Month: July 2017

Flight of the Conchords

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Bret and Jemaine (Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement) are a likable-but-awkward pair of New Zealanders attempting to make it as a folk music duo in New York. Calling themselves Flight of the Conchords, they attempt to land small-time gigs with the help of their oblivious band manager, Murray Hewitt (Rhys Darby), who is also Deputy Cultural Attaché for the New Zealand Consulate.

Supporting characters include Mel (Kristen Schaal), the band’s obsessed — and only — fan, Eugene (Eugene Mirman), Bret and Jemaine’s quirky landlord, and Dave (Arj Barker), a local pawn shop owner who gives the two Kiwis humorous (and frequently terrible) advice about picking up American women.

In between unsuccessful romances, low-paying gigs, potential muggers, and confusedly racist street vendors, this is an offbeat comedy that blends the surreal with the sublime. Hilarity ensues as Bret and Jemaine attempt to find their way in the States as “New Zealand’s fourth-most popular comedy folk duo.”

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Flight of the Conchords was already a widely-acclaimed comedy music duo in their home country of New Zealand for many years before they were an HBO series. Clement and McKenzie were actual flatmates when they attended the Victoria University of Wellington, where they both studied film and theatre. The band itself originated in 1998 and gained a cult following after widely successful runs at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Coming off a successful run as a radio show on the BBC, Clement and McKenzie elected to bring their quirky lyrics and bluesy acoustic sets to American shores. The duo co-created the show alongside comedy veteran James Bobin, an Englishman who wrote and directed several episodes of Da Ali G Show. Bobin, Clement, and McKenzie wrote and produced nearly every episode.

The series ran for only two seasons (2007 and 2009) but received significant acclaim from both audiences and critics alike and got six Emmy nominations. It remains a cult classic to this day, with frequent reruns shown on HBO.

Every episode of the show features a song-and-dance routine from either Bret, Jemaine, or both, usually in the form of a stylish music video. These frequently serve as inner monologues for the characters and contrast with the normally subtle, deadpan humor. Some of the songs serve as pivotal to the plot, some deliberately blend reality with fantasy, and many also serve as tongue-in-cheek references to various artists and/or genres. Flight of the Conchords was also shot primarily on location in New York City, mostly in Queens, the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, and Lower Manhattan.

“May well be the funniest thing you’ve seen in ages.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“TV’s most original and and irresistible comic concoction.” —The Detroit Free Press

HBO presents Flight of the Conchords

  • Created by James Bobin & Jemaine Clement & Bret McKenzie
  • Executive Producers — Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie, James Bobin, Troy Miller, Stu Smiley, Tracey Baird
  • Starring Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie, Rhys Darby, Kristen Schaal, Arj Barker, David Costabile, Eugene Mirman, Frank Wood, Sutton Foster
  • Rated TV-MA

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Kelly Tarlton

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You might not guess it, but New Zealand has been home to many inventors, pioneers, and explorers. The small South Pacific country developed a well-regarded do-it-yourself mentality during its long period of isolation in the 19th century. Kiwis were long regarded as ingenious problem-solvers due to the fact that, early in their nation’s history, you had to be self-reliant. Kiwis invented the jet-powered boat, the electric fence, and bungie-jumping, among others, and were well-known as explorers and adventurers. And of course, the country’s favorite son was Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mount Everest and who is now immortalized on the New Zealand $5 bill.

The country’s adventurous spirit has sparked many other unconventional and inspirational figures over the years — like Kelly Tarlton.

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Tarlton was born in 1937 in Dargaville, a small town in the North Island of New Zealand. An only child, Tarlton moved with his parents to Christchurch, a large city in the South Island, when he was a boy, where he developed a love for mountaineering and mountain-climbing. In 1956, at the age of 19, Tarlton was set to join some friends on a trip to the Andes.

Unfortunately, the group’s plans had to be canceled at the last minute — Peru was facing political unrest at the time and closed off its borders. Left at a loose end, Tarlton walked around town and wandered into a movie theatre that was screening the Jacques Costeau film Silent World.

Tarlton was captivated by Costeau’s film — a documentary that focused on underwater diving — and decided to go about learning more. He built much of his own scuba diving gear and purchased a quality underwater camera while building protective camera casings himself.

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Several years later, Tarlton had developed a well-regarded reputation as a photographer of sea life, and even got into treasure hunting. In 1967, he traveled to the Three Kings Islands off the coast of the North Island in order to collect marine specimens, but stumbled upon the wreckage of the SS Elingamite, an Australian steamer that sank in 1902 while carrying large amounts of gold. Tarlton ended up leading several expeditions to the Elingamite after his initial discovery and recovered much of the gold (although it was much less than had been assumed previously).

Tarlton was also celebrated when he discovered the SS Tasmania, another Australian ship that had sunk off the coast of New Zealand in 1897. Tarlton’s intricate research led him to recover a number of lost jewels onboard, many of which belonged to one of the survivors, Isadore Rothschild. Tarlton put several bits of the treasure on display at the Museum of Shipwrecks in the tourist town of Paihia, but they were stolen by a former staff member and the jewels’ whereabouts are currently unknown.

