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Mega Bama-Georgia preview: A nearly perfect offense vs. a nearly perfect defense, and much more

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Because 2020 has to have an element of surreality at all times, the biggest game of the 2020 college football season to date will take place without the most successful active coach in the game. With Nick Saban testing positive for COVID-19, No. 2 Alabama’s battle with No. 3 Georgia on Saturday evening will pit his former right-hand man (UGA’s Kirby Smart) against his current right-hand man, offensive coordinator and acting Bama head coach Steve Sarkisian.

It will be titanic either way. After surviving a test from yet another former Saban assistant (Lane Kiffin) last week — Bama 63, Ole Miss 48 — Saban’s current team will face a Bulldogs squad that basically represents the Ghost of Bama’s Past. The Crimson Tide have the No. 1 offense in the country per SP+, and Smart’s Dawgs have the No. 1 defense.

We obviously don’t know where these teams will finish, but the teams with the best year-end offense and defense have played only six times in the past 70 years. The team with the best defense won five of six … the lone exception last year when Georgia lost to Joe Burrow and LSU in the 2019 SEC championship game.

Let’s walk through what makes these two top-ranked units so special and what might decide this massive football game.

2020 Georgia vs. 2011 Bama

Georgia finished an easy first in defensive SP+ last year, then returned almost all of last year’s two-deep in 2020. Among the 76 teams that have played so far, its defensive SP+ rating of 7.1 adjusted points per game is 8.3 points ahead of second-place Clemson. That’s about the same distance as what stands between Clemson’s and Florida State’s defenses.

It’s been 21 games since a team topped its full-season yards-per-play average against the Dawgs — thanks to All-American receiver Andy Isabella, UMass averaged 7.2 yards per play against UGA in 2018, when it averaged 6.4 per play for the season.

It’s been 25 games since someone topped Georgia’s season scoring average — LSU averaged 32.4 points per game in 2018 and scored 36 on UGA. In the span since these games, only two teams have averaged more than 5.5 yards per play on the Dawgs, and only one has topped 21 points.

Over the past 10 years, only 2011 Alabama and 2017 Alabama top Georgia’s current defensive SP+ rating. Smart, of course, was the defensive coordinator for that 2011 unit, and it remains the gold standard for what Smart wants to accomplish.

The Tide that year ranked not only first in success rate, but first in every primary iteration of success rate (rushing, passing, standard downs and passing downs), and they did so without a ton of disruption — they were 107th in sack rate and 61st in passing downs sack rate. They could play the pressure card when they wanted, but they didn’t need to; they simply let you declare what you were doing, swarmed to the ball with alarming speed and dogpiled 245-pound tacklers on top of the guy with the ball. We always think of high-tempo offenses as exhausting for opposing defenses, but Bama was exhausting for offenses. The Tide knocked your wind out on every play, and because they weren’t overcommitting to invading the backfield, and they were smart and fast as hell, they didn’t allow big plays, either. Their finishing move wasn’t a flying elbow drop; it was a bear hug.

In part because it has played two SP+ top-25 teams in three games (No. 14 Auburn, No. 24 Tennessee), Georgia’s raw stats aren’t quite as dominant after three games. The Dawgs are merely second in success rate (behind an Air Force team that has played one game) — fourth against the run and pass, third on standard downs, ninth on passing downs. Like 2011 Bama, though, they are a distant first in yards allowed per drive, and they don’t allow big plays: They’ve allowed just two gains of 30-plus yards in three games. Only Baylor (none in two) has averaged fewer.

Like Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and company nine years ago, Georgia’s linebackers swarm with abandon. Azeez Ojulari (6-foot-3, 240) has been involved in a tackle on 16% of his snaps so far, Monty Rice (6-1, 235) 14%, Quay Walker (6-4, 240) 14% and Nolan Smith (6-3, 235) 14%. And with Ojulari leading the way, they can also ramp up the pressure when they need to. They sacked Tennessee’s poor Jarrett Guarantano five times, and they rank third overall in pressure rate.

Down 21-17 to Tennessee at the half, thanks to a fumble recovery score and a short-field touchdown drive, Georgia’s linebackers completely changed the game. Ojulari sacked and stripped Guarantano on the opening drive of the second half, then recovered the fumble to boot. After Georgia’s offense settled for a field goal, a heavily pressured Guarantano threw a foolish pass, which corner Eric Stokes picked off. Ojulari forced another Guarantano fumble later in the quarter, and after allowing 143 yards in the first half, the Dawgs allowed a paltry 71 in the second.

ESPN Daily podcast: Connelly joins the show to talk everything Alabama-Georgia.

What scoring drives against Georgia look like

In three games, Georgia has allowed six scoring drives: three touchdowns and three field goals. (Tennessee scored a defensive touchdown early in last Saturday’s game, as well.)

  • Two of those drives began with great field position — one Arkansas drive began at midfield, and Tennessee’s first TD drive last week began at the Georgia 36 after a turnover on downs.

  • Within these drives were four 15-yard Georgia penalties — two pass interference flags and two personal fouls (including one, strangely enough, on George Pickens, an offensive player).

  • These six drives also included nearly half of all third-down conversions Georgia has allowed this year — opponents converted six third downs in these drives and seven in all other possessions.

Basically, you need Georgia’s help to score, either via good field position or penalty. And if or when the Dawgs are benevolent enough to allow you to convert a third down, you absolutely, positively must turn that into points. They aren’t going to be that generous very often.

Mac vs. Tua (and present Bama vs. past Bama)

Saban has had plenty of good offenses through the years; between 2010 and 2014, his Crimson Tide ranked in the top 10 in offensive SP+ four times, and they haven’t ranked outside of the top 25 since 2007, his first year in Tuscaloosa.

