Sunday, October 31, 2010

Found (At Least for One Night): The Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins beat the Carolina Hurricane 3-0 Saturday night, playing by far their best game of the season. It wasn't perfect by any means, but it was the really solid team effort that hasn't been seen very often this season. Before getting too excited it is worth noting that the Hurricane play a wide open style, taking and giving up a lot of shots, rarely forechecking and, as far as I could tell, not tracking anyone in their own zone. But whether it was the ten minute players-only meeting after Friday's home loss or something else, every guy in the lineup contributed to this win.

Brent Johnson can't make a stronger case for getting more playing time. There is no question he is the better option in goal at the moment as he posted his fourteenth career shutout and first as a Penguin. Carolina missed an open net early in the third period which would have cut the Pens lead to 2-1, but Johnson was excellent throughout and looked sharp in turning away all 33 shots he faced. He lowered his GAA to 1.16 and his save percentage stands at .960, both second best in the league. It's also worth nothing that in posting his 5-0-1 record Johnson has made five of his six starts on the road.

Evgeni Malkin was out and Kris Letang left early in the second period with a hand injury so the Penguins were playing a bit shorthanded, but they responded with a great commitment to defense and killed seven penalties, including an extended 5-on-3 early in the third period. Pascal Dupuis scored twice and Max Talbot got his second of the season as the Pens broke a three game winless streak.

With Jordan Staal and Zbynek Michalek expected back Wednesday when the Pens begin a three game swing west, it will be interesting to see who Dan Bylsma decides to sit. Assuming Malkin is healthy, Eric Godard will sit and the other forward joining him in the press box will most likely be Tyler Kennedy or Mike Comrie. Both performed as if they knew that last night, playing some of their best hockey of the season in hopes of keeping their spot in the lineup. Ben Lovejoy and Derek Engelland will probably alternate as the sixth defenseman for the time being.

Expectations are extraordinarily high for this team. With the full roster available Wednesday for the first time all season (assuming Malkin and Letang can go), it will be interesting to see if the win in Carolina jump starts them and those expectations start being realized on a nightly basis.

NFL Week 8. Let's Ring the Register

Week 8 in the NFL and we are starting to figure out what is what.  This is the heart of the schedule and Vegas feels like they have a beat on every team. Injuries are more important than ever when setting lines and quarterback play seems to be the key to every game. The goal is to be above 60% for the year, and we are 11-7 in the NFL to date for a 61% mark.  A good 7-3 day in the college games yesterday took us to 26-18, 59%, back on track. Let's ring the register with some good value plays today.

Dallas -6.5 vs. Jacksonville
Ding, ding, ding. This is a five star ***** pick. Get involved in a big way. Jon Kitna isn't Tony Romo, but Dallas will move the ball on the ground and I look for their defense to come up big against a banged up David Garrard. I haven't liked a play this much since the Steelers were -3 in Tampa in week 3. Mortgage money.

New York Jets -6 vs. Green Bay
The Jets have covered their last five and twelve of their last fifteen. Everyone knows Green Bay is banged up and I'm shocked Vegas didn't give them at least a touchdown. LT is having a great season and is one of the feel good stories of the year. Look for him to hit paydirt twice more this week and the Jets to cover this one at home.

I don't see much else that looks great. My leans, but not plays would be Miami +1 at Cincinnati and San Diego -4.5 vs. Tennessee.  Happy Halloween!

UPDATE: Wow. I guess if you are going to be wrong, you might as well get smoked. Who would have believed the football season would end before the baseball season in Dallas? What an embarrassment.

Friday, October 29, 2010

College Picks, Week 9

We had two winners last week with Clemson and Michigan St., which got an unbelivable backdoor cover, putting the blog at 19-15 on the season. That's not great after a hot start, but we're still on the positive side of the ledger. Let's see if we can't take a piece out Saturday and make Halloween a little more spirited.

West Virginia -5 at Connecticut
Let's kick it off with the Friday night game. Both teams looked terrible last week. West Virginia lost 19-14 at home to Syracuse and Connecticut got smoked 26-0 at Louisville. Connecticut is 3-0 at home and West Virginia has only had to go on the road twice so far this year, but WVU is much more talented. Jordan Todman is a good back but Connecticut has been outrushed by an average of over 200 yds/game when playing WVU the last five years. Look for Geno Smith to rebound and WVU to cover.

The Wake Forest/Duke Daily Double
We made some jack early in the season getting against the terrible defenses of both Wake Forest and Duke before getting a bit of a comeuppance when they both lost but narrowly covered. We are back against them this week.

Maryland -5.5 vs. Wake Forest
Wake is 2-9 ATS in their last 11 road games and 2-9 ATS in their last 11 meetings with Maryland. Throw in the fact that they've lost five in a row and they suck and I don't see any reason to buck the trend.

