Monday, August 21, 2017

Rating the 2017 Non-Conference Slate: Big Ten

Onward, to the Land of Meat and Cheese, aka, the Midwest!
  1. Michigan (1 legit, 0 FCS): N-Florida, Cincinnati, Air Force. The netural-site game against Florida is intriguing for reasons probably best saved for when we get to the Gators, so for now let's wonder why we didn't get a 10th anniversary Michigan-Appalachian State matchup. They're not even FCS anymore!
  2. Ohio State (1, 0): Oklahoma, Army, Nevada-Las Vegas. The return game for Ohio State-Oklahoma almost got the Buckeyes to #1 here, but I liked Michigan's other opponents better.
  3. Nebraska (1, 0): Arkansas State, @Oregon, Northern Illinois. Nebraska at Oregon is precisely the kind of inter-sectional matchup we like here at asimsports. More of this, please!
  4. Maryland (1, 1): @Texas, Towson, Central Florida. Okay, Maryland-Texas lacks some of the, well, cachet of Nebraska-Oregon, but we'll still take it.
  5. Michigan State (1, 0): Bowling Green State, Western Michigan, Notre Dame. "Wait", you're saying, "why is Sparty ranked below Maryland even though they don't play an FCS team?" This was a call on my part, knowing that Michigan State plays Notre Dame basically every year, so it's not as interesting as Maryland's game at Texas.
  6. Purdue (0.75, 0): N-Louisville, Ohio, @Missouri. There's new management in West Lafeyette, but that doesn't figure to help against the Cardinals. The Boilermakers are in Year 1 of a rebuild and are half-liable to go 0-3 against this slate.
  7. Rutgers (0.75, 1): Washington, Eastern Michigan, Morgan State. Rutgers was probably one of the worst major conference teams in the history of college football last year, and starting the year off with a game against UDub doesn't figure to help them get pointed in the correct direction. Kudos for scheduling it, though.
  8. Pennsylvania State (0.5, 0): Akron, Pittsburgh, Georgia State. Penn State should play Pitt every year, which makes any time it does happen special. Not much else going on here, though.
  9. Northwestern (0.25, 0): Nevada, @Duke, Bowling Green State. I feel like there's something snarky to say about Northwestern at Duke, but I can't think of it right now. Luckily, I've got a few weeks before they actually play.
  10. Minnesota (0, 0): Buffalo, @Oregon State, Middle Tennessee State. Minnesota at Oregon State seems random, but again, we'll take it.
  11. Wisconsin (0, 0): Utah State, Florida Atlantic, @Brigham Young. It was a real debate between whether to put Minnesota or Wisconsin at #10, but ultimately BYU suffers again for not being in the Pac-12, which you know has to annoy them.
  12. Indiana (0, 0): @Virginia, Florida International, Georgia Southern. But if it's any consolation BYU fans, you still managed to get ranked above a schedule that includes a trip to a major conference team.
  13. Illinois (0, 0): Ball State, Western Kentucky, @South Florida. Illinois will do well to win two of these, or heck maybe one depending if this is one of those years Ball State isn't horrible.
  14. Iowa (0, 0): Wyoming, @Iowa State, North Texas. Everything that you need to know about modern day Iowa football is by far the most interesting NFL prospect on their out-of-conference schedule is Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, which is also something you can tell your friends to sound really smart, especially if Wyoming wins.
And that's that. Up next, the conference of the land Americans love to argue about whether or is the Midwest, the Big 12!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Rating the 2017 Non-Conference Slate: ACC

