Saturday, December 31, 2011

UCLA vs. Illinois--Gamblers' Nightmare

In bowl history, there have been few like this afternoon's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, pitting UCLA (6-7) against Illinois (6-6) in San Francisco.

How often do you have a bowl game where both teams are headed by interim coaches because both head coaches were sacked at the end of the season? Another coaching problem with Illinois--four assistant coaches publicly and angrily griping about contracts. Just imagine what practices are like in both camps. Bowl game practices are supposed to help get teams ready for spring practice, but both these teams are so riddled with question marks due to regime changes, these practices are meaningless.

For those who are wagering, what do you use as a guage? For instance, Illinois has a superb defense--ranked No.7 in the nation--but amid all the turmoil, will the unit be at its best? Also, the team's best runner, Jason Ford, isn't playing, putting that offense out of sync. UCLA has a better offense, but at times it has completely and inexplicably vanished. How will that offense play?

Illinois is favored by three, but why? The coaching uncertainties taint all guages. There are so many X factors, this game could go in any direction. Both teams could easily come out flat.

Be smart. Don't bet this game.

One last thing. There's the bowl-name issue. Was there ever a worse name then the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl? Smart alecks have come up with some other titles for this one--like the Waste of Time Bowl. Gamblers have dubbed this one, for obvious reasons, the X Factor Bowl.  My favorite? The Who Cares? Bowl.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Washington vs. Baylor: Closer Than You Think

A 9.5 favorite against Washington (7-5), No. 16 Baylor (9-3) should win what promises to be an offensive explosion in tonight's Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. When the offenses are on the field, the defenses will be clearly overmatched. To put it mildly, both defenses stink.

Which defense is worse? Probably Baylor's, but not by much. Among 120 teams, Baylor's defense is ranked No. 114. Only twice has this defense given up less than 400 yards. The key Washington stat:  its pass defense is nearly bottom of the barrell--No.116, surrendering an average of 283.8 yards per game. Certainly Baylor QB and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III can't wait to attack that lousy Washington secondary. He's looking to beef up stats that are already gaudy--72% completions, nearly 4,000 passing yards, 36 TD passes and only six picks.

Washington has weapons to take advantage of Baylor's bad defense, mainly RB Chris Polk (1,341 yards) and QB Keith Price, who broke the school single-season record for TD passes with 29. On the down side, though, both tailed off in the second half.

Common sense says favor a Baylor team that beat Oklahoma, Texas and TCU, fueled by an offense led by a Heisman winner that averages nearly 44 points a game. But Washington, isn't that bad. Remember three of its five losses were to Top Ten teams--Stanford, Oregon and USC.

Everyone keeps pointing out that Baylor finished with a five-game-win streak. But that's not necessarily a plus. In bowl games, momentum isn't that much of a factor since teams have nearly a month off between games. Playing in a bowl game is almost like starting a new season.

Something else to keep in mind about RG III. After a month of making the celebrity rounds as the new Heisman winner, he might not be his usual, highly-focused self. Quite possibly a razor-sharp RG III might not show up at the Alamo Bowl.

Being a big bowl-game underdog shouldn't bother Washington. Remember, in last year's Holiday Bowl, as a 14-point dog, Washington whipped Nebraska 19-7, with RB Polk running for 177 yards. Look for Baylor to win a shootout but Washington, which has a clear edge in special teams, should beat that 9.5 spread.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Cal vs Texas-betting tips

Texas is favored by three points in tonight's Holiday Bowl in San Diego. But there are sound reasons to favor underdog Cal in this battle of 7-5 teams.

This is not the usual Cal team that plays well in the first part of the season and then fizzles in the second half. This time the Bears won three out of their last four, the lone loss to a superior Stanford team by only three points. So Cal is bolstered by something new--late-season momentum. On the other hand, Texas started strong but limped down the home stretch. Momentum is not on its side.