Navy -12.5 vs. Duke
When you attend one of the service academies I think they focus on not having letdowns. "Hey guys, nice battle, sunk a few ships, did well. Take it easy on the next one and save it up in case we have a big one." I'm pretty sure that's not how it works in war and it won't happen this week after Navy crushed Notre Dame. If Navy wins out they'll be in the top 20. They get Duke at home and the midshipmen will want to put on a show for their classmates after being in NYC last week.

Texas A&M -7.5 vs. Texas Tech
A&M seems to have it finally figured out and the sharps agree having moved the line 2 points from the open already. I'm not a buyer of Tech and I think the sharps are all over this one. Go Aggies.

It's Friday night 6:30. I'll try to get write-ups on the following games up by noon tomorrow, but I like the following,

Ohio St. -25 at Minnesota (national tv on the east coast Sat night);  Miami -14.5 vs. Virginia (blowout);  Oklahoma -23.5 vs. Colorado (Sooners are dominant at home)

Considering: Pitt -9.5 vs. Louisville;  Hawaii -15 vs. Idaho;  Nebraska -7.5 vs. Missouri

Steelers-Saints Halloween Showdown

*With the Steelers holding a roster spot open for the injured Aaron Smith expect them to cut a player Saturday morning in order to active DL Steve McLendon from the practice squad. With so many rookies playing well on special teams I'm guessing Anthony Madison will be the guy. It will be interesting to see if they re-sign Madison on Monday and move McLendon back to the practice squad and continue that practice in the weeks ahead. Either way Smith's injury could end up costing Madison a lot of jack.

*Trai Essex was back at practice Thursday and will return as the starting right guard in place of Doug Legursky.

*Lamar Woodley and Flozell Adams looked relatively full speed on Thursday and I expect them to go Sunday.

*I don't know if Brett Keisel had a setback or if the Steelers were too optimistic early in the week, but he didn't practice Thursday or Friday and will not dress for the second straight week.

*Saints starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter both returned to practice in a limited fashion on Thursday. This will be one of the keys to the game. Porter hasn't played since week four because of a sprained MCL. The Saints secondary has held up without these two, but they've really only faced one solid passing offense this season. Look for Arians to test the Saints secondary early and often.

*Neither Saints RB Reggie Bush nor RB Pierre Thomas is expected to play Sunday night. Bush is still recovering from a broken leg and Thomas is in a walking boot while he recovers from a sprained left ankle.

*The Browns hit on three gadet plays last week against the Saints. Those three plays accounted for 143 of 210 total yards for the Browns. Drew Brees threw four interceptions, two for touchdowns.

*The Saints have eight receivers with ten or more receptions. They like to run a lot of seam routes and crossing routes and are one of the best teams in the league in YAC. The Steelers have brought less pressure the last few weeks. I expect that to change this week with Dick Lebeau showing Brees a lot of different looks and bringing pressure from a variety of areas.

*2009 first round draft pick Ziggy Hood is likely to get his first career start this week in place of Smith at left DE.

*Saints safety Darren Sharper was a teammate of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin at William and Mary.

MY TAKE: The Steelers will be the more physical team on both sides of the ball, but this game will hinge on the pressure the Steeler defense is able to bring on Saints quarterback Drew Brees. I expect the Steelers offense to move the ball effectively and if they are able to continue to score touchdowns they will have a good chance to win. Look for this game to play out much like last week's game against Miami. The Saints will get their yards through the air, but if the defense can hurry Brees, jam the crossing routes and continue to play stout against the run this is a winnable game. I see the Steelers holding the Saints to 20 and that should be enough. Pittsburgh 24 New Orleans 20.

The Penguins After Ten Games: Part II, The Defenseman

This offseason general manager Ray Shero had quite a few personnel decisions to make. The big one hinged around star defenseman Sergei Gonchar who had just completed the final season of a five-year, $25 million contract. After a tough first season Gonch more than lived up to his contract, helping the Penguins to two Stanley Cup Finals. Negotiations were protracted, but at the end of the day Gonchar's desire for a third year proved insurmountable for the Penguins and on July 1st the thirty-six year old defenseman was the first free agent to change teams, inking a three-year, $16.5 million deal with the Ottawa Senators. With Justin Leopold (Buffalo), Mark Eaton (Islanders) and Jay McKee (currently out of the league) also leaving the Pens, Shero had work to do and he didn't waste any time. He signed both Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek to big long-term deals. Here's a look at how those two and the rest of the defensive corps have done through the Penguins first ten games. (Part I is here.)

