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Saban, Kelly lead Bama and ND out of darkness

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Saban, Kelly lead Bama and ND out of darkness

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) There were some dark days at Notre Dame and Alabama, dark years really, during which two of college football's proudest programs flailed and foundered.

Notre Dame won the national championship in 1988, then spent much of the next two decades running through coaches - four if you count the guy who never coached a game - and drifting between mediocre and pretty good.

Alabama won the national championship in 1992, then spent the next 15 years running through coaches - four if you count the guy who never coached a game - and drifting between mediocre and pretty good.

As the 21st century dawned, the Fighting Irish and the Crimson Tide were old news, stodgy remnants of a glorious past, not moving fast enough to keep up with the times, and searching for someone to lead them back to the top.

``It parallels Notre Dame to a tee,'' said Paul Finebaum, who has covered Alabama as a newspaper reporter and radio show host for more than 30 years. ``The attitude was `We're Alabama. We don't have to do what others are doing. We'll win because of our tradition.' Finally everyone passed Alabama.''

And Notre Dame.

Then along came Nick Saban and Brian Kelly to knock off the rust, fine tune the engines and turn the Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish into the sharpest machines in college football again.

No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama meet Monday night in Miami in a BCS championship between two titans not all that far removed from tough times.

``The pendulum swings,'' said former Alabama coach Gene Stallings, the last Tide coach before Saban to bring home a national title. ``You don't stay good forever. You don't stay bad forever.''

Of course, Alabama and Notre Dame fans aren't real comfortable with the first part of that statement. The Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish were perennial national championship contenders for decades.

For Alabama, replacing Bear proved difficult. Paul Bryant won six national championships in 25 years as the coach in Tuscaloosa, and when he stepped down the Crimson Tide felt compelled to bring back one of his boys to replace him. Ray Perkins was hired away from the New York Giants, and spent four years at Alabama before going back to the NFL.

Alabama tried going outside the family and hired Bill Curry. He lasted three years, before leaving for Kentucky.

``You follow somebody like Coach Bryant, it's an extremely difficult situation,'' Stallings said.

Stallings played for Bryant at Texas A&M, coached under him at Alabama and even sounded a bit like the Bear with his baritone drawl. He found success and relative peace in seven seasons as coach of the Tide.

``I told Coach Bryant stories. I wasn't in competition with Coach Bryant,'' Stallings said. ``I think that's one of the reasons I was, quote, accepted by the Alabama people.''

After Stalling left in 1996, things started to get ugly at Alabama. School leaders tried again to keep their most highly prized job in the family, hiring Mike DuBose, a former defensive lineman for Bryant. That didn't work, so Alabama swung the other direction by hiring Dennis Franchione, who skipped town after two seasons for Texas A&M, and Mike Price, who brought a whole new level of embarrassment to Alabama. Not long after he was hired away from Washington State, Price was fired after a night of drunken partying became public.

Alabama reverted back to old form, going with one of its own in former Tide quarterback Mike Shula. Like DuBose, he wasn't up to the task. On top of everything else, the NCAA slammed Alabama, wiping all its victories from the 2005 and `06 seasons off the books.

Meanwhile, over the years, Alabama had fallen behind others in the Southeastern Conference when it came to facilities and support staff. Big-time college football is an arms race of sorts, and the Crimson Tide weren't investing like the competition - like LSU had while winning a national title under Saban, for example.

``The program lost its compass,'' Finebaum said.

When it came time to hire another coach in 2006, Alabama courted Saban and Steve Spurrier. Spurrier wasn't interested and Saban had an NFL season to finish. When the Tide was turned down by Rich Rodriguez, who opted instead to stay with West Virginia, it was rock bottom.

``It was the darkest moment I can ever remember in Alabama history,'' Finebaum said. ``Alabama fans gave up that day.

As it turned out, it was one of the best things to ever happen to Alabama.

``You've got to have some luck,'' Stallings said.

As luck would have it, Saban was ready to get back to college football.

Alabama lured him away from the NFL with a $4 million a year contract that made him the highest-paid coach in college football - and gave him the power and support to run the program the way he wanted, not the way it had been run before.

``Alabama finally hired someone who has not afraid to tell everybody to get out of the way,'' Finebaum said.

For Notre Dame, it is a similar tale. Lou Holtz won that championship in 1988 and made the Fighting Irish a regular title contender, but by the end of his tenure, Notre Dame started to slip and the people in charge were resistant to the types of changes needed to keep up with the competition.

The Irish promoted Bob Davie to take over for Holtz. In five seasons he never won more than nine games and went 0-3 in bowls.

