ND and the SEC: Conference's dominance doesn't intimidate Irish

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ND and the SEC: Conference's dominance doesn't intimidate Irish

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame features big, physical players in the trenches, a dynamic defense and an offense built around a stable of athletic running backs. That combination has led plenty to draw the conclusion Notre Dame is built like a menacing SEC team -- just like the one they'll face in the BCS Championship.

Apt or not, it's a conclusion at which defensive end Stephon Tuitt bristled.

"I wouldnt say were kind of like an SEC team. Were ourselves," Tuitt said Friday. "We go to work every day like everybody else. We showed it in the production, and we proved that."

Tuitt knows all about the SEC, hailing from Monroe, Ga, which is about a half-hour drive from the University of Georgia. Rated by Rivals.com as a five-star defensive end out of high school, Tuitt fielded offers from seven SEC schools including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn and LSU.

"Its tough, physical players," Tuitt said. "But at the same time, we have a tough, physical line as well, and our defense is tough and physical too."

Yahoo: At Notre Dame, campus life differs little for students and football stars

Notre Dame players recognize the challenges Alabama presents, but think they match up well against the Tide. Judging by the games early spread, though, few outside of Notre Dame nation agree with that premise. Alabama is favored by about 10 points by most Vegas outlets, and plenty of prognosticators don't give the Irish a chance on Jan. 7.

That's not necessarily a shot against Notre Dame, although some Irish players will use it to add fuel to the nobody-believes-in-us fire that's burned all year. To some extent, what those lines are the product of is the SEC winning six consecutive titles.

So has the SEC earned the right to be favored in every championship until the conference is dethroned?

"I dont think so, man," safety Zeke Motta said. "Football is football. It can go either way anytime."

If that doesnt sound like a ringing endorsement, Louis Nix offered up a different angle.

"The SEC didnt win it, the certain teams in the game won it. I dont care about the conference thing," the affable defensive tackle said. "The teams that won it the last six years so happened to be in the SEC. Those guys earned the title. I'm happy I'm facing one of those teams that won it twice already. I can't wait to play them, and cant wait for January 7."

LSU and Auburn have won single titles, while Alabama and Florida have garnered two championships over the last six years. The conference has tremendous recruiting pull, and the region produces loads of talent at the prep level every year. And look no further than Bret Bielema leaving a top-four job in the Big Ten for a top-seven (at best) gig at Arkansas last week as evidence of the conference's pull.

To be the best, you have to beat the SEC.

"They have dominated, they are the preeminent conference, they've proven it on the field," coach Brian Kelly said. "Alabama has been the benchmark for college football, in three out of the last four National Championship games. Were aware of the challenge in front of us. We welcome it. It's one that were putting ourselves in a position to go find out where we need to go from here."

Related: Practice not just about BCS Championship for Notre Dame

For all of the SEC's chest-beating, Alabama was in the same boat as Notre Dame a month ago. After losing to Texas A&M, the Tide needed two teams to lose to reach the BCS Championship, no matter how hard some tried to convince themselves a one-loss Alabama team would be ranked over an undefeated Notre Dame or Kansas State squad.

For Notre Dame, going undefeated meant they met the minimum requirement for BCS Championship consideration -- of course, they could've done more to strengthen their case earlier in the season with some style points, no matter how badly the team wanted to shun that notion. Despite the strength of the conference, a loss is a loss, and the prospect of not having an SEC team in the BCS Championship led to plenty of hand-wringing.

It really doesnt make any difference how many game-winning shots you made in the past, the only one you gotta focus on is the one you gotta shoot right now, Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

The stars aligned for Alabama when both K-State and Oregon lost on the same Saturday, and when Georgia botched a last-minute drive two weeks later. The defending champions actually get to defend their title, and could make it seven in a row from the nations best conference.

For Notre Dame, they get the opportunity to win the program's first title since 1988. But on a larger scale -- one the team probably doesn't care much about, but one that most everyone else around the sport does -- the Irish can stonewall the SEC's recent dominance atop college football, at least for one year.

Were very ecstatic about this challenge, running back Theo Riddick said. What else can I say, you want to beat the best. So we have that chance.

2016 NHL Draft: Report Cards for Central Division

2016 NHL Draft: Report Cards for Central Division

The 2016 NHL Draft has officially come and gone, and it's time to assess how each team in the Central Division fared. Taking each team's circumstance under consideration, grades were determined by the execution of their big picture plan. 