With Tua Tagovailoa taking control of the offense in 2018, however, the Tide rose to second. They remained second in 2019 despite Tagovailoa’s midseason injury and are currently first in 2020. After ranking higher on offense than defense, per SP+, only once in Saban’s first 11 seasons, they’re well on their way to doing so for a third consecutive year.

Despite a total lack of nonconference warm-up games, quarterback Mac Jones‘ stats are absurd: 80% completion rate, 16.7 yards per completion, only one interception and two sacks in over 100 dropbacks, and a Total QBR that ranks second in the country.

Jones never seemed to get the credit he deserved for his performance last fall. He started four games in place of the injured Tagovailoa and produced stats that were directly in line with what Tagovailoa produced in 2018 as a first-time starter. He had a passer rating better than Burrow’s against Auburn and Ohio State’s Justin Fields‘ against Michigan.

Jones really made only two rookie-level mistakes last fall, but both were punished severely — he threw two pick-sixes against Auburn that potentially kept the Tide out of the College Football Playoff.

Many in both the recruiting and fan communities thought incoming blue-chipper Bryce Young had a good shot at overtaking Jones as starter, and while the coronavirus-related loss of spring practice likely cost Young any chance of that, Jones had shown no inkling of giving up his job, either. Compared to Tagovailoa, Jones threw more easy passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2019 and thrived on passes 11-plus yards downfield (18.3 yards per pass). He had a bit of a blind spot on the shorter, more timing-based passes, completing just 59% of throws between zero and 10 yards downfield with a 26.1 QBR.

The shorter passes are still a bit of a blind spot, especially when throwing to his right — a problem for a lot of right-handed QBs. But who needs intermediate throws when you’re hitting short passes for quick, easy yards (33% of Bama’s passes have been to or behind the line of scrimmage, seventh-most in the country) and you’re throwing the prettiest, most effective deep ball in the game? On passes 11-plus yards downfield, Jones is 26-for-36 for 760 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s downright unfair.

Also unfair: Stretching linebackers and safeties both horizontally and vertically has created all sorts of running lanes for Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr.

On what Sports Info Solutions defines as “inside rushes,” Alabama ranks a distant first in FBS in success rate (64%) and sixth in yards per carry (6.5). The 230-pound Harris has always been a load to bring down, and now he’s getting a running start — among running backs with at least 50 rushes, Harris is both eighth in yards per carry before contact (3.1) and third in yards per carry after contact (3.6). He’s never going to be the most explosive back in the world, but he was a man possessed last week against Ole Miss. With the Bama defense struggling to make stops and the Ole Miss defense wearing down, the Tide leaned on Harris. In the second half, he rushed 12 times for 160 yards and added a 24-yard reception.

Sarkisian has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, and he has called some perfect games so far. Alabama is first in points scored per drive, first in success rate (second in rushing, first in passing), fourth in marginal explosiveness (a measure of the magnitude of your successful plays, adjusted for field position), sixth in points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opponent’s 40 or touchdowns from outside the 40) and even fourth in sack rate.

What unsuccessful Bama drives look like

With Jones at quarterback, Alabama has gone scoreless on only seven drives in three games. One involved a fumble at the opponent’s 1-yard line.

Of the other six scoreless possessions, four were three-and-outs, squashed before momentum could build, and a fifth came from an interception thrown on third-and-10. Alabama’s long-ball ability has distracted us from the fact that the Tide can be pushed into third-and-long situations, especially at the beginning of a drive.

The Tide have gone three-and-out on 19% of their drives so far — not bad by any means, but 14th in FBS (as opposed to all those categories for which they’re in the top five), and 45% of their third downs have involved seven or more yards to go (23rd). This is what constitutes a weakness for such a great offense, but it’s one that Georgia could theoretically take advantage of.

What happens when a nearly perfect offense faces a nearly perfect defense?

Against Georgia’s top-ranked defense last year, LSU scored 37 points and averaged 6.5 yards per play. Those are excellent totals, but LSU averaged 48.4 points per game and 7.9 yards per play for the season — the Dawgs held the Tigers far below their otherworldly season averages, and they might have fared even better had the game state not gotten away from them.

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2:25

UGA head coach Kirby Smart commends Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris, and Alabama’s Nick Saban believes the Bulldogs are effective in all areas of the game.

Georgia had forced three-and-outs on two of LSU’s first four possessions, but the Bulldogs’ offense drove more than 21 yards only once in its first five drives, and the score was 14-0 LSU after the first quarter. Things snowballed in the second half as the Georgia defense was forced to take more risks, but it still performed better than almost anyone else against that devastating Tigers attack.

Here are the biggest questions I have regarding whether Bama’s amazing offense or Georgia’s amazing defense end up deriving more advantages:

1. Is Najee Harris gaining 2-3 yards or 4-5? One of the most telling things to watch early in any game is who is getting a push up front. We know Harris is excellent at generating yards after contact, but when is that contact showing up? At the line of scrimmage? A couple of yards downfield? Georgia’s defensive line has been immovable so far, but the Bama O-line is pretty fantastic, too. How Harris fares early might say a lot about how Bama fares late.

2a. What happens on third-and-long? The Bama offense stays on schedule well and starts bombing the ball downfield when it’s behind the chains. It has worked beautifully so far and should work against most of the teams on the schedule. But if any defense can prevent those vertical looks, both with the pressure it can create and with the talent it has in the secondary, it’s Georgia’s.

