Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Preview: Michigan Wolverines vs. Florida Gators

Coming off successful 2018 campaigns, the Florida Gators and Michigan Wolverines will meet in Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

After a devastating blowout loss to their rivals in Columbus, Michigan looks to cap their season with 11 wins and a victory over the Gators and first-year head coach Dan Mullen. As for Florida, reaching double-digit wins for the first time since 2015 would likely be considered a major success for Mullen, given last season’s disappointing 4-7 finish under Jim McElwain.

Michigan Wolverines

Running back Karan Higdon, defensive end Rashan Gary and Big Ten Linebacker of the Year Devin Bush (each first-team All-Big Ten selections) will sit out the Peach Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft. Defensively, this will be a massive blow for a Michigan team that relies heavily on its front four and linebackers to win games. Look for senior defensive end Chase Winovich and junior end Carlo Kemp to step up in Gary’s absence. Considering that the Gators average more than 200 rushing yards per game, Bush will be missed in run support against leading Florida rusher Lamical Perine (cousin of Washington Redskins running back Samaje Perine).

Offensively, junior Wolverines running back Chris Evans will have to step up to fill the void left by Sarasota native Higdon, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season. Spelling Evans will likely be junior running back Tru Wilson, whose speed could be used on sweeps and end arounds. Higdon’s absence will be felt, thus quarterback Shea Patterson has to be accurate down the field in obvious passing situations.

Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins will likely be Patterson’s go-to targets through the air. Considering that the Gators rank No. 10 in the nation in passing defense, allowing roughly 175 yards per game, the Wolverines will need to have success running the football on early downs.

It’s highly unlikely that Jim Harbaugh’s entire offensive identity will shift without Higdon. Evans has been successful in previous seasons, but Higdon’s bell-cow status in 2018 meant a lack of opportunities for the Indianapolis native. If Evans can regain some confidence from 2017, the Wolverines should be able to control the clock and game.

Florida Gators

A win in the 2018 Peach Bowl would not only give first-year head coach Dan Mullen 10 wins, it would also give the Gators a tremendous amount of momentum heading into the offseason for recruiting. After the Gators’ disappointing 4-7 finish last season, Mullen and Florida should be pleased with their New Year’s Six matchup against the Wolverines.

The Gators will need to rely heavily on their defense and ground attack to beat Michigan. Given the Wolverines’ success defending the run (15th in FBS), look for Florida to involve Perine in the passing game on screens and wheel routes. Bush’s absence means Michigan will lack speed at the linebacker position; and if the Wolverines can’t get to the quarterback with their front four, something the team struggled to do against Ohio State, the Gators may be able to take advantage of Michigan’s isolated corners with slants and crossing routes.

Pressure on the passer from Winovich, Kemp and linebacker Josh Uche will be important in making Florida one dimensional offensively. If Florida’s offense can successfully run the ball and put themselves in third down and manageable, their lack of weapons in the passing game won’t be exposed, helping to keep the ball from Michigan’s offense.

Prediction

Both teams will need to be successful on the ground to establish balance offensively. Gary’s absence for the Wolverines should allow the Gators to run more efficiently, but the difference in this game should be Patterson’s ability to throw on the run to Peoples-Jones, Collins and Zach Gentry. His downfield accuracy and ability to extend plays should give the Wolverines an offensive edge over the Gators.

Michigan 27, Florida 20

 

Why Jabrill Peppers Isn’t out of the Heisman Race Yet

While the chase for the Heisman Trophy is currently dominated by quarterbacks, Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers continues to make his way up the list.

Expectations couldn’t be higher in Ann Arbor as the 2016 college football season continues to play out. In Jim Harbaugh’s first year at his alma mater last year, Michigan won double-digit games (10) for the first time since Brady Hoke’s debut season as the Wolverines’ head coach in 2011. Michigan finished that 2011 season with 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.

Yet, when the Wolverines fired Hoke in 2014, it wasn’t because of defensive inefficiency. Michigan gave up a little more than 22 points per game that season and had their offense been up to par, Hoke’s finale in Ann Arbor probably would’ve ended with at least a bowl appearance, if not a postseason victory.

Nevertheless, now in his second season, Harbaugh is putting his top five 2016 recruiting class to good use. It’s a class that includes No. 1 overall prospect and five-star defensive end Rashan Gary; and aside adding a plethora of young talent, the Wolverines returned eight offensive and six defensive starters from 2015. But of the 14 returning starters, 13 of them have a position attached to their name. One, however, can’t be identified by the side of the ball he plays on, nor a position on the field.

That player is Jabrill Peppers, who said at the Wolverines’ media day in August regarding what position he plays, “I’d just say athlete.”

Michigan recruited Peppers as a defensive back, and the expectation coming into his first season (2014) was that he would play on one side of the ball. Yet, after playing seemingly every position on the field in 2015, Peppers already has 33 tackles, two sacks, 246 punt return yards and 95 kick return yards in 2016. He also averages 12 yards per carry on offense.

Through five games this season and despite being down 21-7 in the first quarter to Colorado, the Wolverines have controlled every opponent they’ve faced. As Michigan works its way through a trio of tough Big Ten road games later this season, don’t be surprised if Peppers sees a massive increase in usage.

