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Column: Irish smiling, but SEC eyes another title

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Column: Irish smiling, but SEC eyes another title

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Thanks, Notre Dame.

At least we don't have to endure another All-SEC matchup for the BCS championship.

But the conference everyone outside the South loves to hate staked out its usual place in the championship hierarchy on Super Saturday, a coast-to-coast buffet of college football's greatest rivalries.

Either Alabama or Georgia will be playing for No. 1.

Sound familiar?

The Southeastern Conference has already won an unprecedented six straight national championships, and here's betting the Crimson Tide or the Bulldogs will make it seven in a row on Jan. 7 in Miami.

Nothing against top-ranked Notre Dame, the best story in college football all season. The Fighting Irish (12-0) wrapped up their first perfect regular season since 1988 with a 22-13 victory over Southern California, leaving no doubt they have stifling defense and tremendous heart. Plus, they deserve bonus points for handing Trojans coach Lane Kiffin another loss, the perfect capper to his season-long plunge from No. 1 to irrelevance, with a few deflated footballs along the way.

All hail the Irish.

They deserve it.

For now.

``We're not done yet,'' Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson said. ``We've got to keep going.''

Not so fast. It will be a month and a half before the champion is crowned, a ridiculously long wait in a sport where players are used to taking the field in tidy, one-week intervals. Offenses, which rely so heavily on timing and communication, tend to suffer more from these long delays, so points will be hard to come by in South Florida.

That levels the playing just a bit, since all three of the title contenders have top-shelf defenses.

Still, Alabama and Georgia both have more weapons offensively, which is why either team should have an edge on the Irish, no matter which one emerges as the winner in next Saturday's SEC championship game.

The only thing that didn't go the SEC's way on rivalry day was Notre Dame beating USC. Without the Irish gutting out another win, we very well could've had a repeat of an SEC game doubling as the title game, with Florida hoping to follow the Alabama Plan, Version 2.011.

A year ago, the Tide team didn't even win its division but got a do-over against LSU for the national title. Alabama romped in the rematch, 21-0.

From the rest of the nation, a giant yawn.

This time, the Tide cruised into the SEC championship game on a high after thumping Auburn 49-0 in the Mismatch Bowl (sorry, the Iron Bowl moniker just doesn't fit at the moment), surely bringing the Gene Chizik era to an inglorious end a mere two years after he guided the Tigers to a national championship.

Georgia will be waiting in Atlanta as the East Division winner for the second year in a row, finishing off its regular season with a 42-10 blowout of Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs are our Comeback Team of the Year, somehow finding a way to get back in the mix after taking a four-touchdown whipping at South Carolina.

``Keep up the good work,'' Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal told the Bulldogs after presenting a trophy for their big win over the Yellow Jackets. ``We're looking for a national championship.''

So was Florida, which was fourth in the BCS standings a week ago. The Gators did nothing to hurt their position, stunning Florida State with a 24-point outburst in the fourth quarter on the way to a 37-26 victory. As soon as that one ended, coach Will Muschamp and his players headed off to root for the Trojans, hoping they could take down the Irish.

It wasn't to be. Notre Dame clinched the win with a brilliant goal-line stand, stuffing the Trojans after they had first-and-goal at the 1.

Oregon was the only other team with a shot, and the Ducks took care of business with an impressive 48-24 win over Oregon State in that state's version of the Civil War. But they're all done, too. Heck, the Ducks didn't even make the Pac-12 title game; Stanford locked up the spot with a victory over UCLA.

Hard to believe, but the SEC seemed down and out just a few weeks ago. Alabama was knocked off by conference newcomer Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa, leaving three non-SEC teams - Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame - in the lead positions.

Three-fourths of the nation rejoiced.

Its long, Dixie-induced nightmare seemed over.

Of course, everything flipped again seven days later.

Oregon lost. Kansas State lost. Just like that, Alabama and Georgia were right back in the prime positions.

The Tide and the Bulldogs closed the deal Saturday against overmatched opponents, proving once again the SEC has, if nothing else, an impeccable sense of timing. Outside of Notre Dame, every team in the mix had one loss. But Oregon and Kansas State lost last, so they get shortchanged.

Ohio State might have messed things up, finishing off a 12-0 debut season for coach Urban Meyer with a victory over Michigan. But the Buckeyes are on NCAA probation because of Tattoo-gate, the championship dreams pushed off into the future by some shady ink. They look like the sort of program that can challenge the SEC's dominance, but not this year.

Maybe the new four-team playoff will stir things up a bit. Surely, it can't hurt, because the SEC clearly has this system all figured out.

``I knew the way the SEC works,'' Georgia defensive back Sanders Commings said, savoring his team's position in the locker room beneath Sanford Stadium. ``I knew we could beat everybody else on our schedule. I was like, `Man, we've just got to win out.'''

There will be those who say the SEC is living on its reputation, that the league isn't nearly as strong from top-to-bottom this season as it's been in other years. That's a pretty compelling argument, too. Neither Auburn nor Kentucky won an SEC game. Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas are looking for new coaches, and Auburn will surely be joining the list of schools with a vacancy.

But, for those at the top, there's another chance to play for a national title.

For the rest of the nation, that playoff system can't get here fast enough.

---

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org and www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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Need to Know: What’s the outlook for the Redskins’ secondary in 2018?

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USA Today Sports Images

Need to Know: What’s the outlook for the Redskins’ secondary in 2018?

Here is what you need to know on this Monday, June 25, 31 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

Fan questions—The secondary

To be sure, there are reasons to be concerned about the secondary and we’ll get into those in a bit. But the popular notion that the secondary struggled last year is not accurate.