While many would be satisfied by securing a reputation as a scuba diver and treasure hunter, Tarlton’s interests didn’t stop there. By the 1970s, he was onto his next hobby — marine archaeology — and had paired it with his love of shipwreck-hunting. The task at hand was to recover three lost anchors that had belonged to the 18th century French ship St Jean Baptiste, which lost the anchors during a bad storm off the coast of the North Island. Tarlton and his team of researchers dug deep into the official accounts of Captain Jean François de Surville, discovering that the ship had drifted dangerously close to a large rock and was no further than “a pistol shot” from the shore when the anchors were dropped. By calculating the distance, wind speed, and other factors, Tarlton ended up finding all three anchors, which were put on display at Wellington’s Te Papa Museum — the national museum of New Zealand.

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In the early 80s, Tarlton’s attention shifted to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, where he desired to build a full-size aquarium. However, he ran into some challenges right away, as he lacked the funds to buy molded acrylic, which were needed to build the transparent tunnels. Still, Tarlton was unfazed, remarking that if he could build his own underwater camera casings, he could build tunnels, too! And he did just that, forming an innovative and skilled team of engineers to construct them. The job took its toll, with Tarlton and his men frequently working 18-hour days in order to get the project finished within a 10-month time frame.

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The aquarium — officially titled Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium — was opened in January 1985 and is located in the seaside suburb of Orakei, less than four miles east of Auckland’s downtown area. It was an instant hit with the public, with exhibits focusing on South Pacific marine life, an Antarctica discovery zone, and much more.

New Zealanders flocked to the aquarium from near and far, and after seven weeks, Tarlton was photographed shaking hands with the 100,000th visitor. Sadly, that image was the last time he was photographed — he died that very night of a heart attack at the age of 47. Today, the aquarium honors Tarlton with a bust that is inscribed: “Diver, dreamer, explorer, inventor, instigator, worker, storyteller, father — a man who linked us all with his love of the sea.”

 

2017 Top 25 college football preview

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#1 — USC Trojans

What an epic turnaround. The Trojans rebounded after an ugly 1-3 start last September, rattling off nine straight wins, including a breathtaking last-second win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Sophomore QB Sam Darnold plays beyond his years, and he’ll be surrounded by a terrific supporting cast.

Good News: Darnold and tailback Ronald Jones II are an awesome place to start on offense, and there’s plenty of talent waiting in the wings at wide receiver. Linebackers Porter Gustin and Cam Smith are a dynamic duo in the front seven, and coaches think that sophomore Jack Jones can continue the tradition of star Trojan cornerbacks.

Bad News: The Trojans lost superstar receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson to the NFL, and also have to replace three starters along the offensive line. The interior of the defensive line looks dangerously thin by USC standards. Starting placekicker (and Rose Bowl hero) Matt Boermeester was indefinitely suspended in the offseason, with the Trojans possibly turning to a true freshman at that position.

Bottom Line: USC has underachieved when in this position before, but if they navigate a tricky early schedule, they’ll be in the thick of the College Football Playoff race. Darnold could be a Heisman frontrunner, and the Trojans should be able to quickly reload at receiver.

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#2 — Alabama Crimson Tide

Oh, so close. The Crimson Tide were one solitary second away from yet another national title, falling to Clemson on the last play of regulation. But there’s no reason to think that Nick Saban’s team won’t be national contenders again, right? Plenty of talent is always waiting in the wings, and a couple of players postponed NFL paychecks to come back to Tuscaloosa for one more ride.

Good News: Sophomore QB Jalen Hurts showed his immense potential last season, and he’s already developed a good rapport with new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Hurts has a mammoth offensive line to protect him, and still has receivers like Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster to throw to.

Bad News: As usual, the talent drain on the Tide’s defense was significant, including defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebackers Reuben Foster, Tim Williams, and Ryan Anderson, and safety Eddie Jackson. Running back Bo Scarbrough was having a fantastic season before injuring his leg late in the year, and he might not be 100% heading into the fall.

Bottom Line: It’s unwise to bet against the Tide, as they continue to stockpile talent year after year. Still, they’ll need to be sharp straight out of the gate, as they’re playing an equally-hungry Florida State team in the season opener in Atlanta.

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#3 — Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles had a “down” year — only 10 wins — but return plenty of experience and talent from a team that deserves to be in the playoff conversation again. Coach Jimbo Fisher has a number of go-to veterans, and — apart from a late date at Clemson — a favorable schedule.

Good News: Despite a rough start, sophomore Deondre Francois has developed into an outstanding quarterback for the Noles. The linebacking corps is athletic and experienced, and All-American Tarvarus McFadden returns at cornerback.

Bad News: FSU needs new playmakers to step up in the receiving corps, and the offensive line is iffy. The Noles are deep at tailback, but they’re still replacing Dalvin Cook, the program’s all-time leading rusher.

Bottom Line: Florida State looks like a legit national threat again, and if they get past the opener against Alabama in Atlanta, they could be standing at 6-0 heading into an anticipated clash against Louisville in October.

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#4 — Washington Huskies

The Huskies finally arrived in 2016, earning their best record since the Rose Bowl season of 2000. Coach Chris Petersen’s squad got roughed up by Alabama in the playoff semifinal, but a bulk of that team’s talent returns despite some key losses on defense.

Good News: Quarterback Jake Browning, a Heisman contender, returns to lead an explosive offense. Junior tailback Myles Gaskin stiff-armed the NFL to come back after a 1,300-yard season, and senior receiver Dante Pettis is also back.