2b. What happens when Jones gets pressured? Despite waiting in the pocket to get receivers open deep, he hasn’t faced a ton of pressure this year, and while he also made some incredible throws under duress last season, by far his worst moment of 2019 was the goal line interception he threw against Auburn — he faced immediate pressure, made a panic throw to Harris (who wasn’t looking) and Zakoby McClain plucked it off of Harris’ back and took it the length of the field for a TD. Tennessee’s Guarantano looked pretty good until Ojulari and company got a hold of him last week. Does Jones make a few bad decisions? Does Georgia punish him for them?

3. What do we know about Will Reichard? Alabama’s place kicker hasn’t been asked to do much yet. He has made all 21 of his PAT attempts, but he has tried only two garbage-time field goals (a 34-yarder against Missouri and a 27-yarder against Texas A&M), and he was just 4-for-7 on FG tries last year. Place-kicking mishaps have beset Saban’s Tide on many occasions through the years, even in 2017’s national title game against Georgia — Andy Pappanastos missed a 36-yarder at the buzzer, which sent the game to OT and set the table for Tua-to-DeVonta. It’s fair to assume Georgia will stop a few scoring chances short of the end zone, and it’s fair to wonder if Reichard is ready for a moment that has tripped up many a Bama kicker.

What did Ole Miss do to Bama (and how much of it can Georgia do)?

Just about the sexiest matchup in college football will take place whenever Alabama has the ball, but Georgia’s obviously going to have half of the game’s possessions as well, and the Bulldogs are taking on a defense that is coming off maybe the worst game of Saban’s head-coaching career.

Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss offense put up 689 yards and 48 points on the Crimson Tide, numbers that could have been even worse if not for a couple of late red zone stops. Matt Corral threw for 365 yards on 28 passes — the performance placed him atop the Total QBR list, just ahead of Jones — and Snoop Conner and Jerrion Ealy rushed 40 times for 248 yards and four scores.

Having to survive at least one crazy track meet is becoming part of a national champion’s journey at this point, but while Alabama’s defense was first in defensive SP+ six times in nine years between 2009 and ’17, it’s an awfully mortal 22nd right now. The Tide were occasionally vulnerable against both Texas A&M and Missouri, but the defense was so definitively beaten last week that it’s worth exploring what Ole Miss did that was so devastating … and how much of it Georgia can imitate.

The offense Kiffin and Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby currently field is a wicked combination of Kiffin’s own pass principles, UCF-level tempo (Lebby was UCF’s offensive coordinator before going to Oxford), and the extreme spread principles Lebby learned from the Art Briles coaching tree. In Corral, they have a rifle-armed former blue-chipper who can quickly wing the ball from sideline to sideline, and they smartly offer a lot of motion, eye candy and screens that force defenses to mind every inch of the field and open up large spaces into which receivers can run.

Ignoring the assertions of Ole Miss knowing Bama’s signals and whatnot, it’s fair to assume the Rebels have one of the best and most dynamic offenses in the country and that, even in Bama’s vulnerable state, most teams won’t be able to do Ole Miss-level damage. But new Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken has done some interesting things to open up the space over the middle that Corral bludgeoned Bama with last week.

Matt Corral’s pass plot against Alabama:

The middle of the field is an area ripe for run-after-catch opportunities, and with Alabama stretched thin and having to mind so many different options, Corral completed 10 passes downfield and between the hash marks; four of them produced at least 11 yards after catch, and two produced 40-plus.

Georgia has still shown a similar preference to manipulate the middle of the field, as discussed by Richard Johnson and Brandon Boykin on the SEC Network’s “Thinking Out Loud.”

The Dawgs do not tend to spread defenses out formationally like Kiffin and Lebby do, UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett doesn’t have Corral’s rocket-powered arm and Smart definitely doesn’t endorse Lebby-level tempo. You still see plenty of Smart’s defense-first tendencies when it comes to run rates (Georgia runs about 3 percentage points more than the national average on standard downs, five on passing downs) and the occasional third-and-long draw play. One figures the main thing Smart likes about Bennett — a former walk-on who has taken control of the job over former blue-chippers JT Daniels and D’Wan Mathis — is not his play-making ability so much as his ability to avoid screwups. Smart is infinitely more risk-averse than Kiffin, and when you’ve got the defense he has, that makes sense. Bama should be able to crowd the box more than it could against Ole Miss.

If that space over the middle of the field becomes available, however, Georgia will try to take advantage.

Stetson Bennett’s 2020 pass plot:

Among the 11 completions in that center circle, four generated at least 10 yards after catch. You can see that Smart and Monken aren’t asking Bennett to do major damage with the deep ball, and Georgia’s short passing game has not been nearly as dangerous as Ole Miss’ — on passes thrown behind the first-down sticks, Ole Miss has a 62% success rate to Georgia’s 37%. But if you manipulate the field just well enough horizontally, you might be able to create chunk plays in another way.

Georgia’s ability to create gashes through the air will be key because it’s hard to see the Dawgs doing it on the ground — they rank 68th in rushing marginal explosiveness. Alabama’s defense might be shakier than usual, but it’s still going to be hard for Georgia to drive the length of the field 4 or 5 yards at a time. If UGA can’t create field position advantages via special teams or turnovers, it will have to create some big gains.

Prediction

Saban’s absence will create an odd aura, but this is still Alabama-Georgia, and it’s impossible to think about these two teams playing without two thoughts bubbling to the surface:

1. These teams should play far more often than they do. Their three postseason battles in the 2010s (2012, 2017, 2018) were among the most memorable games of the decade, but they’ve played only once in the regular season since 2008. That’s a massive disservice and a reminder that we should have ditched divisions a long time ago.

2. How is Georgia going to figure out how to lose this one? Granted, this thought has been reserved mostly for Georgia fans tortured by the way the Dawgs managed to come so achingly close to a national title, or at least a shot at one, in 2012, 2017 and 2018. (They were turned away by the Tide each time.) This rivalry has taken on an existential, almost literary quality with Georgia hiring Saban’s right-hand man but still struggling to get past Bama.

