Nationals

Rebuilt Boise State threatening to bust BCS again

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Rebuilt Boise State threatening to bust BCS again

Boise State is at it again.

Coach Chris Petersen's Broncos are quietly piling up victories with a team that underwent a major reconstruction.

``Boise State's always been pretty good at football for whatever reasons,'' Petersen said Monday.

And wouldn't you know it, the Broncos are threatening to bust into the BCS. There's a twist this time.

After all those seasons Boise State was shut out of the best bowl games in favor of brand name teams from more high-profile conferences, now it's the benefit of the doubt the Broncos are getting from poll voters that might push them onto the big postseason stage in their last season in the Mountain West.

The Broncos were one of the most debated and divisive teams in the country the last few years. Good, but how good? Boise State fans felt the Broncos got overlooked and slighted. Others felt they were overrated, a product of a weak schedule and sympathetic media coverage.

The Broncos kept the debate raging by winning, a lot.

Since Petersen took over in 2006, Boise State is 80-7 and has twice made it to - and won - BCS games.

But the last two seasons, with one of the best teams in the country, quarterback Kellen Moore and the Broncos had to settle for bowl trips to Las Vegas, while teams such as Virginia Tech, Michigan, Arkansas and Ohio State were handed at-large BCS bids.

Moore, Doug Martin and about a dozen other Broncos from those teams have now moved on to the NFL. The Broncos have had as much turnover, not just quality but quantity, as any team in the nation this season.

Boise State opened the season with a 17-13 loss at Michigan State, and hasn't lost since, winning seven straight.

The defense has been one of the nation's best, allowing 311 yards per game. The new stars are linebacker J.C. Percy and defensive end Demarcus Lawrence.

The offense, with new starting quarterback Joe Southwick, is coming along, though it's not nearly as potent as it was in recent years. The Broncos are tied for 59th in yards per play (5.8). But they've only lost 12 turnovers, and are seventh in the nation in turnover margin at plus-11.

Simply put, Boise State is good again, though a familiar problem persists: Strength of schedule. The Broncos don't have a victory against a ranked team, and the Mountain West isn't quite what they hoped it would be when they decided to leave the Western Athletic Conference a few years ago. The Sagarin computer rankings rate Boise State's schedule 78th-best among Division I teams.

It's the reason why next season Boise State will be on the move again, joining the new Big East, where the Broncos will have access to an automatic BCS bid for the last year of the Bowl Championship Series.

The Broncos face what looks to be a challenge on Saturday when San Diego State (6-3, 4-1) visits. After that they travel to Hawaii, and play Colorado State at home, before finishing the season at Nevada, another potentially tricky hurdle.

Despite the so-so competition, Boise State has been ranked for most of the season, and should continue to rise in the rankings - even if only slightly - if it keeps winning. The Broncos have become a reliable commodity, the type of team that voters can trust. So while Louisiana Tech and a bevy of quality Mid-American Conference teams struggle for attention and poll votes this season, Boise State keeps rolling along.

Though, to be fair, Boise State's schedule rates better than any of those other potential BCS busters.

Boise State will have a tough time getting a top-12 ranking in the final BCS standings, which along with a conference title, could give the Broncos an automatic BCS bid. They have taken that route to the BCS before. But if they can get into the final top 16 and be ranked higher than a champion from one of the automatic qualifying conferences, the Broncos are in.

The Big Ten's struggles are aiding Boise State's cause. Nebraska is the only team ranked in the BCS top 25. The Cornhuskers are a spot behind the Broncos at No. 20. If they win out all the way through the Big Ten championship game, the Huskers will probably pass Boise State. If not, it will be tough for any other Big Ten team to do so. Aside from postseason-ineligible Ohio State, Nebraska (6-2, 3-1) is the only Big Ten team with less than three losses.

The irony, of course, is this Boise State wouldn't stand a chance against the ones Petersen rolled out the last two seasons. Those Broncos could play with any team in the country, but the system left them without a spot, sent them to pound Utah and Arizona State in late December, instead getting to prove themselves against another top-10 team.

This season, Boise State could wind up in the BCS with a team that might not be capable of matching up against a highly rated opponent.

Say this about the Broncos, they are always interesting.

