2012 MLB Playoff Bandwagon Rankings

2012 MLB Playoff Bandwagon Rankings

Yes, the MLB playoffs start today, and no, the Phillies aren't involved. It was a close call to being a close call there for a minute, but ultimately, the Phillies fell out, and few could reasonably argue that they were one of the ten best MLB teams this year, anyway. So while we continued to keep an eye on the Phillies as they looked to the future (sort of) with the likes of Domonic Brown, Tyler Cloyd and Darin Ruf, some of us started scouting the teams that had an actual chance of playing beyond Game 162—four of whom start play today, in a pair of play-in games, with the other six that made it kicking off over the weekend.

Assuming you're not busy pretending that the reason the Phillies missed the playoffs is because of some MLB-wide agreement to just kind of take a pass on the post-season this year, you might want to pick a team to follow and root for for the remainder of October. But which? Well, we've ranked the candidates, from least to most followable:

10. St. Louis Cardinals

A friend of mine told me last night that he was rooting for the Cardinals last night for the specific, asshole-ish reason that it would make the most people unhappy to see them win. Think that's about right—outside of St. Louis, who the hell wants to see the boring-ass reigning-champion Cards win? Certainly not Phillies fans, who have yet to stop smarting from that humiliating Game 5 shutout loss in the Division Series last year. It would've been so very poetic to catch the Cards for the second wildcard spot after we allowed them to backdoor their way in last year, but failing that, the best we can do is root for anyone and everyone playing against them this post-season.

9. New York Yankees

Rooting for the Yankees is never OK.

8. Atlanta Braves

Rooting for the Braves is only slightly less never OK, only because there's an argument to be made that Chipper Jones is an OK guy and this is his last time around and all. Still, mostly fuck the Braves.

7. San Francisco Giants

The other most recent Philly-slayers, with a roster still fairly similar to that which kicked the WFCs out of the playoffs in 2010. They've switched Pat Burrell for Hunter Pence, and while we wish Hunt the best, it's still hard to root for the likes of Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and that damn Giants bullpen with memories of that series still fresh. No Cody Ross or Juan Uribe at least, and Brian Wilson is still out with injury, otherwise they might be even lower.

6. Cincinnati Reds

No real beef with the Reds here—I'm not gonna get on 'em too much for having the temerity to get swept by the Phils in the 2010 NLDS—but they're just kind of a boring team, outside of their Nasty Boys II-esque bullpen. Joey Votto is a great player, but the most notable thing about him is how many walks he takes, and the veteran likes of Brandon Phillips and Bronson Arroyo are kinda whatever in the bandwagoning sense. Plus, the presence of Scott Rolen probably isn't going to endear this team to Phillies fans anytime soon.

5. Oakland Athletics

Not exactly a ton of big names on this roster—anyone who could actually tell Brandon Moss from Jonny Gomes from Derek Norris in a police lineup either probably lives in the Bay Area, watches baseball for a living or maybe wants to reconsider the amount of time they spend watching Extra Innings. Still, it's hard not to get swept up in the excitement of having good baseball in Oakland after six years of just absolute irrelevancy—in a year that started off as a rebuilding write-off, no less. Cool uniforms, fun memories of both the Bash Brothers and the Moneyball-era teams, great end-of-season run...you could do a lot worse than hopping on with the A's.

4. Washington Nationals

Yeah, yeah, division rivals, and they certainly didn't treat us too kind in 2012, but c'mon—rooting against the Nats is a little like rooting against the little brother you've spent a decade giving noogies and wet willies too when they finally stick up for themselves for the first time. It's cute at first, maybe even a little heartwarming—you just hope they don't end up totally flipping the script on you. So for now, we'll give the Nats a little bandwagon love in their first big moment as an actual MLB franchise, with an extra shoutout to our old guy Jayson Werth, for whom we still mostly want good things.

3. Texas Rangers

They're only a step or two away from being Yankees south, and any underdog follow-along potential the Rangers might have had a couple years ago has long since dissipated with their incredible run of prosperity since. That said, the Rangers are still a sympathetic team by virtue of their two consecutive Series losses—already halfway to becoming baseball's Buffalo Bills—with the last one being a particularly heart-rending choke job. Plus, some exciting players on both offense and defense, endless cutaways to a crotchety Nolan Ryan in the audience, warm thoughts in Arlington...who'd root against them getting a third-straight chance at the brass ring?