The Texas offense was the problem. Starting QB Garrett Gilbert clashed with coach Mack Brown and quit the team, leaving the Longhorns to alternate inexperienced youngsters, David Ash and Cash McCoy, who have not been impressive. Both running backs, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, were banged up late in the season, which slowed the offense even more. Both RBs, however, should be healthy for this game.

What success Texas has had is mostly due to its rugged defense, which is ranked third nationally. That defense is Texas' ace in the hole. It could derail the Cal offense, which is based on the running of mini powerhouse Isi Sofele (1,270 yards, 9 TDs) and the passing of Zach Maynard. After a shaky mid season, Maynard calmed sown, improved his accuracy and stopped throwing picks. What happened is that Cal coach Jeff Tedford shifted the offensive emphasis to the running and took some of the pressure off Maynard.

Cal's defense, which is ranked 14th, is among the best in the country. It has blossomed in the second half, holding three out of the last six opponents to ten points or less. Strongest against the run, it's been vulnerable to quality passing attacks which, however, Texas doesn't have.

Something else in Cal's favor: normally a notoriously bad road team, the Bears have played much better on the road this season. Also, because the game is being played in the Bears' home state, Cal has a slight home field advantage.

The key to the game, aside from the usual X factor, turnovers, is the performance of QB Maynard. If he plays well, which means making smart decisions and few mistakes, Cal should win. Quite simply, betting on Cal is betting on Maynard.

Another tip. Though Holiday Bowls traditionally have been shooutouts, this one, because of the two potent defenses, shapes up as a more low-scoring contest. That means it makes sense to bet the under--47.5.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

USC Minus Kalil Equals No National Title

USC has it all wrong. They've been celebrating the wrong Matt. Their No. 1 Matt, their best player, isn't QB Matt Barkley but left tackle Matt Kalil.

The big news regarding the Trojans' next season isn't Barkley's announcement just before Christmas that he's coming back but Kalil's Dec. 15 decision, with much less fanfare, that he's not coming back. Instead he's making himself available for the NFL draft. Good for SC that Barkley will be back at QB, but not good that Kalil won't be around to protect his blind side. Of course, linemen don't get the applause offensive skill players get, so Kalil didn't get many headlines. That's a shame since left tackles this dominant don't come along very often.

Why did Barkley look so good so consistently? Why was he able to break the school record, passing for 39 TDs? Why was WR Robert Woods able to crack the Pac 12 pass-catching record with 111? Yes, Barkley did some fancy passing but phenomenal protection played a huge part in his success. SC led the country in sacks allowed with eight. The boulder of this stone wall of an offensive line was Kalil who, incredibly, didn't allow a sack. Barkley never had to worry about his blind side. Without this level of protection, Barkley and Woods wouldn't have been running wild. This line rivals some of the legendary units of coach John McKay's teams back in the day.

If you want to see how left tackle should be played at the collegiate level, look up Kalil's highlights on YouTube and you'll see him flattening a parade of opponents. The NFL sees him as the next surest thing after THE sure thing, Stanford QB Andrew Luck, the certain No. 1 draft pick.. Look for Kalil to be drafted second, by the Vikings, to protect young QB Christian Ponder's blind side for many years. Now 6-foot-7, 295 pounds, Kalil will bulk up to 320-330.

Some members of that great SC line will be returning next season, but there's no one of Kalil's caliber. It's not clear who'll replace him but whoever it is won't be as good. Without impenetrable protection, Barkley will be vulnerable to sacks and will probably throw more picks than the seven he threw this year. A less efficient Barkley will likely translate into losses..

National title for USC next season? Without Kalil, Mr. Blind Side, no way.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Boise Sate vs. Arizona State--Strange Game

Don't listen the the pre-MAACO Las Vegas Bowl hype. Boise State, 11-1 and 8th ranked, doesn't want to be in this bottom-tier bowl, playing Arizona State, a 6-6, Pac12 team that suffered such an ugly collapse at the end of the season that its coach, Dennis Erickson, was fired.