Bad News: Lots of big-time talent departed the defense, including safety Budda Baker and linebacker Psalm Wooching. While there’s still plenty of talent left, the team’s depth will need to be extra strong, especially in the wide-open Pac-12.

Bottom Line: UW is back for the foreseeable future, and with Browning, Gaskin, and others, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with again. But the defense needs to prove itself quickly in order for the Huskies to make a return trip to the playoff.

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#5 — Ohio State Buckeyes

You’d better believe that the Buckeyes will be motivated after getting curb-stopped by eventual national champion Clemson in the playoff semifinal. It was the worst loss of the Urban Meyer era, so he didn’t take any chances in the offseason, bringing in former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator.

Good News: Fortunately, QB J.T. Barrett is back, and there’s a legit group of athletes at the other skill positions. The offensive line returns four starters, and did I mention that defensive line? It looks tenacious.

Bad News: Only one starter returns in the secondary, and while Ohio State signed a ton of elite DBs in their recruiting class, it’s unlikely they’ll all be able to contribute immediately. The talent at receiver is mostly unproven.

Bottom Line: Meyer has recruited extremely well, and the Buckeyes are the clear favorite over Michigan and Penn State in the Big Ten East. An early game against Oklahoma should be a key indicator of where the Buckeyes end up on the national scene.

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#6 — Clemson Tigers

It’s weird to have a reigning national champion ranked this low, but Dabo Swinney’s team lost quite a bit from the team that posted that euphoric win over Alabama. Swinney has made it clear that they’re strictly focused on the task at hand this year — no more, no less. We’ll see if this team has the moxie to defend that hard-earned title.

Good News: Clemson has talent in spades across the defensive line and in the secondary. The offensive line has lots of size and depth, while the receiving corps looks great despite the NFL Draft loss of Mike Williams.

Bad News: Who’s replacing Deshaun Watson at QB? There were four candidates in the spring, with the most promising being last year’s backup (junior Kelly Bryant), and early enrollee freshman Hunter Johnson. With Wayne Gallman gone at running back, the Tigers could rely on a by-committee approach until someone emerges.

Bottom Line: Clemson won’t give up its top spot without a fight, but there still aren’t enough proven pieces to return to the playoff picture just yet. While the defense looks strong as usual under coordinator Brent Venables, the offense needs time to grow and adjust to new faces. If the new QB is effective though, watch out.

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#7 — Oklahoma Sooners

No Bob Stoops? No problem. The long-time Sooners coach retired unexpectedly over the summer, and the school immediately promoted offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to the head position. The 33-year-old Riley has plenty of experience and talent to go around on his first OU team, starting with Heisman contender Baker Mayfield.

Good News: Start with Mayfield, who led the nation in passing efficiency last year and showed a stunning ability to improvise on the run. He’s a game-changer who will help a young receiving corps find its way early on. The offensive line returns everybody, and the secondary looks strong after an up-and-down 2016 campaign.

Bad News: There’s no getting around the fact that Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, and Dede Westbrook are gone. The record-setting offensive trio leave a huge void, and the Sooners must identify new playmakers quickly. The potential replacements at running back looked solid in the spring, but they must deliver on game days.

Bottom Line: The replacements at the skill positions should pan out OK, but the defense needs to be more consistent overall if OU is to get back to the playoff. Despite a potentially tricky road schedule, the Sooners should be favored to win the Big 12 and be in national contention once again.

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#8 — Penn State Nittany Lions

The Nittany Lions did lose that heartbreaker to USC in the Rose Bowl, but there’s no reason to be down on them. Coach James Franklin’s third season was a rip-roaring success overall and included a massive upset of Ohio State and a win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.

Good News: The awesome 1-2 punch of QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley give Lions fans a chance to believe in this offense. There’s only one senior starter on the offensive line, but that group improved by leaps and bounds in 2016. Safety Marcus Allen is a potential NFL first-rounder in 2018.

Bad News: Penn State’s overall depth is suspect, and the run defense was surprisingly inconsistent last season. The receiving corps has some talent and experience, but no major go-to guy or deep threat.

Bottom Line: The Lions should be neck-and-neck with Ohio State throughout the conference season before their matchup on Columbus on October 28th. Even if they lose that game, Penn State could possibly win out and make a New Year’s Six bowl again.

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#9 — Oklahoma State Cowboys

The Cowboys return a boatload of offensive talent from last year’s team that went 10-3 and blasted Colorado in the Alamo Bowl. QB Mason Rudolph is one of the best in the country, and James Washington is an elite receiver. If running back Justice Hill can avoid a sophomore slump, this offense could be tough to stop.

Good News: Rudolph, Washington, and Hill are an outstanding trio for the Cowboys, and the offensive line is one of the more experienced units that they’ve had in years. Cornerback Ramon Richards is a legit defender who could also play safety this season.

Bad News: Oklahoma State needs to replace significant production on a defense that wasn’t great to begin with. There’s a lot of inexperience at defensive tackle and at cornerback.

Bottom Line: If the defense comes around, the Cowboys could become threats to grab another Big 12 title, because this offense will be one of the best in the nation. As usual, the season should come down to the Bedlam rivalry game against the Sooners.

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#10 — Auburn Tigers

The Tigers faded badly down the stretch last season after a 7-2 start, losing to rival Alabama and then a Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. The quarterback situation never settled down, frustrating coach Gus Malzahn, whose offense was effective in other categories. Still, there’s reason to believe in Auburn again this season, which could mean big things.

