The mild, August-like weather may not suggest it, but the leaves are slowly changing colors, Halloween merchandise is filtering back into stores, and high school, college and professional athletes are thinking about fall and winter sports.
The always-too-short Maine summer flew by like a comet this year – that tends to happen when you have a 5-month old and the Red Sox are in the thick of a pennant race – and while the calendar says it’s not over until mid-September, fall sports fever is certainly in the air.
The college football season kicks off tonight – UMaine’s opener at Connecticut is among the slate of games – with Maine high school teams scheduled to follow suit Friday, the NFL a week from tonight, and college hockey and basketball will be underway before we know it.
With new seasons also come fresh chances for us in the media to prognosticate, and new hope for passionate fan bases. With that said, here are five bold predictions for the upcoming fall season.
1. UMaine hockey will host a Hockey East playoff series
Now, before you think I’m too crazy, there is reason to believe coach Red Gendron’s club can generate enough victories to be playing a Hockey East postseason series in Orono this season.
For one, the Black Bears are bringing in a talented recruiting class that includes three NHL draft picks, two up front (Chase Pearson, Detroit, Patrick Shea, Florida) and one defenseman (Pat Holway, Detroit), along with an influx of other forwards including Mitch Fossier, Tim Doherty and Ryan Smith.
Also, with the exception of favorite Boston University, there appears to be no clear-cut juggernaut in Hockey East this season. The top eight teams host a conference playoff series, with those finishing 5th through 8th staying home in the first round. The top four teams receive byes to the quarterfinals.
If the Black Bears can get contributions from their freshmen forwards and production from upperclassmen such as Cam Brown, Blaine Byron and Nolan Vesey, along with improved defense and goaltending, Maine will be right in the thick of things battling for one of those first-round home-ice slots.
There’s a lot of preseason enthusiasm around the program with a talented freshmen class coming in, decreased ticket prices and another appearance in Frozen Fenway. Now, let’s hope it translates into the win column on the ice. There’s nowhere to go but up, and Gendron is fortunate to have a fan base who believes in him.
2. The Patriots will play in Super Bowl 51
I expected a lot of New England Patriots fans to be hitting panic buttons upon hearing the news that Tom Brady’s four-game suspension was reinstated this spring.
Then, I recalled that when the Pats won Super Bowls XXXVI, XXXVIII and XLIX, the team’s record after its first four games in those seasons: 1-3. 2-2. 2-2.
Jimmy Garoppolo is a very capable backup and he has plenty of weapons such as Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski around him.
It also helps that three of the Patriots’ first four games are at Gillette Stadium.
I could see the Patriots emerging from that opening, four-game stretch at 3-1, or at the worst, 2-2. Opening night at Arizona on the road will be a severe challenge, but New England should have enough able to take care of Miami, Houston and Buffalo at home.
Any bets at how many the Pats will run up on the Browns when Brady returns on Oct. 9? Or who the Pats will play in Houston in February? I’ll go with 45 and the Packers, respectively.
3. The Cubs will win the World Series
Sorry Red Sox Nation, but the general manager who put together the team that broke an 86-year curse in 2004 will be popping champagne on Waveland Avenue next month.
The Cubs, pieced together by Theo Epstein, are as complete as it gets. They have an outstanding starting rotation, consistent hitting, one of the best young players in the game in Kris Bryant, and veterans like Jon Lester and David Ross, who were key pieces of the Red Sox’s 2013 World Championship team.
The Cubs also have a championship-starved fan base. Yes, the Bulls, Blackhawks, Bears and White Sox have paraded down Michigan Avenue since 1908, but Chicago is a Cubs town when it comes to baseball.
That franchise deserves a title. Remember, if not for Aaron Boone, Grady Little and Steve Bartman, we could’ve had a Cubs-Sox World Series in 2003.
It’s not impossible that it’ll happen in 2016, but if it does, I may have to pick the Cubs. Sorry, Nana!
4. Maine football will improve
First-year coach Joe Harasymiak is putting his foot in the water in Hartford, Connecticut, tonight, and the Black Bears’ early-season schedule (at UConn, at Toledo, home opener against James Madison) is as tough as it gets.
That’s the way Harasymiak and the Black Bears want it, though.
Maine is coming off a disappointing 3-8 campaign in 2015, but expect the Black Bears to improve on offense under Harasymiak and new offensive coordinator Liam Coen.
The Bears were picked 9th in the Colonial Athletic Association, but if the offense can improve, Maine will be a team that nobody is going to want to face late in the season. I can definitely see the Black Bears posting a 7-4 type of season.
5. Scots, Hawks, Warriors, Huskies will raise gold balls
No matter where you are in this country, nothing beats Friday Night Lights.
Yes, I love watching Notre Dame football on Saturdays and the Patriots on Sundays, but there’s nothing like a crisp, cool Friday evening on a Maine high school sideline.
The road to Fitzpatrick Stadium and the University of Maine’s Alfond Stadium – sites of November’s state championship games – starts Friday night.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a prognostication-type of column without predicting who will raise the gold balls come November. Here goes nothing:
CLASS A: Bonny Eagle over Portland
CLASS B: Marshwood over Brunswick
CLASS C: Wells over Winslow
CLASS D: MCI over Oak Hill.