Nationals

BCS implications in NIU vs Kent St MAC title game

BCS implications in NIU vs Kent St MAC title game

DETROIT (AP) The Mid-American Conference championship game this year has a lot more at stake than usual.

It's a showcase for two Top 25 teams on long winning streaks - and there may even be BCS implications.

When No. 18 Kent State takes on No. 19 Northern Illinois on Friday night at Ford Field, it will be the first time two MAC teams in the Top 25 have faced each other since Ben Roethlisberger was playing in the conference. The winner could end up in the Orange Bowl, which would be unheard of for either program.

Kent State coach Darrell Hazell is trying not to look ahead too far, but his counterpart is soaking up the hype.

``It gives you a chance to potentially do what Boise (State) did a number of years ago when they beat Oklahoma,'' Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren said. ``Not that we could pull off the same feat, but we would try, and I think that's what we want. We want that opportunity.''

The Huskies (11-1) would have an outside shot at a BCS bowl bid if they win Friday, but Kent State (11-1) would be in even better position.

Under BCS rules, if a champion from a conference without an automatic bid, such as the MAC, ranks in the top 16 of the final BCS standings and is ranked higher than a champion from one of the AQ leagues, such as the Big East, the non-AQ champ is guaranteed a spot in the BCS.

Big East-leading Rutgers wasn't ranked in last week's BCS standings. Kent State was 17th and could move up with a victory. UCLA is 16th and has to play Stanford in the Pac-12 title game on Friday night.

``I'll leave that for the experts to decide,'' Hazell said. ``I think it adds a little flavor that both teams are in the Top 25, but we'll worry about where we go bowl-wise after Friday night.''

The last time two MAC teams in the Top 25 played each other was when Roethlisberger and Miami of Ohio beat Bowling Green in the 2003 conference title game, according to STATS LLC. And these two teams are rolling.

Northern Illinois has won 11 games in a row, Kent State 10 straight. Both went unbeaten in MAC play while winning their divisions, and this title game could bring some welcome publicity to the league.

``It's well-deserved and well-earned attention,'' said Jon Steinbrecher, the conference commissioner. ``I think it's a reflection of the depth and strength of the league.''

Northern Illinois is 21st in the BCS standings and would need more of a jump to reach the top 16 than Kent State, but Doeren is happy to contemplate the possibility.

``Quite honestly, I think it helps us, because we know if we really want to even be in a conversation like that, we have to win,'' Doeren said. ``That just kind of puts fuel on the fire, in my opinion.''

The Huskies blew a fourth-quarter lead in an 18-17 loss to Iowa to open the season, and they haven't lost since.

``We consider ourselves the best team in the state,'' said quarterback Jordan Lynch, a potential shot at Illinois and Northwestern, two Big Ten programs.

This is the Huskies' third straight trip to the MAC title game. They won last year on a last-second field goal.

Kent State is one of only two teams to beat Rutgers so far this season. The Golden Flashes went 5-7 last year, but they won four of their last five, setting the stage for this season's resurgence.

Kent State's most recent bowl appearance was 40 years ago in the Tangerine Bowl, so it's fair to say the fan base is fired up for this week's game.

``I got an email today with a guy that's put a blue `K' on his tooth,'' Hazell said earlier this week. ``You talk about 106 players in the locker room and 25 coaches, changed the country, how they think about Kent State, Kent State football.''

Running backs Dri Archer and Trayion Durham have both surpassed 1,100 yards rushing this year for the Golden Flashes. Northern Illinois relies heavily on Lynch, who has thrown for 2,750 yards and 23 touchdowns with only four interceptions. He's also run for 1,611 yards.

The Northern Illinois athletic department's website is touting Lynch as a Heisman Trophy candidate. That might be a reach, but the idea of a MAC team playing in a major bowl is suddenly very real.

``We've got two great teams that don't like to lose,'' Archer said. ``So it's going to be a good game.''

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Bryce Harper's 2018 Home Run Derby win by the numbers

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USA Today Sports

Bryce Harper's 2018 Home Run Derby win by the numbers

Bryce Harper is the 2018 Home Run Derby champion.

In his home ballpark, Harper put on a show Washington won't soon forget.

He ran through a division foe in the first round in Freddie Freeman, took out a strong, hefty lefty in the semifinals in Max Muncy and then hit nine home runs in 47 seconds in the final minute of the final round when it seemed like he had no chance. On the second swing of his 30 seconds of extra time, Harper launched a bomb to deep center field to win.

And while winning the Home Run Derby in his own ballpark is an impressive feat on its own, the numbers behind his victory make it all the more impressive.

3.

He is just the third hometown winner of the Home Run Derby in the history of the event. Todd Frazier did it most recently in 2016 in Cincinnati, and Ryne Sandberg won at Wrigley Field in Chicago in 1990.

13.

Harper won each of the first two rounds with 13 homers. He didn't need his full time in either of the first two rounds.

446 & 441.

Harper's first two home runs of his first-round matchup against Freeman traveled farther than any of the Braves' superstar's dingers.


10.

In the semifinals, Harper only hit three homers in the first minute, but then blasted 10 in his next 11 swings. That's called efficiency.


5.

In the first round, Harper hit five of the 10 longest home runs of anybody in the field.


