Monday, August 31, 2015

The 50 Greatest Sega Game Gear Games Ever! (Part Five of Five)


By: Jimbo X

Oh, the Sega Game Gear. The 8-bit, full-color handheld always played second fiddle to the Game Boy, despite being a much more impressive piece of hardware. Alas, while Sega's portable is largely remembered today as an epic hardware failure (thanks in no small part to an absurdly short battery life), the truth of the matter is that there actually were quite a few good, great and flat-out excellent titles released on the platform, including a number that not only rival the best the Game Boy had to offer, but in some cases, even exceeded them. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say the Game Gear has such a less-than-stellar reputation today because the pool of North American cartridges was rather shallow compared to the MUCH more robust library overseas. Thankfully, the Game Gear is a region-free unit, so as long as you don't mind stumbling through some kanji, you can play virtually every title released on the handheld worldwide on your U.S. hardware. Well, that, or you can cheat and hit up the emulators. Not that we would EVER condone such behavior at The Internet Is In America, obviously.

To help repair the handheld's somewhat dinged-up image, I decided to conduct an experiment. Over the course of three years, I played EVERY SINGLE game released on the Game Gear. As in, all 400 or so U.S., Japanese and PAL releases, along with a few weirdbeard Brazilian offerings (don't ask me why, but in Blanka's home country,they were still making unlicensed games for the system in the late 1990s.) Scoring the games on a 10 point scale (with one being the worst and ten being the best), I quantitatively ranked every last Sega Game Gear title. Before you today is a final tally of the top 50 cartridges released on the system, the titles representing the absolute cream of the proverbial crop when it comes to early-to-mid 1990s non-Nintendo portable gaming. Before we hop into the countdown, however, there are a few caveats I'd like to address:

Number One: Only officially licensed Sega Game Gear games were eligible for the countdown. That also means homebrews are off limits, no matter how cool they are.

Number Two: For the sake of making things simple, I played fan-translated versions of all of the text-heavy Japan-only games (chiefly, all of the role playing games.) For every other type of Japan-only Game Gear game, I opted for the original version, complete with the indecipherable characters.

Number Three: The games were rated on how well they compared to similar genre offerings on the handheld, so a game like "FIFA '96" would be scored on the same criteria that "Sensible Soccer" was scored, and not the criteria used for a game in an entirely different genre, like "Sonic the Hedgehog" or "Factory Panic."

Number Four: As always, AC adapter gameplay is much encouraged.

Now, with all of that stuff out of the way, who is ready to take things to the next level? You know, as long as the eight Double-A batteries can make it, anyway...

Number 10:
"Phantasy Star Gaiden"
Released: 1992
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Japan System Supply

In a way, this game sums up why the Game Gear was deemed a "disappointment" stateside. Here, you had a stellar, shrunken-down iteration of what was far and away Sega's most popular (and best) role-playing-game series ... and for some stupid reason, you never release it in the North American market, where the platform was starving for genre offerings?  

Those familiar with the games on the Genesis will feel right at home here, as the controls and combat system are pretty much lifted directly from the second game in the venerable RPG series. The game world in "Phantasy Star Gaiden" is relatively small, but it certainly packs a LOT of adventure within its confined spaces. It may not be a revolutionary dungeon crawler by any stretch of the imagination, but what it sets out to do, it does extraordinarily well.

For an RPG, it's very short, and there are some mystifying game mechanics at play (why in the world would anybody use those stupid torches to light caverns when the amulet you're given at the beginning of the game does the exact same function for free?) However, the story is very solid and leveling-up is an absolute hoot. I may be in the minority here, but I actually kind of enjoyed the smaller scale, too -- being able to trek back home and have your mom tuck you in after slaying monsters and visiting Martian desert colonies and doing battle with lawyer-baiting RoboCop knock-offs all evening certainly has a unique charm missing from most of its genre contemporaries. Similar in spirit to the "Final Fantasy Legend" games on the Game Boy, this is a bite-sized, on-the-go role-playing game well worth spending a weekend or two with.

Number 9:
"Sylvan Tale"
Released: 1995
Publisher: Sega 
Developer: Sega

This game was released late in the Game Gear's life cycle, and it's definitely one of the most impressive games ever made for the platform. Visually and aurally, it's absolutely stunning, and the "Zelda" inspired gameplay is definitely a hoot -- in fact, in some ways, "Sylvan Tale" is a much better handheld action-adventure game than even "Link's Awakening!"

This Japan-only cartridge employs a top-down perspective a'la "Crysis" and "StarTropics." Similar to those games, the objective is to crawl through subterranean fortress after subterranean fortress, doing battle with huge boss monsters who, in exchange for kicking their ass, give you some super-powerful weapon upgrade. Where this game really diverges from your standard "Zelda" clone is that these weapon upgrade effectively transform you into entirely different characters, a'la "Super Mario Bros. 3" and "Kid Chameleon." One upgrade turns you into a nigh-unkillable turtle, another transforms you into a mole with burrowing abilities and another turns you into a merman -- my favorite, though, has to be the upgrade that transforms you into a mouse that runs at super-sonic velocity. Huh, a rodent with hyper-speed abilities ... where do you think they came up with that idea?

This one will take you a couple of hours to tear through, for sure. While it doesn't have as much emphasis on story and character development as "Link's Awakening," it more than makes up for it with satisfying action, twitchy boss fights and puzzles that require more manual dexterity that grey matter. That, and the presentation is just superb, all the way around. With great visuals, top-notch music and super-smooth controls, this is definitely one of the best of its kind on the Game Gear ... and for that matter, 1990s portable gaming altogether.

Number 8:
"GG Aleste"
Released: 1991
Publisher: Compile
Developer: Compile

Compile is a really diverse developer (remember, these are the folks who brought us both the "Puyo Puyo" series and the super-underrated NES masterpiece "The Guardian Legend"), but they will always be best known for their amazing line-up of SHMUPS, such as "Gun-Nac" and the genre-defining "Robo Aleste" titles.

This Japan-only "Aleste" offshoot is everything you could want out of a Game Gear shoot-em-up and then some. With both vertically and horizontally-scrolling levels, "GG Aleste" throws everything at has at you as soon as the first level begins. This, most certainly, is NOT a beginner's SHMUP -- expect to die in this one, early and most certainly often.

There is just so much to love about this game. The backgrounds are very stark and colorful, and the action is downright awe-inspiring considering the hardware limitations (how the Sega Game Gear can handle so many on-screen enemies without any framerate drops whatsoever just boggles the mind.) The music is catchy, the controls are spot-on and with so many different power-ups littering the combat zones, you actually do have to employ a little bit of strategy heading into fire-fights. Oh, and in case you were wondering? The boss-fights in this game are, as you would expect, freaking awesome.