Boise had its sights on a big-time BCS bowl, but a 36-35  loss to TCU on a missed field goal ended that dream. This isn't even a good non-BCS bowl. Its one of  those pre-Christmas bowls, which have zero prestige. For Boise this is deja vu. It was stuck in this same stinker last year, again due to a loss because of a missed field goal. Last year, Boise rose to the occasion and walloped Utah, 26-3. When they got word they'd be bowling in Vegas again, you just know they were moaning: "Oh no not again!" But all you heard from them was that "glad to be in Vegas" malarkey.

Nobody gives Arizona State, a 14-point underdog, much of a chance. With fired leader Erickson coaching his last game, things do look bleak. It's hard to imagine the Sun Devils entering this game with a positive additude, particularly with their best player, Vontaze Burfict in Erickson's doghouse for misbehaving in the season-ending Cal loss. Burfict might not play, which robs Arizona State of one of its best weapons.

It's hard to tell if Boise is really that much better than Arizona State. Boise is a good team playing in a lousy conference. They finished the season manhandling an awful New Mexico team, 45-0. Manhandling bad teams is what Boise does best.  Arizona State did start 6-2 and was ranked in the Top 25. The Sun Devils' QB, Brock Osweiler, is one of the best in the country, boasting stats as good as Boise's heralded  QB Kellen Moore.

With the Sun Deils in such turmoil, it's hard to imagine them winning outright, but it's likely they'll at least beat the 14-point spread. Remember Boise is no better than a fourth-or-fifth place Pac 12 team.. Another thing to keep in mind--early in the season, the Sun Devils beat USC. The talent is there. If their mental attitude is right they could give Boise a good battle.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Though it's only a preseason game, tonight's Lakers-Clippers matchup is crucial for the Lakers--easily the most important in many years.

In Monday's game, the Clippers were the big bad alley cat and the Lakers were the helpless mouse. The cat toyed with the mouse. That 114-95 Clipper win could have been worse. To quiet worried fans who are equating the Lakers with the Titanic, the team needs a strong showing tonight.

But forget all that.

Suddenly this just another meaningless pre-season game. There's been a startling development today, one that's potentially catastrophic. The Laker's best player, Kobe Bryant, isn't playing. Turns out there's a torn ligament in the wrist of his right hand-- his shooting hand--which he hurt in a spill in Monday's game. Depending on the severity of the damage, he could be out for a few days, or a few weeks. Without Bryant the Lakers have no chance tonight. They'll lose for sure, probably by more points than Monday night.

Looking beyond this game, though, where are the Lakers? Are they the Titanic, having just bounced off an iceberg? Possibly. Most likely Bryant's injury--even if it's not maximum severity--will hamper his shooting for a while, cutting down on the team's early-season point production. Remember center Andrew Bynum is suspended for the first five games. So without him, and with a subpar Bryant, the Lakers could be off to a wobbly start, something they can't afford in this shortened, 66-game season.

Bryant's injury and Bynum's five-game absence will magnify the deficiency at point guard. Aging Derek Fisher is the team's glaring weakness. In Phil Jackson's triangle, which didn't rely on a point guard, masking Fisher's limitations wasn't that difficult. But in new coach Mike Brown's more standard system, he will really be exposed.

On defense, Fisher is particularly a liability. He just can't keep up with the league's speedy point guards. With offensive production down, the Lakers' will need a stronger defense. Most likely, they're not going to get it.

Things are different now. There are a bunch of new players. There's no more Lamar Odom and former starter Ron Artest--or Metta World Peace--is older, heavier and slower and adjusting to his new role, leader of the second unit. Amid these tumultuous changes the Lakers are tryng to learn coach Brown's new system, which stresses defense. This team is used to the triangle, with its slower pace, unique spacing and unusual passing demands. But the triangle is history. According to some, so are the Lakers.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Pac12 Basketball Stinks

You know the Pac12 is in trouble when all it has to brag about is a loss--Stanford falling to No.1 Syracuse last month. Call it a near victory, which sounds better. Stanford led most of the way before Syracuse took control in the last few minutes, winning 69-63.