Good News: Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham wowed audiences at the spring game, proving that Malzahn might finally have the quarterback he needs. In addition, the running back tandem of Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway could be lethal. The front seven on defense looks strong.

Bad News: There aren’t many proven threats at wide receiver, and this needs to be addressed in order for Stidham to have total control of where the offense goes. The defensive line has plenty of bodies, but they need someone to step up and replace pass-rushers Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, who graduated.

Bottom Line: Auburn has too much talent to not be in the national picture. Malzahn spoke highly of this team at SEC Media Days, saying he sees the same heart and passion on this team that he saw in the 2013 squad, which stunned Alabama and nearly won a national championship. Stay tuned.

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#11 — Louisville Cardinals

The Cardinals limped to the finish line last season, but returning the reigning Heisman Trophy winner is always good, right? QB Lamar Jackson is back and still feels like he has something to prove. If his offensive line can protect him, Louisville could do some more damage in 2017.

Good News: Jackson returns, along with a cast of talented playmakers that can make the offense go, including WR Dez Fitzpatrick, RB Jeremy Smith, and WR Traveon Samuel. Defensive back Jaire Alexander and linebacker Stacy Thomas lead an athletic defense under new coordinator Peter Sirmon.

Bad News: Jackson took far too many hits last season, and the offensive line will be an issue until proven otherwise. The defensive line needs to reload after losing a couple of difference-makers to graduation.

Bottom Line: Louisville has the horses to attempt to dethrone Florida State and Clemson, but that’s the key word — attempt. If the Cardinals were in the ACC Coastal Division, they’d be ranked higher. Still, they’ll have a fighting chance in every game as long as Jackson is still on campus.

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#12 — LSU Tigers

Is LSU ready to be nationally relevant again? Les Miles was fired midway through last season after years of fans complaining that he was too conservative of a play-caller. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was promoted from within, and expectations were raised for 2017. Can the Tigers take advantage of a fresh start?

Good News: Enter offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who has promised to make the Tigers’ offense more exciting and up-tempo. But don’t let that make you think that LSU won’t run the rock: Derrius Guice is next up in the tradition of great tailbacks to come out of Baton Rouge. The defense looks scrappy and aggressive as usual, and Orgeron managed to hang onto coordinator Dave Aranda during the coaching change.

Bad News: Quarterback Danny Etling is good, not great. The linebacking corps returns only one starter, Arden Key, and he sat out spring practice due to undisclosed personal reasons. Placekicking could be an issue.

Bottom Line: Orgeron doesn’t inherit enough talent to challenge for a playoff spot right away, but LSU has a chance to beat out Auburn for second place in the SEC West if the ball bounces their way.

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#13 — Georgia Bulldogs

Year Two of the Kirby Smart era promises to be more exciting than the disappointing 2016 campaign, which saw a couple of ugly SEC losses and an overall lack of consistency. But the Bulldogs could be a sleeping giant this year, primarily due to QB Jacob Eason and 10 returning starters on defense.

Good News: Georgia returns Eason, as well as senior tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, which is great start for any offense. Lorenzo Carter and Roquan Smith are two heat-seeking linebackers. Overall, this team is more experienced and hungry than last year — plus, Smart signed a top five recruiting class in February.

Bad News: The Bulldogs need an untested group of receivers to be more reliable, and only two starters return on the offensive line. Eason was up-and-down in 2016 and needs to be better in close games in 2017.

Bottom Line: UGA has been a perennial underachiever in recent years, but this is a big window of opportunity in the SEC East, with Tennessee losing a ton of NFL talent and Florida treading water. If the Bulldogs don’t win the SEC East, color me shocked.

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#14 — Stanford Cardinal

The Cardinal had a mystifying 2016 season — they had disappointing losses to Colorado and Washington State, but that was largely overshadowed by the dominance of running back Christian McCaffrey (a first-round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers). The Cardinal finished with six straight wins, but injuries at quarterback hampered the offense’s overall efficiency. So which Stanford team will we see in 2017?

Good News: Stanford has Bryce Love ready to make a big impact at tailback; he was McCaffrey’s backup last season and showed plenty of promise. As per usual at The Farm, both lines of scrimmage look excellent.

Bad News: In addition to McCaffrey, versatile defensive lineman Solomon Thomas was a first-round draft pick, and he’ll be difficult to replace. Can Keller Chryst reclaim the starting job when he gets back from a late-season ACL injury? Or will touted youngster K.J. Costello win out?

Bottom Line: The Cardinal are one of the most consistent teams in the nation the past decade. If they can find an answer at QB and get past a Week 2 date at USC, they’ll be New Year’s Six contenders once again.

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#15 — Wisconsin Badgers

The Badgers aren’t flashy. They never have been, really. But what they do is win a lot of games. And that looks likely again in Paul Chryst’s third season, which features a loaded offensive line and an aggressive group of linebackers. Sounds like the start of a winning formula….

Good News: The O-line returns all five starters, and tight end Troy Fumagalli is one of the program’s best products in years. Linebackers T.J. Edwards and Jack Cichy cover a lot of ground, and D’Cota Dixon is a potential all-conference pick at safety.

