Articles By All
When the tide turned in the Palmetto Bowl, it turned in a big way. From 2009 to 2013, the Gamecocks were the kings of the state, winning five straight games and emerging as a national contender.
But in 2014, everything changed. Clemson broke their losing streak to South Carolina with a win at home. Now, the Tigers are undefeated and ranked No. 1, while South Carolina is 3-8, coming off a loss to the Citadel, and looking for a new head coach after the midseason resignation of Steve Spurrier.
Despite Carolina’s five-year run, Clemson holds a 62-40-4 edge in the series.
Clemson at South Carolina
Kickoff: 12:00 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Clemson -17.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Pharoh Cooper
Obviously, there has been little for South Carolina fans to cheer about this season, but the junior from Havelock, N.C. has once again been a bright spot. His numbers have dipped from his exceptional 2014 campaign, but that has more to do with those around him — and more specifically those throwing him the ball — than Cooper himself. He will have a battle on Saturday going up against the Clemson secondary led by Mackensie Alexander, who is likely to return after missing the Wake Forest contest with a knee injury.
2. Stopping Wayne Gallman
The sophomore has over 1,000 yards through 11 games. Expect him to add to that total this weekend as he faces the nation’s 114th ranked rush defense. With Deshaun Watson always a threat to beat an opponent by throwing to his talented group of receivers, the Gamecocks obviously cannot load up to stop the run. Gallman sat out the Wake Forest game with a minor ankle injury so the running game will also include touches for Zac Brooks, C.J. Fulller, and Kelly Bryant. But Gallman will get his chances and will make the most of them.
3. Clemson Taking Care of Business to Remain No. 1
It’s still Clemson-South Carolina, but the dynamic is a little different this year. Frankly, South Carolina is terrible. The Tigers know that next week they have the ACC Championship game against North Carolina looming and they would be right to view that as a bigger hurdle. But Clemson’s performance the past few weeks, while solid, has dipped a bit from their dominant performances earlier this season. Dabo Swinney would be thrilled if his troops disregarded the Gamecocks’ record and focused on playing Tiger football.
There will be two teams on the field for this big rivalry game this Saturday, but this is really only about one squad. South Carolina will be wrapping up a dismal season while all eyes will be on the country's top-ranked team to see how they perform. The Gamecocks’ offense, short of Cooper, is not strong. They don’t run the ball well; they don’t pass the ball well. And now they face that rough, tough Clemson defensive unit. South Carolina will also have trouble stopping the Clemson rushing attack which will open up passing lanes for Watson. If Clemson is looking ahead to next week, they will beat the Gamecocks comfortably. If they are completely focused on their arch rival, they will bury South Carolina. I’m going with somewhere in between.
Prediction: Clemson 38, South Carolina 13
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
When Missouri travels to Fayetteville to take on Arkansas on Friday, the newly forged border battle will be a key game for both programs looking to savage what is left of their respective 2015 college football seasons.
For a couple of reasons, Missouri may have more to play for entering the cross-SEC battle. The Tigers are 5-6, 1-6 (SEC), looking for that needed sixth victory to become bowl eligible. The other emotional push behind Missouri’s much-needed win is giving the program 11 winning seasons in 15 years to retiring head coach Gary Pinkel. Pinkel has a career mark of 118-72 in 190 games. The win would also prevent a two-game losing streak after the Tigers dropped their last outing 19-8 to Tennessee at home.
At this point the Razorbacks are playing more for pride and a better bowl invitation than anything else. The up-and-down season took another turn in Week 12 losing to Mississippi State 51-50 after getting a would-be game winning 41-yard field goal blocked in the final minute. The Hogs (6-5) are bowl eligible but could use a little bit of the winning formula to help out on the recruiting trail.
Missouri at Arkansas
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 27 at 2:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Arkansas -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Missouri’s Offense vs. Arkansas’ Defense
Statistically, the Missouri Tigers are one of the worst offenses in the nation with an average of 291 yards per game, ranking No. 125 out of 128 FBS teams. The Razorbacks front seven is solid against the run, but the back seven gets torched on quick-hitting plays. As a unit, the Arkansas defense is allowing 425 yards per game, with the passing defense giving up 303 of those yards (ranked No. 123 in the nation).
Missouri freshman quarterback Drew Lock has appeared in all 11 games but has seven games under his belt playing as a starter. In those seven games, he has only topped the 200-yard passing mark once hitting up BYU for 244 yards with one touchdown against one pick. Because Missouri’s passing attack has been anemic, the ground game has suffered. In 2014, Russell Hansbrough rushed for 1,084 yards in 13 games but has been limited to 422 yards in 10 games so far this season.
2. Brandon Allen vs. Missouri’s Pass Defense
The Tigers, per usual, have been tough on defense this year despite the struggles on offense. The Tigers’ pass defense is limiting teams to 175 yards per game but have only faced one other tough passing attack this year - Mississippi State. Arkansas senior starting quarterback Brandon Allen now, surprisingly, owns the school record for career touchdowns with 62 and broke the single-game touchdown passing record held by Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson (six) after connecting for seven against Mississippi State last weekend.
Allen has turned it on when needed with three 400-yard passing games this season but has also been average at times dipping below a .500 completion mark against Tennessee and Alabama. A key for Missouri is getting to Allen with pressure, forcing him to get off balance and throw on the run as much as possible.
3. Kentrell Brothers vs. Alex Collins
Missouri senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers not only leads the SEC in tackles but leads the nation with 140 stops on the year. Alex Collins is having a career year as the Hogs featured back, tacking on his third 1,000-yard season with 1,262 yards and 14 touchdowns scored on the ground.
Collins is only as good as his offensive line and Alabama and Mississippi State have provided a blueprint for Missouri to stop the Razorbacks rushing attack. Collins was held to 26 yards on 12 carries against the Crimson Tide, while he only picked up 53 yards on 19 carries against the Bulldogs. Missouri allows a tough 126 yards a game, while the Hogs are accustomed to being in the neighborhood of 191 per contest.
Missouri is solid all the way around on defense, but against a formidable offense like Arkansas, the Tigers gave up 430 yards of total offense to Mississippi State. The Hogs are lighting up the scoreboard as one of the nation’s best at 36 points per game, while the Tigers rank No. 125 by averaging only 15 points per contest.
The border rivalry means nothing to the two programs yet - like the Egg Bowl (Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State) or the Iron Bowl (Alabama vs. Auburn) - but the personal pride for both coaches to finish strong is at play. If Missouri pulls off the win, Lock will have to have the game of his life in his early collegiate career. If the Hogs pull out the “W”, they will have continued rolling with their offense picking up a couple of stops against Missouri’s underperforming offense.
Prediction: Arkansas 35, Missouri 18
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.
One of the great Thanksgiving traditions is snickering at who is playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions.
The list of Lions quarterbacks starting on Thanksgiving is a list of draft busts, journeymen, career backups and former stars whose best days had gone by.
Giggling at Lions quarterbacks on Thanksgiving, though, is getting tougher. Thank you, Matthew Stafford.
To fill that void is our (somewhat arbitrary) ranking of the quarterbacks who have started on Thanksgiving for the Lions since the NFL merger (1970).
To be clear, we’re looking at their entire career, not just their starts on Thanksgiving nor their tenures with the Lions. You’re welcome, Daunte Culpepper.
1. Matthew Stafford (2009, 2011-14)
Stafford has made the most starts for the Lions on Thanksgiving since Joey Harrington and delivered the Lions' first Turkey Day win in a decade with a 40-10 win over the Packers in 2013. After nine straight losses, Detroit has won two Thanksgiving games in a row under Stafford. Give the Lions' all-time leading passer a keg (to carry).
2. Dave Krieg (1994)
The longtime Seahawks quarterback made one Thanksgiving start for Detroit, and it was one of the Lions’ best. Subbing for Scott Mitchell, Krieg went 20-of-25 for 351 yards with three touchdowns in a win over the Bills. By then, Kreig was a 36-year-old QB with three Pro Bowl selections and an NFC Championship Game behind him.
3. Daunte Culpepper (2008)
Remember the Culpepper era in Detroit? We didn’t, either. From 2000-04, Culpepper was a rival to Peyton Manning. After that? Not so much. By 2008, the three-time Pro Bowler made five starts during the Lions’ winless season in 2008. Culpepper was 0-10 as a starter in two seasons for the Lions.
4. Jon Kitna (2006-07)
Kitna entered the league in 1997, and he was still on an NFL roster at age 41 in 2013. The Cowboys signed him away from being a high school math teacher and coach at Lincoln High in Tacoma, Wash. — during winter break, of course. Kitna then donated his $53,000 Cowboys salary to the high school. Oh, and he started on Thanksgiving for both the Lions and Cowboys during his career. You’re a cool teacher, Mr. Kitna.
5. Joe Ferguson (1986)
Ferguson made five career starts for the Lions in his mid-30s, well after he played for the Bills from 1973-84. He led the league in passing in 1977 and touchdowns in '75 and pulled the Bills out of the doldrums. But he also had a knack for throwing interceptions in the playoffs and also during the 1982 regular season when he threw 16 picks.
6. Scott Mitchell (1995-97)
Mitchell enjoyed his best season in 1995 with 4,338 yards and 32 touchdowns, including a win over Minnesota on Thanksgiving. He started three full seasons for Detroit and hung around the NFL for five more years until 2001. He resurfaced as a 366-pound contestant on "The Biggest Loser" in 2014.
7. Greg Landry (1970-72, 1974, 1976-77)
Landry spent 10 seasons with the Lions, only four as their primary quarterback. After spending 1968-84 in the NFL, he was an assistant in the pros and in college until 1986. Bet you didn’t know there’s a National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame, and Landry’s in it. Now you know.
8. Erik Kramer (1991-92)
He started 15 games in three seasons for the Lions, including twice on Thanksgiving and three times in the playoffs. He didn’t become a full-time starter until age 31 for the Bears.
9. Gus Frerotte (1999)
The journeyman Frerotte is one of 14 quarterbacks to throw a 99-yard pass. In that way, he’s just like Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Jim Plunkett and Otto Graham.
10. Rodney Peete (1993)
Peete bounced around the league as a backup for most of his 15 seasons. He finished with a 45-42 career record, which for this list is pretty good.
11. Eric Hipple (1981-83, 1985)
Hipple played his entire career for the Lions, going 3-1 on Thanksgiving and 25-29 otherwise.
12. Gary Danielson (1978, 1980, 1984)
The CBS college football commentator started three non-consecutive Thanksgivings for the Lions and had a couple of nice seasons in 1978-80.
13. Bill Munson (1973)
Munson played for the Lions from 1968-75, started 48 games and yet only one of them came on Thanksgiving. In his first two seasons in the NFL in 1964-65 for the Rams, Munson threw 29 total interceptions. A decade later, he led three game-winning drives for the Lions in 1974 alone.
14. Charlie Batch (1998, 2000-01)
We could have sworn Charlie Batch was still a backup somewhere. He’s not.
15. Joey Harrington (2002-05)
Harrington started four Thanksgiving games for the Lions. He finished two of them. He’s on TV now.
16. Bob Gagliano (1989-90)
For Detroit in two years: 11 starts, 16 touchdown passes. For three other NFL teams in five years: Two starts and one touchdown pass Also played two years in the USFL.
17. Shaun Hill (2010)
Hill started one season while Stafford was hurt, threw 12 interceptions, including two against the Patriots on Thanksgiving.
18. Chuck Long (1987-88)
He started twice on Thanksgiving and went a combined 8-of-20. His 2.8 passer rating in 1988 is the worst for any Lions QB on Thanksgiving since 1970. Led the NFL with 20 interceptions in 1987.
19. Joe Reed (1975)
Enjoyed one extended look as a starter in 1975 and threw nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
20. Jeff Komlo (1979)
A ninth-round pick, Komlo threw 23 interceptions and went 2-12 in his lone season as a starter in the NFL as a rookie. His story didn’t end well.
You say you want drama, intrigue and suspense? Have I got the game for you. Nebraska has momentum heading into its annual collision with Iowa, but this time the Huskers sit at 5-6 and are playing their second top-10 team in three games for a postseason bid.
Iowa is officially a part of the Big Ten Championship Game and should the Hawkeyes beat the Huskers then win it, that gives them a legitimate College Football Playoff argument. Both teams have plenty to win and lose. Let’s review what may ultimately decide the game.
Iowa at Nebraska
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Iowa -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Tommy Armstrong vs. Iowa’s Pass Defense
The Cornhuskers seem to have found a recipe for success on the ground, but the big question is which Armstrong will show up? The one who can thread a needle and manage clock with the best of them or the one that makes foolish lobs into triple coverage and doesn’t check down?
You’d better believe offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf will be working to keep Armstrong’s passes away from stud Iowa cornerback Desmond King.
2. Iowa’s Running Game vs. Nebraska’s Front Seven
Nebraska’s defensive linemen and linebackers finally received an opportunity to relax during the team’s first bye week of the year last weekend and just in time. If the Blackshirts are going to help win this game, the front seven need to stop the run.
