Articles By All
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 19:
• Enjoy the cheerleaders of the AP Top 25, starting with the top-ranked Noles.
• Leave it to Johnny Football to enliven an otherwise dreadful Browns-Skins preseason snoozer. He'll see your casually racist nickname and raise you a middle finger. To his credit, Manziel was visibly embarrassed when he was informed that the brass was aware of what he'd done. Brian Orakpo, who had Manziel running for his life, was amused by the gesture.
• Colin Cowherd blamed racer Kevin Ward Jr.'s death on "Southern culture." Mike Huckabee (about whom I have mixed feelings) told Cowherd to shut his pie hole (which I endorse).
• David Letterman paid tribute to Robin Williams, his friend for almost four decades.
• The Rhode Island Little League coach gave a great post-game speech after his team's loss.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at email@example.com
Winners of 10 of the last 11 division titles, the AFC East has been dominated by New England ever since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady joined forces in 2001. This is not expected to change in 2014 either, not with Darrelle Revis joining the secondary and Rob Gronkowski back to jumpstart the passing attack. So if the Patriots are the heavy favorite to finish first, how will the rest of this division shake out? Will Buffalo or New York take a step forward behind their second-year quarterbacks or did Miami make the right moves in free agency to be a threat this fall?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC East shapes up entering the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Bills, Dolphins, Patriots and Jets.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“With the passing of owner Ralph Wilson, the Bills’ future will be discussed endlessly outside the football part of the organization. Regardless of what people say, this circumstance is always a distraction to a degree.” …
“Doug Marrone quietly did a solid job as a first-year NFL head coach in 2013 and Buffalo has more talent than meets the eye.” …
“Offensively, everything begins and ends with their QB play. EJ Manuel was selected in the first round of the 2013 draft and flashed the ability to be a long-term answer, but showed enough negatives to leave the question open at this point.” …
“Buffalo was 29th in the league in third down conversions (34.0 percent) and that is an area of much-needed improvement.” …
“There is enough skill around the QB to make for an effective offense. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson work well together and Anthony Dixon was signed from the 49ers.” …
“TE Scott Chandler was brought back and he is a dependable target. Buffalo traded their 2015 first-round pick to move up in the draft to get Sammy Watkins. With his addition, this is a nice mix of wide receiver styles in the form of Robert Woods, T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin.” …
“The offensive line does not have a superstar, but LT Cordy Glenn, OC Eric Wood and RG Kraig Urbik are functional starters. Chris Williams was lured from St. Louis to plug in at left guard.” …
“Nathanial Hackett is the offensive coordinator and is a coach worth tracking in the future, especially if he can coax the best out of Manuel.” …
“Jim Schwartz, the former head coach of the Lions, takes over as defensive coordinator and he is expected to stay as aggressive as his predecessor, Mike Pettine.” …
“Defensively, Marcell Dareus had a breakout year and Kyle Williams is one of the most underrated players in the league.” …
“Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and Jerry Hughes combined for 27 sacks and should provide the outside pass rush for this team.” …
“The Bills lost Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd to New Orleans, however, Aaron Williams was retained, Da’Norris Searcy has extensive experience and the coaches have high hopes for Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks.” …
“This team has enough ability to legitimately get into the fight with Miami and the NY Jets for second place in the AFC East, but almost everything will hinge on the play of the quarterback.” …
“And make no mistake about it, this current administration took a big swing in the draft to either save their jobs with a new owner or slash-and-burn their way out the door.” …
“The Dolphins demonstrated their dysfunction on and off the field in 2013. While the locker room fiasco unfolded in front of the nation, Richie Incognito became the ‘face’ of the franchise and Jonathan Martin left the building.” …
“Upstairs, former GM Jeff Ireland and VP Dawn Aponte had their own turf battles going and owner Stephen Ross ultimately sided with her, leading Ireland to step down.” …
“Meanwhile, somehow head coach Joe Philbin survived despite two late-season losses and the Wells report that spotlighted his lack of awareness and his staff’s poor judgment in diffusing the Incognito/Martin situation.” …
“Ultimately, Dennis Hickey, who was likely to be fired from the Bucs by their new GM Jason Licht, emerged as the Miami GM after a protracted interviewing process led by Ross and Aponte.” …
“Now to the football, Ryan Tannehill did not get much help last year. Miami’s OL composed of bullies and tough guys allowed 58 sacks and never generated much room for an ordinary set of running backs. Center Mike Pouncey is the only returning starter in 2014.” …
“Hickey made a splash in free agency by signing Branden Albert and Shelley Smith for the line and probably over-drafted Ja’Wuan James in the first round, but to completely repair an entire OL is nearly impossible with other pressing needs, too.” …
“After Dustin Keller went down with a knee injury during the preseason, the tight end position was essentially handled by H-back Charles Clay. Clay is an underrated performer and maybe the most reliable teammate Tannehill has had over the past two seasons.” …
“The Dolphins signed Knowshon Moreno from Denver and he should help in a big way primarily through his pass protection skills. With an entirely new OL, he can serve as Tannehill’s personal protector and that should be a major help in 2014.” …
“Mike Wallace will probably never live up to the contract he received last year because he is a vertical, one-trick pony. He can really run, but most of his effectiveness comes on take-off routes and WR screens. He thrived in Pittsburgh because of the culture there and the people around him. Without that same kind of structure, he does not have the discipline needed to be a legit No. 1 receiver.” …
“On the defensive line, Randy Starks returns and they signed Earl Mitchell from Houston. They have to figure out how to get more production from 2013 No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan.” …
“The linebackers were over-paid, under-produced and have now been re-shuffled into different roles under DC Kevin Coyle.” …
“Brent Grimes stayed off the market, but one of their young corners has to come through opposite of him, because Cortland Finnegan is not a long-term answer.” …
“The safeties are ordinary, so the pass rush is vital for them to hold up.” …
“Rebuilding both the OL and DL is tough to do in one offseason.” …
“This team can be competitive again, but I just don’t see enough blue-chip talent across the board to think they make the playoffs in 2014.” …
New England Patriots
“As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are paired together, the Patriots will always be the front-runners of the AFC East. Through the Patriots’ most savvy draft picks to their worst personnel choices, this duo seems to be able to overcome most any set of circumstances.” …
“As long as Brady can get ample time and avoid too many pocket hits, he can still carve people up from the pocket. No QB in the league plays with as much poise and confidence as Brady.” …
“There were growing pains with rookie WRs Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, but both made key plays in 2013, and Julian Edelman emerged to catch 100-plus passes after stepping in for the departed Wes Welker.” …
“Danny Amendola is quite capable, however, his injury history showed up again in ’13, when he missed four games.” ...
“New England thinks that newly acquired WR Brandon LaFell (from the Panthers) has yet to reach his potential and can do so in their system.” …
“The one-two punch of Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen gives them great versatility on offense because both players can do multiple jobs. Brandon Bolden is likely to be the inside run replacement for LaGarrette Blount who ended up in Pittsburgh.” …
“The Pats need a counterpart to Rob Gronkowski at tight end and would love to see D.J. Williams come through as a potential pass-catcher. In the meantime, Michael Hoomanawanui is consistent and gives NE a viable end-of-line blocker.” …
“Barring injury, the OL can get the job done with Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer (coming back from injury) manning the tackle spots and Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell and Dan Connelly on the inside.” …
“On defense, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia run a hybrid scheme that allows them to exploit the rush/drop skills of Jamie Collins and Rob Ninkovich.” …
“New England should get a big boost up the middle of their D with the return of Vince Wilfork (coming back from Achilles rupture) and Jerod Mayo, a team leader and their most productive defender.” …
“It remains to be seen what they can get out of first-round choice Dominique Easley who suffered torn ACLs in both knees at Florida.” …
“They made a huge splash in free agency with the addition of Darrelle Revis. Because of his man-to-man skills, expect more pressure calls up front and more safety help to Alfonzo Dennard in the back end.” …
“Their offense will carry the load again in 2014, but with Revis on board and Mayo and Collins maximizing their talents at the linebacker level, there is a confidence in Foxboro that the Pats have enough pieces in place to go win the Super Bowl.” …
New York Jets
“The media is way off when it comes to the relationship between GM John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan. They have quietly found compromise on a number of issues and actually work well together. Now, that doesn’t mean that there is no pressure on Rex, but this team finished 8-8 after many pundits felt they were one of the worst outfits in the entire league during preseason.” …
“Everyone with the Jets has a ton riding on Geno Smith, but he really needs a lot of help when it comes to their tight ends and receivers.” …
“Michael Vick was signed to push Smith and even take over if he struggles again in camp or down the stretch, but he has played 16 games one time in his career.” …
“Eric Decker was signed from Denver and he will be an upgrade, but he is only a No. 2 in reality. Stephen Hill is one-dimensional and will never be a complete receiver, while Jeremy Kerley will flash a play, but he is difficult for a QB to find in traffic.” …
“The offensive line is a strength and, if they can stay healthy, maybe this team will be able to run the football better in 2014. Breno Giacomini comes from Seattle and replaces Austin Howard at RT with D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold still being in the top third of the league at their positions.” ...
“Chris Johnson was cut from the Titans and the Jets are hoping he has something left in the tank to go along with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell.” …
“The defensive line may be the most dominant in the NFL with Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson being legit forces in their front seven. NT Damon Harrison is one of the most underrated defensive lineman in the AFC.” …
“The biggest issue is the Jets’ lack of pressure from the outside. Quinton Coples is out of position as a hybrid OLB/DE and Calvin Pace is a middle-of-the-pack edge rusher.” …
“David Harris has been a consummate pro during his career, but Demario Davis has emerged as the best LB on the roster, he is fast to the football and explosive when he gets there.” …
“The Jets have lost Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie over the past two offseasons, so they are banking heavily on Dee Milliner to live up to his No. 9 overall draft status from 2013. Dimitri Patterson was inked from Miami because Kyle Wilson has been so disappointing in his career.” …
“They added hard-hitting Calvin Pryor from Louisville in the draft, but in some ways, they now have four strong safety-types in the back end and that’s not good in this era of ‘space’ football. Dawan Landry and Antonio Allen are better coming up than going back and Jaiquawn Jarrett is the same way.” …
“Rex Ryan didn’t get enough credit for getting this group to 8-8, because it is truly amazing they won that many games.” …
“If Geno Smith responds in his second year with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and some new additions, expect the Jets to battle for second in the division and a playoff berth.” …
Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Whether it’s a true freshman playing for the first time, a junior college recruit stepping into the lineup or a player on the roster that’s finally ready to assume a starting job, predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of 50 breakout players for 2014 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
50 College Football Breakout Players for 2014
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
Had Alexander not suffered a groin injury in fall camp, it’s likely he would have played a major role in Clemson’s secondary last season. Alexander ranked as the No. 30 recruit in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and was widely considered one of the nation’s top freshmen on the defensive side. Although the groin injury prevented Alexander from getting involved last year, it allowed him extra time to learn the defense. The redshirt freshman is slated to crack the starting lineup for the opener against Georgia.
Devon Allen, WR, Oregon
With a knee injury expected to sideline Bralon Addison for the 2014 season, the Ducks need new targets to emerge for quarterback Marcus Mariota. Addison isn’t the only loss at receiver in Eugene, as Josh Huff and Daryle Hawkins (85 receptions in 2013) have expired their eligibility. Allen closed out a breakout spring with two catches for 94 yards and two scores in the spring game. And the gridiron isn’t the only place Allen is making news this offseason. He won the U.S. track title in 110 hurdles in late June and won USA Track & Field athlete of the week honors in early July. Allen has the speed and athleticism to become one of the Ducks’ top playmakers in 2014.
Victor Bolden, WR, Oregon State
Brandin Cooks earned the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s No. 1 receiver last season, so Bolden and the other Oregon State receivers have big shoes to fill in 2014. Despite the loss of Cooks, the Beavers still have options in the passing game. Junior Richard Mullaney caught 52 passes last season, and tight end Connor Hamlett is back after grabbing 40 catches in 2013. Bolden caught only six passes for 62 yards, but he averaged 20.6 yards per kickoff return. The sophomore is projected for a bigger role in the passing game in 2014, and his explosiveness will help quarterback Sean Mannion stretch the field this year.
Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor
Baylor’s receiving corps is one of the deepest in the nation, headlined by Antwan Goodley (18.9 yards per catch in 2013) and seniors Levi Norwood and Clay Fuller. But with Tevin Reese departing, the Bears are looking for a new speed threat for quarterback Bryce Petty. Coleman impressed as a freshman in 2013, catching 35 passes for 527 yards. And in a good sign for Coleman’s development, the best game (seven receptions for 88 yards) of his 2013 campaign was the Fiesta Bowl. Expect the sophomore to become an even bigger target for Petty in 2014.
Stacy Coley, WR, Miami
Regardless of who starts at quarterback for the Hurricanes, expect to see more of Coley in Miami’s gameplan this year. As a true freshman in 2013, Coley caught 33 passes for 591 yards and seven scores. And Coley showed plenty of big-play ability, averaging 17.9 yards per reception. The freshman seemed to get stronger as the year progressed, catching 11 passes over the final three weeks, including five receptions for 81 yards against Virginia. The ACC has a handful of talented receivers, but Coley will be one of the ACC’s best in 2014.
Maliek Collins/Vincent Valentine, DT, Nebraska
Nebraska’s defensive line is young, but there’s no question the coaching staff has to be excited about the talent in place. End Randy Gregory is one of the top defensive players in the nation, and the combination of Collins and Valentine is a promising duo for coordinator John Papuchis. Valentine got better as the season progressed in 2013, capped by recording a sack and two tackles for a loss against Iowa. He finished 2013 with 21 tackles (five for a loss) and one sack. Collins wasn’t as active on the stat sheet last year, recording 12 tackles and one sack. However, Collins and Valentine both will see a larger role in the defense in 2014. And with both players checking in over 300 pounds, opposing offenses won’t have much room to run on the interior against Nebraska.
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
Cooper didn’t make a huge impression on the stat sheet last year, recording 202 rushing yards, 29 passing yards and three receptions for 54 yards. However, expect that to change significantly in 2014. The sophomore is an all-purpose threat for the Gamecocks and should see some snaps as a Wildcat quarterback. Cooper is also expected to handle returns this year.
Su’a Cravens, S, USC
Cravens was one of the top defensive players in the 2013 recruiting class and ranked as a five-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite. And as a true freshman, Cravens certainly didn’t disappoint last year. He earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors after recording 52 tackles, four interceptions and one forced fumble. Cravens should benefit from the addition of coordinator Justin Wilcox, as well as another year to participate in offseason practices. Expect Cravens to push for All-America honors this year.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
Carlos Hyde was the first back to top 1,000 yards under coach Urban Meyer, and his departure to the NFL is a big loss for Ohio State’s offense. Hyde’s tough running will be missed, but the Buckeyes aren’t hurting for options. Elliott is expected to handle the bulk of the carries, with Dontre Wilson, Warren Ball, Curtis Samuel, Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn all expected to contribute to the rotation in 2014. Elliott impressed in limited action last year, rushing for 262 yards on 30 carries (8.7 ypc). He may not handle 250 carries, but Elliott will headline a deep and talented Ohio State backfield.
Leonard Floyd, LB, Georgia
It’s a bit of a stretch to put Floyd on this list after he recorded 55 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks last year. However, we think the sophomore goes from All-SEC contention to All-America honors and earning national recognition. Floyd should anchor one of the edges in Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, and the sophomore is expected to push for 10 sacks.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
The No. 1 player in the 247Sports Composite rankings for 2014 could have a monster season in Baton Rouge. The LSU offensive line is one of the best in the SEC with four returning starters, and with a young quarterback (Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings) slated to start, expect the Tigers to lean on the ground attack. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Fournette has the size and skill-set to be an every-down back in the SEC. If he gets enough carries, the Louisiana native could finish near the top of the conference in rushing yards.
