Everton are top of the Premier League. Two weeks ago, they were top of the UK iTunes chart, knocking Miley Cyrus into second position, thanks to downloads of “Spirit of the Blues,” a song that usually reverberates around Goodison Park just before kick-off on matchday, by supporters determined to enjoy every moment of the club’s resurgence.
It’s been a while since things have been this good for Everton, Liverpool‘s neighbours and rivals, but when Jurgen Klopp’s Premier League champions visit Goodison for the Merseyside derby on Saturday, it will be the blues looking down on the reds for once. And there is a growing belief that it may not be a flash in the pan.
Right now, under manager Carlo Ancelotti, Everton sit atop the Premier League, with four wins from four games (seven in seven in all competitions), and striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin joint-top of the scoring charts with six goals. Summer signing James Rodriguez has sprinkled stardust over Goodison Park, and belief and optimism is flowing through the club and its supporters.
Since winning 1-0 at Tottenham on the opening weekend of the 2020-21 season, Ancelotti’s team have been rampant, hitting five goals past West Brom and four past Brighton, racking up 12 goals in just four games. With Liverpool next up and managing a spate of positive COVID-19 tests within the squad, plus the after-effects of losing 7-2 at Aston Villa before the international break, there is a growing sense that Everton have what it takes to beat their old rivals and sustain a challenge for Champions League qualification.
But beating Liverpool isn’t quite so straightforward when you’re Everton. There is no major derby in world football that has become as one-sided as their Merseyside derby. You can scroll through the scorelines of big city rivalries in Manchester, Milan, Madrid or Buenos Aires, and you won’t find a winless run longer than Everton’s 10-year drought.
Saturday will mark exactly one decade since their last derby victory — a 2-0 win at Goodison Park, with goals from Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta — and Everton’s fruitless ruin at Anfield stretches back to 1999. (Yes, they haven’t won at Anfield this century.)
During David Moyes’s 11-year spell as manager, between 2002-2013, Everton were dour, tough to beat and even qualified for the Champions League by finishing fourth in 2004-05, but they were rarely entertaining or cavalier. And they always seemed to finish seventh.
Since Moyes, a succession of managers — Ancelotti is their fifth permanent manager in seven years — have tried and failed to win and entertain. Some have been unable to do either, but 10 months after arriving to replace the sacked Marco Silva, Ancelotti has given Everton the confidence that they can challenge Liverpool again.
If they win on Saturday, don’t even think about telling Evertonians they can’t “do a Leicester” by emerging as champions this season. Everton are a big, historic club, and they’ve waited too long for the optimism generated by Ancelotti and his team.
But Saturday is big in so many ways. Winning is one thing, but getting rid of that inferiority complex against Liverpool is something Everton have been desperate to do for years.
You have to know the past to understand the present, so as a resurgent Everton prepare to face Liverpool in the 235th Merseyside derby on Saturday, it’s worth turning the clock back to October 1984.
Back then, Everton had grown tired of living in Liverpool’s shadow. At the time, they hadn’t beaten the Reds in the league since the 1970s — they also hadn’t won at Anfield for 14 years — and Evertonians had witnessed more false dawns than their neighbours had won trophies.
As a city, Liverpool was struggling. Unemployment was so high that, by the mid-1980s, fewer than 10% of school leavers were able to find a job within six months of leaving education. The docks on the River Mersey had fallen into decline and work dried up throughout the city.
– Connelly: How far can Everton go this season?
The only saving grace for the city in the 1980s was the success of its two football clubs. Liverpool were European champions in 1981 and 1984, and English champions six times in the 1980s. They also won four League Cups and two FA Cups during the decade. Everton would win two league titles, an FA Cup and European Cup-Winners’ Cup in the second half of the decade, but they had to wait until October ’84 to lay their marker down. They did it in spectacular fashion when Graeme Sharp scored a stunning goal at Anfield to seal a 1-0 victory against a Liverpool team that were reigning English and European champions.
The YouTube footage of the goal is notable not only for the technique displayed by Sharp in scoring, but the images of Everton fans running onto the pitch to celebrate it. It was a moment of relief and belief merged into one.
“People say I was 25 yards out, but as the years have passed, I prefer to say it was 35!” Sharp told ESPN. “Everybody still mentions that goal, but the big thing was that we beat Liverpool.
“Before that, there was an inferiority complex playing them. They were winning everything, and you had it in your mind that you weren’t going to get anything against them. But that game changed our mentality — it showed we could go head-to-head with them, and it was a turning point for us.”
Everton would win the title that season and again in 1987 as they emerged from the shadows to challenge Liverpool’s dominance. But it didn’t last, and the years since have been a tale of one disappointment after another, with the 1995 FA Cup Everton’s last piece of silverware.
Carlo Ancelotti is a regular at Il Forno, an Italian restaurant on Liverpool’s Duke Street, where they find a table close to the kitchen for the Everton manager, away from prying eyes, but the 61-year-old is not one for hiding away and being distant. Around the club, Everton staff talk of Ancelotti’s humility and easy nature, how he has put smiles back on faces that had become accustomed only to frowning under previous managers.
The supporters love him, too. Before coronavirus lockdown measures resulted in fans being denied entry to stadiums, Evertonians made a huge banner bearing Ancelotti’s image, alongside the words “Carlo Fantastico, Carlo Magnifico,” which was often unfurled at Goodison Park.
“Carlo loves it at Everton,” a source close to Ancelotti told ESPN. “He is having the time of his life there — he rides his bike on the path at Crosby beach, past Antony Gormley’s statues, and has really embraced life in Liverpool. But he also loves the old-school character of the club. There is a real family and community ethos at Everton and, despite everywhere he has been before, he has always been rooted in that family-club mentality.”
Ancelotti, sources say, is particularly taken by the Gormley statues. Named “Another Place,” they are 100 cast iron figures in the sand looking out to sea and over the horizon. He will stop and look out over the same scene and breathe in the air off the Irish Sea. After spending the majority of his managerial career in Milan, Madrid and Munich, Ancelotti enjoys the peace and tranquillity of his coastal home.
