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With Mahomes Gone, Kliff Kingsbury in a Tough Spot Heading into 2017

Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Kliff Kingsbury’s turnaround job in 2017 just got a whole lot harder.

After a disappointing 5-7 record this season, Kingsbury finds himself in a position that many thought he never would: a seat that is heating up and in need of a good season to assuage the doubt surrounding the Texas Tech program and his head coaching abilities. Now he will have to search for improvement without his best player.

When star quarterback Patrick Mahomes announced Tuesday morning that he will forego his senior season to enter the NFL draft, it left a gaping hole in the center of the Red Raiders offense. To his credit, Kingsbury was all positive about his pupil after the announcement.

“Our staff is excited for Patrick’s future in the NFL,” Kingsbury said in a statement. “He is a tremendous talent and the sky is the limit for him moving forward. We wish him nothing but the best.”

But one has to wonder if Kingsbury privately wanted Mahomes to come back. Without him, Kingsbury will likely build his offense around senior Nic Shimonek, the Iowa transfer who impressed in limited action backing up Mahomes in 2016.

Shimonek is known as a free-spirited gunslinger around Lubbock, and considering Kingsbury’s offensive history and the slew of playmakers coming back next year, the Red Raiders offense will be plenty productive. However, Kingsbury might have to adjust his play calling tendencies if he wants to keep his team competitive in a Big 12 that is going to be very tough in 2017.

Shimonek threw for 464 yards and six touchdowns in four games as Mahomes' backup in 2016.
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Running back De’Leon Ward flashed promise in his freshman season and Demarcus Felton will also return to the backfield for his junior year, giving Tech two quality running options. If Kingsbury can shore up the offensive line and open up some holes for the two rushers, the Red Raiders might be able to enjoy a more balanced attack than in year’s past. That would not only keep opposing defenses off balance, it would also potentially allow the Red Raiders to sustain longer drives and thus giving their defense more time to rest.

Ah, the defense — Tech’s Achilles heel for the entirety of Kingsbury’s four-year tenure. The Red Raiders were expected to make strides in defensive coordinator David Gibbs’ second year, but it didn’t go as planned. Tech was shredded repeatedly to the tune of 43.5 points and 554 yards allowed per game, both good for last in all the FBS.

They couldn’t stop the run or the pass, they couldn’t force turnovers and they couldn’t get off the field on third down. That isn't a good combination, and the fact of the matter is that they are either going to have to show at least modest improvement on that side of the ball or they aren’t going to win many games no matter how awesome their offense is.

After all, even when Mahomes was doing his thing this past season and leading the nation in total yards and touchdowns, the Red Raiders limped to a 5-7 finish.

Kingsbury and Mahomes were quite the coach/QB duo for the past three seasons.
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

So heading into 2017, Kingsbury has his work cut out for him. Even if Shimonek fills in nicely behind center and manages to operate a productive offense, he simply won’t be Mahomes. He won’t repeatedly make Houdini-like improvisational highlights like Mahomes did and he won’t be able to put up more yards and points than the 2016 Red Raiders did.

In other words thanks to Mahomes, there’s nowhere to go but down for the Red Raider offense.

But conversely, there’s nowhere to go but up for the defense. And they must do just that if they want to make a bowl in 2017 and cool Kingsbury’s seat. Linebacker Dakota Allen, who made an impact as a freshman in 2015, is back with the team after being suspended last year. He should pair nicely with Jordyn Brooks, who led the team in tackles as a freshman this season, to form a stout linebacking corps.

The unit will lose several seniors to graduation ¬— including six of the top 10 tacklers in 2016 — but also has a defensive-heavy recruiting class coming in to theoretically fill those slots.

So ultimately, Texas Tech’s 2017 success will come down to if the defense can make strides and if Gibbs can finally teach his players to create turnovers at a high level, which was supposed to be his forte when he came to Kingsbury’s staff from the University of Houston.

The defense was already under some pressure after last season’s futility, and now it will be needed even more with Mahomes’ exit.

Because with Mahomes, the Red Raiders could make only three stops throughout the game and still have a chance to win.

Now, with Shimonek, they might need four. 

Adding Jose Bautista Would Make the Houston Astros Legit World Series Contenders

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Astros have been busy this offseason. After a somewhat disappointing finish to the 2016 season in which they missed out on the postseason, the Astros acquired Josh Reddick, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran to bolster their lineup.

But while those additions certainly give the Astros a potent offense, they’re still a level below the best teams in baseball. And as rumors swirl that Houston is in discussions with the White Sox for left-handed starting pitcher Jose Quintana, the ‘Stros best route to making themselves instant World Series contenders involves adding another offensive piece.

This would be a classic case of the rich getting richer, and the ideal candidate to be that piece comes in the form of Jose Bautista. The Astros still have a hole in left field, and the former Blue Jay would complement George Springer and Josh Reddick extremely well.