Despite the fact that dual-threat quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson currently own the spotlight, Michigan will likely be a legitimate national championship contender come late November. If the Wolverines can defeat a tough Ohio State team in Columbus on Nov. 26th and win the Big Ten championship, Peppers (or “Charles Woodson 2.0” as he’s referred to in Ann Arbor) will likely receive national recognition for his role as a major catalyst on both sides of the ball for Jim Harbaugh’s second-year squad.

Don’t count Peppers out of the Heisman race yet.

Previewing The Top Matchups In College Football’s Opening Weekend (2016-17)

The start of the college football season is roughly three weeks away, and opening weekend has more than a few intriguing matchups.

Oklahoma Sooners vs. Houston Cougars | Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016 | 12 p.m. (ET)

NRG Stadium in Houston will host one of the more highly anticipated “neutral site” games of the 2016 season. Houston head coach Tom Herman will look to build on an impressive 13-1 debut campaign last season, and had it not been for an underwhelming offensive performance on the road against UConn last November, the Cougars would’ve likely been in last season’s College Football Playoff.

Despite losing their top cornerback, William Jackson III, to the NFL Draft, Houston returns a plethora of playmakers at key positions. Senior quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who led the Cougars in both rushing and passing a season ago, will try to lead Houston into uncharted territory for non-power five schools in the playoff era. The Cougars’ sound, 38-24 defeat of Heisman Trophy contender Dalvin Cook and the Florida State Seminoles in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl last season is proof that they have the skill to run the table this season.

Baker Mayfield’s Heisman campaign will have to be in full effect on Sept. 3, that is if he hopes to lead Oklahoma to its second straight playoff appearance. The Sooners only notable loss from last season is wide receiver Sterling Shepard, who the New York Giants selected with the 40th pick in the 2016 draft. Offensively, the Sooners should run like a well-oiled machine from the opening kickoff.

The returning running back duo of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon should take pressure off Mayfield and an unproven receiving corps. If all goes as many anticipate, the Sooners will outscore Houston in a duel between two dual-threat quarterbacks and high-powered offenses.

The Cougars probably have the advantage in both defensive personnel and staff, as Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando should be able to develop a relatively experienced Houston defense. If the Cougars defense can limit the impact of the Sooners’ rushing attack and upset Bob Stoops’ boys from Norman, Okla., Houston’s “Cinderella” run to the 2016-17 College Football Playoff will be very much alive.\

LSU Tigers vs. Wisconsin Badgers | Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016 | 3:30 p.m. (ET)

Both the Tigers and Badgers ended the 2015-16 season on a high note. Wisconsin upset Cody Kessler and the USC Trojans in the Holiday Bowl with a stellar defensive performance and game-winning field goal by Brazilian sophomore placekicker Rafael Gaglianone. As for LSU, running back Leonard Fournette carried the Tigers to a 56-27 win over Texas Tech with 212 rushing yards and five total touchdowns in the Texas Bowl.

Despite their mutual success, both teams will enter the 2016-17 season with vastly different expectations. Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave played his final year in Madison, Wis. last season and as a result, the Badgers aren’t expected to contend for a national championship this year. The good news for the Badgers and head coach Paul Chryst is that running back Corey Clement returns for his senior season after missing much of his junior year with a sports hernia injury.

Wisconsin’s consistently stellar defense and rushing attack will give them a chance to upset championship-minded LSU, but the Badgers offense lacks enough playmakers to keep pace with Fournette. Tigers quarterback Brandon Harris showed flashes of improvement last season, but the junior’s questionable decision-making and small stature make his job anything but secure, especially if LSU doesn’t live up to expectations early in the season.

If Wisconsin comes out with a win at Lambeau Field in college football’s opening weekend, it’ll be because they made it priority to limit Fournette, with Harris not being able to deliver through the air. However, this seems like somewhat of a dream scenario for the Badgers, as Alabama was the only team that slowed down the Heisman contender last year. Despite that Wisconsin’s defense seems to consistently maintain a high level play, they don’t have the ability, like the Crimson Tide, to bring in instant impact freshman year after year.

The Badgers defense will likely face its toughest task of the season against Fournette, and unfortunately, only one team in college football has shown the ability to limit his impact. That team consistently finishes with top-ranked recruiting classes. Even if Wisconsin is able to contain Fournette, his impact will likely be enough to lift LSU over a lackluster Badgers team.

Alabama Crimson Tide vs. USC Trojans | Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016 | 8 p.m. (ET)

The defending national champions will face a USC team that despite losing quarterback Cody Kessler to the NFL Draft, brought in a top ten recruiting class that boasts two five-star and twelve four-star recruits, according to 247Sports.

The Trojans will have versatile junior Adoree’ Jackson, who starts at cornerback and wide receiver, and is notorious for his game-breaking speed and agility on special teams. He averaged 10.5 yards per punt return and took two to the house last season. As a receiver, Jackson averaged 15.3 yards per catch and totaled 414 receiving yards in the 2015-16 season. On a team that is searching for its leader at quarterback, look for Jackson to be the go-to guy on an inexperienced, but extremely talented Trojans roster.

What needs to be said about the 2016-17 version of the Crimson Tide? Per usual, they lack a clear-cut starter at quarterback, but have a plethora of talented options to choose from. Among the bunch is redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, a former five-star recruit who could emerge from the pack. Sophomore Bo Scarbrough, a former five-star recruit in his own right, will likely become Alabama’s next bell-cow beast at running back, as sophomore Damien Harris will serve as an extremely talented backup.