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HEISMAN WATCH

Barring a major meltdown by Notre Dame against inferior teams in the next few weeks, Manti Te'o looks like a lock to be a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Te'o has had a remarkable season, leading one of the top defenses in the nation with 80 tackles, two fumble recoveries and five interceptions. Notre Dame's defense has been one of the best in the nation and Te'o is the best player on the No. 4 team in the country.

The interceptions have been key to his candidacy. He's tied for second in the nation and only one other linebacker, USC's Dion Bailey, has as many as four.

Te'o's diving pick of a tipped pass against Oklahoma, a turnover that set up a field that ultimately sealed the game for the Irish, was the type of highlight reel moment that makes a Heisman campaign. Even if there is still some debate about whether he did catch it.

A pure defensive player has never won the Heisman, and it's unlikely that will change this season. But when the invitation to the Heisman presentation in New York comes, Te'o will be the first finalist from Notre Dame since Brady Quinn in 2005.

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QUICK HITS

- Western Kentucky defensive end Quanterus Smith had five sacks in a victory against Florida International on Saturday and leads the nation with 11.5 and 1.64 per game. The senior uses yoga as part of his training.

- Huge credit to Navy and coach Ken Niumatalolo for an impressive in-season turnaround. The Midshipmen were 1-3 after a 12-0 loss at home to San Jose State. It was the first time in six years Navy had been shut out. Navy has won four in a row since behind freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who has the Middies' option offense humming again. Navy had an eight-season bowl streak snapped last year, but is a victory from being back in the postseason with Florida Atlantic (2-6) coming to Annapolis, Md., on Saturday.

- Maryland has lost four quarterbacks to season-ending injuries and will start freshman linebacker Shawn Petty, who played quarterback and high school, at QB against Georgia Tech on Saturday. Petty played quarterback in high school and has been seeing time there in practice when the injuries started piling up recently.

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LAST WORD

``I was coming over here today, and I got in the car, and my seat was hot. And I looked up, and I had hit the seat warmer.'' - Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, trying to keep his sense of humor while his job status is in doubt.

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AP Sports Writer Gary Graves in Lexington, Ky., contributed to this report.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoap

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5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

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USA TODAY Sports

5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals traded for Royals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera this evening. 

Not only did the Nationals trade for Kelvin Herrera, but they did so without losing Juan Soto, Victor Robles, or Andrew Stevenson. The first two were never in any real danger of being traded for a relief pitcher who will be a free agent at year's end, but the Nats escaped only giving up their 10th and 11th ranked prospects:

On the surface, this deal looks exceptional for the Nationals. Herrera is another back-of-the-bullpen type that only further deepens the Nats' options in that department. Here are a handful of things you should know about the Nationals' newest pitcher:

1. Herrera's strikeout "issue" is complicated 

Herrera, like many other closers over the last half-decade, has made his name in strikeouts. He topped out at a 30.4 percent strikeout rate in 2016, and has a 23.4 percent clip for his career. His K% this season sits at 23.2 percent, which is both higher than last season and lower than his career average. 

People will look at his dramatic K/9 drop as a red flag, but "per/9" stats are flawed and not generally a worthwhile stat to build an argument around. A pitcher who gets knocked around for five runs in an inning -- but gets three strikeouts -- can have the same K/9 of a different (much more efficient) pitcher who strikes out the side in order. 

2. Herrera has basically stopped walking batters 

His career BB% sits at 7.1 percent. His highest clip is nine percent (2014, 2015) and his lowest was a shade over four percent (2016). 

This season, he's walking batters at a two percent  rate. In 27 games this season, he's walked two batters. Two! 

3. The jury seems to still be out on how good of a year he's had so far

Analytics are frustrating. On one hand, they can serve wonderfully as tools to help peel back the curtains and tell a deeper story - or dispel lazy narratives. On the other hand, they can be contradictory, confusing, and at times downright misleading. 

Take, for instance, Herrera's baseline pitching stats. His ERA sits at 1.05, while his FIP sits at 2.62. On their own, both numbers are impressive. On their own, both numbers are All-Star level stats. 

