Okay, humor me with this quick bit of tennis stuff before I finally talk about El Futbol Americano. As covered extensively all week, really, Rafa is moving along in the US Open. Last night, after winning the first set tiebreaker against Fernando Gonzalez, he summoned the USTA trainer for some abdominal problems that have been dogging him for the past month. One of the earliest critiques of Rafa's style was its unsustainability; he used too much torque, put too much pressure on his body, and generally ran around too much to stay healthy over a long career. In a nutshell, the theory went that his strategy of wearing the opponent down, so effective, would finally do the same to him.
It's too early for a verdict, but this year's knee injuries were certainly ominous, and the current stomach ailment adds fuel to the fire. If you had to predict where someone with Rafa's relentless style would be physically worn down first, you'd have three good guesses: knees, elbows, and core. Two out of three have cropped up in '09. That ain't good.
Still, he managed to beat "Gonzo" in that first breaker, and he led 3-2 in the second set breaker before rain postponed play for the night. They'll resume around 2pm today, if the weather clears. After the second rain delay, Pam Shriver interviewed Uncle Toni on the sidelines, and he straight-up admitted that if play were to continue, Rafa would have to win the second set to have any shot at completing the match. Translation: his physical limit for the night was one more set of tennis. Anything but a straight-set victory, and he'd have to retire.
There are two conclusions to draw. First, even mother nature loves Nadal. The rain bailed him out, and I really, really like his chances to win this match whenever it's played. Second, it seems totally impossible for him to win this tournament. The schedule has the men's semis on Saturday, with the final to be played on Sunday. That means Rafa would have to play three straight days against top-tier competition. Last night, after an off day, he couldn't even go four sets. I'm seeing a gutty win today, and a semi-final loss to a lightning-hot Juan Martin Del Potro.
And in the end? I'll take it. The semis are a terrific result in this comeback major. He can spend the offseason healing, and maybe 2010 will find him healthy.* You can follow today's match, should it happen, starting at 2pm here.
*Of course, Rafa has surprised me in the past. In this year's Australian, he played an epic semi-final in horrible heat against Fernanda Verdasco, finally winning in 5 sets. That was on a Saturday too, and he had to come back Sunday to face Federer in a match where nobody gave him a chance. He won that one in five sets too. But I do think the physical situation is more dire this time around.
Okay, time for pigskins!
*First, Greg Paulus. Do you ever feel like certain people are put on Earth to have their pain flaunted in the public realm? That was the arc of Paulus' Duke career, and his first game at Syracuse didn't look much different. He didn't make too many terrible decisions, though a few passes came inches from being picked off all day, but it also doesn't seem like he has a good arm. The throws all took on the same floating quality. No zip, no preternatural accuracy. Then he threw the horrible interception in OT to lose the game.
I felt bad for him, and you have to wonder what SU coach Doug Marrone was thinking by naming him starter. Maybe he's incrementally better than the back-up, but why waste time with a guy who can only give you one year? Shouldn't the rebuilding process include grooming a future QB, getting him starts now so he's not overwhelmed when the team actually has a chance to be good? What's the upside to starting Paulus? Leadership? Not buying it, especially after last Saturday. He's just not that good. Syracuse may win four or five games this year, but they should be looking to the future.
I grew up watching great SU teams under Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison and Marvin Graves (a player from my high school was a captain on the O-Line, so our family bought season tickes for a few years), and it'd be great to see the Orange rise again. But Greggy boy ain't the man for the job. He's just a whipping boy, same as at Duke.
*USC will be amazingly fun to watch, as usual. Freshman QB Matt Barkley looked pretty great, and Pete Carroll has fashioned yet another dynamic offense. They roll into Ohio State this week, and boys from the Big 10 (coming off a narrow, narrow win against mighty Navy) have no chance in hell. In the last seven seasons, USC has lost seven games. Here are the losses: Oregon State, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, Texas, California.
