Spring football finished with a cracker of a game at Tokyo Dome. Now that we have a couple of months until the regular season starts, what better time for the first ever Inside Sport: Japan Power Rankings.
Before we start it should be mentioned the purpose of power rankings is to cause anger, outrage and offense as well as provide motivation for players. So if you are on a team ranked much lower than you feel is appropriate and then use that slight to go on and have a great season……you’re welcome.Also remember we’re using spring games as the basis for these rankings. If that excuse doesn't wash, we encourage you to get revenge by sharing these rankings across all social media platforms to highlight our stupidity. Get even more revenge by having your friends follow us and share them too.
Right off the bat let's just agree that any of the top four teams could have been ranked number one. Even in limited preseason action several of the top sides showed flashes of what is to come in the fall. A couple of factors swung top spot for Panasonic though. First was the dominance and smooth functioning they displayed throughout the spring. We're putting more stock into a strong win over college powerhouse Kwansei Gakuin than two facile victories in the Green Bowl, but in every game this looked like a team in midseason form. Arguably already a match for any side in the league, Impulse have added former Nojima QB Benjamin Anderson to a squad containing four all-Xleaguers. Strong in all three phases, seven-time champion Panasonic get the top slot in our inaugural rankings.
Like Panasonic, Obic added a new American QB and steamrolled the opposition in their first three games. The Seagulls didn't quite have it all their own way in the Pearl Bowl final though and were pushed right to the end by an IBM team that didn't play their starting QB for the majority of the game. We're jumping all over that fact as a way of separating the Chiba based team from Impulse. Kinda ridiculous sure, but one works with what one can. The Seagulls have probably the best offensive line in the league and the entire team plays with an edge. Kevin Jackson rolled back the years in the Pearl Bowl and his pass rush partner BJ Beatty showed he could do a job at kick returner if needed. Mobile quarterback Ikaika Woosley gives them a dimension they didn't have last year. They'll be very difficult to stop come autumn.
IBM Big Blue
Kevin Craft, as mentioned already, didn’t play much in the Pearl Bowl final. Whatever the reasons behind that, it’s clear that IBM are a much better outfit with him under center. Not that the rest of the team didn’t play lights out in that game. Big Blue gave it everything and almost pulled off the win. They have arguably the best pass rush in the league; speed at LB and in the secondary, varied options in the passing game and a productive backfield. But even with all that talent giving their best, against Obic it just wasn’t quite enough. Masamoto is a fine player in his own right but he is a very different QB than Craft and the offense has a contrasting tempo when he is running it. Regardless of who is calling the signals though, IBM will get a chance for instant revenge on Sept 5th as the teams return to Tokyo Dome for the highlight game of week one. Win that and they could be set for a deep run this year.
What?! National Champions, nine all-leaguers and ranked fourth? "They've lost their minds" you're probably thinking right now.
We hear you and we're aware of all that and the fact that Fujitsu kept their powder dry for the most part, but that just means their wins weren't as dominant as the other big teams and the heavy loss they took in the Nojima game was against a side playing only one American.
Granted that one American was Superman, but still..
Anyway we'll get a much clearer idea of Frontiers chances of taking a third title in three years, in week one when they face Lixil Deers. Fujitsu probably have the most talented squad top to bottom in the league so they'll be expected to make a statement right out of the gate.
Nojima Sagamihara Rise
What to make of Nojima? It's unfair to label them a one-man team but they have unquestionably the hottest QB (and maybe the best player) in the league right now.
Obviously determined to put last year behind them, they blasted out of the blocks in the Pearl Bowl only to fall to a very strong IBM at the semi-final stage. Rumors swirl about more Wolverines coming to the team and to be honest, the Rise's chances of glory depend on their success in bringing in one or two more Americans. Devin Gardner can't play every game at the level he did against both Fujitsu and IBM. With him leading the side though, Nojima can win regardless of who the opposition is.
Lixil, based on what we saw in the Pearl Bowl, seem to have slipped back a bit from the top sides. With the big four all playing the full compliment of foreign players and using American signal callers, that gap isn't going to close anytime soon. A more aggressive approach to play-calling from the start of each game wouldn't be a bad idea either. This team has quality players across the board, and can never be counted out. Their special teams continue to be top-notch but a couple of blue chip imports would put them right up with the top sides. They've never had a foreign player though so don't hold your breath.
