Day: August 11, 2010

Bicycle Kick Sweeper: English Premier League 2010-11 Season Preview

This week the English Premier League will start play for the 2010-11 season. Will Chelsea repeat as champs? Will Manchester United return to the top? How far will the fall for Liverpool be? Can Newcastle finish in the top half? So many questions will be answered.

First, you know what’s coming…

Music to Listen to: Champagne Supernova by Oasis

This will be an interesting year for the EPL as well because several other leagues may catch up to what has been considered my most the top domestic league in the world.

First, with Spain’s capture of the 2010 World Cup using a majority of players (OK, mainly Barcelona and Real Madrid) who play for club teams in Spain, La Liga can make a major push to the EPL, especially when you consider that at least two major players who I’ll touch on in the preview will probably be on Spanish teams next season and will be devastating losses for their EPL teams.

Next, Serie A, Italy’s top domestic league, and the Bundesliga aren’t at Spain’s level yet but have the chance to put a dent in the EPL. Italian domestic teams, outside of Juventus, are slowly emerging from the gambling scandal that rocked the core of Serie A the past few years. Inter’s run to the Champions League final shows this. As for the Bundesliga, taking a cue from the German national team, the teams in the league have found a way to play an open style that is attractive to foreigners as well as learned fiscal responsibility that the EPL owners haven’t. Germany arguably has the best squad of players 25 years and under and nearly all of them play in their home country. Of course the top Spanish and English teams are going to but these players but for now, the Bundesliga is looking up.

Finally, the financial debts of the top teams can’t be understated. When United is in the red with its revenue stream, you know there are major problems. Chelsea is actually having to sell players. Arsenal will operate on an even smaller budget than normal. Liverpool is in an ownership and debt quagmire that will take another three posts to fully analyze, just know that they will not be taking on major players in the near future. Outside of Manchester City who has benefited from a rich new owner, everyone else will struggle with their books.

OK, on to the predictions and quick thoughts on each team:

1) Chelsea: They may be even better this year than last. The dropping of dead weight in Michael Ballack and Joe Cole will be welcomed. You do have to worry about John Terry’s regression in form. The only issue is that two out of their three most valuable players, Drogba and Michael Essien are returning from injuries that may cause them to have a slow start. However, if those two players return to form along with the arrival of Ramires, an FA Cup and league title aren’t outside of reach.

2) Manchester United: The loss of Ronaldo to Real Madrid may have made for a steadier locker room but his contributions were missed on the pitch. Rooney may have had one of his most productive years but the lack of a catalyst for him hurt. When Carlos Teves was shipped across town to Manchester City, Dimitar Berbatov was supposed to pick up the slack but that didn’t happen. The team still has an old feel with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, who while may act ageless at times, have to slow down at some point. The defense will be an issue with the inconsistent van der Sar at goal and a hobbled and less affective Rio Ferdinand. I like the addition of Javier Hernandez but is that too much pressure on the Mexican? United can still win the title but I don’t see them surpassing Chelsea.

3) Manchester City: Was torn between City and Arsenal. The addition of Yaya Toure and Jerome Boateng should help a back line that struggled last season. With Tevez, Adebayor and maybe even Robinho back from Brazil, scoring shouldn’t be an issue.

4) Arsenal: This may be the changing of the guard for the Gunners this season. Arsene Wenger is in the final year of his deal and Cesc Fabregas maybe finally making his way out to Spain as well. The lack of competent goalkeeping and back line work will ultimate doom the team against the top three squads. Also, the lack of scoring constantly in big games will hurt as well. Its nice to win 5-1 against Everton but losing 3-2 at Chelsea does even more damage.

5) Tottenham: The lack of activity during the offseason has to be a concern. I trust in Harry Redknapp but with the additional fixtures on the schedule, injuries should be a major concern.

6) Liverpool: Hard times for this team. It’s manager, Rafa Benitez, is out, and the two most valuable players, Steven Gerrard and especially Fernando Torres are probably gone after this season as well. Both guys say they want to stick around but may be sold anyway to keep up finances.

Here’s the rest of my predictions:

7) Fulham

8) Everton

9) Aston Villa

10) Sunderland

11) Bolton

12) Birmingham City

13) Stoke City

14) Blackburn

15) Newcastle

16) West Ham

17) Wolverhampton

18) Wigan

19) West Brom

20) Blackpool

What are your thoughts on the upcoming EPL season?

