DREAMING OF SAM DARNOLD PLAYING FOR THE BILLS

If the Buffalo Bills win three-or-fewer games this season, coupled with their cache of draft picks as potential trade bait, they just might wind up with USC quarterback Sam Darnold for the next decade or so. Western New York football fans are due for a break, aren’t they? They can dream.

Darnold, who led USC to nine-straight wins to close last season, is the cover subject for the current issue of ESPN The Magazine. He’s also the quarterback on the Associated Press Preseason First Team All-America Team and the popular choice to win the Heisman Trophy.

He isn’t the only QB with first-round potential who’ll be eligible for the loaded 2018 college draft. But he probably is the best of them.

Darnold appears to be the total package. Terrific arm. Extraordinary anticipation on the football field. Great leader. Modest. No off-field problems.

There is speculation that Darnold might choose to return to USC for next season if he wants to avoid being selected in the 2018 draft by the New York Jets, Cleveland or maybe even Buffalo. Perhaps the Bills could ask Jim Kelly to sell Darnold on the joys of playing for Buffalo in front of viictory-starved fans who love their team.

If USC wins this season’s college national championship, it might be one less reason for Darnold to dodge the 2018 NFL draft.

I’m not suggesting that the Bills will finish with the NFL’s worst record this season. They should be better than they’ve looked this preseason. But it is better than a long shot that Buffalo could be in the running for Darnold.

Here are a few dates to circle if you want to check out what this hype for Darnold is all about: Home against Stanford September9...home against Texas September 16...at Washington State September 29...at Notre Dame October 21.

REMEMBER WHEN WATKINS AND DAREUS WERE BUFFALO’S BUILDING BLOCKS?

As recently as when the Bills opened this training camp at St. John Fisher, wide receiver Sammy Watkins and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus were the two young stars expected to put Buffalo on the path to the playoffs.

Now Sammy will try to stay healthy as a member of the Los Angeles Rams and Dareus will try to escape from his latest trip to the team’s doghouse.

Watkins has been unfortunate. Dareus has been undisciplined.

Considering his talent and paycheck, Dareus should be a Pro Bowl fixture and a team leader. He hasn’t been and time could be running out – at least in Buffalo.

MORE THOUGHTS ON THE BILLS

I’m sure many Bills fans think rookie Nathan Perryman is better than Tyrod Taylor. And that Buffalo has a better chance to end their playoff drought this season with Perryman than with Taylor at quarterback. In my opinion, that’s nutty. Tyrod might never be more than a slightly below average starting NFL quarterback. But I like his chances short-term and long-term better than Peterman’s.

Buffalo’s first-string offense has been brutal in this preseason, but the defense has been very good – particularly considering the switch to the 4-3 alignment and the overhaul of the secondary. In fact, the Bills have outgained their opponents in all three pre-season games: 309-242 vs. Minnesota...408-329 vs. Philadelphia...262-209 vs. Baltimore. That’s +199 in total yards. Hey, I’m trying to be Mr. Nice Guy.

IS AARON SLEGERS THE IL’S MOST VALUABLE PITCHER?

I don’t know if Rochester Red Wings right-hander Aaron Slegers is this season’s International League Most Valuable Pitcher, but he has to be in the running.

Slegers earned his 14th victory of the season—a clutch 3-2 home win over the Buffalo Bisons – Sunday afternoon. He had a season-high 10 strikeouts in eight i9nnings.

The Red Wings lead the Lehigh Valley IronPigs by three games with eight games remaining in the regular season. The IronPigs have the tie-breaker by virtue of winning this season’s head-to-head series.

Slegers is 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds but he isn’t overpowering. He has a nice assortment of pitches and good control.

He was drafted in the fifth round (No. 140 overall) by Minnesota in the 2013 entry draft out of Indiana University.

Slegers was the top winner for the loaded 2016 Chattanooga Lookouts of the Double-A Southern League: 10-7 record; 3.41 ERA; 145.1 innings; 137 hits allowed; 46 walks; 104 strikeouts.

