Bob Sparks - 6/59 - SaintPetersBlog

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

Ravens answer to Dolphins’ winning streak: “Never more”

The Miami Dolphins had been riding high on a six-game winning streak before traveling to Baltimore for Sunday’s game. With all due apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, “Quoth the Ravens, nevermore.”

Miami was buried by the Ravens, 38-6 ending their winning streak and making them look as they did earlier in the season. The Dolphins looked like fish out water as their running game was nearly non-existent and quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffered three interceptions.

Baltimore, on the other hand, was clicking from the opening kickoff. Their first two possessions ended in touchdown drives of 80 and 63 yards. They never looked back building a halftime lead of 24-0.

The Ravens were imposing their will on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns. The Miami defense had no sacks and did not make a single tackle for loss the entire game.

Jay Ajayi, who had back-to-back 200-yard rushing games during the streak, was held to only 61 yards on 12 carries. It marked the fourth straight game he has been held under 80 yards.

To be fair, part of the reason behind Ajayi’s day was the necessity of leaning heavily on the pass once Miami fell so far behind.

It is difficult to find a positive for this game, other than the fact it is only one game. As Poe said in The Raven, “That it is and nothing more.”

Despite the loss, Miami (7-5) is still in the playoff picture. Next Sunday the final quarter of the season begins when they host Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals.

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Penn State makes case for playoffs; Florida bowls nearly set

With Penn State’s thrilling 38-31 come-from-behind victory over Wisconsin in the Big 10 Championship Game on Saturday, the controversy over who gets the fourth spot in the College Football Playoffs (CFP) has already begun. While the four teams will be announced on Sunday, the debate will linger through the new year, no matter what happens.

Most are expecting the Nittany Lions (11-2) to head to the Rose Bowl to face Colorado with Wisconsin playing in the Cotton Bowl against Western Michigan of the Mid-American Conference. However, plenty believe Penn State should get the fourth CFP spot over Ohio State and they have some sound reasoning to back up the claim.

The Nittany Lions are the champions of a Power Five conference while Ohio State was unable to even reach the title game. The Buckeyes (11-1) were denied that opportunity when they lost to Penn State on October 23.

The job of the CFP selection committee would have been much easier if Clemson had lost to Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game in Orlando. Despite a spirited comeback, the Hokies fell just short, 42-35, locking in the Tigers for one of the four spots.

If Penn State somehow earns the selection to the playoffs, Ohio State would head to Pasadena, Calif. for the Rose Bowl. No matter what happens, one side or the other will believe they were robbed.

If Ohio State is selected, calls to change the rules will begin Sunday afternoon. More than a few hold the belief that CFP participants must be conference champions.

Saturday began with even more uncertainty surrounding bowls. There was concern that if Navy won the American Athletic Conference championship, several bowl assignments would be delayed while waiting to see if Navy could qualify for the Cotton Bowl bid. Temple’s 34-10 defeat of the Midshipmen in the American Conference Championship Game ended that concern.

With Saturday’s results, Florida’s nine bowls are now taking shape. While the projections are just that, the matchups are likely set.

Florida is expected to play Nebraska in the Outback Bowl while Florida State and Michigan are pointed toward an Orange Bowl showdown. Georgia Tech and Tennessee look to tangle in Jacksonville’s TaxSlayer Bowl and LSU is expected to come to Orlando to face Louisville in the Citrus Bowl.

Miami and West Virginia will meet in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando while Houston and Western Kentucky are slated for the Boca Raton Bowl. Houston was a top 15 team at one point before hitting a late-season tailspin.

South Florida is likely to remain close to home in the St. Petersburg Bowl to face Army. UCF will also remain near its fan base where it will face South Alabama in the Cure Bowl. Memphis and Central Michigan will play in the Miami Beach Bowl.

It promises to be an interesting Sunday afternoon in college football.

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Temple wins American title; USF wonders what might have been

Temple’s 34-10 victory over No. 19 Navy in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game on Saturday settled a few things. The most obvious was the Owls’ status as the top team in the league.