Chicago Blackhawks: B+

For the second straight year, the Blackhawks didn't own a first-round pick after trading it at the deadline for Andrew Ladd. They did, however, have the most draft picks out of any team in the Central Division team (nine), including three second-rounders after acquiring two of them in a deal that sent Andrew Shaw to Montreal.

The first one, No. 39 overall, was used to select Alex DeBrincat, who was projected to go in the first round but slipped because of his size (5-foo-7, 165 lbs). Scouts are already comparing this pick to Brandon Saad in a sense that it's a player with high upside and has the potential to be a second-round steal.

One thing we do know is, DeBrincat can score and he does a lot of it. The 18-year-old winger registered two consecutive 51-goal seasons with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hocky League, where he compiled 104 points in 2014-15 and 101 points in 2015-16.

The Blackhawks added some defensive depth by drafting defenseman Chad Krys, who played with DeBrincat on Team USA at the 2016 World Junior Championship, at No. 45 overall and Russian winger Artur Kayumov with pick No. 50 to cap off the trio of second-round selections. 

Along the way, the Blackhawks stockpiled a pair of 2017 draft picks, giving them 10 total when they host the draft in Chicago for the first time ever.

Colorado Avalanche: B

The Avalanche are quietly gathering a young and skilled forward group in Colorado. While defense has been an issue since Patrick Roy took over as head coach, they've been near the bottom of the league in puck possession numbers as well, and the selection of Tyson Jost at No. 10 overall is a step in the right direction to patch up both areas.

Draft experts are comparing Jost to Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, a two-way centerman who has the ability to play against top competition on a nightly basis.

Already with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog as the franchise cornerstones, Jost figures to draw into the lineup at some point over the next couple seasons, along with offensively-gifted Finnish winger Mikko Rantanen, who they drafted at No. 10 overall last year.

The Avalanche also selected two defensemen, Josh Anderson in the third round and Nathan Clurman in the sixth round, addressing a glaring need.

Dallas Stars: C

The Stars have created an identity in Dallas built on speed and strong puck possession numbers, and their first-round selection of Riley Tufte is an interesting one. He's one of the tallest forwards in this year's draft at 6-foot-5, but scouts say he's a strong skater with great hands for his size.

While he may not blend in with the fast-paced style, he's a versatile player that can play up and down the lineup, the type of hockey player every team needs.

To address their goaltending situation, the Stars drafted Colton Point in the fifth round as a potential long-term project and solution in the crease. This came shortly after the Stars officially gave up on and parted ways with netminder Jack Campbell, who was once thought to be the next big thing, after he was shipped to Los Angeles for defenseman Nick Ebert.

Minnesota Wild: C

The best move of the weekend for the Wild was, hands down, the decision to buy out the final year of Thomas Vanek's contract and the $6.5 million cap hit that came with it. While the penalty will be $1.5 million this year and $2.5 million in 2017-18, it opened up $5 million in cap space for a team that currently has just seven forwards under contract in 2016-17 and wants to contend before the championship window starts to close.

As for the draft itself, the Wild had only one pick in the first three rounds — and four total — but luckily for them it was a first-rounder used on forward Luke Kunin at No. 15.

He's regarded as a solid two-way player who plays with high energy, something the Wild could use as they transition into the Bruce Boudreau era.

Nashville Predators: B+

The Predators had eight draft picks this year (with at least one in each round), and — surprise, surprise — they used five of them on a defenseman, including their first-round pick (No. 17 overall) Dante Fabbro and second-round selection (No. 47 overall) Samuel Girard.

Fabbro is expected to play next season at Boston University, but with Shea Weber on the back-nine of his career and Seth Jones being traded to Columbus in exchange for Ryan Johansen, the Predators are hoping Fabbro can be their next young stud on the blue line.

St. Louis Blues: B

The Blues owned only one draft pick in the first three rounds last season, but this year they had three in the first two, and eight overall.

Tage Thompson fits the crop of the Blues as a versatile power forward with offensive skill, and they liked him enough to trade up two spots to take him at No. 26 overall. Jordan Kyrou, their second-round selection, drew some positive reaction as a guy that jumps off your television screen. 

Thompson and Kyrou were two of seven forwards drafted by the Blues, with the other being a goaltender, Evan Fizpatrick, with the 59th overall pick.