45.

Harper hit 45 bombs en route to claiming the title. Here's a visual representation of all of them.

That's also how many dollars cheaper Nats tickets will be... oops!


2.

That's John Wall's number and this is him celebrating his fellow D.C. sports superstar's victory.


19,058.

Bryce Harper hit an absurd 19,058 feet of home runs during the 2018 Home Run Derby. That's more than the 5k you ran last year.

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With All-Star Game in Washington, Bryce Harper looks back on baseball life, ahead to uncertain future

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USA Today Sports Images

With All-Star Game in Washington, Bryce Harper looks back on baseball life, ahead to uncertain future

It's quite possible that, despite nearly a decade of being in the spotlight, gracing the cover of magazines and operating as a transcendent star in the sport of baseball, Bryce Harper's attention-drawing powers reached their apex this week in Washington as the 2018 All-Star Game took center stage at Nationals Park.

Harper has played in plenty showcase games before, he's participated in the Home Run Derby, he was the first overall pick in 2010. But this time the Midsummer Classic is in his professional baseball hometown and he is the primary ambassador for both the team and league. 

Oh, and this is also a pretty big year for his future. The 25-year-old is just months away from being one of the most sought after free agents in the history of the sport and perhaps soon the highest paid.

Harper took it all in stride on Monday as he held court in a club level ballroom at Nationals Park on South Capitol St. He knew the questions about his future were coming and he had answers for every single one of them.

Some of those questions included:

Do you ever have guys on other teams try to recruit you?

Has it ever crossed your mind how odd it would be to play somewhere else?

Do you have a relationship with [Yankees star] Aaron Judge?

One reporter didn't even finish his question before Harper sniffed it out.

When you shaved your beard [on June 19]... 

Harper: ..."it was because the Yankees were in town, right. You got it," he said sarcastically. "My beard was getting too long. My wife wanted me to trim it and it was a good idea."

Harper has by most accounts become closed off in recent years. His personality has been withdrawn. He famously began his first spring training press conference earlier this year with a written statement and a warning that any questions about his free agent future would result in him walking out of the room.

At least for a day, Harper was his old and congenial self. Though, he did explain why his personality has changed with the media in recent years.

"I think I've gotten older. I'm not going to say the same things at 16 that I do at 25," he said. "There were things that people did in college that they don't want people to know about. There are things that I've said in the media at 16 or 17 that I guess I was real about. I can't take them back and I don't want to."

Harper has been able to operate throughout the first half of the season while saying very little of substance to the media. The fact his batting average has dipped to just .214 has given him extra reason to put up walls.

As Harper addressed the media, he didn't offer any trademark one-liners, but he did get introspective about his life as a baseball player and his role as the face of the Washington Nationals.

He spoke glowingly about the franchise and the city, about how much he enjoys seeing the same faces every day, from his teammates to those in the front office to stadium employees and security guards. He shared his appreciation for the fans and area kids who look up to him.

The All-Star Game taking place in D.C. offered Harper a chance to reminisce. As Harper looked ahead to the Home Run Derby, he rattled off the most memorable homers he has seen at Nationals Park. 

He mentioned Jayson Werth's walkoff homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NL Division Series. He brought up the time Michael Morse hit one to the top of the Red Porch in left-center and the many times Adam Dunn cleared the third deck in right field.

Harper was asked about his the pressure of playing host and the duress of struggling in a contract year. He told a story from his days at the College of Southern Nevada that put it all into perspective.

"I got absolutely dominated for two weeks prior to our season opening before fall ball. I'm sitting there at 16 years old, I just got back from Team USA," he recalled.

"I got punched out like nine or 10 times in probably a matter of about 12 at-bats against my own team... I sat down and was like 'you know what, I don't want to do this. I want to go back to high school. I want to enjoy those moments and do that.' But I knew that I couldn't do that. I sat down and they said 'you can't come back, you tested out.' I said 'okay, you've gotta cowboy up.' I needed to do what I needed to do. A week later, we started our fall ball season and I went deep in my first at-bat at Cashman Field. The rest is history, I guess you could say."

If Harper had indeed been able to go back to high school, his draft status would have changed. He never would have been drafted first overall by the Nationals in 2010.

Harper feels the pressure of playing in junior college ball with his draft status on the line, playing against guys who were four or five years older than him, was the toughest thing he has done in baseball. It prepared him for all of these moments, just like the media scrutiny did over the years.

"It was only what, [eight] years ago? It's those moments that make you who you are," he said. "I'm 25 years and old and I play this game of baseball every day. What pressure do I have to feel?... It's the game that I love to play. I'm getting chills [right now]. There's nothing greater than running out there wearing No. 34 and being Bryce Harper and loving the game that I play."

Harper remained patient and upbeat for the over 30 minutes that he addressed the media. He was soaking it all in and trying to embrace the attention he was receiving.

But it was one of those questions from above that provided a dose of reality to set in. When asked if it would be strange to play for another team, he reminded the reporters present of what could very well happen this winter.

"It's always a possibility [I leave]. I think that everybody knew that at the beginning of the year, that this could possibly be my last year in D.C. Everybody knows that. There's no elephant in the room. Everybody knows that it's a possibility, but I'm not really focused on that," he said.

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