Blackhawks

Where does Notre Dame's turnround rank in BCS era?

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Where does Notre Dame's turnround rank in BCS era?

A year ago, Notre Dame was only a few days away from taking on Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl -- a far cry from where the Irish are today, breaking for Christmas as they prepare for the BCS Championship Jan. 7. Notre Dame finished 2011 with eight wins, unranked in all postseason polls.

If Notre Dame beats Alabama to win the BCS Championship, they'll have won five more games than they did last year. That's a major improvement, but not the biggest jump of previous BCS champions:

2002 Ohio State: 7 wins

While Ohio State didn't have the bump of a conference championship, Jim Tressel's Buckeyes took advantage of the NCAA allowing teams to schedule 12 regular season games in addition to playing in the now-defunct Pigskin Classic, meaning Ohio State had 13 regular season games on its schedule. Maurice Clarett's emergence helped push Ohio State from seven to 14 wins, including an upset over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl to claim a national title in Tressel's second year at the helm.

2000 Oklahoma: 6 wins

Oklahoma hadn't finished in the AP top 25 since 1993, but Bob Stoops led the Sooners to a championship in just his second year in Norman. Whereas most of Stoops' teams after 2000 were successful behind a powerful offense, this team won thanks to a stingy defense that only allowed an average of 278.9 yards per game. It's fitting, then, that OU beat Florida State 13-2 in the Orange Bowl to claim its first championship since 1985.

2010 Auburn: 6 wins

A common thread: The three largest win increases of BCS champions came in each coach's second year. Following an 8-5 start to his Auburn career, Gene Chizik -- and, more importantly, Cam Newton -- led the Tigers to a perfect 14-0 record, complete with nail-biting wins over Alabama in the Iron Bowl and Oregon in the BCS Championship. But unlike Ohio State, Auburn didn't survive after the departure of its transcendent championship talent, as Chizik was fired after a 3-9 2012 season.

2003 LSU: 5 wins

Here's the team Notre Dame would equal in the BCS era. Nick Saban's Tigers split a national championship with USC (the AP No. 1; LSU was the BCS No. 1). 2003 was Saban's fourth year in Baton Rouge, and was keyed by freshman running back Justin Vincent and quarterback Matt Mauck stepping in to a full-time starting role. And, of course, defensively this LSU team was outstanding, allowing only 252 yards per game.

2012 Notre Dame: 5 wins?

Most of these other teams had a breakout performer or two on the national stage, helping push a quick turnaround. Most of Notre Dame's returning players were known entities, and while Everett Golson was good enough, his first year isn't in the same vicinity as Clarett or Newton. But Notre Dame's pulled off this improvement on the backs of its defense, with an offense that generally won't put the Irish in a position to lose. To this point, that formula has been good enough for a 12-0 record. A 13-0 record would represent a massive turnaround, even if it's not the biggest in the BCS era.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.