With that in mind, the South Florida Bulls have every right to claim they are 1a. Both USF and Temple beat the Midshipmen this season. Navy lost to the Bulls 52-45 in Tampa on October 29.

While Temple comes away with the American championship, they were one play away from not even qualifying for the game. University of Central Florida fans remember that play all too well.

UCF led Temple 25-20 on October 15 when the Owls took possession on their own 30 with only 32 seconds remaining and only one timeout. Phillip Walker connected with Keith Kirkwood for the winning score as time was expiring.

Without those heroics, it would have been USF playing Navy on Saturday. As it was, USF and Temple finished 7-1 in the conference. The Owls advanced to the championship by virtue of their 46-30 victory over the Bulls in Philadelphia on October 21.

The other clarifying act involves the bowl picture. Going into the game, Navy had the opportunity to muddle up the bowl picture for at least another week.

Had they won, Navy had a shot at the Cotton Bowl, but their status would not have been determined until next week’s rivalry game against Army. Games such as the Miami Beach Bowl, Boca Raton Bowl, the St. Petersburg Bowl and the AutoNation Cure Bowl in Orlando could have been affected.

Now, the Western Michigan Broncos of the Mid-American Conference are expected to get the Cotton Bowl bid that Navy was seeking. The bowl assignments should be announced as scheduled tomorrow.

USF is likely to go to the Birmingham Bowl on December 29 while UCF is expected to receive a bid to play in Miami Beach on December 19.

 

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Grapefruit League, World Baseball Classic highlights 2017 Spring Training

The World Series ended just over one month ago, but baseball junkies have something for which to look forward. Real junkies are counting the days until pitchers and catchers report to Florida (or Arizona) for spring training.

For those counting, it is a little over 70 days, depending on the particular team.

When that happens, it is time to look forward to Grapefruit League games spread around the state. The schedule reveals tourists and locals will have more talent than usual to see in 2017.

The 15 major league teams training in Florida will play a total of 251 games against each other around the state. In addition, the semi-annual World Baseball Classic will also visit Florida for early round matchups as well as exhibition games with major league teams.

Games begin on February 23 with Florida Southern facing Detroit in Lakeland and the University of Tampa playing Philadelphia in Clearwater. Spring Training wraps up April 1.

A few things are different for 2017. As Florida’s Major League tenants look for a more compact Grapefruit League, some movement has occurred.

The Washington Nationals have left Viera and are moving into the state’s newest facility, The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Joining them are the Houston Astros, who vacated Kissimmee. The Detroit Tigers will be playing in the new-and-improved Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

“The Florida Grapefruit League experience at a Major League Spring Training game is one of the best sports experiences around,” John Webb, President of the Florida Sports Foundation said in a release. “There is something for everyone in the family at all of the ballparks in Florida. It makes for a great family vacation.”

The World Baseball Classic, featuring 16 teams from around the globe, will have four of those teams in Miami between March 9 and 13. In addition to the WBC games at Marlins Park, the United States, Canada, Dominican Republic and Colombia will also play exhibitions in Florida cities.

Among the highlights are games between Canada and the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin on March 7 and the New York Yankees in Tampa on March 8. Also on March 8, the USA plays Minnesota in Fort Myers, the Dominican Republic plays Pittsburgh in Bradenton and Colombia visits Port Charlotte to face the Rays.

The USA’s final WBC tune-up is in Fort Myers on March 9 when they play the Boston Red Sox.

According to the Florida Sports Foundation, more than 26 million fans have attended Florida Spring Training games since 2000. Each year, spring baseball provides a $753 million economic impact to the state.

 

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Despite careful scheduling, Gators gladly running end of season gauntlet

As anyone who cares about college football knows, the Florida Gators will face top-ranked Alabama in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday. Despite going in and out of the Ben Hill Griffin M.A.S.H. unit, and entering the game as huge underdogs, Gator Nation would rather be playing in the game instead of sitting at home.

Gators’ Coach Jim McElwain knows the enormity of the task before him and his team on Saturday.

“There’s only been a couple of times so far that I’ve become violently ill watching (film),” he deadpanned.

