Alarm bells are officially sounding for the 2-4 Browns

Baker Mayfield has become the epitome of everything he wasn’t last season. His immense swagger has become his greatest enemy as there is no “juice” without wins. He looks uncomfortable when the pocket breaks down, which in the past, has been the second year quarterback’s greatest strength. After a gut wrenching 32-28 loss to the surging Seahawks and MVP candidate Russell Wilson, it’s officially time to panic in Cleveland.

First year head coach Freddie Kitchens was in a prime position for a successful first season at the helm. Cleveland is coming off a 7-8-1 2018 campaign in which their overall #1 selection almost gave the team a long awaited playoff birth. Their offseason additions (Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt) all made sense and added absolute firepower to an overall solid offensive unit. But nothing has transitioned to the field.

The Browns kicked off their 2019 campaign by getting shellacked by the now 2-4 Titans by a score of 43-13. Who’s quarterback, Marcus Mariota, has played so badly this season he was benched today for veteran journeyman Ryan Tannehill. Kitchens and company were able to right the ship to 2-2 until a fateful Monday Night Football match-up with the still unbeaten 49’ers in week 5. The Browns were dominated like a last place team and Baker Mayfield showed the least amount of moxie he’s shown in long time. The final score was 31-3, the wheels had officially fallen off.

Mayfield’s inner fire and gunslinger seems to have dwindled into a thought process fueled by not making mistakes. Like most things in football, fair or not, it starts with the QB. Baker is completing just 56.6% of his passes this season as compared to 63.8% in his rookie campaign. The most staggering statistic is his touchdown to interception ratio. Through six games, Baker has only thrown 5 touchdown passes, while simultaneously throwing 11 interceptions. That is absolutely putrid considering the amount of weapons surrounding him. Jarvis Landry, OBJ, David Njoku (IR), and Nick Chubb are just a few names that should be helping the young QB bring Cleveland back to playoff contention.

Even after all the bad, there’s still time to right the ship. The Browns have only slid to second in their division (AFC North), behind the 4-2 Ravens, whom Cleveland beat in week 4 by a score of 40-25. We’re only roughly a third of a way through the season. If the struggling Browns can get OBJ and Chubb/Hunt (returns in week 8) going we could be talking about a playoff push in a month or two. But until then, the weight of this franchise falls on the “BakeShow.” NFL stardom or bust hangs in the balance. For purely entertainment purposes, I hope its the prior. Either way, things are at Defcon 1 inside the Browns facility.

LSU cruises past Florida as Burrow inserts himself into the Heisman conversation

With 10:56 left in the third quarter, Redshirt Junior quarterback Kyle Trask fired a bullet across the middle to push the seventh ranked Gators outfront 28-21 in Death Valley. From that moment until the horn sounded, LSU reminded us all why we may need to forget Alabama & Clemson as the front runners to win this year’s College Football Playoff.

LSU’s defense was suffocating for the final 22 minutes of the ball game. And the Tiger’s “pass now, run later” approach pulled through again as a short six yard run pulled LSU even at 28, while a 33 yard scamper by Tyrion Davis-Price pulled them ahead 35-28 the very next possession. Trask, impressive in his own right, lead the Gators back down the field with the possibility of tying the game at 35. Until an interception in the endzone by Derek Stingley halted their drive and turned the ball back over to LSU. The Tiger’s signal caller, Joe Burrow, ended up making the play that broke the Gator’s backs, as he found Ja’Marr Chase for a 54 yard touchdown down the right sideline directly following the interception. LSU went home happy after a convincing 42-28 win over a fellow SEC rival.

LSU, until this season’s offensive overhaul, was known for pro-style run heavy offense. Often times rendering them ineffective against defenses with plenty of size and speed, like Florida. But with talented QB Joe Burrow returning for his second year with the Tigers (transferred from Ohio State), Head Coach Ed Orgeron decided it was time to open things up. LSU dumped their pro-style set up and promoted Tiger lifer Steve Ensminger to offensive coordinator from tight-ends coach. Now a five wide look and offensive domination are two things LSU is getting used to quickly.

Let me throw some numbers at you. On the season, Burrow is completing 78.4% of his passes while having thrown 22 touchdowns with only 3 interceptions. That’s impressive, but just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a list of QB’s with 300 yards and 3 touchdowns against Florida in the last 10 years: Joe Burrow. That’s it. He’s rocking a 93.0 QBR on the season which is good for fourth in the nation. His efficiency, especially in the always talented SEC, is staggering and is boosting LSU towards real national contender hopes.