Will Gardner, QB, Louisville
Teddy Bridgewater is gone, but with Bobby Petrino at the controls, Louisville’s offense is expected to be one of the best in the ACC. Gardner is the frontrunner to replace Bridgewater under center and this will be the Georgia native’s first taste of extended snaps. In six appearances last year, Gardner threw for 112 yards and two touchdowns on eight completions. Gardner will have a few growing pains in his first season as the starter, but Petrino’s track record suggests quarterback play won’t be a problem at Louisville in 2014.
Joshua Garnett/Kyle Murphy, OL, Stanford
Four starters depart from a Stanford offensive line that was one of the best in the nation last year. However, there’s not much concern from coach David Shaw about the protection for quarterback Kevin Hogan. Left tackle Andrus Peat is an Athlon Sports All-American for 2014, and the line has breakout players like Garnett and Murphy ready to emerge. Murphy played in 13 contests last year, while Garnett made an appearance in 14 and started against Washington State. Both Garnett and Murphy should push for All-Pac-12 honors this year.
Jared Goff, QB, California
Some may not consider Goff a breakout player after he threw for 3,488 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. However, with California expected to improve overall in the second year under coach Sonny Dykes, along with the return of a talented receiving corps, Goff could approach 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2014. As expected with any freshman quarterback, Goff had his share of ups and downs last season. He threw for 336 yards and one touchdown against Washington and completed 32 of 58 passes for 489 yards against Washington State. Goff finished the year by throwing for less than 200 yards in back-to-back games against Colorado and Stanford. With another offseason under his belt, look for Goff to take a step forward in his development and show a better overall command of the offense.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Fans around the SEC are familiar with Henry through recruiting and his limited playing time last year, but it’s time for the rest of the nation to take notice. Henry rushed for 382 yards and three scores last season, capped by a 100-yard performance in the Sugar Bowl. The Florida native should provide the thunder to T.J. Yeldon’s lightning in 2014, as his 6-foot-3, 241-pound frame is a handful for opposing defenses. Don’t be surprised if Henry surpasses the 1,000-yard mark in 2014.
Darian Hicks, CB, Michigan State
The Spartans no longer have Darqueze Dennard manning the “No Fly Zone” in East Lansing. But coordinator Pat Narduzzi isn’t too worried about his secondary in 2014, as junior Trae Waynes is a likely All-American and Hicks is ready to step up and replace Dennard at the other cornerback spot. Hicks played in all 14 games and recorded only two tackles, but the sophomore is primed for a bigger role in Michigan State’s defense this year.
Tyreek Hill, RB/WR, Oklahoma State
Hill drew significant praise from coach Mike Gundy at Big 12 media days, and it’s clear the junior college recruit is going to play a major role in Oklahoma State’s offense this year. Gundy and coordinator Mike Yurcich plan to use Hill in an all-purpose role and indicated the junior will touch the ball 15-20 times each week. The Georgia native possesses elite speed and won the Big 12 indoor 200 meters title this year. Expect Gundy to get Hill involved in a variety of ways in 2014.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
For any first-year starting quarterback, a potential All-American at tight end is a nice security blanket to have. That’s the case for junior quarterback Jacob Coker in his first season in Tuscaloosa, as Howard should be one of the top tight ends in the nation after a solid freshman campaign. Howard caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two scores last year, averaging 19.2 yards per reception. Expect Howard to be an even bigger part of the Crimson Tide offense this season, likely doubling his catches under new coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo
There’s no clear favorite in the MAC West this year, and the Rockets have a chance to unseat Northern Illinois as the division champ in 2014. Toledo has a new quarterback under center, but the rushing attack should be the strength of this offense. The line is one of the best – if not No. 1 – in the MAC this year, and Hunt is ready for a breakout year after rushing for 866 yards on 137 attempts last year. Hunt recorded five 100-yard efforts over the final six games in 2013.
Chris Jones, DL, Mississippi State
Jones ranked as the No. 18 overall player in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100, and the Mississippi native didn’t disappoint as a true freshman. Jones recorded 32 tackles (seven for a loss), three sacks and three pass breakups. He was at his best late in the year, recording three tackles for a loss and a sack against Ole Miss. After a solid freshman year, the best is yet to come from Jones. With a full offseason to work in the weight room and learn under coordinator Geoff Collins, Jones should build off a promising finish to 2014 and challenge for All-America honors.
Denver Kirkland/Dan Skipper, OL, Arkansas
Bret Bielema wants to establish a run-first, smashmouth mentality at Arkansas, and the second-year coach has two budding stars in the offensive line in sophomores Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper. Both players started eight games last year and earned all-freshman honors by Athlon Sports. Considering Bielema’s track record from Wisconsin on recruiting and establishing offensive lines, look for Skipper and Kirkland to develop into future stars for the Razorbacks.
Ben Koyack, TE, Notre Dame
With DaVaris Daniels’ status in doubt due to academic issues, Notre Dame is searching for new weapons in the passing game for quarterback Everett Golson. Koyack is slated to replace Troy Niklas at tight end in 2014, and the senior is poised to build off a promising junior campaign. In 13 games, Koyack caught 10 passes for 171 yards (17.1 ypc) and three scores. A tight end has caught at least 30 passes in three consecutive years for the Fighting Irish. Expect Koyack to increase that number to four in 2014.
Geno Lewis, WR, Penn State
Allen Robinson accounted for 97 of Penn State’s 241 receptions last season, leaving little in the way of proven options for quarterback Christian Hackenberg in 2014. While there’s not much in the way of proven receivers, the Nittany Lions aren’t hurting for talent. Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman headline a deep group of tight ends, while Lewis is a rising star on the outside at receiver. After redshirting in 2012, Lewis caught 18 passes for 234 yards and three scores in his first season of action with Penn State. The Pennsylvania native closed out 2013 on a high note, grabbing three receptions for 91 yards and two scores against Wisconsin. Freshmen DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, Saaed Blacknall and De’Andre Thompkins are names to watch in the fall, but Lewis should be the top receiving target for Hackenberg.
Hutson Mason, QB, Georgia
Aaron Murray’s late-season knee injury allowed Mason to gain valuable experience in 2013, and the senior heads into 2014 with two starts under his belt. Mason threw for 189 yards and one score in relief of Murray against Kentucky, threw 299 yards and two touchdowns in a 41-34 victory over rival Georgia Tech and completed 21 of 39 throws for 320 yards and one score in the Gator Bowl versus Nebraska. Mason has waited his turn by sitting four years behind Aaron Murray. Expect the senior to deliver a big season in his first chance at the full-time starting job in Athens.
Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri
Most around the SEC are probably familiar with Mauk after his short stint as Missouri’s No. 1 quarterback in 2013, but the sophomore is poised for bigger and better things in 2014. Mauk threw for 1,071 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, while recording 229 rushing yards. The Ohio native needs to improve his completion percentage (51.1), but he should continue Missouri’s run of successful quarterbacks under coach Gary Pinkel.
Vince Mayle, WR, Washington State
With quarterback Connor Halliday and one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps returning, the Cougars’ offense will be tough to stop in 2014. Washington State led the nation with 756 pass attempts last year, so there’s plenty of opportunities for players like Mayle to catch passes. Gabe Marks led the team with 74 receptions last season, but Mayle is a name to remember after finishing his first season in Pullman with 42 catches for 539 yards and seven scores. The 6-foot-3 target slimmed down during the offseason, and all signs point to Mayle becoming a more prominent target for Halliday.
Obi Melifonwu, S, UConn
Melifonwu started all 12 games as a redshirt freshman last season and finished with 70 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. The Massachusetts native is one of just five returning starters on defense for the Huskies this year and helps senior Byron Jones anchor a secondary that could be one of the best in the American Athletic Conference. Melifonwu should be one of the key pieces in new coach Bob Diaco’s rebuilding effort at UConn in 2014.
Cyler Miles, QB, Washington
Miles was suspended for spring practice due to an off-the-field incident but was reinstated to the team in May. The sophomore is behind Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams in learning Washington’s new offense, but Miles is expected to claim the starting job for 2014. The Colorado native ranked as the No. 105 overall prospect in the 2012 signing class by the 247Sports Composite and worked as the backup to Keith Price in 2013. Price missed time against UCLA due to injury, and Miles completed 15 of 22 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns in relief. A week later, Miles threw for 162 yards and one score in a 69-27 victory over Oregon State. The sophomore has plenty of upside, and with an ability to hurt defenses through the air or on the ground with his legs, Miles is a quarterback to watch in 2014.
Skai Moore, LB, South Carolina
With the departure of ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton, along with tackle Kelcy Quarles, the Gamecocks may use more 3-4 looks in 2014. The linebacking corps should be the strength of Lorenzo Ward’s defense, as Moore led the team with 56 tackles as a true freshman last year. Moore also intercepted four passes and recorded 3.5 tackle for a loss in 2013. Expect Moore to challenge for All-SEC honors this season.
DaVonte’ Neal, WR, Arizona
After a one-year stint at Notre Dame, Neal transferred to Arizona and sat out the 2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules. Neal didn’t make a huge impact in his one year with the Fighting Irish, but he’s poised to emerge as a key contributor for the Wildcats. Arizona is loaded with talent at receiver, including senior Austin Hill who returns after missing all of last season due to a torn ACL. In addition to Hill, the Wildcats return Nate Phillips, Samajie Grant and Trey Griffey in the receiving corps. With a crowded receiving corps, expect Arizona coaches to use Neal some in the backfield to take advantage of his athleticism and speed.
Dadi Nicolas, DE, Virginia Tech
In a wide-open ACC Coastal Division, the one constant among the contenders is Virginia Tech’s defense. The Hokies have finished first or second in scoring defense (conference-only games) in the ACC for six consecutive seasons. With one of the conference’s top defensive backfields and lines in 2014, expect much of the same from the Hokies. Nicolas appears to be the next star on the front line for Virginia Tech, recording 32 tackles and four sacks in 13 games last year. The Florida native should easily shatter those totals in a full-time role in 2014.
Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss
Yes, as the No. 1 recruit from the 2013 signing class, it seems obvious to mention Nkemdiche as a breakout player. However, the Georgia native seemed to find his role late last year. Nkemdiche finished with 34 tackles (eight for a loss), two sacks and one forced fumble. Six of Nkemdiche’s 10 starts came at defensive end, with the other four coming at tackle. The Rebels will regain the services of end C.J. Johnson (missed most of last year due to injury), and the other end spot is expected to go to FIU transfer Fadol Brown. With Brown and Johnson anchoring the end positions, Nkemdiche should settle back into the interior. The sophomore played better as the season progressed in 2013 and should build off that momentum.
Speedy Noil/Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M
With Mike Evans, Derel Walker and Travis Labhart departing, the Aggies will be young (and very talented) at receiver in 2014. Redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones ranked as the No. 25 prospect in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100 and caught three passes for 84 yards and one score before suffering a season-ending injury last year. Noil – a Louisiana native – ranked as the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2014 247Sports Composite and could see touches in a variety of ways – special teams, catches or handoffs – for coach Kevin Sumlin.
Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor
At 6-foot-9 and 275 pounds, Oakman is an imposing figure off the edge for Phil Bennett’s defense. The Pennsylvania native started his career at Penn State but transferred after a redshirt year. Oakman’s first game experience in college occurred last season, as he played in all 13 games, recorded 33 tackles (12.5 for a loss) and two sacks. Most of Oakman’s production came early in the year, including 3.5 tackles for a loss against Wofford and two against Iowa State. He only recorded 0.5 tackles for a loss over the final six games, but the experience gained by Oakman through his first extended playing time should be valuable in 2014. Expect the junior to be one of the top defensive ends in the Big 12 this year.
Chikwe Obasih, DE, Wisconsin
The Badgers are breaking in several new faces on defense in 2014, as only three starters return from a unit that held opponents to 16.3 points per game last year. Obasih redshirted in his first season in Madison and was one of the spring standouts for coordinator Dave Aranda. Obasih ranked as the No. 343 player in the 247Sports Composite and recorded two tackles in the spring game. At 245 pounds, Obasih is undersized against traditional power offenses, but he has the speed and quickness off the edge to be a disruptive force in the backfield.
Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan
We could list a couple of Michigan defenders here, but Peppers is just too talented to leave off the list. Peppers ranked as the No. 3 recruit in the 247Sports Composite and is slated to push for a starting job in the fall. The New Jersey native could play a number of roles in the Michigan secondary in 2014, as he might start at cornerback or safety or play in the nickel role for coordinator Greg Mattison. Regardless of where he lines up, Peppers is too valuable for the Wolverines to keep on the sidelines. The true freshman could be a difference maker in Michigan’s secondary and also could see time on special teams this year.
Rashard Robinson, CB, LSU
A number of LSU defenders could earn a mention in this space, but Robinson is Athlon’s pick to have a breakout year on defense for coordinator John Chavis. The 6-foot-3 corner has the size to matchup against the bigger receivers in the conference, along with the speed to prevent big plays in the passing game. Robinson was a late arrival to preseason camp last year but finished with 16 tackles and broke up three passes in 12 games. The emergence of Robinson and sophomore Tre’Davious White should give LSU one of the top cornerback tandems in the nation.
Tyree Robinson, S, Oregon
The Ducks have a few holes to fill in the secondary, but this unit is headlined by All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Three starting spots were up for grabs this spring, with Robinson in the mix at the safety position. The California native ranked as the No. 150 recruit in the 2013 247Sports Composite and used a redshirt year in his first season on campus. At 6-foot-4, Robinson has the size and athleticism to be a future star in Oregon’s secondary.
Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma
With Aaron Colvin departing, Oklahoma is counting on Sanchez to be the top cornerback on a defense that should be one of the nation’s best. Most Sooner fans are familiar with Sanchez after a standout freshman season, but the Texas native is poised to emerge as one of the Big 12’s top defensive backs. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Sanchez started all 13 games, recorded 46 tackles and intercepted two passes. With Colvin on the other side last year, it was no surprise Sanchez was frequently targeted. However, he responded by defending 15 passes. Opposing Big 12 quarterbacks will likely stay away from Sanchez this season.
Jhajuan Seales, WR, Oklahoma State
There’s a significant amount of roster turnover for Oklahoma State in 2014. The Cowboys return only eight starters and lost 28 seniors from last season’s team. Despite the turnover, Mike Gundy’s team can still push for eight wins. For Oklahoma State to push for a spot among the top four teams in the Big 12, quarterback J.W. Walsh has to play with more consistency after an up-and-down stint in 2013. But Walsh should have plenty of help at the skill positions, as running back Desmond Roland rushed for 811 yards last year, and Seales is primed for a breakout year at receiver. As a redshirt freshman in 2013, Seales grabbed 39 receptions for 571 yards and three scores. The Texas native is a physical presence on the outside but also has the speed to be a big-play threat for Walsh.
William Stanback, RB, UCF
Storm Johnson bolted early for the NFL, but UCF’s backfield is set with Stanback returning after a solid freshman season. In 13 games, Stanback rushed for 443 yards and six touchdowns on 105 attempts. His best performance came against Houston (74 yards), while also rushing for 65 yards against Louisville. UCF must replace quarterback Blake Bortles, but the Knights can lean on Stanback until Justin Holman is settled under center.
Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida
Running back is a position of strength for new coordinator Kurt Roper, as the Gators return three running backs that recorded at least 330 yards last year. Mack Brown led the team with 543 yards, but Taylor turned plenty of heads as a true freshman. In 10 games, Taylor rushed for 508 yards and four scores, including 90 or more yards in two out of his last three outings. If the offensive line is improved, Taylor could push for 1,000 yards.
Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss
Donte Moncrief’s big-play ability will be missed in Oxford, but quarterback Bo Wallace won’t have to look far for his replacement. Treadwell caught 72 passes for 608 yards and five scores as a true freshman last year and is slated to move from the slot to the outside in 2014. Treadwell averaged only 8.4 yards per catch in 2013, but that number could easily double in 2014.
