle Carpenter…

Who’s That Guy/Girl?  Not only was Mary Tyler Moore in this film, but her future TV co-star Ed Asner appears as “Lt. Moretti”-they share no scenes together here.  Soap opera fans will recognize Jane Elliot as “Sister Barbara”; the former “Guiding Light” and “Days of Our Lives” actress is still active in her signature daytime role of “Tracy Quartermaine” on “General Hospital”. 

You’ll Be Humming- “Rubberneckin'” smacks of the shot in the arm his TV Special gave his musical direction. Why couldn’t we have gotten more of these songs instead of “Do the Clam” and “Yoga is as Yoga Does”? 

Worth It? Prescription? Watch this one…

 

 

Elvis’ first movie was the semi-western “Love Me Tender” where he plays a Texan who welcomes his brothers home from the Civil War only to learn they are wanted by the law.  He would later portray a rodeo star twice, as well as revisit the old west multiple times. His final films have him out west and in the past; for some reason contemporary Elvis wasn’t working as well (see the box office receipts from “Live a Little, Love a Little” and “Clambake”).  His stage presence seems to translate better to the western on location or on the open soundstage as opposed to the closed sets of his other films.  But by 1969, he had shot his Christmas Special and was moving on from his movie persona into the “Vegas Jumpsuit Elvis Era”, for better and for worse (as we’d see by 1977 it was mostly worse).

 

“Charro”- March 12, 1969. 

Gross- $1.5 million (according to Variety), the 58th highest-grossing film of the year according to ultimatemovierankings.com, $25.2 million adjusted for inflation.  

IMDB Rating: 5.7 out of 10.

Rotten Tomatoes- 56% Audience Score. 

Role: Jess Wade, an outlaw who sings but only during the title sequence. 

Elvis ditches the race car and musical instruments while growing a beard in the old west.  He’s a reformed outlaw kidnapped by his old gang who have stolen a gold-plated cannon used by Emperor Maximilian.  Gangleader “Vince” (Victor French) intends to sell the gun while setting up “Jess” for the blame.  Now a wanted man he has to resolve the situation with the Mexican government and US Cavalry breathing down his neck.  And sadly, he has no songs he can spontaneously start singing to defuse the situation.   There’s a shootout and much more.  Will this end like “Flaming Star” and “Love Me Tender”, two other Elvis movies that took place in Texas?

Who’s That Guy?  Victor French (“Vince Hackett”) would go on to appear on “Little House of the Prairie” and “Highway to Heaven”, while James B. Sikking (“Gunner”) would star on “Hill Street Blues” and “Doogie Howser, MD”. 

You’ll Be Humming- the title song is perhaps the best Elvis has done since…….Viva Las Vegas?

Worth It? Saddle up!  It’s a shame Elvis couldn’t have made a movie every other year in the 70’s like this one. 

 

“The Trouble With Girls (and how to get into it)– September 10, 1969.

Gross- $17.6 million adjusted for inflation according to ultimatemovierankings.com, the  78th highest-grossing film of the year.  

IMDB Rating: 5.5 out of 10.

Rotten Tomatoes- 54% Audience Score. 

Role: Walter Hale, manager of the traveling Chatauqua company in 1927.  

The traveling Chautaqua company arrives in a small Iowa town in 1927, but the new manager “Walter” is trying to prevent the performers from unionizing.  The town also has its issues, with the local pharmacist “Wilby” (Dabney Coleman) murdered.  Can Walter solve the case while keeping his performers together?

Who’s That Girl/Guy?  Vincent Price plays “Mr. Morality” while baseball hall of famer Duke Snyder portrays “The Cranker”. Nicole Jaffe (“Betty”) and Frank Welker (“Rutgers College kid”) would be more familiar to fans of “Scooby Doo”, Welker voicing Fred and Jaffe voicing Velma. ZOIKS!!

You’ll Be Humming- “Clean up Your own Backyard” has the feel of an Elvis who wants to get back to performing live.

Worth It?  This is so off-brand it’s almost an anti-Elvis movie.  The few songs he sings aren’t that great and one doesn’t know what sort of film this is until one is way into it.  Skip it.

 

 

 

It was the classic case of “too little too late”.  Elvis for his final four movies departed from the formula that had been done to death, appearing in four films that showcased a somewhat different Presley:  the romantic comedy had a little more of an adult twist, the western carried a little more gravitas, the period piece had more authenticity, and an inner-city drama offered up more realism.

This semi-screwball comedy works for me on multiple levels and is much better than the Speedway/Spinout/Clambake fare.  But unfortunately most people weren’t going out of their way to see Elvis in movies by now and those who had stuck around weren’t pleased with the sudden change in tone.  So the well went dry as his final four films averaged $18 million dollars adjusted for inflation compared to the previous six which averaged $37 million.  It’s a shame he hadn’t tweaked his movies’ style and standards before it was too late to get out of the spiral.