The Crimson Tide have had unwavering success in season openers on neutral fields, and if their matchup with USC goes as predicted, Alabama should easily defeat the inexperienced Trojans on Sept. 3 in Arlington, Texas.

Life Experiences Have Led Brad Underwood Back To Oklahoma State

Once recruited to play at Oklahoma State, head basketball coach Brad Underwood is now part of the Cowboys family.

Kansas Jayhawks head basketball coach Bill Self didn’t succeed in his first recruiting job. Self played for Oklahoma State University from 1981-1985, and while a player in Stillwater, Okla., he got a chance to recruit current Cowboys head basketball coach, Brad Underwood. During Underwood’s visit to Stillwater, Self was his campus tour guide.

“Eskimo Joe’s was a part of the recruiting visit, and sorority row,” Underwood, who Oklahoma State hired in March, said. “Bill took me out, we joke and kid all the time that he wasn’t that good of a recruiter back then because I didn’t come here.”

The reason behind Underwood deciding not to attend school at Oklahoma State is because then Cowboys head coach Paul Hansen was on his way out the door. Underwood, instead, chose to play his collegiate basketball at Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan.

Before he undertakes his first season as Cowboys head coach, Underwood admitted that coaching against Self twice a year will be extremely difficult.

“When you win twelve straight championships (Big 12 regular season titles), it’s never easy coaching against friends and I had to do that this year in the NCAA tournament (against) a mentor, Bob Huggins of West Virginia.”

Before he accepted the Oklahoma State job roughly three months ago, Underwood’s Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin defeated Huggins’ Mountaineers in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Underwood said maintaining that competitive edge, coaching against friends, is extremely difficult.  For 40 minutes, focus has to stay on the players, and personal relationships have to be pushed to the background.

Underwood has had several extremely influential people in his life. He mentioned former Western Illinois head coach Jim Kerwin, who Underwood worked under as an assistant coach for a decade. Underwood also acknowledged Jack Hartman, a former assistant coach at Oklahoma State and Underwood’s coach during his time as a player in Manhattan.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” Underwood said. “Everybody’s a winner. All those coaches have one thing in common, and that’s winning.”

Throughout his evolution as a coach, Underwood has taken ideas from all of his influences.

“I’ve learned some things I liked, I’ve learned some things that I don’t like,” Underwood said.

The challenge as a coach is applying those philosophies and tips from other coaches, and manipulating them so they fit within the personalities of the staff and players on the team. Underwood’s challenge in 2016 will be getting the most out of his players. To survive the Big 12 gauntlet, Underwood’s Cowboys will have to play to their fullest capabilities in hopes of earning a berth in the 2017 NCAA tournament. Changing the culture of a program doesn’t happen overnight, but Oklahoma State’s hiring of Underwood is a step in the right direction.

20 Reasons Why Michigan Should Defeat Ohio State In 2016

Due to Ohio State’s departure of talent to the NFL Draft, the Michigan Wolverines are poised to defeat the Buckeyes in 2016 for just the third time since 2001.

1. Ohio State’s Exodus Of Talent

In the 2016 NFL Draft, it seemed like every time you looked up, another Buckeye was taken off the board. Despite the fact that the record-breaking draft class could help Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer in recruiting, players like Ezekiel Elliott don’t exactly grow on trees. Meanwhile, Michigan didn’t lose much in terms of their top talent. With seemingly the entire Buckeyes roster off to the pros, the Wolverines have a great chance to even the Jim Harbaugh vs. Meyer series at one game apiece.

2. Michigan’s Experienced Defense

The Wolverines’ defensive line could be one of the best in the nation. Returning edge rushers, junior Maurice Hurst and senior Chris Wormley, will likely serve as veteran leaders on a front seven stacked with young talent. Junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis is a legitimate lockdown corner, and he may have been a first-round pick had he declared for the 2016 NFL Draft. Despite standing 5-foot-10 and weighing roughly 175 pounds, Lewis’ physical play positions himself to be successful against top wide receivers. The Wolverines’ returning defenders combine high football IQs with constant physical play, which is why the unit could finish next season ranked in the top 5 on defense.

3. Ezekiel Elliott’s Departure

When a team loses a player who rushed for nearly 3,700 yards and 41 touchdowns in two seasons, a replacement of equal caliber probably won’t come around for at least a couple of years. Elliott burst onto the scene in the Buckeyes’ 2014 championship run. In the Big Ten Championship and the two College Football Playoff games against Alabama and Oregon, Elliott rushed for 696 yards and eight touchdowns. In 2015, he maintained his elite status and closed his Ohio State career with 149 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a 44-28 romping of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Elliott was selected fourth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys and hopefully, for Michigan’s sake, another Ezekiel Elliott won’t magically appear this upcoming season.

4. Jabrill Pepper’s Development Into A Star

Michigan used Jabrill Peppers in just about every way possible last season. In addition to Peppers’ contributions as a defensive back, the former five-star recruit was used as a running back, wide receiver and even a decoy. His ability to make something happen when nothing is there is what separates Peppers from the rest of the Wolverines’ offensive playmakers. Expect Peppers’ roles on offense and defense to increase in the 2016 season. He could be a top 10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, so expect the Wolverines to take advantage of Peppers’ unique talent while he’s still a collegiate athlete.