The 6'1", 200 lbs., left-hand shooting Paul Martin has stepped in seamlessly as part of one of Penguins' top two defensive pairings, generally with the right-handed shooting Kris Letang. Martin's slick stick-handling and great tape-to-tape break out passes are a perfect fit for Coach Dan Bylsma's system. While not overly physical in his own end, Martin's defensive skills are probably underrated. His great stick work and skating ability mean he is rarely out of position. I'm not ready to say Martin is better than Gonchar because of Gonch's big shot, but it's close and Martin has contributed seven points through ten games similar to Sarge's historical numbers as a Penguin. The early returns are very good although he's a -3 in his last two games. Grade: B+

Kris Letang appears to be having a break out year in this, his fourth full season in the league. He's third among all defensemen in points with nine and in +/- at +7. He has looked good quarterbacking the power play from the left point. He's always had a dangerous wrister and his slapshot seems improved. Letang has also looked very solid in his own end while logging more than twenty minutes of ice time a night. He's only been called for one minor penalty through ten games. He is developing into one of the best offensive d-men in the league and is under the Penguins control through 2014 season at a very reasonable $3.5 million/year. Grade: A

Brooks Orpik and Zybnek Michalek were supposed to be the Penguins shutdown defensive pairing but they've only been on the ice for two games together. Orpik is back and appears to have recovered from the abdominal injuries that have plagued him since the middle of last year. Unfortunately the Pens are 0-3-1 in his four games. Michalek is due back soon from a shoulder injury after only playing two-plus games to start the season. The Pens will be relying heavily on both these guys to contain the other team's top lines going forward and they will absolutely be a key to any playoff success the team has. Grade: Incomplete

Alex Goligoski is an American. Really. The twenty-five year old was born in Grand Rapids, MN (that's Minnesota, not Michigan) and that means four of the Pens top six d-men are Americans. I'm guessing it's the first time in Penguin history that has been the case. Like Letang, Gogo has had a great start to the season registering seven points and a +6 through ten games, while leading the Pens in ice time virtually every night.  Goligoski has also taken on a much bigger role on the power play and his skating ability and excellent shot make him a natural in that spot. Gogo isn't big, but like Letang he has taken advantage of Bylsma's system to move the puck quickly out of his own end. Grade: A

Ben Lovejoy, Deryk Engelland and Andrew Hutchinson have generally made up the team's third pairing. Both Lovejoy and Engelland have played nine games and are averaging about fifteen minutes of ice time a night. Both are stay at home defenseman who aren't expected to contribute a lot of points. Generally I think Lovejoy has been a small disappointment and Engelland has been a slight surprise. Hutchinson, a very savy depth signing by Shero in the offseason, played adequately in his five appearances before being sent back down this week. The biggest thing we have learned about these three in the first ten games is that only Lovejoy has a chance to be part of the Pens' plans next year and that is tenuous at best. At 26, he is the youngest, but he hasn't blossomed like the team had hoped. With Brian Strait, Carl Sneep and Robert Bortuzzo developing in Wilkes-Barre, and Simon Despres sure to be part of next year's team, Lovejoy and Engelland need to continue to do the job in their own end to keep their roster spots. They have been adequate thus far, but the Penguins have cheap young talent that will press them for playing time later in the year. Grade: Lovejoy C, Engelland B-, Hutchinson C

Overall the defense has played well. They have given up a few too many odd man rushes, but they have moved the puck well out of their own end and contributed in a big way in the offensive end. Having Michalek and Orpik back should add stability and give the group a real opportunity to mesh as we move into the heart of the season. A solid performance thus far.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pens Unveil New Winter Classic Jerseys

I realize marketing is the name of the game, but I really don't know why the Penguins feel such a need to get away from the Baby Blues. Here is a look at the new jersey they will be wearing when they play the Caps in the Winter Classic on January 1st. It looks a little better as a full uniform as you can see in the picture above. The uniform will also be worn two other times this year, Feb 10 vs. Los Angeles and March 12 vs. Montreal.

The Penguins After Ten Games: Part I, The Goalies

The Penguins blew a 3-1 lead to the Tampa Bay Lightning last night and lost 5-3. After ten games they have a record of 5-4-1 and 11 points. Over the next three days I'll break down their performance through the first ten by position.

You've heard me argue countless times that a goalie in hockey has more impact on a sporting event than any other player. The Penguins are exhibit A. They have had one goalie playing spectacularly well and one who has been bad. The problem is it's the cheap backup that's been great and the franchise goalie that has been borderline terrible.

Marc-Andre Fleury is making $5 million this year and is signed through 2014. He's 25, he's won a Stanley Cup and he has taken the Penguins to the finals another time. But, Fleury had a bad second half last year and was terrible in the second round playoff loss to the Canadiens. This year, believe it or not he's been worse. Of goalies who have started at least four games he ranks 34th out of 37 in goals against average at 3.41 and his save percentage of .861 is 36th. Fleury has given up at least three goals in each of his five starts, his record stands at 1-4 and he has given up a goal in the first six minutes of his last three starts, the first shot in his last two. More importantly, MAF has rarely come up with the big save, something he did repeatedly during the team's run to the Cup. While he hasn't been responsible for many of the goals he's given up, he isn't making any key saves at key moments and he's given up some soft ones, particularly in game two against Montreal, that have cost his team the game.