Bautista only managed 22 home runs and a .234 batting average in an injury-riddled 2016 campaign, but that should not scare away potential suitors. If anything, it will lower his price. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe wrote back in November that the Astros were interested in the 36-year-old slugger, and now Astros should take advantage of a market that seems to be unsold on Bautista’s talent.

Bautista's vicious uppercut swing would translate nicely to Houston's Minute Maid Park, a haven for right-handed power.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If the Astros’ offense looked stout before, imagine the ammunition that manager A.J. Hinch would be able to pencil into his lineup with Bautista.

1

CF

George Springer

2

2B

Jose Altuve

3

SS

Carlos Correa

4

LF

Jose Bautista

5

DH

Carlos Beltran

6

C

Brian McCann

7

3B

Alex Bregman

8

RF

Josh Reddick

9

1B

Yuli Gurriel

Again, the current Astros seem to be one player short of being legit contenders. They could try to add a pitcher to their somewhat thin rotation, but the asking price on Quintana was too high, there aren’t any high-caliber free agent arms available this offseason and it’s easier to part with cash than prized prospects.

And, as Dave Cameron pointed out in a recent FanGraphs column, Quintana’s numbers aren’t even that special. Yes, he is a durable lefty who would surely benefit from playing with a better offense behind him, but his numbers the last three years have not been all that different from current Astros starter Colin McHugh. They have similar walk, strikeout and ground ball rates over the past three years, and the main reason that Quintana’s run prevention rates are lower could be his significantly lower BABIP (batting average on balls in play), which is a stat that jumps around from year to year.

White Sox pitcher Jose Quintana.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In other words, the numbers show that McHugh and Quintana are almost interchangeable. Quintana is better, to be sure, but I don’t think it would be worth selling the farm for a pitcher who doesn’t vastly improve the rotation.

If not a pitcher, then they might as well maximize their run scoring potential, and Bautista would do just that. He has established himself as one of the premier power hitters in baseball in recent years — he leads MLB in home runs hit since 2010 — and would likely love hitting in hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park. The Crawford Boxes sit barely 300 feet away from home plate, and Bautista’s pull-happy approach at the plate would fit the short porch like a glove.

Bautista has his question marks, though, his injury history being one. He has failed to play 120 games in three of the past five seasons and wasn’t very effective in those years even when he was on the field. However, in 2014 and 2015 he was healthy and mashed 35 and 40 homers, respectively.

His character has also been called into question of late, so much so that the Orioles refused to pursue the 36-year-old slugger because their “fans don’t like him.”

“Our fans don’t like Jose Bautista — with good reason,” Baltimore general manager Dan Duquette told Toronto’s SportsNet 590 in early December. “We told his agent that we are not interested because our fans don’t like him.”

Bautista’s epic bat flip in the 2015 postseason and his boxing match with Rougned Odor are probably the two reasons why the Orioles supposedly don’t like him, but the Astros should not worry one bit.

Why, you might ask? Because both of those instances came against the Texas Rangers, a team that happens to be the Astros biggest rival and a thorn in their side the past couple of seasons. Maybe Bautista’s fiery attitude is just what Houston needs to solve its woes against the Rangers, who have won 28 of the 38 contests between the two clubs in the last two years.

Bautista is also 36 years old, which could be a reason why teams are wary of opening the checkbook for him. Again, the Astros should just treat this as a positive — it means he is available and probably won’t cost as much.

Bautista already turned down Toronto’s one-year, $17.2 million qualifying offer, and MLB insider Jon Paul Morosi recently reported that he has turned down at least one other offer with the mindset that he wants to return to the Blue Jays, whom he has played for since 2008.

The time is now for the Astros. Bautista has had the opportunity to see his teammate Edwin Encarnacion sign a shorter and less lucrative contract than he was hoping for — three years and $60 million to the Indians. With Bautista being older, less productive and not as consistent as Encarnacion, he will undoubtedly get a smaller contract.

Maybe the Astros could get him for two years and $35 million, who knows? The only way to find out is to ask. As the New Year quickly approaches, Bautista might be more willing to negotiate. ESPN’s Jim Bowden reported that the Astros had extended an offer for Encarnacion, and now they should do the same to Bautista.

He might be a little more expensive than Jeff Luhnow was hoping to spend at this juncture, but the Astros current payroll sits at around $91.5 million, according to Spotrac, still well under the luxury tax and 17th out of the 30 MLB teams. Of the ten teams that made the postseason last year, nine of them have a higher payroll than the Astros with the Indians being the only exception.

Ultimately, Bautista would be worth it. His swing is perfect for Minute Maid, he fills the Astros biggest positional need and he and Beltran can switch off between left field and designated hitter if necessary to keep both players healthy and rested for the postseason.

Because with Bautista, the Astros would make the postseason and even have a chance to make some noise in October.

That should be more than enough to convince Luhnow to pull the trigger and bring one of the game’s most feared hitters to Houston.