2. Detroit Tigers

Not a sexy pick, perhaps, but they've got arguably both the game's best hitter and pitcher, an insane closer, the league's most likeable old-timey manager (not counting the one in our own dugout anyway) some very classy uniforms, a terminally depressed city and nearly three decades since their last win. Assuming that FOX and TBS don't beat the Bob Seger and Kid Rock jams to death during their games, nothing wrong with a deep run for the Tigers.

1. Baltimore Orioles

Possible former hometown bias here, as the Orioles were the first team I ever rooted for, but if you're not going to root for the Orioles this year, you might not get another chance for a long, long time. It was among the flukiest of flukes that the O's even got here—they had a negative run differential for nearly the entire season, and won an absolutely unconscionable number of one-run and extra-inning games—and beyond regular All-Stars Adam Jones and Matt Wieters, their core of players (Chris David, Mark Reynolds, Jason Hammel...uhh, Chris Tillman? Nate McLouth?) doesn't exactly scream Future Dynasty.

For a team that's been bad just about ever since Jeffrey Maier comped Derek Jeter a home run in the '96 playoffs, this might be their one shot. They'll have a tough out in the play-in game tonight against Texas, and no one would begrudge them if the Rangers—a fairly obviously superior team, despite the identical records—ended up dispatching them. But unless you're old enough to still be holding a grudge against Baltimore for their '83 World Series victory, may as well give rooting for them a shot, no?

Penn State's Saquon Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game

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Penn State's Saquon Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saquon Barkley believes he can score a touchdown every time he takes a handoff.

Don't mistake the Penn State running back's confidence for arrogance. He's put plenty of evidence on tape in just 15 games to earn a growing reputation as one of the country's most dangerous backs in space.

But with each game this season, Barkley's discovering that space isn't always there in Penn State's new zone-read rushing attack that ranks near the bottom of every major statistical category. Barkley's sure if he remains persistent, more of those highlight-reel runs will come, however.

"We've got to be patient," Barkley said Wednesday. "Stuff will open up and I've got to step up as a player and make more guys miss and break more tackles and we've really got to start getting our run game going because if we get the run game going, that can open up the passing game even more."

Barkley leads the Big Ten with six rushing touchdowns but Penn State ranks last in the conference and 122nd in the nation with just over 101 rushing yards per game. Those sagging rushing numbers can be traced to the big-play back being bottled up before he even gets going.

Usually Barkley's first step is backward in Joe Moorhead's zone-read rushing attack. A delayed handoff follows and Barkley or quarterback Trace McSorley have at times been swallowed up quickly as defenders converge on the mesh point. Although his 55-yard score against Temple came on an inside zone run, Barkley's average on such plays over the last three games falls to just 1.4 yards without it.

It's a cause for concern for Penn State's offensive staff, which is committed to finding more ways to get Barkley the ball as the team prepares to face Minnesota (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) on Saturday.

Shovel passes and pitches have made brief appearances. Barkley's also caught 10 passes thus far and direct snaps may show up in the future.

Eliminating inside zone reads isn't an option, though.

"There's a lot of different ways," Penn State coach James Franklin said.

Penn State has had success on the outside. Even with a delayed start, Barkley's done most of his damage over the last three games when he's been able to flank defenders. He's averaging 10.8 yards per carry on those plays, further evidence of his skill on the edge.

"He's a game-changing player," center Brian Gaia said.

But one that's not comfortable lobbying his coaches for more touches or criticizing a young offensive line that will likely start two freshmen guards this weekend. Like Franklin, Barkley believes a little more early physicality coupled with his own patience will open things up in the middle.

"I would say the thing that we really need to improve the most is just coming out stronger, coming out faster and starting fast," Barkley said. "Physically, I think we're there. Mentally, we've really got a good grasp of the system but, especially in away games, we've been starting out really slow."

Temple readying for conference play, SMU's uptempo attack

Temple readying for conference play, SMU's uptempo attack

Take a look at the standings and you’ll see the Temple Owls are 2-2 so far this season with wins over Stony Brook and Charlotte and losses to Army and Penn State.

But take a peek to the right of that 2-2 mark and you’ll see a 0-0 record in AAC conference play.

While the Owls would most certainly like to have a better record than the 2-2 record they sport at this very moment, the silver lining is that none of those games were conference games. Therefore, those games don’t affect Temple’s overall goal of defending its AAC Eastern Division crown.