Elecom Kobe Finies
Are the Finies better than the Challengers? We're giving them the nod based on their close win in the Green Bowl and the fact that OL turned OC Gavin Farr has shown signs that he'll run an innovative offense this year. Sean Draper returns to give the back end playmaking ability and two other University of Iowa Hawkeyes, Nate Meier and Jordan Canzeri, make up the rest of the current foreign contingent. The heavy loss to Panasonic didn't tell us much about Finies chances this season as they normally struggle against Impulse. Looking at their schedule the games against the teams ranked just above and below them will be the key to getting a good playoff seeding. If they manage to beat both Lixil and Challengers then the dream is on.
Asahi Soft Drinks Challengers
Challengers are the great unknown of these rankings. New QB Alex Ninzak didn't get to play in the Green Bowl as his work visa hadn't arrived. He did get a run out against a college team at least before the break, but it's hard to say what kind of offense he will run - Ninzak seems to be heavily involved in the game plan and play calling. WR Donnie King will be one beneficiary of Ninzak's arrival but despite Darwin Rodgers being listed on the roster it's unclear if he will be playing this year. No more than two foreigners can be on the field at any one time and Rodgers is primarily a TE. Sources say defensive help is on the way. With a couple of good imports on that side of the ball Challengers might surprise a lot of people.
All Mitsubishi Lions
The Lions did really well in the Spring only losing a heartbreaker to Lixil. They are almost certainly better than every team below them and might even challenge the three sides immediately above them. A few key mistakes were all that stood between them and making the Pearl Bowl semi finals. The teams strength lies in its passing game with solid QBs Saito and Tanaka having good targets to throw to.
Asahi Beer Silver Star
Silver Star have lost two very good American players in successive seasons and that's hard to overcome. In Yuta Hayashi though they have one of the best receivers in the league. They are unlikely to move far from the #10 slot in either direction. The team, despite a lot of new faces on the roster and among the coaching staff, has a good core of experienced people. To make an impact this year though, they'll have to bring in Americans to make up for the losses of WR Roman Wilson and QB Mason Mills. The latter in particular was a driving force on the team in 2016. Word on the street is that some players may be coming soon but until we get confirmation of that it's hard to have Silver Star ranked any higher.
Penta Ocean Pirates
When your QB gets injured and you are forced to use a TE / K in his place resulting in every single play in the first half being a run, it doesn't say much for your depth. The Pirates may drop in later rankings but for now they showed enough in their win over Minerva to get the benefit of the doubt. It's hard to criticize them for the performance against Silver Star given the circumstances and Obic are one of the best teams in the Xleague. Hopefully they will have a better back-up plan in case QB Ryosuke Nishizawa gets injured again in the fall.
Tokyo Gas Creators
Tokyo Gas beat the Bulls and got hammered by Fujitsu and Obic. Let's see where you rank them given only that information. They haven't played any team remotely near their level yet so #12 slot it is.
Fuji Xerox Minerva AFC
No agreement among Inside Sport: Japan staff when it came to Minerva. Most expect them to drop immediately but there were signs of potential in the spring.
Maybe we are giving the promoted sides too much credit but the fightback in the last few seconds against the Cyclones was impressive.
As One Black Eagles
One of our writers had As One much higher but the fact remains they didn't show much in the Green Bowl to justify that. The opposition were tough though.
Cyclones threw away the final of the Green Bowl Challenge against newly promoted Club Hawkeye which undid the good vibes they had built up after their first game.
Metropolitan Police Eagles
The Police took a hammering from both Fujitsu (49-0) and Nojima (64-0) and looked like the worst team in X1 but then went out and beat the Bulls 46-7. Much like with the Creators it's hard to glean a proper sense of their level from those mismatches.
Bulls Football Club
The Bulls lost 34-3 to IBM in the opening game of the Pearl Bowl but then shipped 40 points to two teams in the lower reaches of the rankings so really there is no option but to put them here.
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