Each 2014 Chicago Cub, in a (somewhat baked) nutshell.

Today is officially Opening Day for all of Major League Baseball and yes, that includes the Chicago Cubs, bless their incompetent hearts. If you haven’t already heard or read, the Cubs have a plan that involves not spending absurd amounts of money on free agents just to do so, as well as rebuilding their farm system so that it produces multiple significant contributors at the Major League level, as opposed to one every decade. I will give a brief rundown of each 2014 Chicago Cub, from 1-25 (not including several Cubs who will begin 2014 on the disabled list).

Pitchers.

SP Jeff Samardzija: The de facto ace of the Cubs’ staff, “Shark” is mostly a good starter who shows flashes of very good on occasion. He’ll likely be traded before the July 31 deadline or decide that life as a fourth receiver on the Bears isn’t so bad at all.

SP Edwin Jackson: I didn’t quite get the signing of Jackson to a 4-year, 52-million dollar deal before the 2013 season, which is really 44 mil after a signing bonus of 8 million. He was bad in 2013, but his FIP and xFIP suggests he’ll be better in 2014. Because, advanced metrics.

SP Jason Hammel: The former Baltimore Oriole was good a few years ago. Yeah…that’s about it.

SP Travis Wood: The southpaw was good in 2013, making 32 starts and posting an ERA of 3.11 in 200 innings. I doubt he’ll be as good in ’14, but I am looking forward to seeing him pinch-run late in a close ballgame.

SP Carlos Villanueva: Villanueva, a veteran swing, can keep his job by simply not being awful. Easier said than done.

LHP James Russell: Russell has been very good out of the pen the last two seasons and has made me forget all about my affinity for Sean Marshall.

RHP Pedro Strop: Strop could probably close for this team, but that job belongs to Jose Veras at the moment. Don’t worry, Pedro. After July 31, the gig will likely be yours.

RHP Justin Grimm: Grimm is just 25 and was a part of the trade that brought former Cub starting pitcher Matt Garza to Texas. Grimm was excellent in just 9 innings for the Cubs after the swap, and I guarantee Theo and Co. are praying he’ll be decent in ’14.

LHP Wesley Wright: The lefty and former Houston Astro should prove to be a valuable arm out of the pen and more importantly, adds to the color at Wrigley. Literally.

RHP Hector Rondon: Rondon had control issues in 2013, but then again, he was a Cubs pitcher in 2013, so it makes sense.

RHP Brian Schlitter: Schlitter graduated from Maine South High School, in Park Ridge, Illinois. And he’s tall.

RHP Jake Arrieta: I’ve liked Arrieta for a while now and was actually happy when he became a Cub after coming over in the Scott Feldman deal. He has the potential to easily fill a spot in the middle of the rotation, provided he’s healthy and not, you know, terrible.

RHP Kyuji Fujikawa: Fujikawa wasn’t all that bad–despite his numbers–before being shelved for the rest of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He’s still on the DL and probably won’t miss losing in relatively frigid temperatures.

RHP Jose Veras: Veras signed with the Cubs because obviously, he wants to pitch in low-pressure situations before being dealt to a contender during the peak of the season.

Catchers.

John Baker: I assume Baker is on the big league club because it’s wise to have at least two catchers on the 25-man roster and starter Wellington Castillo isn’t a robot, contrary to popular belief.

Wellington Castillo: A defensive stud, Castillo only has to get his bat going on a more consistent basis and he can be recognized as one of the game’s better young catchers. Catchers are so great, aren’t they?

Infielders.

SS Starlin Castro: After a bad 2013, things can’t possibly get any worse in ’14. Well, they definitely could, but I highly doubt they will. Expect Starlin to slash .300/.340/.420 and enrage old, White baseball writers in Chicago for years to come.

1B Anthony Rizzo: When everyone was gushing over the lethal work Rizzo was putting in as a minor leaguer in the Cubs’ system, I was patient to see what he would do at the ML level. Last year was definitely rough for him, but like, Starlin, he should improve this season. If not, I will begin chants of “Vo-gel-bach” wherever I go.

2B Darwin Barney: Barney is a whiz with the glove. At the plate, he stinks. If this were still 1955, Barney would be the perfect second baseman. Unfortunately for Barney, this is 2014, so start hitting the damn baseball, Darwin.

3B Mike Olt: I fully expect Olt to hit 25 homers and post an OPS+ of at least 105 because he can see now. I miss Valbuena already, though.

2B Emilio Bonifacio: I’d love it if Bonifacio could wrestle the job away from Barney. Then again, it’s not saying much to beat out Darwin Barney for that spot.

3B Luis Valbuena: Oh, Luis. You got robbed, man.

Outfielders.

Ryan Sweeney: I like Sweeney. Sure, if my team were legit title contenders, there wouldn’t be a spot for him, but yeah, I like Sweeney, nonetheless.

Junior Lake: Lake will have his “man” moments this season and if opposing pitchers have made adjustments, will frustrate the hell out of me even more.

Nate Schierholtz: Anyone else expect Schierholtz to not come close to duplicating his 2013 campaign? At best, he should be league-average. Good for the Cubs because they’re the Cubs.

Justin Ruggiano: Ruggiano’s OPS from 2011-13, yearly: .673 (2011), .909 (2012), .694 (2013). So…this means we should brace ourselves for Super Ruggiano in 2014, right?

Ryan Kalish: Not much should be expected of the 26 year-old pride and joy of Red Bank, New Jersey. Although, fist pumps after wins should be kept to a minimum.

Quickly, now: In Sparty I Trust.

Yes, Tom. I trust you that much. -- Getty Images

Yes, Tom. I love you that much. — Getty Images

Well, it’s NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament time. Sort of. I know there were some “play-in” games played or there will be, or…they don’t matter. This is about the Michigan State Spartans and also, their head coach, Tom Izzo. Yes, he of the 465-186 record over 19 years at MSU. The same Izzo who has led Sparty to seven regular season Big 10 titles, four Big 10 conference tournament titles, compiled an NCAA tournament record of 39-15 and navigated his team through the maze that is the NCAA bracket to six Final Fours. He has never had a senior class that didn’t appear in a Final Four and of course, he has a national title ring from 2000. And the man who is 12-4 in the opening round of the tournament lets his players know that he is doing battle with them, come March. “[He] always tell us, ‘Get me through the first day, I’ll get you through the second,’” said former Spartan do-everything hooper, Draymond Green.