But, on Saturday afternoon, that title defense finally begins when Temple welcomes SMU and its uptempo offensive attack to Lincoln Financial Field in the first of eight straight AAC games that will close out the regular season.

“It sort of feels like a new start to the season,” Temple senior quarterback Phillip Walker said following Tuesday’s practice on campus at Edberg-Olsen Hall. “It’s just another great opportunity for us not to look back on anything or think about anything that happened in the past in the first four games. Now it’s an opportunity to play our next eight games and enjoy playing the conference again.”

The good news for Temple heading into conference play is that the offense has found its stride. The Owls overwhelmed Charlotte last week, 48-20, behind 268 yards and two touchdowns throws from the arm of Walker and two touchdowns runs a piece from senior Jahad Thomas and Sophomore Ryquell Armstead. After early struggles, Walker is now up to 846 yards and five touchdowns on the year.

That’s after the tough loss at Penn State two weeks ago when the offense settled itself for the first time this season and found continuity. Thomas’ return to the backfield has helped, as he’s scored four touchdowns in two games since missing the first two games of the year with a dislocated left thumb.

The Temple defense is still hurting itself with a lackluster pass rush. The Owls have only five sacks through the first four games. Last season, they had 10 sacks in the first game alone. Big plays allowed are an issue, too, as Temple has allowed 10 plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage through four games.

But the confidence is there and the Owls believe they are getting better each week.

“I think we’re better than where we were [earlier in the year,]” said redshirt senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick, who has five tackles for loss on the year. “A lot of guys are stepping up, locking in on the small details that were hurting us the first couple of weeks. We’ve got the younger guys playing better and harder, so I think we’ve come a long way. I still think there are some things we need to get better on, but we’re close.

“Those first four games, none of those teams were conference teams. It was like preseason to work out the kinks. Now it’s time to go. It’s full-throttle now. There’s no time to make mistakes. There’s no time to beat ourselves.”

Temple head coach Matt Rhule, on the other hand, doesn’t like to talk much about the “fresh start” or “restart” that comes with the beginning of AAC play this weekend.

He preaches the importance of conference play every week, and he has proof.

“Every week, I put up the conference rankings, no matter what,” he said Tuesday “Week 1 when we lost, I put up the conference rankings. Week 2 when we won, I put up the conference rankings. Week 3, Week 4, I do that every week because I want guys to understand the importance of conference wins, conference losses and conference play.

“I will say, to be fair, I did say we were going to try and get our kids to be ready for Week 4 or 5 or 6, because we knew we were going to have to play a lot of young guys and knew we were going to have to teach them.”

All the Owls, young and old, know they need to be prepared on Saturday.

The Mustangs have already equaled their win total from last season and have the same record, overall and conference, as the Owls heading into Saturday. They hung tough with Big 12 powerhouses Baylor (6-6 at half) and TCU (6-3 TCU at half) before eventually succumbing in the second half of both games.

Defensively, SMU is tied for tops in the nation with 10 interceptions. But plenty of focus goes on the Mustangs’ uptempo offense, which break off chunks of yardage in the blink of an eye with 448 yards per game so far this year. Rhule and the Owls know that fact better than anyone. The last two times these schools have met, SMU earned a 59-49 win in 2013 and Temple came away with a 60-40 victory last season. That’s 208 points combined in the last two meetings.

SMU’s fast-paced attack is exactly the type of offensive system Rhule’s Owls have historically struggled with, too.

“They have, obviously, a lot of offense,” Rhule said of Saturday’s foe. “(SMU head coach) Coach (Chad) Morris was one of the best offensive coordinators in the country. He did it at Clemson and he’s doing it there. There’s a lot to deal with. That’s the history of this series, though.”

Quarterback Matt Davis, who hurt Temple with both his arm and his feet last season, is out for the year with a knee injury suffered in Week 1. Ben Hicks has stepped in and thrown seven interceptions compared to just two touchdowns. But big-play receiver Cortland Sutton is still there and he already has four touchdown grabs on the year.

In practice this week, speed has been the theme of the Owls' defense, which is 28th in the nation with 327.3 yards allowed per game this year.

“It’s difficult to prepare for,” Reddick said of SMU’s offense. “You’ve got to just work on it in practice, going fast and getting the defensive calls faster. You have to look and read to the offense faster to see what you have to do faster. So you have to kick it up.”