Sitting at a perfect 6-0, the Tigers are on a crash course to meet suspected fellow undefeated, Alabama, on November 9th. #12 ranked Auburn and banged up Mississippi State are the only two games standing between LSU and the SEC West juggernaut led by Tua Tagovailoa. Tua v.s. Joe Part I may be the most anticipated game all year at this point. The game should also have serious playoff implications as the loser will still have a decent shot at making the four team playoff field. While the other will represent the SEC in Atlanta (barring absolute mayhem.)

Tagovailoa and Burrow almost have identical stats, with Tua having thrown one more touchdown and two less interceptions. His QBR surpasses Burrow’s by 2.9 points making it the highest in the NCAA. Neither have had their “Heisman moment” yet and I suspect one will have theirs in early November. The award, much like the MVP in the NBA, is more about narrative than anything else. I can’t think of a better story than Joe Burrow’s long and windy journey to lead LSU back to prominence. If the senior from Athens, Ohio can march his troops into Tuscaloosa and knock off the Bear Bryant of the 21st century, then he more than has a case for the award for most outstanding player in college football.

We have four weeks until that fateful clash of Titans in T-Town. But until then, I can hear the hundreds of thousands of voices all the way from Baton Rouge, “GEAUX TIGA’S!”

Zion Williamson shines as New Orleans downs Utah in their preseason home debut

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few years, Zion Williamson should be a name you’re used to hearing ad nauseam. His performance tonight in his third preseason game (26 points, 9/12 from the field, with 5 boards) threw more coal on the fire, as the 19 year old rookie gears up for his NBA debut on October 22nd.

Williamson dominated the first half of the fourth quarter and quickly turned an eleven point deficit into a four point Pelicans lead, before checking out for the last time with 7:09 left in the period. The Pelican reserves would hold off Utah for a 128-127 victory in New Orleans. The number one overall pick draws comparisons to Cleveland’s own LeBron James with his high-flying antics, but when this kid hits the floor it feels like a play style the NBA has not seen before.

Any stranger on the street can rave about Zion’s bounce, as they should, but basketball fans as a whole cannot overlook the fact this guy just spent a calendar year refining his craft with Coach K in Durham. He’s slippery, but listed at a whopping 284 pounds. His body type screams power forward, but when the ball is in his hands he looks like a comfortable big wing off the bounce. He’s undersized at 6’7, but his 45′ inch vertical leap and pure brawn makes up for size differences. Zion is the perfect player to insert into the league right now in 2019. He has the ability to switch every ball screen, extend the defense from range, block shots galore, and possesses a personality that will fill Smoothie King Center for the next 15 years if the stars align.

It’s no secret Zion is special, but the transition from college star to professional star is not always easy. Williamson has had many skeptics leading up to his pro debut, but when you really sit down and watch this kid’s game, it’s transcendent. He’s like Chris Weber, Charles Barkley, and Gerald Green (for bounce purposes) all rolled into one. In his last two appearances, he’s 21-25 from the field with over 25 points in both games. Efficiency like that rivals alley-oop dependent centers like Deandre Jordan from Brooklyn, and is so uncommon now in the age of isolation or pick & roll style offense resulting in a heavy volume of three-point shots.

One could really take a step back and argue the Pelicans won the Anthony Davis trade with how much sheer talent is waiting to be developed on their bench. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart all came over from LA as well as three unprotected first round picks. Rookie center Jaxson Hayes out of Texas looks like he could be a real presence on the block, especially in pick & roll offense and defense. Nickeil Alexander-Walker looks to be a diamond in the rough after being traded from the Nets to the Pels on draft night. The 17th pick of the draft out of Virginia Tech has shown great aggressiveness and shooting touch thus far. Fellow Dukie, Veteran JJ Redick, should fit right in and provide a winning mentality in his first year with the club. The 35 year old guard has never missed the playoffs and does not plan on that streak ending this season. Oh and All-Star/2 Time NBA All-Defensive team selection Jrue Holiday is still there to guide the ship as the starting point guard.

I’m not saying this team will be hoisting the Larry O’ Brien trophy in June, but the Pelican faithful should be geared up for a successful and entertaining season. Alvin Gentry has so many new shiny toys to play with, I hope he unleashes the young guys and lets them *cough* run the break. I could possibly see a playoff birth for these upstarts. My lord, a Lakers-Pels series may push me over the edge. So many narratives; Zion vs LeBron (!), former Lakers young core back for redemption, and AD facing his old franchise.