Speaking of goaltenders, the Blues also made one of the biggest trades of the weekend by dealing Brian Elliott to Calgary for a second-round pick (which turned out to be Kyrou at No. 35) and a conditional third-rounder in 2017, with the caveat that Elliott re-signs with the Flames.

With Jake Allen ready to take on the full-time role in net and the Flames desperately needing a starter, it's a deal that made sense for both sides, but perhaps the Blues could've gotten more for Elliott given his 2016 success, both in the regular season and postseason, and great value at $2.5 million.

Winnipeg Jets: A-

The Jets are building something special in Winnipeg after owning two first-round picks for the second straight year.

Auston Matthews, who went No. 1 overall to Toronto, is certainly the most well-rounded player in this year's draft, but the Jets arguably drafted the player with the highest ceiling with the second overall pick: Patrik Laine, who compared himself to Alex Ovechkin, a six-time Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy winner.

Laine will make an immediate impact on the Jets in his first season. Factor that in with the possibility of Kyle Connor, who was named USA Hockey's College Player of the Year and left college early to sign his entry-level contract in April, joining the Jets at the same time as Laine and Winnipeg's future is almost here.

Logan Stanley, a 6-foot-7 defenseman, may have been a reach at No. 18 overall, but the growing threat of losing Jacob Trouba, who's a restricted free agent on July 1, via a trade or an offer sheet may have forced their hand to keep that blue line stocked with young, promising talent. 

Cubs drop fifth game in last six with loss to Marlins

Cubs drop fifth game in last six with loss to Marlins

MIAMI (AP) — Ichiro Suzuki slapped a ground ball toward the left side of the infield, then hustled down the line to first just in case the throw didn't get there in time.

It didn't, and the Miami Marlins were in business.

That play by Suzuki kick-started what became a four-run fifth as the Marlins took the lead for good, and they went on to beat the Chicago Cubs 9-6 on Saturday.

"Just a good team," said Justin Bour, who hit his 14th home run and finished with three RBIs. "Good vibe right now, and just got to keep it rolling."

Giancarlo Stanton had his first three-RBI game since April 26 for Miami, which got to 40 wins in 75 games - or 20 games faster than they did a year ago. Paul Clemens (1-0) allowed four runs in five innings for his first big league win since June 12, 2013, and A.J. Ramos got the last two outs for his 24th save in as many chances this season.

Going back to 2015, Ramos has saved 33 straight, tying a Marlins franchise record.

"He's been solid," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. "Any team that has a guy at the end that's closing `em down and not giving `em up, if you can get to him with a lead you're in good shape."

Addison Russell hit a three-run homer and Miguel Montero added a solo homer for the Cubs, who still have the best record in the majors even after losing five of their last six games. They ended a four-game skid Friday night despite giving up Bour's grand slam.

"That's a tremendous lineup," Clemens said.

Cubs starter John Lackey (7-4) gave up a season-high seven runs in 4 1-3 innings, and it's almost like he knew Suzuki's infield single would be trouble - smacking his glove and shouting in frustration after he reached.

It only got worse over the next few minutes for Lackey, who had a 2.78 ERA when the game started and a 3.29 ERA when it ended.

"To start off with an infield hit ... I have to do better than that," Lackey said. "Four runs should be enough to win that game."

Suzuki took second when Russell's throw squirted away from Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and scored two pitches later on Martin Prado's double.

Stanton drove in Prado with a single that chased Lackey and put Miami up 5-4, Bour greeted reliever Gerardo Concepcion with an RBI double, and Derek Dietrich's sacrifice fly made it 7-4.

It was a rare sort of loss for the Cubs, who were 33-0 this season when scoring six runs and 44-3 when scoring at least four.

"When we score that many runs we're going to win a baseball game," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "It was one of those nights and we move on."

TRAINER'S ROOM

Cubs: Rizzo (back stiffness) and Montero (right knee) returned to the lineup after missing the last two games. ... 2B Ben Zobrist, who was forced out of Friday's game after getting hit in the left ankle by a pitch, didn't start but pinch-hit in the eighth.

Marlins: CF Marcell Ozuna, who played in all but one of Miami's first 74 games, wasn't in the lineup because of left wrist pain. Suzuki started in center for the sixth time this season.

CUBS LINEUP

Willson Contreras, who had an RBI double in the ninth for the Cubs, got the start in left field. That became the third position (joining catcher and first base) that he's played in a very hectic opening eight games of his MLB career. And Lackey batted eighth, the second straight day that Maddon put a starting pitcher in that slot after doing the same with Kyle Hendricks in Friday's win.