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Gridiron Blitz: New England Patriots

The next team up on our Gridiron Blitz is the New England Patriots

Music to listen to: Kings and Queens Aerosmith

 

Boston has an excellent music tradition with acts such as New Edition, etc. But my first thought was on Aerosmith, who along with Metallica and Alice in Chains in the early 1990’s shaped my interest in rock music. So for that, they make the cut.

Current State: Won the AFC East with a record of 10-6 but were soundly beaten in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, at home, by Baltimore, 33-14. Certainly not the way that the proud franchise wanted to end its season.

It’s been five years since the Pats have won the Super Bowl and their dynasty era has clearly come to an end.

Biggest Change: The franchise didn’t make any major changes besides signing nose tackle Vince Wilfork who I will get to in the preview of the defense. The true big chance has been the cleaning out of the core players from its run of three Super Bowls in four years continues to take place. From the departures of Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel as players last year to former general manager Scott Pioli to Kansas City, the only remnants of those championship teams are quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft. Furthermore, there may be tension between all three of them, more on that later.

Uniform Grade: The unis are solid, nothing overwhelming about them. I actually liked the throwback red jerseys the Patriots wore last season to celebrate their AFL history

Grade: B

Best Player: You can make a case for Brady or Randy Moss but when in that situation, you always side with the quarterback. This is an interesting year in Brady’s legacy. He’s two years removed from his severe knee injury, meaning that this should be the time he begins to feel like his old self. Speaking of old, he’s now over 30, which if you look at the history of elite quarterbacks is the time when their skills begin to erode. The Patriots are fully aware of this and have let Brady get to this point, the last year of his contract. All parties from Brady to the coaches to ownership are saying the right things but making the quarterback play without an extension is risky but fiscally feasible. Hence the potential tension.

Most Important Player: Brady is an easy choice. I could make a case for Wes Welker but I need to see him in game action since he’s recovering from his own severe injury. The defense was the squad that really let the Patriots down in their playoff game against the Ravens so I’ll go with their best defensive player, Jarod Mayo. If the Patriots hope to return to the Super Bowl, the defense has to improve greatly.

Best Case: Brady returns to his elite form, Welker recovers from his knee injury, Moss catches 10+ touchdowns, the defense gets it act together and win the AFC East. Parlay that all the way to an AFC title but loses in the Super Bowl.

Worst Case: Brady shows his age, Welker is still hobbled, the defense struggles to return to its elite form, finish second in the AFC East to the New York Jets, barely make the playoffs and lose in the wild card round.

Coaching: Say what you want about Belichick but he’s still arguably the best head coach in the NFL. However, you have to be concerned if you’re a fan of the overwhelming power that he currently has over the entire organization.

While there is an official director of player personnel, Nick Caserio, it is assumed that Belichick handles all of the general manager-related roster decisions. When Josh McDaniels left prior to last season to become the head coach of the Denver Broncos, the play calling duties on offense went to the quarterbacks coach, Bill O’Brien, but the lack of checks and balances that existed under McDaniels and Charlie Weis in the past doesn’t exist anymore. While Belichick has been rightfully credited for his defensive mind, the decision to not hire a defensive coordinator and take a more active role on that side of the ball may spread him too thin. If anyone can pull off the coaching situation, its Belichick but this may be an issue during the season.

First Memory of team: I really don’t have too many early memories of the team accept for when Bill Parcells was named the head coach. Growing up as a New York Giants fan, Parcells was my favorite coach in any sport and when he “retired” the first time from the NFL, it was fine. He even did some television work and it was nice to see him every Sunday. Than, he went to the Patriots, which wasn’t frustrating in so much as surprising. I didn’t understand at the time the desire that coaches have to be on the field doing what they feel pre-destined to do. The Patriots at the time were one the of the worst franchises in the NFL but when he took them to the Super Bowl in 1996, it didn’t surprise me at all.

Schedule: They have arguably a top-five tough schedule in the entire NFL. Within the division the Pats will have to face the Jets, Dolphins and Bills. While they may go 4-2 in those games, the times of getting five or six wins from that lot are over.

For home games, they have to host Cincinnati, Baltimore, Minnesota, Indianapolis and Green Bay, all playoff contenders for this year. On the road, the games include visits to San Diego, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Chicago. Those are all tough games. The only victories you can pencil in are Cleveland and Detroit

City Nicknames: Beantown, The Hub of the Universe, The Cradle of Liberty, The Cradle of Modern America, The Athens of America and The Walking City.

