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BCS Bowl Previews

The 2013-14 version of the BCS will be the final edition, with the introduction of the College Football Playoff, a four-team "tournament" that differs from the BCS by using a select 13-member committee to choose the matchups, similar to the successful and popular NCAA Basketball Tournament Selection Committee. Still, the 2013-14 BCS Bowl games provide some interesting matchups.

BAYLOR (11-1) vs. (UCF) CENTRAL FLORIDA (11-1) 
Baylor needed an upset from Oklahoma over Oklahoma State to capture the Big 12 title. The Bears put up video game-type numbers (53.3 points, 624 yards of offense per game), with Bryce Petty throwing for 3,844 yards and 30 TDs with only two interceptions. His receiving corps of Antwan Goodley, Tevin Reese and Levi Norwood have a combined 143 receptions and 28 TDs, and in addition, Petty, along with RBs Lache Seastrunk and Shock Linwood rushed for over 2,100 yards and scored 30 TDs combined. Slowing them down will be quite the daunting task for the UCF defense, which allowed just 19.6 ppg, 13th in the nation. The Knights have proven to be adept at winning close games, which may be an advantage if they can prevent Baylor from running wild. When UCF has the ball, look for a balanced attack led by QB Blake Bortles (3,280 yards, 22 TDs), RB Storm Johnson (1,015 yards, 11 TDs) and receivers Rannell Hall, Breshad Perriman and J.J. Worton (a combined 131 receptions, 13 TDs). 

ROSE BOWL presented by VIZIO (Jan. 1-Pasadena)
The 100th Rose Bowl features a pair of teams that are almost mirror images of each other. Both the Spartans and the Cardinal are tough defensively while employing strong ball-control offenses with very few bells and whistles. MSU QB Connor Cook has been outstanding over the last month, while RB Jeremy Langford (1,338 yards, 17 TDs) has been the Spartan's main man all season. None of MSU's receivers put up dazzling numbers but they've shown reliability and toughness during the Big Ten title run. On defense, MSU's biggest challenge will be shutting down Stanford's punishing ground game, but they certainly have the experience and skill to do it. The Cardinal have beaten seven ranked teams this season, usually convincingly. QB Kevin Hogan is the perfect field manager for David Shaw's offense, rarely making mistakes. Tyler Gaffney shoulders the majority of Stanford's offensive load (1,618 yards, 20 TDs), and the hard-running senior is capable of shredding defenses. Ty Montgomery is Hogan's primary target (58 receptions, 10 TDs), while the massive Stanford O-line excels both at run blocking as well as pass protection.

ALLSTATE SUGAR BOWL (Jan, 2-New Orleans)
ALABAMA (11-1) vs. OKLAHOMA (10-2)
The Crimson Tide's quest for an unprecedented third consecutive national championship was shattered by the "Miracle on the Plains." A.J. McCarron will no doubt want to wind up his college career on a high note, and with weapons such as T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper at his disposal, expect plenty of points going against a young and somewhat porous Oklahoma defense. Defensively, Alabama is solid, although Auburn proved that they can be exploited on the ground. Unfortunately for the Sooners, neither their ground game or passing game poses much of a threat. The Sooners must find a way to pound the ball successfully and limit mistakes against a 'Bama defense that makes opponents pay dearly for any slip-ups. 

DISCOVER ORANGE BOWL (Jan. 3-Miami Gardens)
OHIO STATE (12-1) vs. CLEMSON (10-2)
The biggest obstacle the Buckeyes will have to overcome is lingering disappointment. Urban Meyer and his players will be hell-bent on righting the OSU ship in this game featuring two of the nation's most dynamic QBs in Braxton Miller and Tajh Boyd, and they each have multiple "home run threats" such as Sammy Watkins and Roderick McDowell of Clemson and Carlos Hyde and Philly Brown for Ohio State. Clemson's defense is capable, while OSU's defense has been either very good or very vulnerable. 

FLORIDA STATE (13-0) vs. AUBURN (12-1)
The Seminoles have bludgeoned the opposition all season, and will no doubt be heavily favored versus Auburn, meaning Jimbo Fisher has to guard his team against over-confidence. Presumed Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston has weapons such as RBs Devonta Freeman and Karlos Williams (24 combined TDs) and receivers Travis Benjamin and Rashad Greene (23 TDs), all capable of scoring from anywhere at any time. Gus Malzahn's Tigers have been on a three-game roll that's rarely been equalled in recent memory, and their ability to pile up absurd yardage numbers isn't an aberration. QB Nick Marshall has shown an uncanny ability to make the correct decision in Auburn's multiple-option attack, and the Seminoles will have to maintain discipline to have any hope of slowing down the War Eagle Machine. Tre Mason (1,621 yards, 22 TDs) and WR Sammy Coates (38 catches, 841 yards, 7 TDs) can also cover a lot of turf when called upon, making Auburn as dangerous as Florida State when it comes to ringing up the scoreboard.