He has been even better for the Red Wings this season: 14-4 record; 3.37 ERA; 141.2 innings; 148 hits allowed; 23 walks; 109 strikeouts.

Slegers finally got a brief taste of the major leagues with an emergency start for the Twins against Cleveland August 17. He didn’t get the decision in a 4-2 victory but he pitched well: 6.1 innings; 2 hits allowed; 2 runs; 2 earned runs; 2 walks; 3 strikeouts.

It isn’t easy to win 14 games in any minor league. Seasons are getting shorter and there are injuries and promotions.

The last previous Red Wing to win 14 games was Jeff Parrott in 1977. The last Red Wing to win 13 games was Curt Schilling in 1999.

Slegers will turn 25 on September 4. Rosters expand to 40 September 1 and he could be back with Minnesota for his birthday.

The IL Most Valuable Pitcher award began in 1953. The seven Red Wings to win the award: Tony Jacobs (1954)...Dave Leonhard (1967)...Roric Harrison (1971)...Dennis Martinez (1976)...Mike Parrott (1977)...Mike Mussina (1991)...Kevin Slowey (2007).

For the record, the last pitcher to win 20 games in an IL season was Lynn Lovenguth for Toronto in 1956. He was 24-12 with a 2.68 ERA. He was traded to St. Louis that offseason for slugger Rocky Nelson and was a disappointing 14-15 with a 3.69 ERA for the Rochester Red Wings.

THE WILD, WILD AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD-CARD RACE

The eight American League teams fighting to qualify for the two-team one-game wild-card showdown to advance to the ASLDS, have roughly 30 games each left in the regular season.

Then Yankees entered Monday with a 3 ½-game advantage for one wild-card spot. Seven other teams are within three games of the other wild-card berth: Minnesota...Angels 1 ½ games behind the Twins...Seattle 1 ½ GB the Twins...Baltimore 2 GB the Twins...Kansas City 2 ½ GB the Twins...Tampa Bay 3 GB the Twins...Texas 3 GB the Twins.

The Yankees lead the eight wild-card contenders in run differential at +135. The only other plus run differential is Texas (+21). The rest: Angels -2...Tampa Bay -11...Baltimore -23...Seattle -23...Minnesota -28...Kansas City -46.

The Yankees also have the lowest earned-run average (3.79), followed by Tampa Bay (4.05), Angels (4.13), Texas (4.45), Seattle (4.46), Kansas City (4.46), Minnesota (4.67) and Baltimore (4.82).

Texas leads the eight wild-card contenders in home runs (201), followed by Baltimore (194), Yankees (186), Tampa Bay (185),  Minnesota (158), Kansas City (157), Seattle (1248) and Angels (147).

Of the eight teams, only Minnesota has a winning record on the road (36-28). But the Twins are a mere 31-35 at home.

HAS BYRON BUXTON TURNED THE CORNER

Since Byron Buxton’s brief three-game rehab stint with Rochester at the end of July, he has enjoyed an excellent month of August for Minnesota: In 27 games, he is hitting .304 (28-for-92), with 18 runs, 3 doubles, 2 triples, 5 HRs (including 3 HRs in Sunday’s 7-2 victory at Toronto) and an .883 OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage). He is 7-for-7 on stolen base attempts (25-for-29 this season). Metrics say he also is the best defensive center fielders in the majors.

Has Buxton turned the corner? The Twins rushed him to the majors too soon. I believe everyone realizes that now. He could’ve used a full season in Rochester. That would’ve been fun for Red Wings fans. But he’s only 23 years old and appears to be on the verge of stardom.

HUNCH BETTORS CASHED IN ON THE TRAVERS

Last classy field Saturday’s Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course featured the winners of all three of this year’s Triple Crown races: Always Dreaming (Kentucky Derby), Cloud Computing (Preakness Stakes) and Tapwrit (Belmont Stakes).