The Hawkeyes currently average 212 yards on the ground, but how much of that has been inflated by a so-so schedule? Regardless, running back Jordan Canzeri is no slouch and it’ll take the Huskers keeping Iowa in third down situations to force some manner of change in the Hawkeye game plan.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard has also been a crucial part of the Hawkeyes’ efficient offense. He hasn’t lit up the world with his aerial scoring, but he has over 2,000 yards to his name. He can most certainly help avoid those nasty aforementioned third downs.
3. The Crowd
Nebraska's fans are often called “The Most Knowledgeable Fans in College Football”, but they don’t need to be geniuses to know everything that’s on the line. Thanks to Daylight Saving Time, likely half of this contest is going to be under the lights much like the Michigan State game. The difference is that game will have seemed downright balmy.
Nebraska’s home-field advantage helped rattle the Spartans and the Huskers will need a little extra oomph from the tens of thousands in the stands once again.
No matter who wins, one team loses out on some major mojo.
If the Huskers get the “W”, Mike Riley ties the number of top-ten wins Bo Pelini racked up during his seven years and the Big Red gets 15 more invaluable practices thanks to their bowl game. If Iowa wins, one of the most unlikely of picks could be knocking on the College Football Playoff’s door.
My advice: Eat yourself stupid on Thanksgiving so you can unbuckle your belt and watch a probable back-and-forth old-fashioned Big Ten slugfest.
Prediction: Nebraska 27, Iowa 23
The College Football Playoff Committee released its fourth set of top 25 rankings of the 2015 season on Tuesday night. Clemson remained No. 1 for the fourth straight week in a row, followed by Alabama at No. 2, Oklahoma at No. 3 and Iowa at No. 4.
The committee will meet each week until the end of the season, releasing rankings on Tuesday night until the final reveal on Dec. 6 for the last top 25 and playoff announcements.
While the weekly rankings are critical in gauging where teams stand in early November, it’s important to remember last year’s top 25 featured Mississippi State at No. 1 and Ohio State – the team that won it all in 2014 – ranked No. 16.
Needless to say, this poll will look significantly different in early December.
College Football Playoff Committee Top 25 Rankings (Nov. 24 Edition)
Hosts Mitch Light and Braden Gall break down Thanksgiving/Rivalry Week in college football.
The guys rank their favorite rivalries and T-Giving side items before breaking down every major game in Week 13. Can Iowa and Michigan State hold serve in the Big Ten title race while Ohio State and Michigan battle in The Game. The SEC and ACC take the field in four great matchups with at least one holding Playoff implications. Oklahoma visits Stillwater for a huge Bedlam Series meeting while Baylor heads North to Ft. Worth to take on TCU. Meanwhile, out West, UCLA and USC battle for the Pac-12 South title and Stanford and Notre Dame fight to stay alive in the Playoff chase.
The guys pick every Top 25 game and offer locks of the week against the spread.
An optimist might say Notre Dame is right where it needs to be.
The Irish are No. 6 in this week's College Football Playoff rankings, the same spot eventual champion Ohio State was at this point last season. The two teams ahead of Notre Dame will play each other, and a third will play a one-loss, No. 11 team on the road in the last week of the season.
On the other hand, Notre Dame has every reason to be nervous.
After Tuesday’s rankings, there’s reason to believe the Irish could finish 11-1 with a win over potential Pac-12 champion Stanford and still get left out of the Playoff.
Certainly, the Playoff committee is not beholden to any week’s rankings. For example, this week when Notre Dame slipped from No. 4 to No. 6 despite a win over Boston College. But No. 3 Oklahoma would presumably be safe with a win over 10-1 Oklahoma State, and the committee seems to have set up a play-in game between Iowa and Michigan State, provided the Spartans clinch the Big Ten East against Penn State this week.
Although there’s no reason to hold the committee to what it did last year, it’s tough to ignore how TCU ended up one of the odd teams out. The Horned Frogs clobbered a bad Iowa State team in the last week of the season while Ohio State won the Big Ten championship with a 59-0 win over Wisconsin. Even a lopsided win wasn't enough to stop the Buckeyes from leapfrogging TCU into the top four.
Like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Notre Dame won’t play during the final week of the season on Dec. 5, leaving the Bedlam Game and Notre Dame-Stanford as the last statements for all three teams. In other words, where the Bedlam winner and Notre Dame stand this time next week may be where they end up in the final rankings. And that doesn’t take into account Baylor, lurking at No. 7 with a chance at the Big 12 title playing that week against Texas.
Notre Dame could lose to Stanford and render the entire debate moot, but the Irish may not want to leave any doubt when they head to Palo Alto.
Here are some other thoughts on this week's rankings:
The big wins mean more than a bad loss
What we learned last season when Ohio State’s loss to a mediocre Virginia Tech seemed not to matter late in there year was on display again. The forgiveness of an early loss to a bad team was repeated again as Oklahoma moved up to No. 3 this week. The Sooners’ 24-17 loss to 4-6 Texas on Oct. 10 — a game that wasn’t even that close — doesn’t seem to hold sway over the committee. Apart from the loss to Texas, the Sooners have defeated Baylor (9-1) and West Virginia (6-4) soundly and Tennessee (7-4) on the road. Last week, Oklahoma needed TCU, with its backup quarterback and without its All-America receiver, to miss a two-point conversion to win. Even an identical opponent — Notre Dame beat Texas soundly in Week 1 — didn’t seem to help the Irish vault over OU. “It’s more a function of how Oklahoma has performed since that loss,” selection committee chair Jeff Long said. “They’ve overcome that loss with their play on the field and wins they’ve accumulated.” In other words, as long as a team can prove that early loss was a fluke, it's OK.
The committee isn’t giving the SEC a pass
This is worth reiterating if only because there’s a sentiment that SEC teams receive the benefit of the doubt. Clearly the committee has not been impressed with the SEC East and to a lesser extent the SEC West. Despite needing overtime to beat FAU and eking out wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina, the Gators are still in the top 10 of both polls. For the committee, the Gators slipped from No. 8 to No. 12 this week. The top conference in the rankings in terms of numbers has been the Big Ten for three consecutive weeks. The SEC this week had four top 25 teams compared to five in the Big Ten and Pac-12.
Undefeated still counts
Somewhat definitively, Long said the committee views Oklahoma as a better team than undefeated Iowa. The difference between Iowa and Michigan State, though, came down to one team being undefeated and one having a loss. Michigan State has three top 25 wins, and two top-10 wins on the road (Michigan and Ohio State). Iowa has one top 25 win altogether, over No. 16 Northwestern on the road. The difference, Long said, was Iowa being undefeated. Although the committee has repeatedly shown that it will rank undefeated power teams behind one-loss teams, having a zero in the loss column counts.
Ohio State is still getting the benefit of the doubt
The Buckeyes don’t have a top 25 win but still checked in at No. 8 despite a loss to Michigan State in a listless performance that is starting to become the trend of the season. Despite a hole in Ohio State’s résumé, the committee still may view the Buckeyes as a potential playoff team if they can get into the Big Ten title game and beat Iowa.
The AAC isn’t guaranteed a spot as the Group of 5 representative
The American Athletic Conference still has the highest ranked Group of 5 team by nine spots with Navy at No. 15, but the league has gone somewhat haywire. Navy needs to beat unranked one-loss Houston to go to the AAC title game and either Temple or USF could win the AAC East. Should Navy lose to Houston and/or USF win the AAC, that might open the door for a potential MAC, Conference USA or Mountain West champion to steal a big-time spot that was assumed to be sealed for the AAC.
New Year’s Six Projections
Orange Bowl semifinal: No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Iowa
Cotton Bowl semifinal: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
Rose: No. 5 Michigan State vs. No. 9 Stanford
Sugar: No. 12 Florida vs. No. 7 Baylor
Fiesta: No. 6 Notre Dame vs. No. 10 Michigan
Peach: No. 8 Ohio State vs. No. 15 Navy
The NFL is in full swing, and the competition off the field among fans is nearly as heated as the competition on the field on game day.
The Athlon Sports Pro Football Experts Club presented by New Era gives you the chance to compete with your friends and our experts each week.
Here are this week’s picks from Athlon Sports senior editor John Gworek:
Philadelphia at Detroit
Detroit has won two in a row, allowing just 29 total points. The Eagles have lost two straight and just gave up 521 yards to the Buccaneers.
Gworek's Pick: Detroit, 27–26.
Carolina at Dallas
The Pantheras have won 14 straight in the regular season, the NFL’s longest active streak. The Cowboys are 3–0 with Tony Romo, 0–7 without.
Gworek's Pick: Carolina, 30–24.
Chicago at Green Bay
Green Bay at least one takeaway in every game and is 6–0 when rushing for at least 100 yards. The Bears are averaging just 18 points allowed in four games since their bye.
Gworek's Pick: Green Bay, 23–13.
Oakland at Tennessee
The Raiders make another trip East and are already just 1–3 outside the Pacific Time Zone. Then again, the Titans are 0–5 at home.
Gworek's Pick: Oakland, 28–20.
Buffalo at Kansas City
The Bills held New England to its lowest point total of the season. The Chiefs haven’t allowed more than 18 points in a game since Oct. 4.
Gworek's Pick: Buffalo, 16–14.
N.Y. Giants at Washington
The Giants won the first meeting thanks to winning the turnover battle, 3–0. The Redskins turned it over five times this past Sunday.
Gworek's Pick: N.Y. Giants, 31–27.
Tampa Bay at Indianapolis
The Colts escaped against Atlanta despite a season-low 276 yards and three turnovers. The Bucs put up a season-high 521 yards against Philadelphia.
Gworek's Pick: Tampa Bay, 24–21.
New Orleans at Houston
Houston has won three straight and not allowed more than 267 yards in those games. The Saints have lost two in a row and are 1–4 on the road.
Gworek's Pick: Houston, 20–14.
Minnesota at Atlanta
The Vikings had their five-game winning streak snapped by Green Bay. The Falcons have lost four of five and turned the ball over 16 times in their last six games.
Gworek's Pick: Minnesota, 23–17
St. Louis at Cincinnati
The Rams have lost three straight, scoring just 44 points. The Bengals have lost two in a row after an 8–2 start. Someone needs to get back on track.
Gworek's Pick: Cincinnati, 24–13.
San Diego at Jacksonville
All the injuries and close losses caught up to the Chargers, who lost by 30 last week. The Jags have won two in a row and are still in the AFC South race.
Gworek's Pick: Jacksonville, 17–13.
Miami at N.Y. Jets
Miami’s offense produced just 210 yards and seven points against Dallas. The Jets were not much better (267 yards) against Houston.
Gworek's Pick: N.Y. Jets, 16–10.
Arizona at San Francisco
Carson Palmer leads the NFL in passer rating and is 24–8 as Arizona’s starter. San Francisco’s Blaine Gabbert has a 6–23 career record.
Gworek's Pick: Arizona, 33–17.
Pittsburgh at Seattle
Both of these teams are in the NFL’s top 10 in points allowed. Seattle ranks second in total defense but 23rd in takeaways. Pittsburgh is eighth in takeaways but 23rd in total defense.
Gworek's Pick: Seattle, 24–21.
New England at Denver
Neither quarterback should get comfortable in this one: Denver leads the league in sacks with 34; New England ranks second with 32.
Gworek's Pick: New England, 20–10.
Baltimore at Cleveland
The Ravens lost both Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett to injury against the Rams. Cleveland hasn’t won since beating Baltimore in overtime on Oct. 11.
Gworek's Pick: Browns, 13–7.
Week 11 Record: 8–6
Overall Record: 93–67
Bowl hopes, bragging rights within the state of Texas and finishing the season on a high note are just a few of the goals in mind for Texas Tech and Texas when the two programs meet on Thanksgiving night in Austin. The Red Raiders clinched a bowl bid after a 59-44 victory over Kansas State on Nov. 14. The Longhorns need two wins to reach a postseason game in coach Charlie Strong’s second year. That’s a difficult task with Texas Tech on Thursday, followed by a road date at Baylor on Dec. 5. Even if Texas doesn’t reach the postseason, finishing the year on a high note and building momentum for 2016 is a must for Strong and this staff.
Charlie Strong and the Texas Longhorns have had one strange season. As a quick recap: Texas opens the season with high expectations, only to be dominated in their opener against Notre Dame 38-3. The Longhorns lose a heartbreaker against California 45-44 on bonehead special teams play. Texas is thoroughly dominated by No. 4 TCU, and athletic director Steve Patterson is promptly fired afterward. The Longhorns pick up a huge win for Texas against chief rival Oklahoma in improbable fashion, allowing Strong to breathe a little easier. Texas splits the next four games as rumors of Charlie Strong departing to the University of Miami begin to hit a fever pitch. Strong and interim Texas athletic director Mike Perrin both confirm that Strong will not be leaving Texas for Miami. What's next? Who knows. But Strong is committed to the program and has good support from Perrin.