Chad Voytik, QB, Pittsburgh
Paul Chryst got a glimpse of the future when Tom Savage suffered an injury in the bowl win over Bowling Green. Pittsburgh’s offense didn’t miss a beat with Voytik at the controls, as the Panthers posted 13 points in the second half and punted only once on five drives. Voytik completed 5 of 9 passes for 108 yards against the Falcons and rushed for 24 yards on two attempts. The Tennessee native threw only 11 passes last season, but there’s no question about his talent, ranking as the No. 16 quarterback recruit in the 2012 signing class. As evidenced by his work at Wisconsin, Chryst knows how to develop quarterbacks and make the most out of his talent. Voytik has the talent and intangibles and should flourish under Chryst’s tutelage this season. And it certainly doesn’t hurt Voytik’s development that he will be throwing to standout receiver Tyler Boyd and protected by a line that returns four starters.
P.J. Walker, QB, Temple
Temple started 0-6 last year but rallied to win two out of their final six games, including a 41-21 road contest at Memphis in the season finale. A key reason for the turnaround was Walker’s emergence as the team’s starting quarterback. The New Jersey native started the final seven contests and finished the season with 2,084 yards and 20 touchdowns, while tossing only eight picks on 250 attempts. Walker also added 332 yards and three scores on the ground. Another positive sign for Temple was Walker’s completion percentage (60.8), as well as a solid 13.7 yards per completion. Even though top receiver Robby Anderson won’t return, Walker is poised to emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference in 2014.
Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech
With Michael Brewer and Baker Mayfield transferring, Webb is the clear starter in Lubbock this year. With a clear path to the starting job, along with a standout performance in the Holiday Bowl, Webb appears to be on his way to emerging as Texas Tech’s next star quarterback. As a true freshman last year, the Texas native threw for 2,718 yards and 20 touchdowns on 361 attempts, while tossing only nine picks. Webb completed 62.6 percent of his throws and threw for at least 385 yards in five out of his last six games. The Red Raiders need to replace standout receiver Eric Ward and tight end Jace Amaro, but Kliff Kingsbury should have this offense performing at a high level once again.
D’haquille Williams, WR, Auburn
The Tigers may look to throw more in 2014, as running back Tre Mason departed for the NFL, and quarterback Nick Marshall should be more comfortable in his second year under center in the SEC. Auburn’s receiving corps is also deeper in 2014, largely due to the emergence of junior Sammie Coates and the arrival of Williams in the spring. Williams ranked as the top junior college recruit in the 247Sports Composite and caught five passes for 88 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
Karlos Williams, RB, Florida State
Williams was a five-star talent out of high school and spent the first two years of his career on defense. But shortly after the win over Pittsburgh on Labor Day, the Florida State coaching staff moved Williams to offense, a move some believed should have taken place earlier in his career. As expected, Williams showcased his athleticism and speed in limited duty at running back in 2013, rushing for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns on 91 attempts. The Florida native averaged a whopping 8.0 yards per carry and is expected to open spring practice as the Seminoles’ No. 1 back. Williams won’t have to carry the entire workload for coach Jimbo Fisher, as top recruit Dalvin Cook will contribute right away, and Ryan Green and Mario Pender will be in the mix for snaps. Even if Williams doesn’t top 200 carries, it’s clear his athleticism and speed will be a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. Look for Williams to have a huge breakout season as the top back in Tallahassee.
Dontre Wilson, RB/WR, Ohio State
It seems Urban Meyer has been looking for the next Percy Harvin for a couple of years now, but Wilson could finally be the right fit as a hybrid receiver/running back. Wilson rushed for 250 yards and one score last season and caught 22 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns. Expect Wilson to be more involved in the Buckeyes’ offense in 2014, as the departure of Carlos Hyde will open up more carries on the ground, while the receiving corps is searching for more playmakers.
Daryl Worley, CB, West Virginia
Worley has generated plenty of buzz this offseason in Morgantown. As a true freshman, the 6-foot-1 cornerback from Philadelphia played in 11 games in 2013 and recorded 45 tackles and broke up five passes. Considering the offensive firepower in the Big 12, having a shutdown corner with the size to matchup against big receivers is a valuable asset for any defense. And the Mountaineers’ defense may have to shoulder more of the load in 2014, as the offense – especially the quarterback spot – is a work in progress. With another year to develop, expect Worley to challenge for all-conference honors this year.
Good luck figuring out the Pac-12 this fall.
At the top, many believe this league is college football’s best. And what separates it from every other league in the nation — including the mighty SEC — isn’t just the fact that two teams will play 10 conference games but that all of the preseason powers will face each other this fall.
While other leagues play eight-game schedules and only two crossovers, the Pac-12 plays four crossovers and nine conference games. It’s made for a long list of must-see matchups out West in 2014.
1. Stanford at Oregon (Nov. 1)
The Pac-12 South has gotten much better and has its own elite battles but the top ticket in the Pac-12 this fall is still the Ducks and Cardinal. The winner of this game has won the last four Pac-12 titles and that is likely the case again this fall. A knee injury hampered Marcus Mariota last year and a fully healthy QB for Oregon could finally give the Ducks a win over the Cardinal with No. 8 under center.
2. Oregon at UCLA (Oct. 11)
There is no better quarterback matchup in the nation than when Mariota and the Ducks fly south to battle Brett Hundley and the Bruins in the Rose Bowl. This is likely a preview of the Pac-12 title game and could have divisional, conference and national championship implications. Loosen up the scoreboard operator for this one.
3. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)
It cannot be overstated what a win for Michigan State in this game would mean for the Big Ten. So Oregon cannot overlook the rebuilt Sparty defense early in the year or the Ducks could be knocked out of playoff contention by Week 2. The schematic chess match between Marcus Mariota and Mark Dantonio's defense should be fascinating to watch.
4. USC at UCLA (Nov. 22)
This crosstown rivalry is getting some extra juice, as both programs appear to be surging in the right direction. Both teams are ranked in the preseason top 20 and both have elite starting rosters. Depth could be a big issue for the Trojans come late November but if they can stay healthy, USC could find itself in a winner-take-all South Division title match against one of its biggest rivals.
5. Stanford at UCLA (Nov. 28)
The Cardinal are the two-time defending champs but have to play all of its toughest games on the road, including a trip to UCLA on the final weekend of the regular season. These two played in back-to-back weeks two years ago and the Bruins haven’t forgotten. It could happen again this fall. Whether both divisions are already locked up or not, this game should be supremely entertaining.
6. UCLA at Arizona State (Sept. 25)
These two have posted back-to-back high-scoring shootouts with the road team winning both matchups between coaches Jim Mora and Todd Graham. Arizona State won 38-33 last year in the Rose Bowl while UCLA won 45-43 in the desert two years ago. This is the first of a group of critical round-robin games in the Pac-12’s South Division.
7. Stanford at Washington (Sept. 27)
The last time Stanford visited Seattle, the Huskies pulled off a signature upset in primetime in physical and nail-biting fashion. With a new sheriff patrolling the Washington sidelines, this game figures to be a fascinating schematic chess match. The Huskies are more talented than they’ve been since 2000 and toppling Stanford early in the year could make UW the top challenger to Oregon.
8. Texas vs. UCLA (Sept. 13, Arlington)
UCLA has Pac-12 South Division title hopes and possibly more as Brett Hundley enters his third season under center. Texas will be three weeks into the Charlie Strong Era in Austin and will provide a nasty early-season test for the Bruins on a “neutral" field in Dallas. Both teams have outside chances at landing a spot in the College Football Playoff and an early-season slip up must be avoided for both programs.
9. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4)
This historic rivalry has been elevated in recent years after a memorable overtime goal-line stand for Notre Dame in 2012 and a physical 27-20 victory for Stanford a year ago. Only four times have both teams been ranked at the time of the meeting (28 total games) and three of those have come in the last three years. A fourth straight meeting of two ranked teams is likely to happen again this year and a playoff berth could be on the line this time around.
10. USC at Stanford (Sept. 6)
Ever since Jim Harbaugh upset Pete Carroll in shocking fashion back in the mid-2000s, this USC-Stanford crossover battle has been a must-see matchup. Both programs have their sights set on a Pac-12 title game in the Bay Area and there is some added juice between these two now that Steve Sarkisian — who upset David Shaw two years ago at Washington — is coaching in Los Angeles. This will be a battle.
11. UCLA at Washington (Nov. 8)
The Bruins will get upset somewhere along the way, most likely on the road. And a trip way up north to Seattle is a prime upset alert situation. Other than quarterback, these two rosters are extremely comparable and the Huskies will give Jim Mora’s team all it can handle late in the year.
12. Stanford at Arizona State (Oct. 18)
A rematch of last year’s title game will take place in mid-October. In fact, these two played twice last year with Stanford winning both games with relative ease. Todd Graham’s squad will be out for revenge in this preseason top 20 matchup.
13. Arizona State at USC (Oct. 4)
The round robin in the South features two early games for Arizona State, one of which will come in Los Angeles against the Men of Troy. This game cost Lane Kiffin his job last year when ASU blitzed the Trojans' defense. USC went on to win seven out of nine after getting smoked by the Sun Devils.
14. Washington at Oregon (Oct. 18)
The Ducks are the pick in the North but Washington could become the top challenger by the time Oct. 18 rolls around. The talent gap might be too great for UW to overcome on the road but don’t tell that to Chris Petersen and his Dawgs.
15. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29)
The battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh will take place for the 86th time in 2014 with both teams eyeing a trip to the postseason. The Irish lead the series 45-35-5 — including the vacated 2005 USC victory — and Notre Dame has won two straight and three out of four overall. Both teams enter the season ranked in the top 15 and by season’s end, each could be positioned to play for a national championship.
Best of the Rest:
16. Arizona State at Washington (Oct. 25)
17. Arizona State at Arizona (Nov. 28)
18. Oregon at Oregon State (Nov. 29)
19. Washington at Washington State (Nov. 29)
20. Notre Dame at Arizona State (Nov. 8)
21. USC at Arizona (Oct. 11)
22. Arizona at UCLA (Nov. 1)
23. Oregon at Washington State (Sept. 20)
24. Oregon State at Washington (Nov. 22)
25. Washington at Arizona (Nov. 15)
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller will miss the 2014 season due to a shoulder injury suffered in practice on Monday. The news of Miller’s injury was reported by the Columbus Dispatch’s Tim May.
Eleven Warriors has more details on Miller’s injury, which will keep the senior out for the 2014 season. Miller is eligible for a redshirt season and could return in 2015.
Miller suffered a shoulder injury in the Orange Bowl loss against Clemson and did not participate in contact drills during spring practice.
The senior appeared to be on track to return after shoulder surgery in February, but he was limited by soreness in his throwing arm this fall.
With Miller out for the season, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones will compete for the No. 1 job. Barrett recently moved ahead of Jones on the depth chart and would be the favorite to start the opener against Navy.
With Miller ruled out for 2014, Michigan State is the favorite in the Big Ten. The Spartans defeated the Buckeyes in the conference title game last season and is a contender for a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff format.
Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?
When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.
That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the ACC’s best.
Boston College: 26
Despite his stature, running back Andre Williams’ strength was in big plays. He gained at least 20 yards on a carry 26 times in 2013, easily the best in the nation. But efficiency was an issue; the Eagles managed just a 38.0 percent success rate — an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure; that ranked 105th in the country.
Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football; Clemson’s defense allowed a 34.0 percent success rate in 2013, fifth-lowest in the country. But the breakdowns that did occur were significant: Clemson allowed 11 plays of more than 50 yards (107th in the country) and 28 of more than 30 (81st).
Duke reached the ACC title game in 2013 despite a bend-don’t-break defense that bent a bit too much. The Blue Devils allowed 6.8 yards per play on first down, 110th in the country. They also allowed 210 plays of at least 10 yards (116th). When they leveraged opponents into passing downs, they got more successfully aggressive, but passing downs were few and far between.
Florida State: 39.5
Florida State’s scoring margin was an incredible plus-39.5 in 2013. Granted, playing Bethune-Cookman and Idaho in non-conference (combined score: 134–20) helped, but the Seminoles’ scoring margin in ACC games was still plus-39.0. Against teams that finished with winning records? Plus-33.3. No matter how you slice it, Florida State dominated in 2013 like few teams ever have.
Georgia Tech: 4.9
One benefit to an option offense is that you really don’t have to change your play-calling when you get near the goal line. Georgia Tech averaged 4.9 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line, 15th in the country. Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets were also solid at shutting drives down — they allowed 3.9 points per trip inside their 40, 38th in the country.
Louisville’s defense improved dramatically in 2013, as evidenced most clearly by the Cardinals’ ability to close drives before the end zone. They allowed only 3.0 points per trip inside their 40-yard line, second in the country and first among major-conference teams. Meanwhile, the offense averaged a healthy 4.8 points per trip, 20th.
Miami averaged a healthy 6.9 yards per play against ACC opponents, second in the conference behind Florida State. The problem was that the defense gave back most of those gains, allowing 6.2 per play, 13th. Big plays were the culprit: the Hurricanes allowed 211 gains of 10-plus yards overall, 117th in the country.
NC State: 3.3
The average FBS team averaged 4.2 points per trip inside its opponent’s 40-yard line in 2013. NC State, however, averaged only 3.3 points per trip, 116th in the country. It got even worse in conference play; the Wolfpack averaged 3.0 points per trip, worst in the ACC.
North Carolina: 7.6
North Carolina’s offense was exciting despite youth in 2013; however, when things went wrong, they went wrong quickly. Despite ranking a solid 48th in yards per play, the Tar Heels averaged 7.6 yards to go on third downs, 108th in the country.
Of the 33 fumbles that took place in Pittsburgh games (11 by the Panthers, 22 by opponents), Pitt recovered only 11 of them, 33.3 percent. Fumble recovery rates are mostly random, and only one team (Akron at 31.4 percent) recovered a lower percentage. With an average recovery rate, Pittsburgh would have fallen on six to seven more loose balls in a season that saw them lose two games by a touchdown or less.
Led by Marquise Spruill’s 14.5, Orange linebackers recorded 41 tackles for a loss in 2013, even more than the 39 they recorded in 2012. The defense as a whole improved from allowing 5.7 yards per play in 2012 to 5.3 in 2013; unfortunately, the offense regressed from 6.0 to 5.1 in that same span.
Virginia was in no way efficient, averaging just 4.9 yards per play on first down (109th in the country) with a 38.0 percent third-down conversion rate (85th). But the Cavaliers’ biggest problem was a total lack of big-play ability. The offense gained 20 or more yards in a play just 34 times in 2013, 121st in the country. Virginia averaged better than 4.8 yards per play in just four of 12 games.
Virginia Tech: 8.3
Nobody leveraged opponents into passing downs more effectively than Virginia Tech did. Opponents faced an average of 8.3 yards to go on third down against the Hokies’ defense, the highest average in the country.
Wake Forest: -6.4
An offense prone to three-and-outs and a shaky return game produced the worst field position averages in the ACC. In conference play, Wake Forest’s average starting field position was its 26.6, and its opponents’ average was the 33.0. The minus-6.4 margin was easily 14th of 14 teams; only Virginia (minus-5.4) and NC State (minus-4.6) came within 3.5 yards of that average.
College football is well-represented in the Twitterverse by people who know the game intimately and aren't afraid to tell you about it. We took our annual look at the lengthy list of CFB-oriented Twitter accounts and whittled them down to 100 that are definitely worth a follow.
Times and technology change, and these tweeting all-stars are sure to entertain, educate and occasionally enrage. Let us know your favorites (and anyone we missed).
Get to know the new college football playoff and who is in the mix for the title. This is the official account, so be sure to follow on Tuesday evenings when the official rankings are released.
@ESPNCFB (2) and @CollegeGameDay (3)
We probably don’t need to tell you why to follow ESPN’s college football channels, but these are good places to start if you’re a Twitter newbie.
Whoa Nelly, just the news and only the news. No retweets or interaction, just links to all the roster moves and important nuggets from around the country.
@cbfowler (4) and @ESPN_ReceDavis (5)
A pair of total pros who anchor ESPN's college football coverage night and day. Take a moment to welcome Fowler to his spot on ABC’s game of the week on Saturday night.
“Sources” McMurphy is in his second season with the Mothership as a leader in breaking news.