The season is too long and the Penguins have too much invested in Fleury to relegate him to the bench, but at the moment he hasn't earned his ice time. With 72 games left I have no problem with Bylsma sitting Fleury for an extended period, or at least until the other guy cools off.

The other guy is "backup" Brent Johnson. The Penguins signed Johnson before the 2009-10 season and he performed admirably filling in for Fleury last year. He appeared in 23 games and posted a 10-6-1 record with a 2.76 GAA and .906 save percentage. In the offseason the Penguins signed Johnson to a new, below-market two-year deal at $600,000/year. Johnson liked being in Pittsburgh and at age 33 liked the security of the two year deal. He knew his role, proved more than capable of playing well while only playing sporadically and was excellent in the locker room. It was a good fit for both sides.

At the moment Johnson's contract is proving to be the biggest bargain in hockey. In his five starts he's 4-0-1 with a 1.39 GAA (2nd in the league)  and a .951 save percentage (3rd). He has yet to give up more than two goals in any game and the only blemish on his record is a 1-0 overtime loss at St. Louis his last time out. Four of his five starts have come on the road and three of his seven goals against have come during the opposing team's power play.

The rap against Johnson is that he isn't an everyday goalie. He has really only been a number one in one of his eleven NHL seasons and that was back in 2001-2002 with the St. Louis Blues. That was also the only season he's appeared in more than 40 games. Johnson style is a little more upright than Fleury and at 6' 3" he covers a lot of the net. He squares up exceptionally well to the shooter and he rarely finds himself scrambling to get back into position as we have seen so often with MAF the past two years. He certainly has earned his ice time.

There is no question who the Penguins' better goalie is at the moment. The concern of the coaching staff and front office has to be how to get Fleury back up to the high level of play that he demonstrated two years ago. In the meantime it's time for him to take a back seat to one of the hottest goalies in the league. There is plenty of time to have Fleury work on his game and get him ready by the playoffs. In the meantime the Penguins owe it to Johnson and the eighteen skaters in front of him to put him out there starting tomorrow night at home against the Flyers. If Johnson and the Pens win that one Bylsma should bring him right back at Carolina Saturday night.

Marc-Andre Fleury: F
Brent Johnson: A

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Sorry for the late post, I'll keep it brief. I've repeatedly told you I don't look to bet on the Steelers and I've done it every week.  The Devil you know. Ben coming back, Colt McCoy taking his first snaps as a pro. 14 is probably a good line, but Ben will stay in this game and take all the reps and the Steelers will remember the beating they took last December at the hands of the Browns. Lay the points. In other games, the Chargers -8, the Saints -4.5 and the Pack -3. Good luck.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Back to School, Week 7.

In shocking news Sports Illustrated ran a tell all cover story this week in which former agent Josh Luchs reveals that he paid college football players and it is a very common practice. In other news, the earth is round. The article was interesting because it goes into great detail about the practice and names names, but really, the thing that surprised me was how little these guys were and are getting paid. Usually the amounts were about $500 a month. It's worth the read and worth seeing which players copped to the truth when contacted by SI and which denied it. That, and who declined the money are the more interesting story lines in my opinion.

We had our first losing week last week going 4-5, putting the blog at 14-11 on the college season. Auburn should have taken care of business at Kentucky but settled for a late FG to win by 3 when they were laying 6.5. Baylor had a chance, but a porous secondary and terrible end-of-game clock management undid them. We'll look to do better this week.

Florida St. -21.5 vs. Boston College
Another week, another line I really don't understand. Since getting waxed at Oklahoma in Week 2, the Seminoles have put up more than 30 in each of their four wins while giving up an average of ten. Boston College stinks. They have lost three straight, are offensively challenged and gave up 44 on the road last week at NC State. I would have made this line 27. The Noles look like great value to me and hopefully they get the Saturday schedule off on the right side of the ledger.

NC St. -7 at East Carolina
ECU should change their nickname from Pirates to Pumice given how porous their defense has been. They have given up at least 40 points in every game but one. In that one they held Memphis to 27. Memphis has scored 20 points in its last three games--total. You get the picture. NC St. is the best team in the country that nobody is paying attention to. They've scored at least 28 in every game. The over/under is 68, but even adjusting for home field I don't see ECU keeping pace. Wolfpack by two touchdowns.

Ohio St. -4 at Wisconsin
If you are reading this you probably know that lines of 4 and 5 mean Vegas isn't really sure what to do and they let the public sort it out. Playing in Madison under the lights will certainly be a challenge for the Buckeyes. The Badgers have won 13 of their last 14 at home and 25 of 28 under the lights, but this is the game I think Terrelle Pryor puts his name front and center in the Heisman race. I don't see Wisconsin's running attack doing enough to keep up with the dual threat nature of Pryor and his offense. Go Buckeyes.

