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Cigars & Football – A Simple Blend

Great White North Conference

The Great White North Conference believes that they are THE elite conference, but it’s tough to tell it from their performance. In their minds, and, perhaps, by reputation gained in the 20’s and 30’s, but Michigan State and Iowa stole the headlines by winning their divisions last year and then promptly got routed in their bowl games. Ohio State beat an overrated Notre Dame team and Michigan beat a depleted Florida squad. The GWN went 5-5 in the bowls. That’s not how they see themselves. They insist on being “THE” conference, like it used to be, but they’re stuck in the middle of the pack. Right now they are placing a lot of hope in Michigan and Ohio State. It’ll be interesting to see if the Wolverines and Buckeyes deliver.

231Michigan State-Yes, the best team the Spartans have had in a long time got spanked by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl in the first round of the College Football Playoffs. Yes they have to replace some key personnel, and, yes, there are some questions about whether they can recover. So why in the world did I pick the men from Sparta (East Lansing, MI) at the top? Simple. 1) I’m not buying all the hype about Ohio State and Michigan, 2) HC Mark Dantonio has been building this program for years, he knows what he needs to recruit and has been doing it without much fanfare or press. These MSU players have been hungry for a long time and they’ve gotten better and better every year. Now the QB issue. Former QB Connor Cook, who had the best line at the Cotton Bowl EVER! was asked in the first half of the game what he was seeing out on the field. He answered with, “They’re (Alabama defensive players) FREAKIN EVERYWHERE!” He graduates as the most successful QB in the school’s history. Replacing him will be either Tyler O’Connor or Damion Terry, both of whom played last year when they beat Ohio State. So they’ve got talent and they know the system. Both are good and they will do just fine. Michigan State is not going to miss a beat on offense. Every single running back played last year. These guys are game tested and battle proven. The offensive line loses two, but guess what? Their replacements had plenty of playing time last year. You see, HC Dantonio has been planning ahead, he’s not entering this season with a bunch of greenhorns who haven’t earned their spurs. Defensively, they must replace three starters on the line but this is a defense that has become the signature unit of the team. They take pride in their performance and they want to recover from their thumping by Bama. The best defense in the GWN belongs to the Spartans, that’s why they won last year and that’s why they’re going to win this year. This unit has a blue-collar mentality, they don’t mind putting in the work to get better. So, yep, the Spartans will win it again, and hope they don’t play an SEC team in the first round.

Michigan- I had Ohio State in this spot, and the more I wrote about them the more I didn’t like that pick so I switched teams. The Wolverines are131 getting most of the press thanks to their firebrand Head Coach, Jim Harbaugh. He loves creating mayhem, skating right up to the edge of the rules and try his best not to cross the line, he doesn’t care how he’s perceived, his whole goal is to the raise the awareness of the Michigan Football team, something that seemed to have become an afterthought up there. In the conferences media days he was boastful and so confident that he talked a bunch of the writers into believing these Wolverines were already national Champions. No, not buying all that. He talks a lot, brags a lot, BUT hasn’t pulled it off yet. The Go Blue will have one of the easiest schedules in the nation, even without Wagner. They won’t get tested until they play Wisconsin in October. They go another month until they play Michigan State and then another month until Ohio State. With the talent Michigan has they should walk right through that. The offense still doesn’t have a QB, they’ve got quite a few candidates but none have won the starting role. They do return their top receivers so that will help out whoever wins the QB position. The running backs are also a big question mark. Last year’s starter De’Veon Smith returns to the backfield but we’re holding back his superstar status until we’ve seen more. The O-Line returns mostly intact but they have no depth behind them. Going to be very hard to substitute the starters to give them a breather. If they start wearing out late in the game, the offense will flat stall. Defense, which showed huge improvement last year, returns and wants to continue their march forward. They have to replace all three linebackers and they seem to be having a little trouble in that area, but with the D-Line returning and them having good depth it should help the LB’s to get into their roles. The two best things to say about Michigan Football is that Harbaugh has injected a ton of enthusiasm and they have a very easy schedule. They should do well, but expect them to lose to MSU and OSU again. And, maybe, Wisconsin, depending on how the Badgers fare against the Bayou Bengals. Michigan’s schedule is a travesty, it should be embarrassing, even for Harbaugh.