Davie, now the coach at New Mexico, doesn't make excuses for his record at Notre Dame, but he does note that the school has been willing to make the type of changes in recent years that he sought back in the late 1990s.

``Their facilities have gone from being poor to cutting edge in college football,'' he said. ``Their salaries for coaches are competitive with everybody in the country. They are accepting early graduates (from high school).

``I know the dynamics there very well and there's a lot of people who think you don't have to do that at Notre Dame. It's proven now that you do have to do those things.''

Former athletic director Kevin White was the catalyst for many of those changes, but he was also the man who hired George O'Leary, who was caught fibbing on his resume and stepped down, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. The Weis hiring in 2004 was especially telling.

Notre Dame wanted Urban Meyer, who was then at Utah and the hottest commodity on the coaching market. Meyer worked at Notre Dame under Holtz and had called being Fighting Irish coach his dream job.

And he turned it down to coach Florida because he realized it would be easier to win national championship with the Gators than with the Irish. He won two with Florida in six years.

The Irish hired Weis, the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator who had never been a head coach but did graduate from Notre Dame. He was gone in five years.

This time when Notre Dame went looking for a coach, the hottest candidate on the market was Kelly, who climbed the coaching ladder slowly, winning big every step of the way. The difference was the hottest commodity also wanted Notre Dame, and White's successor, Jack Swarbrick, scooped him up quickly.

Kelly has continued to push Notre Dame into the 21st century, implementing a training table to make it easier for the players to eat healthy. He pushed for music to be pumped through the PA system at Notre Dame Stadium to rouse a fanbase that over the years had started to sit on its hands.

``It's flashier,'' Davie said. ``They are a lot more like everybody else is but that's what's making them competitive.''

Now what separates both Notre Dame and Alabama from the competition is their coaches.

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Inside the numbers: Will a 1,000-yard receiver make or break the 2018 Redskins?

Inside the numbers: Will a 1,000-yard receiver make or break the 2018 Redskins?

In 2017, the Redskins missed the playoffs while no receiver went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Jamison Crowder led the team with 789 receiving yards.

In 2016, the Redskins missed the playoffs while two receivers went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Pierre Garçon gained 1,041 yards that year while DeSean Jackson posted 1,005 receiving yards. 

In 2015, the Redskins did make the playoffs. That season the team had no receivers go for 1,000 yards, though Jordan Reed got close with 952 receiving yards. 

Is there a lesson here? Is there a takeaway that can help to predict the 2018 season?

Going into this season, no Redskins wideout has ever accounted for 1,000 yards in a single season. In their career.

Former first-round pick Josh Doctson accounted for just more than 500 receiving yards last season, catching 35 of the 78 balls thrown his way.  Crowder was mostly productive, but there was an expectation, fair or not, he would make more of a jump in 2018 than he did. Jordan Reed hardly played. 

To help the group, the Redskins added Paul Richardson in free agency. Last year playing for the Seahawks, Richardson went for 703 yards on 44 catches. The speedster gives the Redskins a true downfield threat the team lacked in 2017, and that could help the whole offense. In fact, it better help the whole offense. 

Still, looking at a top three of Doctson, Crowder and Richardson, it's hard to confidently predict a 1,000-yard receiver from the bunch. 

Could it happen? Absolutely. Any of the three could pop to a four-digit total.

Would you put your own hard-earned cash on the line? That would take some guts. 

Though the Redskins have a new quarterback in Alex Smith, head coach Jay Gruden has been crystal clear the team is not in a rebuilding mode. Washington must win, now, this season, and a minimum goal should be a Wild Card playoff spot. 

How imperative is a 1,000-yard wide receiver to that goal? Let's look back at the past 12 NFC playoff teams. 

Only three of six NFL playoff teams in 2017 had a 1,000-yard wideout. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles did not, but the Vikings, Saints and Falcons all did. 

In 2016, however, five of six playoff teams had 1,000-yard receivers. The only team that didn't, the Cowboys, deployed a heavy run offense that resulted in Ezekiel Elliott going for more than 1,600 rush yards. 

Added together, in the past two seasons, eight of 12 NFC playoff teams had a receiver on their squad go at least four digits. 

One more note: the New England Patriots played in the last two Super Bowls, winning one and losing one. Both years they had at least one receiver get to 1,000 yards (Julian Edelman in 2016, Brandin Cooks in 2017). In 2017, tight end Rob Gronkowski broke the 1,000-yard mark too.

Again, what's the takeaway? Having a 1,000-yard receiver is certainly good, but it's not a must for a playoff berth or a deep playoff run. The Eagles proved that. 

On some teams, an elite wideout makes a huge difference. Watch Giants tape and it's clear what Odell Beckham does for the offense. Watch Falcons tape and Julio Jones does the same. 

