Why you should care

Because it’s a fresh year, and that means it’s anyone’s game.

Last year was a banner year for headaches, whether it was mourning music icons or political ones (if you’re a Democrat, that is). The one thing 2016 did well, though, was sporting euphoria. The Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Cavaliers rescued two fan bases on the verge of breakdowns, while Villanova’s buzzer-beating March Madness win over North Carolina was ultimately runner-up for game of the year — World Series Game 7 being the winner, of course.

And last year was no anomaly. The New Year is ripe to excite, starting with the current college football bowl season. No matter who wins what this year, OZY — aided by some educated input — will keep taking shots on the players and teams to watch.

January — College Football Playoff National Championship

OZY’s Pick: Alabama Crimson Tide

Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts is as incredible a freshman prospect as you’ll find. The Alabama special teams unit is electric and, as always, the defense is NFL-level fierce. Barring a perfect game by the team’s opponent, Bama will claim its fifth championship in eight years.

Of course, the team has its weaknesses. “Alabama hasn’t faced many elite quarterbacks this season,” CBS Sports’ Inside College Football host Adam Zucker tells OZY. When they have, like against Chad Kelly and Ole Miss (a 48-43 win), they’ve allowed a lot of points. Zucker believes that Washington’s Jake Browning and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, who narrowly lost to Bama in last year’s final, are capable of deposing the champs. And don’t forget Ohio State: “The Buckeyes’ secondary preys on quarterback mistakes,” says Zucker. On top of that, Hurts has thrown nine interceptions this year — something that could ultimately cost the Tide.

February — Super Bowl LI

OZY’s Pick: New England Patriots

Parity in the NFL makes predicting a champ tricky. New England and Dallas are clear favorites, but are they really that much better than the field? Come sudden-death playoffs, I expect a shake-up. Green Bay is surging at the right time, Pittsburgh is a tough postseason out, and Atlanta, Seattle and Kansas City cannot be ignored. My pick? Tom Brady and the Patriots beat the Steelers to advance to the Super Bowl. In the NFC, it’s Atlanta. New England carves up the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

But what do other OZY staffers think? Sales extraordinaire Steve Lozic and our VP of finance Janeen Poutre are both picking the Cowboys to run the table. Poutre is convinced that rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are the real deal, while Lozic is a Jets fan to the core: “Dallas can only be stopped by the Giants or Patriots and I 100 percent refuse to write them in.” (The rest of OZY’s New York branch wouldn’t mind Giants-Patriots: Part III.)

April — NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament

OZY’s Pick: UCLA Bruins

Hot starts by historically rich “blue blood” programs such as Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA, Duke and North Carolina have reinvigorated interest in college hoops this season. Defending champion Villanova is a favorite to repeat (so long as the defense remains tight), Kentucky’s high-scoring squad is a force and Baylor is the biggest surprise of the season. Several others also have legitimate title hopes. Louisville’s stingy defense and 73-70 victory over Kentucky makes the Cardinals the favorite of Ethan Fedida, OZY’s director of social media and partnerships.

Yet there’s a reason “Cinderella” doubles as a sports term come March — any team can go on a six-game tournament tear. One underrated school to watch, according to CBS Sports’ College Basketball Insider Jon Rothstein, is Purdue. Led by Caleb Swanigan, whom Rothstein calls the “pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch best player in the Big Ten,” the Boilermakers have elite size, sharp shooting and veteran point guard play that is priceless in the postseason. Purdue should make a deep run, but UCLA is the OZY pick. Led by freshman point guard Lonzo Ball — the top 2017 NBA Draft prospect — UCLA is playing its best hoop in over a decade. The Bruins are second in the nation in scoring and Ball, their best player, ranks fifth on the team in points. This is an incredibly deep squad with plenty of options.

June — The NBA Finals

OZY’s Pick: Cleveland Cavaliers

Most sports fans at OZY’s Bay Area headquarters swear that the Golden State Warriors won’t wilt for the second postseason in a row. Our master of visuals, Sean Culligan, says that this regular season has become “basically a long preseason for the ‘Dubs.’ LeBron [James] is amazing, but the Warriors will be ready when the playoffs come.” The offseason addition of future Hall of Famer — and former MVP — Kevin Durant has lifted an already league-leading Warriors roster to an unconscionable level of skill. Honestly, though, I don’t buy it.

A 2017 finals trip will make it seven straight championship appearances for the world’s greatest player: LeBron. James’ legacy-cementing mission undoubtedly includes at least one more title, and now is the perfect time. The improved play of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, one of the few players who can consistently outplay Steph Curry, makes Cleveland a gnarly outfit. The Spurs and Houston Rockets are certain threats too, but destiny has a third straight Warriors-Cavs finals in store.

June — The Stanley Cup Finals

OZY’s Pick: Chicago Blackhawks

This decade has been good to Chicago on ice, with the Hawks wining three Stanley Cups since 2010. This season was supposedly expected to be a down year, but after 36 games, the Blackhawks lead their division with the second-best record in hockey. Entering the season, 20 voters from the NHL Network named the Tampa Bay Lightning the favorite to win the Cup. (The Lighting currently sit at fourth in the Atlantic Division.) Current odds show Chicago, along with the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens, as favorites to claim Lord Stanley this year.

October — The World Series

OZY’s Pick: The Chicago Cubs

Cubs fans are still high from their joyous World Series nectar — the organization’s first taste in 108 years. Chicago is the overwhelming favorite to repeat next October, and as we saw with Boston in the 2000s, any group led by Theo Epstein is poised for sustained success. According to Las Vegas bookmakers, Chicago boasts 3-1 World Series odds this year, while the Dodgers, Nationals and Red Sox come in at 10-1. The Mets, Astros and (2016 runners-up) Indians have 12-1 chances.

Even so, OZY’s Culligan is rolling with his hometown: the Giants. He believes that the signing of All-Star closer Mark Melancon will fill the void from the team’s 2016 lineup. “Last year’s devastating unraveling was solely due to bullpen distress,” says Culligan. “Now they’re set to win.” My bet? Chicago over Boston — in a dramatic seven games.

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OZYPOV

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