The veteran ESPNer is a must-follow for features on the Dot Com and his guests on the aptly named ESPN College Football Podcast.
Travis Haney is on the national beat, though most of his work is behind the ESPN Insider paywall. He drops enough knowledge from his travels on Twitter to entice readers to fork over a few more bucks to the Worldwide Leader.
A must-follow during Saturday’s action if you’re interested in a deep dive into the numbers.
10 days until full slate of CFB games; Alabama has won 10 national titles during the poll era (since 1936), most of any FBS team— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 18, 2014
ESPN Conference Bloggers (10)
It’s tough to pick out one, but this is a good place to start to follow your favorite team or league: @ESPN_ACC, @ESPN_BigTen, @ESPN_Big12, @ESPN_Pac12Blog and @ESPN_SEC. Go for a deeper dive with all 29(!) of ESPN’s blog contributors.
@DennisDoddCBS (11) remains the veteran columnist of the staff that has added newshounds @JFowlerCBS (12) and @JonSolomonCBS (13) in recent years. After a tumultuous summer covering union efforts, autonomy and Ed O’Bannon, we’re sure they’re glad to get back to covering games.
News, notes and a little sarcasm from @TomFornelli, @Chip_Patterson and @JerryHinnen
Staples can break down the difference between a cookout and a BBQ and talk offensive line play. @LindsayRaeSI (16) and @BrianHamiltonSI (17) are recent arrivals.
Campus Union (16)
@ZacEllis and @martinrickman maintain SI’s news and notes blog. Follow rickman if you have an aversion to capital letters.
in @finebaum interview musburger has discussed: -katherine webb -betting lines -eminem -the musburger drinking game sec network is amazing— martin rickman (@martinrickman) August 15, 2014
Bill Simmons isn’t a lover of college football, but he’s stocked his longform site some quality folks including @HollyAnderson (17) and @MattRHinton (18).
College football Twitter is full of sarcasm and hot takes. Chris Brown at Smart Football and Grantland keeps us all in line with his Xs and Os-heavy feed.
Fox Sports has become a player in college football coverage online with two ace hires of @BFeldmanCFB (20) and @slmandel (21). And for an — ahem, edgier take — there’s @ClayTravisBGID (22).
I can't wait until SEC fans start calling the network "biast." Probably already happening.— Clay Travis (@ClayTravisBGID) August 14, 2014
The newspaper is more than infographics and that ubiquitous dot. USA Today hits all spots with old-school reporting and column-writing with @GeorgeSchroeder (23) and @DanWolken (24) and new-school #viral and #social content with @ForTheWin (25).
By now, @PaulMyerberg (26) has wrapped up his exhaustive team-by-team previews, but he’s still a must-follow during the year.
Other National Voices
@MattHayes_SN (27) is a long-time Sporting News columnist. Beware: He may or may not be sold on the Playoff. On the other hand, there’s Death to the BCS author @DanWetzel (28), who takes a victory lap this season. He’s still an ace columnist and key figure on Yahoo’s investigative wing.
If you want to see whose style we borrowed for this column, make sure you give @YahooForde (29) a read every week for his Forde-Yard Dash.
@RalphDRussoAP (30) is a student of the history of the game but also the ace on current events you’d expect from the Associated Press.
Miss anything during the college football Saturday? @MattBrownCFB’s (31) “The Professor” wrap-up is mandatory on Sunday morning.
The folks at Crystal Ball Run don’t have a BCS crystal ball trophy to chase in the playoff era, so they’ve moved their independent college football blog to @TheStudentSect (32).
@KevinOnCFB (34) and the staff at College Football Talk gather all the news of the day so you don’t have to.
Spencer Hall live tweeting “Big Dumb Will Muschamp Football” is only part of the fun.
The college football editor at SB Nation never runs out of clever quips about the goings on in college football.
SB Nation’s longform/investigative reporter Steven Godfrey also describes himself as a “white trash sommelier.” So there’s that.
Sarcastic college football observations, Oregon fandom, ‘90s trivia and food. Especially food.
Rubenstein’s co-host on the @SolidVerbal podcast will have another year of public discomfort watching Notre Dame football.
We’re glad to know that going public hasn’t diminished Ryan Nanni’s sophisticated brand of heckling.
Prolific Tweeter gets to watch his beloved Louisville Cardinals go for Round 2 with Bobby Petrino. This time, without a Big East Coast Bias to defend.
Arizona State changes uniforms every so often to give Todd Graham the sensation of coaching somewhere new (I realize I'm in a glass house).— Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis) August 18, 2014
No list of SB Nation contributors would be complete with mentioning extensive local coverage from the West Coast with @PacificTakes (42), the MAC with @HustleBelt (43), the non-Power 5 leagues with @UnderdogDynasty (44) and Texas A&M/GIFs with @GBHunting and @CuppyCup (45).
Adam Kramer bills himself as "Founder and gatekeeper of Kegs ‘n Eggs. Lead College Football Writer for Bleacher Report. Advocate of FAT GUY TOUCHDOWNS, #MACtion and Las Vegas tomfoolery." Tomfoolery, indeed.
Bleacher Report's lead writer for all things SEC, Sallee will fill your Twitter feed with reactions and analysis all over the Southeast.
Follow for updates from Bleacher Report’s video guru. Stay for his views on TV.
NFL.com has recently entered the college football media sphere with a bit of a draft focus. Follow @BryanDFischer (49), @ChaseGoodbread (50) and @MikeHuguenin (51) for knowledge galore.
Bo Pelini’s doppelganger is all legit now that the real Bo has acknowledged his presence. Hasn’t dulled Faux Pelini’s act, though.
Remember when the Big 12 almost collapsed? The Fake Dan Beebe does. He’d be bitter, but he’s enjoying #buyoutlife. No one taunts the current and former Big 12 membership better.
If you’re going to follow a fake coach and a fake former Big 12 commissioner, might as well follow a real person Tweeting on behalf of an anthropomorphic duck.
Speaking of Oregon, Paul Lukas is a must-follow to keep up with the changing looks, not just from Eugene, but all over.
Not ready to delve completely in the Reddit world? Dip a toe in by following their college football subreddit on Twitter. Highlights are #MSPaintMonday and #MSExcelThursday.
@awfulannouncing and @myoder84 (57)
Did someone say something stupid on TV? Want to know those SEC Network assignments? Hate preseason polls? Awful Announcing is the place.
@bubbaprog and @cjzero (58)
Deadspin’s Tim Burke and the independent C.J. Fogler are masters of locating and creating all those videos of great plays or images of sideline moments. You won’t miss a thing following these two.
If your team is being broadcast sometime or somewhere, Matt Sarzyniak knows.
Bringing the Knowledge
A writer for SB Nation’s Football Study Hall, Bill Connelly is college football’s top advanced statistics guru. Follow Connelly, an Athlon contributor in the 2014 annuals, for statistical insight like no other.
No one knows Heisman trends quite like Chris Huston. Think your favorite player has a chance at the award? Ask Huston first.
During the season, Pete Roussel follows what coaches are saying and doing like none other, but he’s indispensable once the coaching carousel starts for his nuggets from the top of college football to Division II grad assistants.
Scott Roussel (Pete’s brother) runs a competing site full of coaching scuttlebutt. Between the two of them, you won’t miss a hiring or firing from around the college football world.
A former compliance director at Loyola Marymount, John Infante is the most knowledgable voice in the media when it comes to the gargantuan NCAA rulebook.
Coaches and Players
Good to know that a move to Penn State hasn’t diminished the best coach, assistant or otherwise, to follow on Twitter.
Most coaches’ Twitter accounts are pretty standard — inspirational quotes, excitement for the season and so forth. Les, of course, does things a little differently.
Watch closely and a DM intended for a Florida recruit may end up in your timeline. Number sign oops.
Tickets for free tweet lessons?#???????— Will Muschamp (@CoachWMuschamp) July 30, 2014
Georgia wide receiver and Star Wars fan-filmmaker Chris Conley is one of the brightest and most insightful players in the game.
Big Picture Topics
You only need to follow Hruby for 10 minutes to learn the former Sports on Earth columnist (and Georgetown professor) won’t be working for the NCAA anytime soon.
I always laugh at debates and surveys - "should college athletes be paid?" We don't have those debates about dentists or college janitors.— Patrick Hruby (@patrick_hruby) June 11, 2014
Kristi Dosh handles all the business news from college athletics. Want to follow the money? Follow Dosh.
College football will have its first gay active player less than a year after Michael Sam became the first openly gay player taken in the draft. Zeigler is the leading voice for LGBT issues in sports, and as a result, gets first dibs on coverage.
Around the SEC
One word. One long syllable: PAAAAAWWWWWWL.
Tony Barnhart, Mr. College Football himself, returns to his home at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution but you can also find him on the SEC Network.
@CecilHurt and @MattScalici (74)
Two generations and two outlets on the Alabama beat. Hurt from the Tuscaloosa News can turn a phrase with the best of the old-school columnists. Scalici is a multimedia workhorse in the AL DOT COM network.
A news aggregator that’s all things SEC. Not affiliated with the SEC, but this feed probably should be on the payroll.
Saturday Down South’s Jon Cooper analyzes SEC football from top to bottom and left to right — predictions, depth chart news, practice reports and player rankings.
A radio host in Knoxville and writer with MrSEC.com, Ward brings SEC news from around the Southeast with a Tennessee bent.
Around the ACC
Patrick Stevens has his finger on the pulse of the ACC but knows his way around the national scene, too.
Stay in tune with the defending national champions with the long-time Rivals site.
Teel graduated from James Madison and has worked for the Daily Press in Virginia for more than 30 years. No one has seen more change in the league than Teel ... and maybe Mike Krzyzewski.
Around the Big Ten
Big Ten Network (81)
@BTNDaveRevsine, @BTNTomDienhart and @BTNBrentYarina are as entrenched in Big Ten knowledge as anyone.
Greenstein brings a bit of a Northwestern bent as a Chicago Tribune writer, but he covers the whole league.
Callahan is as entrenched as anyone with the Nebraska program from top to bottom.
“Consigliere” of the Ohio State fan site ElevenWarriors.com, Ramzy Nasrallah might need a kind word or two following the Braxton Miller news.
Buckeye fans, relax. It's going to be fine. Joe Bauserman has looked great in practice.— Ramzy Nasrallah (@ramzy) August 19, 2014
Around the Big 12
Columnist and analyst from Fox Sports Southwest has an informed view on every team around the Big 12. Even Kansas
His last name is finger. His avatar is a finger. He covers Texas.
Players Texas can least afford to lose, factoring in depth behind them: 1. David Ash; 2. Quandre Diggs; 3. Kent Perkins; 4. Marcus Johnson.— Mike Finger (@mikefinger) August 10, 2014
At least Allen Kenney, an Oklahoma fan, is honest with his audience.
Around the Pac-12
The Los Angeles Times writer covers everyone in the Pac-12, of course with a focus on UCLA and USC.
Another venerable voice from Pac-12 land with views and news from Stanford and Cal.
Opinions on the Oregon schools from the never-shy Oregonian columnist.
Shane Dale’s Twitter handle and book are named after the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry, so you’ll know what you’re going to get.
A senior writer with ESPN’s Recruiting Nation, Crabtree has covered recruiting more than just about anyone. A great follow for the big picture in college football’s second season.
ESPN’s top eye for college football prospects is good at interacting with readers with #AskLoogs hashtag. Go ahead and ask him about a player or issue.
A national analyst at 247Sports, Simmons is knee-deep in recruiting knowledge from evaluations to commitments.
A former Rivals and current 247 analyst, Niebuhr is as active on Twitter as anyone. You won’t miss anything in recruiting on his feed.
Another can’t-miss voice from the 247 stable. He’s their National Recruiting Director and happy to take questions from readers.
Mike Farrell is simply the Godfather of recruiting. Trust us, that’s what his Twitter bio says.
Rivals.com’s recruiting expert out West.
No look at recruiting would be complete without someone keeping an eye on the state of Texas. Jason Howell is Rivals’ guy for the Lone Star State.
Scout has made a renewed push in the recruiting market, and Brandon Huffman is their lead guy.
Last but not least...
The College Football Playoff executive in charge of developing one of the key tools for his selection committee found his solution from a Tweet.
As the Playoff administrators assembled their group of 13 selectors during the last year-and-a-half, chief operating officer Michael Kelly knew he had to find a tool to keep the assemblage of college football luminaries informed.
The BCS computers were out. The polls would be of no use. No one wanted the rigid tools similar to the ones used by the basketball committee — RPI, strength of schedule and so on.
The Playoff executives wanted the selection committee to be the last word, and handing the selection committee opponent records or total offense and total defense wouldn’t suffice.
Lucky for Kelly, a Twitter follower stepped up.
Ex-college baseball players, brothers Stephen and Scott Prather and a third partner Drew Borland, once had aspirations of starting a data-driven coach search firm that leaned heavily on an extensive database they developed as a side project. (Stephen Prather and Borland both played at Vanderbilt from 1998-2000; Scott Prather played at Georgia Tech from 1996-98 and spent five years in the minor leagues for the Cardinals.)
They had trouble catching on in the search firm market, but athletic departments and coaches liked their database, dubbed Coaches By The Numbers. They went forward with an analytic platform called SportSource Analytics, culling play-by-play and season data from college football games going back to 2001.
A year-and-a-half ago, with the Coaches By The Numbers consulting business in full swing, Stephen Prather noticed Kelly’s conundrum, and he thought SportSource Analytics might be the solution.
"Data will play a part. Gut will be a part. Film will be a part. That's the way it should be."
The Playoff executive committee and SportSource Analytics team (which also came to include Marty Couvillon, proprietor of cfbstats.com) met several times over the course of 18 months, including at CFP headquarters in Dallas with the selection committee.
“That Twitter (interaction) led to an online demo of our product,” Prather said. “Over the next year-and-a-half it went from ‘this is pretty cool’ to ‘can we build something specifically for the committee.’”
Kelly and the selection committee needed a tool that would provide the committee a wealth of comparative data, from surface-level statistics to more in-depth metrics. The interface had to be simple enough for even the more tech-adverse members of the committee. And the committee members had to be able to access it at anytime, anywhere.
“We found this to be the most user-friendly and what we needed for our committee,” Kelly said. “What we liked was that there are hundreds and hundreds of categories of raw data, but also the ability to compare that to a certain number of teams. They even have great ways to go deeper.”
The College Football Playoff signed SportSource Analytics to a two-year contract to provide an exclusive platform for the selection committee. The team will be available through the selection process to provide tech support and answer questions about the tool, but both parties are clear that SportSource Analytics will not influence the committee on selection.
The platform will contain raw data on a per-play, per-possession, per-game and season-long basis but not a stand-alone metric similar to an RPI or Sagarin rating.
Prather and Kelly both said avoiding a “magic bullet” statistic was key. If the committee members can’t explain their reasoning, the data wouldn’t be useful, Prather said.
“We have nothing to do with the decision,” said Stephen Prather, who is a vice president for a commercial real estate company in Nashville. “We are building tools for them to look at data. ... We’re trying to give you ways of looking at data. We’re not trying to tell you what to look at.”
So what will the selection committee be able to access through the SportSource Analytics tool? That depends on the committee member.
The tool will allow committee members to compare teams in more than 60 statistical categories from the basic statistics — total offense and defense, turnover margin — but also more advanced metrics including yards per play, points per possession and detailed red zone success metrics.
The platform also will allow for detailed strength-of-schedule breakdowns including combined record of opponents, record of opponents’ opponents, record of conference opponents, records against ranked teams and teams with winning records.
Committee members also will be able to compare team performance in certain games, i.e. statistical data in games against winning teams. The platform will provide team sheets with data on all 128 teams, including detailed schedule analysis, statistical ranks and how they compare to the nationwide average.
The platform will allow committee members to dive as deep as they’d like, allowing them to customize more than 100 different rankings: How many points per possession did a team score against conference teams with winning records? That’s available.
How often are defenses holding top-25 opponents to three-and-outs? That’s available.
Which team has played the teams with the best cumulative conference record? That is available, too.