A three-time Champions League-winning coach with AC Milan and Real Madrid, Ancelotti has also won league titles with Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich. He has bagged 19 major honours in total, an elite coach with a glittering CV, and it was a surprise to many when he agreed to join Everton after leaving Napoli last December. Sharp describes it as a “massive coup” to land the Italian, with defender Michael Keane billing him as “one of the best managers in the world,” but Ancelotti’s son, Davide, who works as his father’s assistant at Goodison, says that outsiders shouldn’t be surprised by the decision to take the Everton job.
“We knew the history of Everton,” Davide told ESPN. “Everton is not a small club — it is a club with history and tradition and the squad has young players like Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin, Mason Holgate. It was a squad we could work on and the club is really ambitious to be a top team, but more importantly, my father wanted to come back and live the atmosphere of English football.
“It’s the way he is; his character is like this. He is not able to work in an environment where there isn’t this kind of family atmosphere. He feels comfortable in it.”
There is a misconception of Ancelotti being a coach who only works well with established squads at the biggest clubs. His early days with Reggiana and Parma in the 1990s have been largely overshadowed by his subsequent roles at some of Europe’s biggest clubs, but his principles have always remained the same: no egos, no superstars and the importance of a collective unit.
“In the training ground and in the locker room, there are no superstars,” Ancelotti told ESPN Brasil. “The name ‘superstar’ comes from the outside. Inside, they are players, and before being players, they are men. You deal with men, not with players. I’ve always dealt with men, not superstars.”
Ancelotti has changed Everton through man-management rather than the nuanced, tactical approach of a Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho. The Italian is not one for long speeches or hours spent in front of a tactics board; he prefers short words of encouragement and minor tweaks, such as urging Calvert-Lewin to be more selfish and head for the six-yard box rather than wasting his energy searching for the ball out wide.
He has also nudged Everton forward by managing those above him, too. When director of football Marcel Brands told him at the end of last season that there was no money for new signings, Ancelotti explained the necessity for signing midfielders Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure. He detailed how the pair would provide a solid platform in front of the back four, before going against his own methodology to present the case for recruiting James Rodriguez from Real Madrid.
“Carlo has never relied on stats when judging a player,” a source close to Ancelotti said. “But with James, there were a few doubts at Everton. Carlo had worked with him before at Real and Bayern, so he used his knowledge of the player and statistics of his assists and involvement in goals to make a powerful case for the club to sign him. And he got his way.”
Allan, Doucoure and James have all been crucial elements in Everton’s flawless start to the season, but for Davide Ancelotti, one of the biggest factors in the team’s success this season, and since his father took charge, has been a less celebrated player.
“We have a great captain in Seamus Coleman, and this is really important for my father and his leadership model,” Davide said. “When he has a real captain, like with Sergio Ramos at Madrid and Paolo Maldini at Milan, it is really important for us because he creates a sense of belonging within the team.
“Seamus does that at Everton. He makes sure that every player coming in knows the history of Everton and what we want to achieve. It is a big factor to have a captain like this.”
Calvert-Lewin came of age at Everton on a November night in 2016, in front of a handful of spectators at Southport’s Haig Avenue ground. But the evening didn’t start well.
“The under-21 team were playing Manchester City and Dom was being dominated during the first-half,” an Everton source told ESPN. “Southport is an old ground and the changing rooms are right under the main stand, so you could hear every word of the bollocking Dom received from David Unsworth, the academy coach, at half-time. He really laid into him.
“But Dom has a tough edge. He’s not the type who will go into his shell after a dressing down and he responded by scoring a wonder goal. Word got back to Ronald Koeman, the manager at the time, and he put him into the first-team and Dom hasn’t looked back since.”
Calvert-Lewin’s path to the top is not that of a young prodigy who has been groomed for stardom since an early age. Born and raised in Sheffield, he signed for Sheffield United‘s Academy aged just 8, with one former coach at Bramall Lane telling ESPN that the youngster was “all arms and legs, no physical presence, fancied himself as a number 10.”
Loan spells at non-league Stalybridge Celtic and Northampton Town were important in physically toughening the teenager, but United manager Chris Wilder needed a seasoned striker, not a kid with potential, to get his side out of League One, so the Blades happily accepted Everton’s £1.5m offer for him in 2016.
Until Ancelotti took charge at Everton, Calvert-Lewin was promising rather than prolific, and according to 1980s hero Sharp, the victim of playing in a poor team.
“I felt sorry for Dom because he was playing in teams that didn’t create many chances,” Sharp said. “He was having to run the channels, hold the ball up and join in play and get into the box at the end of it. I played that role at times and it’s horrible for a striker because you know you are never going to score. You are doing everybody else’s job and end up out of position. But Carlo wants [Calvert-Lewin] in and around the six yard box and he’s now getting the goals he didn’t score because he has quality players like James Rodriguez behind him.”
Ancelotti also took Calvert-Lewin aside for a pep talk about Everton’s legendary No.9s, from Dixie Dean to Duncan Ferguson, and told him he could join that band of greats. Ancelotti also urged the 23-year-old to study the movement of another striker — former Juventus and Italy forward, Filippo Inzaghi.
“I think that idea is more an emphasis on being in the right place at the right time, not to say I’m a carbon copy of Inzaghi,” Calvert-Lewin said. “I had a little YouTube of his goals, and watched a 15-minute reel of him, and obviously a lot of his goals are one-touch finishes.
“He had great movement, you can always learn, and if there are elements of his game that I’ve been showing in my game at the moment, it’s one-touch finishes and being in the right place to put the ball in the back of the net.”
The influence of Ferguson, Everton’s assistant manager, has also been key, with Davide Ancelotti telling ESPN that the former striker works on the training ground with Calvert-Lewin to “make him hear the sound of the net every day.”
Sharp has also noticed a driven mentality in Calvert-Lewin and a determination to be the best, especially when it comes to his heading technique.
“He has really impressed the coaches with his dedication,” Sharp said. “He has really worked on building up the strength in his legs, to give him extra spring, and his aerial ability is second to none. I don’t know if there is a forward out there — maybe only Cristiano Ronaldo — who leaps like Dominic.”
