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San Jose SaberCats considered the team to beat

The defending Arena Football League champions have an experienced group of returning players, and have a chance to pick up their fourth franchise title.

The Arena Football League has been around since 1987 and has had two dominant franchises with at least four league titles to their credit.

The Detroit Drive won four AFL titles before 1993, and the Tampa Bay Storm won five championships from 1991 to 2003.

The San Jose SaberCats, defending Arena Bowl champions, have a chance to join the AFL's elite this season.

"We've started right where we finished last year with so many guys back" from last season, San Jose Coach and General Manager Darren Arbet told "The chemistry has been great since the first day of camp."

With quarterback Mark Grieb leading an experienced group of returning players, the SaberCats are considered the team to beat after they rolled through the playoffs last season and defeated Columbus in the final to win their third AFL championship since 2002.

Although San Jose lost receiver Ben Nelson, who signed as a free agent with Colorado during the off-season, the SaberCats still have one of arena football's top offenses.

Grieb, who has passed for more than 10,000 yards in his AFL career, has two quality targets to throw to in James Roe (127 catches for 1,560 yards and 40 touchdowns last season) and Rodney Wright (98 catches for 1,076 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games last year).

On the other side of the ball, San Jose is led by two-time AFL defensive player of the year Clevan Thomas, who had a team-high nine interceptions and 21 passes broken up last season.

But San Jose's defense will have to adjust with Jeff Jarnigan taking over as coordinator after Kevin Guy left to become coach of the Arizona Rattlers.

The AFL, which will hold Arena Bowl XXII in New Orleans on July 27, has several teams primed to challenge San Jose this season, starting with two of the league's top regular-season teams from last year, Chicago and Dallas.

"I would say that there is a lot of top-end parity in the league," Avengers Coach Ed Hodgkiss said. "There was a lot of movement with free agents and several teams landed some good players."

Despite the loss of receiver Bobby Sippio, who now plays for the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago will again be a contender under Coach Mike Hohensee. The Rush, which won the AFL title in 2006, will count on former Arizona quarterback Sherdrick Bonner and former Colorado receiver Damian Harrell to step up and complement one of the best pass defenses in the league.

Dallas, which had a league-best 15-1 regular-season record in 2007, will be looking to advance further into the playoffs after falling apart against Columbus last season. The player to watch for the Desperados will be quarterback Clint Dolezel, who completed a whopping 107 touchdown passes last season.

The AFL wouldn't be the AFL if it didn't have changes heading into a season, and that's the case again this year.

Two teams from last season, the Nashville Kats and Austin Wranglers, are gone and the Las Vegas franchise has moved to Cleveland.

That has forced the league to realign its divisions with Cleveland moving to the National East to join Columbus, Dallas, Philadelphia and New York. The National South has Georgia, New Orleans, Orlando and Tampa Bay.

With Las Vegas out, the American West will only have four teams in the Avengers, San Jose, Arizona and Utah. The American Central will consist of Chicago, Colorado, Grand Rapids and Kansas City.

The other big move for the league is a rule change that will allow a "Jack" linebacker to roam from sideboard to sideboard within five yards of the line of scrimmage once a play begins.

Previously, the Jack linebacker was restricted to a box behind the line of scrimmage until the ball was thrown by the quarterback.

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2008 Arena Football Predictions
by Vegas Sports Informer

The start of the 2008 Arena Football season is this weekend and my wallet is itching to fire up some units. Arena Football is not like the NFL where they have preseason games to fall back on and help us with handicapping the season. Most teams in the Arena league have at least one session of training camp where they practice with another team, so we won't get a good feeling about this year's league until the regular season kicks off.

My 2008 Arena Football League predictions are based on teams schedules, last year's regular season record, how playoff teams performed in the playoffs, off-season signings of rookies and free agents, and of course my six years of stats and trends. This season we have a new team in the Eastern Division (National Conference) and we lose a team in the Southern Division. The Las Vegas Gladiators of last year are now the Cleveland Gladiators of this year and the Austin Wranglers are no longer in the league. For someone who lives in Sin City (Vegas) it was a sad day to see the Gladiators leave town, not because I enjoyed going to the games but now Las Vegas probably won't get another Arena Bowl game.