Number 7:
"Royal Stone"
Released: 1995
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega

Now this game is just freaking awesome, in every sense of the word. I suppose the best way to describe it would be a fusion of "Shining Force" and "Phantasy Star," but executed in a way that makes it feel almost like "Fire Emblem." If that doesn't whet your appetite, clearly, you're not an old-school Sega fanatic.

This Japan exclusive is actually the sequel to "Crystal Warriors," a just-sorta-OK turn-based game from early on in the console's lifespan. "Royal Stone," however, takes that formula and amps it up to eleven, with some downright gigantic battles, buttressed by some very engaging one-on-one, traditional JRPG style combat.

There is ample room for exploration and character development, but the huge melees are really the heart and soul of the experience The game uses a genius "earth, wind, fire and water" battle system, which makes strategizing both more simplistic and nuanced at the same time. Think of it as a really, really churched-up version of rock, paper, scissors .. only with way more wizards, gargoyles and man-like crow monsters who slash Roman soldiers to death. With excellent graphics, a terrific soundtrack and super addictive combat -- not to mention some epic battles that go on in excess of half an hour -- this is most definitely an unheralded offering you need to get your mitts on if you're a genre fan.

Number 6:
"Shining Force Gaiden: Final Conflict"
Released: 1995
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega

This was the third and final "Shining Force" game released on the Game Gear, and it's certainly the grandest of the trilogy. The story is more epic, the characters are more intricate, the combat has more nuances and the battles? Oh, you better believe they are a sight to behold. How so much was able to fit on one 512kB cart, I'll never comprehend.

For starters, this HAS to be the longest game on the handheld. With battles that often drag on for more than half an hour, you're definitely going to need to have the AC adapter on hand, unless you want to have the console die on you right before you take out that last centaur enemy. Secondly, the scale of battles is just absurd; during some skirmishes, you'll have a dozen characters at your disposal, taking on two dozen foes simultaneously. And these aren't open-field contests either, we're talking full-on castle sieges. How big are the levels, you may be wondering? So big that sometimes, you'll have to spend three or four turns just walking towards an enemy before you can go toe-to-toe with them.

Granted, games like these aren't for everybody, but for the genre faithful, "Final Conflict" is about as good as it gets. The story is excellent, the characters are fleshed out, there are tons of classes, the weapons are great and the combat is just about as close to perfect as you can get in a game of its type. Alas, as outstanding as this game was, it somehow never made it to the U.S. That means if you want to play it, you're either going to have to learn some kanji or hit up the emulators for a fan-translated copy. Either way, if you're looking for a hardcore J-Strategy experience, either means of obtaining "Final Conflict" are probably worth it.

Number 5:
"Super Columns"
Released: 1995
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega

Every handheld needs a killer puzzle app, and for the Game Gear, it came way too late.

"Columns" was one of the very first Game Gear titles released, obviously serving as Sega's riposte to "Tetris." While "Columns" is no doubt a fun game, it just didn't have enough originality to make it a truly console-defining puzzler. So, fast forward nearly half a decade after the portable was unveiled, and Sega gives us "Super Columns," a downright incredible puzzling experience that -- had it been released at the console's launch -- may have completely changed the handheld's fortune.

There are quite a few things that make "Super Columns" not only the best puzzle game on the handheld, but in many ways, the best puzzle game EVER from Sega. For one thing, the core gameplay has been amped up, allowing you to not only shift the order of jewels mid-drop, but rotate them horizontally and vertically. It's a small addition, to be sure, but it makes the game all the more enjoyable, and in intense battles, frantic. Secondly, you get a ton of game modes, including a super addictive story-mode and a really unique "flash" mode that'll have even seasoned puzzlers wiping sweat from their brows. Alas, the BIG thing that makes "Super Columns" going out of your way to experience is its incredible two-player battle mode. Had this game and the link-up cable been available on day one of the hardware launch, methinks things could have played out WAY differently than they did. Still, lost opportunities or not, "Super Columns" is just a remarkable genre offering -- be warned, however, that once you start playing it, it will probably be a few hours before you are able to pry yourself loose from your portable.

Number 4:
"Sonic Chaos"
Released: 1993
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Aspect

"Sonic," obviously, is the marquee property for Sega. While the first two "Sonic" games on the portable ranged from very good to ALMOST great, "Sonic Chaos" is indelibly an outstanding title. I've always considered this game -- with its unique worlds and awesome power-ups -- to be about as close as Sega ever got to making a Sonic-themed "Super Mario Bros. 3." And yes, the execution here is every bit as amazing as the concept sounds.

This has to be the best Sonic handheld game ever (or, at the very least, the best Sonic handheld game of the 1990s, for sure.) The visuals are vibrant, the music is top-notch and the controls are just spot-on. There are so many neat little nods to the Genesis games, and you can FINALLY play as Tails. Factor in some really cool power-ups that I don't believe have ever made it into any other Sonic titles -- including a pair of rocket boots and a spring-jump power-up that's nearly as much fun as that wind-up boot in SMB3 -- and you have a game that's just immensely enjoyable from start-to-finish.

Where the game really shines, however, is the level design. There is just so much to explore in each stage, but if you want, you can definitely zip through each of them at breakneck speeds. Really, you'll have to play the game at least twice to soak up all of the details. Overall, it's a fairly short game, but there's no way you're just going to play through it once. It's unquestionably THE Sonic game on the platform -- if you haven't gotten your hands on this one before, you don't know what you're missing.

Number 3:
"Power Strike II"
Released: 1993
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Compile

HANDS-DOWN the best SHMUP on the Game Gear, the best handheld game Compile has ever produced and quite frankly, the best Game Gear game U.S. players ever got their mitts on back in the console's heyday.

First and foremost, this game does NOT fuck around with the difficulty. The first stage in the game is about as hard as the final level in most other Game Gear SHMUPS, and even veteran genre fans will likely get wasted in mere seconds on the first two or three playthroughs. The super-challenging gameplay, of course, is complemented by some absolutely stellar visuals, outstanding music and unbelievably crisp animations. How Compile was able to make a game THIS fast on the platform is utterly mind-boggling.

The core gameplay here is just remarkable. Everything feels smooth and the controls are just impeccable. It's hard, no doubt, but its also fair, and as you'd expect from a Compile game, power-ups and defense-boosting items are plentiful. At the beginning of the game, you are asked to select from a few different weapon types, which means you will have to play through the game at least five or six times to truly experience everything "Power Strike II" has to offer (oh, and if you pick the rotating shield weapon, you are such a pussy.) The replay value here is off-the charts, and so is the action; for hardcore genre fans, this title alone justifies the Game Gear's existence.