This might not be the only time these teams meet in 2020 — they are favorites to win their respective divisions, after all — but one way or another, this is the next chapter in the Saban-Smart book, even without Saban.

SP+ projects a 28-24 Alabama win, which fits pretty well with the teams’ past two meetings (26-23 and 35-28 Tide victories), but the possibilities are endless. The Dawgs could dictate an old-school defense-and-field-position slog, or the pure offensive talent on display could drag these defenses into a track meet a la last year’s Bama-LSU game (46-41 LSU) or the 2015 CFP title game with Clemson (45-40 Bama). What have these coaching staffs kept close to the vest so far? What might they still keep close to the vest for a possible December sequel? We’ll find out.

Week 7 playlist

Here are 10 weekend games — at least one from each time slot — you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both information and entertainment perspectives:

All times Eastern.

Friday night

No. 17 SMU at Tulane (6 p.m., ESPN). SMU will be without star receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. and starting RB TJ McDaniel the rest of the season, but the Mustangs are still unbeaten and dangerous. Tulane, meanwhile, is the streakiest team of 2020 so far. The Green Wave are capable of just about anything.

No. 14 BYU at Houston (9:30 p.m., ESPN). Houston looked tremendous in its long-awaited season debut, a 49-31 stomping of Tulane, while BYU is coming off of its shakiest performance of the season by far. Which set of Cougars still has big goals and an unbeaten record on Saturday morning?

Early Saturday

No. 1 Clemson at Georgia Tech (noon, ABC). Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins will likely throw the kitchen sink at Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson offense. It probably won’t work, but it should be a pretty interesting challenge for the Tigers.

Pitt at No. 13 Miami (noon, ACC Network). Miami’s blowout loss to Clemson had as much as anything to do with Clemson looking amazing, but the Hurricanes have to avoid a double letdown and take care of business against a Pitt team that is flaky, but still dangerous.

Kentucky at No. 18 Tennessee (noon, SEC Network). If Georgia loses on Saturday, the winner of this one would be tied for the lead in the SEC East. Kentucky holds the advantage on the ground, Tennessee through the air.

Saturday afternoon

Louisville at No. 4 Notre Dame (2:30 p.m., NBC). Louisville is a disappointing 1-3, but the Cardinals are still capable of major explosions in the run game, and an efficient Notre Dame defense has been prone to the occasional big-play lapse.

UCF at Memphis (3:30 p.m., ABC). Each of these AAC rivals’ past three head-to-head games have been down-to-the-wire thrillers, and SP+ basically projects a tie (UCF by 0.1). What more could you hope for on the Georgia-Bama undercard?

Marshall at Louisiana Tech (6 p.m., CBSSN). I wrote about Marshall’s defense on Monday; it’s pretty spicy, but the Tech offense can produce its share of big pass plays, too.

Saturday evening

No. 5 North Carolina at Florida State (7:30 p.m., ABC). This is UNC’s first game as a top-five team since a loss to FSU in 1997, and the Heels are coming off a statement win over Virginia Tech. Twenty-three years isn’t too long to right a wrong, right?

No. 3 Georgia at No. 2 Alabama (8:00 p.m., CBS). But you already knew that.

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Way-too-early 2021 MLB Power Rankings: What’s next for Dodgers, Rays and all 30 teams

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We can only hope 2021 will be a more normal season, with 162 games and fans in the stands and hot dogs to eat and overpriced beer to drink. We don’t know what the state of things will be come April 1, when the 2021 season is scheduled to begin, but we can speculate on the state of the 30 franchises.

Yes, we’re back with our annual Way-Too-Early Power Rankings. There are a few obvious teams at the top, a handful at the bottom and a whole bunch in the middle. Throw in the difficulty of analyzing a 60-game season and the uncertainty of how the offseason will play out due to the financial losses of this season, and these are the most difficult rankings we have had to do. But we fearlessly move forward.

(Title odds for 2021 from Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill)

2020 record: 43-17
Won World Series
2021 title odds: 4-1

They’re reigning champs. They’ve won eight straight division titles. They have Mookie Betts signed for the long term. They have young starters such as Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Julio Urias and Tony Gonsolin to keep the rotation strong for years to come. They have players capable of better seasons (Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, Gavin Lux). They have a good farm system. They have financial flexibility, with only Betts signed past 2022 and all those young players to help them keep the payroll in check. Justin Turner is a free agent, but he would be a nice DH option if the NL makes that permanent. We know they will be good. But we know it’s really all about October.


2020 record: 35-25
Lost NLCS to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 12-1

The offense gives them a high floor:Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, even Travis d’Arnaud and Adam Duvall raked in 2020. Marcell Ozuna is a free agent and it would be nice to bring him back, but rookie center fielder Cristian Pache is ready and he looks like he’ll be valuable on both sides of the ball. The rotation will see the return of Mike Soroka from his Achilles injury and a full season of Ian Anderson to back up Max Fried. Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson have potential, and Atlanta will probably bring in a veteran starter on a one-year deal the way they did with Dallas Keuchel in 2019 and tried to do with Cole Hamels in 2020. The Braves will be favored to win a fourth straight division title even if they don’t do anything this offseason.


2020 record: 37-23
Lost Division Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 17-2

Sure, an argument can be made to put the Padres ahead of the Braves, but I think we have to first make sure Dinelson Lamet and Mike Clevinger are completely healthy in spring training. San Diego brings back essentially every significant player after running out the youngest lineup in the NL, with Jake Cronenworth and Trent Grisham looking like foundation additions alongside Fernando Tatis Jr. (All were acquired in trades; good job, A.J. Preller!) We’ll see if Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers can match their 2020 rate of production, but if Luis Patino and MacKenzie Gore become impact starters, the Padres are poised to make a multiyear run in challenging the Dodgers for NL West supremacy.