Everton’s record against Liverpool is dismal. Saturday will be the 10th anniversary of their last derby win, when David Moyes’ team triumphed 2-0 at Goodison, and they haven’t won at Anfield since 1999. When a team of Liverpool youngsters beat Everton’s first-team in the FA Cup at Anfield last season, an Everton-supporting friend of Ancelotti told him he had just presided over “the worst result in Everton’s history.”
Simply put, Everton really need victory this weekend; it’s not just about ending that streak, but sustaining this season’s momentum and, of course, giving the blue side of the city something to shout about for once.
“The fans are desperate for some success,” Sharp said. “The last time they had a glimmer was probably under Roberto Martinez, six or seven years ago, but they have been crying out for something to happen and they can see that now.
“The signing of Allan has lifted the fans and he has brought the whole team with him. He sets the standards of what you need to reach — Everton lacked leaders and Allan and Doucoure lead by example.”
So can Everton finally get the victory they desperately want against Liverpool?
“I’m feeling more confident going into this game than I have for a long time,” Sharp said. “We just want to continue doing what we have done so far.
“Liverpool will be hurting after the [7-2] defeat against Aston Villa and they won’t want to suffer another loss. They allowed themselves to be got at too easily at Villa, and I’m sure Carlo will look at how we can get at them. But there is a genuine belief in the players now and they look like they are enjoying their football again.
“Because of Ancelotti, there is a really positive feeling about the club. It is on a roll at the moment.”
Midseason-ish awards: Top players and unbelievable moments in a season like no other
The word “midseason” is almost useless this year in college football. Of the 127 teams endeavoring to play FBS football this fall, only 12 have played half of their intended schedule (13 if you include UMass having played its only scheduled game to this point), while another 50 have yet to get started.
Still, we are indeed at a sort of midpoint: seven weeks down, eight to go to before conference championship games. As the Big Ten and other conferences get underway, we might forget some of the odder moments of this, the oddest first half of a season ever. So let’s commemorate what has happened thus far as we look toward what happens next.
Things that actually happened in the first seven weeks of the season
K.J. Costello, Heisman front-runner. In Mike Leach’s first game as Mississippi State coach, Costello utterly torched LSU for 623 yards and five touchdowns on 60 passes in a 44-34 upset win. In the three games since, all losses, Costello has thrown 136 times for 644 yards, MSU’s offense has scored a total of 21 points, and Costello has gotten benched in favor of freshman Will Rogers. Oh yeah, and LSU also got torched for 586 yards and 45 points in a loss to Missouri.
Coastal Carolina and Central Arkansas, ESPN darlings. A thinner schedule of early-season games offered brand-building opportunities for smaller schools who could take advantage (and were willing to put up with obvious risks). Central Arkansas crafted an “anyone, anywhere” brand by setting up a 10-game schedule that included three FBS opponents, plus the season opener against Austin Peay and the Trey Lance Showcase Game against North Dakota State.
Coastal, meanwhile, has won twice on ESPN in prime time — against Campbell on a Friday night in mid-September and against Louisiana last Wednesday. The Chanticleers also cleaned Kansas’ clock on Fox Sports 1 and whipped Arkansas State on ESPN2, and they are unbeaten and ranked for the first time ever.
Tennessee held the longest winning streak in the country. At halftime in Week 6, the Volunteers were winners of eight games in a row — they hadn’t lost in nearly a full calendar year — and held a 21-17 lead over Georgia in Athens. In the six quarters that followed, they got outscored 61-7. Georgia surged past them, then they lost at home to Kentucky for the first time in 36 years.
The opponentless Houston Cougars. When the season is over, Houston will have played a run-of-the-mill nine games or so, with maybe a bowl game of some sort at the end as well. But never forget the utter ridiculousness the Coogs endured while trying to get on the field for the first time. Rice, Memphis, Baylor and North Texas all canceled or postponed. Houston finally kicked off on Oct. 8 against Tulane and almost immediately gave up a pair of defensive touchdowns before settling down and winning by 18.
The best teams of the first seven weeks
Preseason projections are part of my SP+ ratings for a reason: It makes them far more predictive. Priors are your friend, and I use them. But if I were deriving SP+ rankings only from what has happened so far in 2020, with no preseason assumptions of any kind, here’s your top 10:
5. Air Force
6. Oklahoma State
9. North Carolina
10. Notre Dame
Your top five offenses: Florida, Alabama, Virginia Tech, Memphis, BYU.
Your top five defenses: Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Marshall, Tulsa.
Like I said, that list probably wouldn’t make for great predictions going forward. But it’s a good way to commemorate just how incredibly some of these units have played to date.
Here’s whom I would vote for in all major college football awards if the ballots were due today, sprinkling in a few sleepers who deserve mentions.
Heisman/Maxwell/Walter Camp (best player)
Lawrence has done nothing to tamp down even an ounce of the “sure-fire No. 1 NFL draft pick” hype this fall. Meanwhile, all Jones has done is average nearly 400 passing yards per game with a nearly perfect Total QBR rating. It’s not too late for a player like Fields or Slovis to get involved in this race, but the bar is absurdly high.
Davey O’Brien (best quarterback)
1. Lawrence (Clemson)
2. Jones (Alabama)
3. Grayson McCall (Coastal Carolina)
Late-arriving threats: Fields, Slovis
I want to call attention to what McCall has done so far. In a pretty run-heavy offense, he’s completed 68% of his passes at 15.8 yards per completion, with a 197.0 passer rating for the unbeaten Chants. Oh yeah, and he’s a redshirt freshman.
Doak Walker (best running back)
1. Etienne (Clemson)
2. Khalil Herbert (Virginia Tech)
3. Tyler Allgeier (BYU)
Late-arriving threats: Trey Sermon (Ohio State), Journey Brown (Penn State), CJ Verdell (Oregon), [insert Wisconsin running back here] (Wisconsin), Jaret Patterson (Buffalo)
Etienne’s versatility has been downright unfair this season, and Herbert has been an unforeseen catalyst in Blacksburg, but the competition is about to get a lot stiffer. The Big Ten does not lack for backs.
