Cubs

For Notre Dame, USC, the preseason script is flipped

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For Notre Dame, USC, the preseason script is flipped

LOS ANGELES -- Three months ago, Notre Dame was on the outside looking in. Nobody projected them to make a BCS bowl, let alone challenge for a national championship. The idea of having a Heisman candidate was just as far-fetched, and many wondered if another mediocre season would put coach Brian Kelly squarely on the hot seat.
USC, on the other hand, topped plenty of preseason polls, with Matt Barkley tabbed to lead the Trojans to the BCS Championship about a month after garnering the Heisman Trophy. It was supposed to be Lane Kiffin's signature year, one that returned USC to the level set by Pete Carroll over the previous decade.
Notre Dame-USC has championship implications, features a Heisman candidate and a coach that, despite a reassurance from his athletic director, could be on the hot seat -- just as everyone predicted. Except the teams are flipped.
"It's a long season, it's college football, it's 18 to 21 year olds," coach Brian Kelly said. "There are so many factors go into this."
If Notre Dame beats USC, they'll move on to play for a national championship, which would be the program's first in 24 years. Manti Te'o is the legitimate Heisman candidate, and is likely to wind up in New York while Barkley remains home. And a season that could see USC lose as many as six times has many questioning Kiffin's ability to lead USC to the kind of success it enjoyed over the last decade.
"We get asked all the time, hey, did you expect to win 11 or 12?" Kelly said. "We know the unexpected is always out there, so we try to stay focused on the next practice. If we did what you did and did that big picture stuff, it would drive us crazy, too."
Nobody's faulting the preseason predictions that had Notre Dame winning eight or nine games at the most. And nobody's questioning why USC, with all its offensive firepower, was the preseason No. 1. Both were logical projections in August, as illogical as they may look now.
"Preseason predictions are mostly based off the year before," Notre Dame center Braxston Cave said. "Last year was last year, this year's this year."
That's a simple way to put it. But with Everett Golson quarterbacking the Irish offense, the team hasn't experienced the devastating spate of turnovers that plagued the team for much of the 2011 season. Despite losing Michael Floyd and seeing Tyler Eifert's production drop off, Notre Dame's offense has been good enough to support one of the nation's best defenses. Led by Te'o, Notre Dame's defense is only allowing 10.1 points per game -- the best average in the country.
"We've put ourselves in this position, and Manti's played unbelievable this year and he's also put himself in the position that he's in the way he's worked this year, not because of last year," Cave said. "It feels like everything's coming in to place."
Notre Dame's meteoric rise has coincided with USC's decline, with the Trojans failing to register any truly impressive wins in their 11 games. Shootout losses to Arizona and Oregon have combined with a close loss to Stanford and a lackluster performance against crosstown rival UCLA, with that loss to the Bruins dropping USC out of the top 25. No team since 1964 began the season the AP No. 1 and fell out of the top 25 -- at least, until this year.
Barkley has thrown the second-most interceptions of any FBS quarterback with 15, casting a dark cloud on some other impressive totals. Sophomore Marqise Lee emerged as a go-to option and arguably the nation's best receiver and Robert Woods remained effective despite a decreased presence in USC's offense, but the Trojans have turned the ball over 29 times -- the fifth-highest total among FBS teams.
Make no mistake, USC still holds powerful cards in its offensive deck, even with Barkley on the shelf for Saturday's game. But Monte Kiffin's defense has let USC down, too, allowing 392.2 yards and 24.8 points per game -- averages that land the Trojans squarely among college football's mediocre defenses.
It hasnt turned out so far how wed have liked or how we anticipated," USC athletic director Pat Haden told reporters earlier in the week. "We were probably over-hyped at the beginning of the season to be perfectly honest."
But this is where we are, with Notre Dame one win away from a berth in the BCS Championship. This was supposed to be USC's moment, not Notre Dame's. It was supposed to be Barkley's trip to New York, not Te'o's. And it was supposed to be Kelly looking over his shoulder, not Kiffin.
It's a fascinating flipping of the script, and one that Kelly could only chuckle at when confronted with it earlier this week.
"That's why they play the games, you know."

Cubs not selling Kyle Schwarber stock: 'We really believe in him'

Cubs not selling Kyle Schwarber stock: 'We really believe in him'

LAS VEGAS — It's Winter Meetings time, which means, of course, that it's Kyle Schwarber trade rumor season.

Every winter since he made his MLB debut in the middle of the 2015 season, Schwarber has found his name linked in trade rumors.

Yet the Cubs have not taken the bait, instead doubling and tripling down on Schwarber as a player and as an important part of the team's core. 

So it wasn't a surprise when USA TODAY's Bob Nightengale reported Sunday teams have inquired about trading for Schwarber but were turned away.

We know the Cubs don't deal in untouchables thanks to the Kris Bryant trade conversation earlier this winter, but Schwarber is right up there with players the organization has no interest in selling unless they're blown away with the return.

"Nothing's changed," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said Monday. "We really believe in him. He's an incredibly gifted hitter and we fully believe in the makeup. In general, I think you can ask a similar question about almost any guy in our core. For a reason, we 've stuck by these guys and we've won a lot of games with these guys and we believe in them.

"Of course there's no untouchables and we've said that over and over, so whenever these rumors come out — 'would they trade any of these guys?' Of course. We never have an untouchable. We do believe in these guys. If we didn't believe in them, we certainly would've changed course by now.