To manage the progress and health of their teams, football schedules are carefully set up well in advance, especially by power programs like Florida. A strategically-placed bye week and a cupcake opponent here or there will dot the schedule to serve a particular purpose.

The Gators did not plan on finishing the year with an LSU/FSU/Alabama gauntlet.

They scheduled a bye week for October 22, giving them an extra week to prepare for arch-rival Georgia on October 29. With FSU looming on the schedule on November 26, Florida scheduled the epitome of a cupcake, Presbyterian, for November 19. The goal was to play the starters briefly, then get ready for the trip to Tallahassee.

Hurricane Matthew upset the proverbial apple cart. The October 8 home game against LSU was moved to November 19 in Baton Rouge. Presbyterian was paid to stay home, likely answering some prayers from some at the school who have some practice at the ritual.

This meant that instead of healing their wounds with a Presbyterian, the Gators faced a brutal road game against a tough SEC opponent. Be honest; would the Gators rather prepare for Florida State with a home game against a team called the Blue Hose or on the road against the Tigers?

If Florida could somehow beat LSU, they would earn the extra game against the Crimson Tide.

In a show of grit and determination, they somehow beat LSU. But it took a physical toll on a team already nursing injuries. The subsequent 31-13 loss to FSU, a physical game from the opening kickoff, did not leave Florida fresh as a daisy.

To be sure, Gator Nation would say “don’t feel sorry for us, at least we’re in the SEC Championship Game….again. Unlike FSU, at least we have a chance to win our league.”

Good point.

Now, if Stuart Appleby and the Gators’ offense can score some points against the nation’s best defense, or Caleb Brantley and the defense can force a couple of key turnovers, Florida’s chances can only improve.

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Effort was there, victory was not for Jaguars

Sometimes even a strong effort is not enough. That describes the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Sunday afternoon in Buffalo.

Despite the defense playing aggressive football, there was not quite enough offense for the Jaguars to break their long losing streak. The Bills came away with a 28-21 victory at Ralph Wilson Stadium sending Jacksonville to their sixth straight loss.

The Bills came into the game as the leading rushing team in the NFL. For most of the day, Jacksonville did a good job of botting up the Bills, but one play was devastating.

LeSean McCoy broke free for a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second half. The play gave Buffalo the lead for the first time, 13-7.

McCoy, an elite running back, had 103 rushing yards on 19 carries, meaning he had only 28 yards on his 18 other carries. The big run was the longest of his career.

Jacksonville sacked Buffalo Quarterback Tyrod Taylor five times and the defense recorded a staggering 10 tackles for loss. Clearly the defensive unit came to play on Sunday.

Jaguars’ Coach Gus Bradley has struggled to find consistency on offense. The lack of a running game and an inconsistent passing game have frustrated the coaching staff and the fans.

They have consistently starting each game slowly, going 24 consecutive games without scoring on their opening possession. That ended on Sunday when Chris Ivory scored on a two-yard run the first time the Jags had the ball.

Bortles threw for only 126 yards, but two were for touchdowns. He was also the team’s leading rusher with 80 yards. It did not help when Ivory had to leave with a hamstring injury in the first half.

Buffalo did not assume the lead for good until 10:46 remained. The Jaguars showed the grit of a team trying to win, but just could not make the play that would allow that to happen. They also came out on the short end of some controversial calls.

“It’s on us to go make a play,” said Bortles. “Instead of waiting for a break or a bounce, let’s just go make a play.”

Six game losing streaks are not good for job security, but at least Bradley had his team ready to play. Job security comes when effort equals victories.

Will that combination surface in the final five games to make a difference?

 

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Dolphins survive Colin Kaepernick’s statement on the field

Whenever the name Colin Kaepernick comes up, the conversation usually centers on something other than football. His recent political statements have overwhelmed anything he has done on the football field since regaining his starting role at quarterback.

Of course, that was always subject to change were he to do something newsworthy with his helmet on.  On Sunday in Miami, he changed the subject.