Biletnikoff (best receiver)
1. Jaylen Waddle (Alabama)
2. Elijah Moore (Ole Miss)
3. Reggie Roberson Jr. (SMU)
Late-arriving threats: Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Rondale Moore (Purdue), Amon-Ra St. Brown (USC), Chris Olave (Ohio State), Khalil Shakir (Boise State)
Roberson’s inclusion, by the way, is a nod to another injury-shortened season. In his past 13 complete games, he’s caught 74 passes for 1,423 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he’s seen two consecutive seasons cut short.
Mackey (best tight end)
The tight end position is becoming a bigger position for innovation as offenses further try to create mismatches and take advantage of smaller, faster college football defenses. Pitts, Dykes and Yeboah have all enjoyed breakout performances, averaging nearly 100 yards and two touchdowns per game among them.
Outland (best interior lineman)
1. Ben Cleveland (Georgia)
2. Nico Ezidore (Texas State)
3. Clark Barrington (BYU)
Late-arriving threats: Wyatt Davis (Ohio State), Cole Van Lanen (Wisconsin), Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC), Nolan Laufenberg (Air Force)
I used three different criteria to choose my three nominees so far: the guy most impressive to my eyes (Cleveland), the most disruptive defensive tackle in the country so far (Ezidore has eight tackles for loss) and a guy on a great line who, per Sports Info Solutions data, hasn’t missed a block so far this season (Barrington).
Lawrence Taylor (best defensive end)
Yes, I’m making this award up, but yes, a Best DE award should exist by this point.
1. Patrick Jones II (Pitt)
2. Quincy Roche (Miami)
3. Victor Dimukeje (Duke)
Late-arriving threats: Kayvon Thibodeaux (Oregon), Aidan Hutchinson (Michigan), Shaka Toney (Penn State), Kwity Paye (Michigan)
The ACC has owned the edge rusher category so far this season — Pitt has two who could have made the top three. But we’ll see if Thibodeaux or a phalanx of Big Ten pass-rushers can crack the list.
Butkus (best linebacker)
1. Azeez Ojulari (Georgia)
2. Zaven Collins (Tulsa)
3. Max Richardson (Boston College)
Late-arriving threats: Hamilcar Rashed Jr. (Oregon State), Paddy Fisher (Northwestern), Devin Lloyd (Utah), James Patterson (Buffalo)
Ojulari is a stick of dynamite on every third down Georgia opponents face, and it feels as though Collins was in the backfield on every play of both games Tulsa has played so far.
Thorpe (best defensive back)
1. Patrick Surtain II (Alabama)
2. Eric Stokes (Georgia)
3. Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State)
Late-arriving threats: Elijah Molden (Washington), Tiawan Mullen (Indiana), Mykael Wright (Oregon), Jalen Walker (Boise State)
Whatever problems Alabama’s defense has, Surtain isn’t the cause of them. The bar is high here, but while Washington lost prime defensive talent to opt-outs, Molden’s return gives the Huskies heft in pass defense.
Bednarik/Bronko Nagurski (best defensive player)
Late-arriving threats: Thibodeaux, Hutchinson, Molden
Despite what Alabama did to Georgia’s defense, the Dawgs likely have the top D in the country. Therefore a Dawg gets to lead the way.
Meanwhile, I’m realizing that I didn’t list a single Clemson defender above even though the Tigers probably have by far the second-best D. That says a little bit about the by-committee approach they’ve gotten to employ in blowouts this season and a little about their utterly absurd depth. They are terrifying, and I couldn’t pick out their top defender if you made me.
Groza (best place-kicker)
We live in boom times for kickers, friends. Amid all the special-teams disasters, we’ve already seen five field goals of 54-plus yards sail through the uprights, including one each from the three I listed above.
Ray Guy (best punter)
We must be in boom times for punters, too, because two guys have outpaced Kentucky’s cannon-legged Duffy so far. Camarda is averaging an unreal 50.7 yards per kick.
Paul Hornung (most versatile player)
You might as well call this the Kenny Gainwell Award because I leaned on a very specific player type for this one: running backs who are scary as hell catching the ball. Along with tight ends, these types of players are a bit of a matchups cheat code at the moment.
Coach of the year
1. Kalani Sitake (BYU)
2. Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech)
3. Luke Fickell (Cincinnati)
After a disappointing 7-6 record last season, Sitake’s Cougars have been on an outright rampage in 2020, while Fuente’s Hokies are 3-1 despite massive issues with positive coronavirus tests that have hit even the quarterback position.
Broyles (best assistant coach)
1. Barry Odom (Arkansas)
2. Steve Sarkisian (Alabama)
3. Marcus Freeman (Cincinnati)
As I referenced on Sunday, SP+ isn’t as high on Arkansas as one might have expected so far — it’s hard to thrive long term on forcing perfectly timed turnovers and making fourth-down stops. But after averaging a defensive SP+ ranking of 73rd over the past five years, Odom’s Hogs are nearly in the top 50 already. That says something, as does the extreme buy-in you see from every player on that Arkansas two-deep. He deserves all the praise he’s gotten so far.
Closing thoughts on Alabama-Georgia
After writing what felt like one million words on it last week, I figured I should circle back and share some postgame thoughts on what was, rankingswise, the biggest game of the season to date: Alabama’s 41-24 victory over Georgia on Saturday.
1. Mac rediscovered his footwork
Sixty minutes is a long time, and not only because a 60-minute college football game commonly lasts 3½ hours or more. It offers good coaches plenty of times to make adjustments, and it gives important players plenty of time to either find, or lose, the plot.
Stetson Bennett‘s last touchdown pass of the evening, a 5-yard strike to Jermaine Burton with 23 seconds left in the first half to give Georgia a 24-17 lead, came with some red flags. He had already sailed three poor passes on the drive, but he had made up for it with a huge third-and-7 completion to George Pickens and the third-and-goal strike to Burton. He had begun to falter in the moment, but it appeared he had gathered himself.
At the moment Burton came down with the ball, Georgia led, and Bennett’s stat line was quite comparable to that of Alabama’s Mac Jones.
Passing stats, first 29:37 of the game:
Bennett: 12-for-20 for 165 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and one sack
Jones: 13-for-17 for 184 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and two sacks
Adjusted net yards per pass (ANY/A, which includes sacks, plus a 20-yard bonus for touchdowns and a 45-yard penalty for interceptions): Bennett 7.0, Jones 7.0
Then came the rest of the game.