This year’s team began the season ranked second in the country in the Associated Press and coaches poll. In their second game of the season, Sparty beat then-top ranked Kentucky at the United Center in what was mostly an excellent game between a MSU team with one surefire first-round pick (shooting guard Gary Harris) and UK one with an entire starting lineup that could ultimately end up all being first-round picks when their collegiate careers are over. MSU then enjoyed a three-week stay atop the polls before seemingly, the Spartans just couldn’t stay healthy. Or hit free throws. Or not turn the ball over. Or simply, play good damn basketball. After going 18-2 in their first 20 games, with their only losses coming at home to North Carolina ( starters PG Keith Appling, PF Adreian Payne and Harris shot a combined 16-40 from the floor) and at home to Michigan (both Payne and starting G/F Branden Dawson missed the game due to injury), Sparty went 5-6 to finish the regular season, losing on the road to Ohio St. by 2 in the finale. Thankfully, Harris got over some of his injury woes, Payne’s foot healed, Dawson’s broken hand healed (don’t slam a desk with your fist during a film session, kids), Appling and his bum wrist appeared to turn a corner, and anyone else who even thought about getting sick or hurt realized that the conference tournament was fast approaching.

Three days, three games. MSU dispatched of Northwestern easily and despite the 83-75 final score, did the same to Wisconsin. With a chance to exact a little revenge on rival Michigan in the conference tournament title game after being swept in the regular season, Sparty played arguably its most impressive game to date. In a 69-55 win, MSU outrebounded a top-10 Michigan team by 14, shot 50% from the field compared to 32% for Michigan, and held Wolverines sharpshooter Nik Stauskas to only four points in the second half after he scored thirteen in the first.

With conference tournament title in hand, MSU waited for the NCAA tournament selection committee to tell them what seed they’d earned as well as where they’d be playing their first weekend. Somehow, some way, the committee tabbed Sparty as a 4 seed (Louisville, also a 4, got the shaft, too) and banished them to Spokane, Washington, where they will play the 13th-seeded Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens at 4:40 PM, ET, in the East Region. The Blue Hens, of the Colonial Athletic Conference, are dancing after beating William & Mary in the conference tournament title game, 75-74.

Despite a regular season and conference tournament title, the Blue Hens should prove to be absolutely no match for the upstart (can a team that began the season with serious title aspirations at any point be considered an upstart?) Spartans, who appear to be fully healthy and determined to show that their shaky stretch was attributed more to missing key players because of injury than subpar play. Delaware is an average offensive team, which certainly won’t be good enough to beat MSU. On defense, they’re one of the worst in the country, which should make Sparty’s task even easier.

I wouldn’t say that MSU is the hottest team in the country right now. That title probably belongs to North Carolina Central University. However, biases aside, I felt before the regular season started that if healthy and not at each other’s throats, this Michigan St. team could easily find itself in contention for a spot in the Final Four. To hell with ESPN analysts picking the Green and White to go all the way, because, to hell with them. Despite some disappointments in years’ past, I’m confident this team can do more in this year’s tournament than make some noise. In Sparty I Trust. GO GREEN. GO WHITE.

The (seemingly) two kinds of Jay Cutler fans.

When the Chicago Bears traded quarterback Kyle Orton and multiple high draft picks to the Denver Broncos for quarterback Jay Cutler, I was pretty damn ecstatic. I anticipated touchdown throws, tight spirals, and rockets over the middle. All from Cutler, a then 26 year-old, strong-armed Vanderbilt product. Those would lead to wins, division titles, conference titles and Super Bowl titles. In addition, Cutler would finally be free of John Elway and his quarterbacking legend in Denver. It was true that he wouldn’t enjoy the benefit of playing for offensive mastermind Mike Shanahan, and also in a stadium that gives the home team about as unique of an advantage as a team could receive. That top-notch running game and flock of talented receivers and tight ends? They weren’t coming with him to Chicago. Honestly, though, Bears fans didn’t care all that much. We didn’t really care all that much that Cutler had a legit play caller and even more legitimate offensive weapons in Denver, from the offensive line to his backs and ends. We were just happy to finally have a competent quarterback wearing a Bears uni for a change.

Let the division begin.

When Cutler arrived, the offensive line was beyond terrible, running back Matt Forte was coming off of a rookie year in which he probably did more than should have been asked of him, and the wide receivers and tight ends–outside of TE Greg Olsen–were collectively less than average, and that’s being generous. Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox were Cutler’s top two wide receivers that season. Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox were the top two wide receiver options. On an actual NFL team. Don’t pin the 2009 team’s 7-9 record on Cutler.

But, some did. It was easy to see that on roughly one-quarter of his dropbacks, Cutler simply ran for his life. No time to go through your progressions; just start running, Jay. It was even easier to see that freakin’ Joe Montana himself wouldn’t have been able to do much with receivers like Bennett, Knox, Devin Hester and Rashied Davis. It still infuriates me to no end that Cutler went through much of his prime trying to target Hester, by the way. Plenty of fans ignored the pedestrian play-calling on offense. Instead, they subscribed to the NFL logic that states quarterbacks should receive the lion’s share of the blame, win or lose. So even when the Bears were completely outclassed in every facet of the game, a certain contingent of fans directed their ire towards the player the franchise had given up so much for. After all, this wasn’t a team that was “one piece away” when they traded for Cutler. There were multiple holes to fill, especially on offense. It’s almost as if the Bears front office and Chicago sports media wanted us to believe that Cutler would fix all that ailed the Bears’ sickly offensive unit.

To an extent, those incredibly critical fans of Cutler were right. It’s a little hypocritical to damn near hail a guy as a savior, and then when there is colossal failure, you don’t even begin to lay any of the blame at his feet. There were certainly times when I felt for Cutler because he simply wasn’t put in a very good position to win early in his time with the Bears, but there were also the forced throws, terrible footwork, even more terrible throwing mechanics and the “I’m getting paid to not give a fuck” facial expressions that seemed to come aplenty, especially when things weren’t going his way. I wasn’t completely on the side of the fans who wanted Cutler to lead the offense, defense, special teams and our military, but he just wasn’t very good for the Bears early on, porous offensive line and crappy receivers or not.

On the other side were the Bears fans who have been watching inept Bears quarterbacks for their entire lives, and wanted to protect and coddle the first good thing to happen to that position since Sid Luckman. No, seriously. Sid Luckman. They saw an offensive line that struggled to block wind and pointed to that unit as the main reason why Cutler has never lived up to expectations. When the coaching staff tries to force Hester, Kellen Davis and Devin Aromashodu on you, just how are you supposed to lead that team to any sort of title? Once again, the Chicago Bears tried to turn one of the greatest punt/kick returners of all-time into a receiver and not only did the experiment fail magnificently, Hester’s return production took a significant hit as well, which meant the Bears screwed themselves on both offense and special teams. It didn’t matter that up until this season, the Bears defense had been a strength, and if it weren’t for that unit doing more than their part, Cutler’s record with the Bears would be much worse than it is right now. For a few years, the only consistent threat on offense besides Cutler was Forte. No, that is not an exaggeration. And while Forte is a very good running back, he’s not exactly a game-changing horse of a back who can just up and will a team to victory whenever he feels like it.