The tool also will be adaptive by request of selection committee members, so SportSource Analytics can add or create stat categories on demand.
“What we liked was that there are hundreds and hundreds of categories of raw data, but also the ability to compare that to a certain number of teams,” Kelly said.
Of course, there’s the possibility committee members won’t take a deep statistical stat dive, either.
That’s not going to hurt Prather’s feelings. For him, maybe the playoff spots shouldn’t be determined exclusively by red zone defense.
“Data will play a part. Gut will be a part. Film will be a part,” Prather said. “That’s the way it should be.”
Once upon a time, 24-year-old Jeff Gordon set the NASCAR world on fire. In his third full season in the Cup Series, he won seven times, collected 23 top-10 finishes and intimidated The Intimidator himself en route to his first series title. It was a watershed moment, one that set the stage for other young, aspiring drivers to walk in Gordon’s path rather than spend 15 years “working their way up the ranks” in middling equipment before earning a primo shot.
We were reminded of that history on Sunday, as Gordon, now age 43, spent much of the Pure Michigan 400 battling with a version of his former self, 24-year-old Joey Logano. Combined, the duo led 154 of the race’s 200 laps, and staged a frantic final restart that ultimately leaned Gordon’s way. But while it was the veteran who won his third race of the year, earning the points lead while reversing historic roles, it was the upstart youngster who appeared to exit the race with a boost in confidence.
“We can win a championship,” Logano stated when asked what he could take from Sunday. “I really feel like we can do that. That is the message I want to put out there and I want to put it out there for my team, that we are strong enough to do it this year.”
It’s a confidence people have been searching for out of Logano since the much-hyped leader of NASCAR’s “next generation” rose to the Cup circuit full-time at the ripe old age of 18. People thought then his trajectory should match Gordon’s: a rocket-like launch to the top that included wins, championships and millions in endorsements by age 21 (what would have been his third full Cup season on tour). But perhaps, when looking back at the mountains of criticism this kid received, it’s apparent there is a limit to how much such a young driver can do. Take a look at where some of NASCAR’s other great drivers stood at age 24:
Dale Earnhardt Sr.: Made first Cup Series start (22nd).
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Five Cup starts, one top-10 finish.
Kevin Harvick: No Cup starts.
Jimmie Johnson: No Cup starts.
Matt Kenseth: No Cup starts.
Brad Keselowski: Made first two Cup Series starts (19th, 23rd).
Kurt Busch: Eight Cup wins, best finish of third in points.
Kyle Busch: Sixteen Cup wins, best finish of fifth in points.
As you can see, it takes a rare breed to cross the threshold of not just competing at the Cup level, but actually challenging for a championship. Gordon, at age 24, was mature enough to turn the tables, but no one since has come close to winning the title that young as he did in ‘95. Will the patience for Logano, who’s lasted six years and two different teams, have a chance of paying off?
NASCAR, whose evolution has been slowed significantly over the past several years, could use this simple case of history repeating itself. But the fact Logano’s finally coming close, armed with the confidence to put him over the top and become a new face carrying the sport, is one small beacon of hope in what’s been a troubling, tragic last few weeks.
“Through the Gears” after Michigan we go …
FIRST GEAR: Hendrick horsepower takes the cake
Of course, for Logano to get over the hump there’s a formidable obstacle for the Penske Racing driver: Hendrick Motorsports. And not just Gordon, who was agitated but ultimately able to overcome some gamesmanship on the final series of restarts. There’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting second in points and versatile on all tracks this season, his final with crew chief Steve Letarte. Add in defending series champ Jimmie Johnson, whose top-10 finish Sunday was the perfect antidote for a summer slump and you’ve got a trio whose overall strength this season is hard to top.
“Frustration,” said Denny Hamlin when asked about battling HMS this season. “I’m trying to fight — do everything I can — to keep up with Hendrick engines.”
“Do I think the Hendrick Chevys are the best motors out there right now?” third-place Logano was asked in the midst of his “championship push.” “Yes, I do.”
That’s important, especially in an upcoming Chase where intermediates make up five of the 10 postseason tracks. With rule restrictions on those ovals keeping crew chiefs from radical changes, the best way to get better handling with NASCAR’s 2014 rules package is simple: find more speed down the straightaways. It leads to a greater ability to use the draft to your advantage, now active at places like Michigan, Charlotte and Texas because of track-record speeds.
Add in the ability for HMS to promote teamwork across the board, sharing information so that all teams can be successful, and it’s easy to see why Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson have won eight of the last 13 Cup races. By comparison, no other driver/organization has won more than two (Brad Keselowski/Penske).
One car, Kasey Kahne, continues to be a step behind the curve at HMS and in danger of missing the Chase and perhaps putting Kahne’s 2015 employment in peril. But even that could lead to a bonus for the three remaining HMS drivers, as the No. 5 turning into a test vehicle during the Chase and utilizing experimental setups could help the collective.
Logano, Keselowski and Kevin Harvick could each make a case to be joining the Hendrick cars inside that season finale Final Four. But don’t be surprised if it’s just one fighting the HMS trio that’s been head and shoulders above the competition all year.
SECOND GEAR: A new reality at Stewart-Haas Racing
While HMS exited Michigan on a high, Stewart-Haas Racing left with a different goal in mind: survival. Although Harvick ran second, the high watermark for the organization’s four cars, the weekend was marked by frustration and constant media questions surrounding the future of the team and its leader, Tony Stewart, who’s accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park remains under investigation.
“I’ve known Tony Stewart for a long time,” Harvick said Sunday. “I still don't believe that he even knew that he ran into that car. I know for sure that Tony Stewart is not going to run over somebody that’s on a racetrack. I don’t think there's anybody in this garage that would. It would be hard to find somebody in the racing world that could point that car, just run somebody over. You have just a lot of unknowledgeable people reporting on a situation that know absolutely nothing about racing. It’s just really unfortunate, the perception that has been given to him.”
Yet, while that’s the mantra inside SHR – pull together amidst unfair chaos that can’t be controlled – there remains a high degree of uncertainty. There’s no guarantee at all criminal charges won’t be pressed against Stewart with the investigation’s conclusion not expected for at least another week. And it’s difficult, if not impossible, to see Stewart at a racetrack or inside a car until the results are made public.
That leaves the shadow of what happened over everyone at the track, making quality performance that much more difficult without their leader. Jeff Burton performed admirably in Stewart’s place, climbing inside the top 15 but ultimately sent behind the wall with electrical problems. Danica Patrick, whose weekend started well in practice, made contact with her substitute teammate causing the race’s big multi-car wreck on Lap 25 that took out Matt Kenseth, Trevor Bayne, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and a host of others. Kurt Busch, whose car was a top-5 contender, went over the edge in the closing laps, wrecking hard into the outside wall.
That’s three of four cars in need of a little TLC this week — the type of strong direction Stewart provides as co-owner. You can only pull so many others together for so long before that type of absence starts to wear.
THIRD GEAR: Larson’s lost opportunity?
One of the big stories of the summer has been rookie Kyle Larson pushing to make the Chase with a series of strong performances. But bad luck has dogged that effort, including a scary wreck at Michigan Sunday where a blown right-front tire may have ruined his chances. It’s the fourth major wreck for Larson this year (his third DNF) and it came with a last-place finish that could be the difference between making the Chase and missing it.
“I thought we had a car capable of winning the race for sure,” he said, despite early pit road contact with Earnhardt Jr. that messed up the toe of his No. 42 Chevy. “Those right-front’s blowing do not feel good.”
The wreck leaves Larson 24 points behind Greg Biffle with three races remaining to try and make the Chase on points. Of course, the rookie could also win his way in, which could make upcoming races at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond that much more fun. Keep in mind Larson was fast at Richmond in the spring, winning the pole only to get spun on the first turn of the first lap by Clint Bowyer.
But if not, any bid for the postseason has now become a bit of a longshot. That’s a shame for a first-year driver that has clearly driven strong enough to deserve one.
FOURTH GEAR: Roush Fenway still flailing
Roush Fenway Racing entered Michigan with high hopes and looking for a rebound after a disastrous June on what historically has been one of its best tracks. A test a few weeks ago, along with Mark Martin’s return as driver consultant, instilled confidence that the three-car outfit had things pointed in the right direction. But Sunday? Even 10th-place Biffle, the highest running of the RFR outfit, was clearly a step behind from the drop of the green. Penske Racing’s two cars of Logano and Keselowski ran circles around Ford’s former top outfit, putting their rivals in place as second-class citizens. Heck, Keselowski ran eighth, two spots ahead of RFR despite slamming the outside wall with a blown tire late in the race.
“We were so loose, I just couldn’t drive it,” said Carl Edwards, who endured two pit road penalties en route to a disappointing 23rd. “We were just too loose today to be able to do anything.”
It’s been a rough month, with an expected Edwards announcement of his departure to Joe Gibbs Racing on Tuesday while Biffle lost sponsor 3M for 2015 (the team claims it has a replacement to be announced in the next few weeks). Then Friday, the Wood Brothers announced it was shifting its partnership to Penske for 2015, putting rookie Ryan Blaney in the No. 21 for a limited schedule while getting chassis built by Roush’s rival. It’s another small but subtle sign the balance of power has shifted in Blue Oval land for good.
Roush needs to find a way to turn the tables.
It was another rough day for Joe Gibbs Racing, as Kenseth got caught up in the Danica incident and Kyle Busch wrecked himself within the first five laps. “Struggling for speed,” was how Hamlin put it, having to scratch and claw his way into the top 10. After 12 wins in 36 races last year, JGR has just two through 23 races this year. … NASCAR’s new rule instituting drivers should stay in their cars didn’t change the racing, although it rarely had to be used on Sunday. No one criticized Larson for exiting his vehicle early with the car on fire and the wide, multi-groove Michigan track leaving him far away from potential danger. The real test will come at the rough-and-tumble Bristol short track Saturday night. … With a pole speed of 206.558 mph, it’ll be interesting to see what NASCAR does at Michigan going forward. Ryan Truex had a hard hit in practice, one that put him out with a concussion and several hard wrecks gave the garage area pause. You‘ve got to believe Monday’s Michigan test, used for 2015 rule changes, will be designed to slow the cars down dramatically.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Arizona State already has a variety of uniform and helmet choices to sport in 2014, but the program unveiled a new copper-themed look on Monday.
The uniform helps to honor the state’s history of copper producing and could be worn at some point during the 2014 season.
Check out Arizona State’s new copper-themed uniform for this season:
The Jets have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons — during which time they’ve gone 8–8, 6–10 and 8–8 again last season — but owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik decided to bring coach Rex Ryan back for a sixth season.
Ryan, despite an extension, is essentially coaching for his job again in 2014. If the Jets are to make the playoffs — which would significantly help Ryan’s case — they must improve their passing offense and passing defense. Those units ranked 31st and 22nd in the NFL, respectively, last season.
Some of the passing offense issues last year were due to rookie Geno Smith’s struggles. But he didn’t have a lot of weapons to work with. He has more now. The Jets’ pass defense is rebuilding, with the release of veteran cornerback Antonio Cromartie and the first-round draft selection of safety Calvin Pryor.
The Jets have a strong running game that is perhaps stronger now. They have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. If they can shore up their passing game issues, on both sides of the ball, they could be a playoff contender in 2014.
The Jets went out and got the best free agent receiver available, Eric Decker. But is he enough of a speedy, downfield threat to be a No. 1 receiver? Plus, how much were his stats in Denver a product of Peyton Manning? All of that remains to be seen.
Instead of drafting a receiver in the first round, the Jets supplemented their passing game with several other pieces. They drafted a tight end in the second round, Jace Amaro, who was basically a receiver in college. They added speed to their backfield by signing running back Chris Johnson, who has always been a receiving threat.
You have to wonder how much Johnson has left. He will be 29 in September, and he has 1,742 NFL carries on his body. He played last season with a torn meniscus in his knee and had the least productive year of his career. The Jets won’t need to lean on him. They can use his speed, presuming he still has it, as a complement to running back Chris Ivory’s power.
Despite all of these additions, the offense’s success — or lack thereof — will largely hinge on whether Smith can make better decisions in his second season. His numbers last season were dreadful (12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions), and the Jets signed Michael Vick this offseason to push him. But they would prefer for Smith to win the job.
Under Ryan, the Jets have regularly fielded a strong defense. But the past two seasons, they ranked 25th and 30th in the NFL in yards gained and 29th and 28th in points scored. Throw in Mark Sanchez, and over the past three seasons, the Jets’ starting quarterbacks have combined for 57 interceptions. Until all those numbers improve, the Jets won’t be a playoff team.
First, the good news: The Jets have a prodigious defensive line led by end Muhammad Wilkerson and tackle Sheldon Richardson. Wilkerson, arguably the Jets’ best player on either side of the ball, has an absurd combination of size (6'4", 315 pounds) and speed that makes him a pass-rushing terror (10.5 sacks last year). Richardson shows elite agility for a 294-pound player. On his way to winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, he also rushed for two touchdowns in goal-line situations.
The Jets could use more production from rush outside linebacker Quinton Coples (4.5 sacks last year, 5.5 the year before as a rookie). But their defensive front is solid and the team also added veteran Jason Babin, who has collected 45 sacks over the last four seasons, to the mix early in training camp.
The issues come in the secondary. Cornerback Dee Milliner looked lost at times last year as a rookie and could miss the season opener due to a high ankle sprain. Cromartie, battling a hip injury, couldn’t defend deep balls. The Jets failed to land an elite free agent corner to replace him. They got only Dimitri Patterson, who will be 31 this season and has never proven himself as a consistent starter.
The Jets need to hope their safeties — and Pryor in particular — can cover up for their corners. Pryor’s ability to hit and stop the run is unassailable. But can he cover slot receivers and tight ends in the NFL? The Jets had better hope so. Pryor will likely challenge Antonio Allen — a seventh-round pick in 2012 — for a starting spot. Allen also had to learn cover skills in the NFL, since he was an outside linebacker in college.
Like Smith, Milliner is under tremendous pressure in Year 2 to live up to his potential. Milliner is now the No. 1 corner. He will get the toughest assignments. He closed strong last year and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for December. The Jets need him to keep it up.
The Jets bring back both kicker Nick Folk and punter Ryan Quigley. Folk benefited last season from a lighter midweek workload during practice. Under the Jets’ previous special teams coordinator, Mike Westhoff, Folk was required to kick far more often during the week than he would have liked. Westhoff retired after the 2012 season, and Folk cut back his kicking under 2013 coordinator Ben Kotwica. Folk had the best season of his career in 2013, as he made 91.7 percent of his kicks. Kotwica left during the offseason to take a special teams coordinator job with the Redskins, and the Jets replaced him with Thomas McGaughey. Expect Folk’s lighter routine to continue under McGaughey.
Between free agency and the draft, the Jets gave McGaughey plenty of special teams speed. Jacoby Ford, a free-agent receiver, figures to be the new return man. A couple of undersized drafted players — receiver Jalen Saunders and inside linebacker Jeremiah George — could become immediate contributors on coverage units. The Jets struggled in that area last year. They ranked 27th in the NFL in average punt return yards allowed.
This is not a Super Bowl contender, and the roster does not even seem as talented as Ryan’s first two Jets teams, which made back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009 and 2010. But these Jets don’t need to reach the doorstep of the Super Bowl to help Ryan’s job security. Making the playoffs alone would be a start.
It won’t be easy. From Weeks 2-7, the Jets face six brutally efficient passing offenses — Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, San Diego, Denver and New England. Last season, those teams ranked sixth, fifth, third, fourth, first and 10th in the NFL in passing yards, respectively.
If the offense isn’t clicking early in the season — since it might have to score a bunch of points to win those games — the Jets could be out of the playoff race by the time they reach their bye in Week 11. But if Smith, Decker and Johnson prove to be a successful combination, look for the Jets to battle for a playoff spot well into December.
PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC East
Giants management is nothing if not patient. Sweeping changes have almost never been encouraged or forced. Longtime and popular players could always count on loyalty from the team.