Passing stats, last 30:23:
Bennett: 6-for-20 for 104 yards, two interceptions and a sack
Jones: 9-for-13 for 206 yards, two touchdowns and a sack
ANY/A: Jones 17.1, Bennett 0.6
Jones was spooked and harried by Georgia’s pass rush early in the game. Anytime the pocket began to crumble a bit around him, he lost his footwork and rushed throws. He was still able to complete passes because he’s got a very good arm and even better receivers, but he wasn’t stepping confidently into passes, especially on third down. But he completed a couple of passes to get Alabama into field goal range at the end of the first half, then ignited in the second, just as Bennett was falling out of sorts on the other side of the ball. You could say that after a bit of a delay, Jones met the moment, while the moment met Bennett.
2. Kirby Smart has one hell of a decision to make now
Bennett was never supposed to be Georgia’s starting quarterback this season. First, it appeared it would be Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman, who ended up opting out for the season instead. Then we assumed it would be USC transfer JT Daniels, but he wasn’t cleared to play right away after a knee injury. In their absence, the job went to redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis, who was a deer in headlights in the first half against Arkansas. Bennett, the walk-on turned junior college prospect turned starter, came in for Mathis and did what was asked of him with minimal mistakes.
In the marquee game of the young season, however, the mistakes came. He threw three picks and took two sacks, and while this obviously wasn’t all Bennett’s fault, Georgia was shut out in the second half of the game.
Bulldogs coach Smart now has to deal with the ultimate “ceiling vs. floor” debate. Against teams worse than Alabama, Bennett was able to come in and play pretty straightforward ball and, with help from an awesome special-teams unit, make sure to give an awesome defense good field position. He could continue to do that the rest of the season — Florida is the only remaining opponent in the SP+ top 20, and he could easily lead Georgia to a 9-1 record. But Bama would likely await in the SEC championship game, and there’s no real reason to think that Bennett will fare any better the second time. We might be just about done with the days of game-manager level quarterbacks leading teams to a national title, and Smart might have to take a risk on a higher-ceiling, lower-floor player, be it Daniels or Mathis (probably Daniels), if he wants to get from 9-1 to 10-1 and reach the College Football Playoff.
Projecting the Mountain West
My 2020 college football series will finally come to an end this week with previews of the Big Ten East and West divisions, but that’s not the only conference making its season debut this weekend. Out West, the Mountain West also gets rolling with six games on Saturday evening: three kicking off between 7 and 8 p.m. ET and another three between 9 and 10:30. I wrote a pair of MWC previews a decade ago in April — West division, Mountain division — and while obviously the information in there is a bit outdated (among other things, there won’t be divisional champions, and the conference title game will pit the two teams with the best conference records), I wanted to at least share updated SP+ projections before things got started.
A quick note: While each team has eight games scheduled, not every team has eight conference games. Boise State and San Diego State both play BYU, while Air Force has already played Navy and will also play Army. It’s weird, I know. But you can get a pretty clear idea of the pecking order from simply using average projected wins, and that’s what I’m going to do.
SP+ No. 35 Boise State: 6.0 average wins (34% chance of finishing with 0-1 losses)
No. 59 Air Force: 5.3 (15%)
No. 75 San Diego State: 4.7 (7%)
No. 83 Colorado State: 4.3 (4%)
No. 103 Fresno State: 4.2 (5%)
No. 90 Wyoming: 4.2 (4%)
No. 98 Hawai’i: 4.1 (3%)
No. 107 Nevada: 3.9 (3%)
No. 106 San Jose State: 3.6 (1%)
No. 104 Utah State: 3.4 (1%)
No. 122 New Mexico: 2.2 (0%)
No. 123 UNLV: 1.9 (0%)
Boise State is a clear favorite to reach the title game, while Air Force appears to have a leg up on the field for the second spot. But if either team slips, there’s a humongous crowd of teams waiting to pounce.
Ultimate World Series viewers guide: What you need to know about Dodgers-Rays
I’m ready. Ready for Mookie Betts to play right field. Ready for Tyler Glasnow‘s fastball. Ready for Corey Seager‘s swing and Willy Adames‘ glove and Dustin May‘s hair and Ji-Man Choi‘s smile. Yes, ready for another trip with Clayton Kershaw in the World Series pressure cooker. We made it through the shortened season, through the controversial 16-team playoff bracket, through a losing — and controversial — team nearly making it here.
It’s going to be the strangest of World Series in one way: the first neutral site World Series, to be played at the Texas Rangers‘ new Globe Life Field. It is still the World Series, however, and we will have fans in stands. And after everything that has happened since March, we ended up with the two best teams in baseball playing for October glory. In fact, for only fourth time in the wild-card era (since 1995), the teams with the best record in each league will meet in the World Series.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are back for the third time in four seasons, the first team to do that since the New York Yankees in 2000, 2001 and 2003. It’s the 63rd instance in major league history that a team has reached three World Series in a four-year span — most of those overlapping Yankees teams — and only two teams among the group did not a win a World Series, the 1907-09 Tigers and 1911-13 Giants. The Dodgers will be the heavy favorite, but a few days ago, they were all but dead before rallying from a 3-1 National League Championship Series deficit to beat a tough Atlanta Braves team. Maybe that will ease the burden of expectations. It’s almost like free baseball.
The Tampa Bay Rays are back for the second time in franchise history and the first time since 2008. They opened the season ranking 28th in the majors in payroll. The only team to reach the World Series since 1998 with a lower ranking? The 2008 Rays. They are a team seemingly without stars playing a team full of them. The Dodgers traded for Betts in the offseason; the Rays traded for an obscure rookie outfielder from the St. Louis Cardinals named Randy Arozarena. The Dodgers’ NLCS roster included 12 players who have been All-Stars in their careers, for a total of 26 appearances. The Rays’ roster features four All-Stars with five appearances.
First to four wins takes home the trophy. Here’s a guide to the 2020 World Series:
What the Rays have on the line: The first World Series victory in franchise history and proof that a small-market team with a small payroll can overcome not only the mighty and rich Yankees and Boston Red Sox in their division (not to mention New York in the playoffs) but the best of the National League, as well. It is the ultimate reward for the franchise that kicked off the modern analytics movement — the Rays were an early adopter of the shift, for example — and it has baseball’s fifth-best overall record since 2008.