Baylor -1 at Colorado
The Buffs are 3-0 at home and 0-2 on the road, but they might lose every game in the Big 12 after getting smoked by Missouri 26-0 last week. They are 106th in the country in points averaging 18 a game. Baylor's secondary is terrible, but Colorado can't throw. Baylor will score thirty and cover this one.

Here are some other picks (not leans). If I get a chance to write them up before Saturday I will.
Miami -19.5 at Duke; Michigan St. -7 vs. Illinois; Clemson -14 vs. Maryland

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

CTC, More Brett Favre, NFL Records

**If Tiger Woods could pay people to keep them quiet and it isn't against the law, Brett Favre should get out the checkbook. Favre could make up to $28 million this year ($8 million of last year's $12 million salary was deferred to 2010) with incentives. Roger Goodell and the NFL have no case if Jenn Sterger doesn't cooperate. If she doesn't confirm that Favre sent lewd pics to her cellphone and in some way sexually harassed her, this all blows over. So, what's it take? If I were her I'd be calling Favre's lawyers and saying $3.5 million gets it done. If he gets suspended for even two games that costs him about $1.5 million. Favre may be an idiot, but he's a rich idiot and he can't spend all that money on Wranglers, tractors and living in Mississippi. In the immortal words of Rasheed Wallace, CTC. Cut the check, Brett.

**NFL records are apparently so insignificant I challenge you to find them on If you do, you be shocked at how poorly they're displayed. This is a much better site if you are interested, which I was last night after watching Favre pass another crazy milestone. I wanted to get some perspective, particularly with a suspension looming and an elbow injury possibly interrupting Favre's games started streak. Maybe I am beating the rush doing a short recap of Favre's career because I think he's going to get suspended, but his career has taken so many crazy turns the last three years, who knows. Here is what I found:
  • Favre has started 289 straight games. Only five quarterbacks have regular season streaks of 100. His streak is the longest by a player at any position. Peyton Manning has started 197 straight, but from the moment Favre's streak stops he'll have to play about six more full seasons to catch him and he's 34 right now. Ron Jaworski (116), Tom Brady (111) and Joe Ferguson (107) are the other three to start more than 100 straight games. Eli Manning (92) and Phillip Rivers (69) have the other longest current streaks.
  • Favre threw his 500th career TD pass to Randy Moss last night and also tossed two others to finish the evening with 502. I figured that Dan Marino or some other guys might be right around that number. Wrong. Marino is second with 420. John Elway is fifth at 300, Joe Montana ninth at 273 and Terry Bradshaw 24th at 212 (Bradshaw also threw 210 interceptions). Again Peyton Manning may eventually catch Favre. He currently stands third at 377. Here is the list.
  • Favre, as expected, has a clear lead in interceptions. He's thrown 324. What is more interesting is that Kerry Collins, second on the active list, is all the way down at 29th on the career list with 188. Peyton Manning is 32nd with 183. Here is the list.
Obviously Favre's numbers are largely a result of his longevity. His consecutive games streak is amazing and his toughness is unquestioned, but in my opinion he probably isn't in the top five quarterbacks ever and I could persuaded that he isn't in the top ten. He did win three MVPs which obviously is an argument for his greatness. His six first or second team All-Pro selections is impressive, but he's only made two Super Bowls with one win. At the end of the day, he probably sneaks in at around nine for me.

**I'm not sure which is more amazing, the Steelers having only three head coaches (Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin) since 1969 or the Packers having only two starting quarterbacks (Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers) since week 4, 1992. That first start by Favre, by the way, was a 17-3 win against the Steelers. The reason the comparison is particularly relevant is Aaron Rogers got a concussion on Green Bay's last offensive play Sunday against the Skins and is at best 50-50 to start on Sunday.

**The argument is often made that numbers and records in baseball are really important and in football they are not. I would argue that the steroid era combined with the distance from long-standing, 80-100 year old records has made baseball numbers meaningless as well. Yes, everyone knows Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, but that a lot fewer know how many home runs Hank Aaron hit and fewer still know how many Barry Bonds hit. Career RBI leaders? Single-season hit leaders? Highest batting average ever? Cy Young's pitching wins? Those records have stood for a long time and people are more numbers crazy than ever because of fantasy sports leagues, but baseball's historical numbers are no longer on the average fan's radar.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Nails From the Toolbox

**Commissioner Roger Goodell is really making things interesting for the NFL and it's players as he tries to legislate morality. The personal conduct policy gives him far-reaching powers which he has put to use many times, most-notably suspending Ben Roethlisberger even though he was never even charged with a crime. Now he's got to deal with Brett Favre. Clearly the allegations against Favre are true. It's also clear his actions don't shine a positive light on the league. But in terms of committing a crime, Favre's not guilty of anything more than being an idiot. His biggest problem probably lies in the fact that the woman he texted and called was also employed by the Jets. Favre has not violated the personal conduct policy in the past, but has had well-documented problems with alcohol and pain pills. I don't know if that will be considered, but I'm guessing when all is said and done he gets suspended for a few games. I'm guessing Favre wishes Jenn Sterger would never have been show on television during the FSU-Miami game in 2005. It's amazing how he has completely shredded his legacy over the last 2 1/2 years.