Number 2:
"Sensible Soccer: European Champions"
Released: 1993
Developer: Eurocom
Publisher: Sony Imagesoft

Technologically, this is a mesmerizing title. Not only does it feature an astounding array of game modes (including a dazzling number of teams and the best micro-management simulation of ANY handheld sports game from the 1990s), visually, it's almost identical to the home console versions, with core gameplay that's nearly indistinguishable from the SNES and Mega Drive iterations.

The "Sensible Soccer" series has always put gameplay first, and this Game Gear port is certainly no exception. While the minimal graphics are off-putting at first, as soon as you start batting the ball around you will realize just how genius the core gameplay is. The controls are about as perfect as you could imagine the controls in a footy game being, making offensive and defensive play not only fun and accessible, but extraordinarily deep and strategic, too.

This is definitely a hard game to put down. With so many options and insanely enjoyable (and addictive) gameplay, this is the undisputed champion of Game Gear sports titles -- and with that in mind, it might just be the absolute best handheld sports game ever developed. (An interesting aside: did you know the same guys who made this game also made those old Uncle Fester arcade units that literally shocked the shit out of you? Talk about portfolio diversification, no?

...and the number one Sega Game Gear game EVER is...








Number 1:
"Gunstar Heroes"
Released: 1993
Developer: M2
Publisher: Sega

This is far and away the most impressive title on the Sega Game Gear. What M2 did here is nothing less than a miracle of game design -- how they were able to put AS much "Gunstar" awesomeness -- complete with the near-CPU-crashing explosion effects -- in this miniature package is utterly astounding.

Very, very little was excised in this port, although there are some notable exclusions -- primarily, the "dice" game from Black's level and the multiplayer mode. Had those been included, this game would have no doubt been a nearly perfect offering -- or at least, AS perfect as a Game Gear game could have been.

Alas, you do get an absolute TON of stuff to love in the GG version. As stated before, the graphics and audio are tremendous, and the core gameplay feels impossibly close to the Genny version. Not only do you get all of the beloved boss fights from the home console game, you even get a couple of neat Game Gear only bonuses, included an all new level on a jetpack (complete with an awesome "propulsion" mechanic that you'll just have to experience for yourself) and even the ability to RIDE some of the walker 'bots in the latter half of the game! At the end of the day, this potent portable is every bit as energetic, action-packed and challenging as its highly touted Genesis big brother. With controls so smooth, presentation this nice and gameplay this satisfying, there is NO denying that this is the absolute greatest Sega Game Gear cartridge ever.

Which, of course, begs the oh-so-painful question (which, in a way, summarizes the tragedy of the Game Gear as a whole) -- just why in the fuck didn't Sega port this thing outside of Japan?


Friday, August 28, 2015

Ten Bold Predictions for the 2015-16 NFL Season

Win-loss predictions for all 32 teams, plus my postseason picks … including the match-up, and winner, of Super Bowl 50. 

By: Jimbo X

At the end of this NFL season, the Lombardi Trophy will be handed out for the 50th time. The road to that illustrious, watershed moment in pro sports history effectively begins in about two weeks time, as all 32 teams begin the 2015-16 NFL season with much jubilation and optimism -- even when they probably shouldn’t.

We’ve got plenty of great storylines heading into the season, no doubt. How much will the Deflategate flap affect the reigning, defending Super Bowl champion Patriots? Now that their QB is making serious scratch, will the Seahawks go on a season-long warpath to the Super Bowl, or will some other potent offense -- be it the Packers or Eagles in the NFC or the Colts and Steelers in the AFC -- make opposing teams tremble? With beefed up defenses, just how well will teams like the Dolphins, Chargers, Giants, Jets and do this season, and are playoff squads like Denver, Cincinnati, Detroit, Dallas and Baltimore bound for some colossal setbacks? Will the new draftees make waves in their new locales, and which teams that sucked last year will play unexpectedly well this season?

Well folks, no need to wonder anymore. Using the same state-of-the-art metrics system I used to predict the course of this year’s college football season, I simulated the entire 2015-16 NFL season, from Week 1’s warm-up runs to the League Championship in early February. So, what does the upcoming pro pigskin season have in store for us, fellow football fanatics? Here are ten bold predictions for the ‘15 NFL season -- just remember, you heard ‘em here first.

Prediction Number One:
Despite the Deflategate brouhaha, the Patriots will have no problems winning the AFC East -- although two more teams from the division will do well enough to make the postseason

Even with Tom Brady sidelined for the first four games of the season, I don’t see the New England Patriots suffering. In fact, with Jimmy G. in the backfield, I actually see the Patriots going undefeated, with a shaky post-suspension Brady generating some mid-season quarterback controversy. Alas, the Pats will do just fine once Brady gets his groove back (having a bona-fide Hall of Fame wide receiver in Reggie Wayne added to the team right before the season begins will certainly expedite the process), as the team slowly pieces together a division-best 12-4 record.

Ryan Tannehill will have a breakout season, as the Miami Dolphins post a playoffs-worthy 10-6 record. With no real star wideouts or running backs, the Fins will do it primarily through vastly improved defensive play and a rock-solid O-line that gives their QB plenty of time to pick and choose his targets. Expect them to give the Patriots two of their four losses of the regular season.

Under Todd Bowles, the New York Jets will rebound, putting together a 9-7 record that’s just enough to earn them the sixth seed in the playoffs. With Matt Flynn anchoring the team for the first six game of the season, they’ll go 3-3, complete with a surprise victory in New England. When Geno Smith returns in early November, he’ll put up some very good numbers, despite one or two really awful games. The defense and wide receiving corps will be greatly improved, but the team will continue to struggle when it comes to the run game.

Much to the chagrin of the Buffalo Bills faithful, neither Matt Cassel or EJ Manuel will put up world-shattering stats this season. With LeSean McCoy inactive for a majority of the season, the team will have one of the worst run games in the League. The receiving units are a bright spot, but the defense will be nowhere near as good as some are predicting. I see the team going 6-10, with Rex Ryan hauling his bags elsewhere at season’s end.

Prediction Number Two:
The Steelers will win the AFC Central in a season-long dogfight

With a great O-line (with or without Maurkice Pouncey anchoring it), an aggressive defense and one of the League’s best receiving corps, the Pittsburgh Steelers -- on paper, at least -- seem to be the best team in the AFC Central this season. Expect Big Ben to have one of his best seasons in years, with the ferocious D putting up AFC-best numbers. Alas, even as 10-6 divisional champs, there are some things to be worried about here; namely, a struggling run game (expect Le’Veon Bell to have a big drop-off this season) and a lackluster special teams unit.

The defense of the Baltimore Ravens will keep the team competitive, despite a fairy lagging offense. Joe Flacco’s stats will be pretty unremarkable, with no receivers or backs posting anything close to League-best numbers. Still, this is a team that’s going to pose problems for most teams they encounter. With a respectable 9-7 record,  Baltimore will finish above .500 but miss out on the postseason.