2020 record: 40-20
Lost World Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 10-1

The Rays won their first division title since 2010 and did it in quite remarkable fashion, with 12 different relievers recording a save and the pitching staff overcoming a slew of injuries along the way. They were able to pull that off because of the depth of their staff, but having expanded rosters over the 60-game season made it possible to rely so heavily on the bullpen. Of course, you can argue that pitching depth will be even more valuable over 162 games. The offense isn’t elite, although we can’t wait to see what Randy Arozarena will do over a full season or if super rookie Wander Franco is ready to make an impact at some point in 2021.


2020 record: 35-25
Lost Wild Card Series to A’s
2021 title odds: 12-1

Much like the Braves, the offensive firepower of the White Sox should give them a high floor. Even if you see some regression coming from Jose Abreu or Tim Anderson, Luis Robert and Yoan Moncada should improve and a full season of Nick Madrigal will help. Michael Kopech, who opted out of 2020, will hopefully be back, but he hasn’t pitched in two years, so finding another veteran arm to go with ace Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel will be key. Closer Alex Colome is a free agent, but the White Sox have several power arms in their organization, including 2020 first-round pick Garrett Crochet, who could be a dominant reliever right away. Manager Rick Renteria and longtime pitching coach Don Cooper got the boot, with A.J. Hinch a possible replacement for Renteria. That would be an upgrade.


2020 record: 33-27
Lost Division Series to Rays
2021 title odds: 6-1

You can make an argument to put them a couple of spots higher, but not winning the AL East in 2020 points to some flaws. They simply can’t count on Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton being healthy for an entire season, plus DJ LeMahieu and Masahiro Tanaka are free agents, two important players to re-sign or replace. Of course, we know the Yankees will do something big, perhaps signing J.T. Realmuto and moving on from Gary Sanchez or trading for Francisco Lindor and shifting Gleyber Torres to second. Getting Luis Severino back from Tommy John surgery will be a big boost as well.


2020 record: 36-24
Lost Wild Card Series to Astros
2021 title odds: 14-1

The Twins didn’t do it quite like they did in 2019, when they bashed a record 307 home runs (although their 162-game pace for 2020 was still 259), as their team batting average dropped nearly 30 points, and they fell from second in the AL in runs to 10th. Still, they’ve established a foundation of success with three playoff appearances in four seasons. The big issue is they have a lot of free agents to replace or re-sign, starting with 40-year-old Nelson Cruz, but also Jake Odorizzi, Marwin Gonzalez, Rich Hill, Tyler Clippard, Trevor May and Homer Bailey. Those players were minor contributors, but with Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Taylor Rogers getting more expensive in arbitration, the Twins may not be able to fill out the roster with minor free agents the way they’ve done of late. They need a healthy Josh Donaldson, especially if Cruz leaves, and they will have to discard the emotional baggage of 18 consecutive playoff losses to get revved up for 162 games just to get back to October again.


2020 record: 36-24
Lost Division Series to Houston
2021 title odds: 14-1

The A’s weren’t as impressive as they were in 2019 — Matt Olson morphed into an extreme “three true outcomes” slugger, Matt Chapman‘s OBP dipped to .276 and Marcus Semien declined from his third-place MVP performance. They still coasted to the AL West title though, and the division projects as being pretty soft, at least right now. Semien and closer Liam Hendriks are free agents as are several other key role players, so this ranking is not presented with a high degree of confidence. The A’s always seem to maximize their talent, and I do think the rotation will be much better, making up for some of the likely bullpen regression.


2020 record: 26-34
Tied for fourth in NL East
2021 title odds: 30-1

I feel like we need another National League team here, but let’s be honest: There is a wide gap between the NL’s top three teams and the block of mediocre teams in the middle. Let’s roll the dice on the Mets with new owner Steve Cohen to the rescue (once he gets formally approved). Let’s just say Mets fans are pumped about Cohen’s WAW (wins above Wilpon). There have already been reports about all the money he’ll sink into the franchise, not just on players but things like building out a more robust analytics staff. Aside from any splashy moves Cohen may make — trading for Nolan Arenado or Francisco Lindor? Signing J.T. Realmuto or Trevor Bauer? — there is a strong base of talent here. They ranked third in the majors in wOBA (behind the Braves and Dodgers) and fifth in the majors in pitcher strikeout rate. They should be better — a familiar refrain for Mets fans, unfortunately.


2020 record: 34-26
Lost Wild Card Series to Marlins
2021 title odds: 25-1

Everyone was down on the Cubs, especially after that sad two-and-out to the Marlins, but we do need to point out Chicago still won the NL Central despite Javier Baez (59 OPS+), Kris Bryant (73) and Kyle Schwarber (88) all producing well below an average major league hitter and Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras performing below their career norms. That continues a downward trend for this once-great offensive core, from second in the NL in runs in 2016 and 2017 to fourth in 2018, fifth in 2019 and 10th in 2020. Baez, Bryant, Schwarber and Rizzo are all free agents after 2021, but frankly, the trade value for Bryant and Schwarber — and even Baez, to a lesser extent — has cratered. Theo Epstein also hinted that 2021 will be his last season with the Cubs. Does this group get one last chance? In a weak division, with some bounce-back potential, the Cubs could be better than everyone believes. Or maybe the front office will just tear it all down.