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Top 10 Baseball Free Agents

Baseball's annual free-for-all chase for eligible free agents is set to begin, with an above-average crop of veteran players due to be wined and dined by prospective suitors for their talents. Every position is well-represented in the Class of 2013, with several top-level pitchers and catchers available. 

1. 2B Robinson Cano
Second basemen rarely have the skills and performance package that Cano can offer. An unquestioned standout for nearly a decade for the Yankees, regularly batting .300+ with 30+ HRs and 100+RBIs in addition to providing above-average defense. It's rumored he'll be seeking a long-term contract in excess of $300M, which would make him the highest-salaried player in history. It's doubtful if any team (even the Yankees) will submit an offer that big, but he will command (and get) a contract similar to those being paid to Pujols, Fielder, Votto and A-Rod. The best bets to secure his signature should be the Yankees, Rangers, Mariners, Nationals and Mets. 
2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
Boston's productive lead-off man will be in demand due to his consistency despite injury issues in recent seasons. Not a big power hitter, Ellsbury is a gap hitter who is the reigning MLB stolen bases leader. Boston would love to keep him, but he's likely to get more money from the cash-flush Mariners. At age 30, the lure of returning close to home (he's a native of Oregon) may also be a determining factor. Also expected to be serious bidders are the Red Sox, Rangers, Cubs and Yankees.
3. C Brian McCann
Atlanta's veteran catcher and leader (and Georgia native) would certainly prefer to remain with the Braves, but his market price, age (30 in February) and recent injury issues may force him to go elsewhere. Having Evan Gattis waiting in the wings also reduces his return chances. A proven clutch hitter and outstanding handler of pitchers, McCann is likely to head to the AL due to the DH, which would lengthen his career. Expect the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers and Blue Jays to be his most enthusiastic suitors.
4. OF Shin-Soo Choo
His 2013 performance elevated his desirability due to his OBP (.423) and ability to spray the ball to all fields. Not a classic lead-off man, Choo nonetheless does a good job in that role, but would be more comfortable batting second. The Tigers are the early leaders for his services, but don't count out the Cubs, Rangers or Mets.
5. P Masahiro Tanaka
The latest Japanese mound phenom will benefit from the successes of Yu Darvish, Koji Uehara and other recent Asian pitchers, and at the relatively young age of 25, the battle for his signature will be fierce and expensive. Expect the usual big spenders such as the Dodgers, Yankees and Angels to top his shopping list.
6. P Ervin Santana
Kansas City would love to retain the soon-to-be 31-year old, but his asking price may be too steep. A solid No. 1 or 2 starter, Santana would be an excellent addition to a contending team looking to take the next step. The Yankees, Blue Jays, Nationals, Mariners and Royals will battle it out.
7. OF Carlos Beltran
Despite turning 37 in April, Beltran will be highly sought-after due to his consistent production throughout his career. A switch-hitter, Beltran will give a team 25+ HRs, middle-of-the-order power and his late-season success is one of baseball's all-time best. He could re-sign with St. Louis, but at this stage of his career, an AL team makes more sense. The Yankees, Royals, Orioles and Rangers should be the leaders. 
8. P Ubaldo Jimenez
Soon to turn 30, Jimenez could parlay an excellent 2013 in Cleveland into a lucrative, long-term deal with a team seeking a possible No. 1 starter. Jimenez doesn't have a huge amount of innings in recent seasons which also helps his appeal. The Angels, Blue Jays, Yankees, Dodgers and Giants seem to be the best fits.
9. P Matt Garza
Despite a decent season split between the Cubs and Rangers, Garza has yet to establish himself as a staff ace, but there's no question that his potential is sky-high. Minor nagging injuries are a concern, but he appeared durable last season, and would be a fairly safe risk. Look for the Nationals, Dodgers, Blue Jays and Phillies to be major suitors.
10. C Carlos Ruiz
The past two seasons haven't been kind to Ruiz due to suspension and injury, but his offensive production (when healthy) has been equal to any catcher's over the past few seasons. His age (35 in January) will probably scare some teams away, but he'd be an almost perfect fit for an AL contender due to his DH skills. Best bets for his services should be the Yankees, Rangers, Rays and Blue Jays.

