Archive for August, 2007

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I don’t know about you, but with the worst White Sox season since the millennium droning on (with Cubs fans becoming more and more insufferable since it’s hard to see them not backing into the NL Central championship) and the Bears in the midst of another week of questioning whether Rex Grossman can hold onto his balls (not to mention Lance Briggs’ driving skills), the start of the college football season couldn’t come soon enough. That means that it’s time to get on with the annual college football preview:

(1) Illini Are Bowling This Year… Seriously – OK, I know that I said the same thing last season, but it’s got to be our time to get to a lovely bowl destination such as Detroit. Even while taking account Ron Zook’s coaching ability (or lack thereof), there’s way too much talent on the Illinois squad this year to continue to be muddled with the traditional bottom-feeders of the Big Ten such as Indiana and Northwestern. The Big Ten isn’t as strong of a conference as it was a year ago, so I’ve got a good feeling that this club is going to do the proverbial snakebite on a lot of teams. The Illini are returning 20 starters plus adding blue chip superstar players on both offense (wide receiver Arrelious Benn) and defense (outside linebacker Martez Wilson). Meanwhile, Juice Williams can only improve on his 39.5 percent completion rate in his 2006 freshman campaign (right?) and senior J Leman heads up a stable defense.

Looking at the Illini schedule game-by-game, we’re set up to get to that magic .500 mark for bowl eligibility. This weekend brings the return of the football version of the Braggin’ Rights game when Illinois takes on Missouri at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. I think with this game we’ll find out right off the bat whether this is going to be a whirlwind season with a meteoric rise or one where we merely take some solid steps to get back into the upper half of the BCS echelon. If the Illini can beat Mizzou, who is the trendy pick to win the Big 12 North this season (which is akin to winning the National League Central this year – whoever is left standing at one or two games above .500 will promptly get slaughtered in the postseason), then I think we’re heading toward one of those wacky years where we perform way beyond expectations, such as 1999 when we beat both Michigan and Ohio State on the road. Even if we lose, though (which, in all rationality, I think we will), Illinois is going to still be in okay shape to go bowling. The home opener against Western Illinois is going to be a win, while I’m also fairly certain that the next two road games against a severely depleted Syracuse squad and a just-plain-awful Indiana team will be victories for the Illini. That’s halfway to the six-win bowl mark.

So, where are the last three victories going to come from? Penn State is going to be a tough one – we have a nasty habit of spotting them a point or 60 in the first half, so I don’t think it’s coming there. The Wisconsin game is one that I’m strangely confident about since we always seem to play the Badgers a bit better than expected. Still, Wisconsin is a team that is probably the 2nd-best team in the Big Ten this year after Michigan, so I doubt the upset will happen. Playing at Iowa City isn’t going to be great situation for a relatively young Illinois team, so I’ll chalk the Iowa game up as a loss for the Illini. The Michigan game is pretty much the focus of every Illinois fan this year since it’s set-up as a prime time ABC game at Memorial Stadium (which I can’t attend, as I explained in my last post), but I’m pretty much accustomed to getting my hopes completely crushed every time that we play the Wolverines (not to mention that I can’t see how Michigan isn’t getting at least a Rose Bowl berth this year, if not even better, as I’ll note later), so let’s put this as an Illini L. Next up, our athletic department was nice enough to pay Ball State to come to town so that we can finally win a homecoming game, leaving us with needing two more wins with three games to go. We can beat Minnesota even though it’s in the Hump Dome. Next up is Ohio State at the Horseshoe… we’ll just skip over that one. Getting Northwestern at home for the regular season finale, though, ought to be the clincher in spite of a pretty good Wildcats defense. That gets us to the magic six wins a nice trip dodging bullets in Detroit for the holidays. Honestly, the thought of a bowl game in the world’s worst tourist destination outside of Baghdad making me this excited shows you exactly how putrid the Illinois program has been in recent years. I’ll take anything at this point.

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(2) Big Ten Final Standings Prediction – All of you know that the last thing that I want to do is give any praise to Michigan, but I’m fairly surprised that there’s not that much buzz about the Wolverines getting to the national championship game this season. Sure, they got pasted by USC in last year’s Rose Bowl and their top-ranked run defense has lost a lot of firepower, but the offense is going to be ridiculous with Chad Henne, Mike Hart, and Mario Manningham at the skill positions paired up with an NFL-ready offensive line. Michigan could very well be 10-0 by the second week in November, when they’ll then have back-to-back monster games against Wisconsin and, of course, Ohio State to at least decide who gets to the Rose Bowl, if not the national title game for the second year in a row. I’ll know this much – Lloyd Carr better have a Monster.com account in place if his team loses to the Buckeyes again. As for the rest of the upper echelon, Wisconsin will hold serve as the second-best team in conference while everyone needs to look out for Iowa – it’s as if though people have forgotten how dangerous Kirk Ferentz’s teams can be.  Here are the projected conference standings: (1) Michigan, (2) Wisconsin, (3) Iowa, (4) Ohio State, (5) Penn State, (6) Purdue, (7) Illinois, (8) Michigan State, (9) Northwestern, (10) Minnesota, (11) Indiana.