For Pac12 men's hoops this brush with victory in a game against an elite team is as good as it gets. The conference has nothing else to brag about. Any discussion about Pac12 basketball winds up listing negative after negative. Most damning is that the conference hasn't has a team in the AP Top 25 for a couple of weeks. Another black eye: no Pac12 team has a victory over a Top 25 team. There's more. In conference ratings, the Pac 12 is shockingly low, down there with the obscure doormat leagues.

This abyss was unexpected. The season began so hopefully, with UCLA, Cal and Arizona appearing on most pre-season Top 25 lists. Then reality set in.

UCLA was the first to flop, with shocking losses to rinky-dink teams. Its best player, Reeves Nelson, always a fragile head case, spun out of control and was kicked off the team. Center Josh Smith, a key player, showed up fat and slow-footed and is still many weeks away from reaching his top shape. Aided by a soft schedule, UCLA has limped to 5-5, way below expectaions.

Considered by some writers the best team in the conference, Cal, featuring defensive whiz Jorge Gutierrez and sharpshooter Allen Crabbe, has also stumbled, losing to two Top 25 teams. The Missouri loss was a slaughter but the Bears were nipped by San Diego State during the short suspension of starting power forward Richard Solomon. Then No. 24 and the lone Pac12 presence in the AP Top 25, Cal--and the conference--fell off the list. Look behind that glossy 9-2 record and you see that the Bears have been gorging on little teams. Adding wins in conference play may not be easy. They just got some more bad news about Solomon, that he's out for a few weeks with a stress fracture in his foot. 

Arizona's ranking was based on its hotshot freshmen blooming quickly. They haven't, which has contributed to the Wildcats' shaky start. Washington, with solid veteran Abdul Gabby and talented freshman Tony Wroten, has promise, but getting wiped out at home last weekend by lowly South Dakota State, 92-73, raises some red flags.

Amid all this gloom, picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference, Stanford, with its 9-1 record, has been a pleasant surprise. But are they for real? Boasting size, depth and some scrappy young players like freshman Chasson Randle and sophmore point guard Aaron Bright, they have potential. But the Cardinal, which has yet to beat a good team, could also crumble against conference competition.

As you might expect, since the Pac 12 has no headline-grabbing teams, it also has no headline-grabbing stars. The elite teams are wobbly and the rest of the league is mediocre. This shapes up to be one of the worst conference seasons in many years. And just wait until March Madness. Pac12 fans won't just be mad, they'll be embarrassed. The conference will be lucky to get three invites.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Denver vs. Tebow--For Gamblers

If you're going to bet the Denver-New England game, forget all that Tebow-has-a-pipeline-to-Jesus nonsense. There are five reasons teams win or lose--talent, injuries, play-calling, mental attitude and mistakes. Jesus has nothing to do with it.

After consulting with astute members of the gambling community, it's clear that the absolute key to this game is the availability of two injured players in the Denver secondary--saftey Brian Dawkins and corner Andre Goodman. To win, Denver has to limit Patriot QB Tom Brady's passes to WR Wes Welker and TE Ron Gronkowski. Without Dawkins and Goodman it will be nearly impossible for Denver to win. Even with that pair at less than 100% it will be tough.

This game is all about the Patriots' passing vs. Denver's secondary. The Broncos have a chance if they keep the Pats' potent offense at bay. That will keep the score down and within range of Denver's formula--strong running backed by tough defense.

A big reason the Broncos has won all these games is, quite simply, they haven't faced any superb pass offenses. Their lone encounter--against the Lions' passing game--resulted in the only loss in the Tebow streak. Dealing with somebody like Brady is a first for the Broncos. Denver will score against the awful Patriot defense, but can they keep pace if the Broncos' secondary isn't healthy?

