If the Lions Are On the Clock, It Must Be NFL Draft Day

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A couple of quick thoughts on today’s NFL Draft:

(1) With the Bulls and Blackhawks in the playoffs, both the White Sox and Cubs not yet knocked out of the postseason race two weeks into the baseball season, and the fact that the Bears essentially have had their draft already with the Jay Cutler trade, it’s been nice to not have to deal with several weeks of babble of who the Bears will take in the NFL Draft.  In past years, the Chicago sports media would have been in all-draft mode for days on end with supposed life or death questions of the Bears’ future.  Sure, the Bears still need an arsenal of wide receivers for Jay Cutler to actually throw to and I’m very interested to see where various Illini players such as Vontae Davis will end up, yet these concerns pale in comparison to everything else that’s happening on the Chicago sports scene.  Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy draft talk as much as anyone, but I really love watching my favorite NBA team being competitive in the playoffs (notwithstanding this past Thursday evening) a whole lot more.  It’s great to have actual games on the field dominate the sports discussion in Chicago in April as opposed to the war room at Halas Hall.

(2) The NFL has compounded its mistake of moving the draft start time from its long-time slot at 11:00 am CT on the first day to 2:00 pm CT last year by pushing this year’s start time back another hour to 3:00 pm CT.  I understand that this move was made to draw in more viewers in prime time.  However, it takes away a lot of the allure of the NFL Draft as a television event in the first place.  To me, it’s a perfect “have the TV on in the background event” and an excuse to get together with your buddies to hang out for a whole morning and afternoon in a low-key manner while you invent creations such as bacon tacos (as Minneapolis Red Sox and I did the year that the Vikings forgot to get their draft pick in on time).  However, it’s far from a prime time edge-of-your-seat event (particularly when playoff basketball and hockey games are alternative options).  So, instead of the draft having already started in the late morning as a write this post, ESPN and ESPN News are in the midst of an 8-hour marathon of punditry (featuring the legendary hair of Mel Kiper, Jr.) on draft prospects, even though the world already knows that Matthew Stafford of Georgia is going to be picked first by the Detroit Lions.  (Let’s see if that pick works better than, well, every Lions pick since Barry Sanders.)  The NFL had a great all-day format for the draft, but its belief that this is somehow a compelling prime time event is misguided and, as a result, this will be the second year in a row where I’ll watch little, if any, of what was once one of my favorite not-on-the-field sports events of the year (next to NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday, the NBA Draft, and the NBA Draft Lottery) as someone that has always wanted to run a sports team.

(Image from The Nasty Boys)

Arch Rivalry Rundown and Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay – 9/4/2008

With week one of the college football season in the books, there are a few conference-wide trends: the Big East looks bad, the ACC looks worse, and the jury is still out on how the Big Ten is going to look at the top.  Illinois lost to a simply better Missouri team, which wasn’t a surprise, but at least hung in well enough to justify the Illini staying in the top 25 in both polls, which was personally a pleasant surprise (and in the end, fair considering that Illinois was playing a team over 10 spots ahead of them in the polls going into the game).  The two main concerns coming out of the game for Illinois were the horrendous lack of tackling, which resulted in roughly 8,000 YAC for Mizzou (and Chase Daniel shred the defense overall) and the completely dead running game in the wake of the loss of Rashard Mendenhall to the NFL.  At least the running situation was mitigated by the fact that Juice Williams had a banner day stats-wise and nailed more accurate passes than ever before.  Mizzou practically stacked eight guys in the box the entire game to take away the Illini running “attack”, which allowed Juice to find some mind-boggling wide-open receivers downfield on a number of occasions.  Hopefully, the fact that Juice burned a pretty solid Missouri defense with his arm will make future opponents think twice in terms of stacking the line, which would open back up the Illini running game.  There really isn’t an excuse for the sloppy tackling, though.  The one bright spot on defense was the coverage ability of Vontae Davis – if he continues playing like he did this past week, he’s going to be taken very high in the first round by an NFL team in the near future.

There aren’t any odds available on the Illinois – Eastern Illinois since it involves a Division 1-AA team (I will continue to refuse to use the FBS/FCS monikers), so that game won’t be part of the parlay this week.  However, I’ll throw out a prediction that Illinois will win by at least 24 points.  On to this week’s college football picks from the worst slate of games of the year that features a dangerous number of spreads of 20 points or more (home teams in CAPS):

(1) Miami (+21 1/2) over FLORIDA – When the marquee game of the weekend features a 21 1/2 point spread, that means it’s a pretty bad football Saturday.  (It will all be made up next week, though, with Ohio State – USC.) I know that the Hurricanes were brutal last season, they have a bunch of freshmen playing, and Tim Tebow has a Zen-like hold on Erin Andrews.  However, have the mighty Canes fallen so far that they would be over three touchdown underdogs to the Gators in the revival of a once-heated rivalry?  I think not – I’m taking Miami with the points.