No, the San Francisco 49ers did not beat the Miami Dolphins. Miami hung on for a 31-24 victory, their sixth straight, but Kaepernick looked like the Kaepernick of the 49ers’ Super Bowl days.

Of all places to be playing on Sunday, Kaepernick was taking the field in Miami, where he defended Fidel Castro after the despot’s death on Saturday. While serenaded with jeers and boos from the Miami fans at Hard Rock Stadium, he completed 29 of 46 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns.

Kaepernick was also the team’s leading rusher with 113 yards on 10 carries.

Had he earned two more yards rushing on the game’s final play, the game would have gone into overtime. He was stopped by Ndamukong Suh at the two-yard line to allow Miami to escape.

Miami led 31-14 early in the fourth quarter, but the 49ers kept coming. The Dolphins were glad the clock expired

Going into the game, the Dolphins were the best in the NFL in preventing conversions on third down. On Sunday Kaepernick and the 49ers turned seven of their 14 third down plays into first downs. They were also two-for-two on fourth down plays.

For those unwilling to give Kaepernick credit for his output on Sunday, there is always the temptation to wonder if Miami was taking San Francisco lightly. After all, they were 1-9 and losers of eight straight, while the Dolphins were on a roll.

Along with the offensive output, here is another reason to give the opponent proper credit. Coming into the game, the 49ers were the absolute worst in the NFL against the run, allowing 179 yards on the ground per game. This was 36 yards worse than the next-to-last team, Cleveland.

Despite that, they played hard, allowing Miami to gain only 95 yards rushing. Jay Ajayi, who has become a highly productive running back, had only 45 of those yards.

Perhaps Miami was “playing down” to the level of their opponent, as some teams do. A good example of that came when the 0-11 Cleveland Browns had a makeable field goal to beat the Dolphins on September 26. The subsequent miss prevented Miami from starting the season 0-4 and Cleveland from removing a goose egg in the win column.

While Miami’s Ryan Tannehill did not quite match the numbers put up by Kaepernick on Sunday, he was good enough to overcome the subpar running game. He threw for 285 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

It is a safe bet that Colin Kaepernick will continue to be a lightning rod for controversy because of his political stances. But for the coming week, fans and analysts will be talking about his football exploits just as much, if not more.

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USF crashes AP Top 25; Seminoles 12th, Gators 15th

For the first time in several weeks, three Florida teams are in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. Florida and Florida State have been included every week, but now the South Florida Bulls have joined the club.

USF is the 24th ranked team in the country according to AP. With Saturday’s victory over Central Florida, the Bulls finished the season at 10-2.

The 10 wins are the most in a season in USF history and the Bulls are ranked in the top 25 for the first time since week six of the 2011 season. Their only losses came against Temple and Florida State.

The Seminoles improved from 15th to 12th this week following Saturday’s 31-13 win over the Florida Gators. Florida State was ranked as high as second this season before the huge loss to Louisville. Following their shocking loss to Kentucky, the Cardinals are now ranked behind FSU at No. 16.

Florida fell only two spots to 15th with the loss to FSU. The Gators were ranked as high as tenth earlier this season.

Florida State and South Florida have only their bowl games remaining while Florida must play top-ranked Alabama in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday, followed by their bowl game.

The Crimson Tide is again a unanimous selection at number one, earning all 61 first place votes. Ohio State, Clemson, Washington and Michigan round out the top five.

In addition to USF, the American Conference has Navy in the top 25, who is ranked 20th. The Bulls beat the Midshipmen on October 29, but the voters were apparently impressed by Navy scoring 75 and 66 points the past two weeks.

While Alabama is clearly the top team, the SEC is falling on hard times. The league once had eight teams in the top 25, but only four this week. LSU and Auburn are the other two.

The ACC, who argues they are equal to the SEC from top to bottom, placed five teams in the top 25. The Big 10 placed the most teams with six, followed by the Pac 12 with four, the Big 12 with three, the American with two and the Mid-American with one.

Western Michigan of the Mid-American is the only other unbeaten FBS/Division I team. The 12-0 Broncos are ranked 13th.

