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11/29/16: Michigan State @ Duke

Tom Izzo and the 24th-ranked Spartans travel to Durham, N.C., to take on the sixth-ranked Blue Devils in a game that Izzo hopes will pay off later in the season. Michigan State is just 4-3 on the season thus far, but all three losses have been to ranked teams. MSU has lost to Arizona, Kentucky, and Baylor. Most recently, the Spartans defeated Wichita State, 77-72, to win the third-place game at the Battle for Atlantis tournament.

Izzo, whose team exited early from last year’s NCAA tournament, is relying on 6-7 freshman Miles Bridges and he hasn’t let his coach down. Bridges leads the Spartans in scoring (17.4 ppg) and rebounds (8.7 rpg). Veteran Eron Harris, a senior, adds 12.7 points a game. What Izzo and Michigan State lack is a quality big man.

The Blue Devils, 6-1 thus far, have several quality big men. The problem for long-time Duke coach Mike Krzyzewksi is that those big men have been hurt. His super freshman trio of 6-8 Jayson Tatum, 6-10 Harry Giles, and 6-11 Marques Bolden has yet to play a game and they will not play Tuesday night against the Spartans. Still, Duke is strong with veterans Luke Kennard (17.1 ppg) and Grayson Allen (16.1) leading the way. Frank Jackson, another freshman, is averaging 16 per game.

 

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11/30/16: Indiana @ Portland

Two of the NBA’s most mediocre teams will meet on Wednesday night. The 9-9 Pacers travel to face the 9-10 Trail Blazers. Indiana has won its last two, including a 91-70 win over the Clippers on Sunday. It was just the fourth loss of the season for Los Angeles and showed what the Pacers are capable of doing. The problem for Indiana heading west is that they will likely face Portland without leading scorer Paul George (20.8 ppg). C.J. Miles, who has been playing about 23 minutes a game, may also be out. Miles averages 13 points a game and did not play in the win over the Clippers.

The Trail Blazers feature one of the NBA’s best backcourts in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Lillard is one of the league’s top scorers averaging 28.2 points a game. He also dishes out 5.3 assists a game. McCollum adds 22.3 a game shooting nearly 45 percent from 3-point range. Portland is fourth in the league in scoring, but where the Trail Blazers fail is on defense. They are one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams. Portland gives up 113.7 points per game, 29th in the league. That includes Sunday night’s 130-114 loss to Houston where Rockets guard James Harden scored 38.

Portland does have a winning record (5-4) at home. The Pacers have not done well on the road this season. They are just 1-5 away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

 

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12/1/16: Dallas @ Minnesota

The 10-1 Cowboys have not lost since Week 1 of the season. Despite playing three games in 12 days, Dallas has shown no ill effects of the quick turnaround and defeated rival Washington 31-26 on Thanksgiving Day. The Cowboys have the NFL’s leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott, and the league’s best rookie quarterback in Dak Prescott. Elliott has rushed for 1199 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Prescott has thrown for 2835 yards, 18 TDs, and just two interceptions. He has played with incredible poise and is a big reason why Dallas has the NFL’s best record.

Just over a month ago, the Vikings were 5-0 and on their way to a second-straight NFC North Division title. Then, the wheels came off the bus. All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson was lost for the season early and then it really came apart when both starting offensive tackles were lost for the season. Heading into Thursday night’s game, the Vikings have $30 million of their 2016 salary cap on injured reserve. The results, of course, have been devastating for Minnesota – just one win in the last six games.

Now, they face the NFL’s best team in prime time. Dallas is second in the NFL in rushing, third in scoring offense, and tenth in scoring defense. The one thing the Cowboys are not good at is takeaways. No team has ever reached the Super Bowl averaging less than one takeaway per game. Dallas has 11 in 11 games.

 

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12/2/16: Colorado vs. Washington

Ninth-ranked Colorado completed an impressive worst-to-first turnaround in the Pac-12. Last season, head coach Mike MacIntyre’s Buffaloes went 1-8 in the conference. With wins over ranked Washington State and Utah to close the season, Colorado finished 8-1 in the Pac-12 and 10-2 overall. It’s an amazing turnaround, but MacIntyre has done it right. Colorado is built around a stingy defense that 13th in the nation in scoring defense giving up 18.8 points a game. The Buffaloes are also very good at running the football averaging over 200 rushing yards per game and led by 1,000-yard rusher Phillip Lindsay (1,136 yards).

Sefo Liufau is the Colorado quarterback and is equally adept running and passing. He is the Buffs second-leading rusher with 483 yard and seven touchdowns on the ground and he has completed almost 65 percent of his passes for 2,150 yards. Liufau has thrown just three interceptions all year.