Let's start off our review with the Atlantic Coast Conference. An explanation of the rating system can be found here. FCS teams are indicated by italics. "N-" prefixes indicate neutral site games.
  1. Florida State (2 legit, 1 FCS): N-Alabama, Louisiana-Monroe, Delaware State, @Florida. The ACC will get off to a crackin' start on Labor Day weekend, and it's not a coincidence the two teams that will play in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium are at the top of this list. (Which reminds me: is there a funny name out there for the new Dome? In Dallas there's Jerry Jones's Intergalactic Space Palace, so what would the Atlanta equivalent be? Arthur Blank's Pan-Universal Fun Dome? I'm open to suggestions.) Of course, don't let the realization that it's entirely possibly FSU and Bama will meet again, probable even, in the college football playoff. Especially not that they could meet in the very same stadium again.
  2. Georgia Tech (1.75, 1): N-Tennessee, Jacksonville State, @Central Florida, Georgia. Us Tech-types have been aching for years to get into the party that takes place every Labor Day weekend a mile from campus, so the the chance to make it four straight against the SEC East is just gravy. Meanwhile, I'm as against it as anyone else, but I will at least note that when you see major conference teams play games at Group of Five stadiums it's usually as part of a multi-game deal or the major conference team is saving money. Hopefully I remember this when the return game comes around in 2020.
  3. Pittsburgh (1, 1): Youngstown State, @Pennsylvania State, Oklahoma State, Rice. This is an OOC schedule that checks all the boxes. 1) Does it involve a non-mandatory rivalry? Check. 2) Does it feature a geographically distant major-conference foe? Check.
  4. Clemson (1, 1): Kent State, Auburn, Citadel, @South Carolina. Clemson's fate this season has vastly more to do with their in-conference games with Florida State and Louisville, but nonetheless the return game of this Tigers-Tigers series is rife with implication, provided Auburn is any good. Also, it gives us something to look forward to in the desert that usually is Week 2.
  5. Boston College (1, 0): @Northern Illinois, Notre Dame, Central Michigan, @Connecticut. Okay, one road game against a G5 opponent I can understand, but how do you manage to get two on the schedule at once? Nonetheless, the Golden Eagles get credit for ducking a FCS opponent this year, depending on how you feel about UConn. (Which for most, I suspect, is nothing.)
  6. Syracuse (1, 1): Central Connecticut State, Middle Tennessee State, Central Michigan, @Louisiana State. So this year I switched the spreadsheet to a system that allowed the "legit" points to be grabbed from another sheet and automatically calculated. There were some occasional mistakes, but this is a good example of one I didn't catch until I was putting the rankings together. "Yeah, let's see, FCS, MTSU, Central Mich... oh right, LSU, yeah that should probably rate higher than 13th."
  7. North Carolina State (1, 1): N-South Carolina, Marshall, Furman, @Notre Dame. It's hard to know what to do with Notre Dame on an ACC team's schedule these days, since it's not really an organic matchup. So that's how you get a game at LSU counting better than a game at Notre Dame and a neutral site game against South Carolina.
  8. Miami (1, 1): Bethune-Cookman, @Arkansas State, Toledo, Notre Dame. Miami continues its tour of random G5 campuses, this team flying to... whereever you fly to get to Jonesboro, Arkansas. Memphis, I guess? Anyway, I decided to stay consistent with my earlier assessment of the Notre Dame thing.
  9. North Carolina (1, 1): California, @Old Dominion, Notre Dame, Western Carolina. Okay, seriously, what is up ACC teams? Did everyone get together at Media Days a few years ago and decide "yes, let's schedule all of our road games against non-major opponents in the same season"? That's four out of nine so far!
  10. Wake Forest (1, 1): Presbyterian, Utah State, @Appalachian State, @Notre Dame. 5 out of 10!
  11. Duke (0.5, 1): North Carolina Central, Northwestern, Baylor, @Army. 6 out of 11!
  12. Virginia (0.5, 1): William & Mary, Indiana, Connecticut, @Boise State. 7 out of 12!
  13. Virginia Tech (0.5, 1): N-West Virginia, Delaware, @East Carolina, Old Dominion. 8 out of 13!
  14. Louisville (0, 1): N-Purdue, Kent State, Murray State, @Kentucky. Nine out of... oh, right, Kentucky's in the SEC.
Click below to see my closing thoughts.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Rating the 2017 Non-Conference Slate: Prologue

And we're back!