But after missing the playoffs four times in the last five seasons — a streak made worse by last season’s 0–6 start — everyone’s patience is out the window. Most of the offensive coaching staff was fired or reassigned to help fix what co-owner John Mara called a “broken” offense. Defensive captain Justin Tuck was allowed to leave without a fight, despite coming off one of his finest seasons. And the Giants spent more than $116 million on free agents in an uncharacteristic spending spree. A sign of desperation? In a way, yes.
“We want to take notice that we haven’t made the playoffs in the (few) years, and we don’t want that to be our trend,” GM Jerry Reese says. “That bothers me. I’m sure it bothers our ownership as well.”
Who knows what ownership will do — and who will be safe — if the trend continues. But the Giants sure did get aggressive to try to ensure that won’t be the case.
It’s hard to completely blame Eli Manning for the disaster that was the Giants’ offense last season, though it’s hard to absolve him, too. His career-high 27 interceptions were absurd, but a lot of it could be traced to the pounding he took behind the terrible offensive line and some questionable efforts and performances by his receivers. That’s why the Giants’ top priority this offseason was getting Manning some reliable help.
Did they? That’s debatable. They did sign guard Geoff Schwartz, one of the top linemen on the free-agent market, but the rest of their line is a question mark. They have a center who hasn’t played in two seasons (J.D. Walton), a left tackle coming off a bad leg and knee injury (Will Beatty) and will have a new starting right guard following Chris Snee's retirement prior to the start of training camp.
At least they got Manning some weapons. Free agent Rashad Jennings is a powerful and underrated runner. The team is hoping that either veteran Peyton Hillis or fourth-round pick Andre Williams can serve as a complement to Jennings now that David Wilson has been advised to retire from football due to concerns about the condition of his surgically repaired neck. Rueben Randle moves to the No. 1 receiver role, replacing the departed Hakeem Nicks, who played like he had one injured leg out the door last season. And the Giants’ top pick of the draft, rookie Odell Beckham Jr. out of LSU, could be the steal of the first round.
But the biggest change is the one that should help the most. Gone is offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and his complicated — and some would say stale — offensive scheme. He’s been replaced by the younger Ben McAdoo, a disciple of Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, who is installing what is believed to be a West Coast-style, up-tempo attack. The early reviews from players were raves, especially from Manning, who admits to being “energized” by learning a new offense for the first time in his career. Assuming Manning is fully recovered from April surgery on his left ankle, the hope is that it will make him play better, too.
Was it a mirage or a miracle? Despite an 0–6 start last season and a disastrous offense and special teams, the Giants’ defense ranked eighth in the NFL last year. And they did it without much of a pass rush and with questions in their secondary. How? In large part because of the leadership of Jon Beason, they said.
Things seemed to change when Beason came over from Carolina in October in a steal of a deal for a seventh-round pick. The defense suddenly had a leader. The communication improved. They no longer looked like they were playing multiple schemes on the same play. That’s why the Giants made re-signing Beason their offseason defensive priority.
But they didn’t stop there. Knowing they had some bad coverage breakdowns, they spent wildly on their secondary, adding cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walt Thurmond and safety Quintin Demps, producing what Thurmond believes can be “one of the best secondaries in the league.” They even got Beason some help in the linebacking corps with the addition of Jameel McClain.
The whole key to how good this defense can be, though, is the health of Jason Pierre-Paul, who played through a recovery from back surgery last season as well as an injured shoulder. He says he’s healthy now and looking to regain his 2011 form (when he had 16.5 sacks). And the Giants will need that since they let Tuck go after an 11-sack season.
If the Giants can generate a pass rush with all the back-end help, this could be one of the best defenses in the NFL. Without a pass rush, though, they may have nothing but problems.
It feels like it’s been years since the Giants had a dominant kick returner. The truth is it’s been years since they had even a decent one. Now it seems their cupboard is overflowing with players who can do special things with kickoffs and punts.
First they signed Demps, who figures to be the best punt returner they’ve had in years. But then they trumped that by bringing in the dangerous and speedy Trindon Holliday, who likely is the best kickoff returner they’ve had since Ron Dixon in the early 2000s. And then they drafted Beckham, a speedy and elusive receiver known to do special things on special teams, too.
It was interesting that the Giants didn’t fire their special teams coordinator, Tom Quinn, during the offseason purge, as many suspected they would. Instead they gave him tools to work with. As for the rest of his special teams, the Giants’ unit is as solid as they come. Punter Steve Weatherford didn’t have his finest season, but he’s only 31 and in phenomenal shape and has been mostly reliable. Kicker Josh Brown is 35, but he’s still accurate and reliable (nailing 88.5 percent of his kicks last year) and strong enough to nail a 52-yarder. And Zak DeOssie remains one of the finest long-snappers in the league.
The 7–9 season may have been miserable, but the silver lining was the 7–3 finish after the horrific start. And that came despite all the team’s issues.
If Manning is better, the Giants can’t help but be improved, and he should have the tools and the time to make that happen. There are still questions along the offensive line, but it’s stocked now with depth and NFL-quality players. And despite a glaring hole at tight end, Manning should have more weapons at his disposal than he had last year.
Pair that with a defense that should be much better, and this has all the makings of a bounce-back year for the Giants. The NFC East is no longer loaded, so it’s not hard to see the Giants win 10 games and the division. And if Manning regains his form and Pierre-Paul regains his health — admittedly two big ifs — the Giants have the potential to be real contenders.
PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC East
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 18:
• Jessica Alba threw out the first pitch for the Dodgers and didn't shame her family. That's all we ask out of our ceremonial first pitchers.
• This guy's punishment for coming in last in his fantasy baseball league — an embarrassingly revealing calendar that includes Body Issue and Constanza spoofs — is no doubt giving sadistic commissioners across the land evil ideas.
• The Rams have invited several Ferguson-area high school football players to their preseason game this Sunday as a respite from the chaos. Haven't those kids suffered enough?
• No Nadal at the U.S. Open. My interest in that event is waning fast.
• Worried that Peyton Manning has been underexposed, Gatorade is releasing a slew of new Manning commercials.
• Asdrubal Cabrera made a nifty behind-the-back flip to start a double play.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rankings are a big part of any college football season, and even in the playoff format, the polls and projections are still an interesting exercise. For example: The AP Poll came out over the weekend, while the USA Today Coaches Poll came out a few weeks ago. And the Athlon Sports Top 25 has been out since May.
With a few small exceptions — Florida ranked in Athlon Sports, Texas being ranked by the Coaches and Nebraska by the AP — all three polls are extremely similar.
This doesn’t mean that all three are correct, however. It doesn’t mean that someone in the top 15 could end up missing a bowl game or that one team ranked No. 43 in the preseason couldn’t sneak into the top 10.
In fact, both are likely. With that in mind, which teams in college football need to lower their expectations in 2014?
Most preseason polls have the Bruins are ranked in the top 10. And Jim Mora's team is a popular pick to win the Pac-12 South. While UCLA should win the division, the concept that the Bruins are deep enough and talented enough to go unbeaten or 11-1 in the regular season seems farfetched. The schedule is nasty and there is little to no support around Brett Hundley on offense. The defense could be excellent, and I’m still picking UCLA to win the South. However, they will head to Levi’s Stadium with two or three losses already in hand.
Before the academic scandal, the Fighting Irish was a preseason top-15 caliber team. One that had an outside shot at pushing for a playoff spot and landing a top 10 ranking. With three starters and another key reserve not practicing or playing (mostly likely all season), the upside for the Irish takes a serious hit. This is now a fringe top 25 team that will struggle to win eight games this year.
The schedule, like most in the Pac-12, is downright nasty. But this team is extremely talented and is buoyed by a new coaching staff. The issues for USC are still about depth. Key defenders Jabari Ruffin and Kenny Bigelow have already been lost for the season and the lack of scholarships is bound to hurt the Trojans once again this fall. There's no question the starting 22 is talented. However, three or four losses is a definite possibility.
This one is sort of a no-brainer since the Cowboys aren’t ranked anywhere on the internet. But this is a program accustomed to competing for Big 12 titles and it won’t be anywhere near the title race this fall. Mike Gundy is eyeing a return to prominence in 2015.
The Aggies are going to be much better at the end of the year than they will be at the beginning. Or in the middle. But preseason Top 20 is way too high for this squad. This team is extremely talented on both sides of the ball, but the defense is still a major work in progress and a brutal final two months should drop TAMU to sixth in the West.
Are the Tar Heels ready to have a breakthrough season? Maybe so. Or it could be a year early for UNC to reach the ACC Championship. Larry Fedora has some serious talent to work with but it is mostly inexperienced and very young. I asked former OC (and current Arkansas State coach) Blake Anderson if this is the year UNC breaks through and wins the Coastal, and he quickly shot that down, pointing to 2015 as the breakout season in Chapel Hill.
The Tigers have an elite collection of players and are accustomed to competing for national championships. But LSU is missing important veteran pieces. There is no experience or proven talent at quarterback or wide receiver on offense and a true freshman (albeit a great one) is the talk of the running game. And LSU has major holes to fill on defense as well. This is still a great roster, but the SEC schedule is downright nasty with games against Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
Charlie Strong is going to be just fine in Austin, but he has a lot of work to do in making over the Texas program from the inside out. David Ash is healthy, for now, and there is still plenty of talent on the roster. But a brutal schedule and very competitive middle portion of the Big 12 makes Texas a fringe Big 12 contender at best. Best case is probably eight wins.
The Cornhuskers are in better shape on defense than they’ve been in years, while the offense has a star in Ameer Abdullah to build around. Despite the optimism about the personnel, expectations need to be lowered in Lincoln due to a tough schedule. Wisconsin and Iowa miss Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan in crossover play, while Nebraska must face Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Fresno State on the road. The schedule is why Nebraska won’t win the West.
The Badgers have an elite offensive line, superstar tailback and excellent head coach. But the entire defensive front is being reworked, the quarterback position is far from settled and it starts the season facing LSU in Houston. This is a team who could easily win the Big Ten West but it’s not a team that should consider itself a playoff contender (or even someone who could win the Big Ten title).
NFC East champion Philadelphia was the only team in the division to finish with a winning record last season. Now that defensive coordinators have had an offseason to study Chip Kelly’s offense, will the Eagles have as much success in 2014 or will there be a new No. 1? Between Dallas, New York and Washington, which team is best positioned to challenge the Eagles’ divisional supremacy and contend for a playoff spot?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the NFC East looks entering the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Cowboys, Giants, Eagles and Redskins.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“The truth is the Cowboys have won when Jerry Jones hired Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells and allowed them to run the football part of the organization. Barry Switzer lived off the gas that was left in the tank by Jimmy and Wade Phillips kept it afloat to a degree after Bill left. The 136-136 won/loss record since 1996 says it all, a mediocre team that is marketed as well as any professional organization in all of sports.” …
“In recent years, they have been so cap-strapped that there is little that could be done via free agency and their drafts have only been marginally productive.” …
“Tony Romo gets all the blame, but in reality, he hasn’t gotten much help from his run game or defense. He’s coming off back surgery and that’s always tricky, however, all indications are that he will be fine for 2014.” …
“DeMarco Murray was injury-prone at OU and that trend has continued in Dallas, as he has missed 11 of 48 career games. When healthy, he is capable and provides some cover for Romo.” …
“Jason Witten continues to be a solid pro, but he has slowed down some in terms of run-after-the-catch, so the Cowboys are really hoping that last year’s second- rounder, Gavin Escobar, will take a huge step forward this year.” …
“Say what you will about Dez Bryant, but it does appear that he has matured on and off the field and is an absolute house to cover and tackle when he is engaged and into the game. Terrance Williams had an excellent rookie campaign and was a great value choice in the third round last spring. Dwayne Harris would be the slot if the season started tomorrow.” …
“On the offensive line, Tyron Smith enters his fourth season and has developed nicely into a prominent left tackle. The Travis Frederick pick was criticized at the time, however, he had a good rookie year and should only get better in the future. Doug Free has found a home at RT. Expect first round pick Zack Martin to find a starting role at one of the guard spots with the possibility of playing tackle, if necessary.” …
“Use any adjective to describe it, but ugly may be at the top of the list when it comes to describing the Cowboys’ defense in 2013. Wow, was this group bad and the stats don’t lie either: 32nd in yardage allowed, 26th in points allowed and 29th in third-down conversions.” ….
“Monte Kiffin was re-assigned and one of his pupils, Rod Marinelli, was brought in to be the coordinator.” …
“They added Henry Melton from Chicago, but he is coming off a knee injury and the rest of this defensive line may be as anonymous as any in the league.” …
“Second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence (Boise State) is being counted on heavily to pressure the QB in 2014.” …
“Sean Lee is a nice player, but he has suffered through some injury situations [Editor’s note: Lee is out for the season after tearing his ACL during OTAs in May], while Bruce Carter has yet to his athletic potential and Justin Durant is on his third team.” …
“Dallas has not gotten the return-on-investment hoped for at the cornerback positions. Brandon Carr signed for huge money from Kansas City, but is not a shutdown corner, and Mo Claiborne was probably over drafted at No. 6 in 2012, based on the way he has played in the past two years.” …
“The corners actually look OK when compared to the safeties. Barry Church has made himself into a player from being undrafted and J.J. Wilcox has only played defense for two seasons, so there is an upside to him.” …
“This defense has so far to go against the run and pass that if they can improve just slightly, it could take some wear off Romo and maybe give the organization a legit shot of getting over the hump and into the playoffs.” ...
New York Giants
“In many ways without changing the GM and head coach, the Giants moved away from their conservative philosophy and fired coaches and delved into free agency heavily to try and shake up their own franchise.” …
“Tom Coughlin got rid of long-time offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and hired Ben McAdoo from Green Bay to call plays, while rather than waiting on the draft, GM Jerry Reese was active in signing at least 10 significant free agents.” …
“Still, the bottom line here is the play of Eli Manning. His 27 interceptions led the league and the turnover margin killed any chance of this team making the playoffs a year ago.” …
“McAdoo will install a more disciplined attack based on timing and reads and that adjustment may rejuvenate Manning mentally and physically.” ....