With the above factors in mind, the Texas Longhorns at 4-6 may be the most drama-filled team in the country. Week in and week out, they have filled the Longhorn Network with plenty of 24-hour news and speculation, but not with wins. The Longhorns hope that they have finally put the rumors to rest and can get back to the certainty of their upcoming matchup with the Texas Tech Red Raiders (6-5) at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Thursday night. The Longhorns have not found the consistency they have desperately needed on both sides of the ball, and the constant uncertainty has held them back all season. Quarterback Jerrod Heard has gone through the usual growing pains of a young player, and the team has experienced the offensive ups and downs with him. The biggest surprise of the season has been the inconsistency of what many thought would be the strength of this team - the defense. The Longhorns are giving up 29 points and an average of 428 yards per game.
Texas Tech's defense is struggling, but their offense is very, very good. The Red Raiders average 588 total yards offense and 46.5 points per game. The Red Raiders are allowing 42 points per game, which means their offense is their defense. The Longhorns will have a difficult time slowing down quarterback Patrick Mahomes and this high-flying speedy offense. Mahomes has thrown for 31 touchdowns this season and shows no signs of slowing down.
Things could get even stranger for Texas on Thursday night.
Texas Tech at Texas
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 26 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX Sports 1
Spread: Texas -2
Three Things To Watch
1. Texas Tech QB Patrick Mahomes vs. Texas Defense
Texas Tech sophomore quarterback Patrick Mahomes is having a standout season and should get consideration for All-Big 12 honors in December. He is not intimidated by location, the name on the jersey, or the reputation of the opponent. Through 11 games this year, Mahomes has passed for 31 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, and he is completing passes at a 65 percent rate. He simply runs the offense the way it was designed, and is learning to take advantage of the defensive weaknesses he sees. That should be huge against a mistake-prone Texas. The Longhorns have allowed 23 passing scores this season but have not allowed an opponent to pass for more than 234 yards in each of the last five games. Can Texas generate pressure up front and disrupt the timing of Texas Tech's potent air attack? In addition to Mahomes, the Red Raiders have plenty of talent at the skill positions, including with running back DeAndre Washington and receiver Jakeem Grant. Washington averages 6.5 yards per carry, while Grant is one of four Big 12 receivers to reach 1,000 yards this season.
2. Consistency, Where For Art Thou?
The staple of Charlie Strong's Louisville teams was consistency on both sides of the ball. There were not a lot of sweeping mistakes in games, and each week the mistakes that were made seemed to be corrected for the following matchup. At Texas, Charlie Strong's team are still searching for overall consistency. One week they achieve great balance, the next they are back to their old ways. There seems to be a disconnect somewhere and it is showing up on the field, as the Longhorns have yet to play a complete game. The question is which team will show up this week?
3. Charlie Strong and Texas Have To Focus On JUST Football
The biggest distraction in Austin this season has been Texas itself. It is impossible as a young 18-21 year-old player to focus on doing your on the field job when there are so many off the field distractions. The Texas inability to find consistency could be directly related to the weekly challenge to block out the media, fan, and internal noise that seems to chase this team. Just this week, the athletic director and head coach have reaffirmed their commitment to growing this program. Hopefully, that is enough to now help this team focus on just the things on the field.
Texas Tech is explosive offensively, and coach Kliff Kingsbury's team will put up big numbers on Thanksgiving night. Texas has potential to put up numbers if it can run the ball and control the time of possession with quarterbacks Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes and the ground attack. Running back D'Onta Foreman is doubtful to play with a finger injury, and senior Johnathan Gray is also dealing with an ailment that may sideline him on Thursday night. If Foreman and Gray can't go, Texas will turn to Chris Warren III and Kirk Johnson. But here's the real question - can Texas put up enough points to keep up with the Red Raiders? The answer to that is probably no.
Prediction: Texas Tech 49, Texas 27
South Florida has put together a bit of a quiet run in the American Athletic Conference and could play the role of spoiler with a little bit of help this weekend. In order for a conference championship opportunity to present itself to the Bulls though, they first must go to Orlando to hand UCF a winless season on Thanksgiving.
South Florida owns a head-to-head tiebreaker with Temple, which means a win and a Temple loss this week will give the Bulls the division nod and send South Florida to the conference championship game. Considering all of the attention given to Houston, Navy, Temple and Memphis this season - all well deserving of the attention - nobody should be sleeping on the Bulls as the regular season draws to a close. The way they run the football, they could ruin the conference's New Year's plans.
USF at UCF
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 26 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Three Things to Watch
1. Attack of the Mack
South Florida running back Marlon Mack is the top rusher in the American Athletic Conference with 1,171 yards. The sophomore has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the last three games for the Bulls, including 230 yards against Temple, the second-highest of his career. Last week against Cincinnati, Mack rushed for 106 yards and two touchdowns. Though he has just eight rushing touchdowns this season, half of those have come in the last two games with two each against Cincinnati and Temple. Mack has been a steady contributor all season long and this week he goes up against the nation's 94th-ranked run defense. The Knights are allowing 191.73 rushing yards per game and have given up 22 rushing touchdowns this season.
2. You just got sacked by South Florida
Along with Temple and Houston, South Florida leads the AAC in sacks this season with 29 in 11 games. No team, however, has forced more yards lost by sacks with the Bulls pushing opposing offenses back 224 yards by way of sacks this season. Senior Jamie Byrd leads the team with 5.0 sacks and defensive linemen Bruce Hector (4.0), Eric Lee (3.0), James Hamilton (3.0) and Demetrius Hill (3.0) have all gotten involved on a defensive line that can bring pressure at almost every position. UCF has allowed 22 sacks this season.
3. South Florida competing for division crown, UCF looking to avoid winless season
To say these two rivals are at different ends of the spectrum this season would be an understatement. UCF is looking to avoid becoming the first winless team in FBS football since Miami, Ohio and Georgia State in 2013. Kansas is not far behind the Knights, of course. UCF also had winless seasons in 1982 and 2004. South Florida, on the other hand, can keep the pressure on Temple to beat UConn later this week. A South Florida win and a Temple loss would give the Bulls the AAC East Division crown thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker. That would also send South Florida to the first AAC Championship Game against either Houston or Navy.
Willie Taggart has guided the Bulls into a favorable position in the final week of the season, and he may start being one of the coaches discussed in various coaching rumors if he can keep the bus rolling along. Taggart and the Bulls should be able to go to Orlando and leave with a win without having to worry too much about the outcome, but rivalries can be funny sometimes. Is this the week UCF finally gets in the win column, or will they have to wait until 2016 with a new head coach? Odds are the Bulls will be going home to see what Temple does against UConn. They'll force Temple to win one more game to clinch the division. South Florida is not losing this one.
Prediction: South Florida 30, UCF 16
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
Week 13 of the 2015 college football season is the last full weekend of action. Next week is an abbreviated schedule with championship games, and a handful of teams with losing records and no bowl possibilities will finish their season during this week’s slate of games. The Week 13 action kicks off on Tuesday night with two games, including Northern Illinois with an opportunity to clinch the MAC West with a win over Ohio. USF-UCF and Texas Tech-Texas round out the Thanksgiving night schedule, while Friday is a full slate, including Navy at Houston, Missouri at Arkansas, Washington State at Washington, Iowa at Nebraska and Baylor traveling to TCU. The weekend slate concludes on Saturday with plenty of rivalry games, as well as a critical game for playoff positioning in Notre Dame visiting Stanford. Some of the weekend’s other top games include Florida State at Florida, Michigan hosting Ohio State and Oklahoma meeting rival Oklahoma State in Stillwater.
Related: Post-Week 12 Bowl Projections
Which teams will come out on top in every FBS game for Week 13? Athlon's editors predict the winners for every game this week:
College Football Week 13 Predictions
Bowling Green at
Texas Tech at
Kent State at
Eastern Michigan at
Western Michigan at
Washington State at
Oregon State at
Boise State at
San Jose State
UL Lafayette at
Air Force at
San Diego State
Florida State at
Ohio State at
Penn State at
North Carolina at
Boston College at
Virginia Tech at
Iowa State at
Kansas State at
Texas A&M at
Ole Miss at
Southern Miss at
South Alabama at
Arizona State at
Notre Dame at
Arkansas State at
Texas State at
Colorado State at
Rivalry week will bring about its share of icy handshakes and frosty interactions, and that has nothing to do with the looming winter.
As much as rivalries have to do with close games, traditional matchups, hated fanbases and trophy games, they pit coaches with differing styles — both in demeanor and on-field scheme — who have to recruit against one another and beat each other to win conference and national championships.
This year will mark the first meeting between Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, a matchup that may produce one of college football's all-time best coaching rivalries. The reasons are easy to see why: They coach at rival schools. They’re both elite coaches who expect to be competing for national championships at the end of every season. And both of these coaches have accrued plenty of other personal rivals over the years.
Of course, the gold standard for coaching rivalries is one between Ohio State and Michigan, between Woody and Bo. Urban and Jim might not have a Ten Year War, but they should end up on this list sooner or later.
Woody Hayes vs. Bo Schembechler
Woody vs. Bo is the template for great coaching rivalries. The Ten Year War took an already heated Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and elevated it to one of the best in sports. To Hayes, Michigan was “the school up north.” To Schembecher, Ohio State was simply “ohio.” Hayes and Schembechler had two rival schools in Rose Bowl contention every season when the two met at the end of the year. They had a shared history with Hayes coaching Schembechler at Miami (Ohio). They respected each other, but neither coach could stomach a loss in The Big Game.
Steve Spurrier vs. Bobby Bowden and Phillip Fulmer
To Spurrier, every coach was a rival. He sparred with Ray Goff and Dabo Swinney, but none of his rivalries were more heated than his matchups with Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer. It helped that the Florida-Tennessee game was the gateway to the SEC title, and Florida-Florida State was a gateway to a national championship. The cracks at his rivals — “Free Shoes University,” “you can’t spell Citrus without U-T” — were enough to make the sideshow entertaining. But from time to time, it could get personal, with Spurrier on multiple occasions accusing Florida State of cheap shots and intentionally injuring his players.
Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll
The rivalry reached its peak when Harbaugh joined Carroll in the NFC West, but it got its start when Harbaugh at Stanford put the bull’s eye on Carroll’s USC program. Even before his first season at Stanford, Harbaugh theorized Carroll would last “one more year” at USC before going to the NFL. Carroll, of course, fired back, “If he's going to make statements like that, he ought to get his information right.” Harbaugh doubled down and said: “We bow to no man. We bow to now program here at Stanford University.” The Cardinal defeated USC 24-23 in 2007 for one of the most stunning defeats in college football history, a moment that signaled the rise of Stanford and the erosion of Carroll’s dynasty at USC. Two years later, Harbaugh elected to go for a two-point conversion to go up 55-21 in a win over USC. During the postgame handshake, Carroll admonished Harbaugh, “What’s your deal?” and the rivalry was born. Harbaugh had a 2-1 edge in college, but Carroll’s Seahawks went 5-4 against Harbaugh’s 49ers in the pros.
Urban Meyer vs. Nick Saban
The beef between Meyer and Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin provided better material during Meyer’s time in the SEC, but Kiffin didn’t stay long enough in Knoxville to call it a true rivalry. Meyer and Saban don’t snipe at each other publicly, but they’re not pals, either. One is an old-school defensive guy. The other one of the primary figures in the rise of the spread offense. Any list of the top coaches in the sport today starts with these two, in either order. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve met three teams in de facto national championship semifinals. They split their meetings in the SEC championship game in 2008 and 2009, and Meyer won in the 2014 College Football Playoff semifinal on the way to the national championship.
Gary Patterson vs. Art Briles
The rise of Baylor and TCU’s admission to the Big 12 revived one of the Southwest Conference’s best rivalries. The Frogs already heald a grudge against former Texas governor and Baylor grad Ann Richards for exerting pressure to keep TCU out of the Big 12 when the league originally formed. In the here and now, though, Patterson and Briles have been up for the moment. Patterson is the defensive mind. Briles is the offensive guru. And neither has much of a filter.
Joe Paterno vs. Jackie Sherrill
The rivalry between the former Penn State coach and former Pittsburgh coach could be distilled into one off-hand remark Paterno thought was off the record. Paterno said in 1979 he wouldn’t retired and leave the game to “the Switzers and the Sherrills.” Paterno late apologized to Switzer and wrote a forward to his book. Paterno also said he and Sherrill had problems that ran deeper. “We've had one or two incidents outside of coaching that I'd rather not go into. But when I said 'certain things,' I meant an attitude — an emphasis on winning, an emphasis on how much a coach should make,” Paterno told the New York Times. “Some people interpreted what I said as meaning that they were cheating. But that was not the case both for Switzer and for Sherrill.” Paterno and Sherrill eventually made amends with Paterno inviting his former Pitt rival to address his team in 2004.