Let's start with the usual explanation. Since 2008, each summer, my brother and I surveil all of the Power 5 teams and selected Group of 5 teams and assign each a "legit" rating. This rating is on a scale of 0 to 1 in increments of .25. The rating system is extremely subjective: a third party reading would probably reveal our biases. However, we don't declare the work done until we assign a rating for 72 different teams and agree on it. An explanation of the ratings:
  • 0: these are generally teams that aren't and haven't been very historically good, or otherwise do not generate any excitement when you see them on your non-conference schedule. Examples include Iowa State and Rutgers. This year 24 of the rated teams earned zeroes. It's worth noting we didn't use this rating until 2012. Last year 19 teams were rated at this level.
  • 0.25: these are teams that might generate some excitement if you're college football geek, or we think they may be interesting this year. Examples this year include Washington State and Minnesota. We rated 10 teams at 0.25 this year, down from 11 last year.
  • 0.5: This is the passing lane of ratings, featuring either teams on an upswing (like Pittsburgh and Utah) or teams on a downswing (like Mississippi and Michigan State). Boise State also appears here, as our highest rated Group of 5 team. 10 teams were also rated at this level, down from 14 last year.
  • 0.75: this is usually the domain of power conference teams that have stagnated that are still interesting, or teams that we'd probably like to see play but feel like would be underrated by the community at large. Teams of this stripe include Texas A&M and Virginia Tech. Full disclosure: this is also where we put Georgia Tech, because as noted above these ratings are subjective. We also rated 10 teams at 0.75 this year, up from 7 last year.
  • 1: These are the blue-bloods impervious to changes, or teams that have been really good to national title contenders over the past 10 years or so. Essentially, this is Notre Dame: it doesn't matter if they went 4-8 last year, they're still a 1 because they're Notre freakin' Dame. There were 18 of them this year, down from 21 last year.
As usual, we list all the teams that earned a 1 this year: Alabama, Auburn, California-Los Angeles, Clemson, Florida, Florida State,  Georgia, Louisiana State, Miami, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Southern California, Stanford, and Texas. The teams in bold have been 1's every year we've done the rankings. Yes, even Notre Dame got pipped from the 1's one time, pulling a 0.75 in 2012, but I don't think what I wrote above is a contradiction.

Other than Notre Dame, the other non-Power 5 teams to earn ratings this year were Boise State (0.5) and Houston (0.25). The average overall rating was 0.4583.

With that, let's close with the rating of each conference:
  1. Southeastern: 0.536
  2. Pac-12: 0.521
  3. Atlantic Coast: 0.482
  4. Big 12: 0.472
  5. Big Ten: 0.429
I guess we don't go in for gray skies and the Iowas of the world. At any rate, the first up will be the home of the defending national champions and the banes of the SEC East: the ACC.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

2018 World Cup Update: I Ran (So Far Away)

Okay folks, it's time to run down the results and implications from the June international window. The September window is fast approaching, so we'll break down things there while we're at it.

First, let's welcome Iran to the stage for their second straight appearance. Next, let's say adios to the following countries: Iraq, Vanuatu, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, Luxenbourg, San Marino, Malta, Macedonia, Liechtenstein, Finland, and Kosovo.

As usual, let's go in alphabetical order. Asia, you're up!

The Asian Football Confederation is currently contesting its third round of qualification. There's two groups of six teams. In Group A, Iran qualified directly for the World Cup finals with a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan. Elsewhere, China drew Syria and South Korea suffered an upset with a loss to Qatar in Doha. Nonetheless, with two matches to go, the group seems to be setting up for a do-or-die match in Tashkent for Uzbekistan and South Korea on September 5th. Right now, the Koreans are a point ahead in the standings, but a lot can change. For the penultimate match, Korea plays Iran at home, a game that could go any way. The Koreans should well in at home, and some of it will depend on who Iran brings on the road, since they've already qualified. Uzbekistan has to go on the road, but they get to play China, a decidedly easier opponent. Again, I expect the scenarios going into the at Tashkent to be very interesting, and I may update if the situation warrants. The outcomes there are either direct qualification to the World Cup or a play-off against the third-place team in Group B.