Bet at the last second. If Dawkins and Goodman aren't playing or seem too damaged to play, go for the Patriots. Against a banged-up Denver secondary, New England will easily cover that 6-7 point spread.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Back To The Bad 49ers?

When a good team loses to a bad team, it raises red flags, like early in the season when the horrible Rams marched all over the Saints. Turns out, though, that loss was just an aberration. The Saints really are good.

How about the 49ers, the big success story of the season?  Despite being a solid favorite, they laid an egg Sunday in Arizona, losing 21-19. Not only are the Cardinals a bad team, but they were led by an obscure backup QB, John Skelton. This nobody, howled Niner fans, beat the Niners? He certainly did. In the second half, Skelton, who began the game with a puny 57.3 passer rating, turned into Tom Brady, using a sharp passing attack to turn a 19-7 deficit into a 21-19 victory.

Does this loss mean the bubble has burst, that the Niners are sinking back into medocrity, that the clock has struck midnight and QB Alex Smith's Cinderella days are over? Here are the reasons why it's probably not doomsday for the Niners.

First of all, this could be just a normal letdown game. Last week, the Niners did cinch a playoff spot, so their intensity level would naturally drop a bit, which was evident in the fourth quarter, when they blew the game. Also, the law of averages might have finally caught up with them. They were overdue for a stinker. They haven't really had one this season. Those losses to Dallas and Baltimore don't really qualify.

Clearly, in the Arizona game, the defense, which uncharacteristically failed down the stretch, was a problem. It wasn't its same old swarming, killer self. That's at least partly because its leader, LB Patrick Willis, was out with a hamstring pull, missing only the second game of his career. Without him, the defense, with replacement Larry Grant, loses some punch.

The Niner offense wasn't the same either--on purpose. With an eye to the playoffs, trying to show teams they can do more than run, coach Jim Harbaugh experimented was a pass-first offense, limiting his primaary weapon, RB Frank Gore, to just 10 carries. The experiment wasn't a big success. Against a weak pass defense, Smith was just 18 for 37, for 175 yards and was alarmingly off target all day. In the next few games, look for the Niners to continue to try to polish their passing.

The negative buzz from the skeptics may continue after Monday night's game against Pittsburgh, which could be another loss. If Smith had trouble against the Cardinals' defense, imagine his frustrations trying to penetrate that steel-curtain pass defense. In the Niners' favor, though, is that Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger's sprained ankle may keep him out of the game.

So losing to the lowly Cardinals doesn't necessarily mean the 49ers are regressing. It probably just means their foot is off the gas pedal and, with the regular season in the rear view mirror, they're in cruise control and the focus is just on what's up ahead--the playoffs.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lamar (Boo Hoo) Odom

Lamar Odom is 32 years old. Lately, though, he's been behaving like a three-year-old. Boston Celtics' Glen Davis is called Big Baby. Wrong. Odom is the real big baby.

Last Thursday, when he was still a Laker, Odom was included in a trade for Chris Paul that was obviously assembled on the fly. General Manager Mitch Kupchak didn't have time to alert Odom that he was being shipped to New Orleans as part of a three-team deal. No time to soothe hurt feelings. So Odom found out about the trade second-hand, from a reporter. But no sooner than the trade was assembled, it was nixed by NBA commisioner David Stern. So within hours, the multi-skilled forward was a Laker, not a Laker, then a Laker again.

That was too much for Odom's sensitive psyche. After the trade collapsed he was expected to report to training camp, to a team that had just tried to unload him. He brooded publically, moaning in a interview with radio-talk show host Stephen A. Smith that he felt disrespected. Angry, Odom refused to report to Laker camp and demanded a trade. So Kupchak, in a hastily assembled deal, sent him to Dallas, essentially for nothing in return.

Kupchak no doubt felt that an unhappy Odom would be a liability to the Lakers. Under normal conditions,
he mentally checks out from time to time and plays badly. A brooding Odom would definitely have those lapses more often. Bottom line. Like a spoiled, sulking kid throwing a tantrum, he forced the trade.