“Odell Beckham, Jr. was their first-round pick and he is really a good player. Along with Victor Cruz and Reuben Randle, they can now get a threat to all parts of the field.” …
“in 2013, with the line struggling up front, defenses could double those two and still squeeze off the run game. Will Beatty has been a disaster at LT, Chris Snee has gotten old [Editor’s note: Snee retired prior to the start of training camp.] and Justin Pugh had his rookie season ups-and-downs. They signed Geoff Schwartz from KC to help secure the inside of the pocket, but OGs are not game-changers.” …
“Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has lost some of his luster, but it’s primarily been because of Jason Pierre-Paul’s lack of production due to injuries. They need him to return to form, in addition to Damontre Moore or newly acquired Robert Ayers to provide some pass rush from the opposite side.” …
“The linebacker unit is a collection of average players and they inked Jameel McClain from the Ravens despite his neck injury in December.” …
“It’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the rescue at corner and that is surprising because of his struggles with the Eagles back in 2011 and ’12. Prince Amukamara was over-drafted, so he will never be a lockdown corner. Walter Thurmond was brought in from Seattle as a third corner. In the meantime, Antrel Rolle is arguably the best player on the team right now.” …
“Two Super Bowls will buy a GM and head coach almost as much time as they want, but there is no question that 2014 is an important year for Coughlin and Reese and almost all of the results will come from the right arm of Eli Manning, because this team is really average everywhere else.” …
“Many in the NFL felt the Chip Kelly experiment would be a boom-or-bust proposition, and so far, it’s been a big hit.” …
“Kelly managed the Riley Cooper situation during camp with the aplomb of a veteran pro coach and then had complete buy-in on his innovative scheme that resulted in the Eagles being second in total offense.” …
“it’s now obvious that offensive line play is a huge key for them, because they essentially locked up all five starters through the 2016 season and then released Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson on March 28. The reaction from the players was surprising, but not a shock, they know the deal on DJax, he can be petulant, but make up for it on Sundays. Then again, despite his career-best numbers, he disappeared at times and is a WR at 5-10/175 that has to be ‘schemed’ open, unlike the classic 6’-/215 No. 1 receiver.” …
“Jeremy Maclin returns from an ACL, Cooper was inked to a five-year deal and Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) and Josh Huff (Oregon) are expected to contribute as rookies this year.” …
“Brent Celek has always been under-appreciated and Zach Ertz really showed up during the back half of the season.” …
“With the trade for Darren Sproles, combined with the skill set of LeSean McCoy, Kelly can really get creative with his 12 and 22 personnel groupings.” …
“And all of this is said without even mentioning Nick Foles who replaced Michael Vick and threw 27 touchdowns against only two interceptions. Foles surprised even his proponents with his sterling play in 2013.” The question will be how much opposing defenses adjust and take away some of his strengths after an offseason of evaluation.” …
“Regardless, for the Eagles to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs, it’s all about their defense. The front seven has been reshaped into a 3-4 with Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks being two young players to really build around. Cox began to take to the scheme down the stretch and Kendricks is as explosive of a linebacker that is currently in the league.” …
“Trent Cole has tapered off some over the last three campaigns and Connor Barwin is actually better against the run than as a pass-rusher, which equated to the Eagles drafting OLB Marcus Smith (Louisville) in the first round.” …
“The secondary is their biggest weakness and that’s because of shaky play on the outsides and in the deep middle. Bradley Fletcher is ‘just a guy’ and Cary Williams thinks he’s better than he is, which can be a problem when trying to play within the system.” …
“Brandon Boykin had a terrific season as the nickelback and the Eagles signed Malcolm Jenkins as a veteran safety with some coverage ability. Eagles’ insiders feel good about Earl Wolff, and again, some of their defensive problems go back to a lack of pass rush.” …
“Now that the league’s coordinators have had a chance to study this Eagles offense, Kelly will have to show his adaptability in creating new ways to sustain the kind of success they enjoyed last year, but he earned a ton of respect within the league a season ago.” …
“It’s not a small thing that the Redskins fired the Shanahans, but kept GM Bruce Allen and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, because it keeps a semblance of continuity within the organization and puts the focus on repairing Robert Griffin III as a long-term NFL quarterback.” …
“Allen tapped into his Gruden tree and hired Jay as the new head coach and the person most responsible for turning around RGIII.” …
“One of the biggest moves of the offseason occurred when the NFC East rival Eagles released DeSean Jackson. It didn’t take Washington long to get him in their building and on the roster. With Pierre Garcon coming off a career year and Andre Roberts signing in March, this will be a versatile set of wide receivers.” …
“If TE Jordan Reed can return from injury, Griffin should have ample opportunity to spread the football around in Gruden’s offensive system.” …
“Alfred Morris probably takes a step back in this scheme, but he is capable and a workhorse style of ball-carrier.” …
“If the game was 7-on-7, the Redskins would be near the top of the league, unfortunately, it does take an offensive line and that is a major concern. Trent Williams can certainly play, but Shawn Lauvao had problems in Cleveland and Kory Lichtensteiger will be shifted to center from OG. Chris Chester is OK at right guard and Tyler Polumbus is a tall, stiff right tackle that is only ordinary.” …
“Defensively, this unit struggled for much of the 2013 season. They added Jason Hatcher from the Cowboys in free agency, but need much more from Jarvis Jenkins and others along the front.” …
“Outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo must get untracked this year for them to have any shot of getting off the field on third down. Perry Riley is underrated on the inside and Darryl Sharpton was inked from Houston, but the loss of London Fletcher will be significant.” …
“That’s why Ryan Clark was brought in from Pittsburgh and the hope is he can coordinate things in the back end and help develop Phillip Thomas and/or Bacarri Rambo. DeAngelo Hall is now 30, but can still play some, while David Amerson is a Cover 2-style corner with length. They should be worried about their Sub package slot corners.” …
“Inside the Beltway, it’s all about RGIII getting a full offseason and adapting to Gruden’s system. If that happens and no major injuries occur, this team can compete in the NFC East. In the meantime, the RGMe-to-MeSean Show will be one to watch.” ...
Texas A&M’s quarterback situation was one of the most intriguing battles of the offseason, as the Aggies looked for a replacement for standout Johnny Manziel. And at least for the opener, the starting job in College Station is slated to go to sophomore Kenny Hill. The news of Hill’s promotion to the top quarterback spot was announced by coach Kevin Sumlin.
Hill played sparingly in 2013, completing 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards and one score. He also rushed for 37 yards on seven attempts.
The most action in Hill’s 2013 season took place against Sam Houston State, completing 5 of 6 passes for 74 yards and one touchdown.
Hill has big shoes to fill with Manziel’s departure, but he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast. The Aggies possess one of the SEC’s top offensive lines and receiving corps, while running backs Brandon Williams, Trey Williams and Tra Carson are all capable options.
Allen – one of the top prospects in the 2014 signing class – will have a chance to unseat Hill as the season progresses. The true freshman should have a good grasp on the offense after enrolling early and could play against South Carolina if Hill struggles.
One positive for Hill in his first start: South Carolina could use three true freshmen extensively at cornerback in the opener.
Texas A&M’s high-powered offense may not be as explosive as it was in 2013, but whether it’s Hill or Allen at the controls, expect plenty of points and high-scoring affairs involving the Aggies in 2014.
The Big 12 heads into 2014 looking to rebound on the national stage. Oklahoma is coming off a huge Sugar Bowl victory against Alabama, and Baylor is likely to rank as a top 10 team by most this preseason after winning the conference title last year. The Sooners are a threat to win the national championship, but for the Big 12 to move up in the conference pecking order, Texas has to take a step forward under first-year coach Charlie Strong.
In order to rank the top 15 players in the Big 12 for 2014, Athlon Sports sought the insight of several experts from the conference. The voting process was simple. Using criteria such as career performance so far, 2014 potential/projection, pro outlook, recruiting ranking, value to team or overall talent, each voter was asked to rank their top 15 players for 2014.
A point system was assigned, giving 15 points for a player with a No. 1 vote, 14 points for a No. 2 vote, 13 points for a No. 3 vote and so on.
Allen Kenney, BlatantHomerism.com, (@BlatantHomerism)
Chris Level, RedRaiderSports.com, (@ChrisLevel)
Aaron Dickens, RedRaiderSports.com, (@AaronDickens)
Jesse Newell, Topeka Capital-Journal, (@JesseNewell)
David Fox, AthlonSports.com, (@DavidFox615)
Kevin Flaherty, The Shiver, (@KFlaherty247)
Ben Kerchveal, Bleacher Report, (@BenKercheval)
Seth Jungman, Viva The Matadors, (@VivatheMatador)
Jamie Plunkett, Frogs O'War, (@TheDSportsRant)
Garrett Cullen, West Virginia MetroNews, (@GarrettCullen)
Mark Ross, AthlonSports.com, (@AthlonMarkR)
Mitch Light, AthlonSports.com, (@AthlonMitch)
Ranking Big 12's Best Players for 2014 (Experts Poll)
|1||Bryce Petty, QB||13||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||228|
|2||Tyler Lockett, WR||2||10||0||1||0||1||1||0||0||0||206|
|3||Antwan Goodley, WR||1||1||4||3||1||2||2||0||1||0||174|
|4||Ryan Mueller, DE||0||1||2||4||4||0||0||1||1||1||164|
|5||Eric Striker, LB||0||2||4||3||2||0||2||0||1||0||163|
|6||Cedric Reed, DE||0||0||3||2||2||2||0||3||0||0||137|
|7||Spencer Drango, OT||0||0||1||0||1||1||3||0||2||0||83|
|8||Sam Carter, S||0||0||1||0||1||0||0||1||0||3||79|
|9||Davis Webb, QB||0||0||0||0||2||2||0||1||0||0||73|
|10||B.J. Finney, C||0||0||0||1||0||0||1||1||1||1||64|
|11||Le'Raven Clark, OL||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||3||2||1||63|
|12||Charles Tapper, DL||0||0||0||0||0||2||1||1||2||1||62|
|13||Trevor Knight, QB||0||0||0||2||0||0||1||1||0||1||59|
|14||Malcom Brown, DT||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||2||0||3||51|
|15||Quandre Diggs, CB||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||1||2||0||48|
|16||Malcolm Brown, RB||0||0||0||0||2||1||1||0||0||0||41|
|17||Shock Linwood, RB||0||0||0||0||0||2||0||0||1||2||35|
|18||Zack Sanchez, CB||0||0||1||0||0||1||0||1||0||0||31|
|19||Chucky Hunter, DT||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||1||26|
|20||Jake Waters, QB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||21|
|21||Shawn Oakman, DE||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||19|
|22||Johnathan Gray, RB||0||0||0||0||0||1||1||0||0||0||19|
|23||Ben Heeney, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1||0||14|
|24||Daryl Williams, OT||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||9|
|25||Quinton Spain, OG||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||8|
|26||Daryl Worley, CB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||7|
|27||Sterling Shepard, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||7|
|28||Matt Joeckel, QB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||5|
|29||Bryce Hager, LB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||4|
|30||E.J. Bibbs, TE||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||4|
|31||J.W. Walsh, QB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||4|
|32||Desmond Roland, RB||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3|
|33||Jakeem Grant, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||3|
|34||Karl Joseph, S||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2|
|35||Levi Norwood, WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||2|
|36||Tyreek Hill, RB/WR||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|37||Chris Hackett, S||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||1|
A Few Observations
* In a conference that is usually dominated by Texas and Oklahoma, the top four players in the experts poll are from Baylor and Kansas State.
* Bryce Petty recorded 13 of the 16 first-place votes.
* Only three players made an appearance on all 16 ballots: Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett and Baylor receiver Antwan Goodley.
* Who is the No. 2 quarterback in the Big 12 this year? Some have Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight, but in this experts poll, Texas Tech’s Davis Webb ended up second in voting among quarterbacks.
* A few names to watch that could rank higher in this poll at the end of 2014: Oklahoma cornerback Zack Sanchez, Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters, West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley and Texas running back Johnathan Gray.
Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?
When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.
That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the SEC’s best.
Despite two late-season losses in 2013, Alabama has still had an incredible run over the last six seasons, going 72–9 with six top-10 finishes. But most of those nine losses have a common thread: pass defense. When Alabama loses, opponents complete 69.7 percent of their passes at 12.2 yards per completion. In Alabama wins, opponents complete 49.8 percent of their passes at 10.8 yards per completion.
Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play as a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football. Arkansas’ defensive success rate in conference play was 52.6, easily the worst in the SEC. Only one other defense allowed a Success Rate higher than 47.2 percent (Kentucky at 49.8). New defensive coordinator Robb Smith inherits the least efficient personnel in the league.
Gus Malzahn’s offense averaged 5.1 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. That ranked third in the country behind only Ohio State (5.6) and Florida State (5.5). Meanwhile, the Tigers’ defense ranked 41st in the same category, allowing only 3.9 points per trip.
The only thing more frustrating than struggling to move the ball is struggling to capitalize on the rare opportunities you create. Florida averaged just 3.5 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40 in 2013, 112th in the country. Despite rushing more than 40 times per game, Florida scored just 14 rushing touchdowns. Only 22 teams scored fewer, and only two averaged more rushing attempts per game.
Georgia’s field position margin in conference play was minus-2.6 — the Bulldogs’ average drive started at their 28.5, while opponents’ started at the 31.1. Georgia’s defense struggled to force three-and-outs, and the Bulldogs got next to nothing from the return game. Small disadvantages can add up in a season that features four losses by five or fewer points.
The Wildcats averaged just 4.4 yards per play in SEC games in 2013, last in the conference; the only team with almost as bad an offense (Florida at 4.7) balanced that out with solid defensive play. Kentucky was not so lucky, allowing 6.8 yards per play. The resulting minus-2.4-yard margin per play was by far the worst in the SEC.
Of the 37 fumbles that took place in LSU games in 2013 (22 by opponents, 15 by LSU), the Tigers recovered only 13, 35.1 percent of them. Based on fumbles and pass deflections, LSU should have had about a plus-7 turnover margin. Instead, it was plus-0; even worse, it was minus-3, with three fumbles lost, in the Tigers’ three losses, two of which came by three points.
Mississippi State: -18
Mississippi State played five teams that finished ranked in 2013. Average score: Opponent 32, Bulldogs 14, an average scoring margin of minus-18. The good news was that the Bulldogs went 7–1 against teams that finished unranked, though turnover luck may have played a role in that.
Mizzou ran 40.7 percent of the time on passing downs. To take pressure off of the passing games, offensive coordinator Josh Henson frequently used 3rd-and-5 or 2nd-and-9 as running downs. Once the pressure was diffused and opponents had to continue to respect the run, the Tigers found easy opportunities from their spread; last year’s top four receivers — Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Lucas, L’Damian Washington, and Bud Sasser — all averaged at least 8.5 yards per target on passing downs. DGB averaged 10.3.
Ole Miss: -3.4
Ole Miss averaged 6.0 yards per play in 2013 and allowed just 5.3; the plus-0.8 margin ranked 35th in the country. But thanks to field position issues, the Rebels had to gain more yards on a given drive just to catch up. Their field position margin was minus-3.4, 101st in the country — on average, they started at their 26.6 (113th) while opponents started at the 30.0. The special teams unit is often culpable in situations like this.
South Carolina: 5.0
While the Gamecocks were certainly better than opponents at just about any yard line, they derived significant advantages near both goal lines. They averaged 5.0 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40, eighth in the country; meanwhile, they allowed only 3.7 points per opponent’s trip, 13th. The resulting plus-1.3 point margin per trip was fifth-best in FBS.
Tennessee allowed 6.1 yards per play in 2013, 100th in the country. In SEC play, the Vols allowed 6.1 per play, 10th in the conference. Run defense was the culprit; the Vols ranked 23rd in Passing S&P+, a comprehensive play-by-play measure at Football Outsiders that measures explosiveness and efficiency and adjusts for the quality of the opponent. But they were only 74th in Rushing S&P+.
Texas A&M: 4.9
As iffy as Texas A&M’s defense was, it got worse with its back against the wall. The Aggies allowed 4.9 points per trip inside their 40 yards line in 2013, 115th in the country. The offense averaged 5.0 points per trip, which ranked 11th; that means that the A&M defense was able to almost turn any opponent into the A&M offense when points were on the line.
When Vanderbilt’s defense made stops, it did so quickly. The Commodores forced enough three-and-outs and turnovers that the offense’s average starting field position was its 33.3, seventh-best in the country. In conference play, the Commodores’ average was first. Unfortunately, an often ineffective offense (80th in yards per play) gave away a lot of those gains.
Minnesota became the latest team to unveil an alternate helmet for the 2014 season, as the school released photos of a gold design slated to appear a few games this year.
The traditional “M” logo appears on the sides, and there’s a stripe down the middle featuring the Ski-U-Mah slogan.
Check out a full gallery of Minnesota’s new helmets for 2014:
Many believe that the Big 12 is a two-horse race in 2014.
While that is likely true, the rest of the conference is going to be extremely entertaining. Kansas State, Texas, TCU, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State all believe they can step into that two-horse race and — because of the beauty of a true round-robin schedule — all five will get to face each other this fall.
It means that fans nationally should be paying attention to the Big 12 every Saturday. Here are the top 15 must-see Big 12 games in 2014.
1. Baylor at Oklahoma (Nov. 8)
The Bears have never won in 11 tries in Norman and the Big 12 title likely hangs in the balance on Nov. 8 when Art Briles brings his squad into Memorial Stadium. This was a 29-point blowout in favor of Baylor last year in Waco but both teams will be different this fall. Bryce Petty will have to be near perfect and the BU defense must develop before November if it wants to win this marquee showdown.
2. Texas vs. Oklahoma (Oct. 11, Dallas)
The Red River Shootout (no, I don’t call it the Rivalry) enters a new era with a new chapter as Charlie Strong takes part in his first Cotton Bowl showdown. Texas won this game inexplicably a year ago and the Sooners should be plenty motivated to get revenge against a first-year coach. For better or worse, Strong’s work with the offensive line will be on full display.