Cutler was doomed from the start, they often said. The horrendous play-calling limited his big arm and surprisingly, above-average mobility. Then again, if you’re an offensive coordinator, what do you call when the only two weapons you have are your quarterback and running back? Would you want your quarterback to have to target Bennett 15 times in a game? Would you call a play for Kellen “Drop It, KD!” Davis? With the Bears running out such a horrendous offensive line for years, I’m surprised pass plays beyond a few yards downfield were called at all.

The Bears fans who want to blame Cutler for all of the Bears’ failures have often ferociously pointed to the other side and attempted to paint them as gullible and naïve. This is partly true. I find it amazing that some of my friends and people I follow on Twitter will stop at nothing to avoid criticizing Cutler, even when a bad play is clearly his fault. Throwing off of his back foot? Blame the line. Forced throw? Blame the receiver. Bad body language? Blame the media…or gas. Just don’t blame Cutler. To be fair, the Bears fans who act as if Cutler, or any other quarterback, are responsible for all happenings on the football field are just as ridiculous, if not a tad bit more. Cutler is not responsible for the following: Pass blocking, run blocking, blitzing, stopping the run, stopping the pass, tackling, punting, kicking field goals and extra points, and challenging or calling plays. It’s not, and never has been Cutler’s responsibility to turn crud into croissants. So while I’ve been waiting for Cutler to maximize his potential since he arrived, I do realize that he hasn’t been put in the best position to do so.

I suppose I’m in the middle. Admittedly, Cutler received a few dozen passes from me for his early troubles with the Bears. After a 2009 45-10 beating at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals, I wanted Cutler to leave because I didn’t want to see such a young talent have his career ended prematurely, or at least mucked up by the ineptitude of the Bears.  At the same time, any member of the “Cutler Lover For Life” camp who argued that the guy was elite should explain then, why he didn’t really make any of the guys around him better. I simply won’t hear or read that Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees haven’t made guys around them who aren’t household names into…well…household names. Granted, all four of them have mostly enjoyed exceptional offensive line play, but those four could win more than lose with almost any team, I believe. Cutler has two stud receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, but they were prepackaged bundles of talent. Cutler didn’t reach down and find their superstar within, or anything close. That’s not entirely his fault, either, but it does lend some credence to the arguments that while Cutler is good, he’s no superstar.

Then again, the Bears and I never needed Cutler to be a superstar, so I find a nice chunk of the criticisms of him to be unfair. The problem is, he was sold as one, and he has not been. I’m sure the biggest fans of his know he has not been elite since becoming a Bear and the incessantly dissenting fans make sure to indicate that. To be honest, I don’t sense much middle ground when it comes to Cutler. And, maybe there doesn’t need to be. Cutler is an impending free agent and while I want the Bears to tag him and draft a young quarterback early, I sense the front office is leaning towards extending him. I don’t have any issues with an extension, so long as it’s not Flacco-like. Perhaps with some continuity for the first time in years, Cutler will come back in 2014 and live up to expectations. After all, this was arguably the finest season of his career, despite missing five games. Perhaps, not. Either way, the warring Cutler fans will just have to put off the squabbling for another 8 months. I’m coming, Elizabeth. I’m coming.

2013-14 Michigan State basketball: NCAA title or bust (basically)

Senior PF Adreian Payne (left) and sophomore SG Gary Harris are key to the Spartans' success in 2013-14.  Rick Osentoski -- USA Today

Senior PF Adreian Payne (left) and sophomore SG Gary Harris are key to the Spartans’ success in 2013-14. Rick Osentoski — USA Today

The last time we saw the Michigan State Spartans men’s basketball team was in the Sweet 16, in Indianapolis, IN. After demolishing Memphis in the third round of the tournament, it appeared they had the “momentum” necessary to carry it past its next opponent, the Duke University Blue Devils. Unfortunately, momentum doesn’t score or defend, and former Blue Devil Seth Curry torched the Spartans for 29 points on 6-9 shooting from deep as Duke eliminated Sparty from the 2013 tournament, 71-61.

Former Spartan center Derrick Nix struggled rather badly in that game, and the same goes for senior power forward Adreian Payne. The two combined for 23 points and 19 rebounds, but hit on only 6-20 from the field. Payne, an improved three-point shooter in 2012-13, went 1-5 from long-range against Duke. Branden Dawson, perhaps still not quite comfortable in his return from a torn ACL the season before, was mostly quiet. Curry was able to score easily while being defended mostly by then-freshman shooting guard Gary Harris, usually a very good defender. However, Harris had been dealing with a bum shoulder for much of the season, and played poorly on both ends, scoring only six points on 2-11 shooting from the field. Team leader and starting point guard Keith Appling scored a very effective 16 points, but committed zero assists against four turnovers. If it weren’t for some much-needed energy from reserves (PG) Travis Trice and (G/F) Denzel Valentine, MSU could have very well lost by more than ten points.

Departing: C Derrick Nix (graduation)

That’s it. Only one player will be missing from a team that finished with an overall record of 27-9, and 13-5 in conference play in 2012-13. However, the squad lost one of my favorite Spartans in recent memory, as well as a 6-9, 270-lb load who only improved each year during his four seasons as a Spartan. The big man, who my girlfriend would so often affectionately refer to as “Chonky Wonky,” finished 2012-13 averaging nearly 10 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists and just over a steal per game. Head coach Tom Izzo realized that while it wasn’t always pretty, the duo of Payne and Nix was mostly effective, as Nix’s ability to operate from the low post combined with Payne’s range allowed the Spartans’ perimeter players to be even more dangerous with or without the ball in their hands.

Arriving: PF/C Gavin Schilling (incoming freshman), G/F Alvin Ellis III (incoming freshman), F Kenny Kaminski (redshirt)

Gary Harris was a top-10 recruit and arguably the nation’s best high school shooting guard when he signed his letter of intent with the Spartans. Besides Harris and a few others, Izzo doesn’t have a great history of signing large-profile prep basketball players. He’s generally in the mix for most, as I believe that most preps, regardless of status, like Izzo as a coach. But when it comes time to make a decision, Sparty usually is the bridesmaid while the more attractive Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and sometimes even Indiana, are the bride. This was the case with Duke freshman small forward Jabari Parker, a Chicago prep star from Simeon Vocational Academy. It appeared that when Parker’s buzz was biggest, he was headed to East Lansing. He suffered a foot injury and missed out on summer ball in 2012 while Kansas freshman small forward Andrew Wiggins wrecked it (and reclassified to the class of 2013 from 2014) and overtook the throne of “Latest prep to be prematurely compared to LeBron James.” Then, with seemingly all of the buzz surrounding Wiggins, Parker picked Duke as his resting stop for the next 6-7 months.