The Andy Dalton-led Cincinnati Bengals have dominated the AFC Central for the last few years, only to experience epic collapse after epic collapse once the playoffs rolled around. Well, this season, Cincy doesn’t have to worry about that, since with a 8-8 record, they won’t even qualify for the postseason. AJ Green will be a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but unfortunately for the southern Ohio faithful, the defense is just too porous to make the team truly competitive with the big dogs of the AFC.

With a suspended GM, a quarterback fresh out of rehab and some really, really dumb looking jerseys, the Cleveland Browns will have a much worse season than last year. Josh McCown will get benched early in the season, only for Johnny Football to show up and play even worse. Expect the Browns to pay top dollar for either Matt Flynn or Jimmy Garropolo once their abysmal 4-12 season wraps up.

Prediction Number Three
The Colts will run roughshod over a pathetic AFC South

With Andrew Luck, Frank Gore and Andre Johnson in the backfield, the Indianapolis Colts will post an AFC-best offense, averaging close to 30 points a game. A great O-line, a solid defense and a really good special teams unit makes Indianapolis arguably the most well-rounded team in the conference. With a stellar 13-3 record, they’ll easily win the AFC South crown en route to securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

My picks for the final AFC regular season
With Arian Foster injured, a no-name cast of wide receivers and Brian Hoyer starting as QB, the Houston Texans will finish the season 7-9, thanks in no small part to their dynamic defense. J.J. Watt is a lock for defensive player of the year, but beyond that, there really aren’t that many bright spots to talk about here. This is a team that’s in dire need of a new play-caller; expect the team to be in the market for a new quarterback, and a new head coach, in early January.

While a 5-11 season is hardly anything to be ecstatic about, it nonetheless indicates a considerable improvement for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Blake Bortles will play much better than he did last season, and the defense, while by no stretch of the imagination anything astounding, will do well enough to earn the Jags at least one or two unexpected victories. The biggest news of the year for the team, however, will take place off-field; expect Roger Goddell to announce formal plans to relocate the team to Jolly Old England by years’ end.

Marcus Mariota will be downright JaMarcus Russell-esque this season, “leading” the Tennessee Titans to a dreadful 3-13 record. Expect the team to post among the lowest rushing averages in the League, with a defense giving up an average of 300 yards per game. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt and General Manager Ruston Webster will both be gone at season’s end, and the team -- yet again -- will find themselves in the market for a new QB heading into the 2016 Draft.

Prediction Number Four
The Chargers will win the AFC West, the Broncos will fail to make the Playoffs and the Raiders WON’T finish last in the division

The San Diego Chargers have played exceptionally the last few seasons, and I see them getting even better in 2015. With Antonio Gates and Jacoby Jones as targets, expect Philip Rivers to rack up a ton of points this season, with the team posting a near League high 28 points per game. Alas, what has me really sold on the Chargers is their beefed up defense. This is one of the few teams in the league that has a defense as potent as it’s offense; with so much talent on both sides of the ball, I’ve got SD winning the division with an 11-5 record.

The good news for Gary Kubiak is that in his first season as head coach of the Denver Broncos, he’ll commandeer a 9-7 team. Unfortunately, that above-.500 record won’t be enough to get Denver in the postseason. Peyton Manning will have one of worst seasons statistically this year, thanks in no small part to a depleted receiving corps. Even worse, the team just will not be able to run the ball, and defensive play will be quite a bit worse than last season. With some ultra-tough games against the likes of the Packers, the Colts, the Pats and the Steelers -- not to mention some way tougher than expected divisional competition -- I just don’t see the purple and orange dominating like they have in the past few years.

The Oakland Raiders (it's a complete toss up whether they will be the L.A. or S.A. Raiders next season) will be one of the year’s biggest surprises. Reinvigorated with a fresh receiving corps, a beefed up O-Line, a tremendous line backing crew and an actual run game, the Raiders will wind up with a 7-9 record. Expect Carr to hit Cooper for double digit touchdowns, with halfback stud Latavious Murray racking up multiple 200-yard rushing games. The secondary is still a big concern, but all in all? This is a team that -- after more than a decade of abject failure -- seems to be right there at turning the corner.

According to the eggheads at Harvard, the Kansas City Chiefs are practically a lock for the playoffs. Sorry, Ivy Leaguers, but all that fancy schmanzy book-learning don’t add up to a hill of beans when it comes to the mystery machine known as professional football. The run game will be solid, but Alex Smith will never find his groove throughout the season, thanks to a leaky offensive line. I fully expect KC’s defense to be among the worst in the AFC this season, looking more like the atrocious 2012 squad than the Chiefs of ‘13 and ‘14. With so many key offensive losses and so few pick up on the defensive side of things, I just can’t fathom these guys doing better than 6-10 this season.

Prediction Number Five:
Chip Kelly’s Eagles will go 10-6 again and FINALLY win the NFC East

With the three-headed QB controversy still raging, we tend to overlook just how many other offensive weapons the Philadelphia Eagles have at their disposal. Darren Sproles and DeMarco Murray makes for one of the best one-two halfback punches in the League, while a small platoon of solid receivers -- chiefly, Miles Austin and Riley Cooper’s racist ass -- gives the Eagles tons of targets regardless of who’s chunking the pigskin. Sure, there are some questions about the defense, but when the offense is that good, it’s pretty hard to not get optimistic about the team’s chances. I’ve got ‘em going 10-6 (again), which will be just good enough to win them the NFC East this time around. Oh, and as for the starting QB? Expect Sam Bradford to get the initial call, only to get injured again. Mark Sanchez will get the nod for backup, suck, and get replaced by Tim Tebow -- who will then go on to pretty much single-handedly win them the final four games of the season.

After sucking like a vacuum cleaner with a turbo-prop engine these last two seasons, Eli Manning will FINALLY start playing like a dude who won two Super Bowls again. With Odell Beckham, Jr, Juron Criner and Victor Cruz as targets, expect the New York Giants to rack up among the highest yards-per-game average in the League. Even with Jason Pierre-Paul and his missing fingers, the Giants D will be much improved. They’ll look sloppy at times and lose a game or two they probably shouldn’t but when it’s all said and done, they’ll do enough to lock up a 9-7 record … and a playoff berth.

Sans DeMarco Murray, the Dallas Cowboys will be plum pitiful when it comes to a run game. Even worse, after all the drama surrounding Dez Bryant in the offseason, he’ll actually have a much worse season than in 2014. At times, Tony Romo will look nice, and the O-line will still be one of the best in the league; alas, with a much weaker defense and an utter lack of explosive receivers, this is a squad that’s pretty much destined for disappointment. An 8-8 record is the best I can envision here.

