by J.R. Lind
This week in The 'Drome: A classics reference gets mocked, Shea Weber gets rocked, Vandy fans flock, and animals that talk.
Nashville v. Cincinnati: Nashvillians don't have to worry about splitting their animosity between multiple cities this weekend. All the vitriol can go to Cincinnati, the North's Calloused Heel.
Vanderbilt plays the city's eponymous university in the Liberty Bowl and the Titans' play-off hopes depend on a Bengals loss, putting fans of the Two Toners in the uncomfortable position of rooting for the Ravens.
Nashville and Cincinnati have tied their sports fortunes together before. The Sounds were the Reds farm club for two stints in the late 70s and between 1987 and 1992. Some of us have never gotten over the big club calling up bespectacled middle infield sensation Chris Sabo. The Predators ECHL affiliate is currently in the Queen City (in hindsight, foisting our not-quite-ready-for-the-actual-minor-league hockey players is a fair trade for stealing Sabo).
Cincinnati is (probably) the best city in America named for a secret society whose name itself is a complicated analogy between George Washington and a Roman dictator. Many people — falsely, it turns out — think Cincinnati is named for a horse. In fact, U.S. Grant's horse is named for the city. Sure, no one has any idea who Nashville namesake Francis Nash is, but no one has ever thought he is the same Francis as the famous talking mule.
Like most of the shriveled hulks the great Rust Belt exodus has left behind, it's easy to forget Cincinnati most of the time. But this weekend, it'll top the enemies list.
The Week Behind
Insert Michael Corleone Joke: Mike Munchak quieted the clamors for Jake Locker by going with a pass-happy offensive game plan in Christmas Eve's 23-17 (shocking score, that) win over the Jaguars.
The Titans ran fewer than 20 times and for fewer than 80 yards, but no matter when Matt Hasselbeck is moving the ball with a 21st-century run-and-shoot cover band of an offense.
Jared Cook set the franchise record for receiving yards by a tight end with 169. Damian Williams made his case to stay in baby blue next season with eight catches, and the fact the team is still playing the wrong quarterback didn't matter any more than the very pedestrian multi-millionaire standing behind him in the backfield. The win so thrilled Penn State, the school allegedly wants Munchak to come back to his alma mater. Munchak — thankfully — realizes he wants no part of that one.
Most importantly, the Titans playoff hopes exist and are not wholly unreasonable. So much for playing for the future.
Holidaze: Not the greatest week in Nashville Predators history, that's for sure.
The team salvaged some good feelings with a predictably tight, typically workmanlike shootout win against Minnesota Wednesday, the Preds first win since the heartstopper against Columbus.
Losses to Dallas and Detroit hurt, but not as badly as the elbow to the previously impregnable skull of captain Shea Weber, now out — indefinitely — with a concussion. With Kevin Klein also down due to what the team keeps insisting is "the flu" (medical science is divided on the existence of Kleinfluenza, which has remarkably similar symptoms to a concussion), the Predators blueline now features three players who have spent time on the farm in Milwaukee this season.
Jon Blum is playing better after his brief demotion to The Good Land. The Swiss Guard, Roman Josi, is a stellar puck-mover who saw time on the first pair opposite Ryan Suter. And Ryan Ellis — who is generously listed at 5'10", a measurement which must have been taking while he was wearing skates, lifts and standing on the bench — received high praise from Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, though Ellis has yet to find the scoresheet. If you listen to Canadians — who treat Ellis with a devotion usually reserved for Tragically Hip songs — this is just a blip on his predestined assault on Bobby Orr's records.
Still, playing without two of their top four defensemen — and who knows for how long — the Preds sit seventh in the West, as per usual.
Garbage Time: Check out next year's SEC football schedule. Vandy actually has a pretty easy draw — and the honor of the Thursday night conference opener. ... The Little General Rick Insell continues to work his magic in Murfreesboro, as MTSU's Lady Raiders beat No. 6 Kentucky in the Murphy Center. ... The Pro Bowl is generally unwatchable, so consider it a blessing no Titans made the team. ... Vandy basketball finally looked like the team promised by the preseason hype machine, winning at No. 14 Marquette 74-57 behind a double-double from Lance Goulbourne of all people.
The Dangers of an Early Press Deadline: So Blake Geoffrion hasn't quite become the superstar we hoped he would. Sent to Milwaukee before the roster freeze only to be recalled, he has since returned to the Admirals and, given what Barry Trotz said, he might be there for awhile, his spot now taken by fast-skating French-Canadian Gabriel Bourque.
Unfortunately, his demotion apparently came after the PredsPress — the gratis game-day program that offers elucidating information such as Jack Hillen's nickname ("Jack") — went to press.
The Noes of Kilimanjaro: R.A. Dickey, the nastiest knuckleballer to ever call Nashville home, has, despite playing for the Mets, a very compelling story.
A power pitcher who could never quite get it to work in the big leagues, he learned the knuckleball — the spin-free thrown spell of baseball — to salvage his career.
Chasing Liberty: In this week's Scene dead-tree, I talk about the big difference between Vandy's Liberty Bowl trip and the Commodores' other ventures into bowl season. For once, this trip doesn't seem like an end in itself. Instead, it's part of the means to a greater end.