What the Dodgers have on the line: They have won eight straight division titles. They won 104 games in 2017, 106 games in 2019 and more than 70% of their games this regular season, with the shortened schedule perhaps denying them the opportunity to chase down the 2001 Seattle Mariners‘ and 1906 Chicago Cubs‘ record of 116 victories. They remain without a title, however, and this great era of Dodgers baseball will leave fans with an empty feeling unless L.A. wins a World Series.
And given everything about this season, getting here was not easy. “2017 happened, 2018 happened, we fell short. Now we are back,” Dodgers infielder Enrique Hernandez said. “The past is in the past. This one feels super special because it is in front of us and it is happening. I am not going to take anything away from the other two, but this one is extremely special; we were able to stay COVID-free throughout the whole season.
“We took care of business in the regular season, we took care of business against the Brewers, we took care of business against the Padres, we took care of business against the Braves. It was a little harder than we thought it was going to be, but I am glad we pulled it off. Being down 3-1 then coming back and winning in seven games, it’s something that I will never forget. It is special for sure.”
Player with the most on the line: We all know Kershaw’s story. He is one of the best pitchers of all time, 175-76 in the regular season, with a 2.43 ERA, three Cy Young Awards and five ERA titles. He is going to be in the Hall of Fame. In the postseason, however, he is 11-12 with a 4.31 ERA. In two World Series, he is 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA. He has had too many crushing moments along the way. At this point in his career, greatness is no longer expected or even required for the Dodgers to win. Just pitch well enough and win that ring.
Who is Randy Arozarena? The 25-year-old rookie outfielder for the Rays is the hottest hitter on the planet. Acquired from the Cardinals in the offseason, he missed the start of the season after a positive COVID-19 test, debuted on Aug. 30 and hit seven home runs in September, and he is now having a breakout postseason. In 14 games, he is hitting .382/.433/.855 with seven home runs and 14 runs scored. He is just the fourth player with at least seven homers in the postseason before the World Series, matching Daniel Murphy of the 2015 New York Mets and B.J. Upton of the 2008 Rays, and one short of Carlos Beltran’s eight for the 2004 Houston Astros. True, Arozarena had an extra round, but he didn’t hit any home runs the Wild Card Series against the Blue Jays. He homered three times against the Yankees in the American League Division Series and four times against the Astros in the AL Championship Series. His 47 total bases are already tied for second most in a single postseason, behind the 50 David Freese had for the 2011 Cardinals, the year he won MVP honors in both the NLCS and World Series.
“I think what Randy did was pretty miraculous,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said after the ALCS.
That almost feels like an understatement, especially when considering the rest of the Rays hit .183 in the series. Born in Cuba, Arozarena left the country five years ago on a small boat, landing in Mexico after an eight-hour ride across choppy waters. He found his way to the developmental academy of the Toros de Tijuana club, where he had to share cleats and batting gloves with another prospect. The Cardinals spotted him playing for the Toros’ version of a minor league team and signed him in 2016. He made his major league debut with the Cards in 2019.
“Everybody is just in awe every time he steps into the box,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said.
Arozarena has hardly been a one-trick pony. For a young player, he has done a pretty good job of controlling the strike zone (although he doesn’t walk much). Five of his seven postseason home runs have come on fastballs, a testament to his bat speed, but he also has hit one off a slider and one off a curveball. Three came with two strikes. Four have gone to right-center and one to right, so he has displayed power to all fields. For what it’s worth, both Murphy and Upton went homerless in the World Series. (Beltran’s Astros failed to get there.)
Arozarena is the surprise, but here are five others who will play key roles:
Mookie Betts: With spectacular catches in Games 5, 6 and 7 of the NLCS, he cemented his legacy as one of the greatest defensive right fielders of all time. In fact, as good as the Dodgers are on offense, and as deep as the pitching staff is, their defense raises them to another level. They ranked second in the majors in defensive runs saved at plus-29 — and the Rays were fifth at plus-24. We should see plenty of great defense in this series.
Cody Bellinger: The 2019 NL MVP has struggled in the postseason in his career, but maybe his game-winning home run in Game 7 will spur him on to a big series. He is hitting .196 in 48 career playoff games but .250/.365/.545 this postseason.
Kenley Jansen: The longtime Dodgers closer was pretty solid in the regular season, but after a shaky appearance against the Padres in which his velocity was way down, manager Dave Roberts said Jansen was no longer an automatic call for the ninth inning. Indeed, he got demoted to mop-up duty in the 15-3 drubbing of Atlanta in Game 3 of the NLCS. But he was much sharper in Games 5 and 6, with two straight 1-2-3 appearances — although Roberts stuck with Julio Urias for the final three innings of Game 7. At some point, Jansen will likely have to close out a closer Dodgers lead.
Tyler Glasnow: He is going to get the ball in Game 1 for the Rays and is capable of dominating with his upper 90s heater and wipeout curveball. He does give up some home runs (six in 19⅓ innings in the postseason) and, oh, the Dodgers led the majors in home runs in the regular season and just tied a single-series playoff record with 16 homers.
Peter Fairbanks: Nick Anderson is the Rays’ most dominant reliever, but Cash has used him at any point in the game when a critical situation develops (and usually against the meat of the opponent’s order). So while Anderson has one save in the postseason and Diego Castillo has two, Fairbanks leads with three — after the rookie didn’t have one in the regular season. Fairbanks throws 100 mph with a funky over-the-top delivery, and the Rays picked him up last year from the Rangers after he had two Tommy John surgeries. Now he is closing out playoff games. Baseball is ridiculous.
Mark Texeira and Tim Kurkjian weigh in on the 2020 World Series matchup between the Rays and Dodgers.
Don’t expect any pitchers’ duels: We might see some low-scoring games, but don’t look for games in which both starting pitchers go deep into the game. Of the 47 postseason games played before the World Series, only four times did both starters pitch at least six innings. Only twice did a starter go more than seven innings — Kershaw and Trevor Bauer, both in the wild-card round when they were spinning shutouts.