2020 record: 29-31
Lost ALCS to Rays
2021 title odds: 20-1

It promises to be a busy winter for the Astros. George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick are all free agents, while Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr. and Zack Greinke are set to be free agents after 2021, as are Justin Verlander and Roberto Osuna, both of whom will likely miss the season following Tommy John surgery. They’ll need more from Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman (and don’t forget about Yordan Alvarez) but they could have a strong rotation if they keep McCullers and Greinke to go with Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy. The outfield free-agent market is thin, so if Springer and Brantley sign elsewhere, the Astros may have to scramble to find help for Kyle Tucker.


2020 record: 35-25
Lost Wild Card Series to Yankees
2021 title odds: 20-1

We start with one of the biggest questions of the entire offseason: Will Cleveland trade Francisco Lindor? It seems weird to say this, but there isn’t an obvious fit, as most of the top teams are set at shortstop. It will be interesting to see if a team tries to pull the Mookie Betts maneuver: trade for Lindor, then sign him to a big extension before he hits free agency after the 2021 season. Aside from the Lindor issue, it’s going to be a similar Cleveland team as we’ve seen the past two years: enough starting pitching to be a playoff team, but an offense that may prevent them from getting there. Please, find some competent outfielders. Cleveland’s outfielders hit .196/.270/.304.


2020 record: 30-28
Lost Wild Card Series to Padres
2021 title odds: 30-1

In one sense, it’s harder to evaluate what the Cardinals did in 2020 than any other team, with them having to play 11 doubleheaders after the team’s COVID-19 outbreak early in the season. On the other hand, they were exactly what we thought they would be: below-average offense with no power, good defense, good bullpen, decent starting pitching. I just don’t how they’re going to get better, especially given that some of their pitching peripheral numbers don’t quite match the ERA figures. Look, as always, you can never discount the Cardinals. They haven’t had a losing season since 2007. The division is wide open. Jack Flaherty will be better. Dylan Carlson could give them an impact outfielder. The bullpen projects as a big strength.


2020 record: 26-34
Tied for fourth in NL East
2021 title odds: 30-1

No team had less incentive in 2020 than the Nationals, and once Stephen Strasburg went down, it kind of felt like the entire team went down with him. Juan Soto played at an MVP level for 47 games, leading the NL in batting average and the majors in OBP and slugging. It wasn’t a full season so I’m not saying it compares, but his 212 OPS+ was the best since Barry Bonds in 2004.

There are concerns in the starting rotation, however, beyond Strasburg’s nerve issue. Anibal Sanchez fell apart, Patrick Corbin got knocked around (85 hits in 65⅔ innings) and even Max Scherzer had his highest ERA since 2012.The real problem may have been the defense: The Nationals ranked last in the majors with minus-43 defensive runs saved. As always, depth is an issue and they need youngsters Carter Kieboom (no home runs in 99 at-bats) and Victor Robles (.608 OPS) to contribute at the plate. If Strasburg is healthy, don’t ignore the 2019 champs.


2020 record: 32-28
Lost Wild Card Series to Rays
2021 title odds: 50-1

The Blue Jays face a very interesting offseason after making the playoffs as a wild card and ranking third in the AL in runs. The offense potentially looks even better if you’re buying the breakouts of Teoscar Hernandez and Rowdy Tellez. Worth noting: The Jays hit much better at their temporary home in Buffalo, so we have to be careful about overrating the offense. Hyun-Jin Ryu was terrific (at least until his playoff start), but the rest of the rotation was so problematic that the Jays acquired Taijuan Walker, Robbie Ray and Ross Stripling for the stretch run. Walker and Ray are free agents, but Nate Pearson will help, and the Jays should have some money to spend in free agency.


2020 record: 28-32
Third in NL East
2021 title odds: 40-1

It’s hard to see the Phillies much better than the .500 team they’ve been the past three seasons, which led to general manager Matt Klentak being reassigned within the organization. They had two great starters in Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler and finished fourth in the NL in runs, but the bullpen (6.92 ERA, worst of all time) undermined all the positives. The Phillies allowed a .345 average on balls in play, and maybe that would drop over a full season, but it stands as the highest ever. This has been a multiyear problem. They were middle of the pack in BABIP allowed in 2019, but fifth-worst in 2018 and sixth-worst in 2017. They’ve been unable to fix the defense. Anyway, J.T. Realmuto and Didi Gregorius are free agents. The payroll would have been more than $200 million given a full season in 2020, so you wonder if there is room to re-sign Realmuto and fix the bullpen and replace/re-sign Gregorius and maybe add another starter.


2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in AL West
2021 title odds: 40-1

Billy Eppler is out as general manager after a five-year run that included no winning seasons. Yes, he inherited the bad Albert Pujols contract, but he also inherited Mike Trout and was never able to build a successful team around him, despite additions like Andrelton Simmons, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon. Simmons is a free agent, Pujols is finally down to his final season and Jared Walsh (.971 OPS, nine home runs in 99 at-bats, a low 13.9% strikeout rate) has to play. The immediate concerns are trying to turn Jo Adell into a major league hitter (.161, 55 strikeouts, seven walks in 132 PAs), figure out what happened to Ohtani (.190) and Justin Upton (.204) and — as always — address the pitching. Sounds like the same story as the past five years.


2020 record: 29-31
Lost Wild Card Series to Dodgers
2021 title odds: 50-1

This is a difficult team to read. The Brewers didn’t hit at all in 2020 (I think the NL must have stored its balls in Lake Michigan, because nobody could hit). Two-time batting champ and 2018 MVP Christian Yelich hit just .205, and I know it was just 58 games, but his strikeout rate went from 20.3% to 30.8%. Something doesn’t add up there.