Why Michigan Will Win the National Championship

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

It's the final day of October and the first edition of the College Football Playoff rankings is slated to be unveiled on Tuesday, and one thing is clear: if there's one team that can stop Alabama from winning its second consecutive national title, look no further than the Michigan Wolverines.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh has pulled off one of the most impressive turnaround jobs in recent memory, and his Wolverines have all the pieces to not only win the Big Ten but also make some noise in the CFB Playoff.

As the old saying goes, "defense wins championships," and Michigan is certainly set in that regard. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has presided over the best defense in the country, a unit that is stocked with playmakers all over the field. The Wolverines lead the country in total defense, scoring defense and passing defense and rank 15th in rushing defense.

Opposing teams are averaging only 231 yards and 11.6 points per game, and Michigan has held its opponent to eight points or fewer in half its games.

But beyond the stats, Michigan's personnel is built for beating fellow juggernauts like Alabama, Ohio State and others. 

Jabrill Peppers is aiming to become the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy since former U-M legend Charles Woodson did it in 1997.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Jabrill Peppers was regarded by most as the best safety coming into the season, but now U-M has him playing in a hybrid linebacker-type role to maximize his athleticism. Jourdan Lewis is one of the best cornerbacks in the country and has made two big interceptions this season, including an ultra-acrobatic one against No. 8 Wisconsin earlier this season. 

It's one of the best you'll see, courtesy of SportsCenter:

The linebacking corps lost its top three players from last year's team, but others have stepped up and haven't missed a beat. Ben Gedeon has taken over the leadership role in that group and has blossomed into the team's top tackler. Senior Mike McCray, a former 4-star recruit who entered the season with minimal game reps under his belt, has played superbly as well. 

Simply put, this Michigan defense is downright stout. It doesn't rely heavily on forcing turnovers -- which can be dangerous come the postseason when the opponents are better and are more careful with the football -- it just limits big plays, doesn't miss many tackles, consistently gets penetration through the offensive line and has excellent defensive backs who don't let opposing receivers run free in the secondary.

Still don't think U-M's defense is legit? Consider this: Michigan State, a team that prides itself on controlling the line of scrimmage and running the ball effectively, ran seven plays inside the Michigan 10-yard line on its first drive of the third quarter and came away with zero points. 

Zero points.

It's why the Wolverines can beat any team in the country -- their defense is that good. The one question that remains, though, is whether or not their offense can score enough to win. And I think right now, the answer is yes.

Harbaugh has installed a pro-style offensive attack that isn't as high-powered as some offenses around the country, but it gets the job done and complements the U-M defense perfectly. The Wolverines scored on six of their first seven drives against the Spartans, and first-year starting quarterback Wilton Speight continues to mature and look more comfortable. 

Junior Wilton Speight boasts a 13:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio so far this season.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

He has plenty of weapons around him, including pass-catchers Amara Darboh and Jake Butt and three running backs that have rushed for at least 400 yards. And if those options aren't enough, there's always Peppers to fall back on.

Peppers, who remains a Heisman candidate due to his incredible versatility and explosive big-play capability , has taken handoffs, caught passes and taken snaps in the Wildcat formation throughout his career and has the ability to electrify the offense every time he touches the ball.

About that versatility from Peppers -- he gives the term "Swiss Army knife" a new meaning:

Now, there is still a ton of football to be played this season and if there's one thing we learned this past weekend it's that any team can go down at any time. Just ask the three top-10 teams that lost and the four others who barely hung on for victories against lesser opponents. 

But that's how college football is -- any team can win on any given Saturday -- which is why Michigan has so much potential moving forward. Harbaugh has built a team that can win in a variety of ways. It can win sloppily in a defensive struggle and it can also score plenty of points when it has to, as it recently did against its big rival Sparty. It can win top-ten matchups where the margin for error is minuscule and it takes care of business when heavily favored.

And it has a coach in Jim Harbaugh who possesses so much fire and intensity that he seems to will his teams to win. Whether it was at Stanford, in the NFL with the 49ers or now with his alma mater, he has constantly proven that he has that quality, which comes in handy in December and January when winning is rarely easy.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Moving forward, the Wolverines have three games on the schedule that they should win. That would put them at 11-0 and set up a massive matchup in The Game against their archrival Ohio State. It will certainly be an interesting matchup, but the Buckeyes are still searching to find their identity on offense and haven't been impressive of late. 

All in all, an undefeated regular season is well within the realm of possibility for Michigan. That would put them into the Big Ten championship against either Wisconsin or Nebraska, both of which would be hard-pressed to beat the Wolverines at a neutral site with a trip to the CFB Playoff on the line.

Next up is the Playoff, which is when absolutely anything can happen and Michigan will be better prepared than anyone due to its dominant defense and stellar coaching staff. 

American is salivating at the possibility of an Alabama-Michigan matchup. 

Jim Harbaugh vs. Nick Saban. 

Crimson vs. Maize. 

It would be an epic slugfest, and the Wolverines just might have what it takes to come out on top.

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