5. Jake Butt’s Decision To Stay For His Senior Year

Similar to Lewis, Jake Butt may have been a first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft had he decided to go pro. However, Harbaugh’s persuasive skills proved effective, and the 2015 Big Ten Tight End of the Year decided to stay for his senior year. Butt’s offensive consistency will likely be used as a safety valve by whichever quarterback is awarded the starting job. His ability to high point the football and come down with contested throws is why Butt could be a high pick in next year’s draft.

6. Special Teams: Advantage Wolverines

Michigan has a plethora of offensive and defensive playmakers who will likely return kicks and punts in the 2016 season. Wide receiver Jehu Chesson is, according to his teammates, the fastest player on the Wolverines’ roster. Chesson’s 96-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff against Northwestern last season is proof of his prolific speed. Other than Chesson, there are players who are perfectly capable of producing big plays, including Lewis, who also returned kickoffs last season. Lewis’ relatively light frame is the primary reason why game-breaking speed is a part of his offensive repertoire. And, of course, there’s always Peppers.

7. Instant Impact Freshman: Advantage Harbaugh

In his first full recruiting year, Harbaugh was able to bring in 29 recruits. One of the 29 is five-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary. Standing roughly 6-foot-4 and 287 pounds, one would think Gary lacks the speed needed to be an elite pass rusher. However, the former Paramus Catholic standout ran a 4.74 40-yard dash, which for a player with his physical stature is unbelievable. Given the Wolverines’ question marks at the quarterback position for the 2016 season, Michigan will most likely need an elite rushing attack to be successful. Freshman Kareem Walker will serve as a much-needed reserve for the more physically imposing De’Veon Smith. Walker resembles a hybrid of Smith and current Jacksonville Jaguar Denard Robinson. The Buckeyes depleted front seven could be extremely vulnerable to the Wolverines’ elite running back combination.

8. Hiring Of Don Brown

For those of you who don’t know who Don Brown is, here’s a brief background. Brown was the defensive coordinator for Boston College in 2015. Last season, the Eagles ranked No. 1 in total defense, allowing just 254 total yards per game. Brown proved he can use mediocre talent to produce the best defense in college football. Fortunately for Brown, there’s an abundance of elite defensive talent on Harbaugh’s 2016 squad. The Wolverines’ defensive depth will allow Brown to develop multiple rushing packages that could prove problematic for an Ohio State offensive line that seems to return little talent for the 2016 season.

9. J.T. Barrett Is Now A One-man Show

For all of the Buckeyes departures in 2015, quarterback J.T. Barrett remains on the Ohio State roster. Barrett is the most dynamic quarterback in the Big Ten and is a dark horse for this year’s Heisman Trophy. If the Buckeyes can replicate their 12-1 record from last season, much of the credit will go to the 2016 Fiesta Bowl Offensive MVP. The Buckeyes lost seemingly every offensive weapon from last season, so Michigan should be able to focus on containing one playmaker instead of the handful they failed to effectively defend in 2015.

10. Harbaugh Will Develop A Capable Signal-Caller

The only offensive question for the Wolverines is who their quarterback will be for the upcoming season. Whether it’s Houston transfer John O’Korn or Wilton Speight, Harbaugh will be able to mold either one into a capable, playmaking quarterback. Former Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock went from a poor decision-making, one-dimensional quarterback to a legitimate dual threat quarterback with confidence in his decision-making skills. Rudock is a perfect example of Harbaugh’s ability to create solid signal-callers in very little time. Fortunately for Wolverines fans, the Ohio State game concludes the regular season, so if all goes as planned, Harbaugh will have an experienced, confident quarterback at his disposal by the time his team takes the field in Columbus.

11. Ohio State’s Lack Of Playmakers

Braxton Miller is a Houston Texan, Ezekiel Elliott is a Dallas Cowboy and Joey Bosa is a San Diego Charger. The list could include nine more names, but I think you get the point. The Buckeyes lost a total of 12 players to the 2016 draft, not to mention undrafted free agents who were signed. Barrett may not have many reliable pass catchers or running backs to depend on, and as a result, the Buckeyes’ could take a big step back on offense.

12. Michigan’s Newfound Swagger

Ever since Harbaugh’s return to his alma mater, there’s been a renewed sense of optimism in Ann Arbor. That optimism has rapidly grown into sky-high expectations for the Wolverines in 2016. Michigan went from a team fighting to make a bowl game to one with College Football Playoff aspirations in just two years. The quick turnaround has Michigan fans and players confident that the team will be a legitimate title contender this season. Confidence is something that all championship teams must have, and Harbaugh has every fan and player believing.

13. Schedule Momentum: Advantage UM

Michigan finishes the 2016 regular season against MSU, Iowa and, of course, Ohio State. If Harbaugh’s quarterback development goes well, the Wolverines should enter the Horseshoe on a big winning streak with supreme confidence in their ability on both sides of the ball.

14. Michigan’s Front Seven

The Wolverines return nearly every defensive lineman from a season ago. Wormley, Hurst and Taco Charlton return for year two under Harbaugh with expectations of an elite defense in 2016. In addition to the veterans, Harbaugh did an excellent job on the recruiting trail. The aforementioned Gary will likely start at defensive tackle, and due to Michigan’s lack of depth at linebacker, four-star prospect Devin Bush Jr. will probably see the field early and often. The Wolverines have the perfect combination of veteran experience and young talent to knock off a seemingly depleted Ohio State team.