They all finished off worse than third. The winner – and I suppose many fans in California cashed in – was West Coast, the invader from the West Coast.

West Coast didn’t race as a two-year-old and skipped this year’s Triple Crown races. He has won his last four starts. He paid $14.20 for a $2 win bet and won wire-to-wire by 3 ¼ lengths under jockey Mike Smith.

The complete order of finish: West Coast...Gunnevera...Irap...Tapwrit...Good Samaritan...Guiseppe the Great...McCracken...Cloud Computing...Always Dreaming...Lookin At Lee...Girvin...Fayeq.

WILL IT BE BRADY vs. FEDERER FOR MALE ATHLETE OF TH YEAR?

The U.S. Tennis open begins Monday. If Roger Federer adds this tournament to championships at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, I believe he’d become a leading candidate for Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year.

The man to beat could be New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. He’ll get credit for his team’s come-from-behind victory over Atlanta in Super Bowl 51 and his Patriots figure to enjoy a terrific 2017 regular season.

Both sports have been relatively overlooked for AP Male Athlete of the Year: Tennis Don Budge (1937 and 1938) and John McEnroe (1981)...NFL George Blanda (1970), O.J. Simpson (1973), Joe Montana (1989 and 1990) and Tom Brady (2007).

Do you have any other candidates? No, not Floyd Mayweather.

SHORT SHOTS

ESPN’s annual 100 Best NFL Players was posted Monday. The only Buffalo player on the list is running back LeSean McCoy, at No. 52 (with the notation that he leads the NFL with 8,954 yards rushing since 2009).  New England leads with eight selections, including QB Tom Brady No. 1 and CB Stephon Gilmore No. 69. Seattle has seven players on the list, and Atlanta and Pittsburgh each has six.

What do Jon Jones and Marcell Dareus have in common -- other than being tremendously gifted athletes? They both say they’ve seen the life and are determined to clean up their self-destructive acts outside the Octagon and on the football field. We’ll be rooting for them but remain skeptical until they prove otherwise.

The Rochester Rattlers have two players selected to this season’s 12-man All-Major League Lacrosse Team: defenseman Joel White and attackman Jordan Wolf. Ohio Machine midfielder Tom Schreiber is the league’s Coca-Cola Most Valuable Player for the second straight season.

National Lacrosse League Offseason Team Power Rankings by Andy McNamara and Brian Shanahan of NLL.com:  1-Georgia...2-Saskatchewan...3-Toronto...4-Vancover...5-Colorado...6-New England...7-Rochester, 8-Calgary, 9-Buffalo. It hurts to see the Knighthawks ranked so low but at least they’re two spots higher than the Bandits.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO...

Monday, August 28

Bismack Biyombo (25)...Nate Washington (34)...Janet Evans (46)...Pierre Turgeon (48)...Scott Hamilton (59)...Joel Youngblood (66)...Ron Guidry (67)...Mike Torrez (71)...Jim Lynch (72)...Lou Piniella (74). On this date 23 years ago (1994), Tiger Woods won the 94th U.S. Golf Amateur Championship. LeAnn Rimes (35) and Jason Priestley (48) are invited to the birthday party...Hockey Hall of Famer and Rochester Amerks Hall of Famer Al Arbour died on this date two years ago (2015).

Tuesday, August 29

Noah Syndergaard (25)...Chris Taylor (27)...Antti Niemi (34)...Anthony Recker (34)...Jamal Lewis (36)...David West (37)...Chris Simms (37)...Roy Oswalt (40)...Will Purdue (52)...Carl Banks (55)...Vai Sikahema (55)...Rodney McCray (56)...Jerry Bailey (60)...Marv Foley (64)...Doug DeCinces (67)...Bob Beamon (71). On this date 96 years ago (1921), J.E. Clair of Acme Packing Company of Green Bay, Wisc., was granted an NFL franchise...41 years ago today (1976), former University of Rochester tennis player Renee Richards, a transsexual, was barred from competing in the U.S. Tennis Open.