Do you want to go standard stats? They were ninth in the league in passing yards allowed and 10th in opponent passer rating last year.

Do you prefer more advanced analytics? They were sixth in defensive passing DVOA and 11th in adjusted net yards per attempt.

That’s not a great pass defense but it was a pretty good one. It should be noted that they also benefitted from a solid pass rush; they were seventh in the league in sack percentage. Still, you don’t finish in the top third of the league in pass defense without at least a competent secondary.

The question is, will it remain competent? Kendall Fuller was indeed a key player, one of the best slot corners in the league. Bashaud Breeland was inconsistent but he did shine on occasion. But the fact that he is still available as a free agent indicates what the league thinks of him, problems passing the physical notwithstanding. Those two will have to be replaced.

It is likely that Quinton Dunbar will take Breeland’s spot on the outside. That is at worst a lateral exchange if not an improvement. Dunbar has been working for three years to get this opportunity and there is confidence among the coaches and, perhaps more importantly, the players that he is ready.

Orlando Scandrick is the probable starter at slot. He is a downgrade from Fuller, no question about it. If he is healthy—a big if—Scandrick is good enough to get the job done. Don’t let the star he wore on the side of his helmet for so many years blind you to the fact that he’s a solid player.

The depth at slot consists of second-year player Josh Holsey, who played all of nine snaps on defense last year, and rookie Greg Stroman. That’s not ideal but most of the other teams in the NFL have a similar depth chart.

The wild card who could be the difference between this secondary being better than last year or worse is Fabian Moreau. He played only 59 defensive snaps as a rookie but he did show off his speed and hard-hitting style on some of his 349 special teams snaps. During the offseason practices that were open to the media, Moreau was mostly Josh Norman’s backup at left cornerback. The feeling is that he won’t remain a reserve. We will have to see how things sort out during training camp.

There should be some improvement at safety if Montae Nicholson figures out how to stay on the field in his second year. If he struggles with injuries again and Deshazor Everett has to line up alongside D.J. Swearinger for a good chunk of the season, the safeties are no worse off because that's what happened last year. 

The bottom line is that a secondary that was good last year may take a step down in 2018 but the decline should not be steep. And if Moreau can be the player the organization thought he could be when they used a third-round pick for him, it could be just as good if not better.

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS and on Instagram @RichTandler.

Tandler on Twitter

I tweeted this in response to a discussion about the relative popularity of the NFL and NBA. Albert Breer’s tweet on the TV ratings for the leagues’ respective drafts was the nexus of the discussion.

Timeline  

Redskins cornerback Josh Holsey was born on this date in 1994.

Days until:

—Training camp starts (7/26) 31
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 45
—Roster cut to 53 (9/1) 59

The Redskins last played a game 176 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 76 days.

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Nationals power through rain delay, come back against Phillies

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USA Today

Nationals power through rain delay, come back against Phillies

WASHINGTON -- Daniel Murphy's two-run single drove in the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth inning and the Washington Nationals rallied past the Philadelphia Phillies 8-6 on Sunday night to salvage the finale of the three-game series.

Anthony Rendon homered and doubled, Bryce Harper tied a career high with three doubles and Michael A. Taylor and Murphy each had three singles in a game that was delayed 38 minutes by rain in the bottom of the fourth inning.

Rhys Hoskins and Nick Williams homered for the Phillies, who had won three straight.

Pinch hitter Brian Goodwin led off the eighth with a walk against Victor Arano. With one out, right-hander Seranthony Dominguez (1-2) came on to face Harper, who doubled to right, with Goodwin stopping at third.

After Rendon grounded out, Juan Soto was intentionally walked and Murphy lined a 1-2 pitch to shallow right. Taylor's single made it 8-6.

Ryan Madson (2-3) pitched the eighth inning, and Sean Doolittle finished it for his 21st save.

The Phillies took a 6-2 lead in the fifth on a two-run triple by Odubel Herrera and a two-run homer by Williams.

Washington pulled within a run at 6-5 in the sixth with four two-out hits, including an RBI triple by Trea Turner and RBI doubles by Harper and Rendon.

Nick Pivetta went five innings and allowed two runs on eight hits for the Phillies.

Washington starter Jefry Rodriguez was charged with four runs and five hits in four-plus innings.

The Phillies broke on top on Hoskins's two-run homer in the third.

Rendon made it 2-1 with a solo homer in the fourth. The next three hitters singled, tying the game, but with the rain intensifying, out came the tarp. When play resumed, Pivetta struck out three straight to end the inning.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Phillies: C Andrew Knapp left in the seventh with a right knee contusion. ... 3B Maikel Franco slipped on first base and fell hard in the eighth. He stayed in to run, but left after the half-inning. ... INF Jesmuel Valent?n was placed on the paternity leave list and OF Dylan Cozens (left quadriceps strain) was reinstated from the 10-day DL.

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson (right hamstring strain) allowed 11 runs in 4 2/3 innings of a rehab start at Class A Potomac on Sunday. "I'm more concerned with the way he feels," manager Dave Martinez said, downplaying the results. "We'll go from there." ... RH reliever Brandon Kintzler (right forearm flexor strain) threw a scoreless inning at Potomac. ... RHP Stephen Strasburg (right shoulder inflammation) played catch on the field again. "We'll keep doing his throwing progression and figure out when he can actually throw from the mound," Martinez said.

UP NEXT

Phillies: RHP Vince Velasquez (5-7, 4.82) starts the opener of a series against the Yankees on Monday. He is 0-0 with a 3.24 ERA in two games vs. New York.

Nationals: RHP Gio Gonzalez (6-4, 3.08) opens a series at Tampa Bay on Monday. He is 2-2 with a 5.54 ERA in six games against the Rays.