No. 1 Notre Dame awaits heavily-favored SEC champ

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No. 1 Notre Dame awaits heavily-favored SEC champ

LOS ANGELES -- An SEC team has dispatched its opponent in the BCS Championship in each of the last six years, building a string of unprecedented dominance atop college football. While plenty may cry the conference is overrated or overexposed, it's tough to argue with the six titles won by Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn.
Notre Dame -- which opened Sunday as the unanimous No. 1 in the AP poll and received 56 of 59 first-place votes in the coaches poll -- has a chance to dethrone the SEC on Jan. 7 in Miami. The Irish will face the winner of Saturday's SEC championship game, played in Atlanta between No. 2 Alabama, which received two first-place votes in the coaches poll, and No. 3 Georgia, which received one.
No matter who the Irish play, they'll be underdogs.
Alabama has been pegged as a double-digit favorite over Notre Dame in recent weeks, while Georgia would likely be somewhere in the range of a five-point favorite.
But for all the SEC chest-beating, the national championship comes down to one game. And Houston Nutt, who coached at Ole Miss and Arkansas, doesn't see why an underdog Irish squad couldn't beat an SEC powerhouse.
"You got 30 days to get ready, I think you don't know. You just don't know," Nutt told CSNChicago earlier in November. "Anybody can beat anybody on any given day. You look at Boise State several years ago, one of the funnest games I've ever seen. Boise State got ready for Oklahoma and they beat them. Absolutely, it could happen."
Notre Dame still has plenty of things to work on despite an unblemished record, with the biggest area for improvement lying in the offense's ability to finish drives. Kyle Brindza attempted six field goals in Notre Dame's 22-13 win over USC, hitting five. But for Notre Dame's offense to hit its peak, those three points need to turn into seven more often.
"We definitely have to improve. We're not there yet, we don't feel like it," running back Theo Riddick said Saturday. "We're going to go back next week, look at the tape, figure out what we can get better at and do that during that week. We have time. Coach Kelly is going to set up some things to actually let us score touchdowns, because we have to. We have to get better at that being in the red zone. We're going to do that, and we're going to be okay."
Plenty of prognosticators have penciled Alabama in to face Notre Dame after beating a Georgia, a team that's best victory came in a sloppy game against Florida. But few expected Texas A&M to go into Bryant-Denny Stadium and win earlier this month, and with one of the SEC's best quarterbacks in Aaron Murray, Georgia shouldn't be counted out.
Alabama, though, looks like the favorite. And if they move on, Nick Saban will have a chance to win his third championship in four years, establishing a string of dominance not seen since Nebraska in the mid-90's.
"When Notre Dame watches the film and watches Alabama, they're going to see how physical, how fast and how very consistent they are," Nutt said. "They don't beat themselves. They win the turnover margin. They're a well-coached team. Alabama is used to winning, they expect to win. I'd be a heck of a battle."
A theme for Notre Dame this year has been to control what they can control. That meant trying not to concern themselves with how Alabama, Kansas State and Oregon played. Now, that means not worrying about who they'll face in the BCS Championship.
"We'll focus on us," coach Brian Kelly said. "It won't be, alright, it's this team or that team. We gotta figure out over the next six weeks how we get better as a football team. It'll be about us."

Ping-pong balls everywhere: Where do the Bulls rank among projected lottery teams?

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AP

Ping-pong balls everywhere: Where do the Bulls rank among projected lottery teams?

When your team is no longer in playoff contention it's always a good time to look forward. The Bulls finally have a direction after trading Jimmy Butler on draft night and will go to a youth movement to build the talent pool back up. And with free agency pretty much wrapped up (although Derrick Rose is making noise) it's time to look at where Fred Hoiberg's group stands among the teams looking for the most ping-pong balls on Lottery night next May.

The numbers in parentheses are the projected over-under win totals in Las Vegas:

Brooklyn Nets (20.5 wins)

The good news? Brooklyn had an excellent offseason. The bad news? It's going to take way more than one good string of moves to fix this mess. In dealing Brook Lopez and a first-round pick for D'Angelo Russell, the Nets gave away their best player for one with a bright future. Drafting Jarrett Allen was another solid move, but he's barely 19 and is more of a project than anything right now. Taking on DeMarre Carroll's and Timofey Mozgov's contracts provide them more talent, but neither should get much playing time during the youth movement. It may be tough for this team to get to 20 wins.

