Previews and Predictions for the 2011 Sporting World
We are just a handful of days away from tossing out our 2010 calendars and hanging up the 2011 editions. This year has provided many memorable sporting moments, games and events.
From Tiger Woods' personal and professional struggles, to the onside kick by the New Orleans Saints to open the second half of the Super Bowl all the way to the magical ending to the season for the San Francisco Giants.
Who could forget the exciting conclusion to the NCAA Championship between Duke and Butler? And don't forget about the close finish to the Ryder Cup, which was played on a Monday for the first time ever.
While 2010 had its moments that we may not soon forget, 2011 is sure to provide its own memories. I am going to take a look at 10 sports and give some insight on what we might be able to expect in the coming year.
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When discussing men's tennis, there are usually only two names that come to mind as serious contenders to win: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
When talking about women's tennis, it's a different story. The WTA is much more balanced, with any number of competitors being considered for the win.
The season gets under way the first week of January, but for all intents and purposes, it really doesn't get going until the end of the month with the Australian Open.
Defending champion and five time winner of the event, Serena Williams, is out with an injury and will not be defending her title. This opens the door for any of a number of potential winners.
Regardless of who wins down under, I wouldn't be surprised if it was the only major that that person won all season. With so much parity at the top of women's tennis, I fully expect to see four different major winners this season.
While Caroline Wozniacki currently sits as the top ranked player in the world, I predict that by the end of 2011 Kim Clijsters will once again be the number one player in all of women's tennis.
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When it comes to men's tennis, Nadal and Federer are the only two players that really come to mind. While youngsters Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are well on their way to greatness, they still have a long way to go to match the acclaim that surrounds the other two.
After Federer won the Australian Open in 2010, Nadal bounced back to win each of the other three majors of the season. In the process, after winning the French Open, he overtook Federer as the world's top ranked player, a distinction he still holds.
Nadal and Federer have become the sport's signature rivalry, and there is no reason to think that that rivalry won't carry over in to the coming season.
While everyone in the United States still expects Andy Roddick to be a major contender, typically, it just doesn't pan out. Unfortunately, this season will be more of the same for Roddick, as I find it hard to believe that anyone other than either Nadal or Federer will win a major.
If you don't like seeing the same people win all the time, then men's tennis will not be the sport for you this coming season. However, if you enjoy being witness to possibly tennis' greatest rivalry, then sit back and look forward to yet another chapter in the Nadal and Federer story.
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The Chicago Blackhawks ended a 49-year championship drought in 2010, as they won the Stanley Cup 4-2 over the upstart Philadelphia Flyers. While the Blackhawks came into last season with fairly high expectations, it was there Eastern Conference opponents that turned into the surprise story.
The Flyers were the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and in dominating fashion had a magical run to the finals, where they ran into the equally hot Blackhawks.
This season, however, the Flyers aren't sneaking up on anyone. They currently are the top team, not only in the East, but the entire league. After overhauling their roster during the offseason, the Blackhawks find themselves mired mid-pack in the West.
So what can we expect in 2011? Well, each of the last three seasons the NHL has featured a Finals that involves teams that were among the original 12 in the league. (Detroit Red Wings vs. Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008 and 2009, and Chicago vs. Philadelphia in 2010).
While the NHL is constantly looking to improve viewership and popularity, it is little things like that that could make a difference. It is certainly shaping up to be more of the same in the coming year.
In the East, the Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Penguins are all among the top teams, while out West the Red Wings and Dallas Stars (formerly the Minnesota North Stars) are currently the top two teams.
Both the Canadiens and Penguins have the goaltending to make a deep run in the playoffs, but ultimately Sidney Crosby will once again show why he is the face of the NHL and lead the Penguins to another trip to the finals.
The Western Conference could easily feature the defensive-minded Vancouver Canucks, but when it is all said and done, it is real hard to ever go against the Detroit Red Wings.
For the third time in four years, I expect to see a finals featuring the Penguins and the Red Wings.
Women's College Basketball
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There really isn't much to talk about here. The run that the UConn women are on is epic. As of this writing they have won 88 consecutive games, which we all know by now ties the mark set by the UCLA men's team.
There is no reason to think that this unbelievable streak that the lady Huskies are on will come to an end at any point early in the 2011 season. Not only do they win games, but they dominate games. Only twice in the 88-game win streak, have the Huskies had a game decided by less than 10 points.
The only major hurdle for this team could be the same team that gave them a tremendous scare earlier in the season. The Baylor Bears, led by Brittney Griner, are probably the only team in the country that has a chance to end the streak.
And at this point, the only likely scenario to bring these two clubs together again would be a meeting in the championship game.
So, for fans of women's college basketball, don't expect to see anything different than we have seen the last few years. Simply put, the University of Connecticut's women's basketball team is the most dominating team currently in sports.
Men's College Basketball
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The 2010 Men's College Basketball Championship game was one for the ages. The heavily favored, traditional powerhouse, Duke Blue Devils escaped a scare from the upstart Butler Bulldogs out of the Horizon League, in a 61-59 game that came down to the last shot.