So, in typical Izzo fashion, he scrambled and came away with two solid recruits, Schilling and Ellis III. Ellis III is a smooth athlete and likely to play a role between those of Harris and Dawson, but we won’t be seeing much of him this season because of MSU’s depth in their backcourt and on the wings. The German-born Schilling is a three-star prep out of Las Vegas who was late to the recruiting scene. At 6’9″ and weighing 240 pounds, Schilling is the type of low-post banger that Izzo likes, but much more athletic than say, former Spartan Antonio Smith. Kaminski is a 6-8 shooter who was expected to contribute last year, but tore his right labrum in an offseason workout and was given a medical redshirt. He has lost weight and told the media that he has worked on his shot incessantly. If the improvement shows in games, Kaminski will be able to easily play the stretch 4 for the Spartans when Izzo runs out a smaller lineup.

Projected Starters: PG Keith Appling, SG Gary Harris, SF Branden Dawson, PF Adreian Payne, C Matt Costello

Appling and Harris (when the latter is healthy) form arguably the country’s best starting backcourt, and Sparty goes as they go, for the most part. Appling is a senior and will more than likely be an improved player this season, but I doubt we’re going to see the kind of Cleaves-, Lucas- or Green-like leadership from him that Izzo wants. Harris was overlooked during a very good freshman season, but should be “100%” and ready to cement his status as one of the nation’s best two-way players, and possible NBA Draft lottery pick. Dawson was great as a freshman before tearing his ACL, and looked tentative at times during his sophomore campaign. Hopefully, with an increased role and more comfort in his knee’s ability, he’ll return to being a virtually unstoppable force around the glass, especially on the offensive end. Payne surprised many, including myself, by returning to East Lansing for his senior season. The 2013 draft class was not a strong one and Payne was coming off of a season in which he was one of the best big men in what was widely regarded as the best conference in the land. However, Payne wanted another shot at a NCAA title and to also fulfill a promise to his late grandmother that he would graduate from college. Per 36 minutes, Payne averaged 15 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in 2012-13 while shooting well over 50% from the field and close to 40% from 3. Oh, he also shot 85% from the free throw line and increased his scoring average each month, from November through March. Payne may not hit those averages, but he’ll come close in 2013-14. Costello is a 6-9, 240-lb sophomore forward who scored a grand total of 44 points last season, and now he’ll (at least early) be counted on to do most of the replacing of the departed Nix. He was Michigan’s Mr. Basketball for 2012, but was barely a role player for last year’s Spartans. Starting alongside four players who are more offensively capable than him should make it easy for Costello to focus on playing good defense and rebounding well, as he’s still not someone you would count on to get you buckets at any critical stretch of a game.

Guard Travis Trice, left, and guard/forward Denzel Valentine lead MSU's reserves.

Guard Travis Trice, left, and guard/forward Denzel Valentine lead MSU’s reserves.

Reserves: Travis Trice, G/F Denzel Valentine, Schilling, Ellis III, PF/C Alex Guana, G Keenan Wetzel, Kaminski, G Russell Byrd, PF/C Emmett Dacey, G Dan Chapman, F Trevor Bohnhoff

It’s a luxury in sports to have depth, especially at positions most integral to the team’s success. So when Appling and Harris come off the floor, coming on to replace them most times are the very competent Trice and Valentine. I don’t believe MSU would enjoy the same success with Trice and Valentine starting in place of Appling and Harris, but up against other teams’ second units, I like Sparty’s chances with Trice and Valentine in the backcourt. Trice, a junior, is great in transition and should be happy that Izzo plans to run a little bit more this season, where Trice can either push the tempo or pull up for a transition 3. After somehow finishing 2012-13 shooting 32% from the field, but 40% from 3, Trice will have to improve his overall shooting as well as a less-than-stellar 1.47/1 assist-to-turnover ratio, in 13-14. In his freshman season, Valentine proved himself to be the Spartans’ most versatile player. Valentine can effectively play positions 1-4 on both ends, and if forced to, could probably be a serviceable center in some situations. His per 36 numbers in 12-13 (8.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.2 apg) don’t even point out the energy he brings to play, almost immediately. To compare, Valentine is college basketball’s Andre Iguodala. Expect Schilling to at the least be a rotation player, averaging between 10-15 minutes per game. If he brings the physicality he’s showed in practice and exhibition to regular season games, he could play a role that Dawson played as a freshman, just in the low post. Appling and Harris are excellent at penetrating to the rim, but as anyone who’s watched basketball knows, not every venture to the rim ends with a made basket, or even a shot attempt. Kaminski and Byrd will have to provide above-average long-range shooting to keep opposing defenses honest. This would not only enable Appling, Harris, Trice and Valentine to drive the lane more frequently and easily, but give Payne the room he needs to operate on the low block. Guana was a bit player last season, and Dacey’s role was lesser than that. If they’re on the floor, Sparty is either ahead or behind by 30 late, or half the team can’t play because of injury. Ellis III could end up redshirting in 13-14. Wetzel, Chapman and Bohnhoff probably look good in practice, but practice aren’t games and vice versa.

Non-conference schedule: (H) McNeese St, (N) Kentucky, (H) Columbia, (H) Portland, (N) Virginia Tech, (H) Mount St. Mary’s, (H) North Carolina, (A) Oakland, (H) North Florida, (A) Texas, (H) New Orleans

Sparty played the toughest schedule, if not one of the toughest, in 2012-13. They started by losing to UConn in an air base hangar in German and beat a top-10 Kansas team in a neutral location just four days later. A week later, MSU held on at home to beat a good Boise St. team and just eight days after that, lost on the road to a Miami team that would go on to win the ACC regular season and conference tournament titles. Less than two weeks after the Canes took it to Sparty, a markedly improved Loyola team gave them problems at the Breslin. Non-conference play concluded two weeks later, as MSU beat a down (but still talented) Texas team at home by 11.

A quick glance at the the non-conference schedule for 13-14 and it’s easy to see that once again, Sparty has a tough lineup ahead. Kentucky is preseason number one in every poll imaginable, and have hauled in what many college basketball analysts are saying is the greatest freshman class in college basketball history, even better than Michigan’s “Fab Five.” Virginia Tech was awful last year, but should be marginally improved, at least. A nationally televised home game against North Carolina will be one the “Izzone” gets amped for. Oakland was beaten by Sparty by 18 last year, but the score wasn’t indicative of what actually happened. Sparty will travel to Oakland this year and be the fourth ranked opponent to face the Grizzlies in the first six weeks of 13-14. Basketball-wise (and hell, football-wise, too), Texas just isn’t very good right now, but they should still finish ahead of West Virginia, Texas Tech and TCU in the Big 12. And after a late-January road game against pesky Iowa, MSU will travel to New York City, where they will play Georgetown at Madison Square Garden.