Here's are my 2008 Arena Football Predictions.
(This season predictions are through Conferences.)

American Conference:

8. Grand Rapids Rampage (Central Division) (Arena Bowl odds 60/1)
The Rampage start the season with a new coaching staff, but most likely the same old losing results! One bright spot this season will be the new offense that Grand Rapids will be showing so we could see some bad totals in the beginning weeks. Last season the defense struggled and oppenents averaged 63.4 points per game, so if the defense doesn't improve the new coaching staff will have a long first season.

7. Utah Blaze (Western Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 35/1)
Granted, Utah finished 8-8 last season and made the playoffs but the last couple of seasons Utah has struggled to cover and win as favorites (4-13-1 ATS as a favorite). Until Utah can show me that they can win a meaningful game I will continue to fade them. A bright spot for the Blaze is that during free agent agency they filled their needs on both sides of the line. Unfortunately they lost the AFL Offensive Player of the Year of last season (Siaha Burley) to free agency.

6. Arizona Rattlers (Western Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 18/1)
Arizona is looking to bounce back from their worst finish (4-12) in franchise history last year. The Rattlers will have a new head coach (Kevin Guy) and also a new QB. That's right, Rattler fans, QB Sherdrick Bonner will not be in uniform (14 seasons as Arizona's QB). They will have a new look on both sides of the ball but their schedule opens with four out of their six first games on the road. In their last four road games they are 1-3 ATS and that one win was against a sorry team in Vegas last season.

5. Kansas City Brigade (Central Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 25/1)
The Brigade had an outstanding year last time out, going 10-6 (9-7 ATS) in the regular season and this year they pretty much have the same team coming back except for one main player. The Brigade losses their QB from last year, Raymond Philyaw, to free agency and bringing in a new QB usually takes a few weeks for the team to gel. Kansas City will have one of the best defenses in the league and that unit will need to carry them while the offense struggles early.

4. Colorado Crush (Central Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 8/1)
Expectations for the Crush rest on the shoulders of veteran QB John Dutton -- last season he struggled with turnovers so he will have to be more efficient this time around. If the offense can make some plays through out the season then the Crush might make some noise in the Central Division. Their defense will carry them and if you like betting totals then look for the under in Colorado games. They have two tough road games in March with Dallas and Chicago but if Colorado can come out .500 in March then this season could be interesting.

3. Los Angeles Avengers (Western Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 12/1)
Here is one of my surprising teams to watch out for this season! The LA Avengers are ready to make a big move in the division and conference this season. This LA offense will be explosive with rising star QB Sonny Cumbie and a trio of wide outs that catch pretty much catch everything. I'm hoping for some soft betting numbers for this LA team in the beginning weeks but most likely the word is out on this Avenger team.

2. Chicago Rush (Central Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 4/1)
Again, the Chicago Rush will contend for the American Conference title! Chicago improved on offense this season with a new QB Sherdrick Bonner and WR Damian Harrell. The Rush offense will take a couple of weeks to gel but with the defense Chicago has they could take their time on offense. The under was a hot play last season for Chicago and if they want to compete for the Arena Bowl I always say, "Defense wins Championship!"

1. San Jose Sabercats (Western Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 5/2)
(My 2008 Arena Bowl Champs) The team to beat in this conference and all season long will be the San Jose Sabercats. San Jose won it all last year and are clearly the No. 1 team this season. In my eyes this team has no weakness on either side of the ball and last season San Jose was a covering machine going 14-4-1 ATS. We could see this team win back-to-back Arena Bowls and we might start calling them the Patriots of the AFL (without SpyGate). San Jose offense averaged 63.4 ppg and hit the 70-mark five times last season so if you see a low Over/Under on their games you might want to jump on it.