So speaking of Group B, things are still tight. Japan leads the group with 17 points, but Saudi Arabia and Australia are just behind with 16. (The UAE is 6 points behind the Socceroos.) Australia won a crucial home game 3-2 against the Saudis, but Japan wound up drawing Iraq 1-1 on the road. Japan and Australia will play in Japan on August 31st, with Saudia Arabia going on the road to the UAE. Australia gets Thailand at home to close things out, while Saudi Arabia will play Japan. So... pretty much anything can happen.

The Confederation of African Football will finally resume qualification after being on hold since November 2016. There's five groups of four, with the group winner advancing directly to the World Cup. With only two matches played so far and four to go, it's hard to really make any predictions at this point, but there'll be a lot more to say after the next week of qualifying.

The (clears throat) Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football is contesting its fifth and final round of World Cup qualification. The top three teams of six qualify directly to the World Cup, while the fourth place team will have face a team from the AFC in a two-legged playoff in November. Let's go in order.

Suffice it say, Mexico (in qualification, at least) has shrugged off whatever demons haunted them from the qualifying disaster of four years ago. Mexico is undefeated so far and faces only one difficult road game, at Costa Rica on September 5th. On the 1st, they get Panama at home, which could be challenging, but they should win. Currently three points ahead of Costa Rica at 14, they should wind up topping the group.

Costa Rica has 11 points, three behind Mexico and three ahead of the US. That could change in a hurry, though. The Costa Ricans go on the road to Harrison, New Jersey on September 1st and then get Mexico at home four days later. A result from either game would be absolutely fantastic for Los Ticos. Back in June, they drew Panama at home, but did get 3 points from a 2-1 win over Trinidad and Tobago.

The US did exactly what they needed to do back in June. Christian "The Prince" Pulisic did his thing:

Then just three short days later, Micheal Bradley did his best Carli Lloyd impersonation:
Look, your voice would crack too if you saw an American chip the keeper from 40 yards out at the Azteca.

Anyway, the Americans have a pair of tough but winnable games in September. First off, they face a bunch of Costa Ricans who probably haven't forgotten about the SnowClassico from four years ago. Of course, the Americans hopefully haven't forgotten about the 4-0 beatdown last November that was the final straw for Jurgen Klinsmann. The US should be favorites at home, though. They will then go on the road to face Honduras, which is always tough but the Hondurans have continued the slide they've been on since the 2014 World Cup.

Next up is Panama, who at seven points are a point behind the US. Panama figures to split the upcoming games, with a visit to the Azteca and a home game against Trinidad and Tobago. Their most crucial qualifiers appear to be in October, but for now they look pretty good to finish fourth and advance to the playoff.

Minding the bottom are Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago, with 5 and 3 points, respectively. Both are in trouble. If Honduras can't win at Trinidad and Tobago, then they will badly need a result against the US, though that game is at home. For T&T, things look pretty bleak. They're not out, but they still have to play Costa Rica and Mexico on the road. The rest of the field figures to leave these two behind entering October.

Next up is the Confederation of South American Football. The format is as elegant as it is simple: nine teams play home-and-home matches. The top four at the end go to the World Cup, while the fifth place team goes to an international playoff against a team from Oceania in November.

Qualification resumes August 31st with four matchdays remaining. Brazil ran away in the competition and has already qualified. Meanwhile, the second through eight placed teams are all within six points of each other. In order, they are Colombia (24), Uruguay and Chile (23), Argentina (22), Ecuador (20), and then Peru and Paraguay (18). With so many teams and four matchdays remaining, it's hard to say anything definitive at this point. Let's check back in a about a month or so.

The Oceania Football Confederation recently whittled down its teams to just two: New Zealand and the Solomon Islands. They'll play home-and-home on September 1st and 5th, with the winner moving on to the international playoff against a South American team. The Kiwis would have to be, and are, heavy favorites.

The Union of European Football Associations divides its 54 members into nine groups of six each, whereupon they play a double-round robin. The group winners advance automatically to the World Cup and the eight best runners-up are drawn into pairs and play-off for the last four spots. They've got four matches left in each group, so we'll do a quick overview of each because there's still a lot of wiggle room, as it were.