These appear to be the Top Ten free agents, but there are plenty of others available, including pitchers Hiroki Kuroda, Scott Kazmir, Joe Nathan, Scott Feldman, Paul Maholm and Phil Hughes. Available catchers and infielders are headed by Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta and A.J. Pierzynski. Sought-after OFs will include Curtis Granderson, Nelson Cruz, Marlon Byrd and Kendrys Morales.

The Biggest Surprises and Disappointments in the 2013 MLB Season

With the regular season under wraps, the 2013 MLB season has seen more than its share of surprising teams, players and results. Several long-standing streaks (both good and bad) were either extended or snapped, and the usual injuries, suspensions and incidents (on-field and off) all played huge factors in baseball's six-month regular season.

The two-ton elephant in the room, PED's (performance-enhancing drugs), continues to cast a hazy shadow over the grand old game, although not as pervasive as in the past few seasons. Following the ongoing soap operas surrounding two former MVP winners (Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez), daily headlines finally returned to on the field action as opposed to laboratory findings, tampering charges and denials, which is a relief for serious fans. Milwaukee's Braun at first vehemently denied all allegations, but eventually when the evidence against him became indisputable, he 'fessed up and issued a relatively convincing mea culpa. His return in 2014 will be monitored closely, but the fallout and malaise from more than a decade of wall-to-wall PED coverage will hopefully not once again be front page news. In A-Rod's case, there remains court hearings and appeals for his unprecedented suspension. With the Bronx Bombers sitting at home for the postseason, the buzz around NYC has shifted (and rightfully so) to the final seasons of Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettite. The Yankees deserve a lot of credit for being competitive up to the final week, having endured an incredible string of injuries to key players (Rodriguez, Jeter, Granderson, Teixiera, etc). The team fought hard all season but with Boston, Tampa and Baltimore all vying for the playoffs, Joe Girardi's team had too much to overcome.

Baltimore's Chris Davis started off at a torrid home run pace, and will finish with 50+, which will prevent Detroit's Miguel Cabrera from earning an unprecedented second consecutive Triple Crown. Cabrera, arguably the best current hitter in the game, has come close to replicating his 2012 feat despite several nagging injuries. The Tigers, the Red Sox and the surprising Oakland A's head into the postseason as Division champs. In the National League, Atlanta, St. Louis and the Dodgers are winners in their respective divisions. The Pirates ended a two-decade playoff drought, rejuvenating baseball in the Steel City. The Dodgers meanwhile, looked all but finished in early summer, but then a Cuban rookie named Yasiel Puig joined the club and sparked an incredible turnaround. With a standout pitching staff led by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Grienke, Don Mattingly's Dodgers are a team no one cares to face in October. The Atlanta Braves got out to a blazing start and never looked back, increasing their NL East lead to as much as 17 games. With a solid rotation and the most dominant closer in the game in Craig Kimbrel, the Braves, despite fielding the youngest team (average-age wise) in the majors, have the look of another dynasty.

With all the "feel good" stories, it's easy to overlook the opposite storylines. At the top (or bottom) of that list has to be the puzzling collapse of the Los Angeles Angels. With superstars such as Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson and Mike Trout in the lineup, most experts seemed ready to anoint the 'Halos as the consensus AL favorite. But with Pujols' injuries, Hamilton and Wilson's sub-par performances, only second-year whiz Mike Trout had seasons worth noting. Look for big changes for 2014. The NL's version of the Angels turned out to be the young and talented Washington Nationals. Unfortunately, players such as Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche, Steven Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman failed to repeat their standout 2012 campaigns, although the club managed to remain in wild card contention into the final weeks. Less-than-mediocre seasons by Houston and Miami also deserve mention.

Besides Rivera and Pettite, Colorado's Todd Helton also plans to retire following the end of the season, with all three expected to be serious Hall of Fame aspirants in five years. Besides Puig, other standout 2013 rookies include Miami's fireballing pitcher Jose Fernandez, Cards P Shelby Miller, Atlanta C-OF Evan Gattis and P Julio Teheran, LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers, Tampa Bay OF Wil Myers and Detroit SS-3B Jose Iglesias. Candidates for MVP include the AL's Cabrera, his teammate P Max Scherzer, Boston's Dustin Pedroia, the Angels' Trout, Oakland's Josh Donaldson, Baltimore's Davis and strikeout leader Yu Darvish of Texas. In the NL, Matt Carpenter, Atlanta's Kimbrel and 1B Freddie Freeman, Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutcheon, Jayson Werth of the Nats and Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt.

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