Ohio State– Last year the Buckeyes had two real games and both were at the end of the season. This year is not much better. In the third game of the season they travel to Oklahoma where, at this point, the Sooners are the odds on favorite. The hype around this program is that J.T. Barrett is back at QB, no one breathing down his neck and that he’ll lead them to the promised land. Question, if he’s so great, why couldn’t he win the job outright last year? He’s good, and he’ll do well, but he’s not the be-all and end-all. The Buckeyes have to replace their running backs, most of their receivers and three offensive linemen. They’ve got talent coming up, and these guys are good, but not sure they’re going to make the impact most people are thinking. On the defensive side things look darker, this is where most of the NFL caliber players were and now they’re not. The defensive line must replace Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington, who were both very good. That kind of talent and energy will be sorely missed. The Linebackers have one returning starter and the backfield is missing a lot as well. We all know that Urban Meyer is a good recruiter and has brought in a lot of talent. But that talent hasn’t been tested yet and on top of all that, there is something going on at OSU that’s just not right. There is rumblings under the surface, we got a couple of glimpses of it last year with certain players, not sure what’s going on, can’t put a finger on it and say, Eureka! But things are not well in Columbus Ohio. The schedule is easy enough, you know, similar to Michigan’s, to where they only have three games, so they’ll win, go to a bowl game, but it just won’t be in the CFP. Could even be against Wagner.

Penn State– What’s going to happen with the Nittany Lions? Last year they had another mediocre year. They haven’t beaten the big three ( MSU,386 OSU and UM) in about four years, and they haven’t beaten a ranked team in the past two years. This is HC Franklin’s third year. He’s got full scholarships, has recruited well, and has nothing hanging over this program. They’ve got to do better. Not saying they’re going to win the division but it’s put up or shut up time. Second game of the season will tell volumes. They travel to Pittsburgh to face Rival Pitt who they’ve not played since 2000. This used to be an every year occurrence and it should be still! If the Lions want to show they are moving up they have to win this game. Oh, yeah, and they can’t have another upset like they did with Temple. Having said all that, are they capable of doing any of this? …..eeeehhhh…I don’t know. They’ve got some good talent, and QB Trace McSorley will be better than Hackenberg but they have to get the offensive line in top form. In the past two years they’ve allowed 83 sacks! Half of those were on Hackenberg for holding the ball too long, but still. The defensive line is also in a state of flux, and those two factors makes it hard to pick PSU anywhere but in the middle of the pack. Which hurts, cause Penn State should be better, as in SO much better! They’ve got playmakers throughout the team, good running backs, top receivers, good secondary on the D, but games are won and lost in the trenches! If the QB is running for his life every time he drops back to pass the ball it won’t matter if Jerry Rice is their top receiver. BUT there is hope. If both lines attend their Jedi Training and have good command of the Force by the start of the season, this team is fully capable of pulling their own upsets. Just beating one of the big three would lift this team a long way.

Indiana– It’s taken a good long while but the Hoosiers actually made it to a bowl game last year. They played Duke in the Pinstripe bowl and came up short, 44-41. Which is actually how their entire season turned out. They came close to winning big games….but didn’t. Against Ohio State and Michigan they only lost by a touchdown. No need to talk about how they did against Michigan State, (it wasn’t pretty). This Kelvin Wilson coached team has taken on the mantra of “Offense Now, Offense all the Time!” These young Hoosiers can move the ball and score quickly. The offense is very up-beat and relies on speed and quickness. Biggest problem is that their defense can’t stop anyone, and with an offense that scores quickly, the defense has no chance to catch its breath. By the fourth quarter these fellows are getting oxygen masks and IV’s just to stay alive. New defensive coordinator from South Florida, Tom Allen will be tasked with making the defense a little more relevant. The offense has to replace its backfield, so it’ll be interesting to see if the young bucks can step up and take this team over the hump of mediocrity and pull an upset here and there.

Rutgers– The Scarlet Knights of New Jersey ran up the white flag at the end of the season and declared they needed help. So they fired the coaches and brought in Chris Ash, Ohio State’s defensive coordinator. Appears to be a Solid hire. He knows defense and believes in it, not like a Southerner believes in defense, but hey, it’s a start. He is also an Urban Myer disciple and wants to make the offense a spitting image of Ohio State’s. That just might work. It’s worth a try if they get a QB that can run that type of offense and neither QB appears to be able to fill that role just yet. In other words, they’re going through a transition year and it will not be the year of the Scarlet Knights. They should be better, maybe not pulling any upsets, but they’ll make a better show of it. A bit too soon to pack that white flag.

Maryland– In the span of the last year Maryland has seen more head coaches come and go than any other team. Randy Edsall got fired during the season. New Coach DJ Durkin came over from Michigan, and hired two former head coaches, London, from UVA, and Shafer, from Syracuse, only to have Shafer resigns during the spring. So, Wow! The Terps are in trouble. They had a horrible campaign last season, the talent in the mid-atlantic is not flocking to College Park, MD, and they look intimidated and small against the other Great White North teams. They’re 0-6 against ranked GWN teams, and they lost those games by a combined score of 221-89. Coach Durkin brings energy and an optimistic attitude. But, first things first, he’s got to get talent and then maybe they’ll be able to play against the other members of the GWN. Until then, the Terps can take solace in all their uniform combinations.

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