A look ahead

    The year 2006 marked yet another exciting year in the wide world of sports. Next year also has the potential to be a sports fan’s dream, and here are several of the storylines that are sure to keep the sports world turning.

    The first big sporting event of the new year will of course be the BCS championship game, held in Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 8. Ohio State has remained undefeated the entire year, finishing the season at a perfect 12-0. They will be there when the top two seeds play for the national title. USC is likely going to be making yet another trip to the championship game, which would be their fourth in a row.

    USC will hope to take back the title that Texas pried from them last year. Ohio State, however, simply won’t let this happen. They have already beaten a superior team in Michigan, and outside of that game have won every game in dominating fashion. The same can’t be said for USC, who had a string of narrow victories and a humiliating defeat at the hands of Oregon State. Ohio State wins this game without a struggle.

    When the college games end, the NFL kicks it into high gear. Three rounds of playoffs in January will decide who represents their respective conferences in the biggest game of the year. The city of Miami hosts the Super Bowl this season, played on Feb. 10.

    Peyton Manning is once again having an MVP season and will lead the Colts to the Super Bowl. Baltimore and San Diego may prove to be formidable challenges, but no one will stop the relentless Indianapolis offense.

    In the NFC the only serious contenders are the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys. Chicago’s outstanding defensive play will be enough to earn the trip to this year’s Super Bowl. It will be interesting to watch Manning go up against a daunting Bears defense, but he and the Colts will surely be lifting the Lombardi Trophy this year.

    In March, we’ll all catch the Madness. The single-elimination format means this tournament is wide open. The dark horse candidate to write into the NCAA tournament bracket this year is definitely going to be the Pittsburgh Panthers. The Panthers have eight of their top players from last year returning and are the early favorite to win the Big East. UCLA, LSU and Florida also have tough squads this year, and should go deep into the 64-team tournament.

    In pro hoops, the league will have been a tale of two conferences. In the Western Conference, an even win-loss record will earn you last place in your division. In the East, it will earn you a trip to the playoffs and perhaps a lead in your division.

    It’s too bad the hometown Trail Blazers can’t play in the Eastern Conference, where they would certainly have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. In the West, however, the Blazers have little chance of making it this year. That said, Blazer fans should still be encouraged about the future of the team. Guard Brandon Roy or forward LaMarcus Aldridge will be jockeying for the rookie of the year award.

In this year’s championships no team will burn hotter than the Phoenix Suns, led by two-time MVP Steve Nash, who will be too hot to touch come playoff time. They boast an all-star lineup complimented by a deep bench.

    LeBron James could lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to the finals coming out of the Eastern Conference. Cleveland is one of the rare powerhouse teams that exist out east. It would be great for basketball to put its biggest star, James, on its biggest stage and David Stern would be pleased out of his mind if this was the case, no doubt. However, the Cavaliers don’t have the sort of all-around talent that the Suns do, and will fall to Phoenix.

    Although Major League Baseball doesn’t begin until April, much of the news occurs in the winter. The Yankees and Red Sox have already engaged in one bidding war for highly regarded Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, with Boston emerging as the winner. The Red Sox are also trying to be active on the trade front, and according to rumors have been seeking to trade away often-disgruntled outfielder Manny Ramirez.

    In the National League, the Chicago Cubs are seeking a hostile takeover of the Central Division. They re-signed power-hitting third baseman Aramis Ramirez and inked free-agent outfielder Alfonso Soriano, coming off of a 46-homer year, to an eight-year deal. They also hired the fiery Lou Pinella to manage the team next season.

    If Chicago can get their pitching in order beyond Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano, and barring another Steve Bartman-like incident, the Cubs are a dark horse to emerge as winners of the National League pennant.

    In the American League, there is no reason to believe the Yankees won’t win the Eastern Division for the 10th year in a row. They should be aided by a healthy Hideki Matsui, who missed most of last year with a wrist injury, as well as Bobby Abreu, who seems to have rediscovered his home run stroke since being traded to New York. In addition, the Yankees landed heralded Japanese pitcher Kei Igawa to fill out their pitching rotation.

    The Red Sox should stay close enough to earn a wild card berth. As baseball’s two premier teams, they should meet up for another classic league championship series. For MLB’s sake, they need this matchup to occur. Without the Yankees and Red Sox going deep into October, baseball’s postseason television ratings have taken a hit recently.

    A Yankees versus Cubs World Series would be just what the doctor ordered. Two of baseball’s most storied franchises and largest fan bases. The Cubs, searching for their first title since 1906, and the Yankees, seeking their 27th title, would make for an epic series.

    In the end, Alex Rodriguez’s two-out grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to give the Yankees their elusive World Series title. Who said he couldn’t come through in the clutch?