Conference Schedule(A/H) Penn St., (A/H) Indiana, (H/A) Ohio St., (H) Minnesota, (A/H) Northwestern, (A/H) Illinois, (H/A) Michigan, (A/H) Iowa

There are no surprises here, and you can be sure that there will be no nights off for the Spartans, even against Penn St. There is no Wisconsin on the schedule this year, which is both good and bad. Sparty swept the two games the teams played against each other last year, but those games always take a lot out of the Badgers’ opposition. I’m not a fan of MSU ending the regular season against Ohio St., but as long as it’s to put the finishing touches on a Big 10 regular season title, all will be well.

The Outlook.

Disregarding most Big 10 predictions that Michigan State will win the conference is easy when you already believed they are an extremely talented basketball team. It was great to see Nix finally become a consistent, productive player, but this team could be even more potent in 13-14, offensively. Whereas a part of the offense was always going to rely on halfcourt sets with Nix on the floor, his absence (and a smaller, more athletic frontcourt in turn) will give Izzo’s squad multiple chances, with Appling and Harris as primary ballhandlers, to score baskets in transition or simply create mismatches when possessing the ball. The Big 10 isn’t as bogged down as some would like you to believe, but it’s nowhere near a run-n-gun conference, either, so any easy baskets will be of an even larger importance in a conference in which points come at a premium. The game against Kentucky will be the largest regular season game in school history, and will be played at the United Center. The nonconference schedule isn’t as strong as last year’s, but will still prepare the team for conference play. And while the Big 10 isn’t as top-heavy as it was last year, it’s arguably deeper this year, with expected improvements from Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue and Penn St. as well.

MSU has just as good of a chance as any other school to win the NCAA title. The starting five is better than most, and the reserve unit is versatile and hard-working. Sparty isn’t perfect, though, of course. The Spartans will have to cut down on the turnovers; they ranked 305th in the country in that category last season. Shooting the three is another area that the Spartans must improve in, and the thinking is that a healthier Harris, along with Byrd, Kaminski and even Appling, will vault MSU from a barely mediocre team when shooting the long ball to an above-average one. It wouldn’t hurt Izzo to inject a bit more fluidity into the offense, making sure the ball is constantly moving, especially with Payne’s ability to play in the high post. And while the Spartans don’t aim to score 85 points per game, not even averaging 70, coupled with an inability to hit the three, can and probably will prove very damaging if they have to go up against a team with a high-octane offense in the tournament.

This should be a very, very, very good year for the Spartans. With four of 2012-13′s five starters returning, along with Trice and Valentine to lead a good bench, Izzo could potentially have his deepest team yet. Harris will most likely continue his ascension and be a lottery pick in next year’s draft, and the same could go for Payne. Appling is playing for his NBA life this season, and knows it. I’ll love this team even more if Dawson reverts to 2011-12 form and Costello holds it down more times than not in the middle. The Spartans should be a clear-cut favorite to win the Big 10, as key contenders lost much more from last year’s teams than MSU did. In terms of a national perspective, there are indeed teams who may have more talent, but a group of skilled individuals don’t always beat skilled teams. Kentucky learned this last year.

Michigan State begins the 2013-14 regular season tonight against the Southland Conference’s McNeese St. Cowboys, in East Lansing, MI. McNeese St. was a sub-.500 team in 12-13 and will try to overcome Sparty before going for Southland gold against the likes of Abilene Christian, Nicholls St., Stephen F. Austin and Incarnate Word. I guarantee that despite the caliber of their opponent tonight, Izzo won’t let his guys take the Cowboys lightly. This is especially an important game because the next one for MSU will be against Kentucky. MSU will put on a show tonight in preparation for their showdown on Tuesday night, which I will be in attendance for. Go Green. Go White.

“Little Brother,” Michigan State 29, Michigan 6 #MSU #Sparty #CFB

Several Spartans celebrate with the Paul Bunyan Trophy after yesterday's home win over rival Michigan, 29-6.

Several Spartans celebrate with the Paul Bunyan Trophy after yesterday’s home win over rival Michigan, 29-6.

While I got some joy out of beating my younger brother 24-4 in a one-on-one game of basketball, it didn’t give me the joy that I feel whenever Michigan State beats Michigan on the football field. Ever since I was a child, the belief was that Michigan had the superior football team, and it was mostly true. Besides that damn fight song of theirs, Michigan’s football program is elite, just off of reputation alone. And when the Wolverines weren’t seemingly relying on their reputation, they were actually doing some winning. They had a Heisman winner in the early 90s, a Heisman winner in the late 90s who led them to a national title, were a top-10 team for the first half of the 2000s and rebuilt themselves in the late 2000s into the solid program they are today, even one that won the Sugar Bowl over Virginia Tech in 2012.

Yesterday was a joyous one, as the Michigan State Spartans dominated their “big brother,” the Michigan Wolverines, at Spartan Stadium, 29-6. This game was for the Paul Bunyan Trophy, something the Spartans have gone home with after 5 of the last 6 games. Ignoring the usual pregame trash talk, this was a matchup that Spartan HC Mark Dantonio had his boys clearly amped up for, especially on the defensive side.

It is a bit difficult to say whether or not Sparty’s defense is the best in the land, but yesterday, DC Pat Narduzzi’s unit made a very strong argument for their case. Michigan’s offense came into the rivalry game averaging almost 50 points and 500 yards of total offense over their last three games. On the season, they had averaged a shade over 42 points and 446 yards of total offense per game. In addition to scoring a measly six points against MSU, Michigan’s O was held to a pathetic 168 yards of total offense, 2.8 yards per play, 2-13 on third downs, punted eight times, was sacked seven times, tackled for loss 11 times, fumbled three times, was intercepted once and ran for the lowest amount of rushing yards in school history: minus-48 yards, surpassing the dubious mark the 1962 team set against Minnesota. MSU linebackers Denicos Allen and Ed Davis combined for 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. DE Shilique Calhoun was a one-man gang, notching 2.5 sacks and 3 tackles for loss. That, my friends, is dominance.

Early on, it looked as if the Wolverines wouldn’t have too much of an issue moving the ball. On their first drive, starting at their 17, QB Devin Gardner (14-27, 210 YDS, INT) hooked up with WR Jeremy Gallon (5 REC, 67 YDS) three times for 57 yards before the Wolverines had to settle for a 49-yard field goal. That first drive was their best of the entire game and things only got worse from that point on.

When Michigan RB Fitzergald Toussaint (8 CAR, 20 YDS, one pregame insert of foot into mouth) wasn’t getting bottled up at the line of scrimmage, Gardner was running for his life. He was sacked five times in the first half and hurried probably twice as much. The Michigan offensive line was manhandled all game and we even got to see the great tackle, Taylor Lewan…commit several petty acts after the whistle had blown. Left on an island against the Michigan receivers, the Sparty secondary answered the call repeatedly, settling down after a shaky first drive and neutralizing any potential threat thereafter. All-everything CB Darqueze Dennard intercepted his third pass of the season, this one coming with Michigan in the red zone and trying to rally late.