Darrell Royal vs. Barry Switzer
Switzer and Tom Osborne were friendly even in the throes of the Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry in 70s and 80s. Switzer and Bedlam rival Pat Jones got along fine. Even Royal and Arkansas coach Frank Broyles were friendly during nearly 20 years of Southwest Conference matchups. Switzer and Royal, though, squeezed plenty of animosity into the four years they overlapped at Oklahoma and Texas. Royal in 1976 accused Switzer of spying on Texas practices and offered to resign if the OU could pass a lie detector test. Turns out Royal was partially correct — an OU booster in disguise actually was spying on Texas practices.
Darrell Royal vs. Frank Broyles
Royal and Broyles weren’t rivals in that they despised one another — far from it. The Texas and Arkansas coaches were downright chummy even though they had the longest rivalry in modern college coaching at 19 years. Royal went 14-5 during that span.
Bret Bielema vs. Gus Malzahn
As rivalries go, there’s not much here that would have been obvious. Auburn and Arkansas both claim several rivalries that are more heated. Bielema and Malzahn never really crossed paths before the two became SEC head coaches. Then, Bielema claimed in 2013 hurry-up offenses like Malzahn’s contribute to the concussion crises. Malzahn called such a claim a joke, and from there the rivalry became a test of which football philosophy would prevail.
The Battle for the Golden Egg, commonly known as the Egg Bowl, is one of the fiercest college football rivalries in the nation. Ole Miss holds a 62-43-6 edge over Mississippi State in the all-time series, and won last year’s meeting 31-17 in Oxford, but the Rebels haven't beaten the Bulldogs in Starkville since 2003. With Mississippi State 8-3 this season and ranked No. 23, and No. 19 Ole Miss 8-3, the stage is set for another classic battle for Magnolia State supremacy.
The 2015 Egg Bowl this Saturday will be the 112th time the Rebels and Bulldogs meet on the gridiron in a rivarly that dates back to 1901. Let’s take a closer look at the 10 greatest games in Egg Bowl history.
10. 1964: Mississippi State 20, Ole Miss 17
With television cameras broadcasting the game to a national audience for the very first time, Mississippi State earned its first victory over Ole Miss since 1946. Over that span, the Rebels posted a 14-0-3 record in the series.
9. 1981: Ole Miss 21, Mississippi State 17
One of the most fantastic finishes in the history of the Egg Bowl also provided one of its biggest upsets. The 7-3 Mississippi State Bulldogs entered their annual clash with Ole Miss at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson ranked No. 7 in the country, which at the time was the highest ranking in school history. The Rebels, just 3-6-1, hadn’t won since Sept. 19. However, after Mississippi State kicked a field goal to take a 17-14 lead with less than a minute left in the game, Ole Miss drove down the field and (with the help of a controversial pass interference call) scored on a one-yard touchdown run to win with just two seconds left on the clock.
8. 1992: Ole Miss 17, Mississippi State 10
Two teams with winning records met in the first Egg Bowl in Oxford in 20 years. This matchup was a defensive struggle that resulted in 12 combined turnovers, and Ole Miss survived 11 offensive plays run by State inside the Rebels’ 11-yard line in the final four minutes of the game to win by a touchdown. Ole Miss finished the season with a five-game winning streak, culminating with a 13-0 victory over Air Force in the Liberty Bowl, which improved the Rebels’ record to 9-3. Mississippi State lost three in a row, ending the season with a 21-17 loss to North Carolina in the Peach Bowl.
7. 2007: Mississippi State 17, Ole Miss 14
Known as “The Comeback,” Mississippi State trailed Ole Miss 14-0 midway through the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs made a key defensive stop on fourth down near midfield, then grabbed momentum and scored 17 unanswered points, capped by a 48-yard field goal by Adam Carlson with 12 seconds left in regulation. The loss dropped Ole Miss to 3-9 overall and 0-8 in SEC play, and head coach Ed Orgeron was fired.
6. 1962: Ole Miss 13, Mississippi State 6
Few games in Egg Bowl history have had national championship implications, but with a 13-6 victory in 1962, the No. 3 Ole Miss Rebels improved to 9-0 overall, won the SEC championship and earned a spot in the Sugar Bowl where they defeated Arkansas 17-13. Undefeated USC claimed the national title from the Associated Press, but the Rebels lay claim to a championship nonetheless. The 1962 season holds historic cultural significance as well, as it coincided with James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi.
5. 1926: Ole Miss 7, Mississippi A&M
The teams fought on the field before the 1997 Egg Bowl, but the fans fought on the gridiron after the Rebels beat what was then-Mississippi A&M 7-6 way back in 1926 on a rain-soaked and muddy Scott Field in Starkville. The win by the Rebels snapped a streak of 13 consecutive losses to the then-Aggies. When the game was over, Ole Miss supporters rushed the field and brawled with locals who were defend their goalposts. The aftermath shocked both fan bases, and led the students from both schools to organize the trophy that would become known as the Golden Egg.
4. 1997: Ole Miss 15, Mississippi State 14
Tempers always run high between Ole Miss and Mississippi State, and the two teams couldn’t wait until kickoff in 1997 before hitting one another, with a large fight breaking out at the 50-yard line during warm ups. The game itself also was a battle, and Ole Miss scored a touchdown with 25 seconds left to trim Mississippi State’s lead to just one point at 14-13.
Instead of kicking the extra point to tie, Rebels head coach Tommy Tuberville opted to go for the win. Stewart Partridge connected with Corey Peterson for a dramatic two-point conversion and a 15-14 lead. An interception on the ensuing State drive sealed the victory and an Ole Miss bowl berth for the first time in five years.
3. 1983: Ole Miss 24, Mississippi State 23
Simply known as the Immaculate Deflection, the 1983 Egg Bowl came down to a 27-yard field goal attempt. Mississippi State built an early 17-0 lead, but trailed 24-23 with 24 seconds left to play in Jackson. After a late fourth quarter drive stalled for the Bulldogs, Artie Cosby connected on what appeared to be the game-winning kick. Instead, a powerful gust of wind knocked the ball short of the cross bar.
The 17-point Ole Miss comeback was the largest in Egg Bowl history, and capped a streak of five consecutive wins to end the regular season that clinched the first winning season for the Rebels since 1976 and secured a spot in a bowl game for the first time since ‘71.
2. 2013: Mississippi State 17, Ole Miss 10 (OT)
Dak Prescott will go down in history as the greatest quarterback in Mississippi State history in large part because of the success he had in 2014 and ‘15, but Prescott’s performance in the 2013 Egg Bowl made him a folk hero in Starkville.
Having missed the two previous games with an arm injury, Prescott didn’t start against the Rebels and didn’t even play in the first three quarters. With his team trailing 10-7 and struggling to move the football, Prescott convinced head coach Dan Mullen to put him in with about 11 minutes left in regulation. The sophomore led the Bulldogs on a 13-play, 59-yard drive that ended with a field goal to tie the game with 1:59 left. He then drove State into field goal range again on the following drive but Evan Sobiesk’s 39-yard miss sent the game to overtime.
In the extra period, Prescott scored on a three-yard touchdown on 4th-and-1 to give the Bulldogs a 17-10 lead, which held up after Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace fumbled a would-be touchdown run on the Rebels’ subsequent drive. The win gave Mississippi State a 6-6 record, ensuring a bowl game for a school-record fourth consecutive season.
1. 1999: Mississippi State 23, Ole Miss 20
The 1999 Egg Bowl, nicknamed “The Pick and the Kick,” is considered by many to be the greatest in the game’s history because of the late comeback that lifted Mississippi State to victory, along with the high stakes involved.
Ole Miss traveled to Starkville with a 7-3 record and a No. 23 ranking in the AP Top 25 to face a No. 18 Mississippi State squad with an 8-2 overall record, but had lost back-to-back games to Alabama and Arkansas.
The Rebels built a 10-0 lead in the second quarter that grew to 20-6 before State stormed back to tie the game with 27 seconds left. Instead of settling for overtime, Ole Miss attempted to get the ball into field goal range. Rebels quarterback Romaro Miller threw downfield, but the Bulldogs’ Robert Bean deflected the pass and kicked it high in the air. Eugene Clinton secured the improbable interception and ran it deep into Ole Miss territory with just eight seconds on the clock. Clinton’s return set up a 43-yard, game-winning field goal by Scott Westerfield.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
Week 11 was the epitome of devastating early and mid-game injuries especially to running backs. It was also a lesson in the importance of owning handcuffs towards the end of the season for your star running backs. Marshawn Lynch owners were overjoyed if they plugged Thomas Rawls in to their lineups or kicking themselves if they left him on the bench.
If he is still available in your leagues you have to consider spending a boatload on him this week. Other key injuries were season-ending ailments to Justin Forsett and Joe Flacco in Baltimore, Devonta Freeman left with a concussion, and Charcandrick West left the game early with a nagging hamstring injury.
Hopefully West’s injury is relatively minor, and he can return in Week 12 or 13. His rest of season schedule is scrumptious.
Good luck this week everyone. If you are having issues with who to drop, or hold from your fantasy teams stay tuned for my upcoming column (Panic or Patience) where I will look at players who are under-performing and whether you need to cut bait, or hold.
Top Waiver Wire Pickups for Week 12
I will be here to guide you each and every week with some players who are owned less than 40% and could have an impact on your squad for the particular week or rest of season.
Thomas Rawls, RB, Seattle Seahawks (Owned in 37.1% of ESPN Leagues)
Rawls showed once again he is more than capable of carrying a full workload in the absence of Marshawn Lynch. He exploded for 209 yards rushing and 46 yards receiving with two touchdowns. A fantastic week to say the least and with the grumblings of sports hernia surgery for Lynch, if Rawls has not been added by the Lynch owner yet, make them pay and get him immediately.
Javorious Allen, RB, Baltimore Ravens (Owned in 5.3% of ESPN Leagues)
Allen will by default be the most sought after, (or runner up if Thomas Rawls for some odd reason is not owned) player on waivers this week with the season-ending injury to Justin Forsett. This ownership percentage will sky-rocket, so if you are in need of a running back be ready to fend off the Forsett owner and pay up. He should not be cheap.
Devin Funchess, WR, Carolina Panthers (Owned in 10.9% of ESPN Leagues)
I mentioned getting him last week as a cheap option and hopefully you did. With a few more injuries happening to the receivers in Carolina, Funchess became the head honcho in Week 11. His targets should remain high in Week 12. If he is still out there and you need a flex play or bench, stashing Funchess is a fantastic choice.
Chiefs DST (Owned in 41.4% of ESPN Leagues)
The Chiefs defense has been rock solid over their past three games with double-digit points and their remaining schedule, especially in the fantasy playoffs where they face Baltimore with Matt Schaub, Cleveland Browns, Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers. If they are out there, I would go for them this week.
DST Streamer(s) of the Week
I am a part of the streaming DST movement. I don’t typically waste a draft pick, unless I need to, in my drafts and instead cut someone and add a DST. Clearly the top defenses will be owned and not available, but streaming is always an option when it comes to DST’s. So each week I will be providing a DST that is owned in less than 50% of leagues and can be useful.
Cleveland Browns vs Baltimore Ravens (Owned in 3.3% of ESPN Leagues)
We shall see if this logic works or not because the Browns' defense has not been great, but I may be going with the bullying up on Baltimore for the rest of the way when I can for streaming. Matt Schaub has always been streaky, but he was consistent on turning the ball over and making some poor decisions. As the quarterback in Baltimore now for the injured Joe Flacco, I love the Browns odds to get a few turnovers.
When Florida Governor LeRoy Collins personally asked University of Florida President J. Wayne Reitz to schedule an annual game with Florida State University more than a half century ago, neither men could have anticipated what the rivalry would be today. The modern FSU was only 10 years old (it was previously Florida State College for Women) and was competing with Florida for state funding. Fortunately for college football, Reitz agreed and the two schools first played in 1958.
Today, the rivalry is one of the best in college football and often has an impact on the national title picture. For example, both teams are ranked this year and the Gators will be playing in the SEC Championship Game and still have an outside shot at making the College Football Playoff. It is a testament to both schools that they continue to play each other when they have so much to lose.
There have been many great games in this series, but there has not been a more intense period than between November 1994 and January 1997, when these two teams faced each other five times. Let’s take a walk down memory lane.
Florida 31, Florida State 31
Tallahassee – Nov. 26, 1994
Legendary Alabama head coach Bear Bryant famously said, “A tie is like kissing your sister,” but Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden saw this game as “[snatching] a tie from the jaws of defeat.” Down 31-3 in Doak Campbell Stadium with less than 13 minutes to play, the Seminoles put four wide receivers on the field and it proved overwhelming for Florida’s soft zone defense. Quarterback Danny Kanell led touchdown drives of 84, 60, 73 and 60 yards, with the final one ending with 1:45 to go. Bowden, who was a bit of gambler, could have gone for two, but a wise gambler knows when not to press his good fortune, and instead he opted for the extra point. It worked out because the schools would meet in the postseason for the first time only five weeks later.