Odom should be ashamed of himself. What an infantile whiner. How unprofessional, how selfish. Just because Kupchak didn't have time to hold his hand through the first trade talks, he didn't want to be a Laker any more.

Odom, who's been traded twice before--by the Clippers and Miami--still doesn't get it. The NBA is a multi-billion-dollar business. The Lakers were making a business deal. Nothing personal. No place for emotions. But he let his emotions come bursting in and crash went the Lakers.

Now there's a big hole in the Laker rotation where Odom, the NBA's reigning Sixth Man of The Year, used to be. The Lakers signed ex-Pacer Josh McRoberts (7.4 points, 5.3 rebounds) to fill the gap. An OK player, he's nowhere as skilled and versatile as Odom.

The Dwight Howard deal is dead and the Chris Paul deal is almost dead. So after all this, the end result is that the Lakers are without one of their best players. So the team isn't as good as it was last year and Odom is now a member of the Dallas Mavericks, the team that dismembered the Lakers in the playoffs. He's in great shape, but the Lakers......?

Thanks a lot, Lamar.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

UCLA's Mora--Not The Best Choice

On the Wow! scale, UCLA's hiring Jim Mora Jr. as its new football coach a few days ago ranks way down, somewhere between No Way and Who?

This venerable program deserves better than a NFL has-been who can't even find a job in pro football. After he was kicked out of Seattle early last year so the Seahawks could hire Pete Carroll, he interviewed for defensive coordinator positions in Denver and Philadelphia that he didn't get. He's been working as a TV broadcaster while keeping his eyes open for coaching jobs.

Let's face it. If he was that good at coaching wouldn't he, at the young age of 50, have a prime job or at least be in demand? UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero offered Mora the position because the guys he really wanted turned him down. Under the gun, Guerrero, who really bungled the coaching search, had to hire some one right away. Mora was the fall-back choice. But he didn't let his ego get in the way. When someone is offering a five-year-contract worth $12 million, you swallow your pride and leap at it.

Mora is well schooled in the pro game, but the difference between coaching pro and college is night and day. In the NFL you get to work with skilled, grown men all day, while in college you deal with youngsters who are students part time and athletes for only a few hours a day. Mora may be familiar with pro athletes, but you can't treat college kids like pros.

So Mora starts out with a major handicap. Not only does he have limited college experience--a year as a grad assistant in Washington back in 1984--but, because of his career pro focus, he's doesn't know the college game or the intracacies of its most crucial aspect, recruiting.

On the recruiting trail, Mora does have one advantage that's bound to help him lure hot prospects. Kids with an eye on the NFL might think it's a smart move to team up with a coach who spent his career in the pros. You can be sure that Mora is hoping some four-or-five-star QB prospect--the potential backbone of a team--will think that way.

Naturally, everybody is making comparisions with USC hiring Pete Carroll back in 2000, when he was an out-of-work ex-NFL coach. But Carroll lucked into a position at a premier football school. Mora, however, is taking over at a college where basketball has higher priority, the football facilities aren't first rate and the  administration isn't fully committed to the kind of funding that would keep a program consistently in the Top 25. Carroll was set up in a prime position to succeed, while Mora starts out in a hole, surrounded by so many obstacles.

For Mora, it's scrambling time. While engaging in some heavy-duty recruiting, he has to familiarize himself with a new position and learn the complexities of a new sport. Can he do it? Known to be an affable hard worker and a capable leader, he certainly can, particularly if he surrounds himself with a savvy staff. But it's not going to be easy.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why UCLA Can't Find a Football Coach

UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero has knocked on many doors trying to fill the vacant football coaching post. Boise State's Chris Petersen said no--again. Other prominent options--Houston's Kevin Sumlin and Miami's Al Golden didn't pan out.


How come prominent coaches aren't jumping at this job--a prestigious position at a big-time university?  Money has been a problem in the past, but not this time. The pot has been sweetened with a new batch of TV money, in addition to heftier booster contributions. So what's the problem?