This is the year the Washington Redskins officially become the new Oakland Raiders. With piss-poor halfbacks and virtually no standout receivers to speak of, starting QB Terry Cousins will struggle all season long to find the end zone (a god awful offensive line won’t make that task any easier, either.) By week 6, expect a mildly recuperated RGIII to be handed the starting job, and as hard as it may be to believe, he’ll actually do even worse than his predecessor. When RGIII gets carted off the field with a season-ending injury in a week 12 game against the Giants, Colt McCoy will take over … en route to the team losing its next seven games. Sorry, hogs, but it’s going to be a looooong rebuilding process in the nation’s capital, beginning with this abysmal 4-12 season.

Prediction Number Six:
The Packers will steamroll the NFC North en route to the League’s best record

Unless Aaron Rodgers goes down with a season-ending injury, the Green Bay Packers are pretty much destined to dominate not only the NFC North, but really, the entire conference. Losing Jordy Nelson is a big setback, but with Randall Cobb and John Kuhn anchoring the offense, expect GB to put up a ton of points no matter who they’re playing against, with a solid all-around defense  -- in particular, one of the best line backing corps in the League - giving  Rodgers and crew all the breathing room they need. They’ll get tested in a few close games, but I just don’t see them dropping more than two games this season. Not only do they finish first in the NFC North, I’ve got them accumulating the League’s best overall record at 14-2, guaranteeing the road to Super Bowl 50 will have to go through Lambeau.

My picks for the final NFC regular season
With Adrian Peterson back in the line-up, the Minnesota Vikings will be a MUCH improved squad in 2015. Pretty much a lock for the League rushing title, he’s bound to have at least two or three 200-yard-plus games. The scary thing there is that he won’t be the only rusher on the time racking up big numbers -- expect DuJuan Harris and Blake Renauld to churn up the field pretty well themselves. Alas, the receiving corps still aren’t developed enough to give Teddy Bridgewater a potent aerial attack, and the defense is still in need of a few key position players. Still, with one of the best running attacks in the League, Minnesota will rebound this season, going 9-7 and missing the playoffs by the skin of their teeth.

John Fox had a lot of success in Denver, but unfortunately, Jay Cutler is no Peyton Manning. Furthermore, the receiving units for the Chicago Bears are nowhere near as talented, the O-Line is in dire need of repair and the overall defense is lacking across the board. The run game, admittedly, is pretty good, but with so many other weak spots on the team, its hard to see Chicago amassing many wins this season. I’ve got them finishing a disappointing 5-11, with Mr. Fox packing his bags at season’s end.

The loss of Donkey Kong Suh is going to hurt the Detroit Lions a lot more than they think. The defense was already showing some signs of fatigue in sloppy wins over teams like the Falcons and Dolphins last season, and this is the year I think the wheels fly off the wagon. The aerial attack will be as good as ever, while the run game will be just slightly mediocre -- that is, until Calvin Johnson goes down with a season-ending injury in a week 6 contest against the Bears. From there on out, it’s just going to be a train wreck in the Motor City, with the Lions going a terrible 2-10 for the remainder of the season. It’s going to be a colossal fall from grace from last year’s 11-5 season -- I’ve got ‘em going 4-12, at the absolute best.

Prediction Number Seven:
TWO teams from the NFC South will make the Playoffs 

The Atlanta Falcons are a team with a LOT of defensive deficiencies. This year’s team will be a bit better, but they will still be giving up among the League’s highest yardage per game. That said, with Julio Jones, Devin Hester and Roddy White in the line-up, they remain one of the best aerial attacks in the NFC. The big x-factor here is going to be whether the team can get a run-game going. While the Devonta Freeman and Antoine Smith-led halfback crew may not send shivers down the spine of cornerbacks throughout the League, I DO think they will be able to move the chains better than the other three teams in the NFC South. They won’t win games by much, but somehow, someway, the Falcons will be a 10-6 team in 2015.

The defense of the New Orleans Saints is going to do remarkable things for a team largely deficient in offensive weapons. With a subpar run attack and a passing game that’s nowhere near as potent as it was half a decade ago, New Oreans is going to have to win games by shutting down their adversaries rushing and blitzing their QBs like crazy. With some key pickups at the defensive line and linebacker positions, I envision the Saints as one of the 10 best defensive teams in the League this season, although their general offense will be quite anemic, especially compared to their high-scoring divisional arch-rivals in Georgia. It may sound crazy now, but this looks to me a 9-7 squad, who -- by proxy of more in-conference victories -- leapfrogs over the Vikes for the number six seed in the playoffs.

Cam Newton stepped up big time last season, and I think this year, he’s bound to take a few steps back. He’ll single-handedly win a game or two for the Carolina Panthers, but with such a dearth of quality receivers  -- not to mention the worst running back crew in a division glutted with substandard halfbacks -- he’s going to struggle to hit the end zone all year-long. The defense will come up back when it counts, but they’ve got WAY too many tough games on their schedule --- including a four-week battering ram against Seattle, Philly, Indy and Green Bay -- to keep them playing at 100 percent. I’ve got them clawing their way to a 7-9 finish, with Ron Rivera likely on his way out at season’s end.

It’s nearly impossible to find a bright spot on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The defensive is atrocious, the wide receivers are lackluster and the run game is practically non-existent. Jameis Winston will no doubt have a rough season as starting QB, with a porous O-Line ensuring that he gets accustom with the taste of the turf at Raymond James Stadium early and often. Even with one of the easiest schedules in the League, this is a team that’s destined for some hard, hard times. I’ve got them as a 3-13 team -- and that’s me being optimistic.

Prediction Number Eight:
The Seahawks will have no difficulties repeating as NFC West Champions

Now that Russell Wilson is making top-dollar, of course he’s going to see a notable decline in productivity. When the Seattle Seahawks lose the first two games of the season, EVERYBODY will start sounding the doomsday alarms, but with Detroit, Chicago and San Fran on their schedule, I see this being a team that’s easily 6-2 at bye week. From there, the Hawks will play like their old selves, despite back-to-back losses against Pittsburgh and Minnesota. Simply put, this is a team too talented on both sides of the ball to fail. They may not be as good as they were last season, but they are still going to be a dominant force in the NFC. The Temple of Boom rolls to a 12-4 finish, giving them the second seed (and a home game) in the postseason.

Now that they are bound for southern California, of course the St. Louis Rams turn into a playoff-caliber team. Nick Foles may not have the most recognizable targets in the League, but he’s going to hit Tavon Austin and Jared Cook for pay dirt frequently. Oh, and Todd Gurley is going to be a stud, earning offensive rookie of the year honors for almost surpassing 1,400 yards. Alas, the Rams defense STILL needs some work, which is why I just can’t select them as a playoff worthy squad just yet. With a solid 9-7 record though, they are definitely going to give fans in L.A. something to be excited about … and something St. Louis fans are going to be bitter about for decades.