**Peter King continues to be all over the map on the Favre story without saying anything insightful. First he reported that no action would be taken against his buddy before 2011 because of the NFL's lengthy investigation process. Now that it's reported the NFL is fastracking the investigation he's changed his tune. King told PFT and his NBC Sunday night audience that Favre may not get suspended, but could if the league finds his offense "so heinous,...but it's not automatic." And it won't be resolved for at least three weeks. Great reporting, Peter.

**Tough start for the Penguins and Marc-Andre Fleury. The Pens opened their new building with back-to-back 3-2 losses. Fleury was fair in the opening loss to the Flyers, but was excellent for 58 minutes Saturday night against the Canadiens. But in the last two minutes he gave up two goals, the second as soft a goal as you will ever see (with some help from another terrible defensive play by Kris Letang, his second in two games). Giving up a soft goal every other game was something that hampered Fleury during a poor 2009-10 regular season and playoffs and the early returns aren't inspiring a lot of confidence. He needs to play better.

**Surprised by last week's announcement that Alberto Contador, three-time winner of the Tour de France, tested positive on the last rest day of this year's Tour in July? Of course not. Contador initially claimed he ate some tainted beef, but the tests also showed plastic residues consistent with bags used in blood transfusions. Guilty. Cycling has become a complete joke. Everybody dopes, some get caught. Lance Armstrong didn't win seven Tours without doping while everyone else was doing it. I just don't see how it's possible. It will be interesting to see how the current investigation unfolds and if Lance can survive the massive implications that a guilty verdict would bring. I'm guessing his legacy is going to take just as big a hit as Favre's.

More Guys Who Should be Fired

Basketball coaches Jim Calhoun at UConn and Bruce Pearl at Tennessee should be fired. Calhoun is a bully and a cheat, but UConn doesn't have the guts to fire him after announcing their ridiculous self-imposed punishment for major recruiting violations last week.  Pearl flat out lied to NCAA investigators who questioned him and then lied again in saying he wasn't aware that he was breaking a rule, but Tennessee will have to wait for formal allegations by the NCAA before taking action. Plenty of people are willing to stand up and criticize the NCAA any chance they get, but are missing the bigger picture. Guys like Pete Carroll at USC, Butch Davis at North Carolina and Calhoun and Pearl are cheating and lying and not being held accountable by their own institutions. The administrations don't have the courage to stand up and take action against the big revenue-generating programs at their own schools.

The UConn violations aren't new news. Yahoo! Sports originally did the investigative reporting and broke the story in March 2009. The charges were then announced in May of this year when two of Calhoun's young assistants were made scapegoats and forced to resign.  This week UConn tried to stem any punishment by the NCAA by announcing the results of its own investigation. In one of the more farcical acts in a college sports landscape filled with them, UConn's self-imposed punishment was...wait for it...two-years probation. I'm not kidding. The University president announced how serious he thought the situation was, and then announced the slap-on-the-wrist punishment. They didn't ban themselves from the post-season and they didn't sanction Calhoun in any way. They cut the number of scholarships from 13 to 12 for two years. Wow. As this article and this article suggest, UConn is playing with fire because there is no way the NCAA is going to find that punishment sufficient. And hopefully, somebody at UConn will come to their senses and fire a guy who has repeatedly shown himself to be one of the biggest jackasses and cheaters in all of sports.

Unlike Calhoun, Bruce Pearl is a reasonably likable figure and appeared genuinely apologetic during a press conference last month--something Calhoun has never been. But Pearl's recruiting violations are particularly noteworthy since he was at the center of a recruiting scandal while an assistant at Iowa in the late '80s. Pearl secretly taped a conversation with a recruit and then turned the tapes over to the NCAA and implicated the University of Illinois for various violations. Nothing came of the allegations but the resulting investigation found other problems and Illinois was hammered with sanctions. Pearl was blackballed. It took him three years to get a job and it wasn't until 2005 that he got a chance at a big school.

This summer Pearl was questioned by the NCAA about, among other things, hosting recruits at his house. The NCAA had done a lot of preliminary work before meeting with Pearl and presented him with a photo of him and some recruits at his home. When asked where the photo was taken, Pearl lied saying he didn't know. After the interview he found out that the NCAA had the info and knew he lied. That is when he decided to come clean and apologize. Last week it was reported that Pearl also violated the rule in 2004 when coaching at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The school self-reported the violation at the time.