 

“Live a Little, Love a Little”- October 23, 1968. 

Gross- $18.9 million adjusted for inflation, according to ultimatemovierankings.com, the 103rd highest-grossing film of the year. 

IMDB Rating: 5.9 out of 10.

Rotten Tomatoes- 65% Audience Score. 

Role: Greg Nolan, a photographer who sings in between photo sessions.

Greg begins the film by driving his dune buggy on the beach and you wonder which race he’ll be entered in by the one hour mark.  Only this time he’s a newspaper photographer.  He runs into a semi-mysterious woman on the beach named “Bernice” (Michele Carey). Only she introduces herself to Greg as “Alice” while being known to the milkman as “Betty” and the grocery delivery boy as “Susie”.

Greg loses his job and winds up in the middle of a crazy dream.  He finds a new apartment but in order to pay for it he has to hold down two full-time jobs:  one for a conservative advertising agency and the other for a Playboyesque magazine.  Both are in the same building so he’s able to to juggle both somewhat. I’ll let you guess whether or not he can juggle Bernice, Alice, Betty, and Susie.

Who’s That Girl/Guy?  You’ll recognize Harry, played by Dick Sargent from TV’s “Bewitched”.  You’ll recognize the voice of the milkman, Sterling Hollaway, who was behind Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh” and a slew of other animated characters. 

You’ll Be Humming- “The Edge of Reality” begins with a talking dog, continues with changing colors, and returns with a stuffed animal. 

Worth It? After the steady diet of ex-military men who drove race cars, it’s nice to see Elvis expand his range.  I’m also a sucker for Michele Carey as his romantic interest.  If I stumble upon this during an Elvis movie marathon, I’m all in. Edge of reality, indeed.

The Elvis movie color-by-numbers train stops during the summer of 1968.  He’d still make four more films but his cookie-cutter scripts would be a thing of the past.  So while America is dealing with assassinations at home and an unpopular war abroad, while the Beatles and Rolling Stones were putting together landmark albums, and while the James Bond series was going with an unknown Australian as 007, Presley was collecting paychecks and treading water through his cinema obligations.

 

“Stay Away, Joe“- March 8, 1968,

Gross- $1.5 million (according to Variety), the 73rd highest-grossing film of the year according to ultimatemovierankings.com, $29.8 million adjusted for inflation.  

IMDB Rating: 4.9 out of 10.

Rotten Tomatoes- 43% Audience Score. 

Role: Joe Lightcloud, a Native American rodeo rider who sings when he’s not living up to stereotypes. 

Joe wants to return to the reservation and raise cattle.  He lobbies his local Congressman for 20 heifers and a prize bull, but his friend accidentally barbecues the bull.  Lightcloud is able to borrow a bull while chasing the daughter of a shotgun-toting tavern owner.  In order to raise money, Joe organizes a bull-riding contest that he winds up winning to raise money.  There’s a fight that finishes the film.

Who’s That Guy/Girl? Burgess Meredith (“Mickey” from the Rocky series) plays Joe’s father Charlie. Katy Jurado plays his mother.  You might recognize her from appearing in Westerns like “High Noon” and “One-Eyed Jacks”.

You’ll Be Humming- “All I Needed was the Rain” works in a way many other songs in his films do not.   

Worth It?  Stay away from this one. 

 

“Speedway”, June 12, 1968. 

Gross- $2 million (according to Variety), the 52nd highest-grossing film of the year according to ultimatemovierankings.com, $36.2 million adjusted for inflation.  

IMDB Rating: 5.7 out of 10.

Rotten Tomatoes- 52% Audience Score. 

Role: Steve Grayson, NASCAR’S most generous driver with vocal chords to match.

Steve’s manager (played by Bill Bixby, who’s back for another go after “Clambake”) has a gambling problem and that brings in an IRS agent “Susan Jacks” (Nancy Sinatra).  She takes an interest in more than just his finances. Can he raise the necessary $145,000 he owes ($1.1 million in today’s money)?  And will he be able to claim Susan as a deduction?  Screenwriters, start your formulaic cliches!

Who’s That Girl/Guy?  Gale Gordon appears as “R.P. Hepworth”; he was the second “Mr. Wilson” on TV’s “Dennis the Menace” and was in multiple sit-coms with Lucille Ball.  William Schallert portrays “Abel Esterlake”; he also starred on the “Patty Duke Show” and appeared in everything from “Star Trek” to “The Wild, Wild, West”.

You’ll Be Humming- “Let Yourself Go”. Along with your viewing standards and expectations.

Worth It?  Turn off the ignition.  The Elvis movie engine is running on fumes.