The Rays, in particular, have a short leash with their starters. In their 14 games, Glasnow’s two six-inning outings were the longest. Only Blake Snell, with a 105-pitch, five-inning effort in the ALCS, topped 100 pitches. Given the quality and depth of both bullpens, expect quick hooks, even if the starter has pitched five strong innings. In other words, it will be a different style of play than last year’s World Series, when seven of the 14 starters went at least six innings and half went 100-plus pitches, as well.
Mr. Clutch: Charlie Morton — the rare free-agent signing for the Rays when he agreed to a two-year, $30 million contract before the 2019 season (with a 2021 option) — was the winning pitcher in Tampa Bay’s Game 7 of the ALCS, making him the first pitcher with three Game 7 wins in major league history. Morton also was the winning pitcher in the 2017 ALCS with the Astros (five scoreless innings) and the 2017 World Series (one run in four innings of relief). Toss in the 5⅔ scoreless innings against the Astros and that’s a 0.46 ERA in his Game 7 appearances. Guess how the Tampa Bay rotation likely lines up:
Game 1: Glasnow
Game 2: Snell
Game 3: Morton
Game 4: Ryan Yarbrough
Game 5: Glasnow
Game 6: Snell
Game 7: Morton
Morton finished third in the 2019 AL Cy Young voting, but Zunino said his Game 7 performance against the Astros was particularly noteworthy.
“This is the best I’ve seen Charlie in the time I’ve been able to catch him the past two years,” he said. “Had everything working, had a great mix. It was the game plan to keep a four-pitch mix. … The knowledge he brings with what he wants to accomplish. Seeing him do that on the biggest stage is a lot of fun.”
The Rays know if the series goes the distance they will have the right guy on the mound in Game 7.
Who do the Dodgers start? The Dodgers have five starting pitching options, with Kershaw lined up for Game 1. After that, it gets a little murky, although Roberts has five good starters. Urias threw 39 pitches in Game 7 of the NLCS (on three days’ rest). Tony Gonsolin pitched two innings and 41 pitches. May actually started Games 5 and 7, throwing 55 and then 18 pitches. Walker Buehler started Game 6 on Saturday, so if he started Game 2 on Wednesday, it would be on short rest. It’s an intriguing decision. If the Dodgers start Buehler on short rest, they can then get him and Urias two starts apiece in the series, with a rotation like this:
Game 1: Kershaw
Game 2: Buehler (short rest)
Game 3: Urias
Game 4: May/Gonsolin
Game 5: Kershaw
Game 6: Buehler
Game 7: Urias
Roberts also could turn Game 2 into a May/Gonsolin bullpen game, start Buehler in Game 3 with five days’ rest, push Kershaw back to Game 6 for an extra two days’ rest and have Urias available in relief in Game 7 like he was in the NLCS, with a rotation like this:
Game 1: Kershaw
Game 2: May/Gonsolin/bullpen game
Game 3: Buehler
Game 4: Urias
Game 5: May/Gonsolin/bullpen game
Game 6: Kershaw
Game 7: Buehler
The ballpark: So, it’s hard to call Globe Life Field a pitchers’ park after the Dodgers and Braves just combined for 25 home runs in seven games, but it is a big park, especially to the power alley in right-center. It certainly played as a tough home run park in the regular season, so that could be a key element.
This is especially true for the Rays, who don’t have the offensive depth of the Dodgers and have relied so much on the home run so far in the playoffs — 71.9% of their runs have come via the long ball (compared to just 41% in the regular season). The Rays just don’t have a long-sequence offense, and they led the majors in strikeouts, so they need to win low-scoring games in which they hit home runs. If the park takes some of that power away, it could be a short series.
Jets still attracting Super Bowl bets … seriously
Money on the New York Jets to win the Super Bowl showed up last week at Las Vegas sportsbooks.
Petite in size, the sincerity behind these bets is questionable. They seem more like tricks than treats, and don’t have the hallmarks of a well-thought-out investment.
Plus the winless Jets just aren’t very good.
Still, last Tuesday at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, a customer parted ways with $40 for a ticket on the Jets to win the Super Bowl at 5,000-1 odds. Around the same time, across town, a pair of single-figure Super Bowl bets on the Jets were placed with MGM books — one for $5 and the other for $2, each at 1,000-1 odds.
Not every bet on the Jets this year has been tiny, though. Prior to the season, the SuperBook took a $500 bet on the Jets to win the Super Bowl at 200-1, and MGM counts three $100 bets on the Jets in its Super Bowl portfolio.
Despite last week’s support, the Jets remain at the bottom of the betting market. They have attracted the fewest bets and the least amount of money in MGM’s odds to win the Super Bowl, and they’re putting bookmakers in an unenviable position every week.
At DraftKings the Jets attracted barely 10% of the money bet on the point spread before their 24-0 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday.
“Every week, it’s the same thing,” Jeff Stoneback, director of race and sport for MGM in Nevada, said. “Unfortunately, we’re rooting for the Jets.”
The Jets are 0-6, and have yet to even cover the spread in a game. Furthermore, they’ve failed to cover the spread by an average of 11.3 points per game, by far the worst mark in the league.
Expectations of an 0-16 campaign are building. After a Thursday night loss to the Broncos in Week 4, bookmaker William Hill U.S. posted a proposition on “Will the Jets go 0-16?” The “Yes” opened at +1,500. The price was down to +600 ahead of Sunday’s game against the Dolphins. The action on the prop has been minimal, but 98% of the bets and 98% of the money is on “Yes.”
The Jets will host the Bills this coming week, before traveling to face the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs on Nov. 1.
While we look forward to that showdown, here is this week’s edition of Notable Bets, our look at the betting action around the U.S.:
• Multiple sportsbooks said this Sunday was the best of the NFL season so far for the house. “The only significant loss we had was Bears-Panthers,” Stoneback said. “Patriots getting beat was a big one for us. Eagles covering against the Ravens and Falcons winning were also good.”
• “Best Sunday of the year to date,” John Murray, executive director at the Westgate SuperBook, told ESPN, pointing to the Broncos’ outright upset of the Patriots as the best result of the day for the book.
• Bettors had more success at DraftKings, which reported two giant winning parlays that cost the sportsbook $2.3 million.