Very simple. Too many negatives.

First of all, Rick Neuheisel didn't exactly leave a championship team behind. Fired coaches never do. So the new coach would inherit a program that has been chugging along in first gear for years, one badly in need of a major overhaul, one featuring some good players but no great players, one without a top-notch veteran at quarterback. What's so appealing about undertaking a massive rebuilding job, one that may take at least two years, in the uncomfortable heat of that huge LA spotlight? The coach's prestige would definitely take a beating for quite a while.

Meanwhile, the Pac 12 takes giant steps forward, with some hot new coaches--Washington State's Mike Leach and Arizona's Rich Rodriguez--joining the charge led by USC's Lane Kiffin and Oregon's Chip Kelly. In such fast company, it would be very easy for UCLA, with a few wrong moves, to get left in the dust. A candidate has to be thinking: "Is this something I really want to step into?"

Another big headache for the new coach is coping with revitalized USC. Challenging the Trojans will be as tough as it was in the heyday of Pete Carroll. So recruiting top local talent won't be easy. Neither will beating SC on the field. Neuheisel couldn't do it and look what happened to him.

Bucking USC isn't the only recruiting hassle that makes candidates think twice about the UCLA job. Young kids savor flashy, state-of-the-art faciliities, the kind that Oregon has boasted for years, that the University of California's Berkeley campus will offer next season. The Bruin facilities aren't awful, but they're nothing special either, certainly nothing that recruiters can use as a lure.

Then there's the age-old hurdle of UCLA's high academic standards. Many blue-chip athletes who are easily admitted to schools like Boise State and Houston have no chance of getting into UCLA. It's an extra and very important obstacle that some coaches just don't want to face.

Guerrero has only himself to blame for this mess. He's unprepared. What's happening now feels very last-minute. He should have seen this coming--as early as the diastrous Arizona game. Everybody else certainly did. An athletic director who's really on top of things would have had the hire-a-coach wheels quietly in motion in mid-season, when Neuheisel was clearly hanging by a thread.

What's funny is that there are plenty of coaches who would kill for this job--capable, creative guys who could turn this program around. But they're not big names. So what? Stanford found Jim Harbaugh buried in the University of San Diego. Oregon's Chip Kelly was an offensive coordinator at New Hampshire when he was discovered by Mike Bellotti. Good candidates are out there. Guerrero just has to do his homework and find them.

Right now Guerrero is looking at Jim Mora Jr., a failed NFL coach. Not a wow! or sexy choice, but USC went in that direction about a decade ago, with Pete Carroll, and that turned out OK. At this point Guerrero doesn't have much choice. He's running out of options.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

In Defense of Ndamukong Suh

The Detriot Lions' defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh may be King-Kong like in the way he often swats offensive linemen aside like rag dolls, but he's not the monster he's made out to be.

At the moment he's the NFL's premier villain. Suh, who, incidentally, wasn't hurt when he crashed his 1970 Chevy into a tree in Portland, Oregon around 1a.m. Sunday morning,  is not only at the top of opposing fans' hate list. The rest of the NFL hates him too.  He was voted the league's dirtiest player--by the other players. Much of that reputation isn't based upon plays involving offensive linemen but on Suh being fined for illegal hits on quarterbacks Jake Delhomme, Jake Cutler and Andy Dalton.

At the moment Suh is serving a two-game suspension for a Thanksgiving Day transgression. In the loss to Green Bay, he was caught first dribbling the head of Packers' offensive lineman Evan Dietrich against the turf and then, moments later, using him as a doormat. It didn't help Suh that the video of this nasty encounter went viral.

In Suh's defense, he was just retaliating. There's a DVD going around that focuses just on Suh on every play in various games. Because he's such a force--the defensive rookie of the year last year--he's constantly double-teamed and singled out for special attention by blockers. In the Green Bay game, before he pounded Dietrich, he was the victim of some brutal, underhanded hits, including some punches, which officials either missed or didn't bother to penalize. On this DVD, featuring an array of Suh plays, including action in games against the Carolina Panthers and the 49ers, he absorbs a lot of punishment, some of it clearly illegal.