Florida State 23, Florida 17 (1995 Sugar Bowl)
New Orleans – Jan. 2, 1995
The tie was known as the “Choke at the Doak.” The rematch was dubbed “Unfinished Business: The Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter.” The 1995 Sugar Bowl is the only time two teams have ever met in a bowl game after tying each other during the regular season. The Seminoles appeared to carry their momentum from November into this game and jumped out to a 20-10 halftime lead. FSU kicker Dan Mowrey added another field goal to make the score 23-10, but the Gators would not go quietly into the Louisiana night. Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel led the team on an 80-yard drive that he culminated with a one-yard touchdown run to make the score 23-17. Wuerffel got the ball back on the Gators’ 19-yard line with 2:27 to go, but any hopes for a comeback attempt ended with FSU linebacker Derrick Brooks’ interception.
Florida 35, Florida State 24
Gainesville – Nov. 25, 1995
The undefeated Gators entered the game ranked No. 3 with a shot at playing for the national championship. Florida State was playing mainly playing for pride and in-state bragging rights, as an upset loss to Virginia three weeks earlier had ended the Seminoles’ national championship hopes. On this day, pride would be no match for Florida. The Gators jumped out to a 28-6 lead, which became a 35-14 cushion in the third quarter. Second-ranked Ohio State lost to Michigan during this game, which resulted in the Gators moving up to No. 2 following their win in The Swamp. Florida then beat Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game to earn a shot at top-ranked Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. Unfortunately, the Gators success ended out in Tempe, as the Cornhuskers cruised 62-24 in one of most lopsided national championship games in history.
Florida State 24, Florida 21
Tallahassee – Nov. 30, 1996
The Gators had put the Fiesta Bowl loss to Nebraska behind them and had steamrolled their opponents, entering their regular-season finale ranked No. 1. Just behind them at No. 2 was undefeated Florida State. This is the only time these two schools have met holding the top two spots in the rankings. The game had the feeling of a “Rocky” fight with each team trying to survive the others’ blitzkriegs. First, Florida State jumped out to a 17-0 first quarter lead on the strength of its defense, which amassed six sacks during the game, and Warrick Dunn’s legs. Florida battled back in the second quarter, as eventual Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel hooked up with Jacquez Green twice for touchdowns to make it a 17-14 Seminoles lead at the half.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Seminole fullback Pooh Bear Williams smashed into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game to put the Seminoles up 24-14. Wuerffel hit Reidel Anthony for a touchdown with 1:19 remaining, but the onside kick failed and FSU ran out the clock. As Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden got into his SUV with his grandchildren after the game knowing his team was positioned to play for the national title, he probably had no idea that his next game would be against the Gators.
Florida 52, Florida 20 (1997 Sugar Bowl)
New Orleans – Jan. 2, 1997
The week after the two teams met in the regular season, third-ranked Nebraska was upset by Texas in the inaugural Big 12 Championship Game. The fourth-ranked Gators, realizing they once again had a shot at playing for the national title, took care of business against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Since second-ranked Arizona State was committed to playing Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, the only option for the Sugar Bowl was a Florida vs. Florida State rematch.
Earlier that Jan. 2, Arizona State was upset by Ohio State out in Pasadena, Calif., making Sunshine State Sugar Bowl for all the marbles. This time, Florida head coach Steve Spurrier, who had been maligned by sportswriters and Gator fans for his coaching performance in the first game against the Seminoles, implemented an offensive attack that worked extremely well. The two teams battled back and forth through the first half with FSU kicking a field goal in the third quarter to close Florida’s lead to 24-20. Then the floodgates opened. Florida scored 28 unanswered points as Danny Wuerffel threw for one touchdown and scrambled 16 yards for another. The win gave Florida its first national title.
The rivalry will no doubt have high points in the future, but as for now, those 26 months in the 1990s were its zenith.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Standing tall between the Iowa cornfields and Nebraska plains, straddling the mighty Missouri River, sits the Omaha Metro. This Midwestern hub is home to nearly one million people who strive, work and live together to make the area a pleasant place, both to visit or to put down roots. If you ever wanted to show a foreigner an example of a classically American, working-class town with everything the big cities have to offer and without the traffic and hassle, the Omaha metro would be at the top of that list.
Like many places around the country, the people here have a passion — college football. The sport reigns supreme in these parts. While residents pass the time throughout the rest of the year taking in college basketball, hockey and baseball games, it’s the love of college football that keeps their minds occupied and their hearts warm.
For most people in the metro, the college football team of choice is the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Huskers are one of the true blue bloods of the sport — boasting decades of dominance, championships and legendary players and coaches.
As you zoom in on the population, however, you’ll notice sprinkles of black and gold among all that is the Sea of Red. To the east of the Missouri River, particularly in Council Bluffs, those sprinkles become large patches and blotches, blending together with Husker red like the different colors in camouflage patterns. Council Bluffs is in Iowa. In Iowa, they root for the Hawkeyes.
“The Bluffs,” as the town is referred to by many locals, is what transforms Omaha from a city in Nebraska to an entire metro, spilling over into a neighboring state like a smaller version of St. Louis or even New York City. Most who are just passing through the area will only know Council Bluffs for the stretch of truck stops, strip malls, hotels and casinos along Interstate 80. Beyond those traveler-oriented businesses, however, is a beautiful and well preserved city of 60,000 proud Iowans.
In 2015, the bulk of those proud Iowans can’t stop watching, believing in and talking about their beloved Iowa Hawkeye football team.
Normally, Iowa is a football program that hovers around mediocrity. The fans are realists, and they understand who they are and why it is that way. It’s tough to get top recruits to the upper Midwest, leaving their homes in warm, sunny places like South Florida, Southern California and Texas. Instead, like most teams in this part of the country, they get who they can and they make the best of it.
That’s what makes Nebraska’s historical success so remarkable. With all of the same perceived handicaps as Iowa, the Husker football program sustained phenomenal success for an extended period of time. Few college football programs were able to accomplish what Nebraska’s did during the second half of the 20th century. Nebraska was a special place and the Huskers were a special program.
While Nebraska was having their success, their neighbors to the east — Iowans who rooted for Iowa — were powerless and humbled. All they could do was gaze across the river at Omaha — the empire city of Husker Nation — and watch the celebrations from a distance. Omaha-based Husker fans could drive less than an hour to watch their team win, drive home, and still have time to celebrate the victories in the street throughout the night.
In Council Bluffs — roughly three and a half hours from Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City — a trip to an Iowa game is often a two-day affair when all is said and done. In most cases, the on-field result is a coin flip.
Being an Iowa fan is not easy. It takes a lot of resilience.
There was — and still is — a certain jealousy of what was happening on the west side of the Missouri. That jealously eventually planted the seeds of a rivalry amongst fans — destined to be nothing more than a cold war, as the two teams were in different conferences and rarely-if-ever played each other.
In 2011, that cold war got hot in a hurry.
With a handshake and a signature, in the wake of a strained relationship with the Big 12 Conference and an offer he couldn’t refuse from the Big Ten, Nebraska athletic director and former Husker coach Tom Osborne sealed the deal that moved Nebraska to the nation’s oldest conference.
There were celebrations on both sides of the river. Many Nebraska fans had long viewed the caliber of football in the Big Ten as inferior to what was played in the Big 12. Success was inevitable. Iowa fans — on the other hand — were salivating at the chance to play the Huskers every year.
Throughout Nebraska’s tenure in the Big Ten, those Iowa fans have gotten their wish. A real rivalry has been born – at least along the Missouri River.
Those close to the Nebraska program in Lincoln have repeatedly scoffed at the notion of Iowa as a rival. In their eyes, Iowa is the pesky little brother – not worthy of inclusion in a rivalry with a program like Nebraska. On the east side of Iowa, some fans agree for different reasons. Iowa has historic rivalries with Wisconsin and Minnesota — not to mention the in-state rivalry with Iowa State. They didn’t need another rival.
Despite what anyone wants to believe, the Iowa-Nebraska rival is very real in the Omaha metro. The teams play every year on Black Friday — a date formerly reserved for the legendary annual Nebraska-Oklahoma game.
In the Omaha metro, an obvious rivalry exists, and there’s no ignoring it.
If you are outside or have your windows open during an Iowa or Nebraska game throughout the year, you’ll hear cheers around the neighborhood. These aren’t always cheers for one’s own team. Many times, they are cheers for the team that just scored against Nebraska or Iowa.
Mike’l Severe, a journalist for the Omaha World-Herald and host of the local sports radio talk show “The Bottom Line,” is one of the few local media members who openly acknowledge the rivalry.
“It’s definitely a rivalry for the fans around here,” Severe says. “I live in mid-town Omaha and every Saturday there are four houses on my street alone flying Iowa flags. I’ve seen some houses in the neighborhood with those Nebraska-Iowa house divided flags. People come in to work around the city and have to sit and listen to the people next to them brag about the result of the last game. For a long time, Husker fans were usually the ones with the right to brag. Nowadays, especially this season, that’s not always the case.”
Severe told me a story about attending a wedding in Iowa. It was right after Nebraska made the announcement that they were joining the Big Ten.
“Strangers who recognized me — Iowa and Nebraska fans — kept approaching me all day, asking what I thought about the move and what it meant for the rivalry between the two schools”, he said. “These were people I’d never met, and it’s all they wanted to talk about. It was one of the weirdest things.”
Perhaps nowhere in the metro is the Big Ten’s newest and most underrated rivalry so apparent than inside the doors of Barley’s Bar in Council Bluffs.
Barley’s is a true throwback to the traditional neighborhood pub. It’s a place where people from all walks of life come to talk politics and watch sports over a pint or even dinner with the family. It’s the crown jewel of the “100 block,” a stretch of businesses that comprise the main drag in the city’s center. It’s one of the best and most welcoming sports bars in the area, but one foot inside the door on game day is all you’ll need to know where the allegiances of the owner and most of the patrons lie.
Above the bar at Barley’s sit all 14 helmets of the Big Ten teams. Above the tables where the customers enjoy the food and spirits, you’ll usually only see two flags hanging — an Iowa flag and the flag of the team playing Nebraska that week.
At Barley’s, those are the home teams.
I sat down at Barley’s recently to talk with the owner, Matt Johnson, about the relationship between the two programs and the fans. Before we began our conversation, Johnson was thanking Council Bluffs mayor Matt Walsh for his patronage. Before the mayor departed, I quickly asked him where his allegiances lie. In true political fashion, he replied “I cheer for both of them.”
I suppose you don’t want to alienate any of your constituents.
As Johnson and I began our conversation, he was quick to disagree with the notion that Nebraska-Iowa was a rivalry just for the fans. He told me a story from around 15 years ago, when he owned a smaller bar in a different part of the city. Three guys, one of whom he immediately recognized as a member of the Nebraska football team, walked into his bar and were looking nervous. They ordered drinks like anyone else, but never looked comfortable. Even more strange, one of them would repeatedly go to the door and look down the street.
After two or three times, Johnson approached the young man.
“Everything ok?” he asked. “Yes,”, the kid replied. “I’m just making sure my car is alright. We aren’t really supposed to be here. Coach told us to stay away from Iowa. He said it’s dangerous.”
I laughed at the idea that a college football coach would be worried about — of all places — Iowa as somewhere that would be too dangerous for his players to visit on their free time.
As Johnson and I continued our conversation, a cast of characters straight out of a sitcom surrounded us to listen in. One guy named Chris stopped by to offer up his personal reasoning for hating Nebraska fans.
“I could never stand how they just always want to shove their success down our throat.”
That seemed to be a popular sentiment, as most around our table within earshot nodded their heads in approval.
Shortly after Chris joined us, a stocky bald fellow wearing an Iowa State shirt sauntered over to our table.
“Cyclones fan, eh?” I asked. “Nope,” he replied. “I’ve just had this shirt since the week Iowa State beat Nebraska in Lincoln a few years back.”
Johnson eventually introduced this man as “Dale.” I quickly learned that it was Dale who started the Barley’s tradition of hanging the flag (or shirt) of Nebraska’s opponent that week from the ceiling.
“I’ve got a shirt for every team Nebraska plays,” Dale said. “I’ve even got one that says Bye Week.”
The last character to show up at our table was yet another politician. Johnson introduced me to Roger, a newly elected Council Bluffs city councilman. He’ll be sworn in early next year.
Roger, to my surprise, was wearing a Nebraska hat. My first question for Roger was almost “Aren’t you afraid to wear that hat in here?” Then I realized, based on his frame and build, Roger could probably hold his own with anyone who wanted to give him grief over a hat. Instead, I asked him what he thought about the fact that some don’t consider Nebraska vs. Iowa a rivalry. He looked at me like I had just insulted one of his family members. “It’s a rivalry,” he said.
I left it at that.
On the day after Thanksgiving, Dale will reach into his closet and dress himself in the black and gold of his beloved Hawkeyes. Roger will dawn his Husker cap in the face of Iowa fans behind enemy lines. Mike’l Severe’s neighbors will fly their Iowa flags in the faces of Husker Nation, and like every game since 1962; Memorial Stadium in Lincoln will fill up.
