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Osborne won't compare 1990s' Huskers to Alabama

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Osborne won't compare 1990s' Huskers to Alabama

Retired Nebraska coach Tom Osborne won't get drawn into an argument over how his 1990s teams that won three national championships in four years would fare against the Alabama teams that just accomplished the same feat.

``It doesn't come off very well when you try to compare a team that played 12, 14, 15 years ago with a team playing today and say this team would beat that team. Nobody knows,'' Osborne said Wednesday. ``The only way to do it is to play them. No question we had some very good teams. No question Alabama is very good, well-coached, very solid and certainly one to be admired.''

Osborne won all or part of national championships in three of his final four years with unbeaten teams. His 1994 and `95 teams were crowned by The Associated Press. In 1997, the Huskers won the coaches' vote and Michigan was first in the AP poll of writers and broadcasters.

Nebraska also played for the title in 1993 but lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl on a missed field goal as time ran out. The `96 team was poised to play for the national title but was upset by Texas in the inaugural Big 12 championship game.

The Huskers' 60-3 record from 1993-97 remains the greatest five-year stretch in college football history. Alabama is 61-7 since 2008.

Grant Wistrom, who played defensive end on all three of Osborne's title teams, said the 1990s Huskers would be hard-pressed to beat the 21st-century Tide.

``It's only been 15 years, but it's a faster game now,'' Wistrom said. ``We dominated back then, but I don't know if our teams would have had the success (Alabama's) had now. It's tough to do what they've done in this day and age - not that it was easy for us back then.''

Ahman Green, who became the Green Bay Packers' all-time leading rusher after leaving Nebraska following the 1997 season, said he sees a lot of similarities between the `90s Huskers and today's Tide.

``It would be a three-point or overtime win for one of us,'' Green said.

Those who tout the Southeastern Conference's superiority - the league has won the last seven national championships - would argue the Tide has had to play a tougher schedule than the `90s Nebraska teams faced in the Big Eight/Big 12.

``You have to take your hat off to them because of the level of competition,'' Osborne said. ``I don't know that the SEC top to bottom is filled with great teams, but you have at least three or four very good teams in recent years. To survive that schedule, you have to be very good, obviously.''

Colorado was the chief threat to the Huskers in the `90s. Rival Oklahoma was in a down cycle, and Kansas State didn't fully emerge as a national power until 1998, the year after Osborne retired.

Wistrom, who retired in 2006 after a nine-year NFL career, wouldn't venture to guess what would happen if any of Osborne's and Nick Saban's title teams met in a hypothetical game.

``I'm not going to say we're the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we were darned good,'' he said. ``We had a lot of guys go to the pros, but so have they.

``If we could all get back together and be 18 years old and play them, we would decide it and there would be nothing more to talk about. No one would have anything to talk about on the radio. What's the fun in that?''

Saban witnessed the Huskers' mid-'90s power in person his first two years as head coach at Michigan State. Nebraska went into Spartan Stadium and won 50-10 in 1995, then put a 55-14 whipping to MSU in Lincoln the next year.

``The score did not indicate how bad they beat us,'' Saban said of the first meeting. ``I'm thinking we're never going to win a game. I must have taken a bad job, wrong job, no players, something.

``I remember Coach Osborne when we shook hands after the game, he put his arm around me and whispered in my ear, `You're not really as bad as you think.' So I think he knew he had a pretty good team. And we actually ended up winning six games, so we weren't really probably as bad as I thought.''

Wistrom said the most impressive thing about Alabama's roll is that it's occurred at a time when talent is spread out more than ever and more underclassmen are leaving school for the NFL.

The `90s Huskers and current Tide had similar personnel, and both played a bruising style of football.

Quarterback Tommie Frazier of Nebraska and A.J. McCarron of Alabama were undisputed team leaders. Nebraska had a beefy offensive line that cleared the way for Frazier, Lawrence Phillips and Ahman Green. The Tide's powerful lines have opened holes for greats like Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy.

McCarron is a superior passer to Frazier, but Frazier left his mark as perhaps the greatest triple-option quarterback ever.

Wistrom and fellow All-American Jason Peter anchored Nebraska's defensive lines. The Tide has had at least one defensive lineman drafted each of the past three years, and Jesse Williams is a sure bet to make it four in a row.

``We tried to beat teams into submission,'' Green said. ``(Alabama) didn't put up the scores we did, but they made it known when the game was over and the game was won.''

Osborne pointed out that the Huskers had to depend on the polls to win national titles more than the recent Tide teams, which have been able to settle things on the field through the Bowl Championship Series.

Had the BCS system been in place - and Osborne said he wishes it had been - Nebraska would have had to beat unbeaten Penn State in 1994 and unbeaten Michigan in 1997.

Of his three national championship teams, Osborne ranks the 1995 Huskers as the most talented team he coached.

That team outscored opponents by an average of 53-14, outgained them 562 yards to 298 and never trailed in a game after the second quarter.

Many observers have called the `95 Huskers the greatest college football team of all time.

Osborne declined to compare that team to any of Alabama's title teams.

``How people want to rank them,'' he said, ``is up to them.''

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The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

When the starting lines were announced on Saturday, you may have been surprised to hear Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were starting against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan.

Because the game was in Tampa Bay, the Capitals had to give their starters first. That means Lightning coach Jon Cooper saw the Caps’ were starting their top line and decided to put out his fourth.