10 days stand between the world and meaningful basketball, and much basketball must be played before summer’s warm light shines on each playoff series. The league is as balanced as it has been since LeBron’s return to Cleveland. And with Zion geared up to play all 82 as the future of this franchise, buckle your seat belts, folks. Takeoff for flight #1 in 10, 9, 8……

Tennessee hopes Saturday’s match-up with State serves as a turning point

Neyland Stadium erupted last Saturday early in the first quarter as true freshman quarterback Brian Mauer connected with Marquez Callaway for a 73 yard bomb. It was Tennessee’s longest passing play for a touchdown since 2015. I can only imagine Vol fans everywhere turning to the words of the great Derek Shepherd (McDreamy) to describe Mauer, “You were like coming up for fresh air. It was like I was drowning and you saved me.” In all seriousness, it’s been a rough go for UT this season with gut wrenching losses to Georgia State and BYU in weeks one & two. Redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano manned the controls for those two games and was expected to build on big time SEC wins against Auburn and Kentucky last season. That is, until he didn’t. It quickly became apparent that the lack of consistency in offensive coordinators and overall coaches in UT’s system may have spoiled what most thought was an elite talent. With a fan base ready to implode, the only choice was to turn Mauer loose for his first start against #3 ranked Georgia.

The moment didn’t seem to be too big for the 3-star prospect from Ocala, Florida. Tennessee’s first drive stalled, and Georgia pounded their way to six with downhill running from a steeple of backs and precision passing from veteran quarterback Jake Fromm. Mauer and the vols responded with the aforementioned deep ball and Neyland unleashed the energy it’s been forced to hold in all season. On UT’s next drive, Mauer found Knoxville’s favorite, Jajuan Jennings, across the middle for a 12 yard touchdown that pushed Tennessee out front 14-10 early in the second quarter. Tennessee wouldn’t score again the rest of the game with the final score being 43-14 in favor of Georgia.

You must be asking yourself, how could a fan base be excited about a 29 point loss? The short answer is because for the first time all season, UT didn’t resemble a lower level division one program. For two quarters they hung with the best of the best with an 18 year old QB at the helm. This fan base yearns for a contender, and they saw just enough spark out of the 205 first half passing yards from #18 to stay interested. But the absolute grit shown from the defense, led by true freshman middle linebacker Henry To’oto’o, is why they’ll continue to fill the stadium with 102,455.

Saturday’s match-up with Mississippi State gives this young Tennessee Football team an opportunity to continue to grow in the shadow of a 1-4 start. Mississippi State (3-2) has had their own troubles at quarterback this season. State has been splitting time between Tommy Stevens and Garrett Shrader thus far. I would honestly expect both to see action Saturday while the pair are currently dealing with lower extremity injuries. Tennessee’s passing defense has been a strong point this season, allowing only 209.6 yards per game. In a game where turnovers could be the difference, I expect UT to try to make State’s injured QB’s leave the pocket as a result of pressure and make poor decisions. Even with that said, the question of depth at inside linebacker still hangs in the balance. Many inside of Tennessee’s program hope former All-American JJ Peterson can carry some of the load as he becomes more fluid and comfortable in Pruitt’s defensive system. Many expect Tennessee’s defense to show and fight regardless of depth, but the offense is still where most of the questions lie. Will we see deep, vertical, pressure applied by Mauer downfield like the first half against Georgia? Or will the youth and the lack of discipline result in penalties that will down the Vols for the fifth time in almost as many weeks? Those questions will be answered at high noon on Saturday.

The team seems to be most explosive when Mauer is at the helm and true freshman running back Eric Gray is receiving feature carries. Gray has struggled in pass protection at times this season, resulting in veterans Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler continuing to eat into Gray’s touches, often times rendering him obsolete and lost in the crowd. It’s clear Gray is the most talented of the bunch, whether he will be able to distance himself from the others is still yet to be seen. The receiving group, including tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson, is stocked full of talent. I expect Callaway and Jennings to continue to see the bulk of work, but don’t be surprised to see newcomer Ramel Keyton get a few more touches in the coming weeks. With the spark Mauer has brought throwing the ball downfield, the receiving core should be licking their chops in anticipation of Saturday’s match-up. The offensive line is finally starting to play at a respectable level and it seems Jeremy Pruitt has found a rotation that he likes. The “dive-stretch” running scheme has been UT’s bread & butter this season, and I expect them to try to establish the run early, with deep shot play action calls to follow. Tennessee’s offense should see exponential growth weekly with Jim Chaney calling the shots and Mauer settling in as the permanent starter, but only time will tell.

One thing is for certain though, the Tennessee Fans will fill Neyland, like they always do. And remind us all one more time how special it is to be drenched in southern college football pageantry. An opportunity for a season changing win awaits, how Pruitt & Co. respond to that opportunity will continue to define their legacy in this dark time of Tennessee football tradition.