They do have two great one-two combos in Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes in the rotation and Devin Williams and Josh Hader in the bullpen. Does Williams’ stunning breakout (53 K’s in 27 innings) make Hader trade bait? Burnes certainly looked like the real deal with his new cutter, but he’ll have to prove he can do it over 30 starts instead of 10. David Stearns is one of the more creative GMs around, although he’d probably like a do-over on the Trent Grisham/Zach Davies for Luis Urias/Eric Lauer deal.


2020 record: 24-36
Fifth in AL East
2021 title odds: 60-1

This was the hardest team to project. The pitching was so awful — 5.85 runs per game, the most for the franchise since 1932 — that it’s easy to assume it will be bad again in 2021. It was also bad in 2019 (5.11 runs per game), so we have a two-year track record. Maybe they get Chris Sale back at midseason and Eduardo Rodriguez returns from his COVID-related heart issue. There is a nice offensive core with Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Alex Verdugo and Christian Vazquez (and J.D. Martinez if he bounces back). I’m not sure what Bobby Dalbec will be. I guess his upside is Joey Gallo, if that’s a good thing. More importantly, is Chaim Bloom playing the long game or will there be pressure to get the Red Sox immediately back into contender status?


2020 record: 31-29
Lost Wild Card Series to Braves
2021 title odds: 25-1

The Reds sneaked into the playoffs as a wild card with a late surge, but the team embarrassingly exited with two shutouts to the Braves, including a 13-inning defeat. The Reds have morphed into the most extreme example of a “three true outcomes” offense we’ve seen in this launch-angle era. They ranked fourth in the NL in home runs and first in walks, but hit a pathetic .212. The entire package added up to ranking just 13th in the NL in runs, then you dig deeper and realize they hit 55 home runs at home and 35 on the road, so much of their power was simply a result of their home park. It’s a bad offense, and I’m not sure it improves much in 2021. Trevor Bauer is a sure bet to sign elsewhere as a free agent, and we still don’t know if Nick Senzel is the solution in center field or an injury-prone role player.


2020 record: 31-29
Lost Division Series to Braves
2021 title odds: 60-1

It was a fun ride to their first postseason trip since 2003, but once you get past the starting trio of Sixto Sanchez, Sandy Alcantara and Pablo Lopez, holes remain. The pitching staff was next to last in the majors in strikeout rate, and the team’s top five relievers were all 30-something guys you can’t necessarily count on for 2021. There are no offensive stars as the lineup relied on stopgap veterans, while the young hitters still have trouble controlling the strike zone (and the young hitters aren’t really all that young). The minus-41 run differential is a little misleading as the Marlins had to use more players than any other team due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but I’m not sure I see another .500 season unless some of the young hitters suddenly develop into solid regulars.


2020 record: 29-31
Third in NL West
2021 title odds: 80-1

Call me skeptical. They went from the second-worst offense in the NL to a top-five offense — without making any significant additions. Brandon Belt with a 1.000 OPS? Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson over .900? Donovan Solano chasing a batting title? I smell a lot of regression coming on, and the Giants don’t have the rotation to back that up. They also had the oldest lineup in the league: Mauricio Dubon is the only returning regular who won’t be 30 or older in 2021. Maybe catcher Joey Bart makes an impact, but a 41 to 3 strikeout-to-walk rate suggests he’s not ready for prime time. Several of their big contracts come off the books after 2021 if you factor in buyouts, so look for the Giants to wait until that big 2021-22 free-agent class to start flipping over the roster.


2020 record: 27-33
Third in AL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

There were some nice positives in 2020: Kyle Lewis may win Rookie of the Year, Justus Sheffield was much improved, Marco Gonzales solidified himself as one of the most underrated starters in the majors, Dylan Moore turned into one of the best utility players as a power/speed combo. But there is still zero star power here, at least until Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez arrive as potential All-Star outfielders, Kelenic in 2021 and Rodriguez probably in 2022. Jerry Dipoto will have to reconstruct a bullpen that was one of the worst in the league (5.92 ERA). The Mariners are on the rise and have other potential impact prospects, including pitchers Logan Gilbert and Emerson Hancock, but look for them to hold the course in 2021 and push forward in 2022.


2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in AL Central
2021 title odds: 150-1

The Royals have some interesting young pitchers in Brad Keller, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, with Josh Staumont as a potential closer, but there are still huge gaps across the roster, especially on the offensive side of things. They need to figure out center field, second base and left field, and even Adalberto Mondesi Jr. now looks like just a placeholder at short until Bobby Witt Jr. arrives in a couple of years. This ranking could be selling the Royals a bit short, as young pitching can carry a team if it comes fast (and 2020 top pick Asa Lacy may not need much time in the minors), but they need to find some hitters.


2020 record: 25-35
Fifth in NL West
2021 title odds: 60-1

That was ugly, and the fans are turning on the team after a couple of years of trades (Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke and the deadline deals this season) that don’t appear to have returned any front-line talent. Ketel Marte and Eduardo Escobar, so good in 2019, fell off, with Marte inexplicably deciding he no longer wanted to walk. Robbie Ray couldn’t throw strikes and was finally traded. Merrill Kelly hurt his shoulder. Madison Bumgarner didn’t win a game. The problem for 2021? The Diamondbacks had the second-oldest lineup in the NL (six of their top eight regulars were 29 or older). Bumgarner now looks like a bad $80 million gamble. They’re only a season removed from going 85-77, so there is rebound potential, but the Snakes are a mess at the moment.


2020 record: 25-35
Fourth in AL East
2021 title odds: 150-1

Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of positives in 2020, especially after losing 108 games in 2019 and 115 in 2018. Anthony Santander had a small-sample breakout with the metrics to back it up. Ryan Mountcastle looks ready to join the lineup in 2021 and Trey Mancini will hopefully be back at full strength after finishing his chemo treatment in September. Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer could be arms to watch for the rotation.