Group A
Sweden is tied with France with on 13 points, with the Swedes currently ahead on goal differential. Also helpful was a 2-1 victory over France at home back in June. In third and fourth are the Netherlands and Bulgaria, with the Orange in serious danger of not even making the playoff. But hey, they got their groove a little bit by pasting Luxembourg 5-0, but, still, they really need to get a result in France at the end of this month.

Group B
Switzerland currently sit 3 points ahead of Portugal, both of whom have pretty much pulled away from the rest of the pack. Go ahead and check back in on this group for the last day of the first round, when Portugal and Switzerland play each other in Lisbon.

Group C
This could get weird. So Germany, as you might expect, are leading the group with 18 points. Northern Ireland are in second, with 13 points. The problem for the Northern Irish is, well, the first tiebreaker: Germany has an insane +26 goal differential, while Northern Ireland's is "only" +9. Germany has had the benefit of playing San Marino twice already (so a combined +15 margin right there), but also the Germans' narrowest result so far was a 2-0 win over Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the Irish only beat San Marino 4-0, so... I don't know if they're going to go out and try to win 17-0 or not, but if they don't, they'll be in real trouble: if Germany gets 4 points out of its next matches against the Czech Republic and Norway, which it should, they'll clinch the group. The Northern Irish are four points ahead of the Czechs, though, so they're at least in good shape for the playoff.

Group D
Who wants to win Group D? Serbia and Ireland are tied at 12 points, followed by Wales and Austria on 8 points each. The results from June made this pretty much clear as mud, as every team in the group drew the other. Looking at the September matches, it doesn't look like it'll get any better, so let's punt this one to the new edition of this column.

Group E
Poland isn't, well, running away with this group, but they have a six point lead over Montenegro and Denmark. Fortunately for the Danes, they'll get a shot at home against Poland on September 1st. Meanwhile, Montenegro will have a chance to make up some ground. They have to go on the road to Kazakhstan, but they should still win, and then they get Romania at home. So still plenty of play here.

Group F
England are topping the group currently, but not by much: with 14 points, they're two ahead of Slovakia, three ahead of Slovenia, and six ahead of Scotland. You might look at this and think "they should be ahead more, I mean, they just drew at Scotland?" Yeah, well, it could have been worse:
Again, though, we don't stand to gain a lot of clarity here in September. The group is still tightly packed, and England's road game is at Malta, which despite their best efforts they'll probably win. Slovakia and Slovenia are each probably expecting to get somewhere between two and four points, and Scotland may walk away with six. It's still anyone's group.

Group G
Not so much anyone's group: Group G. Spain and Italy both have 16 points, with Spain ahead on goal differential. Both are 7 points ahead of Israel and Albania. The fun part is that Spain and Italy will desperately not want to finish in second, and they'll play in Madrid on September 2nd.

Group H
Group H features a Belgian side coming into its own and on 16 points, followed by Greece with 12 and Bosnia and Herzgovina with 11. A match between Greece and Bosnia that would've provided some much needed clarity ended with a 0-0 draw back in June, so we'll have to see how the remaining matches shake out. Belgium will have a chance to clinch by pounding Gibraltar into the dirt and then getting a crack at the Greeks on the road. Bosnia, meanwhile, will play Cyprus and Gibraltar, so the Greeks might get left behind going into October.

Group I
Iceland beat Croatia back in June, but they're still behind due to goal differential, and they probably won't have a chance to make up for it in September. They're going on the road to eliminated, but game, Finland and then they have a home match against Ukraine. Turkey and Ukraine sit just two points behind the group leaders, so it's still anyone's game, and I think it'll still be tight going into October.

And that's finally it! I think things are setting up well for an extremely fun last round of qualifying in most confederations. It's a shame we'll lose all this in a bloated 48-team World Cup, but at least that isn't until 2026. Until then, this column will return in a month in change. Meanwhile, I know there's at least one person out there waiting for the college football preview. Fret not! I have the ratings in hand, I just need to find time to write the darn thing before Week 0.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

2018 World Cup Update: The Field Narrows a Bit

Editor's note: I started writing this post a while back after the March qualifiers, but unfortunately I have been so busy with work and the few hours I've gotten outside of work lately that I've neglected the site. Since we're so close to the June qualifiers, I decided to finish the March post and then combine it with the preview for the upcoming qualifiers. So this post will be divided in two. Here's the review:

Just a quick update. Let's examine the action from March's set of qualifiers, leaving the June games for another post.