"The last three years, we've made a real effort to have this group together and I think we're still gonna win a lot of games as a group."

The day after the Cubs' 2018 season ended in disappointing fashion, Theo Epstein discussed the need to evaluate the team's young position players on production rather than potential.

While Schwarber took some steps forward in 2018, he still falls into that category. Sure, he drastically improved his defense thanks to increased fitness/weight levels. And he improved his walk rate while cutting down on his strikeout rate. 

But he still hasn't morphed into that ever-dangerous hitter that sits in the middle of the Cubs order and strikes fear into opposing pitchers. Schwarber hit 30 homers in 2017 and 26 last season, but drove in just 59 and 61 runs, respectively. He also found himself out of the lineup often against left-handed pitchers. 

It's important to keep in mind that Schwarber is still developing as a hitter and big-league player, missing out on the entire 2016 regular season with that devastating knee injury and enduring prolonged struggles in 2017 due in part to increased pressure hitting in the leadoff spot.

To put it in perspective, Schwarber had a very similar season to Phillies cornerstone player Rhys Hoskins and consider how he compares to fellow teammates Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo through a similar number of plate appearances through their first three-plus MLB seasons:

Schwarber (1,274 PAs) — .228/.339/.470 (.809  OPS)
Rizzo (1,211 PAs) — .238/.324/.412 (.735 OPS)
Baez (1,267 PAs) — .255/.300/.427 (.727 OPS)

Schwarber was worth 3.2 WAR (FanGraphs) for the Cubs in 2018, but the team knows there's a lot more in there waiting to be unlocked.

He's a big reason why the Cubs are betting on an overall team improvement in 2019 thanks to individual steps forward.

"Ultimately, I'll still go back to what I've said over and over each winter is the biggest improvements are going to be from within," Hoyer said. "No matter what we do from the outside, getting our guys back and getting our team playing like we should is the most important thing.

"We have spent a lot of time on that today as well, talking to Joe, talking to our coaches, talking to our scouts. As much as we talk about external stuff, we never get that far away from the internal improvements we need to make."

Bears win with 'different' Mitchell Trubiskys as Vikings fade to the playoff brink in MNF loss to Seattle

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USA TODAY

Bears win with 'different' Mitchell Trubiskys as Vikings fade to the playoff brink in MNF loss to Seattle

No matter what your opinion of Mitchell Trubisky – franchise quarterback, ascending young guy who just needs time, just a guy, the Bears flat-out got the wrong guy – Sunday’s 15-6 win over the Los Angeles Rams provided confirmation of that assessment of the No. 2 pick of the 2017 draft:

Trubisky was abysmal in the first half: 9-of-20 passing, 59 yards, 2 INT’s, passer rating 12.5.

He was “ascending” in the second half: 7-of-10 passing, 51 yards, another INT but a TD pass, rating 74.1.

He was sometimes just a guy: “I think I just need to be better all the way around,” he said afterwards.

Whether the Bears got the right guy? Well, Pat Mahomes is third in the NFL with a passer rating of 115.2 for an 11-2 Kansas City team. Deshaun Watson is ninth at 100.9 and had led 9-4 Houston to nine straight wins before Sunday’s home loss to Indianapolis.

But the Bears have won Trubisky’s last four starts, albeit with a bit of help from the defense on Sunday, even if he has dropped down to No. 22 with his 92.1 passer rating. And he is No. 7 in ESPN’s more comprehensive quarterback rating, so if there are issues with what he is or isn’t, those don’t extend to his head coach, who didn’t view Sunday as any kind of “setback” in Trubisky’s development.

“Not when you win,” Matt Nagy said. “He made some plays when we needed to. For him to be able to keep learning, there’s gonna be some bumps in the road. You can’t throw for 350 yards every game. That’s just not gonna happen in this offense in Year 1. That’s not gonna happen.”

Just a little what-if?

These sorts of what-If’s are easy to find, but whimsical just the same:

Would Ryan Pace have stayed put at No. 14 in the 2014 draft, as Phil Emery did – or would the trade-inclined Pace have jumped over the No. 13 Rams and made sure Aaron Donald’s career went through Chicago?

Of course, running back Todd Gurley was waiting in the green room when the Bears’ turn came at No. 7 a year later, and Pace opted for soon-to-be-former-Bear Kevin White.

Fading Vikings

The NFL may have been cringing at a second straight prime-time game in which offense was largely absent and the winners relied on the time-honored 5-yards-and-a-cloud-of-sod.

But the Bears weren’t cringing at all as they watched the Minnesota Vikings lose 21-7 to the Seattle Seahawks for their third loss in the last four, beginning with the Bears last month.

The Bears clinch the NFC North with a win in any of their final three games. The defeat dropped the Vikings to 6-6-1 and into a position where the only way they can beat the Bears for the NFC North title is to sweep their final three while the Bears were losing theirs, including Game 16 in Minneapolis.

The Vikings still stand as the No. 6 playoff seed at the moment, which would make them the wild-card opponent for the Bears (No. 3) as records now sit. Minnesota with six losses and a tie has a teeny edge for that No. 6 spot ahead of seven-time-losers Carolina, Philadelphia and Washington.

But underneath all this were the Seahawks dominating the Vikings in this Monday Night Football game with a throwback 214 rushing yards on 42 attempts, vs. Seattle’s 22 pass plays – this after the Bears ran 35 times for 194 yards, vs. 31 pass plays in mauling a Rams team with an offense touted as one of the hood ornaments for the “modern” NFL.

 

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