15. UM’s Running Back Depth

The lack of a clear cut, No. 1 quarterback means the Wolverines will need a reliable, productive running game to keep drives alive and opposing offenses off the field. Given the abundance of talent in the backfield, Michigan’s ground game should excel in 2016. Seniors Smith and Drake Johnson will likely be the two primary backs in the rotation, with USC transfer Ty Isaac and Walker probably playing important relief roles for the two upperclassmen. Given their big play ability, Peppers and sophomore speedster Karon Higdon could be used in the Wolverines’ trick play packages. Michigan’s versatility and depth in the backfield is the primary reason the team should defeat Ohio State in the upcoming season. Elliott is gone; therefore, Michigan should have the advantage over Ohio State in the backfield.

16. Jehu Chesson And Amara Darboh

During Brady Hoke’s tenure at Michigan, Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh were extremely underutilized. Under Harbaugh, Chesson became a dangerous deep threat with excellent speed after the catch. Darboh proved he has some of the best hands in college football when he made an Odell Beckham-like snag in the Wolverines’ 31-0 win over BYU last season. The quarterback who earns the starting job will be very glad to have two experienced playmakers to throw to. The duo should prove lethal to a Buckeyes secondary that was profoundly depleted in the 2016 NFL Draft.

17. The Michigan 2016 “Hype Train”

Michigan has been the talk of college football ever since Alabama’s win over Clemson in the title game. Given that the Big Ten should be top-heavy this upcoming season, the Wolverines shouldn’t have trouble in the majority of their conference matchups. Despite preseason hype skyrocketing expectations for the regular season, it also gives every player on the roster the unabated belief that they can win it all. Supreme confidence should assist Michigan in a hostile environment in Columbus.

18. Harbaugh’s NFL Philosophy vs. Depth-lacking Ohio State

Jim Harbaugh brought a “smash mouth” football philosophy to Ann Arbor and as a result, Michigan doesn’t need a high-flying offense to win games. The Wolverines should dominate time of possession with an elite rushing attack. Michigan should wear out a vulnerable Ohio State defense, which despite excellent recruiting, likely isn’t capable of replacing all of their lost talent overnight.

19. CFP Berth And Big Ten Championship On The Line

The reality of Michigan being a legitimate title contender in 2016 has sunk into the college football world. Harbaugh has instilled a culture that won’t easily erode. The players bought into his system in 2015 and this season, they should see encouraging results that will only inspire the team to reach new heights. When they enter the Horseshoe in late November, the Wolverines could be undefeated. The Buckeyes, despite their difficult non-conference schedule, could enter the game with Michigan with maybe one loss. Michigan hasn’t won a Big Ten Championship since 2004 and in 2016, the Wolverines will likely have adequate talent to support their burning desire to win their first national championship since 1997.

20. Harbaugh vs. Meyer Round 2

Containing Barrett will be No. 1 on Harbaugh’s defensive to-do list. Fortunately for the Wolverines, containing the junior signal-caller will likely be the only daunting defensive task. The Buckeyes’ versatility on both sides of the ball proved way too much for Harbaugh’s first year squad. If Meyer is able to sneak out a win with substantially less talent, much of the credit will go to the dual-threat quarterback. Brown will be able to key in on Barrett with elite pass rushers like Gary and Wormley. Harbaugh prepares too well to not take advantage of a depleted Ohio State team with a trip to the Big Ten Championship and the College Football Playoff likely on the line.

The Fulgent Future Of The Detroit Pistons

Stan Van Gundy has the Detroit Pistons pointed in the right direction.

The Detroit Pistons reached the playoffs this year for the first time since 2009. Despite being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, Detroit can be extremely proud of what it was able to accomplish this season. After Detroit finished the 2014-15 season with a 32-50 record and failed to reach the postseason for the sixth consecutive season, Pistons head coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy began to resurrect the franchise before the 2015-16 season ever began.

With the 8th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Detroit selected Stanley Johnson, a freshman small forward from the Arizona Wildcats. Johnson was limited after the 2016 All-Star break after spraining his right shoulder. However, when Detroit began postseason play, Johnson showed why he is part of the reason the Pistons have an extremely bright future. He took on the unenviable task of guarding LeBron James during the Pistons’ first-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Johnson didn’t back down from the challenge, and the rest of the league noticed when he said he’s “in the head” of James following Game 2 of the series.

Van Gundy worked his magic last summer when he traded a second-round pick in 2020 for Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger. The Pistons’ decision-maker was at it again when he acquired versatile forward Tobias Harris from the Orlando Magic for Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings just before February’s NBA trade deadline. Jennings’ departure was a difficult reality for Pistons fans to accept, but Reggie Jackson, who Detroit also traded for in 2015, has been just as good if not better than Jennings when he took over starting point guard duties.

Even though Detroit didn’t win a game in the 2016 postseason, the Pistons aren’t far from being a consistent playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Bench scoring is something that Detroit will have to address in the offseason, as the Pistons’ reserve guards are the definition of mediocre. Steve Blake has been a decent player throughout his 13-year career, but he averaged just 4.4 points per game this season. Jodie Meeks played in just three regular season games for Detroit this season, as he had a tough time recovering from a broken foot. Meanwhile, Bullock has yet to prove he can be a solid contributor on a nightly basis.