Offensively, Sparty was good enough to not screw things up. Connor Cook (18-33, 252 YDS, TD, INT) missed a few open receivers, but made enough plays, overall. He also ran for a 1-yard TD that was the effective dagger in Michigan’s hearts, putting MSU ahead, 22-6 with 10:31 left to play. RB Jeremy Langford (26 CAR, 120 YDS, TD) continued his hot stretch, running for 100+ yards for the fourth straight week. He also has scored six times in that stretch, including a late 40-yard TD scamper late in yesterday’s ballgame that was the epitome of icing on the cake. There were a few drops from the receivers and tight ends, but nothing that cost MSU, obviously. WR Bennie Fowler (6 REC, 75 YDS, TD) and Tony Lippett (5 REC, 62 YDS) led the way, and even FB Trevon Pendleton (2 REC, 62 YDS) had a good receiving day, including a 49-yard reception on the Spartans’ first offensive play from scrimmage.

Sparty just about mauled Michigan in 2011, the last time these two teams played in East Lansing. Not only did Narduzzi’s guys absolutely embarrass former Michigan QB Denard Robinson and his teammates, but they exerted the kind of physicality that inspires most, and enrages some (who support the maize and blue, mostly). Yesterday had to have been worse for the Wolverines, because this time around, there weren’t a handful of personal foul penalties called against the Spartans. MSU simply beat the hell out of Michigan, from start to finish. DOMINANCE.

This win wasn’t a great win because I feel like I, or any of the Michigan State football players and fans/students have something to prove to anyone affiliated with Michigan. It was great because Michigan State and Michigan are true rivals, and that mentality spills over into the student and even citizen populations of East Lansing an Ann Arbor, respectively. We’re still behind in the series, by far, but feel things are changing for the better. That 29-6 show of command was a big first step. Now, Michigan isn’t this bad, offensively. Yesterday, they just ran into a buzz saw. A very physical, determined, aggressive buzz saw. Little brother. Heh.

Next.

MSU will now have a week off before traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers (6-2, 3-1 Big 10 Legends). Nebraska beat Northwestern in Lincoln yesterday, 27-24, on a Hail Mary TD pass as time expired. Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez has appeared in only 4 games this season because of a foot injury, his last against Minnesota two Saturdays ago, a 34-23 loss in which he also suffered a hip pointer. He’s questionable for this Saturday’s game at Michigan, and the team will have to once again rely on leading rusher Ameer Abdullah, one of the Big 10’s best running backs. MSU-Nebraska will be big for the standings in the Big 10 Legends Division, as Nebraska sits 1.5 games behind Sparty. We should all have a better idea of what MSU will be up against after the Nebraska-Michigan game, however. Until then… Go Green. Go White.

2013-14 Chicago #Bulls: Derrick Rose is back, Boozer will yell, Thibs is a machine. #NBA

Easy.

Easy.

If you or anyone else you know was excited when Derrick Rose was set to play his first NBA preseason game since before the 2011-12 season, then I’ll just go out on a limb and assume that you and those people are probably currently breathing into a brown paper bag. It’s okay; I’ve gone through six already. In the last hour.

Today marks the beginning of the 2013-14 NBA season, which means at least 82 games of Chicago Bulls basketball. Last year’s team played the entire regular season and postseason without Rose. They won 45 games during the regular season and even managed to eliminate the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs, in seven games. After stealing Game 1 from the Miami Heat in the second round, the Heat regrouped and swept the rest of the series.

Outgoing Bulls: PF Louis Amundson, SG Marco Belinelli, SG Daequan Cook, SG Richard Hamilton, PF Vladimir Radmanovic, PG Nate Robinson, PF Malcom Thomas

Amundson, Cook, Radmanovic and Thomas simply filled the roster last year, but the losses of Belinelli, Robinson and even Hamilton will hurt the Bulls a little bit. Belinelli improved as the year went on, especially on the defensive end, and the Bulls will miss having an offensively competent, 6’5″ 2-guard who can handle the ball effectively. Nate Robinson was seemingly every Bulls fan’s most and least favorite Bull, but I think he ultimately won a lot of folks over with his postseason heroics. While Hamilton played in only 50 games, he was still a serviceable player, but one who could never seem to avoid injury.

Incoming Bulls: SG Mike Dunleavy, PG Mike James, PF Erik Murphy (Rookie, Florida), Tony Snell (Rookie, New Mexico)

For whatever reason, there are still some Bulls fans who continue to lament the loss of sharpshooter 2-guard Kyle Korver, but I’ve been over it since the day he was officially no longer a Bull. Belinelli was looked at as a replacement for Korver by many, and wrongfully so. I don’t think Dunleavy is as high caliber of a player as those two, but his shot is close to Korver’s, and he can make a play every once in a while, a la Marco. Good enough for me. James will be an emergency/garbage time player, and being 38 years young, that’s suitable for him. Snell, the Bulls’ 2013 first-round pick, probably won’t play much at all in 2013-14, but he’ll turn just 22 in less than 2 weeks and comes from a solid basketball program. Murphy will play even less than Snell, but with the NBA essentially wiping out prototypical power forwards and replacing them with “stretch 4s” who can shoot the long ball, Murphy will certainly have a role on this team going forward.

Good times...

Good times…

The Backcourt: DERRICK ROSE IS BACK! Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, it’s time to look at what’s in the Bulls’ guard stable. Obviously, things start with Rose. He looked great throughout the preseason and appears to be the most confident he’s ever been during his pro career. I truly hope that along with working out and shooting during his idle time, that Rose was watching the game and attempting to learn as much as he possibly could. Rose is the Bulls’ clear-cut floor general, and if he can become more of a point guard who’s a scorer rather than a scorer who’s a point guard, things could get very ugly, very quickly for the rest of the NBA. Kirk Hinrich is back for another dance and really, the Bulls just need him to be average. Hinrich is still a capable ballhandler, distributor and defender (let’s not foray into his shooting woes), so as long as too much isn’t heaped on his plate, he should do just fine. Jimmy Butler will be the starting shooting guard this season, and everyone and their grandmother is predicting that Butler will be one of the NBA’s breakout stars this season. I doubt he’ll come remotely close to All-Star recognition, but he will easily be the best 2-guard the Bulls have had in several years. I’m still not a fan of the Marquis Teague pick in 2012, but I suppose that if he can push Hinrich for playing time this season, the pick was at least somewhat worth it. The world would be a better place if Teague were 2 inches shorter, but then again, the world would be a better place if Krause and Co. hadn’t screwed the Bulls’ dynasty out of potentially another title or two.

The Frontcourt: Yeah, so Omer Asik is a Houston Rocket, and has been since the beginning of the 2012-13 season. The Houston Rockets made him an offer the Bulls probably never intended to match, and the most promising (in my opinion) big the Bulls had was as good as gone. Center Nazr Mohammed is back and should get quality minutes as a a valuable frontcourt reserve the Bulls so desperately need. Power forward Taj Gibson will be playing under his new contract for the first time this year, a 4-year, $33 million extension he signed last Halloween, and the pressure is on Taj to not only produce, but produce at a level high enough that would make the Bulls’ brass feel comfortable in amnestying Carlos

Scream on, 'Los.