On Thanksgiving, Suh was in raging payback mode and simply got caught. That happens a lot, a player getting flagged for a penalty but the officials missing what an opponent did to ignite the illegal reaction. Offensive linemen  know Suh has a bad temper, so they goad him into overreactimg, hoping to get him penalized, ejected from the game or suspended. All of the above happened to Suh in the Green Bay game.

Don't get me wrong. Suh is no saint. Those crunching quarterback hits for which he was fined did cross the line. But in many instances, he was neither the bully nor the instigator but just a victim fighting back.

Friday, December 2, 2011

In NFL's AFC West--Props to Raiders' Jackson and Broncos' Allen

San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh is a shoo-in for the NFL coach of the year award. What he's done in his first season is miraculous--molding a playoff team out of essentially the same misguided bunch of 49ers that underperformed for Mike Singletary last season.

But should Harbaugh be a slam-dunk winner?

Hardly anybody is noticing, but right across the bay another rookie coach, the Oakland Raiders' Hue Jackson, is also doing a bang-up job. Leading the AFC West by one game, his team is poised to finally make the playoffs for the first time since their 2002 Super Bowl year. Without an overwhelming favorite like Harbaugh in the mix, Jackson might get serious consideration for the Coach of the Year award--assuming the Raiders don't falter that is.

A major Oakland stumble is unlikely, though. Under the guidance of Jackson, who honed his coaching chops in college at Cal and USC, the Raiders have become a solid, consistent team. For the first time since their Super Bowl team back in the last decade, the Raiders look well-coached. Even in their 8-8 season last year, they seemed shaky much of the time.

You can argue that Jackson has had a tougher job than Harbaugh. All he had to do with the Niners was upgrade their mind-set, expose them to some sensible coaching and erase all remnants of Singletary's chaotic, fear-filled regime. But Jackson's path to success has been a veritable minefield.

First of all, he got a job that nobody else wanted. Eager but thoroughly inexperienced as a head coach, he was owner Al Davis' umpteenth choice. Nobody wanted the job because nobody wanted to deal with Davis' notorious meddling. Then Davis did Jackson a big favor. He died on Oct.8, removing what was perhaps Jackson's biggest obstacle.

Jackson started out coping with a coach's worst nightmare--quarterback troubles. The Raiders weren't going anywhere with QB Jason Campbell, who broke his collarbone in their October, 24-17 win over Cleveland. So when the Bengals loosened their grip on veteran QB Carson Palmer's throat, the Raiders pounced. After a rough breaking-in period, Palmer has shaken off the rust and turned into the best QB in the AFC West.

That's not all. Giving Jackson a crash course in being a Raider QB was difficult enough. Jackson has also had to run this offense without its No. 1 weapon. Basically a running team, the Raiders have been operating without their best runner--banged-up Darren McFadden. So far, so good.

One reason Jackson is flying under the radar is because any attention give to the AFC West invariably focuses on the Denver Broncos and their QB Tim Tebow, who's a lousy passer but a savvy runner, an exceptional leader and a magician in clutch, fourth-quarter situations.

Ironically, Tebow is not only keeping the spotlight from Jackson, he's also hogging media attention that belongs to another Bronco--defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

Tebow may be the star, but he'd be nowhere without Allen, whose unit keeps opponents out of the end zone. Look at November, when the Broncos won four games. That crack defense surrendered only 60 points the entire month. Tebow wouldn't be in a position to orchestrate fourth-quarter heroics if the other team was scoring 25-30 points a game. In low-scoring contests, Tebow, with his limited skills, reigns.

If any other Bronco outside of Tebow gets credit it's head coach Jim Fox. So let's here it for two unsung heroes of the AFC West--Raiders' head coach Hue Jackson and Broncos' defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. They deserve some recognition too.