Oklahoma Sooners guard Buddy Hield would have been the perfect pick for the Pistons in the upcoming draft. Unfortunately, thanks to his unbelievable 2016 college basketball season (25.0 pts, 5.7 rebs), Hield’s draft stock skyrocketed. Barring unforeseen events, Hield is virtually guaranteed to be selected in the top 10 picks, which takes him off Detroit’s draft board. The Pistons will have the No. 18 pick in June’s draft.

However, Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis, a prospect Detroit should seriously consider drafting if he’s available, could be there when the Pistons are on the clock. Despite his lack of size (5-foot-9), Ulis’ scoring ability and facilitative skills make him a practical first-round pick. If guards to Detroit’s liking aren’t on the board when it’s the team’s turn to pick, the Pistons could take a power forward with jump shooting skills. Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis, who’s physical enough to score down low and an excellent shooter, fits the profile. This season, the 6-foot-11 Sabonis shot better than 35 percent from the three-point line and nearly 77 percent from the free throw line, the latter a place where Pistons All-Star center Andre Drummond will most likely struggle from the rest of his career. If the Pistons were able to draft Sabonis, he could steal some minutes from Morris next season.

Although it would help, Detroit doesn’t need to go out and get a big name free agent in the offseason. The Pistons should be able to contend in the East for years to come if they can improve their bench. However, if the team doesn’t make a big splash in free agency within the next couple years, Detroit will have a tough time competing for a title until it does so.

2016 NBA Playoffs First Round Preview

A preview of the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs.

Eastern Conference

No. 1 seed Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 seed Detroit Pistons

Cleveland Cavaliers

If the Cavaliers can stay healthy throughout the postseason, they’ll likely meet the Warriors in the NBA Finals for the second year in a row. James will do everything in his power to win a title for his hometown team, but the x-factor for the Cavaliers is floor-spacing power forward Kevin Love, who has been sporadic at best this season. After the All-Star break, Love shot the ball much better from deep. However, in order for the Cavs to defeat the champions of the Western Conference, if Cleveland makes it that far, Love needs to show the All-Star form he displayed as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Detroit Pistons

Detroit is in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, but their reintroduction to the postseason won’t be easy. Despite defeating Cleveland 3-1 in the regular season series, the Pistons will have a daunting task in round one of the postseason against LeBron James and company.

Detroit has an abundant amount of young talent on its roster. Former Oklahoma City Thunder facilitator Reggie Jackson has become one of the best all-around point guards in the league. Jackson averaged 18.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game this season. Shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has blossomed into an elite one-on-one defender. Furthermore, recent acquisition from Orlando, Tobias Harris, adds a much-needed wing scorer to a young Pistons team. Detroit probably won’t win the series, but they’re more than capable of winning a game or two.

Prediction: Cavaliers win series 4-2

No. 2 seed Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 seed Indiana Pacers

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors could be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, but they’ll need a spectacular performance from their backcourt to get past Paul George and the experienced Pacers. Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan arguably form the second-best backcourt in the league. To slow down a talented Raptors offense, effectively defending the pick-and-roll will be critical for Indiana.

Indiana Pacers

The x-factor for the Pacers in their series with Toronto is 20-year-old Myles Turner. Indiana may have found one of the more versatile power forwards in the league in Turner, who the Pacers selected No. 11 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. Turner can score inside and rebound, while his shooting ability extends to near the three-point line. He may not start in the playoffs, but if the Pacers pull off the first round upset, it’ll be because Turner played a prominent role off the bench.

Prediction: Raptors win series 4-3

No. 3 seed Miami Heat vs. No. 6 seed Charlotte Hornets

Miami Heat

Miami probably has the best chance of beating the Cavaliers in the playoffs. The emergence of Hasan Whiteside, who has quickly become an outstanding rim protector (3.7 blocks per game), and Josh Richardson allowed the Heat to overachieve in the regular season. Veteran acquisitions Joe Johnson and Goran Dragic have drastically improved Miami’s offensive efficiency. At 34 years old, Dwyane Wade continues to perform at an elite level. The Heat are one of the favorites to reach the Eastern Conference finals.

Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte has quickly transformed an atrocious team into a franchise that will likely be in the postseason for years to come. Point guard Kemba Walker and center Al Jefferson led Charlotte to a 48-34 record this season. Acquiring former Trail Blazers small forward Nicolas Batum has allowed the Hornets to accelerate the rebuilding process. Charlotte has the talent to beat most teams in the East, but their first round opponent happens to have plenty of playoff experience. Veteran leadership will likely lead Miami to a matchup with Cleveland in the conference finals.

Prediction: Heat win series 4-1

No. 4 seed Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 5 seed Boston Celtics

Atlanta Hawks

Because the team enjoyed so much success last year, Atlanta’s surprisingly effective 2015-16 regular season went widely unnoticed. Point guard Jeff Teague and All-Star power forward Paul Millsap led the way for the Hawks (48-34) this year. Atlanta’s starting five reflects the image of a legitimate title contender, but Dennis Schröder is the only consistent scorer off the bench. Unless the Hawks can draft or acquire talented players to enhance their second unit, they’ll probably never become a title contender.

Boston Celtics

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge has done an outstanding job bringing young talent to Boston, completely rebuilding a historically successful team. Second-year guard Marcus Smart has blossomed into an effective scorer and passer. Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas has improved drastically throughout his career and his game has reached its pinnacle this season. Thomas was selected to participate in his first All-Star game this season and averaged more than 22 points and six assists per game in the regular season. The Celtics will go as far as Thomas takes them. Regardless of what Boston does in the postseason, the future of the franchise is extremely bright.