Overall Outlook: While the era of being the best team in the NFL are over, I still think they have enough juice to compete for the AFC East. The offense will be fine but the assumption that the defense will be fine is not accurate. The Pats have the potential to be an AFC contender but the brutal schedule will cause major problems.

Final Record: 9-7

Gridiron Blitz NFL Season Previews:

AFC East:

Buffalo Bills

Triple Option Attack: #24 South Carolina

Next up on the Triple Option Attack is #24 South Carolina

Music to listen to: Time by Hootie and the Blowfish

Mixed emotions on Hootie. I liked the band when it first came out but the music got overplayed constantly and I turned sour on the group. Than the interest in the group died down and I started liking them again. Now Darius Rucker has a solid solo country music career and I like his stuff as well. What this all means is that Hootie and the Blowfish get some respect and have the honor of representing the musical exploits of South Carolina.

The Story: Some may consider Steve Spurrier’s five years at South Carolina unsuccessful because his squad has never finished a season with more than seven wins. However, when you consider that prior to his arrival, the Gamecocks only had 10 winning seasons since 1980, the scale of “success” has to be different for Spurrier at South Carolina than at Florida.

Shoot, in the entire history of the program which dates back to 1892, the Gamecocks has only had SEVEN seasons when they have won eight or more games and only one ten-win season.

This may be the first season in his tenure that you can say that on paper they may be the second-best team in the SEC East and if they can beat Florida in Gainesville, maybe a trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game isn’t completely out of reach.

Last Season: Finished the year 7-6, including a 20-7 loss to Connecticut in the PapaJohns.com Bowl.

The Offense: The Gamecocks haven’t had a 1,000 yard rusher in ten years and combined with the inconsistency of the quarterback position, the offensive flow has been a major problem for the team. The good news is that up to nine starters are returning to the squad. The bad news is that Stephen Garcia is one of them. His poor decision making on and off the field have been a major hindrance for South Carolina. However maybe the maturity of the upperclassmen will finally come through because if Garcia grows, than the Gamecocks have a chance to be an above-average team. The offense does get major help from true freshman Marcus Lattimore, who was considered by various news publications at the top high school running back in the nation last year. If he can make a major contribution to the squad running behind four returning starters on the offensive line, good things may be in line.

The Defense: Surprisingly to most casual fans, the defensive unit of the Gamecocks has been the more consistent unit for South Carolina in the Spurrier regime. Seven starters return to the squad, including potential All-Conference performer Cliff Matthews, the star senior defensive end for the team. The linebackers will miss the leadership of graduated Eric Norwood, a multiple All-SEC performer, team record-setter and arguably the top defensive player ever in the schools history. The secondary will be anchored by Stephen Gilmore and Chris Culliver.

The Schedule:

9-2-10 SOUTHERN MISS (Thur.)
9-11-10 GEORGIA
9-18-10 FURMAN
9-25-10 at Auburn
10-9-10 ALABAMA
10-16-10 at Kentucky
10-23-10 at Vanderbilt
10-30-10 TENNESSEE
11-6-10 ARKANSAS
11-13-10 at Florida
11-20-10 TROY
11-27-10 at Clemson

The Gamecocks have their first three games at home but can easily start the season 1-2. They open with a pesky and potential national top-30 team in the first official game of the college football season. While the Golden Eagles shouldn’t be overlooked, everyone will be looking at the week two game against Georgia as the true litmus test for South Carolina. If USC is able to get the win over the Bulldogs, momentum may carry them to a 4-0 record before hosting Alabama. However, the week for the Alabama game, the Gamecocks will have to travel to Auburn against an improved Tigers’ team. The good news is that they should be considered favorites against Vandy, Kentucky, Tennessee and maybe even Arkansas at home before heading to Florida in what they hope will be a battle for the SEC East. The season ender at Clemson over Thanksgiving weekend is always an imperative win for South Carolina.

Most Famous Sports Alum: I tend to side towards the older alums in this category so lets take Sterling Sharpe, the former Pro Bowl receiver for the Green Bay Packers and television analyst.

 

Celebrity Crush Alum: I’m going to say Leeza Gibbons in a small upset. I looked at the list of alums and she won the battle.

Prediction: 9-3

I think that South Carolina will win its game against Georgia but will suffer two defeats in a row at Auburn and hosting Alabama. The next loss will be at Florida but will gain a victory over Clemson on the road. That should be considered an excellent season for the Gamecocks but a trip to Atlanta will not happen.

Sports Inquirer Top-25 Preseason College Football Poll:

#25 West Virginia