In 2015 — if only for one season — the tables have turned. Iowa fans are dancing on their side of the river, ready to celebrate a perfect regular season and the fact that they remain in the conversation for the College Football Playoff. Their neighbors in red can only sit and watch quietly until kickoff.
On Black Friday, Husker Nation will play the unfamiliar role of “little brother” in front of a national audience, hoping to pull off the upset and avoid missing out on a bowl game appearance for only the third time since 1968. Even with those stakes, if you ask most Husker fans — especially those in the Omaha metro — what excites them more: the possibility of becoming bowl eligible or the chance to ruin Iowa’s perfect campaign during the season finale? My money is on the latter.
After all, this is a rivalry.
(Top photo by Machaela Morrissey)
Thanksgiving hasn’t been the same since the Texas A&M and Missouri started hanging out with the SEC. Or since West Virginia and Pitt started rolling with the Big 12 and ACC, respectively.
Conference realignment ended a handful of traditional rivalries, either because of scheduling conflicts or acrimonious relationships.
In other words, no more Texas-Texas A&M. No more Border War.
Rivalry week isn’t what it used to be, and, frankly, we’d wish everyone would just get along. Here’s a look at what conference changes have cost the sport in terms of history and tradition.
Last played: 2011
Played on Thanksgiving in most years, this heated rivalry ended when the Aggies left the Big 12 for the SEC. The 2012 season maked the first time since 1915 that A&M and Texas haven’t been in the same league — both were charter members of the Southwest Conference and then the Big 12. Few rivalries run as deep in the traditions of each school. Both fight songs mention the other (“Goodbye to Texas University. So long to the Orange and White” in the Aggie War Hymn, “And it’s goodbye to Texas A&M” in Texas Fight). Bevo has been kidnapped through the course of the rivalry, so has Reveille. Long in the shadow of the Longhorns, Texas A&M broke with Texas to join the SEC. Coaches for both programs have expressed interest in resuming the rivalry, but there's too much animosity between the powers that be to expect an Aggies-Longhorns Thanksgiving in the near future.
Last played: 2011
Just because the Border War (now the Border Showdown) doesn’t rise to the same level of national attention as Michigan-Ohio State or the Iron Bowl, that doesn’t make it any less nasty across all sports. Before Missouri left for the SEC, Kansas-Missouri was the oldest rivalry West of the Mississippi. The series has included brawls, conniving and upsets over the years. But now it’s just a Cold War. While he won’t be the final say, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self has indicated he wouldn’t mind of the Jayhawks never played Missouri again.
Last played: 2014
The Michigan-Notre Dame series has been marked by lulls from 1944-77 and 1910-41, but the two teams have met nearly every year since 1978. The series was an apparent casualty from Notre Dame’s agreement to face four or five ACC schools every season. It remains to be seen how the arrangement will affect Notre Dame’s other traditional games against Michigan State and Purdue. Notre Dame has indicated its top rivalries to preserve would be those with USC, Navy and Stanford.
Last played: 2014
Louisville and Cincinnati have been travel partners for most of their history, sharing conference affiliations in the Missouri Valley, the Metro, Conference USA, the Big East and for a year the American. That ended when Louisville bolted for the ACC. The Ohio River rivalry separated by 100 miles is also the home for one of the better non-Big Ten trophy games with the Keg of Nails. With Bobby Petrino back at Louisville and his former boss Tommy Tuberville at Cincinnati, this one could be a good personal grudge match.
Last played: 2011
The Aggies lost a host of old Southwest Conference matchups when they joined the SEC — though they did get one back with Arkansas in the SEC West, plus the continuation of the series with LSU. Baylor-Texas A&M isn’t missed as much as Texas-Texas A&M, but the Battle of the Brazos has deep roots. Baylor was the closest co-educational school to Texas A&M when College Station was an all-male campus before 1911 — so do the math. From 1958-90, the series was more competitive than one might thing, and the Aggies 31-30 win in 1986 was regarded as the game of the ‘80s by Texas Football magazine. As with all Texas rivalries, there’s a political element here with the governorships (Ann Richards for Baylor and Rick Perry for Texas A&M) in play.
Rivalries making a Comeback
Last played: 2014 (bowl game), 2008 (regular season)
Next meeting: 2021
The two programs have played only three times in the regular season since Arkansas left the Southwest Conference in 1992. The most recent meeting was a 31-7 Arkansas win in the Texas Bowl last season. The rivalry was at its best when the top two coaches for each school — Darrell Royal at Texas and Frank Broyles at Arkansas — overlapped from 1958-78. In 1969, No. 1 Texas defeated No. 2 Arkansas 15-14 on Dec. 2 of that season. In that famous game, President Richard Nixon attended and declared the Longhorns national champions. Unless there's another postseason matchup between the two, the Hogs and Horns won't play for a period of 13 years during the regular season. There are no plans to play afte 2021.
Last played: 2008
Next meeting: 2019?
Once the longest running series in the Sunshine State ended when the SEC moved to an eight-game schedule. The Gators kept their annual series with Florida State, set in motion by the state legislature (Miami also continued to play FSU every year well before both were in the ACC). Florida and Miami played every year from 1938-87, ending just as both programs achieved national prominence. The two teams met intermittently since, but they’ve played only five times since the series ended. Reports have indicated that Florida and Miami will open the 2019 season with a matchup in Orlando, but the deal is not yet official.
Last played: 2010
Next meeting: 2021
Consider this: there’s a whole generation out there that never watched Nebraska and Oklahoma face off on Thanksgiving. As the Big Eight’s preeminent powers during the 1960s, '70s and '80s, one program in the rivalry was a consistent foil for the other. At one point, the winner of this game won the Big Eight in 31 of 36 seasons, including the 1971 Game of the Century between the No. 1 Cornhuskers and No. 2 Sooners. The formation of the Big 12 ended this game as an annual event, and Nebraska’s departure for the Big Ten ended regular meetings altogether. A sliver of good news, though: The series has been scheduled for a non-conference home-and-home in 2021-22.
Last played: 2000
Next meeting: 2016
This used to be the biggest rivalry game for both schools, but it was at its best in the late 1970s and '80s when Pitt was a national title contender under Jackie Sherrill and Johnny Majors. Penn State coach Joe Paterno was not the biggest fan of Sherrill, and Pittsburgh was not the biggest fan of the Eastern football league Paterno hoped to establish. Pitt joined the Big East instead. When Penn State joined the Big Ten, it all but ended the series.
Last played: 2011
Next meeting: 2022
Separated by 80 miles, the Backyard Brawl was turned up a notch when Pittsburgh stopped playing its other top rival, Penn State. With both teams in the Big East and the game taking place in the final week of November in all but one year since 1997, the rivalry took a new look. The most significant game in the rivalry, though, was in 2007 when a then-No. 2 West Virginia team lost its bid to the national championship thanks to a monumental 13-9 upset to a 4-7 Pittsburgh team.
Virginia Tech-West Virginia
Last played: 2005
Next meeting: 2017
The Hokies and Mountaineers were regular foes when the two programs were independents and then as Big East rivals. This is each team’s No. 2 rival at best with the Commonwealth Cup and Backyard Brawl taking top billing for both fanbases. But they did play for the Black Diamond Trophy since 1997, and played a classic matchup in 1999 when Mike Vick led a game-winning drive in the final 23 seconds. The series will resume on a neutral field in 2017 and then as a home and home in 2021-22.
If rivalry week means anything, it's to expect the unexpected. Games that on paper should go one way will end up as close calls or outright upsets. Picking rivalry week is not for the faint of heart.
The Athlon Sports College Football Experts Club presented by Nexium & Advil gives you the chance to compete with your friends and our experts each week.
Here are this week’s top picks from Athlon Sports senior writer David Fox:
Navy at Houston
Houston’s prolific dual-threat Greg Ward Jr. wasn’t healthy enough to take the load of quarterback duties against UConn as backup Kyle Postma struggled to keep the Cougars offense moving in their first loss of the season. Ward’s health will be key as Navy tries to shorten the game with the triple option. Mistakes may be at a premium in a game between two of the top four teams in turnover margin. With a trip to the AAC title game on the line, Navy is playing more consistent football right now.
Fox’s pick: Navy 44–35
Iowa at Nebraska
Iowa has clinched a spot in the Big Ten title game, but it won't overlook Nebraska. A year ago, Iowa led Nebraska by 17 late in the third quarter when the Huskers mounted a comeback that ended with a 37–34 win in overtime. Iowa’s run game is as healthy as it has been all season, and quarterback C.J. Beathard has been efficient for most of the season despite a host of bumps and bruises. The Hawkeyes have to be concerned, however, about a defense that has allowed 400 yards in three consecutive games after allowing an average of 287.6 in the first eight. Nebraska already has played the role of spoiler once this season, handing Michigan State its only loss of the season. The Cornhuskers are looking to close Mike Riley’s disappointing debut season with three consecutive wins and a bowl appearance.
Fox’s pick: Iowa 35–27
Oregon State at Oregon
Perhaps no team in the country is on a better hot streak than Oregon since the return of quarterback Vernon Adams. The Ducks have averaged better than nine yards per play against Stanford and USC. Oregon State, allowing a Pac-12-worst 6.3 yards per play, is in trouble.
Fox’s pick: Oregon 56–28
Baylor at TCU
Baylor looked every bit as dangerous with Chris Johnson at quarterback as it did with Jarrett Stidham — and Seth Russell before that. TCU put up a valiant effort last week against Oklahoma without Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson, but the rally ultimately came up short. With or without Boykin, TCU may be in trouble due to its overmatched defense.
Fox’s pick: Baylor 48–28
Alabama at Auburn
Don’t expect Alabama to overlook its chief rival, primarily because Alabama still needs to beat Auburn (or needs Ole Miss to lose) to clinch the SEC West. The Tide have shown little vulnerability in the last two months, holding opponents to an average of 2.1 yards per carry just as running back Derrick Henry has vaulted himself into the front of the Heisman race. Auburn is getting better, too, on both sides of the ball. The maligned defense has held its last two SEC opponents to 4.04 yards per play. And quarterback Jeremy Johnson, benched earlier this season, has regained the confidence of the coaching staff. Will it be enough to shock the Tide?
Fox’s pick: Alabama 42–20
UCLA at USC
The Pac-12 South is on the line in the battle for Los Angeles. This game is a toss-up as far as we’re concerned. Both teams have been unpredictable, but the Bruins have won three in a row in the series — all by double digits. USC, though, has the home field advantage as was on a hot streak before running into the Oregon buzz saw a week ago.
Fox’s pick: USC 38-35
Florida State at Florida
Strictly speaking, Florida is a College Football Playoff contender. The Gators have one loss (on the road by seven to LSU), a marquee win (by 28 over Ole Miss) with opportunities for two statement wins in the last two games (Florida State and Alabama and Ole Miss in the SEC title game). The reality during the last three weeks couldn’t be further from the truth. Since beating Georgia, Florida has hardly looked like a 10–1 team with an outside shot of playing for a national title. The Gators’ offense has been dormant against Vanderbilt, South Carolina and FAU, averaging 4.6 yards per play with eight turnovers during that span. Florida also will need to overcome a rash of injuries on the defensive line while facing a Heisman-contending running back in Dalvin Cook.
Fox’s pick: Florida State 28–10
Texas A&M at LSU
LSU has gone from No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings to full-on crisis mode in a matter of three weeks. The Tigers are riding their first three-game losing streak since 1999 when the Tigers lost eight in a row in the final season under Gerry DiNardo. All signs pont to this being the final season under coach Les Miles, who has lost at least three SEC games in his last three seasons. Texas A&M has won three of four, but those wins include flailing South Carolina, FCS Western Carolina and a field goal fest at Vanderbilt. This game may be a referendum of sorts on coach Kevin Sumlin and quarterback Kyle Allen, who re-acquired the starting job last week against the Commodores.
Fox’s pick: Texas A&M 28–17
Georgia at Georgia Tech
Oddly enough, Georgia and Georgia Tech both need this game to send their fans home with something, anything, positive to say about this season. The Yellow Jackets are further in the hole with their worst season since 1994. Georgia could win nine games in the regular season, but the Bulldogs have been out of the national and SEC picture since October.
Fox’s pick: Georgia 28–21
Ole Miss at Mississippi State
Hugh Freeze and Dan Mullen have turned the Egg Bowl into a must-see rivalry even for those outside of the state of Mississippi. The rivalry will feature two ranked teams for the sixth time in history and for the first time in consecutive years. Expect a hero’s welcome for quarterback Dak Prescott, arguably the best player in Mississippi State history, in his final home game just a week after a 508-yard performance in a win over Arkansas. Ole Miss has won three of four since its loss at Memphis on Oct. 17, but the Rebels will need its streaky defense to show up in order to contain Prescott to pick up their first win in Starkville since 2003.