3. Baylor at Texas (Oct. 4)
The Bears topped both Texas and Oklahoma at home last year but to repeat as Big 12 champs, Briles’ bunch must top both conference powers on the road this fall. The Bears have won in Austin before but this isn’t Mack Brown's Longhorns anymore. As far as early-season conference games go, this one is fascinating.
4. UCLA vs. Texas (Sept. 13, Arlington)
UCLA has Pac-12 South Division title hopes and possibly more as Brett Hundley enters his third season under center. Texas will be three weeks into the Charlie Strong Era in Austin and will provide a nasty early-season test for the Bruins on a “neutral" field in Dallas. Both teams have outside chances at landing a spot the College Football Playoff and an early-season slip up must be avoided for both programs.
5. Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)
Gus Malzahn's offense led by Nick Marshall and a deep receiving corps faces Bill Snyder's defensive wizardry on the road on a Thursday night. Both teams will have extra time to prepare for the primetime mid-week meeting and both will be contenders for their respective conference championships. From a coaching standpoint, it doesn't get much better than Malzahn vs. Snyder.
6. Kansas State at Oklahoma (Oct. 18)
Many people believe that Kansas State could be the top challenger to the Sooners and Bears. However, the Wildcats must face both on the road. This was a 41-31 home loss for Bill Snyder a year ago and it was KSU’s only loss in the final seven games of the season. Going on the road will be even more difficult.
7. Kansas State at Baylor (Dec. 6)
Everything written above about KSU at Oklahoma applies to the trip to Waco as well. Kansas State had the Bears beat through three quarters but allowed Bryce Petty to bring Baylor back in the final period and secure a key road victory (35-25). Again, Snyder will have to be at his best to win on the road against Briles.
8. Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (Dec. 6)
This was a fantastic game a year ago and normally is one of the best in the league. With Oklahoma State taking a small step back into rebuilding mode this fall, the Bedlam Series doesn’t carry the same national weight as usual. But this is still an intense in-state rivalry and Mike Gundy would love nothing more than to knock the Sooners out of playoff contention with a road win over Bob Stoops.
9. Texas at Kansas State (Oct. 25)
The Wildcats were more than just a thorn in Mack Brown’s side, Kansas State owned the Longhorns. Before last year’s 31-21 win in Austin, the Wildcats had won five straight and seven out of nine against mighty Texas. So going to Manhattan, Kan., in October will be a huge moment in Strong’s first season.
10. Oklahoma at Texas Tech (No. 15)
The Red Raiders host both Texas and Oklahoma this fall and Kliff Kingsbury’s bunch is more than capable of pulling off an upset (or two). This offense is electric and nearly beat the Sooners in Norman last fall. Expect plenty of fireworks late in the season out in Lubbock.
11. BYU at Texas (Sept. 6)
A revenge opportunity for the Burnt Orange players and a chance for Strong to land his first big win as the head coach. Especially, the way quarterback Taysom Hill and the Cougars abused the Longhorns' rushing defense a year ago.
12. Oklahoma at TCU (Oct. 4)
The Horned Frogs played in a lot of close games last season, including a narrow loss to the Sooners in Norman. Now, Oklahoma has to come to Fort Worth to face a much-improved TCU squad.
13. Texas at Texas Tech (Nov. 1)
Just like Oklahoma, Texas must travel to Lubbock in November to take on what could be the league’s top passing attack. This has upset alert written all over it.
14. Oklahoma State at Baylor (Nov. 22)
Revenge should be on the mind of Baylor when they welcome the Pokes to new McLane Stadium in the penultimate game of the year. Ok-State won 49-17 over Baylor last fall.
15. Baylor vs. Texas Tech (Nov. 29, Arlington)
If you like points and passing games, then look no further than this late-season matchup in Arlington. Davis Webb and Bryce Petty will be on full display. These two scored 97 points last meeting.
Best of the Rest:
16. TCU at Baylor (Oct. 11)
17. Kansas State at TCU (Nov. 8)
18. Oklahoma State at Kansas State (Nov. 1)
19. Arkansas at Texas Tech (Sept. 13)
20. TCU at Texas (Nov. 27)
21. Texas Tech at Kansas State (Oct. 4)
22. Texas Tech at Oklahoma State (Sept. 25)
23. Oklahoma State at TCU (Oct. 18)
24. Texas Tech at TCU (Oct. 25)
25. Iowa State at Iowa (Sept. 13)
For Athlon Sports, the offseason is one of our favorite times of the year.
Of course, we enjoy the season as much as any crazed college football fan, but the bread-and-butter for Athlon since 1967 has been helping readers prepare for the season, helping them get to know the teams and players they need to watch.
This is the time of year we get to share our preseason annuals, our national edition and regional previews for five conferences. Countless hours of study and work from dozens of individuals went into the 2014 editions, and we still have room for debate on the outlook for every team.
Of course, Athlon isn’t the only publication out there. And just like anyone we like to compare how everyone evaluates the season ahead. Here’s how the top 25 and conference champions shook out in the various publications.
We’ll continue to update the grid as more rankings are released through the offseason.
|2014 Preseason College Football Rankings|
The one thing Peyton Manning wanted most is the one thing he didn’t do. He broke so many records, shattered so many expectations last season. Then the Seattle Seahawks defense shattered his championship dreams.
When the 43–8 beat-down in Super Bowl XLVIII was over, and the Seahawks had lowered their “Legion of Boom” defense on what might have been the best offense the NFL has ever known, Manning was left with an empty feeling, despite all he had accomplished. He set records for, among other things, single-season passing touchdowns (55) and passing yards (5,477). The 76 touchdowns and 606 points scored by the Broncos were NFL records, too.
But at age 38, it remains all about the ring for the man who is arguably the greatest quarterback of his generation. And after the devastating way last season ended, it’s left some wondering if there’s any way he can do it again.
“If it was anyone else, you’d say there’s no way, especially after the way it ended,” says one NFL executive. “But do you really want to bet against Peyton Manning?”
The Broncos are attempting to do what no team has done since the 1972 Miami Dolphins — win the Super Bowl one year after losing it. No Super Bowl loser has even made it back to the Super Bowl the following year since the 1993 Buffalo Bills.
“You have to kind of re-establish your identity of the 2014 team,” Manning says. “The 2013 team, it was a good season in a lot of ways. There is no question it did not end the way we wanted it to, but we have to find a way to build off that and take a step further — try to finish.”
Manning’s legacy is secure, but even he knows what another championship could do. His Super Bowl — in which he went 34-of-49 for 280 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions — added fuel to his critics’ fire. That’s why even though John Fox lauded Manning for “maybe the most productive season in the history of the league a year ago,” he made sure to add that for the Broncos, “all the eggs are in the basket for ’14, and we’re doing everything we can to bring that championship back here to Denver.”
“With Peyton, there is no question, you never know how much longer he’s going to be around,” adds Broncos VP John Elway. “So in the mind, there is some urgency.”
That’s why they need Manning to produce another miracle. He led the Broncos to the Super Bowl just two years after neck surgery nearly ended his career prematurely. Now he needs to do it again, before his career finally runs out of time.
—by Ralph Vacchiano
Playing an iconic coach in a sports movie isn’t an easy task, especially if that coach happens to be in the audience.
Just ask actor Jim Caviezel, 45, who spent months in front of the camera capturing the emotions and dedication of legendary high school football coach Bob Ladouceur in the new movie “When the Game Stands Tall.”
From 1979 until his retirement in 2013, Ladouceur, now 60, built a machine at Concord (Calif.) De La Salle High School. Although Ladouceur stressed teamwork over winning, his teams achieved an astonishing national record of 151 consecutive wins from 1992 through 2004.
To get inside the coach’s mind, we made Caviezel — best known for portraying the title role in 2004’s “The Passion of Christ” — an honorary reporter for Athlon Sports and had him interview Ladouceur.
Here are the highlights from their conversation:
Jim Caviezel: You’re not the type of person to say you’re going to win this many games in a row. Winning games was not something you stressed. The world does it completely different. How did you form your approach to coaching?
Bob Ladouceur: I played on teams in high school and college that were good role models. They were team-oriented. I was trained by coaches who said this is a team sport and you shouldn’t be overly concerned about who is getting credit or if you’re the star. It’s mostly what can you contribute to a team.
Caviezel: When I talked about playing the De La Salle football coach, people said they remembered when the win streak happened. When did the win streak get to a point where you knew that people were tracking it week to week?
Ladouceur: I really blocked it out. I never talked about the streak to the kids. I rarely talked about winning to the kids. I did when we got close to the state record or the national record, maybe a couple of games before. There were probably only four weeks in the whole thing that I really paid attention to it.
Caviezel: How did you feel when you learned there was going to be a movie about your career and your life?
Ladouceur: I have to admit that I wasn’t really excited about it. I always preach to the kids about humility and not singling yourself out or not making a show of your accomplishments. I like the movie. Hopefully, it will be taken as, these guys approach (the game) in a different way. These guys are looking for more than wins. They’re looking for a band of brothers.”
Caviezel: The hardest movies to make are the ones where the guy you’re playing is alive because you know there’s a foundation outside (the film). There’s a script outside. The most important question I’m leading to is: Did I do OK?
Ladouceur: I always thought — in any sports movie — that whoever takes on the role of playing the coach has a lot of guts. That’s a tough role to play and to make it believable and not schmaltzy or choreographed. Everybody who has seen the film said you did a good job of playing me. They said you stayed true to the character. That’s a great compliment because I feel like I’m a hard guy to play. All coaches are complex in some way. They’re hard to figure. There’s a lot of angst and a lot of other things in a coach’s life in the way he does business. What a hard role to play, and I think you did a good job.
Almost every softball team has one guy who seems to swing effortlessly and drive the ball over the fence. Well, it’s time for you to be that guy. To help you become your team’s “Sultan of Swat,” we talked to Team USA Softball star (and power hitter) Brian Wegman to get his advice on how to hit the long ball.
Biceps are Overrated
“When I first started playing, I wanted the beach muscles, so my workout plan was all about the biceps, triceps and chest. By my fourth year, I switched to core training with more deadlifts, squats, lower back and abs. The total body strength has really helped me with my power.”
“Being able to use your body weight and the explosion of your swing together is what separates a good swing from a great one. My hips will start to go forward before my hands move. By the time I start my swing, I’ve already transferred approximately 65 percent of my body weight from my back leg to my front leg.”
“Swinging up at a high-arc pitch is a common error. If you miss the center of the ball and hit the top half of it, the ball will go down. However, if you keep a line drive swing you can more easily hit the bottom half of a softball, which creates backspin, distance and carry.”
Wait for It
“I have no problem swinging at the first pitch, but it has to be my kind of pitch. If it’s not, I will let it go by, even if I take an outside strike.”
—By Billy Brown
In their first two years on the job, coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead have brought the Rams back to respectability, a commendable achievement in itself given the sad state of the franchise when they arrived in 2012. All along, they’ve pointed to Year 3 of their rebuilding project — the 2014 season — as the year to get over the hump. The year to end what is now a string of 10 straight seasons without a winning record. The year the blockbuster “RGIII Trade” with Washington would bear its last fruit. Well, here we are. The selection of offensive lineman Greg Robinson represented the last piece of property gained in return for giving the Redskins the right to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III. It’s time to see results in St. Louis.
The Rams were forced to start a backup quarterback for more than half of the 2013 season and played nine top-10 defenses, yet they still scored their most points since 2006. But the bar has been set pretty low. They need to find another field goal here, another touchdown there to push their way into the postseason. The approach to that task involves two potential risks — sticking with Sam Bradford at quarterback and standing pat at wide receiver in a draft in which Sammy Watkins was there for the taking. Those are the kinds of decisions that can lead to contract extensions if they work, but pink slips if they don’t.
Bradford was headed to a career year statistically when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 7 at Carolina. He was nearly at full strength during OTAs, so his status for the regular-season opener is not in question. His group of pass-catchers — wideouts, tight ends and running backs included — needs to provide more help by minimizing drops and doing a better job of creating separation. Chris Givens failed to make a leap after a strong rookie season. He caught only 34 passes for 569 yards last season. Tavon Austin, a 2013 first-round pick, needs to polish his craft in every area, and the coaching staff must do a better job of utilizing his skills. Brian Quick is talented but has yet to catch more than 18 passes in a season. Kenny Britt, signed as a free agent, had flashes of brilliance during his five years with the Titans but lacked consistency and had difficulty staying out of trouble. Tight end Jared Cook, another former Titan drafted by Fisher, had a career-high 51 catches in his first season with the Rams, but he too needs to be more consistent.
The Rams are well stocked at running back, with third-round draft pick Tre Mason, the former Auburn star, joining Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham, and Isaiah Pead. The addition of Robinson in the draft provides power to an offensive line that must grind out yards on the ground and keep Bradford from hitting the ground.
The Rams already had arguably the best defensive end tandem in the league in Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Now they’re adding the best interior pass-rusher in the 2014 draft in tackle Aaron Donald. And let’s not forget what could be the biggest offseason addition of all — Gregg Williams as the Rams’ new defensive coordinator. This was supposed to happen a couple of seasons ago when Fisher first took the job. But less than two months after being hired by Fisher during the 2011-12 offseason, Williams was suspended by the league for a year for his role in the “Bountygate” scandal in New Orleans. That led to a falling out between Fisher and Williams, one that included Fisher’s ouster of Williams’ son Blake after the ’12 season. But the two long-time friends patched things up in January, and two years later Williams finally gets to work his magic on the St. Louis defense.
The cornerstone will be that defensive line, which also includes two solid tackles in Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford, plus a superb utility man in end William Hayes. The Rams have five first-round picks in their front seven.
The linebacker corps returns all three starters in James Laurinaitis (middle), Alec Ogletree (weak side) and Jo-Lonn Dunbar (strong side). Ogletree had a strong rookie year and has big-play potential. Laurinaitis remains dependable, durable and productive.
Williams will earn his pay trying to get the secondary up to snuff. The entire unit has only 71 games’ worth of NFL starting experience. Starting corners Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson remain raw and mistake-prone. And at safety, starters T.J. McDonald (strong) and Rodney McLeod (free) are far from finished products. It’s not going to work unless the entire secondary cuts down on mistakes and does a better job avoiding big plays. Rookie LaMarcus Joyner, who will play nickel back, must make an instant contribution.
The Rams are close to becoming one of the best special teams units in the league. Fewer penalties and a little more juice in the return game can make that happen. Austin has flashes of brilliance on punt returns as evidenced by a long TD against Indianapolis and a TD called back against Dallas last year. He’s a slithery change-of-direction demon who needs just a little daylight to make a lot happen. Meanwhile, the Rams have been searching for a dynamic kickoff returner since the days of Tony Horne and the Greatest Show on Turf. There is no clear-cut favorite for that job, and it’s a certainty there will be auditions throughout the preseason. Cunningham, a backup running back, doesn’t look or run like a classic kickoff returner, but he has shown a knack for at least providing decent field position.
Punter Johnny Hekker and placekicker Greg Zuerlein are developing into a consistent, productive pair. Hekker has that rare combination of hang time, distance and directional skill, setting an NFL record for net punting (44.2 yards) a year ago. Zuerlein was nearly automatic in ’13, avoiding the midseason slump of his rookie campaign. He’s got one of the league’s strongest legs.
Improvement is needed at wide receiver and tight end. An offensive line that includes three players with recent injury histories — Jake Long, Rodger Saffold and Scott Wells — needs to stay healthy. It’s shaping up as a make-or-break year for Bradford, who’s had injury issues of his own in two of his four Rams seasons. There’s nothing but inexperience in the secondary and next to no depth at linebacker. OK, the D-line has the makings of “great.” Still that’s a lot of “ifs” for what figures to be the youngest team in the NFL for the third consecutive season. And in case you’ve forgotten, the Rams reside in the toughest neighborhood of all, the NFC West. Throw in a non-division schedule that includes Denver, Kansas City, and Philadelphia — all playoff teams from a year ago — and the Rams may need more than a GPS tracker to find the postseason.