Prediction: Celtics win series 4-2

Western Conference

No. 1 seed Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 seed Houston Rockets

Golden State Warriors

If you’re a fan of the NBA, you could be a fan of the Warriors; unless you’re from Cleveland or San Antonio. Golden State finished the regular season with an NBA record 73 wins, while Stephen Curry knocked down more than 400 threes, a record that will likely stand the test of time. Despite the heroics of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and the soon to be 2016 MVP (Curry), it’s the Warriors bench that propelled the team to history in the regular season. Andre Iguodala, Marreese Speights and Festus Ezeli could give the Warriors’ starting five the extra lift it needs to make a second straight NBA Finals appearance. Meanwhile, Curry and Thompson should continue to “splash” Golden State to the promise land.

Houston Rockets

The fact that Houston made the 2016 NBA Playoffs is somewhat of a miracle. Aside MVP candidate James Harden, the Rockets are an absolute mess. Dwight Howard has shown flashes of the interior force he can be when he gives 100 percent effort, but the former All-Star center lacks a consistent motor. When Howard demands the ball in the post, he can easily drop 30 points and 10 boards. However, Howard’s inefficient play has forced Harden to carry the discombobulated Rockets on his back throughout the regular season. Houston has yet to acquire its point guard of the future as current member of the Indiana Pacers, Ty Lawson, proved extremely ineffective in Houston after having prior success in Denver. Harden will have to average 45-50 points in the series in order for Houston to have a chance. Unfortunately, even if he does, the Warriors will likely advance anyway.

Prediction: Warriors win series 4-0

No. 2 seed San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 7 seed Memphis Grizzlies

San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio continues to defy Father Time. Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker lead the experienced Spurs into the postseason (again) under head coach Gregg Popovich. Despite the dramatic decrease in Tim Duncan’s and Manu Ginobili’s roles, San Antonio continues to perform at an elite level season after season. The Spurs’ ball movement and Leonard’s ability to play lockdown defense make them almost impossible to beat in a seven game series.

Memphis Grizzlies

If not for a myriad of detrimental injuries, Memphis would probably be one of the top four seeds in the West and Zach Randolph is left as the only proven scorer in the Grizzlies lineup. With Mike Conley out because of an Achilles injury, other Grizzlies players have played prominent roles in Memphis’ playoff push. Unfortunately, Lance Stephenson is probably the most talented guard available on Memphis’ roster. Stephenson has been the definition of inconsistency throughout his entire career, and that didn’t change this season. Given San Antonio’s desire for a rematch with Golden State, the Grizzlies probably won’t win a game in the series.

Prediction: Spurs win series 4-0

No. 3 seed Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 6 seed Dallas Mavericks

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder seem to be in a similar position in terms of their ability to advance in the playoffs. Oklahoma City has the talent to reach the conference finals, but have yet to enter title contender conversation since James Harden’s departure to Houston. Enes Kanter’s acquisition from Utah drastically improved the Thunder’s interior scoring. The sky’s the limit for the Thunder if Oklahoma City’s supporting cast can prove that it can be trusted to consistently score.

Dallas Mavericks

Dallas has reached the playoffs in 15 of the last 16 seasons, but failed to make noise in the postseason since winning it all in 2011. The Mavericks’ recent postseason troubles have stemmed from an inability to acquire their point guard of the future. Deron Williams is slowly declining and Devin Harris is far from an All-Star. Despite the murky point guard play, Dirk Nowitzki has established a high standard for Dallas basketball, but the Mavericks haven’t surrounded him with the necessary talent to contend for a title. Given the Mavericks’ tough first round matchup against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, don’t expect Dallas to challenge the Thunder.

Predication: Thunder win series 4-1

No. 4 seed Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers

Los Angeles Clippers

With an abundance of big game experience, Chris Paul and a newly healed Blake Griffin lead Los Angeles into the postseason. Former Duke shooting guard, J.J. Redick is the x-factor for the Clippers’ playoff run. The Clippers have plenty of depth and firepower, especially with Jamal Crawford coming off the bench, but Deandre Jordan’s terrible free throw percentage could prove detrimental for the Clippers late in games. Los Angeles could bench Jordan late in critical fourth quarters, which could open lanes to the rim for the dynamic duo in Portland’s backcourt without Jordan’s shot-blocking presence. Still, with a cast of solid reserves, the Clippers are clearly the more talented team. Bench scoring and big game experience should favor Los Angeles in the series. The Clippers may not make a run to the conference finals, but they should advance past the first round.

Portland Trail Blazers

After LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure to San Antonio, the Trail Blazers weren’t expected to be a playoff team in the Western Conference this season. Halfway through their regular season schedule, the Blazers certainly didn’t look like a playoff contender. Fortunately for Portland, their talented backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum drastically increased their level of play in the final 41 games of the season. Portland’s lack of front court talent and depth is a major concern in the series as the size of Jordan and Griffin could pose serious matchup problems in the paint. The Trail Blazers back court could win a couple of games, but probably not the series.

Prediction: Clippers win series 4-2

RG3 Isn’t A Long-Term Solution For The Browns

Despite the signing of Robert Griffin III, the Cleveland Browns should still select a quarterback with their top pick in the NFL Draft.