The 2014 Arizona Cardinals might just be the worst good team in recent NFL history. Yeah, they won a ton of games and made the playoffs, but from position-to-position, it’s hard to think of a more lackluster squad who have achieved such aberrant success in pro football in a long time. Assuming Carson Palmer doesn’t get injured again (I’d say that’s a 50/50 EVERY season), this is a team that, for the most part, will look playoff-worthy. Alas, with a five game concluding skid that includes tilts against Green Bay, Seattle and the Eagles, I just don’t think this team is going to do well at all after Thanksgiving. They get a hot start, but get murder-death-killed throughout December. After talking “Super Bowl” in Tempe for most of the fall, the Cards will wind up a 7-9 squad, watching the playoffs on DirectTV with the rest of us.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The San Francisco 49ers made it to the NFC Finals three years in a row, but ever since migrating to Levi’s Stadium (which may or may not be haunted by the vengeful ghosts of Chinese blue jeans stitchers), the red and gold have played more like dead and mold. Colin K. is pretty much the only remnant from those quasi-champion teams from a few years back; with no receivers, no rushers and a defense that’s going to be competing for worst in the League -- in tandem with a vicious schedule that includes some ferocious divisional games plus tilts against the Vikes, Steelers and Packers -- this is a team that’s going to get pummeled all year long. I’ve got the Niners finishing 4-12, with virtually ever position -- including the QB -- in question heading into the 2015 draft.

The road to Super Bowl 50...five months in advance?

Prediction Number Nine:
Aaron Rodgers will win the MVP, Peyton Manning will retire and Ndamukong Suh will get suspended again

A-Rod won the MVP last year, and this year, he’s going to do so again. Similarly, I see J.J. Watts repeating as defensive player of the year. The AP will select last year’s offensive rookie of the year, Odell Beckham, Jr. as the offensive player of the year (even though Antonio Brown will have more reception yards.) With 1,800 yards rushing, AP will be the rushing champ, and the recipient of the comeback player of the year award -- which won’t be controversial, whatsoever.
A few other quick predictions for the season ahead:

- Andrew Luck will break the NFL record for most completions in a single game, while Aaron Rodgers will break the League record for most consecutive completions in a single game.

- The Dallas Cowboys will sign Ray Rice in week 8, only to bench him for the remainder of the season due to public backlash.

- Tim Tebow will have the highest selling jersey in the League, despite having virtually zero marketing from the League or outside endorsement deals.

- Sebastian Janikowski will nail a 71-yard field goal for a new NFL record.

- Several games will be stopped when consumer drones infiltrate the stadiums.

- Marcus Mariota will get sacked more times than David Carr in his rookie season.

- Suh will score a TD off a sack and a fumble against the Bills in Nov. 8. However, he will be benched from week 10 onward after failing a drug test.

- Peyton Manning will announce his retirement the Friday before the playoffs begin. Others who will call it quits at the end of the season? Charles Woodson, Devin Hester, Jared Allen and, perhaps most shockingly -- New England TE standout Ron Gronkowski.

Prediction Number Ten:
The Packers will crush the Colts in Super Bowl 50

Ranked from first to sixth seed here are my AFC teams: Indianapolis, New England, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Miami and the Jets. Over in the NFC, the line-up is as follows: Green Bay, Seattle, Philadelphia, Atlanta, the Giants and New Orleans.

I am going nothing but upsets on wildcard weekend, with the lower seeded teams winning every single contest except for the Philadelphia/New Orleans game. That gives us the following match-ups in the divisional round: Green Bay/New York Giants, Seattle/Philly, Indianapolis/New York Jets and New England/Miami.

I expect all of those games to be close, but eventually, the higher-seeded teams will come out on top. That leaves us with repeat conference championships from last year, only flip-flopped. Now, it’s the Patriots AT Indy for the AFC crown, and the Seahawks trying to win the NFC AT Green Bay. Powered by screaming home turf fanatics, both the Colts and the Packers will exact revenge for their conference bow-outs this past January.

Which leaves us with the two best offenses in the League -- with undoubtedly the two best quarterbacks in pro football -- duking it out in a big-name, small-market, half-century anniversary donnybrook. Unfortunately, it will be a pretty uncompetitive game, with the Packers defense putting a ton of pressure on Luck and the Packers O-Line giving the year’s MVP all the time he needs to make the much-needed completions. The first quarter might be entertaining, but from that point onward, the route is on, as the first team to ever hoist the Lombardi Trophy raises it again at Super Bowl 50. The final score: 35-14, Green Bay, with the Super Bowl MVP Honors going to -- who else? -- Aaron Rodgers.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ten Bold Predictions for the 2015 NCAA Football Season

Why even bother watching college football this year? I tell you the Power Five Conference Champions, the big Bowl Game outcomes and, of course, this year's National Champions four months in advance. 

By: Jimbo X

Folks, are you ready for (some kind of) FOOTBALL? Of course you are, and thankfully, the college football season kicks off next week. To be fair, I've never really been that big of a college pigskin fan (thanks in part to attending a college that didn't field a team until recently), but there's no denying the high-scoring amusement of Saturday 'ball. 

So, which Power Five Conference will lose out when it comes playoff team selection time, you're probably wondering? Furthermore, just how well can a non-Power Five team do this year? Are 'Bama and Ohio State really on an inevitable collision course at AT&T Stadium in mid-January? And hey -- what are the odds that those offensive juggernauts out in the Big 12 actually make it to the big dance this time around? 

Well folks, for your miscellaneous inquiries, I've got answers. Using my super-secret college football prognostication formula (hint: it involves both sabermetrics and a Magic Eight Ball), I've gone on ahead and ran calculations for the outcomes of every Division I college football game of the fall. Or maybe, I just kind of skimmed the schedule on ESPN and made a few seat-of-the-pants calls. Like there's that much of a difference, no? 

Wanna' know if your team is bound for glory or destined for failure? Wonder no more, fellas: here are ten bet-your-kids-college-fund locks for the 2015 NCAA Football season...

Ohio State will falter early and late in the season

You better bookmark this page, folks, ‘cause in a couple of days, you people are going to think I’m some kind of oracle. Right now, THE Ohio State University is the nigh universal consensus pick for this year’s National Champions. They are a stacked team, no doubt, but I expect Urban Meyer’s juggernaut to suffer colossal book-end losses that sinks the team’s odds of even playing for the Big Ten Championship this year.

