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.

AFC
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.

CONCACAF
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.

CONMEBOL
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.

OFC
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.

UEFA
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.
AFC
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.
CONCACAF
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.

OFC
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.
UEFA
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

Monday, January 02, 2017

Bowl Games 2016: Happy New Year!

As usual, all times Eastern and all predictions wrong.

Monday, January 2nd
1:00:
  • Iowa vs. Florida (Outback Bowl @ Tampa, FL; ABC): This one o'clock timeslot doesn't look terribly enticing, if I'm being honest. First, we have two offensively challenged teams, though one seems to act as though it has slightly shackles than the other. Somehow, that team is Iowa. But it's about picking your poison, and the poison for this game is that there will probably be a lot of head-scratching, over-conservative playcalling.
    Previous meetings: Three, and mostly in bowls of recent vintage. The first was a 14-6 Florida win in the 1983 Gator Bowl. The second was a 37-17 win in the 2003-04 Outback Bowl. The third was in the 2005-06 Outback Bowl, a 31-24 Florida win.
    Last bowl game: This is Iowa's fourth straight bowl, going back to the 2013-14 Outback Bowl, where they lost to LSU 21-14. Last season they got pasted 45-16 by Stanford in the Rose Bowl. As for the Gators, this will be their third straight post-season appearance. They defeated East Carolina 28-20 in the 2013-14 Birmingham Bowl, and last season they lost 41-7 to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
    Announcers: Mike Patrick and Ed Cunningham
  • Wisconsin vs. Western Michigan (Cotton Bowl @ Arlington, TX; ESPN): Whereas the problem with this game is that, well, if it's anywhere close I'll be absolutely stunned. Yes, Western Michigan is 2-0 against the Big Ten, but that was against an undersized Northwestern and an awful Illinois team. Wisconsin is one of the biggest teams around, and their defense is elite. If the Badgers treat this game seriously (potentially a big if), I don't think it'll be close.
    Previous meetings: As one might guess, this Big Ten vs. MAC matchup has been played a few times, but not many more, with meetings in 1963, 1981, 1988, and 2000. Wisconsin has won all of them, except for a 24-14 win for Broncos in 1988. Otherwise, it's been all Badgers
    Last bowl game: This is Wisconsin's 15th straight bowl appearance, tied with Boise State for the sixth longest streak. Correspondingly, you need to go back to a 31-28 win over Colorado in the 2002 Alamo Bowl to find the beginning of this run. They edged Southern Cal 23-21 in last season's Holiday Bowl. For the Broncos, this is their third straight appearance. They lost 38-24 to Air Force in the 2014 Potato Bowl and beat Middle Tennessee State 45-31 in last season's Bahamas Bowl.
    Announcers: Bob Wischusen and Brock Huard
5:00: Pennsylvania State vs. Southern California (Rose Bowl @ Pasadena, CA; ESPN): Don't look, but it's entirely possible the best team in the second half of the season was the University of Southern California Trojans. They rolled off eight wins to close the season, including a close win over a resurgent Colorado and a score-makes-it-look-closer-than-it-was 26-13 win over Washington in Seattle. Even if you're as skeptical of "momentum" as I am, it's hard to deny this team is hot. Yet, if we apply the same metrics to Penn State, we see they won nine in a row to close the season, including wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin. The main difference would seem to the manner in which these teams earned their best wins, but that's ultimately beside the point. Both these teams are young and have all the reasons in the world to go into this game and make a statement, and I expect a contest that's the opposite of those at the 1:00 slot. I have USC, but not by much.
Previous meetings: Nine! The first was all the back in the 1922-23 Rose Bowl, which Southern Cal won 14-3. Fast forward to the 1981-82 season for their next meeting, a 26-10 Penn State win in the Fiesta Bowl. A regular season series was played six times from 1990-2000, and then their last meeting was in the 2008-09 Rose Bowl, a 38-24 USC win. The Trojans hold a narrow 5-4 series lead.
Last bowl game: This is Penn State's third straight bowl game. They beat Boston College 31-30 in the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl and lost to Georgia in last season's Taxslayer Bowl. USC, meanwhile, probably doesn't like to reflect much on the 2012 Sun Bowl, what with the 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech and all. Nonetheless, that was the start of their current five game bowl streak, with the most recent entry being a 23-21 loss to Wisconsin in last season's Holiday Bowl.
Announcers: Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit

8:30: Auburn vs. Oklahoma (Sugar Bowl @ New Orleans, LA; ESPN): Oklahoma is here because the Sooners won 10 games and had losses to Houston and Ohio State, which are both legitimate losses. They then Boomer Soonered their way through the Big 12, emerging unscathed with an undisputed conference title. Auburn is here because the Sugar Bowl is designated for the highest ranked available SEC team, and, well, every SEC team other than Alabama had at least four losses. Auburn's four losses wound up being the most respectable compared to Tennessee and Florida, so here they are. Suffice it to say, I have Oklahoma all the way here.
Previous meetings: Just one, and in this 1971-72 edition of this game. The Sooners won 40-22.
Last bowl game: This is Auburn's fourth straight postseason game, going back to the 2013-14 BCS Championship Game, where they lost 34-31 to Florida State. Last season they pasted Memphis 31-10 in the Birmingham Bowl. The Sooners own the country's fourth longest streak of postseason appearances, with this being their 18th consecutive one. Their streak began with the 1999 Independence Bowl, which they lost to Ole Miss 27-25. Last season, they were defeated 37-17 by Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
Announcers: Brent Musberger and Jesse Palmer