For decades, the infrequent forays into the post-season were the culmination of years of heartbreak, hard luck and happenstance — the crowning glory, a reward for crawling through the morass.
But this year, this bowl appears to be the start and not the finish. James Franklin isn't the type to say, "We've done it, we're 6-6 and we made a bowl and everything else I do is gravy!" He wants to elevate Vandy from also-ran to in-the-mix.
Franklin is not going to be content with 6-6 seasons and backing into December bowl games, either. He's already blazing a recruiting path like Charles Grandison Finney running roughshod through 19th century New York. Unlike his 26 predecessors, he convinced the university to modernize its football facilities. And he's loudly lamented the heretofore whispered Curse of Dudley Field, openly displeased that the home stadium becomes Gainesville North and Knoxville West on Saturdays.
Enjoy the Liberty Bowl, Vanderbilt fans — but see it as the foundation, not the cupola.
As for the game itself, the Bearcats are, technically, the co-champions of the Big East, though sharing the title in that rump conference is the football equivalent of being declared one of the three godliest Borgias.
Vandy, of course, finished an unshowy 6-6 in the objectively more difficult SEC. Thus Vegas puts the 'Dores as a two-point favorite (for entertainment purposes only, natch).
Bearcats quarterback Zach Collaros will play for the first time since breaking his ankle in early November. The Commodores have a notoriously ball-hawking defensive backfield. A not-totally-ready Collaros may be just what the 'Dores need to get to seven wins.
Worthless Prediction: Vandy puts together a two-game bowl game winning streak and the Black & Gold faithful, for once, can't wait for autumn. Vandy 24, Cincinnati 20.
Don't Get Chopped And Screwed: Two things must happen to for the Titans to make the playoffs. They must win at Houston and the Bengals must lose. Then the rest of the mess comes into play.
The Titans are in an enviable position here. The Texans, their playoff position solidified, have nothing to play for — except for getting healthy — and will play the Titans in the first round of the post-season, should the latter make it. Thus Houston's coaching staff would be wise to keep things basic, lest they show too many secrets to a potential opponent.
The Bengals part of the equation seems equally likely, as their opponents — the universally despised Baltimore Ravens — are trying to lock up a division title and a first-round bye.
As for the rest? Hope for the best.
Worthless Prediction: Titans win 23-17, naturally.
A Dish Best Served Cold: The Preds travel to St. Louis where they'll do their best to continue to flummox poor Ken Hitchcock, the man who famously pinned the Darth Vader tag onto the Preds during his time in Columbus.
They'll return home for a New Year's Special Start Time game against Calgary. The game's a national broadcast in both the U.S. and Canada — which means whomever decides which games are on TV has never actually seen a Preds-Flames game, or possibly recognizes that people working off a hangover need to consume the blandest things possible.
Thursday, though, is the most compelling match-up. The Dallas Stars come to Bridgestone. After Mark Fistric's hit in the Dec. 23 game put Shea Weber on the All-Concussion Team, expect revenge to be sought. Expect 'Drome favorite Brian McGrattan to play in this one and seek out Fistric for the crowd-pleasing cold comfort. McGrattan should win the bout, but it won't bring Weber back any quicker.
Worthless Prediction: Preds keep their heads above water with three points in three games. And we all wait.
Cowbells v. Oxymorons: The Music City Bowl pits Mississippi State and its rowdy gang of bell-ringers against Wake Forest tonight at LP Field.
Wake Forest ended its season by being boat-raced by Vanderbilt and, as a reward, gets to visit Nashville in December. Mississippi State beat everyone they were supposed to and lost to everyone they were supposed to. As is State's way, they disappointed no one and excited even fewer. Love those cowbells though.
Worthless Prediction: You'll turn this one off before the third quarter. State 21, Wake 7.
Shea La Vie: Every day Shea Weber doesn't practice makes this worse.
As Predators fans learned with Matt Lombardi last season, as Penguins fans keep learning with Sidney Crosby, as backers of teams from L.A. to Long Island are learning: Concussion recovery has no timetable. Each day there's not a step forward, there's a step back, and eventually it's impossible to see how it's all going to end.
Since this hit at the end of the Stars game a week ago, Weber hasn't played and practiced for mere seconds. Trotz was "hopeful" his world-beater would play tonight. Now it's doubtful he even play Sunday. And it goes on and on.
Hockey players are bigger and faster than ever, and now their elbow and shoulder pads are Kevlar — weapons rather than protection. The dangers of concussions are known and the diagnosis of them easier. They will keep happening and they will happen to grinders and all-stars alike.
For a team which needed another veteran defender in any event, the loss of Weber is even tougher to swallow. General manager David Poile's hand is now forced, and a trade to shore up the back end is inevitable but difficult to swing. With so much parity in the league, few teams are bona-fide sellers at this point. The market will open closer to the end of February trade deadline, but will that be too long to mark time with a team whose average age is dangerously close to that of BYU's football team?
Best-case scenario is that Weber can get back on the ice soon. But until he starts to skate, the window isn't even in view, let alone open.
Got something for The 'Drome? Hit me at jrlind[at]nashvillescene[dot]com.