Last year, Virginia Tech upset the Buckeyes, and on Monday, Sept. 7, 2015, I fully expect the Hokies to do it again. It’ll be a seismic shock to everybody except us, but I’m just feeling it in my bones -- it ain’t easy winning games in Blacksburg, and with so much hype piled on the team, I just think there’s all the makings for a gargantuan week one collapse. From there, I see the Buckeyes righting the ship, winning their next nine games (although Penn State will make it a nail-biter.) Still eyeing a playoff berth, I see Michigan State shocking the Buckeyes at home, a big, wet, proverbial French Kiss of Death that’ll keep THE Ohio State from even thinking about playing for THE National Championship. And to add insult to injury? A deflated Buckeyes squad will go on to lose against arch-rivals Michigan, in an iteration of “The Game” that has no real bearings on the National Championship hunt.

As for the Big Ten Championship game? I have a one-loss Michigan State squad (who stumbles in week two against Oregon) running roughshod over a one-loss Wisconsin team, whose sole loss during the regular season happens week one against ‘Bama.

And some quick projections for a few other Big 10 teams before we move along: Penn State will drop just two games all season (week 7 against OSU and week 13 against Michigan State), while the new look Wolverines win seven or fewer games -- including the aforementioned just-for-funsies tilt against the Buckeyes.

Louisville will win a surprisingly competitive ACC

With so many ongoing distractions in Tallahassee in conjunction with the loss of Jameis Winston, it’s not really a surprise that the Seminoles won’t go undefeated in the regular season like they did last year (for the record, I have them dropping five games, including an effortless loss against the Gators on Nov. 28). What may be surprising, however, is just how contentious the battle for the ACC crown will be in 2015, in the absence of any one true “dominant” team.

With Florida State on a downward trajectory, the ACC Atlantic is Louisville’s to lose. While a week one loss against Auburn is all but inevitable, I see the team running the table all the way up to a shock-loss against UVA on Nov. 14. Still, that’s more than enough to put them in the ACC Championship Game, which I project them winning.

I’ve got Georgia Tech winning the Coastal division, but it won’t be easy. They’ll slink by Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, but their “perfect season” comes to an end in a Thursday night  game against the Hokies. They will drop next week’s game against Miami, but they rebound with a decisive win against arch rivals UGA. Miami will also be a two-loss team, giving up games to Nebraska and Florida State early in the season. Virginia Tech will ALSO be just a two-loss team, with an Oct. 17 loss to Miami and an inexcusable Halloween loss to Boston College. Miami and VT fans alike will be pissed a plenty that their teams didn’t get in, but alas, that’s how the NCAA mathematics work, I am afraid.

As for the rest of the conference, we’re dealing with mostly junk teams. Duke had an aberrationly good year last year, but I’d be surprised if they win more than 6 games this time around. The big shock, however, is going to be how bad Clemson performs this year, as the team with the third best defense in the country in ‘14 winds up dropping five consecutive games from Sept. 17 to Oct. 24, with three more disastrous losses (including one at the hands of conference basement dweller Wake Forest) before the season painfully wraps up.

The Big 12 will be a three-team shootout, with TWO representatives making the National Championship Playoffs

Last year, TCU and Baylor missed the playoffs, despite their respective one-loss records. Both teams will once again find themselves in the National Championship title hunt, but what might surprise a few folks is who they will have as company in the race to the Big 12 Championship.

As was the case last year, I expect Baylor -- with their potent, No.1 ranked offense -- to best TCU in a shootout on Nov. 27. The rub there is, the week before, the Golden Bears will drop yet another game at Oklahoma State, which will effectively keep them from winning the conference.

The Horned Frogs will lose just one game all season -- an Oct. 10 double-digit loss to Kansas State. After a Nov. 5 loss to Baylor, the Wildcats will remain potential National Champion contenders all the way up to a shock loss against West Virginia on Dec. 5. As the Big 12 doesn’t have an official championship game of their own, that’s going to brew a LOT of controversy over who should be deemed the champs. While TCU gets the official nod, a lot of folks will consider Baylor the real champions. And -- much to the delight of high-scoring football game fans across America -- this year, we WILL get to see Baylor and TCU face-off twice.

Regarding the rest of the 10-team Big 12 this year? I’ve got West Virginia and Oklahoma State dropping four games each, Oklahoma dropping six and Texas losing at least eight games. Oh, and beginning in 2016? They will most definitely have their own Championship Game, or else I will eat my own hat.

The Pac-12 will be atrocious, with two three-loss teams battling for the conference championship 

With no Marcus Mariota, I’ve got Oregon taking a precipitous plunge in 2015. By November's end,  I expect them to have at least three losses on the record. Obviously, that puts them out of National Championship consideration, but -- speaking to the abject dreadfulness of the Pac-12 as a whole this season -- they'll still make a return trip to the conference championship game.

My predictions for the outcomes of the Power
Five Conference Championships. Just, uh,
overlook the flip-flopped Big 10 and Big 12
labels, please.
The South will be better than the North, but not by much. Both Arizona and Arizona State had some fluky success last year, and similarly, I see the two squads in Washington having some unexpected success this season.

As expected, USC will crash and burn after some early success. After going 3-0, they will drop four games in a row and almost lose to Cal. Expect them to drop at least two more games before the season’s end. That leaves UCLA and, unbelievably, Utah battling for the division, with a three-loss Utes squad barely squeaking past a four-loss Bruins squad .

In the end, I’ve got Utah taking out Oregon in a relatively meaningless conference title game. And -- not surprisingly -- no one will consider the Utes worthy of a shot at the National Championship after they scoop up the Pac-12 crown.

Auburn will win the SEC West and Tennessee will win the SEC East

EVERYBODY is picking Alabama to win the National Championship this year (and by proxy, the SEC crown), which is more than enough reason to pick against them. Oh, Nick Sabin’s squad is going to be good, all right -- I’ve got the Tide dropping just one game (an Oct. 24 loss to a resurgent Vols squad) en route to the 2015 Iron Bowl. Alas, I’ve got the Tigers winning that one (and thus, the SEC West), although I do expect them to drop one game before then -- I don’t know why, but that Nov. 7 game at Texas A&M just rubs me the wrong way.

Over in the SEC East, I’ve got a one-loss Tennessee team running roughshod over the rest of the division -- this, despite a pretty inexplicable loss against Florida in late September. Expect the UGA defense to fare much worse than it did last season, while Missouri’s already piss-poor offense gets even sloppier. The downward trajectories for Florida and South Carolina will continue -- I see both teams dropping at least five games a piece this season.

The SEC Championships ought to be a barn burner, a high-offense hootenanny remarkably similar to that Auburn/Missouri shootout in 2013. Alas, I reckon Auburn’s defense is just a smidge better, which ought to give them enough of an edge to squeak by the Vols -- I’m calling a 34-31 finish here, complete with a dramatic last minute TD from the Tigers.

Ole Miss and Mississippi State were twin surprises last year, but I don’t see them having anywhere near as much luck in 2015. Arkansas just doesn’t have the offense to get past half the teams in the SEC, and while A&M and LSU will pull off some upsets, I’d be really shocked if those squads managed to do better than four losses this upcoming season.