First, a quick farewell to the five teams that got eliminated on March 28th:
  • Thailand, which lost 3-0 at home to Saudi Arabia and currently are sitting on a single point from a shocking draw with Australia last November.
  • Bolivia got eliminated despite a 2-0 win at home over a Messi-less Argentina. How? It goes down to the matches involved. If Bolivia wins the rest of their matches, they could have 22 points, which would draw Argentina, who are currently in fifth place. It's not that simple, though. Argentina has 22 points currently and Ecuador has 20. Since Argentina and Ecuador still have one match to play, either Ecuador gets 23 points with a win, Argentina gets 25 points with a win, or Argentina gets 23 points with a draw. 
  • Venezuela's elimination, however, is much more straightforward. They lost 3-1 to Chile and simply cannot make up the remaining ground from 6 points with four matchdays remaining. Thus La Vinotinto will remain the only CONMEBOL team to have never qualified for the World Cup.
  • Down in the OFC, New Zealand swept their two matches with Fiji to get to 10 points, knocking both Fiji and New Caledonia out.
Meanwhile, we have our first team to qualify for Russia. Appropriately, they're also the only team to have played in every World Cup. That's right, it's Brazil! Last time around it was Japan during the June qualifiers. I'd say that's a job well done, especially considering the dogfight in the places below them.

Let's do a quick survey, as per usual. As noted, I'll do a preview before the June qualifiers, so no scenarios here.

This is going to sound kind of boring, but well, everything went pretty much according to plan. In Group A, everyone held serve at home except for Qatar, where a 1-0 loss to Iran helped hasten their elimination. China did score an upset of South Korea for their first win in this round of qualifying, but game was on the road. Things like that happen sometimes. (Also, China is improving. South Korea only won 3-2 at home thanks to an own goal.)

In Group B, Japan continued to take care of business. Australia slipped a little bit with a 1-1 draw to Iraq in Tehran (Iraq still plays their home games outside of the country) which still leaves the Socceroos 3 points behind... Saudi Arabia? Yep, the Saudis got to play Thailand (a 3-0 win in Bangkok) and got Iraq at home, getting themselves 6 points in the process.

On March 24th, I ventured down to San Jose with some buddies wherein we watched the US pound a suddenly hapless Honduras 6-0. Or maybe they weren't so hapless, because they managed to salvage a 1-1 draw four days in San Pedro Sula? 6 goals is still a lot of goals, though... and it did wonders for the US's goal differential, which has been awful after that 4-0 Costa Rica loss.

Panama managed to lose on the road at Trinidad and Tobago, and unfortunately their resolve was stiffened once they got back home to play the US, where they were able to hang on to a 1-1 draw. Mexico took care of business with a 2-0 win at the Azetca over Costra Rica and they managed to get a goal in Port of Spain to snag the 3 points.

The picture is a little more clear for the US now, as the four points allows us to get into fourth place. Panama is in third with, then seven for Costa Rica, and ten for Mexico.

As noted above, Brazil clinched qualification by continuing their run of wonderful form with a 4-1 win over Uruguay and a 3-0 win over Paraguay. Nice.

Not so nice are Argentina's continuing struggles. They were able to hold onto a 15th minute penalty conversion by Messi at home over Chile, but they absolutely fell on their faces five days later with a 2-0 loss to Bolivia. The result is that the Albicelestes are sitting in fifth, which is probably still good enough, but not where to you expect them to be. However, they might be able to take advantage of Uruguay's struggles. In addition to the loss to Brazil, they also lost 2-1 on the road to Peru.

Only four matchdays remain in South America, and they'll take the summer (well, their winter) off and result qualification at the end of August. The teams that haven't already qualified (Brazil) or been eliminated (Bolivia and Venezuela) are all within six points of each other in the table. My prediction? Drama a-plenty.

