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Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006 | Five burning questions:

1) Who’s the hottest team in San Diego sports?

That would be Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Lowe’s racing team. The Granite Hills High alumnus became the first NASCAR champion raised in Southern California. The El Cajon school is better known in sports for Padres outfielder Brian Giles and “Touchdown” Tommy Vardell, but Johnson, 31, started the year winning the Daytona 500 – the Super Bowl of NASCAR – and finished it as the Nextel champion, NASCAR’s overall season title. I don’t know anything about cars, other than how to turn the ignition key, but that’s big-time.

2) Who’s the next hottest San Diego team?

That would be the University of San Diego women’s volleyball team. The Toreros, which clinched an outright West Coast Conference title with a week remaining in the regular season, have climbed to No. 17 in the nation behind the play of All-American candidate Kristen Carlson, a senior 6-foot-2 outside hitter who has come back from reconstructive knee surgery. The conference title gave USD an automatic NCAA Tournament berth, sending the Toreros to the post-season for the sixth straight year (I bet you didn’t realize there was such a college team in San Diego). On top of their on-court record, the Toreros feel they have landed an elite recruiting class. Interim head coach Brent Hilliard, a 1992 U.S. Olympic team bronze medalist, says this is the Toreros’ best class in his six years at Alcala Park.

3) What about the Chargers?

Yes, they’re hot, but not until the second half of their games. They need to wrap up a championship before we can really take their temperature beyond a Sunday comeback. They’re on fire, though, winning games to stand in first place in the AFC West at 8-2 without Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo on defense. As MVP candidate LaDainian Tomlinson said, “When we get our guys back, people better look out. We have six more games left in the regular season, and it could get interesting.” Hmmm, maybe the Chargers are hotter than Jimmie Johnson and the USD volleyball team. That’s about as bold of a statement as I’ve ever heard made by LT, a man as humble as he is talented. He must feel pretty confident to make such an out-of-character statement. But you don’t need me to tell you the Chargers are hot.

4) Who stole Raiders Week in San Diego?

Believe it or not, this is Raiders week in San Diego, although the anticipation normally associated with the game is missing in action. That’s how deep of a fog Raiders owner Al Davis has slipped into. Davis reminds me of the cartoon character Duke in the Doonesbury strip. Duke just came out of a trance-like fog to plan more evil acts, but Davis remains in a fog that he has been in ever since he foolishly abandoned Los Angeles to move back to Oakland, thinking he would recapture some magic while also raiding another city treasury. Davis and his Raiders represent everything that is evil about sports. Look at the costumed fans he attracts. Davis doesn’t understand when he signed malcontents in the old days, such as Ted Hendricks and Lyle Alzado, he had Art Shell, Gene Upshaw and Willie Brown to control them. Now he has Randy Moss, a malcontent and a quitter. Who’s going to make Moss shape up? Aaron Brooks? As the head coach of the Raiders, Art Shell has to be the most sympathetic figure in sports. After Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinate Ken Whisenhunt and Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino turned down the Raiders job – what does that tell you about Davis when guys turn down an NFL head coaching position? – Davis only then turned to Shell. Sadly, Shell felt loyal to his old boss, Duke Davis.

5) Who was happiest that the University of San Diego football team was bypassed for the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs?

That would be the UC Davis seniors. The Aggies had agreed to cancel their Nov. 25 regular-season finale with USD and schedule the game for another season if the Toreros, with a 10-0 record, 18-game winning streak and back-to-back Pioneer Football League titles, had been selected for the 16-team bracket. USD, ranked No. 14 among all Division I-AA schools and No. 1 among non-scholarship I-AA teams, would have been the first non-scholarship I-AA team selected for the playoffs if the Toreros had earned one of the eight at-large berths. But UC Davis, which was ineligible for the playoffs while in the final year of transition from Division II to Division I-AA, provides USD a chance to measure itself against a scholarship school. “We can prove we can play at this level and belonged in the playoffs,” said senior linebacker Kyson Hawkins, a Fallbrook High alumnus who turned down opportunities to walk-on at San Diego State and Colorado State to play at USD.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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