They do have financial flexibility, especially as they get closer to the end of Chris Davis‘ deal, and with Adley Rutschman close to the majors and starters D.L. Hall and Grayson Rodriguez perhaps ready in 2022, the farm is better than it’s been in at least 10 years. But the base level of talent here remains pretty low.


2020 record: 26-34
Fourth in NL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

Right now, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story are still on the roster. Will they be there come spring training? The relationship between Arenado and the Rockies is strained, making him a trade candidate this winter. He won’t be easy to trade, though: He didn’t have a good 2020 at the plate, ended the season on the IL, has a full no-trade clause and can opt out of his deal after 2021. If Arenado is traded, you could see the Rockies dealing Story as well since he’s a free agent after 2021. Mostly, this team just needs a makeover. They ranked eighth in the NL in runs, and for a Rockies team, that’s horrible. (They had finished below fifth just one other time in franchise history.)


2020 record: 23-35
Fifth in AL Central
2021 title odds: 200-1

Sometimes you just have to point out the obvious: Jeimer Candelario was the team’s best player in 2020 — a 26-year-old first baseman who hit .203 the year before. Look, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal project as good starters at some point, but their struggles in limited action in 2020 suggest that may not be in 2021. Along with Spencer Turnbull and prospect Matt Manning, there is a rotation to dream on, but there is no offense, and Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, their top position player prospects, are more on a 2022 timetable.


2020 record: 22-38
Fifth in AL West
2021 title odds: 100-1

The Rangers continue to go backward. They were bad in 2020 in a year they thought they could contend, they weren’t particularly young and the farm system has struggled to develop pitchers and turn toolsy position players into quality hitters. The offense had a brutal year — and not just because of the new park. They didn’t hit on the road either. It’s time to admit that Joey Gallo and Rougned Odor are never going to be the core of a championship lineup, and if Lance Lynn is traded — he’ll be a free agent after 2021 — the rotation will have a huge hole to fill.


2020 record: 19-41
Fifth in NL Central
2021 title odds: 300-1

Let’s see, a small-market team coming off the worst record in the sport, won’t spend any money in free agency, and whose three best players in 2019 were all terrible in 2020. The first step is to hope Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman rebound, but with most of the organization’s top prospects still a ways off, the short-term outlook looks bleak. Heck, the long-term outlook isn’t exactly full of roses and puppies.

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Bryant, out 2 years, joins Ravens practice squad

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Dez Bryant is back in the NFL.

The Baltimore Ravens signed the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver to their practice squad, the team announced Tuesday. Bryant has been out of the league for two years.

Bryant appeared to acknowledge the deal in a tweet Tuesday: “My emotions running high right now… I’m thankful…I can’t stop crying”

The biggest question is when Bryant will suit up for the Ravens. Baltimore’s wide receivers rank last in the NFL in receptions (58) and receiving yards (737).

Bryant, 31, could become a physical possession-type receiver for reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and can complement the speed of Marquise Brown.

The addition of Bryant might lead to a high-profile reunion on Dec. 3, when the Ravens play host to the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday Night Football. Bryant starred for the Cowboys for eight seasons, totaling 531 receptions for 7,459 yards and a franchise-record 73 touchdown catches.

“Obviously, that’s kind of like an ‘OG’-type guy,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said when asked about Bryant on Monday. “He’s been around the league for a long, long time. He actually followed me on Twitter a year or two ago, so I’m excited to meet him, and I’m excited to [be] around him hopefully, and just learn.”

This marked Bryant’s second workout with Baltimore in two months. When Bryant left in August without a contract, he was told to improve his conditioning, a source said.

The Ravens are off to a fast start at 5-1, but their passing game ranks 31st in the NFL. It looks as if Jackson would benefit from another target on the outside because Brown is the only Baltimore wide receiver with more than 11 catches this season.

Bryant is attempting to become the second Pro Bowl wide receiver to miss two full seasons and then return to the NFL since the 1970 merger, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. Josh Gordon was the first.

Bryant hasn’t played in a game since December 2017.

In November 2018, Bryant signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. But he tore an Achilles tendon during his first practice with the Saints and has been out of the NFL since.

Bryant’s 531 career receptions would be the most by any wide receiver before missing two full seasons and then returning to the NFL, according to Elias’ data.

To make room for Bryant, the Ravens waived safety Marcus Gilchrist from the practice squad.

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Augusta National to host College GameDay during Masters

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ESPN’s College GameDay Built By the Home Depot show has originated from dozens of college campuses across the country since 1993.

On Saturday, Nov. 14, the show will combine two of sport’s greatest traditions — college football and the Masters.

ESPN announced on Tuesday that College GameDay will originate from Augusta National Golf Club, which is hosting the postponed Masters Tournament next month, Nov. 12-15.

Top matchups that day are No. 9 Wisconsin at No. 13 Michigan and No. 2 Alabama at LSU.

“Any time College GameDay travels to a new destination, it’s special, and the opportunity to be on the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters is extraordinary,” said Jimmy Pitaro, chairman, ESPN and Sports Content. “As this iconic event coincides with the college football season for the first time, we look forward to getting fans ready for a football Saturday while also showcasing the Masters and the greatest golfers in the world.”

Longtime ESPN hosts Rece Davis, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and others will broadcast from the par-3 course from 9 a.m. to noon ET.

In its 13th year at the Masters, ESPN will once again televise the first and second rounds, Nov. 12-13, from 1 to 5:30 p.m. There will also be expanded coverage on ESPN+, including exclusive practice-round coverage Nov. 10-11.

Golf fans will also be able to watch featured holes coverage on ESPN+ on Nos. 4, 5 and 6 in each of the four rounds of the Masters.

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