Thrill of Victory

Nashville sports storylines to watch in 2013

A great year of Nashville sports is behind us, and 2013 is just around the corner. Here are Nashville’s biggest sports storylines to watch in the coming 12 months.

1. When will there be hockey again? And how will the lockout affect the Predators?
With the NHL players’ lockout is already at 104 days, and with half the regular season already canceled, the possibility of the entire season being lost (just as it was in 2004-05) seems very real. CBSSports.com reported today that the owners budged some more on key issues, but also notes that the players and owners have done this sort of dance a few times this season.

Eventually, the two sides will come to terms, but whether it’ll be in time to save this season is anybody’s guess. When we do see hockey again, it’ll be interesting to see how the fans react; at the end of last season, the popularity of the Predators was at an all-time high in Nashville, as the team’s average attendance of 16,690 broke the franchise mark of 16,559 (the Predators’ second year of existence).

Interestingly enough, Nashville’s average attendance actually rose between 2003-04 to 2005-06 (13,157 to 14,428) after the last labor stoppage, as league-wide attendance set an all-time NHL record. But the country wasn’t in a recession then, and fans may not be so forgiving the second time around. The Predators also made an unprecedented splash in free agency before that season by signing Paul Kariya, one of the league’s greatest players; by contrast, all-star defenseman Ryan Suter left for Minnesota since we last played hockey.

One more thing: while the Predators were the toast of the town just this spring, the absence of hockey and the emergence of Vanderbilt football have made the Commodores into Nashville’s sports sweetheart for the moment. Some of the Predators’ most die-hard fans such as this one have already given up on season tickets, and ownership must be anxious to see how many others follow once this mess is settled.

2. Will Titans coach Mike Munchak be back for 2013?
As bad as the Titans’ 5-10 season has been, it could have easily been worse. The Titans’ minus-159 point differential is the third-worst in the NFL, and four of the team’s five wins were decided in the game’s final moments. If that differential holds, it’ll be the worst in Oilers/Titans franchise history since 1984.

The defense has been poor from start to finish, and the offense has lagged of late in the return of franchise quarterback Jake Locker, who is playing behind a patchwork offensive line. In short, there’s not much for Titans fans to be excited about right now, and the fact that the team hasn’t won a playoff game in a decade now isn’t helping. Owner Bud Adams was so unhappy that he turned off the TV after last week’s 55-7 blowout loss in Green Bay.

Adams hinted that he’ll evaluate things after the season’s over, and that’s just two days around the corner. We should know quickly whether Munchak will be back or not, and it probably won’t help help his case if the Titans can’t beat the lowly Jaguars this weekend.

3. Can Vanderbilt win a national championship in baseball?
Coach Tim Corbin’s Commodores have tantalized us with a lot of major success recently. The 2007 team was ranked No. 1 in the country nearly the entire season before being upset in a Regional that year, and the 2011 squad made it to college baseball’s equivalent of the Final Four before being ousted by nemesis Florida. VU struggled with youth early last season, but got as hot as anyone in the country the last few weeks as it rode into another Regional before losing a heart-breaker to N.C. State in the championship game.

That late-season surge is a preview of what should come this fall. VU’s starting rotation of Tyler Beede, T.J. Pecoraro and Kevin Ziomek has the potential to be as good as anyone’s, and the super-talented Beede (who turned down about $3 million from Major League Baseball to come to VU) could well be Corbin’s next David Price. The bullpen is deep and absurdly-talented, and the offense has three players – first baseman Conrad Gregor, second baseman Tony Kemp and catcher Spencer Navin – who were selected to one of Louisville Slugger’s three All-American teams last week.

Add a recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the country (for the second-straight year), and everything points to a return to the College World Series.

This team may not have the top-end talent of future big-leaguers Price, Pedro Alvarez, Ryan Flaherty and Mike Minor like the 2007 team had, but it compares favorably to the ’11 team, which had a deeper lineup, bench and bullpen than the ’07 bunch had. Collegiate Baseball ranks VU third nationally in its preseason poll, which shows I’m not alone in my belief that this can be a special season.

4. Can Vanderbilt football continue its run of success?
After unheard-of, back-to-back bowl trips in his first two seasons, coach James Franklin has brought a fervor back to VU football that hasn’t been seen since the early-1980s. Suddenly, the Commodores, left for dead two years ago, are literally the talk of the town. Skeptics say it won’t last, but the Commodores have a great shot to win their ninth game in the Music City Bowl on Monday, and if that happens, you can throw any preconceived notions of what Vandy football can, or can’t be, starting then.

Vandy will lose some key players after Monday. Quarterback Jordan Rodgers is the best one the program’s had since Jay Cutler graduated, tailback Zac Stacy is the best at his position in program history, and other starters like offensive lineman Ryan Seymour, cornerback Trey Wilson, linebacker Archibald Barnes, and defensive linemen Johnell Thomas, Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter, also graduate.

But Franklin has also redshirted a slew of talented players across the board recently, including the best group of offensive linemen that VU has recruited in two decades, and quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels (who was good in his two years as a starter at Wyoming) should be an adequate replacement for Rodgers.

One big key will be whether record-setting receiver Jordan Matthews returns for his senior season; Matthews was absolutely unstoppable in the season’s final month and though Franklin insists he can get better, it’s getting increasingly harder to see exactly where that could be.

Franklin has emphasized smart scheduling, and when he canceled games with Ohio State (which went undefeated this season) and a 10-win Northwestern team (which beat VU this year) and replaced them with Austin Peay and Alabama-Birmingham. Should Matthews return, winning eight or nine games again is entirely possible. Take a look at this schedule, and tell me it can’t happen.

5. Story X
As much as it feels like I’ve covered my bases here, chances are that there will be some major sports story I’ve missed above. Did anybody think that Goodlettsville’s Little League baseball team would be this city’s biggest story for 2012 even six months ago?

Could it be that TSU football, which went 8-3 this season after returning to its on-campus stadium (affectionately dubbed “The Hole”) for the first time since 1998, continues its march back towards the glory years of coach John Merritt?

Could it be Belmont basketball under coach Rick Byrd finally winning some NCAA Tournament games? The Bruins look like the state’s best college basketball team right now.

Could it be Vanderbilt’s women’s hoops team, which has fought through some early-season injuries, finally rising above Pat Summit-less Tennessee to the top of the women’s hoops mountain in the Southeastern Conference?

Could a high school team like Ensworth football or CPA basketball – both of which won state titles last year – become the team that everyone in Nashville is talking about?

Stay tuned. It should be a fun 2013!