Bad News: Sophomore QB Alex Hornibrook has potential, but posted pedestrian numbers in 2016. Unusual for the Badgers, they have no go-to tailback in the pipeline and might have to rely on Pitt transfer Chris James.

Bottom Line: The Badgers should win another Big Ten West crown in 2017, but they’re hungry for more. A kind schedule should help them in that regard, but more consistent QB play is needed in order for Chryst’s team to take the next step.

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#16 — Michigan Wolverines

The Wolverines are back for Year Three of the Harbaugh regime, and they have a ton of young talent ready to be thrown into the fire. Despite disappointing losses to Ohio State and Florida State to end the year, Michigan still nabbed 10 wins. Harbaugh’s recruiting will be put to the test in 2017, as the Wolverines return only five total starters.

Good News: QB Wilton Speight is back, and the offensive line looks solid. There’s plenty of depth at running back, and the defensive line has some young talent waiting to emerge.

Bad News: Ten starters lost on defense — let’s start with that. The Wolverines have massive rebuilding to do in so many areas, and there’s no getting around it. LB Jabrill Peppers, DE Taco Charlton, DE Chris Wormley are all gone and will be playing on Sundays in 2017.

Bottom Line: Harbaugh won’t hear any excuses if the Wolverines disappoint in 2017, but it’s hard not seeing this team take a step back after the massive offseason talent drain. Another 10-win season could very well be in the cards, but for now, Michigan fans must be patient.

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#17 — Miami Hurricanes

Are they back? Are they all the way back? Well, not really. But Mark Richt’s debut season left a good taste in fans’ mouths after years of underachieving. The Canes have solid depth and just look like a more athletic and disciplined football team. If the new QB delivers, Miami could finally inch closer to that elusive ACC title.

Good News: The Canes have the makings of an excellent defense, led by big-time linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney, and Zach McCloud. Defensive end Chad Thomas, a former five-star recruit, finally lived up to his billing last season, and junior running back Mark Walton rushed for over 1,100 yards.

Bad News: Who is the quarterback? That’s the primary question in Coral Gables after Brad Kaaya left early for the NFL. Junior Malik Rosier and sophomore Evan Sherriffs competed in the spring until touted freshman N’Kosi Perry arrives in fall camp.

Bottom Line: The Canes could push for a 10-win season if it all falls into place, but they won’t be top 10 material until 2018. Barring any catastrophic injuries, Miami should be favored in a usually wide-open Coastal Division race.

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#18 — Florida Gators

Florida fans have something to cheer about following two straight SEC East titles under coach Jim McElwain. However, McElwain’s offensive background hasn’t translated to tangible results, with the Gators still sporting lackluster units on that side of the ball. With key personnel losses on defense, Florida’s offense needs to get in gear quickly.

Good News: The Gators do have a couple promising quarterbacks, led by redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, but Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire could challenge when he gets to Gainesville in the fall. RB Jordan Scarlett and WR Antonio Callaway are big-time impact players. Only four starters return on defense, but the Gators still have plenty of talent on that unit.

Bad News: Did I mention the offensive line? Yeah, it allowed the most sacks in the nation last year. Florida could have Peyton Manning at quarterback and it won’t matter if the O-line can’t get its act together. There’s also a surprising lack of depth in the secondary.

Bottom Line: Florida is at a crossroads. While another bowl game is almost a certainty, it’s unknown whether they can successfully hold off Tennessee and Georgia in the SEC East and if the offense can take another step forward. An opener against Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Dallas will be telling.

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#19 — Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee ended 2016 with a flat thud, leaving fans and critics alike to wonder if they were really as good as advertised. Sure, the Volunteers started 5-0, but often had to grind out victories. And then the wheels came off, with Tennessee finishing a disappointing 9-4 with a .500 record in the SEC. Coach Butch Jones now has to reload and develop more talent, especially on a defense that was frequently mediocre in 2016.

Good News: The talent cupboard isn’t bare, with the Vols boasting an experienced offensive line and a gifted special teams unit. The secondary looks solid, and DE Jonathan Kongbo could be primed for a breakout season.

Bad News: In addition to correcting the lack of mental toughness in last year’s late skid, the Vols need to replace record-setting QB Josh Dobbs and need more depth at tailback. Tackling was a major issue in 2016 and must improve.

Bottom Line: It’s a critical season for Jones, as his Vols need to show substantial progress as they attempt to win the SEC East. If a leaky defense can be fixed and the new quarterback delivers, Tennessee could get there, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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#20 — West Virginia Mountaineers

Was WVU’s 10-3 season a sign of things to come, or a blip on the radar? Skeptics would say that the Mountaineers only beat three teams with a winning record last season (Kansas State, Baylor, BYU) and that they got embarrassed by Miami in their bowl game. But then again, WVU’s other two losses were to elite Big 12 teams (Oklahoma and Oklahoma State), so perhaps they’re closer than many think.

Good News: Coach Dana Holgorsen got an extension in the offseason and now he has a legit QB — Florida transfer Will Grier — to command his offense. Combine that with Tony Gibson’s opportunistic defense, and the Mountaineers could be in line to stay relevant.

Bad News: There’s not many proven playmakers at wide receiver, and the offensive line only brings back two starters (although getting LT Yodny Cajuste back from an injury was big in the spring). Kicker Mike Molina was unreliable in 2016.

