Cardinals

WHEELER: Cards Back in First, Rams Getting Better and College Football Kicks Off

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St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina celebrate a 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on August 23, 2013.   UPI/Bill Greenblatt

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina celebrate a 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on August 23, 2013. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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CARDINALS

After taking 3-of-4 from the Braves over the weekend the Cardinals are back in 1st place, albeit in a tie with the Pirates, and they’re just 2-games off having the best record in Major League Baseball.

They made it through their worst stretch of the season and have now won 10 of their last 10 games as they begin a two-week stretch of games against the Reds and Pirates that will go a long way toward deciding which team is the Central winner and which teams will be Wild Cards.

Funny how things can change so quickly, isn’t it?

That’s why I always preach patience with baseball teams. The only fair way to judge is after 162 games or after a playoff run.

The Cards are back to playing the kind of baseball they’re capable of and in prime position to stake their claim in the division. If they have a good run over these next couple of weeks they’ll be primed to take the division title.

Why? Because after these two weeks the Cardinals don’t play anyone who has a winning record as of today. Plus the Pirates and Reds face each other 6 times in the final 9 games of the season.

The starting pitching is bouncing back, the lineup is producing and the bullpen has even more weapons now than it did a couple of months ago.

They’re in really good shape. I still expect them to win the division.

RAMS

They weren’t perfect in Saturday’s preseason game up in Denver but the Rams showed a few more flashes than they had in their first two games.

Sam Bradford, who I think is primed for his best season, wasn’t dominant but did a solid job. Tavon Austin is starting to show off his explosiveness. Jared Cook has flashed his big play ability. The offensive line looks like it can be solid early and perhaps very good later in the season.

The defense is going to be outstanding. National writers are noting that the Rams’ defensive line might be the best in the NFL, the corners are fantastic and will create game-changing turnovers, and the linebacker corps will be solid once Jo-Lonn Dunbar returns after his 4-game suspension.

Safety is an issue, no doubt, but overall the Rams’ defense looks like it’s Top 10 for sure, maybe even Top 5 if things go really well.

Still, I’m a little nervous about calling for a playoff appearance just yet. The Niners and Seahawks are potentially elite teams, possible Super Bowl contenders, and the Cardinals have improved as well, even if it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to run the ball.

The Rams are going to be better than they were last year, I have no doubt about that. What I’m not sure of is how that impacts their record. Do they win 8 games? Maybe 9? Possibly 10?

I’m not sure right now but I’d say their win total is definitely in that range.

The problem is that they have some really tough non-division games, particularly on the road. Let’s call these the “A Group” games. They’ll have to travel to Atlanta in Week 2, Houston in Week 6 and Indianapolis in Week 10. Plus they have Chicago and New Orleans coming to St. Louis.

The nice thing is – and this is the first time in a long time I can say this – I don’t look at the schedule and see a game they absolutely can’t win. They showed they can hang with the big boys in their division last season but can they win 4 division games again this year? Sure they “can,” but is it likely? I’d argue not. Still, if they get 3 wins in the division they’ll be in pretty good shape.

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that they go 3-3 in the NFC West and go 2-3 in the tough games listed above. That puts them at 5-6 with their other games, which I’ll call “B Group” games, as follows: @ Dallas in Week 3, vs. Jacksonville in Week 5, @ Carolina in Week 7, vs. Tennessee in Week 9 and vs. Tampa Bay in Week 16.

Those 5 games will likely determine their fate. If they go 3-2 in that stretch, which is very reasonable, that would put them at 8-8 on the season. If they can steal an extra game or two in any of those segments – Division, A Group or B Group – then they’ll be in the 9-10 win range.

My prediction as of right now, which is subject to change until a week from Thursday when the season kicks off, is 9-7. Which is going to put them in the mix for a possible playoff spot.

MIZZOU

And that brings me to the Missouri Tigers. The College Football season kicks off this Thursday and Mizzou opens Saturday night at home against Murray State.

Man, do I love college football. Can’t wait to get this thing started.