Within the last week, the Cleveland Browns announced that they signed Robert Griffin III to a two-year, $15 million contract with a maximum value of $22 million. Cleveland got exactly what it needed in Griffin, an athletic, dual-threat quarterback with a surprisingly big arm. The only problem with the acquisition is that expectations will be extremely high in Cleveland, which could prove detrimental for the development of such a young team and signal caller.

Hype wouldn’t surround Griffin if he began his career as a mediocre starter, or resigned to spending the duration of his career as a permanent backup. However, because Griffin threw for more than 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns as a rookie in 2012, the standard has been set for the rest of his career. Due to his success as a rookie, an optimistic fan base would await Griffin wherever he had gone.

As a quarterback at Baylor University, Griffin was virtually unstoppable, especially with current NFL receivers like Kendall Wright on the Bears’ roster. However, the one thing that distinguished and still distinguishes Griffin from other quarterbacks is his extremely aggressive mindset as a runner. Griffin is willing to take hits and do whatever it takes to help his team win. Normally, that’s a great trait to have as an athlete in any sport, but because NFL players’ careers are so short, doing the little things to prolong their careers is vital.

The concept of staying healthy magnifies in the NFL and even more so for quarterbacks. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is proof that longevity is the key to a successful career in the league. Not every team needs an extremely athletic and speedy player at the quarterback position. What NFL quarterbacks need is balance and intelligence. Awareness of players around them, both in and outside the pocket, is a product of having intelligence or high football IQ.

North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz completed 62-of-65 passes at his pro day last week, including one drop. Wentz won’t wow you with his athleticism or speed, but his arm strength and accuracy compare to NFL elites like Andrew Luck and Cam Newton. The Browns need a permanent quarterback and so far, Griffin has been anything but permanent. Wentz could be the perfect quarterback to rebuild a franchise around, and he should be a Brown on draft day.

Griffin’s talent is unquestionable, but his style of play has many doubting how long his professional career will last.

Michigan Needs Big Man To Compete With Elite Teams

To get back to the Final Four, the Michigan Wolverines need a consistent inside presence.

Michigan basketball is in rare territory as a consistent inside presence is the missing piece to the Wolverines’ postseason success puzzle.

Despite earning a 2016 NCAA Tournament bid, the Wolverines didn’t do enough in postseason play to satisfy the Michigan faithful’s desire to enjoy a deep March run. Michigan fans are well aware of the Wolverines’ wild success in the tournament preceding this year’s first round loss to Notre Dame. Arguably the best backcourt in the nation in 2013, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke led Michigan to an appearance in the national championship game against Louisville.

Wolverine fans remember Burke’s overtime-forcing 30-foot three-point shot that ultimately earned Michigan a victory over Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen that year. Both Burke and Hardaway Jr. went on to be first-round picks in the NBA Draft. The following season, sophomore guard Nik Stauskas led the Wolverines to the Elite Eight before Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison nailed a deep three to punch the Wildcats’ ticket to the Final Four.

In spite of miraculous performances by Michigan’s backcourt during their 2013 and 2014 postseason runs, neither Burke, nor Stauskas, were key to the Wolverines’ success in March. Do the names Mitch McGary or Jordan Morgan ring any bells? They should for Michigan fans. McGary rarely played in the Wolverines’ 2012-13 regular season before earning the starting job and averaging 16.0 points and 11.6 rebounds per game during Michigan’s run to the championship game. Morgan started in 2014 and averaged 12.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in the postseason. What do McGary and Morgan have in common? They both experienced time at center, a position that has gotten lost of late amid the plethora of talented guards head coach John Beilein and the Wolverines have at their disposal.

To be fair, Beilein has had to deal with more than his fair share of injuries throughout the past two disappointing seasons. A season-ending leg injury to Caris LeVert and nagging foot injuries to Derrick Walton Jr. were detrimental to the Wolverines’ depth, not to mention the numerous early departures of young talent to the NBA.

Early departures aren’t currently an issue, and unless multiple players suffer season-ending injuries at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Michigan will likely be expected to compete with not only the elite teams the Big Ten but the top programs in college basketball. The expectations probably won’t be met, unless the Wolverines can find their next McGary or Morgan.

Michigan isn’t on the same recruiting level as Kansas or Kentucky. It can’t bring in multiple high-schoolers who will be future NBA lottery picks and send them off to the NBA after just a year in college, while still competing at college basketball’s highest level season after season.

Michigan has a few candidates to fill the void in the middle. Mark Donnal showed flashes of promise this season, and given that he’ll be a senior next season, Donnal could help the Wolverines. Ricky Doyle, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, didn’t exactly scream breakout potential after averaging 3.8 points and two rebounds per game in an expanded role this season.

Moritz Wagner, a freshman from Berlin, Germany, played an extremely limited role during the Wolverines’ regular season. However, in Michigan’s upset win over the Indiana Hoosiers on March 11, Wagner went 2-for-2 from the free throw line and 3-for-3 from the field, including a three. In the Wolverines’ First Four matchup against Tulsa, Wagner again was perfect from the field (2-for-2), while grabbing eight boards and blocking four shots. Wagner showed enthusiasm and fire throughout the season, even from the bench. The team first mentality is something many young players lack, and it will serve Wagner well in the future. Expect to see a major increase in minutes and productivity for the energetic freshman next season.

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