Bottom Line: A season opener at FedEx Field against Virginia Tech will be a key test to see if WVU is for real or not. The fiery Holgorsen has the Mountaineers on the right track, but it’ll be difficult to stay in the upper echelon of the Big 12, one of the more unpredictable conferences.

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#21 — Washington State Cougars

The Cougars were up-and-down in 2016, starting off with an ugly loss to FCS Eastern Washington and ending with a frustrating bowl loss to Minnesota. But in between, they were as good as they’ve been in years, finishing with a 7-2 Pac-12 record, including big upsets over Oregon and Stanford. Can Mike Leach keep swinging his sword in 2017?

Good News: Start with QB Luke Falk, the most prolific returning starter in the country. The receiving corps is deep as always, and the offensive line is spearheaded by All-American guard Cody O’Connell. Linebacker Peyton Pelluer is a scrappy leader in the front seven.

Bad News: The defensive line didn’t make much of an impact in 2016, registering only 19 sacks. There are plenty of bodies in the secondary, but not many known commodities now that safety Shalom Luani is gone.

Bottom Line: Sustained success is the goal for Wazzu, as is maintaining composure in big games. With that being said, Mike Leach has the Cougars at a level that was unfathomable five years ago. They’ll make another bowl game and challenge Stanford for second place in the Pac-12 North.

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#22 — Utah Utes

Utah has been the bridesmaid of the Pac-12 South. Although they’ve won the most conference games out of any South team in the past three seasons, the Utes are the lone team that hasn’t won the division since the conference expanded in 2011. That could change this year, with a new, exciting offense and an always stout front seven.

Good News: The Utes return two big bodies on the defensive line, Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei, as well as junior safety Chase Hansen, a major playmaker. Quarterback Troy Williams had moments of brilliance in his first season as the starter. Special teams should be excellent.

Bad News: The offensive line lacks depth and must replace star left tackle Garett Bolles, a first round draft pick. There’s no clear-cut starter at running back, and some new shutdown cornerbacks need to emerge.

Bottom Line: If Williams can take the next step forward under new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, the Utes could be in line for another winning season. Utah has the right ingredients to challenge for another nine or ten-win season, but a South title probably won’t happen in 2017.

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#23 — Virginia Tech Hokies

It was quite a debut for Justin Fuente in 2016, who had big shoes to fill following Frank Beamer’s retirement. Nonetheless, the Hokies got back to their standard — a 10-win season and an ACC Coastal title. Fuente will have to reload quickly on offense to compensate for early NFL draft entries, but this looks like another quality group in Blacksburg.

Good News: Another tough, fast, fundamentally-sound Bud Foster defense. Linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Andrew Motuapuaka are the veteran leaders, while the Hokies’ secondary returns every starter. If the offensive line can open up holes for him, RB Travon McMillian has 1,000-yard potential.

Bad News: Someone must step up at receiver to complement senior Cam Phillips, while the quarterback battle must also be resolved. The spring candidates were junior college transfer A.J. Bush, redshirt freshman Josh Jackson, and true freshman Hendon Hooker, with Jackson holding the temporary edge. The offensive line needs to make more strides despite returning three starters.

Bottom Line: Virginia Tech should be neck-and-neck with Miami as the Coastal favorites, as long as the offense can pull its weight and match last year’s productivity. After a season opener against West Virginia, the Hokies have a fairly friendly conference slate, getting Clemson, North Carolina, and Pitt at home.

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#24 — Boise State Broncos

The Broncos have gone 31-9 in the first three seasons of the Bryan Harsin era, so what’s the problem? Well, they’ve seemed to take a step down in the Mountain West in recent years after a decade of dominating the WAC. With Wyoming and Colorado State hot on their tails in the Mountain Division, now is not the time to slip up.

Good News: QB Brett Rypien — nephew of NFL great Mark Rypien — is arguably the Mountain West’s best signal-caller. Wide receiver Cedrick Wilson is a major difference-maker, while the front seven looks steady despite being relatively young.

Bad News: The offensive line needs some rebuilding and reshuffling, while Boise State could use a new playmaker at linebacker following the departure of Joe Martarano, who left the team in order to pursue a pro baseball career. The secondary has plenty of talent, but much of it is young.

Bottom Line: Boise State has Rypien, a solid defense, and a great coaching staff. Those are three places to start, but there’s suddenly little margin for error in the Mountain West standings.

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#25 — TCU Horned Frogs

The 2016 season was unusually mediocre for Gary Patterson’s Frogs, stumbling to a 6-7 record. But they probably weren’t as bad as their record reflected, as most of their problems stemmed from an inefficient offense and general inconsistency. Can they bounce back in 2017?

Good News: The Frogs return 1,000-yard rusher Kyle Hicks, who’s also adept at catching passes out of the backfield. TCU’s defense should be especially sharp in the linebacking corps, with all-Big 12 pick Travin Howard leading the way.

Bad News: Senior QB Kenny Hill was maddeningly inconsistent in his first year as the starter. Sure, some of that could be blamed on a receiving corps plagued by drops, but Hill needs to evolve as a passer and be more patient in the pocket. There aren’t many newcomers vying for playing time at receiver, so it’ll be up to Hill and most of the same crew to improve their numbers.

Bottom Line: The Frogs are capable of contending in the Big 12, but the schedule isn’t particularly in their favor, with road dates at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State, as well as a non-conference matchup at Arkansas. If Hill can right the offensive ship, TCU will get back to their winning ways, but it’s difficult seeing any real shakeup at the top of the conference.