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(3) BCS Conference Champions Prediction Nothing too wacky here, although the media continues to astound me with how it has anointed West Virginia as national championship contender yet again (#3 in the preseason AP poll). Here’s what I said about the Mountaineers last season: “[T]he worst argument that anyone can ever have to say that someone is a national championship contender is that the team has schedule akin to playing the runners-up from a sixth grade Punt, Pass, and Kick contest every week, which is what a number of prognosticators seem to be saying about Big East member West Virginia.” The exact same thing is being said about West Virginia this season, which leads me to believe that the team will suffer the exact same shortfall against Louisville to plummet them to a Motor City-type Bowl. The projected BCS champs: Big Ten – Michigan, SEC – LSU, ACC – Virginia Tech, Big 12 – Texas, Pac-10 – USC, Big East – Louisville.

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(4) BCS Championship Game Prediction – I still have to chuckle every time that I hear the name “John David Booty” (heh-heh, Beavis), but let’s face it – the USC Trojans are the team to beat again. It’s coming down to a rematch of last year’s Rose Bowl in this year’s national championship game (for a virtual Rose Bowl with the Big Ten/Pac 10 matchup) with Michigan and USC. Unfortunately for Big Ten supporters such as myself, the result is going to end up being the same. Predicted national championship result: USC over Michigan.

Anyway, if the Illini end up beating Mizzou this weekend, we might be looking forward to something a lot better than Detroit over the holidays. Anyone up for a road trip to Toronto?

(Images from Wikimedia Commons, Bean’s Blog, Jerkass Clothing, and The Big Lead)

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I apologize for the radio silence over the past few weeks.  Here are a bunch of links to tide you over:

(1) 3 Large Drops of Sweat (Chicago Tribune) – If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, you know what I think of preseason football, particularly in its ability (or lack thereof) to predict outcomes in the regular season.  That being said, it looks like we’re finding out how Rex Grossman is avoiding throwing interceptions downfield into triple coverage – he’s just going to lay the ball right on the ground.

(2) Yes, Deep-Fried Oreos, but Not in Trans Fats (New York Times) - For my money, the deep-fried Snickers bar is the carnie filet mignon – it’s like melting the candy bar and stuffing it inside a Krispy Kreme doughnut.  It’s good to know that this delicacy can re-enter my diet without guilt along with a bucket of trans fat-free KFC.

(3) Did Hawk Invent the Batting Glove? (South Side Sox) - Hawk Harrelson also invented a way to blow smoke up your ass every single inning of baseball broadcasts every single night.  Who knew that we had baseball’s Enrico Fermi in the booth, White Sox fans?

(4) Brought Down By Arrogance (Washington Post) - There’s been an overload of banter about the Michael Vick dogfighting case and his plea bargain, so I’ll just point you to this Michael Wilbon column that largely encapsulates all of my personal feelings on the matter.

(5) 2007-08 Illinois Men’s Basketball Schedule Released (fightingillini.com) – This is definitely not an easy non-conference tilt for the Illini (something tells me that the bulk of this schedule was put together when we still though Eric Gordon was headed to Champaign to play prior to Satan’s Spawn luring him away).  I’m really looking forward to the Maui Classic right before Thanksgiving (one of my favorite college basketball events every year regardless of who’s participating), particularly with the prospect of playing Duke (assuming that we can advance after the opener with Arizona State).

(6) Only Single Tickets Remain for Illinois-Michigan Football Match-Up (fightingillini.com) – On the other side of the Illini sports world, the buzz for the upcoming football season has gotten so irrationally exuberant that people are actually spending their hard-earned dollars to buy up game tickets.  I know that I would have been going to this game (nationally-televised prime time game = 12 hours of tailgating and 80,000 variations on Ann Arbor’s promiscuity) if not for the fact that a certain someone has a wedding on this date.  (He’s not an Illini, so I guess it’s somewhat excusable for the prospect of this happening not being the very first thing that he would think about, but with college football schedules published years in advance, scheduling conflicts should be the primary cross-check if you have a disproportionate number of people going to your wedding that went to a particular school.  That’s why I had a June wedding.)  On another note, my annual college football preview will be coming very soon.  (Preview of the preview: I like how Illinois is set up this year.  Obviously, I know that shocks you all.)
And finally…

(7) The Singing Bee – Filling in the Blanks (TV Blend) - Lord only knows that I initially wanted to see any Joey Fatone-fueled television vehicle enter the trash bin of bad couch potato ideas along with “The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage” and Tim McCarver calling baseball games.  Yet, when I ended up flipping on to “The Singing Bee” a few weeks ago, it was as hypnotic as a Lou Pearlman production: brainless, empty-caloried, yet strangely satisfying.  Sure, it’s the equivalent of televising karaoke night at your local bar (I mean, the next thing you know and they’ll be televising guys sitting around playing poker and bass fishing), but the fact of the matter is that if you watch the show, it’s almost impossible not to start playing along.  Once that happens, you’re basically hooked on TV’s crystal meth, only the drug won’t kill nearly as many brain cells after a half-hour.  There’s no hope for me, so please save yourselves!