On other teams, an elite quarterback makes a huge difference. Duh.  

Of the teams examined, the 2016 Packers came the closest to the 2017 Patriots with having two players go for over 1,000 yards.

2017 New England did it with Cooks (1,082) and Gronkowski (1,084), 2016 Green Bay almost got there with Jordy Nelson (1,257) and Davante Adams (997). 

While Gronkowski and Nelson are excellent players, the common denominator is obviously the elite play of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. 

For the 2018 Redskins, what does it mean?

The Redskins don't have an elite wideout like Jones or Beckham. The Redskins don't have an elite quarterback like Brady or Rodgers. 

The best path for Washington's offense might be balance, and trying to emulate the Eagles model from 2017. Carson Wentz played most of the season at an elite level, but he spread the ball around to a number of targets and leaned heavily on his tight ends. It helped that the Eagles ran the ball very well too. 

Could the 'Skins do something similar? Alex Smith is known to spread the ball around, and if Jordan Reed and Derrius Guice can produce this fall, the offenses might be similar. 

The answer can't be force enough balls to one wideout to ensure a 1,000 yard season. That won't work. 

There might be another way to consider. Of the three NFC teams that made the 2017 playoffs without a 1,000-yard wideout, two found a lot of success throwing to a running back.

The Panthers leading WR was Devin Funchess with 840 receiving yards. Their second best receiver? Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. 

The Rams leading WR was Cooper Kupp with 869 receiving yards. Their second best receiver? Running back Todd Gurley.

See a pattern?

Before breaking his leg in November, Chris Thompson had more than 500 receiving yards. He still finished as the team's fourth-leading receiver despite playing only 10 games. 

The offensive path to playoff success for Washington might not hinge on a true 1,000-yard wideout like it does for many teams. Full, healthy seasons from Jordan Reed or Chris Thompson could make up for deficiencies at other skill positions. It also remains possible Doctson, Crowder or Richardson make the four digit leap. 

Having a 1,000-yard receiver seems like a nice option for a good offense, and that's proven by nearly 70 percent of recent NFC playoff teams. Still, other paths remain to the postseason, and increased production at tight end and running back can go a long way. 

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Juan Soto's 2-run double carries Nationals past Orioles

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USA TODAY Sports

Juan Soto's 2-run double carries Nationals past Orioles

WASHINGTON -- A teenager among men, Juan Soto has impressed his teammates on the Washington Nationals with his maturity and, even more so, his potent bat.

Soto hit a tiebreaking two-run double in the eighth inning, and Washington beat the Baltimore Orioles 4-2 Thursday night in the deciding matchup of a three-game interleague series between neighboring rivals.

Soto, a 19-year-old rookie, is batting .326 with 16 RBIs in 28 games. Starting in the cleanup spot for the first time, he drew a walk and delivered the game's pivotal hit.

"I think we're all amazed every single day," Washington ace Max Scherzer said. "He puts together great ABs. He has antics and has some flair. He's a great young player. He's just enjoying himself."

Bryce Harper led off the eighth with a double off Mychal Givens (0-4) and Trea Turner followed with a single. After Anthony Rendon struck out, Soto hit a liner into the gap in left-center.

"He's got unbelievable poise," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said of Soto. "No matter what the situation is, he goes out there with a game plan."

Whatever that plan is, it's effective.

"I just try to be focused and keep working," Soto said.

Rendon homered for the Nationals, who received seven strong innings from Scherzer and flawless work from their bullpen.

Newcomer Kelvin Herrera (1-0) pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning and Sean Doolittle got three straight outs for his 20th save in 21 tries.

Seeking to end a rare run of two straight losses, Scherzer left a tied game after allowing two runs -- both on solo homers -- and striking out nine.

Afterward, the right-hander heaped praise upon Soto for the manner in which he's adapted to playing in the big leagues.

"He has a great feel for the strike zone," Scherzer said. "To have that type of eye, it's remarkable for him to be able to do that at this time and this age and this level."

Activated from the 60-day disabled list before the game, Colby Rasmus homered for the Orioles in his first at-bat since April 6.

"Me and Max, we go way back, so I felt real good," said Rasmus, who had been sidelined with a hip injury.

In addition, Rasmus made an outstanding throw from right field to the plate, nailing Wilmer Difo on a tag-up play in the seventh inning with the score tied.

Mark Trumbo also homered for Baltimore, his sixth of the season and third in four games.

Baltimore starter Kevin Gausman gave up two runs and four hits over six innings. The right-hander was lifted with the score tied, leaving him winless in his last seven starts.

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