When you stack them against each other, however, the picture turns negative. While ERA is the more common stat, it's widely accepted that FIP more accurately represents a pitcher's true value (ERA's calculation makes the same per/9 mistakes that were mentioned above). 

More often than not, when a pitcher's ERA is lower than his FIP, that indicates said pitcher has benefited from luck. 

Throw in a 3.51 xFIP (which is the same as FIP, but park-adjusted) and we suddenly have a real mess on our hands. Is he the pitcher with the great ERA, the pitcher with the Very Good FIP, or the pitcher with the medicore xFIP? 

4. He was a fastball pitcher, and then he wasn't, and now he is again

Take a look at Herrera's pitch usage over his career in Kansas City:

In only three years, he's gone from throwing a sinker 31 percent of the time to completely giving up on the pitch. That's pretty wild. 

Since 2014, he's gone to the slider more and more in every year. 

His current fastball usage would be the highest of his career. He only appeared in two games during the 2011 season, so those numbers aren't reliable. Going away from the sinker probably helps explain why his Ground Ball rate has dropped 10 percentage points, too. 

5. The Nats finally have the bullpen they've been dreaming about for years

Doolittle, Herrera, Kintzler, and Madson is about as deep and talented as any bullpen in baseball.

Justin Miller, Sammy Solis, and Wander Suero all have flashed serious potential at points throughout the year. Austin Voth is waiting for roster expansion in September. 

The Nats have been trying to build this type of bullpen for the better part of the last decade. Health obviously remains an important factor, but Rizzo's got the deepest pen of his time in D.C. 

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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

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USA TODAY Sports

MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

Will Todd Reirden replace Barry Trotz as head coach of the Washington Capitals?

Based on what GM Brian MacLellan said Monday, it certainly sounds like it’s Reirden’s job to lose.

“We’re going to start with Todd here,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ve been grooming him to be a head coach, whether for us or someone else.”

“We’ll see how the talk goes with him and we’ll make a decision based on that,” MacLellan added. “If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. And if it doesn’t, we’ll open it up a little bit.”

MacLellan said he isn’t sure exactly when the interview with Reirden will take place. The front office needs a few days to regroup. It’s also a busy stretch in hockey’s offseason. In the coming two weeks, MacLellan will direct the NHL draft in Dallas, monitor development camp in Arlington and then call the shots when free agency begins on July 1.  

“We need to take a breather here but I think Todd is a good candidate for it,” MacLellan said. “I’d like to sit down with Todd and have a normal interview, head coaching interview. I think most of our discussions are just casual. It’s about hockey in general. But I’d like to do a formal interview with him and just see if there’s differences or how we’re seeing things the same and if he’s a possibility for the head coach.”

Reirden, 46, spent the past four seasons on Trotz’s bench. He was elevated to associate coach prior to the 2016-17 season after coming up just short in his pursuit of the head coaching position in Calgary.

Reirden’s primary responsibility on Trotz’s staff was overseeing the defense and Washington’s perennially potent power play.

Prior to joining the Capitals in 2014, he was an assistant coach for four seasons with the Penguins. And before that, he spent a couple of seasons as the head coach of AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ top minor league affiliate.

A native of Deerfield, Ill., Reirden also had a lengthy professional career that included 183 NHL games with the Oilers, Blues, Thrashers and Coyotes.

Asked what he’s looking for in the Caps’ next head coach, MacLellan said he’s looking for a forward-thinker, a strong communicator and a players’ coach.

Reirden is all of those things.

“Someone that's up to date on the modern game,” MacLellan said. “Someone that's progressive, looking to try different things. Someone that has a good relationship with players. They communicate, can teach, make players better. It's becoming a developmental league where guys are coming in not fully developed products and we need a guy that can bring young players along because more and more we're going to use young players as the higher end guys make more money.”

One of the side benefits of elevating Reirden is the fact he already has a strong relationship with many of the current players, meaning there won’t be much upheaval as the Caps look to defend their championship.

“It could be a natural transition,” MacLellan said. “But once we sit down and talk face to face about all the little small details in the team, I'll have a better feel for it.”

MacLellan said a decision on the other assistant coaches—Lane Lambert, Blaine Forsythe, Scott Murray, Brett Leonhardt and Tim Ohashi—will be made after the next head coach is named.

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