Boise State and Notre Dame will make strong cases for playoff berths, but neither team will get in

Outside the Power Five, I see quite a few interesting things happening. The Broncos are pretty much guaranteed the MWC Championship, but I’m not quite sure they’ll be able to run the table. Although the team most certainly has a shot at a perfect season,  I think they’ll wind up dropping at least one game, with the most likely loss being their week 2 showdown with BYU. Sorry, Idahoans, but I just can’t imagine an undefeated Boise State squad earning an invite to the final four, let alone a team with a sole “L” in their win-loss column.

Speaking of Mormon country, I see BYU being one of the big surprises of the 2015 college football season. They’ll do very well against Top 25 competition (they will knock off Nebraska, Michigan and UCLA, for sure) but at the same time, it’s pretty hard to imagine them finishing the season better than two losses. The Missouri game on Nov. 14 has “trap game” written all over it, and for reasons that I just can’t rationalize, something tells me they’ll choke against Fresno State or Utah State.

I’ve got Notre Dame dropping just two all-year-long; a week 3 double-digit stomping at the hands of Georgia Tech and a “you’ve got to be shitting me” loss against Boston College just before Thanksgiving. They’ll do well enough for a New Year’s Day Bowl bid, but alas, this ain’t their year to win a National Championship.

Every year, there seems to be that one over-achieving non-Power Five team that makes a run at an improbable playoffs berth. Last year, it was Marshall, and this year, I’m putting my money on Navy. Defensively, they need a lot of work, but they averaged the third most rushing yards of any Division I college team in the nation last year. That, and as new recruits to the AAC, they have a fairly easy field to plow through; outside of an Oct. 10 contest against Notre Dame (and maybe the Nov. 28 match-up against Houston), I just don’t see the Midshipmen losing to anybody this season.

A lot of teams expected to do well this year will suck…

Looking at the US Today Coaches Preseason Poll, I’m seeing a TON of overrated squads with unreasonably high rankings.

For starters, two teams who made the final four last year (fifth-ranked Oregon and eighth-ranked FSU) will almost certainly wind up dropping at least three games a piece.

With a super-tough schedule, the overrated Georgia Bulldogs (ranked ninth) could easily drop five games, if not more. Similarly, number 10 USC and number 12 Clemson are both likely to drop four games each, as is number 13 LSU.

UCLA (number 14), Arizona State (number 16) and Ole Miss (number 15) are definitely going to be four-loss minimum squads. Oklahoma, Arkansas and Stanford (numbers 19 through 21, respectively), are probably going to drop at least five games throughout the season. Arizona and Missouri did pretty good last year, but I see them doing much worse this year -- both teams, feasibly, are five-loss squads, at best.

…while a lot of teams expected to suck will do surprisingly well. 

My predictions for the "Big Seven" Bowl
Games in January. 
Heading back to the Coaches Poll, both Boise State and Tennessee -- who occupy the 24th and 25th slots -- are going to finish the season in the top 10. Along those same lines, I see both Georgia Tech and Wisconsin (ranked 17th and 18th) making it all the way to their respective conference championships.

Of course, the teams who are really going to shock the shit out of people in 2015 aren’t even ranked in the so-called “Top 25” right now. Kansas State, Utah, and Louisville all have the makings of conference champions, while Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Miami, BYU and Washington are all guaranteed to finish above .500.

While I wouldn’t call them championship caliber squads, I wouldn’t sleep on Virginia Tech or West Virginia, either. While neither team will make a real run for their conference titles, I predict both teams will play spoiler and keep other highly ranked teams from making the playoffs.

Oh, and for those looking for the upset of the year? I’ve got two games to mark on your calendars: Sept 12. (when Cal Poly shocks Arizona State) and Oct. 10 (when Eastern Michigan will go into Death Valley and utterly stun the LSU Tigers.)

For the most part, this year's bowl games will be relatively close.

We'll do the four-team playoffs later. For the time being, I want to focus on the big four non-playoff bowl games. In the Rose Bowl, I'm guessing it's going to be Utah against Ohio State. The Buckeyes, on paper anyway, are clearly a better team, but having lost their opportunity to make another National Championship run in late November, I figure they'll just phone it in here. I've got the Utes winning it, 38-21

Louisville and Boise State are my selections for the Sugar Bowl. The Cardinals are going to be mighty pissed about being named the fifth best team of the regular season, and they definitely have a lot to prove against a similarly unheralded Broncos squad. This one has all the makings of a shootout classic, which is exactly why I'm prognosticating this one will be a defense-oriented, low-scoring affair. I've got Louisville wining a nail-biter here, 21-19. 

You know, you could possibly make a better match-up than Alabama and Miami (not of Ohio) for the Peach Bowl, but come on. This game is held in SEC territory, so you know the best leftover team from the Cotton Belt is a lock for this one. Expect it to be a points-heavy affair, with the Tide's defense coming up big in the fourth. I see 'Bama taking it, 42-35. 

And lastly, we come to the Fiesta Bowl. Really, there's a goulash of teams that deserve a shot in the game (Navy, Georgia Tech, Tennessee and Penn State, among others), I figure this one will wind up being a fairly random tussle between Notre Dame (gotta' get the Catholics glued to the boob tube, you know) and Kansas State. The idea is that, of the remaining two-to-three-loss teams remaining, KSU is the one the Irish have the best shot of beating. Which, as we all would have guessed, means they actually end up dropping the game to the Big 12 also-ran, 20-14. 

Auburn will best TCU in a nail-biter to win the National Championship

In order, I've got the selection committee choosing the following four teams for the playoffs: Auburn, Baylor, TCU and Michigan State. 

The second go-at-it between TCU and Baylor will be every bit as entertaining as their regular season score-fest. Alas, this time around, I expect a flip-flopped outcome in the Cotton Bowl;  with a minute to go, TCU marches down the field and connects on a late touchdown, securing a 48-44 victory for the Horned Frogs. 

The Orange Bowl contest between Auburn and Michigan State will be every bit as exciting. While they won't put up a combined 90 points like the Big 12 schools, the Spartans and Tigers will nonetheless make it a compelling game, with Auburn's defense making a huge fourth and goal stop to punch their tickets to the National Championship. Final score: Auburn, 24, Michigan State, 21. 

That leaves us with an SEC on Big 12 grand finale at Jerry World. Throughout the better part of the season, Auburn has been able to do just enough to squeak by, and even against TCU's potent offense, I think that will remain the case. Inconceivably, I imagine this one being a low-scoring affair, with the Tigers secondary shutting down the Horned Frogs aerial attack. Since Auburn does a better job of running the ball, I see them using the clock to push their way to a slim 21-19 victory, complete with a last second TCU Hail Mary coming up unbearably short in the game's final seconds.