At the moment Tennessee's hands are tied. Pearl's contract does not allow him to be fired for cause without compensation unless there is an NCAA finding and it is determined that Pearl knowingly committed significant violations. (Whoever from the University agreed to have language like that in Pearl's contract should also be fired.) Unlike UConn Tennessee has taken some action, but is still awaiting notice of allegations from the NCAA. Pearl's salary has been cut by $1.5 million over five years and he has been banned from recruiting off campus for a year. The news that Pearl had committed a similar violation that was reported to the NCAA in the past should give Tennessee all the ammo it now needs once the NCAA announces its findings sometime in 2011. Hopefully they will show more backbone than the pathetic administration at UConn and fire Pearl when the time comes.

NFL Picks

A couple tough losses with the college picks yesterday. Only a few picks with the early games. Buffalo is desperate and if they are going to win a game this is one of their best chances. I also like the Lions at home.  Bills -2 vs. Jax and Lions -3 vs. Rams.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Back to School. College Picks

A lackluster 3-3 last week as LSU, Georgia Tech and Maryland all won but failed to cover. I was 2-1 on my leans, so hopefully you got in on those to make it a winning week. The Picks stand at 10-6 on the season. Time to get back on the winning track. Lots of games on the board that I like. Hopefully you had the Huskers last night. I'm officially on Oklahoma St. tonight -24.

Alabama -7 at South Carolina
What a long, strange trip it's been for Gamecocks QB Stephen Garcia. He's a redshirt junior but it feels like he's been playing as long as the Dead has been touring. The Head Ball Coach benched Garcia in favor of a true freshman for the last two possessions against Auburn two weeks ago, but is turning back to him this week against #1. "We're going to give Stephen every opportunity to be our quarterback," isn't exactly a ringing endorsement, but a lot of scouts think the 'Cocks will be able to throw the ball on Alabama. I don't. Steve is going to be Truckin' for his life. "Other times I can barely see," is the likely refrain. Auburn ran the ball at will and #1 will do the same this week. There are no trap games in the SEC even when you play three straight top 25s. Nick will have the boys ready. A touchdown isn't enough. Roll Tide.

Arkansas -5 vs. Texas A&M at Cowboys Stadium
I'm always worried when a line looks off the mark. It generally means I need to do some more work because somebody in Vegas knows something I don't. I've done the work and I don't see it. Last year marked the first year of a ten-year deal that these two schools signed to play annually at Cowboy Stadium. Jerry Jones got a chuckle as the 1-2 Razorbacks thumped the 3-0 Aggies 47-19. A&M QB Jerrod Johnson is really talented, but he's thrown four interceptions in each of the last two games. Look for a ton of points in this one and take Over 62 with the Hogs as they make it 2-0 in the series. Get on Arkansas in a big way.

Ohio St. -22.5 vs. Indiana
Indiana is gonna get punished for the fact that Illinois played the Buckeyes close last week. Don't let anyone tell you that running up the score is no longer important because of the BCS system. That's just not true. The coach's poll is still the biggest factor and running up the score gets you pretty points even if no one admits it. Look for the Buckeyes to put up 50 in the 'Shoe this week.

Oregon -36.5 at Washington St.
Don't be afraid to lay big numbers. Pretty points matter more for Oregon than anyone. See above. In this one speed kills. I don't think they can make the line big enough.

USC +9.5 at Stanford
How the mighty have fallen. Nothing makes me happier than watching the Trojans get blown up. Pete Carroll cheated and then jumped ship and Mike Garrett's legacy as a bozo was cemented when he hired Lane Kiffin. I've set the over/under on Kiffin's tenure as head coach at 2.5 seasons. This week USC's stud freshman running back Dillon Baxter admitted he's been going through the motions. Where's the guy on the white charger? Having said all that USC will be up for this game after suffering their worst defeat in over 40 years at the hand of the Cardinal last year. 9.5 is too many. Even though their defense is terrible I expect USC to keep this close.

Baylor PK at Texas Tech
The sharps are on this game as the line has moved from Baylor +2 to pick 'em already. Baylor crushed Kansas last week and Tech lost to Iowa St. Tommy Tuberville is having trouble playing the Captain of Mike Leach's pirate ship. Robert Griffin, Baylor's quarterback, is legit and Art Briles is making the Bears a team that the other schools in the Big 12 are going to have to take seriously. Baylor rolls on the road.

Florida -6.5 vs. LSU
Last week I wrote that Les Miles is a terrible in-game coach. On cue. Watch this disaster last week against Tennessee. Yet, as seemingly is always the case, the Tigers got the win. They are 5-0, but their offense is terrible. Urban Meyer will have the Gators fired up at the Swamp after getting waxed by #1. Go Gators.

Auburn -6 at Kentucky
Kentucky upset Auburn 21-14 last year on the road. It's payback time as Auburn goes 6-0 for the first time since 2004.  Ole Miss shredded the Kentucky run defense last week and Auburn will do the same. Alabama-Auburn is starting to loom in the distance.