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Don Ritchie

After completing his service in the Australian Navy during World War II, Don Ritchie became a life insurance salesman. But his far greater accomplishment was quite literally “selling life” to the dozens of distraught Sydneysiders who have attempted suicide at The Gap.

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The Gap is a gorgeous cliffside in the affluent Sydney suburb of Watsons Bay which separates Sydney Harbour from the Tasman Sea. It has been a notorious suicide spot for nearly two centuries, with only a three-foot fence separating one from the edge.

And Don Ritchie lived next to it for 50 years.

According to estimates, Ritchie — the so-called “Angel of The Gap” — has saved 160 people from jumping to their deaths, all by being friendly and offering a warm smile. Frequently he just offered a cup of tea to them or invited them to chat at his home. While many would dread living to such a depressing place, Ritchie saw it as an amazing opportunity.

“How wonderful is it to save so many? How wonderful is it to sell them life?” he once said. “People will always come here. I don’t think it will ever stop. You can’t just sit there and watch them.”

“I think, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that we live here and we can help people?'” his wife Moya added.

Ritchie didn’t keep count of how many people he actually saved, although the actual count could be close to 400. Sadly, many people eluded his grasp and plunged to their deaths regardless.

Some of the ones he spoke with were battling cancer, while others suffered from mental illness. Sometimes, the men and women who jumped left behind reminders of themselves on the edge — notes, wallets, shoes, etc. Once, Ritchie rushed over to help a man on crutches. By the time he arrived, the crutches were all that remained.

Ritchie admitted that he didn’t want to pry into would-be victims’ lives; rather simply being someone who could listen and offer an alternative if needed. He claimed that he didn’t try to dwell on the ones he could have saved, although there are still some that haunted him.

On a summer evening several years ago, a 19-year-old man had already climbed over the small fence at The Gap and was preparing to jump.

“I went over and I tried to talk to him, asking him questions…he wouldn’t talk much and just kept looking straight ahead. I was talking to him for about half an hour, thinking I was making headway. I said, ‘Why don’t you come for a cup of tea, or a beer if you’d like one?’ He said no and stepped off…his hat blew up and I caught it in my hand.”

It was later discovered that the young man had lived down the street many years prior and grew up with Ritchie’s grandkids. The man’s mother brought Ritchie flowers and thanked him for trying. “If you couldn’t have talked him out of it, no one could,” she said.

Ritchie also once spoke with a woman who he described as “nervous and confused”; she had struggled with depression for years and felt that her medications were of no help. Ritchie and his wife spoke with her for several hours and she eventually went home safely. Months later, she returned with a message of thanks: “I’ll never forget your important intervention in my life. I am well.”

Ritchie consistently remained humble and low-key about his extraordinary work. In 2006, he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to suicide prevention. However, he was acutely aware that excessive publicity could potentially attract more depressed people to The Gap.

The following year, on November 2, 2007, prominent Australian journalist/newscaster Charmaine Dragun jumped from The Gap after suffering from depression and anorexia for years. According to Ritchie’s wife, there were six more suicides in the following few weeks.

Therein lies the problem for many activists and would-be helpers: while The Gap’s security needs to be upgraded, how can that be done subtly without attracting more potential victims? There aren’t easy answers, but the local city councils are doing all they can to improve the situation.

As for Ritchie and his wife, they’ve always insisted that they’ve had successful, full lives. They raised three daughters and have a few grandchildren, and have traveled all around the world. One day, Ritchie found an anonymous gift in his mailbox — a painting of a ray of sunshine with a message at the bottom, calling him “an angel who walks amongst us.”

However, the humble Aussie was just glad to be of service to the community. “It makes you — oh, I don’t know. I feel happy about it. Once I’m gone, I imagine somebody else will come along and do what I’ve been doing.”

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Suffering from recurring cancer, Ritchie passed away in 2012 at the age of 86.

“He would always say not to underestimate the power of a kind word and a smile….an everyday person who did an extraordinary thing for many people that saved their lives, without any want of recognition,” Ritchie’s daughter, Sue, told the Sydney Morning Herald.

FOOTY AROUND THE WORLD: Ireland

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Ireland is significant as one of the first European nations to have adopted the sport of Aussie rules. However, footy has never enjoyed significantly broad popularity in the country due to the dominance of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which overseas the traditional Irish sports of hurling, camogie, handball, and Gaelic football.

Gaelic football — by far the largest Irish spectator sport — has several similarities to Aussie rules, which have been well-documented over the years. The primary differences are the number of players, the size and shape of the ball and pitch, and the fact that Gaelic football is not full-contact.

Irish interest in footy was most likely initially sparked in 1967 during the Australian Football World Tour, which played a couple of test matches in Dublin. The hybrid sport of international rules football (a combination of Aussie rules and Gaelic football) has its roots in the World Tour. In addition, many Gaelic footballers have given Aussie rules a shot since the 1980s, primarily due to the lure of a quality salary; the Gaelic games are only played at an amateur level in Ireland.

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As far a domestic competition goes, there were no official footy clubs in Ireland until 1999, when teams were formed in both Belfast and Dublin (the Redbacks and Demons, respectively). The following year, the Australian Rules Football League of Ireland (ARFLI) was founded, and the Demons and Redbacks began playing test matches against teams in England. Having recruited well, both clubs performed admirably, providing a strong foundation for footy to grow in the Emerald Isle. Three more clubs — the Leeside Lions, the Midland Tigers, and the Drogheda Dockers — were founded within the next year, helped by an established group of Aussie expats.