New Zealand beat Fiji twice to clinch advancement to the finals of the OFC process. Tahiti split their series with Papua New Guinea, which leaves them in a precarious spot that I'll talk in the preview post.

So there's nine groups of six teams each to try and cover here, so I'll try to hit the high notes. (Fortunately, each team only played one game.)
  • Group A: France and Sweden are the current group leaders, and maintained their form by beating Luxembourg and Belarus, respectively. The Dutch continue to struggle, losing 2-0 to Bulgaria and in serious danger of missing their first World Cup since 2002.
  • Group B: Switzerland is currently topping the group, and held serve at home by beating Latvia 1-0. Portugal is just 3 points behind, waiting to pounce.
  • Group C: Germany is running away with the group, 5 points ahead of Northern Ireland. The question is who is going to get second, and the answer is probably going to be either Northern Ireland or the Czech Republic.
  • Group D: This group is extremely tight. Serbia is currently ahead of Ireland on goal differential, and then four points behind them are Wales and Austria. It'll be interesting to see how this shakes out in June.
  • Group E: Poland has six points on the rest of the group and are thus far undefeated. I don't think that will change anytime soon.
  • Group F: England is four points ahead of Slovakia and five points ahead of Slovenia. That's a good lead for the Brits and they won't have to face either of those two on the road over the course of their remaining matches.
  • Group G: This group continues to be all about Spain and Italy. Both hae 13 points, but the Spanish have a commanding +17 goal differential to Italy's +9.
  • Group H: The Belgians hae a +20 goal differential, but unfortunately for them it's the points that matter, and they're only two ahead of Greece and three ahead of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Really not helping was in their March home game against Greece, they wound up drawing 1-1.
  • Group I: Iceland is seeking to continue the feel good story of Euro 2016, and picked up a crucial 2-1 road win over Kosovo (in Albania). The team they're chasing is currently undefeated Croatia.
Having set the scene, let's proceed directly to our June preview.
Group A

  • Iran will qualify for the 2018 World Cup if they defeat Uzbekistan.
  • Qatar will be eliminated if they lose to or draw South Korea.
  • China will be eliminated if they lose to Syria.
  • China will be eliminated if they draw Syria and Uzbekistan draws or defeats Iran.
Group B
  • Iraq will be eliminated if they lose to or draw Japan.
  • United Arab Emirates will be eliminated if they lose to Thailand and Australia defeats Saudi Arabia.
  • Elsewhere, Australia and will play a crucial match with Saudi Arabia at home to try to get into a tie for one of the top two qualifying spots.
No one can get eliminated or qualify yet, but there's still plenty of pressure. On June 8th, the US absolutely has to pick up three critical points against Trinidad and Tobago. Costa Rica will try to hold serve against Panama, and Mexico gets Honduras at home. Due to Mexico's trip to Russia for the Confederations Cup, they will play the US on June 11th, where the US will attempt to do something they've only done a couple of times: get a point. Two days later, Panama gets a chance to pick up some points at home against Honduras, while Costa Rica should definitely get some points against T&T.

Group A: New Zealand has already clinched advancement to the final round.
Group B:
  • Tahiti will clinch advancement if Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands draw both their matches.
  • Either Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands will advance if they win both matches, or if one match is drawn and the other is won.
  • I'm not going to get into all the goal difference scenarios, just know that Papua New Guinea is at -1 and the Solomon Islands are at -2. This will be a lot easier to figure after the first game.
I'm not going to do elimination scenarios for Europe because there are too many right now, but let's take a quick look at what to watch for in June.
  • Group A: France is up three points on Sweden and plays in Sweden next. To stay at all relevant, the Dutch really need to pound Luxembourg. 
  • Group B: Group leaders Switzerland and Portugal both go on the road to play the Faroe Islands and Latvia, respectively. Expect both to win.
  • Group C: Germany will play San Marino, which will be a thing. More interestingly, Northern Ireland goes on the road to Azerbaijan, who might prove a bit frisky. Norway desperately needs a win at home, but they'll need to get it from the Czech Republic.
  • Group D: Remember the bit earlier about how the top two and then the next two teams are tied (on points) in this group? Well, conveniently the two last place teams play each other, so bring on first place Serbia hosting third place Wales and second place Ireland hosting fourth place Austria. These should be good.
  • Group E: Poland aims to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the group while Montenegro and Denmark will attempt to sort things out, but not against each toher.
  • Group F: Scotland host England and attempt to get payback for a 3-0 loss last year, but otherwise Slovenia and Slovakia should probably win.
  • Group G: Spain and Italy figure to remain tied on points after playing Macedonia and Liechtenstein, respectively.
  • Group H: Bosnia plays Greece at home, while Belgium figures to reap the benefits if they draw, as they have a plum road trip to go get some points at Estonia.
  • Group I: Iceland will attempt to draw even with Croatia at home and revenge an earlier 2-0 loss.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bowl Games 2016: Epilogue