And it worked.

On Saturday, Paquette scored just 19 seconds into the game and Callahan scored 33 seconds into the second period. Ovechkin’s line did not manage a shot on goal for the first two periods of the game. Ovechkin did finally score, but it came late on a six-on-five with Braden Holtby pulled and it was not against the fourth line.

The fourth vs. Ovechkin matchup is something the Lightning began in Game 2. No three forwards have played more against Ovechkin at five on five in any game since Game 2 than Kunitz, Paquette and Callahan. Prior to Game 5, they matched up against Ovechkin around six to seven minutes per game. On Saturday, however, Cooper went all in.

At five on five play, Kunitz was on the ice against Ovechkin for 13:04, Paquette for 13:42 and Callahan for 13:46. The results speak for themselves as that line outscored Ovechkin's 2-0. In fact, for the series Ovechkin has produced six points and only two of them have come at five-on-five play.

A fourth line vs. a top line matchup is a risky move because it takes time away from your top offensive playmakers. You typically see top lines face each other or a first line against a second line because, when you line match you are letting the opposing coach dictate how much your own players play. With a fourth line matchup getting essentially top line minutes, that takes time away from players like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

If you look at the five-on-five time on ice for Game 5, Kucherov skated 14:06 and Stamkos 13:37 while Kunitz was on for 14:00, Callahan for 14:45 and Paquette for 14:57.

It is a risky move, but it makes sense for the Lightning. Through four games, the Capitals were the better team five-on-five, but Tampa Bay’s power play was unstoppable. Using the fourth line is a good strategy for Cooper in situations like in Game 3 and Game 4. The Lightning slowed Washington’s five-on-five production and Stamkos and Kucherov still produced enough on the power play even with reduced minutes. It also works for games like the one we saw Saturday.

In a game like Game 5 when your team jumps out to a 3-0 lead, you can afford to roll your lines even if it means giving the fourth line more minutes than the first.

You would think a fourth vs. first matchup would give the Capitals a distinct advantage, but it has not worked out that way. The fourth line has been able to stifle Ovechkin and Co. enough and the Lightning's power play has made up the production lost by the first line's reduced minutes. When the fourth line can score two goals of its own, well, that's just an added bonus.

Ovechkin has to lead his line to a better performance in Game 6. If the Caps’ top line can’t get the better of the Lightning’s fourth, then this series will be over on Monday night.

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

This is not a tweet I expected to read in May of 2018.

On the heels of their latest injury, the team is adding uber-prospect Juan Soto to the roster. It's unclear how much playing time he'll receive early on, but it's hard to imagine the team would be willing to start his service time clock and mess with his development track simply to sit him on the bench. He'll likely play, and make an impact on the team for as long as he's in D.C.

Let's not bury the lede, though. As you probably noticed in the tweet, Juan Soto is 19-years old. He was born in October of 1998, making him the youngest player in the majors, and bringing us one step closer to the first big-leaguer born in the 2000s. 

As incredible as it is for Soto to make the majors as a teenager (Bryce Harper and Time Raines are the only other teenagers to play in the majors in franchise history, which is pretty good company), what might be even more stunning is how quickly this came together for him. 

This will already be Soto's fourth different level of professional baseball this season alone, having spent time with the low-A, high-A, and AA clubs so far. In his entire life, Soto has just 35 plate appearances above class-A, which is almost unheard of for a player getting promoted to the big league roster.

He's hit everywhere he's been, with his career OPS in the minors a whopping 1.043 (his lowest  wRC+ at any level is 132), though it remains to be seen if his prodigious bat is ready for Major League pitching. Still, simply being in the majors at such a young age is a great sign for his future.

Not that anybody should put Hall of Fame expectations on a kid who hasn't even faced a pitch in the majors yet, but Soto's meteoric rise gives him a better chance than most at greatness. Just last month, when discussing the dynamic Braves duo of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, Hall of Fame-expert Jay Jaffe did some research on young stars making the big leagues, and the numbers are promising.

According to Baseball Reference (and we're just going to take their word for it), there have been 19,261 players in the history of Major League Baseball, and 226 of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame. That's a minuscule 1.1%.

But, of every player to ever record 100 plate appearances as a 19-year old (a number Soto should easily hit if he stays up all season), the number of players who eventually made the Hall of Fame jumps to 24%. If Soto is only up for a cup of coffee this year, and next year is when he's here to stay, you can move up the list to players who recorded 100 PA in their age-20 seasons, and the number is still 19%.

Plus, that percentage is likely to increase in the coming decades, as there are 18 active players to reach the benchmark, including future locks Adrian Beltre, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout, and guys who are young but on the right track (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, and Giancarlo Stanton). Acuna, Albies, and Rafael Devers could find their way on the list one day as well. Considering only three of those names need to be enshrined in Cooperstown one day, it's safe to say that percentage is only growing.

That's a lot of stats that look nice for Soto and the Nationals, but obviously, we're at least a decade away from having a legitimate conversation about his Hall of Fame chances. Still, it highlights what we've known about him for quite some time. Juan Soto is a special, generational talent, and his rise to the big leagues as a teenager is worth writing home about.

What he's done so far is historic, and even if the move seems premature, it's plenty cause for excitement about the future of baseball in D.C.

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