What kind of year will it be for Mizzou? Better than last year, in my opinion, but still nothing people will write books about in 10 years. I’m thinking 6-8 wins, most likely 6 or 7 but possibly 8 if things break in their favor.

Gary Pinkel’s Tigers still have to prove they’re physical enough to handle the SEC schedule and the quarterback, James Franklin, needs to stay healthy and take a couple of big steps forward as a passer if they’re going to get anywhere near 8 wins.

And I say that knowing full-well that Mizzou has a weak non-conference schedule.

They should be 4-0 heading into conference play, with wins against Murray State, Toledo, Indiana and Arkansas State. I suppose Indiana could be a bit dicey on the road but if Mizzou doesn’t win that one then they’re looking at a repeat of last year’s 5-win season.

That weak non-conference schedule isn’t doing the Tigers any favors. They will be completely unprepared for big-time games coming out of a stretch of four cream puffs to kick of the season.

Take Vanderbilt, Mizzou’s first SEC opponent, for example. They’ll have played Ole Miss and South Carolina by the time they face Mizzou. Now, that’s not their own doing. Those are conference games so by the luck of the draw they’ll have two tough games under their belts before they face a Mizzou team that has essentially had a month’s worth of scrimmage games.

And Vandy beat Mizzou in Columbia last year. This year they’re in Nashville so it’s an event tougher game for Mizzou. A stiffer non-conference test might be better preparation for a conference game like that, which will be followed by games against Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. All ranked teams, by the way.

And please don’t mistake what I’m saying. I know every team in America plays at least 2-3 cream puffs a year. I get that and I’m okay with Mizzou doing that too. But when you’re a program that is trying to be something better, trying to ascend to a new level if you will, you have to take on at least one high-end team in non-conference action each year otherwise you’re just going to stay who you are right now.

Those big non-conference games prepare you for conference play, first of all. You don’t get your first taste of being tested in conference if you play someone of note in a non-con game. Those big early games also get you on national TV. They can also expose you to recruits in different parts of the country.

If you look at all the teams that have risen to the highest levels of college football in the last 20-30 years, and I mean teams that weren’t traditional power schools going back to the 60’s and 70’s, you’ll find that all of them got to the top by playing “anyone, anywhere, anytime” as a means of raising the level of their program.

Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami are prime examples over the last 30 years of programs that have essentially come from nothing to be National Championship caliber teams. Sure, they have their ups and downs. Every school does. Heck, 10 years ago nobody was talking about Alabama football. There are cycles to be sure. But if you’re going to go from a school that has no real winning tradition in football and STAY at the highest levels, you need those big non-conference games early in the season.

I understand the business of football. Wins get you into bowl games, bowl games keep alumni happy and they keep money flowing in. The thing is, that whole money thing is pointless when you’re talking about bottom tier bowls now that Mizzou is in the SEC.

If you want to be the school that occasionally pops up and has a 10-win season, fine. You can be that doing things the way Mizzou does right now. If you want to be a regular contender in the SEC and raise the level of the program on a consistent, year-in and year-out basis, then Mizzou needs to step it up in their non-conference scheduling.

Those non-con games are stepping stones. Exposure to national TV audiences, exposure to recruits and experience are things that matter for schools that remain legitimate factors over long periods of time. I’ve covered college football for a long time – nearly 18 years – and have had many conversations with coaches, former coaches, etc. The key to advancing a program and keeping it at a higher level is the non-conference schedule.

Sure, Mizzou will probably be 4-0 going into conference play but how many SEC games do they win? Two? I have them beating Kentucky and getting one of two between Tennessee and Vanderbilt. So I’m looking at a 6-win season unless they can surprise me by either beating both Tennessee and Vanderbilt or by beating a team from this group: #5 Georgia, #10 Florida, #6 South Carolina, Ole Miss or #7 Texas A&M.

I’m picking 6 wins but I do think 8 is possible if they can pull off a big upset somewhere along the way. Of course, to get to 8 wins they also have to avoid being the victim of an upset at Indiana and at Kentucky as well…

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