National Conference

9. Cleveland Gladiators (Eastern Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 50/1)
What a culture shock for the Gladiators, leaving the bright lights of Vegas for the gloomy shores of Lake Erie. Last season they were horrible but the Cleveland Gladiators will be a thousand times better. Will they make the playoffs? No! But this team will be competitive and score some points. Look for a much-improved offense this year. Last year the Gladiators averaged only 43.8 ppg. This Doc's crew can score more then that in an AFL game!

8. Columbus Destroyers (Eastern Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 10/1)
Last season Columbus was in the Arena Bowl but this season is a whole different team and story. Columbus pulled a Florida Marlin trick and has only nine players coming back from last season. One of the key players that is back is QB Matt Nagy, but too bad he has nobody to throw to. Look to bet against this Columbus team as it will take a few weeks to gel as a squad.

7. New Orleans VooDoo (Southern Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 15/1)
Last season the VooDoo struggled to score points as they only averaged 52.1 ppg but this season should be different. A different starting QB with Bellisari taking the snaps and a fresh wide receiver crew will change the offense. New Orleans has four out of their first six games at home so if they can win at home quick this team could compete in the Southern Division.

6. New York Dragons (Eastern Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 40/1)
Here is another surprising team to look out for. The Dragons season will all depend on their QB play. Last season QB Aaron Garica played in only six games because of injuries, but this season he is healthy and ready to take this Dragons team to the next level. If the defense improves from last season and Garcia stays healthy they will be a force in compete with in the Eastern Division and conference. If the defense struggles again this season then we will look to bet the over like last year.

5. Georgia Force (Southern Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 6/1)
This Georgia team won't win 15 games like last season but this team could win the Southern again. The offense will struggle because of some key losses due to free agency but the key loss was losing their offensive coordinator, Steve Thonn. Georgia will compete for the division title but I wouldn't be surprised to see them slide backward a little. The first five games for the Force are dreadful so you might want to fade them early.

4. Tampa Bay Storm (Southen Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 7/1)
Tampa Bay always struggles in the beginning of the season (0-9 ATS in March) and this season might be the same due to four of their first five games coming on the road. Tampa Bay should be able to ride the momentum from last year to this year and if they can maybe win two or three of their first five games they could be a sleeper in the National Conference. If QB Brett Dietz has another great season I will be looking to bet on this Storm team.

3. Orlando Predators (Southern Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 7/1)
Here is a team that relies on defense and this Orlando team will have the best defense in the league. Orlando was 8-9 last year but this season I'm expecting a huge turnaround. Orlando is a team I'm looking to bet with and team that will compete with Dallas to win the National Conference title. If I see an Orlando game with an Over/Under in the 100s look to bet the under. Orlando gave up only 47.5 ppg last season.

2. Philadelphia Soul (Eastern Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 5/1)
Expectations are extremely high for this team. The Soul went out and spent huge money on the offseason to make their offense better. Their defense has always been tough but the Soul struggled on offense the last couple of seasons. If veteran QB Tony Graziani stays healthy this team can compete in the division and the National Conference. Philadelphia will need to play better at home if they want to compete in the playoffs. Last year they went 4-4 (3-5 ATS)!

1. Dallas Desperados (Eastern Division) (Arena Bowl Odds 7/2)
Dallas has suffered two straight playoff losses and last season they lost to Columbus as a double-digit favorite. This Desperados squad is strong on both sides of the ball and I'm looking for Dallas to win their Division, the Conference, and compete in the Arena Bowl. The bad thing about the Dallas Desperados is that they will be double-digit favorites at home and again the Desperados will post a double-digit win total.

National Conference
Southern Division (Orlando)
Wild Card (Tampa Bay)
Wild Card (Georgia)

Eastern Division (Dallas)
Wild Card (Philadelphia)
Wild Card (New York)

American Conference
Central Division (Chicago)
Wild Card (Colorado)
Wild Card (Kansas City)

Western Division (San Jose)
Wild Card (Los Angeles)
Wild Card (Arizona)

National Conference Championship (Dallas over Tampa Bay)
American Conference Championship (San Jose over Chicago)
Arena Bowl XXII (San Jose over Dallas)

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