This season currently finds those same Blue Devils sitting at No. 1 in the polls yet again, but with Ohio State and Kansas nipping at their heels.
Many people feel like the men's NCAA tournament is the greatest sporting event of the entire year, and while I won't go so far as to say it's the best, it is certainly really close. The 2011 version of the tournament, for the first time, will feature 68 teams in a new expanded tournament. How that plays out in terms of acceptance and television ratings still remains to be seen.
There is always excitement and anticipation around the entire tournament process. From all of the conference tournaments to the final at large bids being handed out, the buzz that the whole process generates is always top notch.
With such a competitive tournament, as well as the way college basketball in general is set up, it is becoming increasingly harder to have a team repeat as champions. The 2011 tournament could be an exception.
By some accounts, this year's Duke team is actually better than the one that won the tournament in 2010, and most everyone fully expects Mike Krzyzewski's bunch to make yet another deep run.
While everyone enjoys filling out brackets, the other big excitement to college basketball is finding the new Cinderella. Ever since Gonzaga's deep runs a few years back, and more recently George Mason's amazing Final Four run, there always seems to be one underdog team that captivates the college basketball nation and gains millions of new fans for at least one season.
Looking ahead to the 2011 Final Four, here are the four teams that I think will be there (this is a bold prediction, that I am sure I will change multiple times between now and then). Duke, seems like a lock. Even after shocking losses to Oakland and Charlotte, I still like Tennessee. Villanova is always good for a deep run. And this years sweetheart team may not be as much of an underdog as teams of years past, but San Diego State will be the non-big six conference representative that goes a long way.
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The main story in golf in 2010, and maybe the main story in all of sports, was Tiger Woods. Both personally and professionally, Woods was constantly the focus of the media's attention throughout the past year.
While the tabloids had a field day covering Woods' marital woes and all of his personal undoings, the sports world was left to wonder when, or better yet if, the greatest golfer of our era would ever return to top notch form.
While Woods struggled on and off the golf course, the door was opened for other players to not only break through but to overtake Woods as the No. 1 golfer in the world.
Numerous times, Phil Mickelson failed to take advantage of his opportunities to leapfrog Woods as the top ranked golfer in the world. In late October, Lee Westwood ultimately became the man that ended Woods' reign at the top.
Meanwhile, the year's four majors were won by one familiar face, and three that not too many could have predicted. Mickelson won his third green jacket at Augusta. After him, it was Graeme McDowell who took the U.S. Open crown, Louis Oosthuizen shocked the world with his win at the British Open and Martin Kaymer was solid as a rock down the stretch on his way to winning the PGA Championship.
Looking forward to 2011, I will make one not-so-bold prediction: There is no way that Tiger Woods goes winless for a second consecutive season. He started to play better towards the latter part of the year, both in the Ryder Cup and at the Chevron World Championships. So I expect Woods to return to the winners circle in 2011.
In fact, I will go a step further and say that Woods will win multiple times, including winning another major.
There have been numerous first time major winners in the last three years. In the last two seasons, seven out of the eight major winners have been first time winners. This year will be different. I won't go so far as to actually pick the winners of the majors, but I think 2011 will be dominated by some of the game's veterans.
Aside from the Woods prediction, I will offer up my pick to win the FedEx Cup. Steve Stricker is due to have a good run in the playoffs, and I think in 2011 he will cash in.
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For the fifth consecutive year, Jimmie Johnson was the man holding the Sprint Cup when the season concluded. Johnson's championship run has been a historic one for NASCAR, as previously there had never been a driver who won more than three championships in a row.
While Johnson won the championship, there were other captivating stories. Denny Hamlin, after reconstructive knee surgery, won a series-best eight races over the course of the season, and was the championship leader going in to the final race of the season before struggling to a 14th place finish and ultimately losing the title to Johnson.
Kevin Harvick was the championship leader through most of the regular season after coming off a near career-worst season in 2009. The other major story of 2010 was Jamie McMurray and the career season he put together.
After winning the season opening Daytona 500, the most important race of the season, McMurray backed it up by winning at the Brickyard in Indianapolis, and then won once more at NASCAR's home track, Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Looking forward to the 2011 season, as hard as it would seem to bet against Johnson, I feel his run is poised to come to a close. While he and his team are always contenders, for the first time in a long time, the 48 team showed signs of weakness at different points of the 2010 season.
Jeff Gordon went the entire year of 2010 without making a trip into victory lane; don't expect that to happen again next year. Gordon is far too talented and has too good of equipment to go winless for a second consecutive year.
And as far as who is going to replace Johnson as Sprint Cup Champion, I am going to go out on a limb, and say that Matt Kenseth is going to have a career-season, winning multiple times and ultimately winning the championship for the second time in his career.
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For the second time in three seasons, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics met in the NBA Finals. This time around it was the Western Conference Champions that were the winners. And in an NBA-related story that slipped by many members of the media in 2010, LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed to play with the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade. Stop me if you heard anything about that story.
It was no sooner than the confetti having been swept from the floor from the Lakers' championship celebration that all eyes turned to LeBron James and where he would be playing in the 2010-11 season.
After an hour long, self-absorbing and ego-boosting television special was given to this one announcement, "The Decision", as it affectionately became known, was made that James and Bosh were both going to join Wade in Miami and form a superteam.
After a sluggish 9-8 start, the Heat have turned things around, and are currently on a 12-game winning streak and headed in the direction that most everyone expected.
So, does all of this mean that 2011 should already be bracing for a Miami championship celebration? Not so fast. There is still a lot of basketball to be played, and there are a few teams that could easily be cutting down the nets come June.
The East appears to be a two-horse race. Miami, and Boston have both seemingly distanced themselves from the rest of the competition. While all the focus is given to the big three in Miami, the Celtics have quietly won 13 games in a row behind their own big three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
And with Rajon Rondo quickly becoming one of, if not the, best point guards in the league, the Celtics will undoubtedly be one of Miami's biggest hurdles.
In the West, the Lakers are poised to repeat as champions yet again, but both the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks are playing exceptionally good basketball, and with both the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder looming, the West figures to be really exciting come playoff time.
In the end, I think Miami is just not deep enough to go all the way. They have no inside presence, which will be a big factor down the stretch.
I like the Celtics to represent the East yet again, while in the West Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks just have the look of a winner to them as we head in to the new year. You heard it here first, Celtics and Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals.
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After a year in which the Giants won their first World Series since moving from New York and Josh Hamilton became the guy that everyone was cheering for, does 2011 hold any excitement and drama of its own?
Unfortunately, I doubt it.
Not to be a downer, but the 2011 season is shaping up to be a three-horse race. It already appears as if the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are on their way to running away with things in the coming season.
I expect, after a down year in 2010, the St. Louis Cardinals will be back atop the NL Central and will be able to hang with the Phillies for most of the season, but ultimately the great pitching staff the Phillies have put together will carry them a long way.
The top four starters for Philadelphia are defending Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. That is a tough task to ask any team to match up with those four greats.
In the American League, the Red Sox and Yankees should be able to distance themselves from the other contenders. While America has fallen in love with both the Texas Rangers and the Minnesota Twins, the other two teams just have too much money, and this year they will be fighting one another for the right to play in the World Series.
While the Tampa Bay Rays have been the darlings of the league for the last three years, that will not be the case any longer. They will still be a respectable club, but the losses of both Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena will be far too much for them to overcome.
Boston was able to acquire both Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego, making their lineup one of the more potent offenses in the game.
The Yankees, meanwhile, failed in their attempts to get Cliff Lee, but were able to re-sign the two faces of their franchise: Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter. So, while the Yankees aren't getting any younger, they will be able to return the same core group of players that made them one of the best teams in 2010.
So as far as a prediction goes, the Phillies are a no-brainer to come out of the National League. In the American League, I like the acquisition of Crawford for Boston, And there is no way they will have nearly as many injuries to deal with in 2011 as they did in 2010. Phillies and Red Sox looks like the 2011 Fall Classic.
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You would think the fact that the NFL season is nearly over by the time 2011 hits, would make it a little easier to predict. But you would be wrong, especially this season, when it seems like the best team in the league changes from week to week.
The Saints won the Super Bowl early in 2010 and have been worthy as defending champions. They currently sit at 10-4, and although they are in a tough spot to win the division, a playoff spot is all but inevitable for them.
The biggest story of the year, though, has been the resurgence of Michael Vick. He has led the Philadelphia Eagles to a 10-4 record, currently first in the NFC East, and is arguably in a two-man race with Tom Brady for MVP honors. He has been playing the best football of his career,in a season in which he was supposed to be the Eagles' backup quarterback, but was forced onto the field by a Kevin Kolb injury in week one.
Looking ahead to 2011, the big fear is a lockout and a work stoppage. I am not going to get into those messy details, but will instead focus on the on-field action and the looming playoffs.
At this point, you would think that one team would have emerged as the likely favorite to win either conference and go to the Super Bowl, but this year has seen a number of teams play great one week and falter to a lesser opponent the next week.
The Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears are the two biggest surprise division leaders, while the Jacksonville Jaguars currently sit in a first place tie with the Indianapolis Colts atop the AFC South. While all three have made for nice stories, I don't see any of them resulting in fairytale endings.
So, on to the predictions. While the Atlanta Falcons are 12-2 and have been playing at a very high level all season, I think that ultimately the NFC Championship is in the hands of Vick and the Eagles. Players with his skills, athleticism and ability come along once in a lifetime, and he has currently put it all together and right now just looks unstoppable.
While the New England Patriots are currently the top team in the AFC, I think the team to beat come playoff time will be the Baltimore Ravens. Joe Flacco has really matured into a great leader, and has been surrounded by great weapons on offense. And as long as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are out there, the Ravens defense will always be one of the best.
So, when looking ahead to 2011, just imagine the possibility of Michael Vick versus Ray Lewis on the greatest stage in sports. Can you think of a better way to start the 2011 sports year?