One was a $2 million two-leg, money-line parlay featuring the Lions (-159) and Dolphins (-385). The Lions beat the Jaguars 34-16, and the Dolphins routed the Jets, netting the big bettor a $2.1 million profit.
The other was a $75,000 three-leg parlay on the Ravens money line, the Dolphins money line and the Steelers -3. The Ravens held off the Eagles 30-28, and the Steelers easily covered the spread in a 38-7 win over the Browns. The parlay paid $221,951.55.
On Sunday afternoon, as it became apparent that both parlay bets would hit, Johnny Avello, DraftKings sportsbook director, said his shop was “stuck a little.”
“It’s a huge bet, and, yeah, it’s nice to be in a lot of stats and have a lot of volume,” Avello told ESPN.
• John Sheeran, sportsbook director for FanDuel, said the Buccaneers’ upset of the Packers was bad for his shop but didn’t have many complaints on what he described as a “really good day” for the house.
• Bears rookie tight end Cole Kmet scored the first touchdown in Sunday’s game against the Panthers. Kmet was 100-1 to score the first TD at DraftKings, which reported taking a $100 bet on Kmet. The bettor won a net $10,000.
FanDuel had Kmet listed at 50-1 and reported taking a $200 bet at those odds.
• For the third straight week, more money was bet on college football at the Borgata than was bet on the NFL. “It’s never happened here prior to three weeks ago,” Tom Gable, sportsbook director at the Borgata, told ESPN. “The volume for NFL isn’t down, it’s just that much of an increase on college football that is causing it.”
• There were more bets placed and more money wagered on the Georgia-Alabama game on Saturday than any other college football game so far this season at DraftKings.
• Midway through the second quarter, with Georgia leading 17-10, a bettor on DraftKings placed an $881,600 wager on the Bulldogs on an alternate point spread of +7.5 (-139) odds. Alabama came back and won 41-24.
• Alabama closed as a consensus 6-point favorite. It was the 71st consecutive game in which the Crimson Tide were the betting favorite, the second-longest such streak in modern college football history. Alabama also owns the longest streak, at 72 games. Barring a significant event, the Crimson Tide will break that record on Oct. 31 against Mississippi State.
• The line dropped from -6 to as low as -4 after it was revealed Wednesday that Alabama coach Nick Saban had tested positive for the coronavirus. Sportsbook PointsBet reported taking money from sharp bettors on the Crimson Tide -4, and the line began to grow late in the week. Saban eventually was cleared to coach on the sideline.
Ed Salmons, veteran oddsmaker at the SuperBook, said in his opinion Saban was worth “zero” to the point spread, but the betting market thought otherwise.
“One of the guys who does move lines laid [Alabama] five yesterday, early in the morning,” Salmons told ESPN.
• Salmons estimated the Georgia-Alabama handle was five times greater than how much was bet on either the ALCS or NLCS baseball games on Saturday at his book.
• The Georgia-Alabama total opened at 49.5 at Circa Sports, the first Las Vegas sportsbook to post weekly college football numbers. It climbed to 58.5 during the week and closed around 58 at most shops.
• The largest bet FanDuel took on the Georgia-Alabama game was $64,000 on under 56.5 — it lost.
• Salmons said he has Alabama and Clemson power-rated as essentially the same teams, with Ohio State a point less because the Buckeyes have not played yet this season.
Other college football notes
• Clemson opened as a 45-point favorite over Syracuse at Las Vegas sportsbook Circa. At -45, it’s the largest point spread in an ACC game since Florida State was a 48-point favorite over Wake Forest in 2000.
• Other notable opening lines via Circa on Sunday:
Illinois at Wisconsin (-21, 59.5)
Notre Dame (-8, 48.5) at Pittsburgh
Penn State (-9, 57.5) at Indiana
Nebraska at Ohio State (-23, 71.5)
South Carolina at LSU (-7, 54.5)
Michigan (-2, 56.5) at Minnesota
• Most bets to win the national championship at the SuperBook:
2. Ohio State
Odds and ends
• New Jersey sportsbooks took $748.6 million in bets in September, the most in any month since the state launched its legal sports betting market in June 2018. New Jersey books won a net $45.1 million, $5.8 million of it on September football games.
The hold percentage on football — the portion of the total amount bet that the books keep — is a slim 3.4% for the year. In comparison, Nevada sportsbooks’ football hold has hovered around 5.5%.
• BetOnline.ag, a sportsbook based in Panama that is popular with American bettors but not licensed in the U.S., was taken offline by a reported ransomware attack that began last week and lasted through most of the weekend. “Valued customers, we are offline due to an aggressive cyber attack,” the company wrote on its Twitter feed Friday afternoon. “We’re taking every measure to resolve the issue and we will be fully operational again as soon as possible.”
Three questions …
(With Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling — the first installment of what will be a weekly Q&A with a prominent member of the sports betting industry)
Q: It’s been two and a half years since regulated sports betting began to spread across the U.S. What grade would you give the growing industry’s approach to responsible gaming, and why?
Whyte: An A for talking about responsible gambling but a C for effort. Far too many companies still only pay lip service to responsible gambling. The real problem is at the state level, where roughly half the states who legalized sports betting since May 2018 did not provide a single cent of their new sports betting tax revenue to prevent or treat gambling problems. And it’s hard for any gambling company to truly provide “responsible gambling” when the state government doesn’t provide any help for people who suffer from this often devastating disorder.
Q: Have you seen any indications of an increase in bettors who seek help and identify sports betting as their primary form of gambling?
Whyte: While calls, texts and chats to our National Problem Gambling Helpline are increasing, it’s still probably too soon for most new sports gambling problems to surface. People with gambling problems often persist in playing because they tell themselves they are “one bet away” from winning everything back.
Q: What would you like to see in terms of content from media outlets, many of which — including ESPN — have partnered with sports betting operators?
Whyte: There is a great opportunity for sports media and sports betting companies to help promote responsible gambling as part of the brand in a positive, even fun way. Avoid glamorizing gambling as a good way to make money, since most bettors will lose more than they win over time. And most importantly, promote that hope and help is available for problem gamblers and their families. You can call (800) 522-4700 or go to ncpgambling.org 24/7, it’s toll-free and confidential.
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