Notice a pattern? Except for Texas, which was a classic national title game they probably should have won, USC only loses to inferior teams in the Pac 10. These are trap games, against teams who are intimiately familiar with your system and can catch you lagging on an off-week. It happens roughly once per season, and usually on the road. What they never do, ever, is lose the big non-conference game. Since taking over in 2001, Pete Carroll has never, ever lost a game to a Big 10 team. He's 6-0, with five of those wins coming against one of the top 2 Big Ten teams in the Rose Bowl.
I'm someone who really hates the Big 10. I'm sick of their lack of talent, I'm sick of the nonsense we hear every year about "fundamental football," and I'm sick of one of their teams getting undeserved respect, and occasional bids to the BCS Title Game because they romp over terrible competition in the regular season. One of my favorite years was 2007, when everyone was clamoring for a Michigan-OSU rematch in the BCS Championship, after they both went undefeated until meeting each other at the end of the regular season. Instead, USC thrashed Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and LSU did the same to Ohio State in the championship, exposing the conference as featherweights. Truly a wonderful stretch.
Until proven otherwise, the Big 10 has less speed, strength, and overall talent than USC and the top tier SEC schools. Plain and simple. I'm looking forward to further proof Saturday night.
*The Big 12 has a lot to prove. After a fun season last year, with four seemingly awesome teams, the Bowl Games proved to be a huge disaster. Oklahoma State got roughed up by Oregon, the immensely entertaining Red Raiders from Texas Tech lost big to Ole Miss, Texas barely snuck by a questionable Ohio State team, and Oklahoma was exposed in the title game by Florida. The common element? Poor defense. It was masked in an explosive Big 12 season, where QBs and receivers ran up otherworldly numbers (four Heisman candidates from one conference!), but against stauncher opposition they proved to be all show and no go.
The rebranding effort is off to a poor start, as Oklahoma went down at home last weekend to a strong BYU squad. Strong, but still BYU, you know? It puts a serious hitch in their national title aspirations, and calls the entire conference into question. I actually predicted this one, which I'm not going to take too much credit for since it was based more on a vague sense of OU's overrated quality and a hatred of Bob Stoops than any kind of in-depth analysis. But the word is out on the Big 12; strong D and a competent offense can unseat the best they have to offer.
*The SEC West will be a ton of fun. Alabama has another tough-as-nails team, focused on running and defense. They were convincing against Virginia Tech in the Kickoff Classic, and have another legitimate chance to go undefeated in the regular season. I'm still not sure if they have the passing game to overcome their problems with erasing deficits (exposed last year by Florida and Utah), but Nick Saban is a strong coach, and nothing will come easy for their opponents.
Elsewhere in that sub-conference, Ole Miss is a top 10 team, Arkansas is resurgent, LSU is a total puzzle (currently ranked 11th) who could do almost anything, and Auburn is one or two good wins from a top-25 appearance. Out of six teams, the only pushover is Mississippi State. This is the strongest group in the land, and every game has classic potential.
*It's hard to pick against Florida. The consensus #1 looks almost unbeatable. Looking at their schedule, the only bear of a game comes on the road at LSU in week 5. They avoid Alabama and Ole Miss on this year's docket, and their only other currently ranked opponent is Georgia, who they get at a neutral location, and who looked pretty poor in a first week loss at Oklahoma State.
There's no way to measure how sick I am of Tim Tebow; I've found him unlikeable since the very beginning, and it only gets worse with more exposure. But he's a gamer, and Urban Meyer gets a half-share of my vote (Pete Carroll gets the other half) as the best coach in college football. It's hard not to see them going undefeated this year, and taking down Bama in the SEC Championship.
Prediction Time: USC and Florida win out and meet in one of the best title games in recent memory. USC triumphs 28-24.
Sadly, I've left myself no time to discuss the NFL. The Giants kick off their season Sunday against the Redskins, and you can bet I'll be in full rejoicing mode Monday. I've got a close eye on our receiving corps; if we can get results from these guys, we'll be one of the NFL's strongest teams again. If not, it could be a long year. Go G-Men.