Scream on, ‘Los.

 Boozer over the summer of 2014. Gibson’s production dropped in 12-13 slightly, but I believe that he’ll be relied on more in 13-14 than any other time since his rookie year, and that reliance will utlimately pay off. Boozer, on the other hand, will probably end up averaging close to 16, 17 points and 8, 9 rebounds per game and most fans will still do everything in their power to obliterate him. I get it; he’s become the Bulls’ convenient whipping boy. He frustrates the hell out of me plenty (How about instead of screaming for Jo to give a little help D, you provide the help yourself, Carlos?!), but I’m objective enough to admit that with a healthy Boozer, the Bulls are a better team than they are without Boozer at all. There was a time when I couldn’t stand the sight of Joakim Noah. It was bad enough that I felt he was an unbridled idiot at the University of Florida. Hearing NBA commissioner announce that the Bulls were selecting him with the ninth pick of the 2007 NBA Draft about damn near sent me over the edge, figuratively. The feelings didn’t get any better during his tumultous beginning with the Bulls, either. But now, he’s my favorite Bull, with all due apologies to fellow Chicagoan, Derrick Rose. Simple and plain, Noah is the Bulls’ engine. He was the best all-around center in the NBA last year, and those who weren’t already aware got to see the greatness that is Noah’s passing ability on a nightly basis. Granted, Noah did miss 16 games and was plagued by that damn plantar fascitis in the playoffs, but I’d still take him over any other center in the NBA, no bias involved. I don’t hate Luol Deng. I just don’t think he’s an elite NBA player, or has ever been one. I’ll readily admit that he is one of the better small forwards in the NBA, but one of the best? That, would be a stretch. Deng is in the last year of his ridiculous contract, and if he wants a new deal that also includes a hefty amount of dollars, he’ll perform like the good all-around hooper that he is in 13-14. I believe that Deng is capable of so much more than he produces, and has all too often faded into the background when there’s a play to be made. With Rose back and on a mission, Deng won’t hit that 20/8/4 line that I’ve been waiting for, for years. But if he can stay healthy, and not tail off on the defensive end where he is most highly valued, he’ll help the Bulls rack up Ws and himself rack up dollars in free agency.

Too much swank, Tom, Too much damn swank.

Too much swank, Tom, Too much damn swank.

The Coach: Tom Thibodeau enters the 2013-14 season with a regular season winning percentage of .683, which obviously includes a mere .549 percentage from the 12-13 season. In their first two seasons under “Thibs,” the Bulls finished with the NBA’s best regular season record before being eliminated in the playoffs. It’s true that injuries played a part in those premature exits, but Thibs didn’t help matters as much as he could, especially on the offensive end. Since 2010-11, the Bulls have been a top-five team, defensively, but just mediocre when it comes to the other side of the game. When you’re a stout defensive team, there isn’t the impetus to score 115 points a game. This is clear. However, the Bulls aren’t without some talented, versatile weapons. Fortunately, Rose will lead a new Bulls’ offense that will hopefully be able to score more points, more efficiently. Some will be quick to opine that a new offense will be the difference between another early playoff exit and a NBA title, but I would disagree on the grounds that regardless of scheme, missing players or being forced to suit up ailing ones takes an expert offensive scheme and marginalizes it. Besides X’s and O’s, Thibs could probably not seemingly drive Deng into the ground in terms of minutes played, which would benefit both parties. Other than that, I really don’t see any glaring flaws in Thibodeau’s coaching abilities. The Bulls will come out and play 48 minutes just about every night, and that goes double for the defensive side of things. Hopefully, the controversy surrounding the departure of one of his top former assistants is nothing to acknowledge, and Thibs does his (semi) madman thing and guides this team to even greater things.

In Summation: DERRICK ROSE IS BACK! Yes, you were made aware of this earlier, and I felt I should remind you again. No NBA team had a better offseason than the Bulls, because Rose’s return could basically be viewed as an offseason acquisition. The Houston Rockets acquired a new, top-5 player in center Dwight Howard, but I’d still argue that the Bulls had a better offseason because I feel the Bulls are closer to a title than the Rockets, even with Howard and shooting guard James Harden. Supposedly, Deng feels disrespected because he hasn’t been re-signed, or even offered an extension. Touch cookies. I’m sure we’ll get the customary “walk year” play from him, which means we could see an elevated Deng or deflated one. Hinrich will likely be okay and won’t make me pull my hair out, but I’m sensing some epically frustrating play from Boozer this year. It’s okay, ‘Los. Nikola will relieve you, starting with the 2014-15 NBA season. Noah is over the plantar fascitis, and sore groin that plagued him this preseason, and I believe he’ll come close to matching his per36 numbers from last year. The first person to tweet “The Butler Did It” will be blocked, without prejudice. Dunleavy won’t draw my ire as much as fellow Dookies, Deng and Boozer, but that’s because he wasn’t an overhyped media creation in college that benefitted from playing for a diminutive bully. Hit a freakin’ jump shot, Mr. Teague. For the love of everything that is good, hit a freakin’ jump shot. I think Snell will ditch the  cornrows in favor of a Gumby fade, and show Thibs late in the season that 14-15 will be his coming-out party. Murphy will connect on at least 35% from 3 and be confused for Kyle Korver about 1,273 times even though the two don’t really favor each other all that much. Nazr Mohammed will cement his status as the greatest Kenwood Academy alum to ever play in the NBA. We’re just going to ignore the fact that Mohammed is the only Kenwood Academy alum to ever play in the NBA, okay? Thibodeau will become the spokesman for Ricola, and, during testy negotiations with the company, leave them for Hall before realizing that both just wanted to objectify his damaged vocal chords. It will finally be recognized that no fanbase in all of professional sports is greater than the Bulls’ fanbase. Now… SEE. RED.

“Homecoming”: Michigan State 42, Illinois 3; 9th #CFB weekend takeaways #MSU #Sparty

MSU QB Connor Cook fumbles the ball into the end zone near the end of the first quarter of yesterday's road 42-3 win over Illinois. It would be one of only a few mistakes Cook would make all day.  Bradley Gleeb - AP

MSU QB Connor Cook fumbles the ball into the end zone near the end of the first quarter of yesterday’s road 42-3 win over Illinois. It would be one of only a few mistakes Cook would make all day. Bradley Gleeb – AP

Generally, FBS schools from BCS conferences schedule a “cupcake” (if they can) for their homecoming football game. I still don’t quite get the concept of homecoming, because it’s not like athletic teams spend all but one game of the season on the road, but I just know that it’s a time in which students are supposed to show a disgusting amount of school spirit and the home team is supposed to kick ass.