Fox’s pick: Mississippi State 35–31
North Carolina at NC State
After clobbering Duke and Miami, North Carolina needed overtime to escape Virginia Tech. We’re willing to credit some of that to Virginia Tech giving a little extra in the final game in Blacksburg for Frank Beamer. NC State has been streaky this season. The Wolfpack failed to score 20 points against Louisville, Virginia Tech and Florida State but scored 41 on Clemson. If the good version of Jacoby Brissett shows up, the Pack can give UNC a game.
Fox’s pick: North Carolina 41–31
Vanderbilt at Tennessee
The season didn’t start the way Volunteers’ fans envisioned with four losses in the first seven games, but Tennessee is on the verge of its first eight-win season since going 10–4 in 2007 under Phillip Fulmer. Vanderbilt brings a stout defense that should give Tennessee’s inconsistent offense trouble, but the ‘Dores are averaging 3.28 yards per play in the month of November, worst in the country.
Fox’s pick: Tennessee 28–7
Oklahoma at Oklahoma State
Oklahoma’s offense under Baker Mayfield has been unstoppable since the loss to Texas. The Sooners have averaged 604 yards per game over the last six, and that includes a half of ineffective football behind a backup quarterback against TCU. The Cowboys pride themselves on their pass rush and ability to come up with the big play in shootouts, but giving up 642 yards to Texas Tech, 663 to TCU and 700 to Baylor is not advisable in any situation.
Fox’s pick: Oklahoma 44–34
Notre Dame at Stanford
Notre Dame’s five turnovers against Boston College was alarming, but the Irish have been one of the most consistent offenses in the country. Notre Dame had success moving the ball against a stout BC defense … at least until it reached the red zone. Instead, Notre Dame’s defense will be under the microscope. The Irish haven’t played a ton of explosive offenses this season with the exception of Clemson in a loss and USC, which racked up 590 yards and 7.7 yards per play.
Fox’s pick: Stanford 35–28
Wisconsin at Minnesota
Wisconsin will try to end a bizarre season with a sign of normalcy. The Badgers have won eight games this season with smoke and mirrors and not with their trademark run game, which ranks 104th nationally. They’ll try to finish the season by defeating Minnesota and claiming Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 12th consecutive year. Minnesota’s season has been no less eventful, as the Gophers look to extend their bowl streak to four seasons despite changing coaches midseason. Minnesota is flirting with a losing season, but the Gophers have been close against top teams this year, losing one-score games to TCU, Michigan and Iowa.
Fox’s pick: Minnesota 24–17
Clemson at South Carolina
South Carolina will look to salvage its season, which now includes a four-game losing streak and a loss to The Citadel, by destroying Clemson’s hopes for a national championship. South Carolina’s run game has been non-existent in the last two games, so it’s hard to imagine the Gamecocks summoning enough offense to counter a fast and physical Brent Venables defense.
Fox’s pick: Clemson 42–17
Ohio State at Michigan
Ohio State’s bid for a back-to-back national championships suddenly has devolved into damage control. Running back Ezekiel Elliott apologized for his criticism of the coaching staff after he received only 12 carries in the 17–14 loss to Michigan State. Coach Urban Meyer tried to move on from the controversy, saying he agreed with his star running back not getting enough touches against the Spartans. Certainly, the timing of such a dust-up is not ideal with Michigan looming. Michigan’s run defense isn’t what it was back in September and October, but Ohio State may still be inclined to feed Elliott. That, after, all was the winning strategy all season. Meanwhile, the Wolverines’ own run game has gone quiet in recent weeks. Only the improved play of quarterback Jake Rudock, considered a liability at the start of the season, has kept the Wolverines in contention for the Big Ten East and a major bowl spot. If Michigan State losses to Penn State later in the day, the winner in Ann Arbor will play Iowa for the Big Ten title.
Fox’s pick: Ohio State 35–31
Colorado at Utah
Utah’s Joe Williams was productive in the absence of running back Devontae Booker, but the Utes struggled to finish drives in a loss to UCLA. With Utah out of the Pac-12 South mix and Colorado out of bowl contention, both teams may struggle to find energy.
Fox’s pick: Utah 21–14
Northwestern vs. Illinois (Chicago)
If Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit, who took over for Tim Beckman a week before the start of the season, is going to make a bid to be the permanent coach, this may be the most important game. The Illini are on the verge of bowl eligibility despite the turmoil at the start of the season. Beating Northwestern would be impressive — and not just because it’s a rivalry game. The Wildcats have managed to lean on their defense and the running of Justin Jackson to go 9–2. The Wildcats are seeking their first 10-win regular season since going to the Rose Bowl in 1995.
Fox’s pick: Northwestern 24-14
Penn State vs. Michigan State
Mark Dantonio says quarterback Connor Cook is “close” to a return from a shoulder injury, but the Michigan State coach never let on that his veteran signal-caller would miss last week’s game. In other words, don’t believe Cook is playing until he takes the field. Penn State is stout up front on defense, so this will be a tall task for any quarterback. The Nittany Lions will head to a second consecutive bowl game under James Franklin, but he’s feeling the heat for another lackluster offense despite the presence of pro prospect Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Franklin is also seeking his first signature win as the Nittany Lions’ head coach.
Fox’s pick: Michigan State 28–20
Last week: 13-7
Season to date: 179-61
The MAC West is still very much in doubt, with Northern Illinois and Toledo both sitting at one loss apiece.
The Northern Illinois Huskies welcome Frank Solich’s Ohio Bobcats to town for a must-win game for NIU. A Huskie win would clinch the division title and a MAC Championship berth. A Northern Illinois loss would give Toledo — a team that spent most of the season in everyone’s Top 25 — control of its own destiny.
Ohio at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 24 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Northern Illinois -13
Three Things to Watch
1. Northern Illinois quarterback Ryan Graham
Graham didn't have time for nerves to kick in on the road against Toledo in early November. Starter Drew Hare went down and the freshman was thrown into the fire, leading a fourth-quarter rally over a ranked and previously unbeaten team. Graham is more experienced and prepared for the starting role, as he's had a few weeks to prepare, including wins over Buffalo and Western Michigan. That can be a good thing, but it's also a chance for anxiety and doubt to creep in, especially with so much on the line for Northern Illinois. Will Graham continue his performance from the last two starts? Or can Ohio find a way to rattle the young quarterback?
2. How will Northern Illinois account for all of Ohio's weapons?
The Bobcats are loaded with playmakers on offense who can break games wide open. A.J. Ouellette is a complete running back, both as a pass catcher and running between the tackles. Sebastian Smith is a big-time playmaker and serious red zone threat at receiver, and J.D. Sprague or Derrius Vick adds a dangerous dual-threat element to the Bobcat offense at quarterback. I’m not convinced the Huskies can stop all of them, so their best bet will be to try and shut down one of them. It’s only a matter of deciding who to focus on.
3. Jordan Huff/Joel Bouagnon and the Northern Illinois offensive line
The NIU running game needs to be successful early to take any would-be added pressure of the young quarterback. Establishing control of the tempo early in the trenches will be key against an Ohio team with enough offensive weapons to keep pace with the Huskies. Long, run-oriented drives will be instrumental in keeping limiting Ohio’s offensive chances.
Northern Illinois is a team on a mission. The win over Toledo gave them new life and forced them to focus on a championship. With a young, competent signal-caller and a defense that does just enough to the let offense win the game, I see the Huskies limiting Ohio’s big-play damage and coming away with a sound win to clinch the MAC West.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 27, Ohio 21
Bowling Green head coach Dino Babers has done a good enough job at his current gig to attract national attention and insert his name into the conversation of possible hires at some big time jobs this coming offseason.
That’s great for Babers, but before any of that happens, he’ll be trying to lead his team to a double-digit win season — something you don’t see much of from Bowling Green teams.
Standing in the way of Babers and the Falcons getting to nine wins before bowl season ends are the Ball State Cardinals. A relatively disappointing season would end on a much higher note if Ball State was able to upset one of the nation’s premier Group of Five teams.
Bowling Green at Ball State
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 24 at 7 p.m. ET (Tuesday)
Spread: Bowling Green -21.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Bowling Green's Receivers
Gehrig Dieter was all over national highlight reels last week with a couple of circus catches. The sure-handed wideout is must-see TV on his own, but his partner in crime on the opposite side of the field, Roger Lewis, is quite simply one of the best receivers in the country. Look for dominant play all night from what may be the most underrated receiving duo in the country.
2. Matt Johnson, Quarterback, Bowling Green
Throwing the ball to that underrated Bowling Green receiving duo will be Matt Johnson. The kid is a pure gunslinger, reminding me a little of former Boise State great Kellen Moore. Johnson can make most throws and has command in the huddle. As a result, you shouldn’t be surprised to see him taking up a roster spot someday soon on Sundays.
3. Bowling Green's Style of Play on Both Sides of the Ball
As mentioned, Dino Babers is a highly coveted up-and-coming coach. He’s going to land one of the big jobs that is already open or will soon be open. You’ll want to pay attention to how Bowling Green operates under his command, because that style of play — highlighted by a high-octane offense attack, is coming to a Power 5 conference near you in 2016.
I didn’t mention Ball State, mostly because I didn’t really need to. Ball State will not be able to contend and keep pace with Bowling Green’s aerial attack, even if the Falcon defense has been suspect at times during the year. Look for yet another high-scoring mid-week MAC contest featuring some future fantasy football sleepers putting up video-game stats.
Prediction: Bowling Green 38, Ball State 13
Syracuse coach Scott Shafer was fired on Monday, ending a three-year run at the school. Shafer will coach the final game for the Orange on Saturday against Boston College. In three years at Syracuse, Shafer went 13-23 and 6-17 within the ACC.
Shafer was promoted to head coach after Doug Marrone left Syracuse to coach the Buffalo Bills after the 2012 season. After a 7-6 record last year, the Orange went 3-9 in Shafer’s second season and are 3-8 with one game remaining in 2015.
Who might replace Shafer at Syracuse? Here are 10 names to watch:
10 Coaching Candidates to Replace Scott Shafer at Syracuse
Dino Babers, head coach, Bowling Green
Babers’ name is going to be mentioned in connection with several jobs this offseason, so if he’s the coach athletic director Mark Coyle wants, Syracuse will have to pay and compete with some bigger schools. However, Babers fits the profile of what has been mentioned with this job. He runs an exciting offense – averaging 43.8 points per game – and also has FBS head coach experience. After two successful years at Eastern Illinois (19-7), Babers is 16-9 with two MAC East titles at Bowling Green. Babers is a former assistant under Art Briles at Baylor.
Randy Edsall, former Maryland head coach
Everything suggests new athletic director Mark Coyle is looking for a fresh start and someone with a track record on offense. However, Edsall is a name to watch, as he’s a former Syracuse player and coached at the school from 1980-90. He also spent time as an assistant at Boston College and Georgia Tech before taking over at UConn in 1999. Edsall went 74-70 with the Huskies, including an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl in 2010. Edsall’s five-year tenure at Maryland did not go well, as he was dismissed after a 22-33 record.
Scott Frost, offensive coordinator, Oregon
Frost is regarded as a rising star in the assistant ranks and is one of the top offensive coordinators in the Pac-12. The former Nebraska quarterback started his coaching career as a graduate assistant for two Big 12 programs (Kansas State and Nebraska), followed by a two-year stint at Northern Iowa. He was hired by Chip Kelly in Eugene in 2009 and was promoted to offensive coordinator after Kelly left for the Eagles. Under Frost’s direction, Oregon led the Pac-12 in scoring offense in 2014 and ranks first after 11 games in 2015.
Pete Lembo, head coach, Ball State
Lembo’s stock has dipped over the last two seasons, as Ball State is just 8-15 since the start of 2014. However, there’s a strong track record for Lembo. He went 44-14 at Lehigh with two playoff appearances, followed by a 35-22 stint at Elon from 2006-10. Lembo is 33-28 at Ball State and guided the program to back-to-back bowl appearances from 2012-13.
Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars assistant
Would Marrone be interested in a second stint at Syracuse? Or is the better question whether or not the program would be interested in having him back in 2016? The former Syracuse player coached the Orange from 2009-12, engineering a turnaround in four seasons. Marrone went 25-25 at Syracuse, which included two bowl appearances and two eight-win seasons. Marrone left after the 2012 campaign to coach the Bills and went 15-17 in two seasons. He’s currently an assistant with the Jaguars.
Joe Moglia, head coach, Coastal Carolina
Moglia is one of the most interesting coaches to pop up in coaching searches in recent seasons. He’s a former CEO at TD Ameritrade and returned to coaching in 2009 after stepping into the business sector in 1983. Moglia spent two seasons at Nebraska as an unpaid assistant from 2009-10 and worked with the Omaha Nighthawks in 2011. He’s coached at Coastal Carolina the last four seasons, guiding the Chanticleers to a 41-12 mark in that span.
