Notebook > Sports

Big game, no change

Sports | Buckeyes, Wolverines remain on top

Issue: "Kids' books," Dec. 2, 2006

Here's an almost unimaginable reality: While filled with drama and intrigue, what some called the latest "Game of the Century" meant nearly nothing in the polls when it was over. Tragedy leading into the contest only added to the game's mammoth interest. Legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler collapsed and died just a day before the big game, leading to a broadcast filled with tributes.

Playing in its second "Game of the Century" in as many years, Ohio State knocked off Michigan, but the slim margin of victory left Wolverine fans hopeful of another shot at the Buckeyes in the BCS National Championship game.

How indecisive was the final Big Ten matchup? Leading into the game, human polls and the BCS rankings dealt out their No. 1 spot to Ohio State and their No. 2 spot to Michigan. After the Buckeyes 42-39 victory over Michigan on Nov. 18, nothing changed. Ohio State consolidated votes and established itself as the crystal clear No. 1. Michigan didn't lose enough ground with voters to slip behind USC or Florida, the consensus third- and fourth-best teams.

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Neither Michigan nor Ohio State has any more games to play, and only USC or Florida can possibly hope to catch the Wolverines in time to earn a berth in the national championship game. USC has the best shot-wins over Notre Dame and rival UCLA could be all the Trojans need to vault Michigan in the standings. But, as college football's current setup dictates, now only voters and computers will decide.

Out in left field

Alfonso Soriano thought his value would plummet when he made the switch to left field. Instead, the one-time second baseman's stock soared. The 30-year-old slugger proved that teams pay for the stick rather than the glove when the Chicago Cubs inked him to the club's richest contract in its august history. Soriano parlayed a 46-homerun season with Washington last year into an eight-year, $136-million contract to play for Chicago's lovable losers.

Just a year ago, Soriano's career seemed to have stalled. He refused to play outfield during his two seasons with the Texas Rangers, intimating that moving from his original second-base position to the outfield would lessen his value once he hit the free-agency market. Outfielders with good power, Soriano argued, have less value than second basemen.

True enough. But after a trade to Washington, Soriano accepted the position change and even flourished. Back in the leadoff spot for the Nationals, Soriano produced his first 40-homerun, 40-stolen-base season (only the fourth player to ever accomplish that feat). New Chicago manager Lou Pinella said the Cubs signed the Dominican native for the unique skill set he brings to the top of the order.

But it wasn't without a price. Soriano's contract amounts to the fifth-largest contract ever given to a major league baseball player. Some like Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti can't help but fixate on the enormous sum of money the usually stingy Cubs owners just dealt out. Mariotti called the sum "dry-heave-inducing."

Not just for the owners of the Cubs. Contracts worth about $17 million a year like the one given Soriano tend to inflate the market for other players, too. Some players who signed early in the sport's free-agency period may wish they had waited only a few more weeks.

Around the Horn

NFL: For the second year in a row, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb won't be finishing the season on the field. Last year he missed the final seven games with a hernia. This year, the star quarterback tore an ACL in his right knee against Tennessee on Nov. 19.

NASCAR: Driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are probably glad they didn't split up. After persevering through a relationship with its share of ups and downs, the duo combined for Johnson's first Nextel Cup Championship. "It's going to take a little bit of time for this to soak in, just to think what this team has accomplished and the year we've had," said Johnson, who won by 56 points over Matt Kenseth. "Being a champion, it's the only thing I ever wanted to be."

SOCCER: Freddy Adu's days in the United States may be numbered. The 17-year-old soccer prodigy trained at the youth soccer academy of English Premier League club Manchester United, signaling that once he earns a work permit, he could leave America's Major League Soccer circuit and head for more competitive European leagues. Under FIFA rules, Adu can't change clubs until his 18th birthday next June 2.

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