The University of Illinois Fightin’ Illini (3-4, 0-3 Big 10) scheduled Michigan State Spartans (7-1, 4-0 Big 10) for this year’s homecoming game, and one could argue that a team of Sparty’s caliber would find that insulting. Of course, that argument would be wrong because MSU isn’t Alabama or a team that has even been to a BCS bowl in the last 25 years, but you can be sure that MSU head coach Mark Dantonio wanted his guys to give the Illini fans absolutely nothing to cheer about on homecoming.

For about the first 15 minutes of yesterday’s ballgame, it seemed as if Illinois would be able to do just enough to hang around until the end of the matchup, and then use their underdog powers to steal a victory from MSU. An Illinois field goal with less than 10 minutes left in the first quarter put Illinois ahead 3-0, but that would be all the scoring from the home team we’d see yesterday.

Before Sparty actually got on the board, QB Connor Cook (15-16, 208 YDS, 3 TD) gave away a great chance of scoring when he fumbled into the end zone on a keeper play. Illinois took over at their 20 and seemed to gain a bit of “momentum.” The play was especially frustrating because it was RB Jeremy Langford (22 CAR, 104 YDS, 2 TD) who singlehandedly got the Spartans from their 44 to the Illinois 7 by running the ball powerfully and effectively. Suddenly, with a great chance to score inside the 10, the Spartans offense decided to get cute and Cook lost 7 points on the drive, potentially.

After a 1-yard TD run by Langford in the beginning of the second quarter, it was all Sparty on both sides of the ball. Illinois opened with a 12-play, 53-yard drive that ended with those 3 points, but ran 22 plays for 75 yards the rest of the game. With the Illini getting nothing from their run game (21 CAR, 25 YDS total), the onus fell on QB Nathan Scheelhaase (13-21, 103 YDS, INT) to move his team down the field and it’s safe to say that he failed. The Illini pass for nearly 288 yards per game and average 477 yards of total offense under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, but did next to nothing against a hungry Sparty D. On a key early fourth down attempt, the Spartan D stifled Illinois with only one yard to make the first down, and that was the end of that chapter for the Illini offense.

While it took a bit for the offense to get going, once it did, the unit put up arguably its best performance of the season. Cook set a school record for single-game completion percentage (minimum 10 attempts) before leaving early in the fourth quarter. In four Big 10 games, Cook has put up a line of 75-116, 827 YDS, 7 TD and 2 INT…all wins. Granted, the wins have come over Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois, but it’s good to see Cook seemingly get better as the season progresses. Langford was one of three running backs to rush for at least 70 yards against the Illini and 10 different Spartans caught a pass. Sparty picked up a whopping 29 first downs, was 14-16 on third down and possessed the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game, 39:06, compared to the Illini’s 20:54 time of possession. The offense tallied 477 yards of total offense, with 269 of them coming on the ground.

This was exactly the kind of performance and win that Sparty needed before it begins a rough four-game stretch at home against Michigan, followed by two road games against Nebraska and Northwestern and then wrapping it up at home against Minnesota. Just weeks ago, it was only supposed to be a tough three games before the regular season finale at home against Minnesota, but the Gophers have beaten Northwestern and Nebraska in consecutive weeks and have clearly forgotten that they’re not supposed to do those kinds of things.

Currently, MSU leads the Legends division by a game and a half over in-state rival, Michigan. I’m not yet sure of the math, but I do believe that a MSU win over Michigan along with Nebraska losing to Northwestern and Iowa losing to Wisconsin would essentially wrap up the division for the Spartans. Michigan’s offense is better than MSU’s and if Sparty can’t contain Wolverines QB Devin Gardner, it could be a long afternoon for the Sparty defensive unit. However, Michigan’s defense is clearly the weak link and Cook and Co. must find a way to take advantage. Michigan has had an off week after last Saturday’s offensive showdown with Indiana that ended with Michigan winning, 63-47. I’m pretty sure Sparty would love to hang 47 on Michigan, albeit coming in a victory. Hell, MSU may not even score 23 on Saturday, even in East Lansing, but I still expect them to grind out a victory in what could be one of the uglier MSU-Michigan games in recent memory. Go Green. Go White.

  • Never trust Northwestern football. The good people of Chicago want a college football team to support so bad, that they’ve taken their hopes and dreams to Evanston, IL. Illinois, in Champaign, is further away, and let’s face it, they stink. The Northern Illinois Huskies may have the best collegiate football team in the state, but they play in the woeful MAC and put up a clunker in last year’s Sugar Bowl. Southern, Eastern and Western Illinois have football teams? Oh. Notre Dame doesn’t, and shouldn’t count, people. So, that basically leaves Northwestern, the elite academic institution that just so happens to have an athletics program. The football team had a great 95-96 two-year run, appearing in the Rose Bowl, then Citrus Bowl. Since, the program has been up and down. Lately, there’s been this notion, however, that NU is ready for the spotlight. They fooled people last year after starting 5-0, although those wins came against Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota and Indiana. This year was about the same, with NU once again fooling folks after beating Cal, Syracuse, Western Michigan and Maine to begin the season. But then it came time for them to deal with Ohio St. at home and the spotlight wasn’t kind to them as they lost, 40-30. The following week, NU went to Camp Randall Stadium and got housed by Wisconsin, 35-6. A 20-17 home loss to Minnesota and 17-10 overtime road loss to Iowa later, and this Wildcats team has suddenly gone from trendy pick to reach the Rose Bowl to fighting for their bowl lives heading into Week 10. Maybe NU fans won’t allow a good start over bad teams to fool them next year. Maybe.
  • Jameis Winston for Heisman. The Florida State redshirt freshman QB is the man on one of the nation’s top teams and the Seminoles are currently undefeated and a top-3 team in the AP, coaches and BCS poll. Winston has completed a hair over 71% of his passes, has thrown for 20 TDs against just 3 INT, averages 12 yards per attempt and leads the entire country in passing efficiency. Yesterday’s 49-17 win over Maryland marked the seventh consecutive time that FSU has scored at least 41 points and sets up a showdown between the Seminoles and seventh-ranked, undefeated, in-state rival Miami Hurricanes in what could be a preview of the ACC title game. Obviously, when it comes to Heisman candidates, there are a few. Oregon QB Marcus Mariota and Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel easily come to mind. But Mariota benefits from a very innovative offensive scheme while some just don’t want to see Manziel take home the hardware for the second year in a row. If FSU beats Miami, especially in convincing fashion, they have a schedule (save for the finale against Florida) that could enable Winston to win and put up video game numbers at the same time. A redshirt freshman (who is also an outfielder and pitcher for the baseball team, by the freakin’ way) tearing it up for a program that has returned to prominence? That’s a Heisman story.
  • Notre Dame vs Air Force. Zzzzzzzz…