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Mark Knudson’s Three Strikes Blog: Icy blanket on Avs red-hot start? USC isn’t USC anymore, plus “Fair play to play” and the “AFLAC” question

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Strike One: I for one fully plan on attending a parade (maybe two?) next spring when the Colorado Avalanche (and the Denver Nuggets?) brings home a world championship.

Yes it’s extremely early. Yes is far too soon to be making plans like that…and even making predictions like this is perilous. Lofty predictions make for overly ambitious expectations – which inevitably result in bad feelings when things don’t go just right. So I’m owning my mistake right off the bat. Forgive me for optimism.

Still, how can you not be hyped about the red-hot start by these Avs? Tied for the best record in the NHL’s Western Conference after 11 games, they already have road wins over the team with the most points in the league, the Washington Capitals, AND last year’s regular season juggernaut, the Tampa Bay Lightning. They look tremendous coming out of the gate. They look like a team that could run away with the Western Conference…and perhaps accumulate the most points in the league.

Doing that would give the Colorado franchise its third President’s Trophy since moving to Denver in 1995.

But that might not be a really good thing.

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Sports are full of silly superstitions, but the notion that the NHL’s President’s Trophy is jinxed isn’t all that silly. Fact check: It has a lot of merit.

The President’s Trophy – awarded to the team that finishes with the best regular season record in the NHL – has been awarded 33 times since it was created in 1985. Of those 33 winners, a grand total of eight of those teams have gone on to win the Stanley Cup.

EIGHT. Out of 33. That’s not even hitting .250.

For the record, the 1996-’97 Avalanche, the defending Stanley Cup champs at the time, won the President’s Trophy…and then lost to the hated Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals. Not a terrible performance by any means, but a letdown all the same.

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The last Avs team to win the Cup in 2001 DID also win the President’s Trophy…so they’re one of that tiny group of eight. So there’s that.

But it’s been six seasons since the Chicago Blackhawks were the last team to capture both awards. Last season, the aforementioned Lightning won the President’s Trophy by a staggering margin of 21 points…and got unceremoniously bounced in the first round of the play-offs.

St. Louis won the Cup last season after finishing a distant fourth in the Western Conference standings. At one point, there was serious doubt as to whether or not the Blues were even going to make the play-offs. And we all remember how the Avs snuck into the post season last spring as the eighth seed before taking out the top-seeded Calgary Flames in the first round. It was an historic upset. Post season hockey is sort of known for those.

What all this means is that the Avs fast start is great and all, but what we really need to see over the course of the next six months or so is a certain level of grit – like the Blues showed last spring – that will really determine if they have what it takes to win 16 games in the post season, regardless of how many they win in the regular season. Can they fight through slumps and the inevitable injuries that are sure to come? Can they maintain this level of play when the competition is at its best in the play-offs…and the other team’s goalie is ‘standing on his head’ while getting inside theirs?

Can this current group of Colorado Avalanche players “overcome” when they have to? Because it’s not going to continue to be this easy.

That will decide their post season fate…not how wonderfully they’ve gotten out of the starting gate.

They don’t throw parades for teams that win the President’s Trophy…unless they complete the deal and win the Stanley Cup, too. I’m planning on it.

Strike Two: We haven’t gotten the chance to watch the storied USC Trojan’s football team in person around here all that often. More so recently of course, including Friday night’s exciting 35-31 USC in over CU at Folsom Field. But it was only the 14th time the two squads have ever played, and their seventh ever meeting in the People’s Republic.

USC is now 14-0 against Colorado.

Going in, you thought this was perhaps the Buffs best chance yet to take down the Trojans. And they came close, with USC scoring the game deciding touchdown in the game’s final minutes. CU outplayed their Pac 12 rivals for most of the game, and with a break or two, would have won their fourth game of the season. The game was reminiscent of all three of CU’s previous home games this season – all of which have featured games with similar scoring ranges, decided in the final minutes (two in overtime.) CU has lost three of the four.

This one probably should have turned out differently. Partly because the Buffs played harder, made fewer mistakes…and partly because USC just isn’t USC anymore.