Phoenix Suns (25.5 wins)

There might not be a better young core in the Western Conference than in Phoenix. With Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson (all lottery picks) leading the way, there's optimism about the Suns' future. It just might not lead to many victories in 2017-18. Bender is 19 and the others are 20, and veterans Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler are prime trade candidates. Phoenix is going somewhere, but expect them to pick in the top 3 a year from now.

Chicago Bulls (28.5 wins)

It's difficult right now to project how many wins the Bulls will tally. Restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic is still unsigned, and there are questions about whether Dwyane Wade will be bought out at some point during the season. Zach LaVine's timetable on returning from ACL surgery is still unknown, and the Bulls will take a cautious approach in bringing him back. Robin Lopez could also be dealt at some point. The young guns are going to get all the run they can handle, helping the rebuild while not doing much in the win department.

Sacramento Kings (30.5 wins)

The Kings went 8-17 after dealing DeMarcus Cousins, which projects to a 26-win season over an 82-game span. The good news is Scott Perry made this roster a whole lot better before leaving for the Knicks. Drafting De'Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles and Frank Mason III, and signing George Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph has this roster looking as deep as it's been in quite some time. They're in the West, which makes things more difficult, but they're a good bet to make serious improvement in 2017.

Indiana Pacers (31.5 wins)

Like the Bulls, the Pacers began their rebuilding phase after dealing a star in Paul George. Indiana grabbed an established two-way guard in Victor Oladipo (25 years old) and 21-year-old Domantas Sabonis, Potential trade candidates are Thaddeus Young, Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic. Myles Turner is a budding star, while young players in T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu and Glenn Robinson III will get plenty of playing time. Those four matchups against the Bulls could loom large as far as the Lottery balls are concerned.

Los Angeles Lakers (32.5 wins)

It looks like the Lakers hit on both their first-round draft picks, as Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma had monster Summer Leagues. Add Brook Lopez, who was outstanding last season, to a talented young core and it appears the Lakers are trending in the right direction. It wouldn't be surprising to see Los Angeles compete for a playoff spot. Plus, the Lakers have no incentive to tank, as their first-round pick in 2018 will go to Philadelphia or Boston. Expect them to move past the Bulls in the win total.

New York Knicks (32.5 wins)

Not sure about this one. It still seems there's a good chance Carmelo Anthony gets dealt, and depending on what they get back in a deal their second best player (behind Kristaps Porzingis) will be $71 million man Tim Hardaway Jr. They won 31 games a year ago, and it's hard to imagine they're better without Anthony, regardless of how inefficient he's become.

Atlanta Hawks (34.5 wins)

No team in the league took a bigger hit from where they were a year ago to now than the Hawks. After winning 43 wins and earning the No. 5 seed in the East, Atlanta lost Paul Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr. to free agency and traded Dwight Howard. Essentially it's Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and a ton of question marks. Taurean Prince, DeAndre' Bembry and rookie John Collins are a good core, but this is going to be an ugly season in the ATL.

Dallas Mavericks (34.5 wins)

We'll go ahead and assume restricted free agent Nerlens Noel returns. So, too, is Dirk Nowitzki back for another year, and the Mavs look like they have a steal in rookie Dennis Smith Jr. They've entered a rebuild, which owner Mark Cuban admitted, but their talent across the board might be enough to get them to the 33 wins they had a year ago. Playing in the West makes it more difficult to project, but they should tally more wins than the Bulls simply on their talent pool.

Orlando Magic (34.5 wins)

This Las Vegas win total is a little confusing. Orlando made nice moves in the offseason, drafting Jonathan Isaac and signing Jonathon Simmons. But that's about it, and the Magic were lucky to win 29 games a year ago. True, they're in a depleted Eastern Conference but it's hard to see Frank Vogel turning around the franchise this quickly. That being said, their young players (Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic, Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon) have NBA experience, so maybe they make a jump and it results in wins.

Cubs Talk Podcast: State of Cubs-Cardinals rivalry and what lies ahead

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: State of Cubs-Cardinals rivalry and what lies ahead

St. Louis Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold stops by to chat with CSN's Patrick Mooney about the landscape of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry and preview the weekend series at Wrigley Field on the latest Cubs Talk Podcast.

Later, Double-A Tennessee broadcaster Mick Gillespie joins the podcast to chat with Mooney about what prospects the Cubs have left in the farm system.

Also, how pitcher Dillon Maples could make an impact on the big league club as soon as this year.

Check out the entire podcast here: