Notre Dame ready for BCS Championship picture to come into focus


Notre Dame ready for BCS Championship picture to come into focus

Notre Dame players won't admit to cheering for either side in Saturday's SEC Championship, as well they shouldn't. There won't be any remarks about "old man football" or Alabama's loss to Texas A&M. That's the product of a team knowing it won't do itself any favors by lending its BCS Championship opponent any added motivation, so let the platitudes fly.

"No, not really," linebacker Manti Te'o said when asked if he had any rooting interest in Saturday's game. "Good luck to both teams and just excited to see who we play."

The best bet for Notre Dame's Jan. 7 opponent is Alabama, which will face Georgia as an eight-point favorite. Despite its one loss, there are plenty around the country who consider Alabama college football's best team and expect Nick Saban & Co. to roll Georgia and then Notre Dame in the BCS Championship.

Online betting site pegged Alabama as a 9 12-point favorite over Notre Dame if the two teams meet in the BCS Championship. If it's Georgia, Notre Dame would be three-point underdogs. Make no mistake: A perfect record isn't enough for the odds to not be stacked against the Irish.

"Were all going to strap up our pads the same way, were all going to strap our chinstraps the same way," Te'o said, dismissing Notre Dame's already-anointed underdog status. "We understand how dominant the SEC has been in the past. But its definitely and opportunity that were looking forward to, and were going to prepare the same way that weve been preparing all week and all year."

Heading into the BCS Championship as underdogs is sure to rankle those who are quick to point out the SEC's shortcomings. But the SEC has earned the right to be favored over whoever they play in the BCS Championship by virtue of winning the last six.

Alabama has won two of the last three titles, and if they reach this year's game 17 of their players would experience their third BCS Championship in four years. While Notre Dame players talked about learning what it takes to be undefeated, Alabama players know what it takes to win a championship.

Georgia doesn't have that same track record of success in the last four years, nor do they look as strong as Alabama on paper. While the Tide went into Death Valley and beat LSU, Georgia's only big win came in a sloppy neutral field win over Florida. That's not to totally discount Georgia's win -- it was Florida's only loss of the season -- but they were pasted by South Carolina in Columbia and feasted on blowouts against the dregs of the SEC and a weak non-conference slate.

Statistically, Georgia is allowing 163 rushing yards per game, good for 69th among FBS teams. They're great against the pass (No. 9 nationally) but that's not Notre Dame's strength on offense.

Even Georgia's passing advantage against Notre Dame's secondary can be mitigated by the combined seven throwing touchdowns allowed by the Irish defense -- and that's with facing a handful of top-40 passing offenses.

Alabama, on the other hand, has the same footprint of Notre Dame. Their air attack isn't great (both are No. 77 in passing yards per game) but doesn't turn the ball over, allowing a solid running game to carry the offensive load. And those running backs generally help score enough points to net victories built on defensive success.

What'll be interesting to watch Saturday is Alabama's ability to slow Aaron Murray and Georgia's passing game. Johnny Manziel's success in Tuscaloosa led to Texas A&M's mid-November upset, although the Tide did successfully shut down Tennessee's potent air attack in Knoxville to balance that out. Perhaps we'll figure out if Alabama's secondary can be exploited by quarterbacks who don't play like they've set their video game difficulty level to rookie on Saturday.

Notre Dame players and coaches are in an enviable position Saturday evening, able to kick back and do some casual scouting while taking in a game that'll decide who they play in a little over a month. The Irish have already earned their trip to Miami, and tomorrow we'll find out of Alabama or Georgia will be joining them.

"Ill enjoy it as a fan and as a future opponent," Te'o said. "Just watching them, how they work and trying to get tendencies in that game. My main thing is finding out who were going to play and then getting a sneak peek of what to look forward to."

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

As Cubs players and generations of fans celebrated Christmas in October, Jon Lester had to be The Grinch for a moment. Sure, the Cubs would party from Saturday night into Sunday morning, probably get “a little bit” drunk and enjoy the franchise’s first National League pennant in 71 years. But the reality of the Cleveland Indians would set in once the Cubs got rid of this hangover.

“We ain’t done anything yet,” Lester said during the Wrigley Field celebration after the Cubs eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Nobody likes second place.”

There are enough Boston Red Sox connections in this World Series that Lester already knows what to expect, starting with Indians manager Terry Francona, who became a father figure as he dealt with a cancer scare as a rookie.

There are ex-teammates from those championship teams in 2007 (Coco Crisp) and 2013 (Mike Napoli, Andrew Miller) at Fenway Park. There is the accumulated experience from throwing 119 postseason innings (2.50 ERA) and becoming one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

“I don’t want to sound like a smart-ass, but we got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “I know that manager on their side’s going to be prepared. I know their coaching staff’s going to be ready. I know their players are going to be ready, just based on one player alone, and that’s Mike Napoli. I know what he brings to the table. He helped transform our 2013 team.

“Come Tuesday, we got to put the gloves back on. We got to get ready to fight and grind and do what we’ve done well all year. We got four more games to win.”

After limiting the Dodgers to two runs in 13 innings, and being named the NL Championship Series’ co-MVP along with Javier Baez, Lester should be a worthy Game 1 starter opposite Corey Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner.

This is why Lester took a leap of faith with Cubs bosses/ex-Red Sox executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and chairman Tom Ricketts’ family and what had been a last-place team in 2014.

Two seasons into the $155 million contract that signaled the Cubs would be serious about contending – and not just in the Baseball America/Baseball Prospectus prospect rankings – the franchise has won 200 games and four playoff rounds and remained in position to dominate for years to come.

“Theo and Jed and the front office and Tom and all these guys had a belief,” Lester said. “I believed in that belief. The talent here speaks for itself. I didn’t do anything – I came here because I wanted to win in Chicago. I’m just happy to be here and be a part of this and get to this point.

“(But) we’re four hard wins away from doing what we set out to do in spring training.”

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As bright as the future looks on the North Side, Lester will be 33 next season and his left arm has already accounted for more than 2,000 innings during his decorated career. John Lackey turned 38 on Sunday. Jake Arrieta only has one more season before becoming a free agent.

The Cubs built their franchise around young hitters, with the idea that they can figure out the pitching later with free agents, change-of-scenery trades and bounce-back guys. Easier said than done. They have a true No. 1 starter now in Lester, who as a free agent watched a recruiting video that imagined what it would be like when the Cubs win the World Series.

“This isn’t it,” Lester said. “It’s been a tough playoffs for us to this point and it’s only going to get tougher. We’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to show up Tuesday in Cleveland ready to play. We’ll see what happens.”

Three quick fixes for some Bears woes while searching for a turnaround

Three quick fixes for some Bears woes while searching for a turnaround

Positives were difficult to find in last Thursday’s 26-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers. So maybe the place to look for improvement lies in just getting rid of a few negatives.

As far as positives, Leonard Floyd would be the obvious one, with two sacks, one a strip and fumble recovery for a TD. Ka’Deem Carey would be another, with 10 carries for 48 yards, his second straight game with high-impact running; Jordan Howard has been shackled for two weeks, so the Bears have needed another backfield-committee member contributing. Jeremy Langford may have trouble finding work when he comes back from his ankle injury.

But negatives have far outweighed positives, which is how you get to 1-6. Fixing three of those will go a long way toward improving their chances against a Minnesota Vikings team that appeared eminently beatable in losing at Philadelphia on Sunday:

Stop the penalty hemorrhaging

For the third straight game the Bears had 10 penalties walked off against them. This "streak" started after eight infractions in the win over Detroit. The 10 in Green Bay cost the Bears 108 yards in a game where their offense netted just 189. Seven of the penalties were charged to the defense, six of which gave the Packers first downs.

The three offensive penalties were mental. A wide receiver (Alshon Jeffery) lined up offsides. The quarterback (Matt Barkley) drew a delay flag. An offensive lineman (Ted Larsen) was illegally downfield.

All of which point to a discipline problem getting worse, not better. Whether the fault lies with players losing focus or coaches not instilling a mindset is a debate, but meaningless if the problem is not addressed. “There were a lot of penalties out there,” said cornerback De’Vante Bausby, who committed three of those penalties. “We had a good scheme and plan but we just didn’t finish in the second half as a group.”

Stop the dinking

While Brian Hoyer replacing Jay Cutler scaled back the downfield element of the offense, the loss of an emerging Kevin White should not be understated. The de facto rookie may not have gotten in the end zone but he was leading the team in receptions before he suffered a broken leg in the win over Detroit.

Since the loss of White, however, the offense has shrunk. The Bears averaged 7.5 yards per pass attempt through four games with White. Without White the average is 7.0, and that is including the blip in Indianapolis, which stands as a complete anomaly. The average was 5.9 in the Jacksonville loss and 5.0 in Green Bay.

Hoyer’s ball-security orientation has been a positive, but also a limiting factor. Cutler last year had one of the best ball-security seasons of his career, yet the offense was able to average 7.5 yards per attempt.

The Bears scored two of their three rushing touchdowns in games with White, who may not yet be the field-stretcher his 4.35 speed but the prospect of White arguably made for a more threatening offense than even with the contributions of Cam Meredith.

Stop the Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have suffered injuries at a rate like the Bears’ but have overcome them. Until Sunday in Philadelphia, when the Eagles sacked Sam Bradford six times and hit him more than a dozen other times. The Vikings never sacked Carson Wentz, who wasn’t special but was good enough while Minnesota was self-destructing.

The Vikings have beaten the Bears the last three times they’ve met, the first time that’s happened since 1999 and 2000, which is also the last time the Bears started 1-6. And the Bears have lost three straight.

The Bears were able to end the first three-game skid by focusing on one game: the Lions. The result was shutting down a very good offense, the lowest yardage-allowed (263) of the season and the firmest commitment to the run game (29) attempts.

Morale inside the locker room can only be revived by a win. One game. This game.