Once again, I need to get this out of the way before moving to our World Cup qualifying content and a special project I've been working on for a while.

I wound up going 22-19, a solid 53.6%. That puts me at 320-258 since 1999, or 55.36% overall. I'm still slightly better than a coin flip, woo!

Again, we won't quite be on our summer hiatus yet. See you soon!

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Bowl Games 2016: Final

As usual, all times Eastern and all predictions wrong.

Monday, January 9th
8:30: Clemson vs. Alabama (College Football Playoff Championship Game @ Tampa, FL; ESPN): I looked over the post I made for this matchup last year and, well, most of it still applies. So let's break this down by unit.
The place to start is the unit that's been in the news for most of the past week: the Alabama offense. Coordinated by Lane Kiffin for most of the past three years, culminating with this season's relatively wide-open offense headed up by a mobile freshman quarterback. This is not the Alabama blueprint we've come to be familiar with. However, Alabama has yet to face a defensive line the quality of Clemson's, except maybe for LSU. The final score in that game? 10-0. There's also the reason they've been in the news: Lane Kiffin by all accounts wanted to continue to coach Alabama in the playoffs before heading off to his new gig, but was forced out. Subsequently, the Tide promoted one of their video room guys, former Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian, to offensive coordinator. Since he wasn't a coach, he wasn't on the sidelines on gamedays and (was supposed to have) had little contact with the players at all. It's easy to speculate on the impact this will have, but that's all I'd be doing. So I'll just stick to figuring it'll make some difference either way.
The Clemson offense, meanwhile, returned Deshaun Watson and virtually all their skill players from last year's team. While at times lacking focus this season, they responded emphatically when it mattered, as Ohio State found out last week. Again, the chess match in this game is the Clemson offense versus the Alabama defense.
The Tide defense is practically legendary at this point. There simply isn't a better defense in college football. But if there's anyone that's not scared of these guys, it's Clemson. They put up 40 last year and nearly won the game. Will Saban and go be prepared to counter them this year? How will they respond to things Clemson hasn't done before? We saw how that went for Ohio State last week.
The Clemson defense isn't as well know, but they're almost as good, especially on the defense line. They lived in the Ohio State backfield most of last week. I figured the Buckeyes had a giid chance in that game because they'd have the athletes to do what most ACC offensive lines couldn't, which is block them. I was dead wrong. Ohio State looked confused and disoriented most of the night along the line, which made the Buckeye offense dead in the water. The question is, can I talk myself into thinking the Alabama offensive line can block them? I'm not sure.
For all the hand-wringing about the playoffs going into this game, it definitely feels like we got the best two teams in one place. Few other teams this season were as dominant on both sides of the ball. And from watching the games last week and thinking about it for the past week, I have talked myself into a slight Clemson upset. They've got plenty of experience, and they're going to be motivated to take care of business this year.
Previous meetings: Obviously, the most recent meeting between these two was in last year's game, which Alabama won 45-40. Unfortunately for the Tigers, that still means they haven't beaten Alabama since October 25, 1905 and they're 3-13 against the Tide all time.
Last bowl game: Technically, their previous round matchups against Ohio State and Washington, respectively. See that post for the details.
Announcers: Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit