5-at-10: UT starts playoff chase in top spot, Smashing Phillies, NFL trade winners

Tennessee running back Jabari Small (2) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown during the first half Saturday against Alabama in Knoxville, Tenn. The Vols won 52-49 to end a 15-game losing streak to the Tide. (AP/Wade Payne)

Believing the Heupel

So UT was No. 1 in the first 2022 college football playoff ranking, just like everyone predicted in August.

Or maybe not everyone. And by that, I mean no one. Here’s Paschall's account of UT starting the playoff push from the pole position. Or would that, in this instance, be the poll position? Discuss. 

Yes, I thought UT was going to be better this season. Heck, the over 7.5 wins ticket has already cashed. And let’s try to remember who in August implored folks to put a few shekels on Hendon Hooker as a 60-to-1 Heisman longshot. Try to recall. Seems like he was a genuinely decent fella. And handsome too.

It will come to me.

But the turnaround from mediocre to top of the mountain is beyond everyone’s realm of expectations — Josh Heupel included if I had to guess.

And make no mistake about it, this playoff ranking is meaningful for UT, and I’m not just referencing the truly and overly energized UT fans we all know who are sharing more than a decade of pent-up frustration in a fall of jubilation.

This puts UT in a driver’s seat and assuredly gives UT more wiggle room than Saturday’s foe Georgia, which placed third in the debut poll.

That begs the question of whether THE Ohio State has a win as impressive as Georgia’s win over Pac-12 leading Oregon. I don’t know, but Georgia being third makes Saturday more important for the Dogs than the Vols in terms of national title hopes.

UT taking the top spot certainly can be viewed that way. And even if UT drops a close one Saturday in Athens, the current top-ranked team with a loss is Alabama, and we all know how the UT-Tide title turned out.

"When you look at the (top) three teams, the two wins with Alabama and at LSU really sealed the day for Tennessee," CFP committee chairman Boo Corrigan, the athletic director at NC State, said on the ESPN telecast.

(Side question: A grown man in a position of considerable power going by Boo now passes Fredi as the new leader in the clubhouse for the name someone needed to pull that dude aside and say, “Yeah, let’s go by Tom, OK?” right?)

And the poll also makes it quite clear — at least to me — that as long as one side does not blow the other out Saturday, the Vols and the Dogs are going to be the biggest supporters of one another for the until Christmas no matter who wins.

Because if Saturday is a one-score game — either way — and the winner of Saturday’s game wins out, then I firmly believe the loser of Saturday’s game will be the top-ranked one-loss team in the country and have the inside track for that final playoff spot.

So, yes, BeardDawg, Jules and Alejandro will be saying “Go Vols” come Sunday morning, and Big Ern, Tom and Intern Scott will be calling the Dogs before and after church. Heck, depending on where they worship, they likely will do a little barking during the service depending on the game plays out.

And one more thing: Reason No. 2,812 why I am saddened by the assured college football expansion is that Saturday’s game means little more than seeding with a 12-team playoff. Same for the THE Ohio State-Michigan game later this month if a 12-team field.

No thanks. And let’s make sure we expand the playoff so a Group of Five pretender gets a spot in a faux attempt at fairness, right? 

World serious in Philly

So there’s a real chance in a critical Game 3, the Houston Astros — who won the 2017 World Series while cheating like a 1970s C-list NASCAR driver trying to keep pace with Dale Sr and King Richard — tipped their pitches.

That’s as postseason perfect as Don Larsen.

In the first inning, Bryce Harper launched the first pitch he saw — a meaty breaking ball from bending ball specialist Lance McCullers — into Michael Scott’s office in Scranton.

After the laser to the right-center-field stands — Harper’s second homer in as many swings in his home park — Bryce circled the bases, did his celebration routine that makes an A-Phi-A step show seem mundane and promptly called teammate Alec Bohm over.

Harper whispered something in Bohm’s ear, and the Phillies third baseman added to the offensive onslaught with one of five Phillies homers off McCullers.

Neither Phillies slugger revealed much about the chat after the 7-0 win that gave Philadelphia a 2-1 series lead. 

But then again, maybe they were just well-prepared, because heading into Harper’s first-inning at-bat, Fox commentator John Smoltz went into great detail about how he believed Harper almost certainly was sitting on a breaking pitch early in the count. Smoltz continued with his clairvoyance by saying he believed Harper’s hard-swinging ways, especially before he gets two strikes, and McCullers’ fondness of throwing hooks to lefties was a recipe for a big moment.

“If he gets a first pitch curve,” Smoltz said before a dramatic pause that led to a perfect prediction in an almost perfectly deadpanned Brick Tamland, “Loud noises.”

So, a perfect night for Philly puts the highlighted punctuation of our overall view of baseball.

Simply put, do not worry — or celebrate — or let any emotion take root until the -er months.

The Astros have now played 22 World Series games since 2017. They have been to every LCS in that span. If they are not the best team in the game today, then it likely would be the Dodgers, who win 100 per like Doyle Brunson at the tourist hold ‘em table in Atlantic City.

But those teams have the same number of titles over the last decade as the Braves and the Nats and the Cubs and even the dang Royals over the last nine seasons.

Baseball’s marathon turns into an -er months sprint and being the hottest team is more important than being the better team.

And the Phillies are the hottest team. At the perfect time.

NFL continues to push proper buttons

So we all know the NFL has become the must-see entity not only in American sports, but in American pop culture. 

Did you know that in the calendar year 2021, 75 of the top 100 rated TV shows according to Nielsen were NFL games?

Chew on that.

But the one area that the NFL had traditionally lagged in terms of interest compared to other sports was around the in-season trading deadline.

Simply put, NFL teams very rarely made moves during the year, whether it was because of tradition, style, fit or the never-ending wants of secrecy and the belief that sending a player with inside knowledge of your system could prove to be a mistake.

Well, now the NFL is ruling the trade deadline as well, and the bevy of moves Tuesday deserve a spot in our morning missive.

Winner: Falcons. Getting a bag of popcorn and a used kicking tee for Calvin Ridley would have been fine by me considering the way he left his team in a lurch multiple times recently. Getting a conditional draft pick that could be a 2024 second-rounder if Ridley comes back from this "mental issues" and "gambling on the NFL issue" is great considering there simply was no way Ridley would ever suit up for the franchise again.

Loser: Broncos. Sure, the draft picks they got for Bradley Chubb are a fine return, but that they stink so bad and are sellers at the deadline makes them a loser. Because they got Miami’s first rounder for Chubb — a difference-making pass rusher — and that pick will be a dozen or so spots lower than the pick Denver shipped to Seattle for Russell Wilson, an excuse-making pass chucker.

Winner: Roquan Smith. I have believed Smith was going to be an NFL star in the right system since his sophomore at Georgia. Dude simply makes plays. Now, getting shipped to Baltimore and getting the chance to play with a team that is completely comfortable using a fleet-footed middle linebacker on every down gives Smith the chance to deliver on that potential.

Winner: Bills. Adding Nyheim Hines — a pass-catching back from Indy — on the cheap could be a Super Bowl-contributing piece, friends.

Loser: Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. So, a team devoid of pass-catching stars did nothing at the deadline while two of its division foes added pass-catching help as the Vikings grabbed T.J. Hockenson from the Lions and the Bears traded for Chase Claypool from the Steelers. Somewhere in the cold Wisconsin Wednesday morning, ol’ Man Bun himself is not best pleased.

This and that

— And sorry to bust Boo’s bubble, but someone should be pressing the committee on some of its silliness. To wit, and goodness knows I am not a fanboy of the Group of Five, Tulane has a legit beef with the committee. Tulane is 7-1 and ranked No. 19 in the playoff poll released Tuesday. In truth, that is likely too high if we’re going by Vegas numbers and had point spreads among the top 25 or 30 teams in the country. But Tulane is 19th with that one loss, which is six spots behind two-loss Kansas State. Yes, K-State has a couple of nice wins, but one of those two losses is to Tulane. C’mon, Boo.

— So Elon Musk is going to charge folks $20 a month for a blue check mark? Bye. At least to my blue check mark. No way I’m paying $240 a year so my Twitter handle can be "verified" — whatever that means — for the masses. 

— Braves shortstop and free-agent-to-be Dansby Swanson was one of 14 players to win their first Gold Glove award for defensive excellence at their positions. The list was announced Tuesday, and among the names were Nolan Arenado, the Cards third baseman who has 10 straight GGs in 10 years in the big leagues, and Braves starting pitcher Max Fried, who has won three times. 

— So our gambling interests Tuesday had a split bag. We hedged and tried to double on the odds because we expected a high scoring first inning in Game 3. So we put a half unit on each team to score in the first and hit at plus-230 with the Phillies. Thanks Bryce. Missed on the Astros. We also missed on the MAC-tion because I forgot a MAC-tion staple: If the weather is decent, always look toward the over. So, all things considered we were up 0.15 units. Cue Pop, “Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.” Sign up for our afternoon gambling email here.   

Today’s questions

Which way Wednesday starts this way:

Which team in the first top-four ranking will not make the college football playoff?

Which team outside the top four will make the college football playoff?

Which way you leaning Saturday with the line at Georgia minus-8.5 and the over/under at 65.5?

Answer some which ways, ask some which ways. And we will get more into this in the picks — and I’m sure Kirby Smart’s SEC teleconference answers will make Blue Bell’s Vanilla think, “Wow, that’s exceedingly bland, even for a college football coach” — but something tells me Kirby loves all this UT chatter leading up to Saturday.

One more which way: Which brand has the best vanilla ice cream? Go.

As for today, Nov. 2, let’s review.

On this day in 1983, the single “Thriller” was released worldwide. 

On this day in 2016, the Cubs ended their World Series drought.

On this day in 1980, Edith Bunker — Archie’s wife — died on the all-time great sitcom “All in the Family.”

Who’s on the Rushmore of all-time TV characters deaths? Go, and remember the mailbag.