Leans: NC St. -9.5 vs. Boston College, Navy -3.5 at Wake Forest, UCLA +7.5 at Cal

Sunday, October 3, 2010

NFL Week 4

An abbreviated post this morning:

Vegas still doesn't have it right with the Steelers. Get on them one more time, this is the last time they will probably let you have such value. Take Pittsburgh minus the points. I also like Seattle and Houston. Maybe another play later. Good luck

Saturday, October 2, 2010

College Picks, Part 2

Rolling into a beautiful Saturday in the northeast, the first that really makes it feel like football season. There are some great games today, many of them at night in primetime on the east coast. You can see my first set of picks here. Here are a few more games I'm going to take a run at.

Temple -6 at Army
Believe it or not this shapes up as a good game. Both these schools are 3-1 and on the rise. The New York Times had a great article on the Temple program before they took on Penn St. last week. Temple played the Nittany Lions tough, covering in a 22-13 loss. Army is off to its best start in 14 years and is coming off a big 35-21 win at Duke last week. These two teams played a tight one last year in Philly and Temple's win kept Army from going to a bowl. It's nice to see the Cadets back playing good football, but Temple is too good today. Take the Owls as Temple wins again this year at Michie Stadium.

Oregon -7 vs. Stanford
A ton has been written about these two 4-0, top ten teams, so I don't have a lot to add. Andrew Luck is considered a Heisman favorite and top NFL draft pick, but his decision-making has been suspect at times. I also think the Stanford secondary is ripe to exploited by Oregon's team speed. Stanford needs to make it a physical game, but I expect a high-scoring one with Oregon a surprisingly easy victor at home. Look for Oregon to get revenge for last year's loss with a double digit Ducks victory.

Games I like, but not at the level of official pick status: FIU +17.5 v. Pitt, ND -2.5 at BC, Connecticut -8 vs. Vanderbilt and Alabama if it comes back to -7 vs. Florida

Friday, October 1, 2010

College Picks, Part 1

The Hammer Speaks went 3-2 with its college picks last week to take the overall record to 7-3. Combined with a 7-2 record in the NFL we are off to a pretty good start. Here is what I like this week, again heavily on the chalk. (This is Part 1, as I want to get it out for the 1:00 blast. There may be more games posted on the blog by noon Saturday. Check back frequently or follow on Twitter.)

Oklahoma St. -2.5 vs. Texas A&M (Thursday Night)
Both these teams have fared better than most anticipated and come into this initial Big 12 South meeting with identical 3-0 records. The Cowboys have played three bad defensive teams and lit up the scoreboard, leading the country with an average of 596 yards of total offense per game. A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson is the more experienced of the two signal callers in this nationally televised game, but the conference preseason offensive player of the year threw interceptions of four straight possessions to open the second half last week against Florida International. Johnson was able to rally the Aggies back from a 20-6 fourth quarter deficit to get the win, and I expect him to play better tonight. I also expect this to be a shootout. But, I like the home team. Look for Ok St. to cover by a touchdown or more.

UPDATE: Tweeted this pick (and emailed a few loyal subscribers last night). Crazy game, but got a W. As always you can follow me on twitter @hammerspeaks.

LSU -16 vs. Tennessee
Yesterday I wrote a rant about how NFL coaches make bad decisions a shocking amount of the time. It's amazing that a multi-billion dollar industry puts up with such incompetence. But it isn't just NFL coaches. Last year Les Miles made possibly the dumbest coaching decision of the season against Ole Miss and then denied it--after completely mismanaging the last drive. Unfortunately for Les it was all caught on video. That was just one blunder in a career filled with them. Les is living on borrowed time. That national title is getting further and further away. The Tigers have had no offensive plan since JaMarcus Russell left the bayou and started hittin' the purple drank. All of which of course means I'm all over LSU this week. Tennessee is young and bad. This is their first game on the road. LSU does have a great defense and Patrick Peterson is Charles Woodson redeux. Tennessee might not hit double digits. Lay the points.

Georgia Tech -10 at Wake Forest
Okay, I'm a little nervous about this one. I've crucified Wake's defense the past two weeks and they have come through with flying colors--giving up 99 points. On the other side Georgia Tech has been hugely disappointing. First they lost to a terrible Kansas team and then last week 8-point dog NC St. chewed 'em up and beat 'em by 17. But, Paul Johnson is a good coach and his spread-option offense will be hell for Wake to handle. I expect Tech's defense to tighten up and 30 from the O should prove to be enough to get it done.

Maryland -8 vs. Duke
Duke has given up at least 27 points in each of their four games. Enough football. In much more interesting news go to Deadspin and check out the article about the Duke co-ed's "thesis" on her sexual exploits during her time at the esteemed University. Duke students keep covering themselves in glory. Fortunately for them UNC has taken to just outright paying their football players so they get to share the headlines in the Triangle. Maryland is good enough in this one and will take their home record to 4-0. Lay 'em, so to speak.

Check back later for more picks, but I'll tell you I'm leaning Oregon, Bama (at 7 or less), Wisconsin and Iowa but have more work to do before I pull the trigger.