(2) CENTRAL FLORIDA (+14) over South Florida – Staying in the Sunshine State, I’m selling off USF stock after a couple of seasons of outsized returns.  This is one of those games that means a whole lot more to UCF (who believes they were just as worthy of a Big East invitation as USF) and it’s on their home field, so I’m taking the points again.

(3) EAST CAROLINA (+8) over West Virginia – Here’s a true home game for East Carolina against a top ten team one week after upsetting Virginia Tech in Charlotte.  At the same time, one of the few items that I have been consistently correct on through the years is knowing that West Virginia finds a way to stumble every season even though there is always a contingent of pundits that believes the Mountaineers will back into the national championship game since they always have a schedule where they could theoretically run the table on paper.  I’m not calling a straight-up upset here for ECU (and I’m sure WVU is on notice after VT stumbled last weekend), but it looks like I’m taking the points across the board on this week’s parlay.

The NFL parlay picks come tomorrow.

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 2-1

Illini Games for the Season: 0-1
Overall Season: 2-1

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

The Way Kathy Lee Needed Regis That’s the Way I Need Rejus

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Alright – I’m officially excited.  When I wrote my college football preview a few weeks ago and predicted a Motor City Bowl appearance for the Illini (which plenty of people at the time thought was a monster stretch), I didn’t think in my wildest dreams that they would do so well that the most important football game between teams from Illinois and Wisconsin this past weekend would end up taking place at Memorial Stadium in Champaign as opposed to Lambeau Field in Green Bay (the Bears are slowly redeeming themselves, but that’s a post for another day).  Now, I’m clearing out my holiday calendar with the real prospect of Illinois making a top tier bowl.  While we are a long long way from legitimately talking about a Rose Bowl with games against Michigan and Ohio State still coming up, let’s just say I’ll break the bank to make it to Pasadena if that ever happens.  Honestly, next to an Illini national championship in basketball, watching the Illini in the Rose Bowl is my top sports wish – as much as I love the Bears, White Sox, and Bulls, seeing Illinois finally finish at the top would mean the most to me personally.

What I love about how the Illini are playing right now is that these are anything but fluke wins.  I got to witness the victory against Penn State a couple of weeks ago in person, which meant that I also got to attend the coming out party for my favorite athlete in the world today outside of Devin Hester:  Arrelious “Rejus” Benn.  I’m not sure how Ron Zook is getting top recruits such as Benn and Vontae Davis to come from Washington, D.C. to Champaign, but it needs to continue.  Rejus is the type of guy we would always see across the line in a Wolverine or Buckeye uniform before – a huge wide receiver who will also burn the best cornerbacks (and also in the case against the Nitanny Lions, the best special teams units) out there.  Anyway, considering that Benn is only a month into his college career, he has a pretty good chance of becoming the best athlete that I have seen in an Illini uniform for either football or basketball (even more so than Deron Williams) if he keeps up this pace.  The only thing with having such a talent is that he may have a short stay in Champaign he could very well be a top ten NFL draft pick after playing the minimum of two years in college.

As starry-eyed as I am with Rejus, it’s Rashard Mendenhall and the Illinois running game that’s really the team’s catalyst in rolling over teams.  Sure, Wisconsin might have been the second most overrated number 5 team in country this season (after our good friends at the University of Michigan), but can you believe that we put up another 289 yards on the ground against them?  I was brought up on old-school smash mouth Chicago Bears and Big Ten football, so there’s nothing more beautiful to me than watching the Illini just ram the ball down people’s throats.  Quarterback Juice Williams might still be throwing the ball as if he spent the summer at the Rex Grossman Passing Clinic, but the boy (along with his backup Eddie McGee) can still run like he stole something.

So, it’s going to be the middle of October and Illini football is still relevant.  There’s the proverbial trap game next week atIowa – as bad as the Hawkeyes might be playing this year, Kirk Ferentz seems to have our number – and if we survive and advance there, it makes the prime time game against Michigan into the biggest game in Champaign since, well, the most horrific sporting event that I have ever attended in person.  When we’re six weeks into the season and we’ve already won more games in 2007 than the past two years combined, Illini fans are entitled to some irrational exuberance.  I know I’m there.