ICHIRO WATCH

Suzuki went 1 for 4, moving him within 16 hits of 3,000 for his MLB career.

UP NEXT

The series ends Sunday when Marlins RHP Jose Fernandez (9-3, 2.36) faces Cubs RHP Jason Hammel (7-3, 2.55). Fernandez is 23-1 all-time at home and has never faced the Cubs, who have lost each of Hammel's last three starts. Fernandez briefly left the Marlins' dugout in the first inning Saturday after a foul ball bounced off his right hand, but returned not long afterward - and even asked Mattingly if he could pinch-hit in the late innings.

White Sox blast seven homers but lose to Blue Jays

White Sox blast seven homers but lose to Blue Jays

Even though they tied a team record on Saturday afternoon, the White Sox became only the third team in baseball history to hit seven home runs in a game and lose.

Brett Lawrie produced his first multi-homer game, but a poor outing by starter Miguel Gonzalez did in the short-handed White Sox, who lost 10-8 to the Toronto Blue Jays in front of 25,776 at U.S. Cellular Field.

The seven home runs -- all solo shots -- matched an April 23, 1955 performance at the Kansas City Athletics. But it wasn’t enough to prevent them from falling below .500 as Gonzalez allowed eight runs in 5 1/3 innings. Dioner Navarro, J.B. Shuck, Tim Anderson, Alex Avila and Adam Eaton all homered in the loss.

“I don’t think I’ve seen that before,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said.

While it may not be as unprecedented, the workload has been hefty for the White Sox bullpen over the last week. The group had combined for 26 1/3 innings in the team’s previous seven games and needed a lengthy effort from Gonzalez. Ventura said afterward he ruled relievers David Robertson and Nate Jones, who each appeared in five of those games, and Matt Albers and Zach Duke, who had four each, out of action.

So it couldn’t have been easy for Ventura to stomach when Gonzalez allowed five consecutive first-inning hits and fell behind 3-0. Devon Travis made it a five-run game in the second inning with a two-run homer.

Starved for length from the starting pitcher, Ventura stuck with Gonzalez, who retired the side in order in the third. But the Blue Jays continued to add on against Gonzalez, pushing across three more runs in the fourth inning. Josh Donaldson drew a bases-loaded walk with two outs to make it a 6-3 game and Edwin Encarnacion’s two-run single again pushed the deficit to five.

While Gonzalez pitched a scoreless fifth inning, he was lifted after a one-out double in the sixth by Ezequiel Carrera.

“We've got to win that game,” Gonzalez said. “That can't happen. I have to be more consistent.

"It's frustrating not to be a little bit more consistent early in the ballgame.”

Gonzalez is now 1-3 with a 7.83 ERA in four home starts this season.

Encarnacion doubled in an insurance run and Troy Tulowitzki singled in another in the ninth off rookie Michael Ynoa to give Toronto a 10-7 lead.

Despite facing big deficits all game, the White Sox didn’t surrender.

Lawrie’s inside-the-park-home run with two outs in the second off R.A. Dickey lit a fuse. It was the first inside-the-park-homer by a White Sox player at U.S. Cellular Field since Chris Singleton on Sept. 29, 2000.

Navarro then lined one out to right to make it 5-2 and Shuck followed with his first homer since April 19, 2014 -- a span of 318 plate appearances. It’s the first time the White Sox hit three consecutive homers since they hit four in a row against the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 14, 2008.

Lawrie’s solo homer off Dickey in the fourth made it 8-3 as he became the first White Sox player since Ron Santo on June 9, 1974 to have both a traditional homer and an inside-the-park-homer in the same contest.

The White Sox added a run in the sixth on an RBI single by Lawrie to make it 8-5, but reliever Jesse Chavez stranded a pair of runners.

Anderson’s homer off Drew Storen in the seventh made it a two-run game and Avila’s oppo-shot off Jason Grilli in the eighth got the White Sox within a run.

Eaton homered in the ninth, too, but it wasn’t enough.

“They’ve got a well oiled machine over there,” Eaton said. “They’re tough to compete with. At the same time, you hit seven home runs, you think you should win the ballgame. But that's the way baseball goes. Baseball is a weird game.

“It's a tricky game. You can never really predict it.”