Winning the Pac-12 will require the Buffaloes best effort of the season as they face a very powerful Washington team. The Huskies are third nationally in scoring offense (44.8 points per game) and their defense is very good as well (17.8 points per game, 10th in the nation). Head coach Chris Petersen has performed a turnaround of his own building the Washington program back into a nationally prominent program. Quarterback Jake Browning has 3,162 passing yards and 40 touchdowns. The Huskies also have a 1,000-yard back in Myles Gaskin (1,180 yards) and still have a shot at the College Football Playoff with a win on Friday night.

 

 

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12/3/16: Wisconsin vs. Penn State

Ohio State’s win over Michigan propelled unlikely Penn State to the Big Ten championship game where the Nittany Lions will face No. 6 Wisconsin. The Badgers have just two losses on the season, to Ohio State and Michigan in consecutive weeks earlier in the season, both by seven points. Should the Badgers defeat Penn State on Saturday night in Indianapolis, they likely will qualify for the four-team College Football playoff. A Penn State win makes the CFP committee’s job much more difficult.

The Nittany Lions, 10-2, 8-1, turned their season around with a huge 24-21 win over the Buckeyes back on Oct. 22. Head coach James Franklin and his Lions have won eight in a row with an offense that has been averaging over 40 points a game since a 49-10 loss to Michigan. Quarterback Trace McSorley has been very efficient in running the Nittany Lions new spread offense under offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. What really makes the Penn State offense go is running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley rushed for 1,219 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. He was hurt in last week’s win over Michigan State and his status is unclear.

Wisconsin, 10-2, 7-2, has the Big Ten’s best rush defense. If they are able to bottle up the Nittany Lions as Michigan State did last week, it will be up to McSorley to come through again. The Badgers may have quarterback issues of their own. Alex Hornibrook, a freshman from West Chester, Penn., took over the starting job earlier in the season but was injured in last week’s game with Minnesota. He is questionable for Saturday night’s title game. If he is not able to go, fifth-year senior Bart Houston would start. Head coach Paul Chryst used Houston as part of a two-quarterback system over the Badgers final six games of the season.

 

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12/4/16: Carolina @ Seattle

The Panthers and Seahawks have played some memorable games recently. They have met three times in the last two seasons with two of those games in the postseason. You can go back to 2006 when the two teams met for the NFC title, a game won by the Seahawks. Carolina has actually won the last two meetings, including last year’s 31-24 win in an NFC divisional playoff game. The Panthers have not fared so well this season and are just 4-7 heading into Sunday night’s game in Seattle.

Carolina is coming off a 35-32 loss to Oakland, a game where the Panthers put up a valiant comeback effort only to fall short in the end. The Panthers have fallen short for a few reasons, one a defense that is not typical of Ron Rivera-coached Carolina teams and a subpar season from last year’s league MVP, QB Cam Newton.

Carolina gives up 25.5 points a game, 24th in the NFL and a far cry from last year’s 19.3 points per game, which was sixth in the league. The Panthers were also the No. 1 scoring team in the NFL last year. Carolina has scored over 40 points just once and that was against the hapless 49ers. The Panthers have scored over 30 points just three times, all losses. Carolina will have a hard time on both sides of the ball against Seattle. Plus, winning at CenturyLink Field is a monumental task.

 

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12/5/16: Indianapolis @ NY Jets

The Indianapolis Colts head into Monday night’s contest with the Jets facing a must-win. Head coach Chuck Pagano and company need to win to keep pace with the rest of the AFC South. Houston leads the division at 6-5 and Tennessee is a half-game behind at 6-6. Indy (5-6) can still win the division but needs to win the games it should, beat the Texans in two weeks, and hopefully pull an upset of the Raiders on Christmas Eve.

The Colts might have to pull off a win Monday night without starting quarterback Andrew Luck, who missed the Thanksgiving night loss to Pittsburgh. Luck suffered a concussion and missed the game with the Steelers. He is in the final stages of the NFL’s concussion protocol and will be evaluated after he practices on Wednesday. It’s possible that Luck plays on Monday night though if he doesn’t Scott Tolzien is an adequate backup.

The Jets are reeling after another loss Sunday, this one to the Patriots. New York actually led 17-13 in the fourth quarter but gave up a field goal and a Tom Brady touchdown pass to lose 22-17. The loss was the third straight for the Jets, who boast one of the league’s least productive offenses. The Jets average 17.8 points per game, 28th in the 32-team NFL.

The Jets have won the last three meetings between the two teams including last year’s game, a 20-7 win at Lucas Oil Stadium. The last time the two teams played at MetLife Stadium, the Jets grabbed a 35-9 victory. If New York is to have success next Monday night, they are going to need to find a way to run the ball. The Jets managed just 64 yards against the Patriots last week.

Indianapolis is one of the NFL’s poorest defenses. The Colts give up an average of 395 yards per game, 30th in the league. They are 23rd in rush defense yielding 116.3 yards per game on the ground.

 

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