The four College Football Playoff teams will be selected next Sunday. Two of those four will be in Tampa on January 9 for the national championship game.

The Top 25 poll is here.

 

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FAU’s 77-56 loss to Middle Tennessee leaves many questions

Florida Atlantic’s long season came to an end on Saturday in Murfreesboro, Tenn. on Saturday in the most inglorious of fashions. The Owls surrendered 77 points to the Blue Raiders in a 77-56 stinker.

FAU surrendered 495 rushing yards on the day. I’Tavius Mathers and Richie James both rushed for more than 200 yards and each scored three touchdowns. James also had 120 receiving yards and a touchdown.

If there is a bright spot, it was the running of freshman back Devin Singletary, who rushed for 35 yards and three touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Driskel threw for 291 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw three interceptions. One was returned for 20 yards and a touchdown by D.J. Sanders.

This must be an unsettling time for Owls’ Coach Charlie Partridge. Today he completed his third season at FAU and all three have ended with 3-9 records.

This is the first time FAU has endured three consecutive losing seasons.

It is not just the record, but the way it ended. Middle Tennessee is a good offense, scoring more than 40 points in nine of their 12 games. But Saturday’s fiasco is humiliating.

Saturday’s output was a full three touchdowns better than any previous game they played the entire season. He will certainly have to present a sound plan for going forward to Athletic Director Pat Chun.

If Partridge returns, he will have key players returning like Singletary, Driskel, running back Gregory Howell, Jr. and receivers like Kalib Woods in addition to others. Saturday’s game shows there are a number of defensive holes to fill.

Before looking toward next season, the Owls must identify their problems and come up with a plan to fix them. Another 3-9 season will not be acceptable to fans as well as the university.

Today’s offensive output of 56 points is the most in the Partridge era. Somehow that does not soothe the bruised psyche of the Owls’ program.

Some decisions will be made in fairly short order in the coming days.

 

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After season-ending loss, FIU looks to 2017

Things started miserably this season for the Florida International Panthers. After an 0-4 start, Coach Ron Turner was let go and replaced by Defensive Coordinator Ron Cooper on an interim basis.

Cooper coached his final game on Saturday, a 42-28 loss at Old Dominion. Despite the setback, there are some positive things to point toward in 2017.

After the rough beginning, the Panthers responded to Cooper, winning their next three games. Saturday’s loss left him with a 4-4 record in his eight games. FIU finished the season at 4-8.

Two weeks ago, FIU hired former Miami and North Carolina Coach Butch Davis for next season. Cooper will likely not be part of Davis’s staff for next season, but that is not for certain. What is certain is that Davis will bring in some of his most trusted assistants to implement his offensive and defensive philosophy.

Saturday’s loss to the Monarchs reveals some of the things they will need to work on to improve on this year’s 3-8 record. It all begins at quarterback for an offense ranked 77th in Division I.

Alex McGough, who missed the final three games with an injury, is likely to go into spring practice as number one. He will be a senior and with the exception of far too many critical interceptions, played reasonably well, throwing for 1,900 yards with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Battling for number two and three on the depth chart with be Christian Alexander and Maurice Alexander. They are not related, but what they do have in common, besides their last name, is their youth. Both are freshmen.

Both stepped in to replace McGough with Maurice receiving the most playing time. Maurice had two touchdown passes and six interceptions, including one of each on Saturday.

Christian threw 4 TD passes without an interception in his brief appearances under center.  Maurice had 1 TD and 5 INTs

Leading rusher Alex Gardner, who ran for 877 yards, is a junior. He had five 100-yard rushing games. Sophomore Anthony Jones had more than 500 yards on the ground and averaged five yards per carry.

The receiving core of Thomas Owens, Stantley Thomas and A.J. Branisel will return. Someone will need to step up to replace senior Jonnu Smith.

The defense, ranked 84th in Division I, will be a priority for Davis and his staff. Even if improvements come in increments, any improvement should have them playing competitively in Conference USA.

With 6-6 teams qualifying for bowls, that is not an unreachable goal for FIU in 2017. Two more wins next year will make them bowl-eligible.

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