If you’re one of the three regular readers of this blog, it’s probably readily apparent that I’m a big sports fan.  What you probably don’t know, however, is that I’ve also always been a dork about maps (when my family took road trips when I was younger, I used to collect maps from as many states and cities as possible) and census data (for whatever reason, population and socioeconomic demographic statistics have always fascinated me – I could pore over that stuff for hours on end).

So, when I ended up finding the CommonCensus Sports Map Project, which has put together maps of the geographic distribution of sports fans of teams in Major League Baseball, NFL Football, NBA Basketball, NHL Hockey, and college football, I was predictably sucked in.  Granted, the data is based upon those who vote in the accompanying poll, so it’s not scientific, but it looks as if though the sample size is getting large enough where there is a pretty accurate view of who cheers for what sports teams across the country.  (Note: be sure to also check out the separate “United Countries of Baseball” map discussed on Strange Maps and Deadspin.)

Here are some observations from a look at the different CommonCensus Sports Maps:

(1) The teams that I like are pretty popular in general in terms of total votes.  The Bulls are the #1 NBA team, the Bears are the #3 NFL team (after the Patriots and Cowboys), Illinois is #9 out of all NCAA Division 1-A football teams, and the Blackhawks are the #4 NHL team (maybe there is hope for hockey in Chicago when Bill Wirtz finally relinquishes his throne).  Not surprisingly, my White Sox are the exception as the #15 MLB team out of 30.  If I were a “Cox” fan, I might be enthralled with the Cubs’ #2 MLB ranking (after only the Red Sox), but since I’m not, I just have to shake my head at how the severe the nation’s lemming epidemic is today.

(2) The baseball map is the most fascinating since it really shows the regional rivalry lines.  Growing up as a Sox fan on the South Side, I honestly had no clue how seriously people in Downstate Illinois take the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry until I went to college in Champaign.  I think that most Cubs fans that grow up in the Chicago area look at the White Sox the way, by comparison, Yankees fans look at the Red Sox (just complete and utter disdain for the other team and their fans) while the Cardinals are more like the Yankees’ view of the Mets (really strong dislike).  There are some individual exceptions to this (i.e. the Cubs fans that always love to claim that “they just don’t pay attention to the Sox at all” or the contingent that merely uses Wrigley Field as a happy hour spot before hitting the other bars in Wrigleyville) , but that seems to be the general rule in Chicagoland.  That changes when you get towards the center of the State of Illinois, where I could see clearly that the feelings between Cubs and Cardinals fans are a lot more intense, showing that proximity breeds contempt.  As you can tell by the baseball map and drilling down into the statistical breakouts, the state pretty much splits between the Cubs and Cardinals just south of the U of I campus, with the Cubs also taking most of Iowa and Indiana.  White Sox Nation is relegated to the space bounded by Madison Street, I-80, I-294, and Michigan City (we like to keep our club nice and exclusive).

(3) For college football, the Chicago area is not surprisingly dominated by Illinois, Notre Dame, and Northwestern, followed by other Big Ten teams plus Northern Illinois.  Most of the figures pass the smell test with the exception of the SEC schools along with ACC counterpart Florida State, who seem to be severely underrepresented in terms of votes at this point in time.  I would make a joke that the Confederacy is just moving on from 8-track players, but Arkansas State and East Carolina actually have significantly more votes than Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, and Florida State.  Any sports fan with any semblance of the college football world would know those figures must be inaccurate.  The CommonCensus project coordinators ought to take a look at this because those numbers from the South are completely out of whack with all of the other regions of the country.

(4) In terms of the NFL, the Bears take most of Illinois as expected, although I thought that I’d see a bit more Bears dominance in the northern part of Indiana since there’s a lot more entrenched history there compared to the Colts (much like the baseball Cardinals were the favorite team for generations of southerners prior to the Braves moving to Atlanta).  Still, the Bears appear to be one of the few teams that has a substantive fan presence in nearly every major market (with the exception of Green Bay, Wisconsin, of course).

Anyway, I find all of the data and corresponding maps extremely fascinating.  I recommend for everyone to take the time to vote in the poll so that the quality of the results can continue to be improved.