Without sounding like “get off my lawn” guy (again) it’s hard to watch “Tailback U” try to become Texas Tech. One of the games most historic and decorated programs has been reduced to being a copy cat. USC can still recruit with anyone – they’re situated in the most fertile recruiting ground in the country. They can have almost any recruit they want from within a 500 mile radius. Look at it this way: Of the players on the CU roster, only freshman DB K J Trujillo turned down (a very late) offer from USC to attend Colorado. Conversely, how many guys on the Trojan roster turned away the Buffs to sign with the Trojans? A bunch.

Based on talent alone, games between these two schools should really never be all that that close.

While new CU coach Mel Tucker seems to be squeezing out just about every ounce he can out of his roster, USC coach Clay Helton and his staff appear to be…not. This group of bigger, stronger and faster Trojans don’t play with much passion or fervor. Their sideline is dead. Their attitude looks ho-hum.

And their offense…the place that has produced FIVE Heisman Trophy running backs…now is trying to run the Texas Tech “Air Raid” finesse system, rather than using superior size, strength and talent to overpower and overwhelm lesser opposition. It’s kind of sad to watch.

It’s doubtful that Helton survives as USC head coach much longer. They’re already looking for a new AD. You wonder if whomever they bring in next will look at the program’s uber-successful history and decide to actually put the Trojan’s built-in advantages to use. Try to make USC look like USC again…and not a knock off of Texas Tech.

Strike Three: The “C” in AFLAC stands for “Columbus.” As in Columbus, Georgia, where the company’s headquarters are located. Columbus, Georgia bumps up against the state line with Alabama – and is a sister city of sorts with nearby Auburn, Alabama on the other side of the Chattahoochee River. The majority of college football fans in the immediate region are fans of either the Auburn Tigers or the Georgia Bulldogs.

So naturally AFLAC signed up Alabama head coach Nick Saban as their latest celebrity spokesperson. It was strictly a business decision to be sure.

This is sort of funny…but it only matters in the larger context as part of the question surrounding California’s “Fair Pay to Play” law, scheduled to take effect in 2023. Let’s assume the movement created by the pending law continues, and that the NCAA doesn’t do anything to counter the measure that will open a Pandora’s Box of newly legalized “recruiting” methods, and that it becomes the law of all the land.

If so, then exactly who will be making these “endorsement” deals/payments to collegiate athletes? How much of it will be based on business research and marketing – like AFLAC is doing by employing Saban – and how much will based on “fandom” and emotion?

Big business will not take any sort of emotion into the decisions on whom to seek endorsement deals with. That’s why Nike, for example, won’t be a huge factor in future payments to players. (No, Oregon football isn’t going to get the benefit of Phil Knight’s fandom. Nike has business deals with dozens of college football programs…although it will be interesting to see what happens should Colorado State – an Under Armor school – recruit a player with a Nike contract, for instance.)

The latter is where all the inequity will surface.

The scales will be tipped most heavily in areas like Columbus, Georgia where a big business like AFLAC is located…but so are other businesses like “Riverton Automall.” Let’s just say that the owner of the car dealership is a big time Auburn grad and fan, whose car business is thriving, but who is motivated equally by his emotional ties to his alma mater. Nothing will stop that dealership owner from directing his marketing people to “employ” a dozen or so five star football recruits…should they opt to play for his Tigers.

Similar scenarios will be playing out in every region that’s college football or basketball “mad.”

The argument that “this can happen anywhere” doesn’t take into account the fact that passions for particular schools run much deeper in many parts of the country. What the owner of the Rivertown Automall is willing to spend is likely to dwarf what the owners of Tynan’s in Fort Collins, for example, will ante up to help lure in recruits. In fact, given the lack of passion for college sports in our region, it’s unlikely that many – if any – local businesses will want to get into any sort of bidding wars for the services of football or basketball recruits. We will be at a large disadvantage. Even larger than we are now.

There are plenty of others, but this is one key reason why “Fair Pay to Play” isn’t actually fair, and remains a terrible idea.

Have a comment or counter argument? Fire back at me on Twitter @MarkKnudson41.

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