ARFLI’s co-founders, Ciaran O’Hara and Michael Currane, attempted to strengthen ties with other organized footy clubs and leagues in both the UK and Continental Europe, helping form the European Australian Rules Football Council in early 2001. This was a key development in the eventual formation of AFL Europe in 2010, of which Ireland was a founding member.

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Due to a lack of available cricket ovals, the ARFLI originally decided to create two competitions, starting in the 2001 season. The premiership season was the original five teams competing in traditional 18-a-side formats, while the Super 9’s competition was nine-per-side, and was played on Gaelic football pitches in order to give players a smoother transition.

In addition to a growing local competition, Ireland’s national footy team, the Warriors, were inaugural members of the International Cup in 2002, when they won the premiership over heavily-favored Papua New Guinea, in addition to prior victories over Canada, Samoa, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States.

In both 2005 and 2008, the Irish team (AKA the Green Machine) finished in fourth place, suffering losses to both PNG and the US in ’05 and falling to New Zealand during round one of the finals in ’08. However, Ireland rebounded three years later, taking home the 2011 IC title with another nice win over PNG. The Green Machine/Warriors are one of the most successful IC teams ever, as they’ve never finished below fourth place overall and are tied with PNG for the most premierships.

The women’s national team, the Banshees, was also an inaugural member of the women’s IC in 2011, winning the Grand Final that year and finishing as runners-up to Canada in 2014.

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While Gaelic football still dominates the local media coverage and captivates spectators, the future of Aussie rules in Ireland still looks bright, due to the triennial International Rules Series, the emergence of several Gaelic converts in the AFL, and the chance to compete abroad at the International Cup. There are roughly 150 registered Irish footy players, as well as a junior development program.

AUSTRALIAN RULES FOOTBALL LEAGUE OF IRELAND

  • Belfast Redbacks
  • Dublin Demons
  • Galway Magpies
  • Leeside Lions
  • North Leinster Giants
  • South Dublin Swans

IRISHMEN IN THE AFL

  • Dermott Brereton (played 1982-1992) — One of the greatest goalkickers ever, Brereton is a first generation Irish Australian who played in 189 career games for the Hawthorn Hawks, winning five VFL premierships during that time. After briefly attempting a comeback with Sydney and Collingwood in the mid-90s, Brereton permanently retired and is now a prominent radio and TV commentator.
  • Jock McHale (played 1903-1920) — The son of Irish immigrants to Sydney, McHale mostly grew up in Melbourne and played for Collingwood during the VFL’s infancy. However, he is best remembered for his 714-game coaching career with the Pies, which lasted over two decades and resulted in seven premierships. McHale passed away of a heart attack in 1970 and was posthumously named as a Legend in the AFL Hall of Fame.

NOTABLE GAELIC FOOTBALL CONVERTS TO AFL

  • Tadhg Kennelly (played 2001-2008) — An athletic 6’3″ defender, Kennelly made history with the Sydney Swans in 2005, when he became the first born-and-raised Irishman to win an AFL premiership. Before he transitioned to footy, Kennelly was a stellar underage player for GAA powerhouse club County Kerry.
  • Pearce Hanley (played 2008-present) — The son of an Irish father and Welsh mother, Hanley played for GAA’s County Mayo. In 2005, after a positive showing at the International Rules Series, Hanley began to receiving scouting attention from the AFL. He ultimately signed with the Brisbane Lions as a midfielder/defender and played in 129 career games there before being traded to the Gold Coast Suns last year.
  • Jim Stynes (played 1987-1998) — Born in Dublin, Stynes spent his entire AFL career with the Melbourne Demons and is considered the first major success in the so-called Irish experiment, playing in 264 career games and winning a Brownlow Medal in 1991. Following his retirement, Stynes became well-known for his charity work and penned two memoirs. He was also selected to the AFL Hall of Fame and named to the Melbourne Team of the Century. Stynes passed away in 2012 at the tragically young age of 45 due to recurring melanoma.
  • Ciarán Byrne (played 2014-present) — Byrne is another Gaelic convert who originally made his presence known to the AFL when playing in the International Rules Series. Hailing from County Louth, Byrne signed as a category B international rookie with Carlton in 2013 and has since played in a dozen AFL games, primarily in the half-back line.
  • Conor McKenna (played 2015-present) — McKenna hails from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland and played at the minor league level in Gaelic football before deciding to give Aussie rules a try. Now a midfielder for the Essendon Bombers, McKenna has seen more and more senior level footy in recent months, drawing praise for his style of play from ex-Bombers captain Jobe Watson.
  • Colm Begley (played 2006-2009) — Begley moved to Australia in 2005 from County Laois and signed with the Brisbane Lions, where he played for three seasons. Unfortunately, injuries marred the latter half of his career; he retired in 2009 and elected to return to Ireland.
  • Zach Tuohy (played 2010-present) — Tuohy is one of the more recent Irish success stories. Originally from County Laois, he began his career as a versatile defender with the Carlton Blues before getting traded to Geelong at the end of last season. Tuohy also represented Ireland at both the 2011 and 2013 International Rules Series.