Joe Moorhead, head coach, Fordham
Moorhead is a rising star in the FCS coaching ranks, guiding Fordham to a 38-12 record over the last four seasons. Under Moorhead’s watch, the Rams have made three consecutive trips to the FCS playoffs. He also has stops in his career as an assistant at Akron and worked at UConn from 2009-11.
Lincoln Riley, offensive coordinator, Oklahoma
Riley is one of the rising stars in the FBS coordinator ranks and runs an exciting, up-tempo spread offense. The Texas native started his coaching career under Mike Leach at Texas Tech and was hired at East Carolina under Ruffin McNeill to coordinate the Pirates’ attack in 2010. Riley was hired by Bob Stoops at Oklahoma prior to 2015 and has brought significant improvement to the offense. The Sooners rank third nationally with an average of 44.6 points per game this season. Riley does not have any FBS head coaching experience.
Mike Sanford, offensive coordinator, Notre Dame
Sanford has ties to Syracuse athletic director Mark Coyle, as both worked at Boise State in 2014. The former Boise State quarterback has quickly moved through the coaching ranks, starting with a stint as a graduate assistant under his father Mike at UNLV in 2005-06. He made a stop at Stanford from 2007-08 and at Yale for 2009, followed by a one-year stint at WKU in 2010. Sanford worked under David Shaw at Stanford from 2011-13 and was hired at Boise State by Bryan Harsin to coordinate the offense in 2014. The Broncos led the Mountain West with an average of 39.7 points per game last season. Sanford joined Notre Dame’s staff prior to this season and has played a key role in the development of quarterback DeShone Kizer.
Dave Warner, co-offensive coordinator, Michigan State
Warner is a former Syracuse quarterback (1979-81) and coached with the Orange as an assistant from 1982-83. In addition to his ties to the program, Warner has developed a solid reputation during his career as an assistant. Warner has made stops at Kent State, Kansas, Wyoming, Connecticut, Houston, Southern Miss and Cincinnati before coming to Michigan State prior to the 2007 season. Warner was promoted to co-offensive coordinator with the Spartans prior to 2013. He’s not the biggest name on this list, but Warner has ties to the program and has a background on offense.
Although emotions ran high after Ohio State's loss to Michigan State, the game wasn't the cause of the problems.
Ezekiel Elliott spoke about his problems with the coaches' play-calling right after the game, and on Monday Urban Meyer responded to the press about the situation. Now we have a well-thought out statement from the Ohio State running back. It seems Saturday night was just a boiling point for everything to come out the way it did.
Maybe it wasn't the right manner, it was a lesson learned and Elliott is human. The running back knew well before Saturday's game that he wouldn't be returning to the Buckeyes next season.
Les Miles' time in Baton Rouge may be coming to an end sooner rather than later.
According to ESPN, there is a "very good possibility" that LSU will buy out the head coach's contract.
"In Louisiana, we expect national championships and we're not in it," the source stated.
Although Miles has won a national championship, that is a relic of a time gone by. The present is important to those involved with the school. LSU boosters have reportedly agreed to pay the $15-20 million it would take to buy out Miles and the Tigers staff.
"If we were competing for a national championship this year, well then we wouldn't be having this conversation," the source continued.
After a loss to Alabama and recent losses after such an amazing start to the season, Miles may leave the Tigers to be tamed by another coach. Whatever the outcome, he didn't seem too worried during a press conference Monday.
After Saturday's loss to Michigan State, Ezekiel Elliott caused quite the stir with his post-game comments.
The Ohio State running back talked about the play-calling and referenced he should be more integrated in the offense. During Monday's press conference, Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer knew he would be asked to comment on the situation.
"Zeke has always been an extremely loyal person, great competitor," Meyer said. "He came to see me and he apologized."
The Buckeyes will try to move on from the situation and gear up for their final months together as a team.
Kyle Busch watched February’s Daytona 500 from a hospital bed.
He left Homestead-Miami in November a Sprint Cup champion.
That reality will be hard for some fans to accept, a broken leg and a broken foot making Busch the first driver since Richard Petty in 1971 to win NASCAR’s most prestigious title while missing races. A point system that was formerly based on consistency crowned a Chase champion Sunday that missed three months of the 2015 season recovering – roughly a third of the schedule. But no matter what position you take on the Busch debate there’s no question the 30-year-old’s comeback is one of the most impressive we’ve seen on the NASCAR circuit in modern history.
“I don't know that anybody could have ever dreamt of this year, to have dreamt of my career path the way it's kind of gone,” he said after being showered with championship champagne. “I was like, man, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to get back in a car [after getting injured at Daytona]. Fortunately, I was able to put it all back together. But it did worry me.”
Keep in mind Busch, after earning a special exemption from NASCAR to be Chase eligible, needed to charge into the top 30 in points with only 15 races left in the regular season. He needed to learn a new rules package, one that gave veterans like Tony Stewart fits and win at least one race after relearning how to do things like walking over three months. Folks, I’ve broken an ankle in multiple places and I know firsthand the difficult and painful physical therapy Busch went through. Pushing through it all to get back in the car by Memorial Day a mere three months after slamming into Daytona’s SAFER Barrier was no small feat. Stewart, who himself had a similar injury, took nearly two years to get back to 100 percent.
“The rehab and everything, it was really, really hard. It's amazing how much you lose in muscle mass,” Busch said of his injuries. “You felt limp, like you had no control over anything down there.”
“We just kept powering through.”
But it’s not just physical limitations Busch needed to overcome. Long a victim of mental breakdowns in crunch time he had to develop into a leader of the No. 18 team. A driver known for his temper tantrums grew up, first child Brexton combining with the support of family to give Busch a new perspective on life. Suddenly, a man once reviled by both the fan base and inside the garage was relabeled a more even-keeled personality.
Those changes served Busch well during a late-race twist that could have easily sparked his temper. A debris caution called with just nine laps remaining bunched up the field and forced his pit crew to keep the No. 18 team ahead of all challengers. Even after the stop the three other drivers in title contention were close enough that a poor restart or a loss of focus would ruin things for Busch. The “old Kyle” would have lost his cool. This time?
“I just knew the greater picture,” Busch said. “I expected [a late yellow]. I didn’t know when it was going to come… with 50 to go, 40 to go, 30, 10. I just had my mindset that if it did go green to the end, great, and if it didn’t, I just kept continuing to think about how much car was driving to make sure I gave the right information… in order to get us ready to win the race.”
Win he did, both at Homestead and in life with the ironclad support received from owner Joe Gibbs, manufacturer Toyota (who won their first Cup championship Sunday) and even bad boy brother Kurt. No wonder why the list of drivers congratulating him in Victory Lane was long and continuous.
The final chapter of this weird Chase saw Jeff Gordon as the sentimental favorite, Martin Truex, Jr. as the Cinderella fairy tale while Kevin Harvick, the sport’s reigning champ had the best season on paper. But Busch’s story was one of an athlete triumphing through adversity, turning injury into an opportunity to better himself both on and off the track.
“With all he’s been through this year,” said Gordon. “Nobody is more deserving than him.”
“There’s been a lot of change in myself,” Busch added. “My family and my team. Yet I think there’s probably still more to go. Looking forward to that experience.”
I’d look forward to seeing Busch holding the trophy again at Homestead-Miami sometime soon, too. At 30 years old, his prime dead ahead this title could be the first of many.
Through The Gears we go….
FIRST GEAR: The championship drama that wasn’t.
Much was made about NASCAR’s Final Four and the parity between them. Indeed, predictions heading into Homestead made the title race seem a bit of a crapshoot. But Busch had this one in hand through much of the race’s second half. If not for the final yellow, he would have won by nearly six seconds over Harvick while the other two contenders, Gordon and Truex battled simply to stay inside the top 10.
It was a shame for NASCAR as a rain-delayed start led to a better audience with NBC’s Football Night In America pushed back for the race. NFL fans, though were treated to zero on-track passes for the lead outside of restarts, relatively single-file competition due to the disappointing 2015 rules package and Busch setting himself on championship cruise control. There were only seven cautions, just two for accidents and just 19 lead-lap finishers on a night the competition simply spread out.
That’s not to say each contender didn’t try. Truex and his crew chief tried a two-tire strategy to lead after a mid-race caution (it failed). Harvick and Gordon raced Busch hard on several restarts. But there was an inevitability to this one unlike the 2014 Homestead race, a nail-biter until the final few laps. It just goes to show no matter how much NASCAR CEO Brian France looks to “guarantee” Game 7 moments they can’t always happen.
SECOND GEAR: Second place is the first loser.
Harvick, unable to run down Busch still completed one of the better seasons in NASCAR history. His three wins were combined with 13 runner-up finishes, a total that puts him in rarified air. That 44% top-two clip meant he was running first or second virtually every other week while leading a career high 2,294 laps.
“You always want to win, but I’ve learned not to get greedy,” Harvick said, gracious in defeat. “After last year, I felt like we had everything go our way way and tonight, it didn’t go our way.”
Still, Harvick will have to look back and feel this year was one that got away. He’s 40 years old (teammate Stewart is retiring next year at 45) so who knows how many more title chances are left? Harvick had a shot to post back-to-back titles and would have won the regular season points title without a Chase. Joey Logano was the only one in the same stratosphere in terms of consistency.
Could you imagine if those 13 second-place runs were turned into wins? That would have set a modern-era record and cemented Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers as a Hall of Fame driver/crew chief combination. Instead, at Homestead they just didn’t have it and suddenly “The Closer” is looking like he’s forgotten how to do it.
THIRD GEAR: Gordon’s great career.
No, that “John Elway” moment didn’t come together for one of NASCAR’s best drivers ever. Gordon, in position to go out on top never really got the handle on this Homestead track when the sun went down. But there’s no reason for him to hang his head after a week worth of tributes that included a wonderfully narrated piece by Jimmie Johnson. Respected throughout the garage, his pre-race drive included every crew member on pit road lining up to either wave or touch the car of the man whose success helped ensure they have jobs.
“It’s absolutely been a dream come true,” Gordon said. “To get an opportunity to race at this level, to have the success that I’ve had, to have the sponsors that we’ve had and to have the fans that we have.”
The final numbers for Gordon absolutely leave him as one of the sport’s best. 93 wins are third all-time, trailing only David Pearson and Richard Petty. Four titles trails just Johnson, Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. (Some would argue Gordon “has more” as he would have won more than two without NASCAR’s playoff format). His five Brickyard 400 wins lead all drivers; three Daytona 500s are more than respectable. Most importantly his success with Hendrick Motorsports ushered in an entire era of multi-car teams while transitioning the sport to partnerships with major Fortune 500 companies. NASCAR clearly grew with Gordon; the question is if it can keep growing now that he transitions into the FOX Broadcast booth instead.
FOURTH GEAR: Who has offseason momentum?
Of course it’s early to look at 2016 but there are several drivers who showed well at Homestead. Denny Hamlin won the pole, charged back from three laps down at one point and wound up with a top-10 finish. The No. 11 team showed strong during the Chase and Hamlin is entering a potential contract year.
Team Penske, despite tough defeats for Logano and Keselowski appeared to be the best team during the season’s second half. Moving Ryan Blaney up to full-time competition with the Wood Brothers adds a de facto third effort that could help them resource-wise in battles against organizations twice their size.
Then there’s Kyle Larson, a sophomore slump nearly defeated with a surprise season-ending win. Larson himself tweeted the No. 42 car, fastest on-track before that final caution would have been in Victory Lane if not for the controversial debris call. Larson, the Homestead XFINITY Series winner, showed improvement over the season’s final two months and may have saved crew chief Chris Heroy’s job. He’ll spar with rookie Chase Elliott as youngsters look to replace Gordon on NASCAR’s superstar hierarchy.
Other finales Sunday included Clint Bowyer and David Ragan wrapping up full-time operations for Michael Waltrip Racing. It was a touch ironic that Bowyer, whose intentional spin at Richmond two years ago started the downfall of this team wrecked on his own midrace at Homestead to finish dead last. “Appreciate the hard work and effort all these years,” he said afterwards. “But unfortunately, it’s over.” Michael Waltrip may run February’s Daytona 500 with the program before selling the building and auctioning off equipment by April 2016… Without the pomp and circumstance of Gordon another racing champion may have wrapped up his NASCAR career. Sam Hornish, Jr. hit the wall early driving for the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford and was never a factor, running 25th. The former Indy 500 and IndyCar Series champ has now failed twice at transferring his skills into Cup. Hornish ran all 36 races this season without a top-five finish and finds himself unemployed for 2016… The driver who won the most races captured none of the championships across NASCAR’s top three series this year. Joey Logano won six times on the Cup tour but didn’t even make the Final Four after the infamous contact with Matt Kenseth at Martinsville. Over in the XFINITY division several Cup drivers won far more than series regulars making Chris Buescher’s championship somewhat of an afterthought. And in Trucks, Matt Crafton won a career-high six times only to stumble through too many DNFs in handing the title to 19-year-old Erik Jones… Brett Moffitt was named Sprint Cup’s Rookie of the Year over Matt DiBenedetto. Moffitt earned one top-10 finish on the year.