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HOOVER, Ala. — In baseball, most pinch-hitters take their at-bat and head back to the dugout. It’s one hitter, one pitcher and the day is done.
Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah pinch hit for more than three hours, taking the best (and sadly, the worst) the SEC media contingent had to offer.
When Auburn coach Gus Malzahn pulled his SEC champion quarterback Nick Marshall from the media day roster Monday, he called on Uzomah.
Instead of a quarterback who passed for more than 1,900 yards and rushed for more than 1,000, Uzomah and his 17 career receptions represented Auburn at media day. Instead of a quarterback who had just been cited for marijuana possession over the weekend, Auburn sent a senior who otherwise expected to enjoy a quiet Monday.
“It is a privilege and a reward to represent Auburn here at the SEC Media Days,” Malzahn said. “Last Friday Nick lost that privilege.”
But is it really a privilege, hearing the same questions over and over again, many of which were the same questions back in the spring and the fall? There’s a way for a player to survive media day. Here’s what we learned from following Uzomah and asking some seasoned vets for the survival guide.
As Alabama quarterback-turned-ESPN and Sirius XM host Greg McElroy says, “appreciate the hassle.”
Lead image borrowed from @SEC.
Rule 1: Call mom
The first call to replace Marshall went from Mazlahn to Uzomah. The second was from Uzomah to mom.
Some teams will show up in suits. Some will show up in team polos. Auburn went for suits, and Uzomah didn’t have one on campus.
Never underestimate mom’s devotion to make a kid look good. His mom drove two-and-half hours from Suwanee, Ga., to Auburn, Ala., to bring him his suit.
Maybe mom didn’t bring dress socks. Maybe she did, but Uzomah wasn’t going to pass on a chance to turn his socks into a conversation piece. Uzomah is a U.S. soccer fan and used red, white and blue socks with a small flag hanging off the ankle.
Like Uzomah, Florida’s Dante Fowler called mom for a trip to Men’s Warehouse. Mom picked out the suit, but Fowler needed to accessorize.
“I saw a bow tie, and I said as long as I get this bow tie I’m fine,” Fowler said. “(Defensive lineman) Alex McCallister tied it for me. It was too tight on my neck, but Alex is 6-7 so his long arms helped out.”
Rule 2: Prep for questions
Even on media day, players need to put in some study time. Media has its own tendencies just like any offense or defense.
All of Auburn’s players had to answer to some degree for Marshall. Did he address the team (he did). Does he still have the team’s trust (he does).
“We prepared just like it was a game,” Uzomah said.
When McElroy came for media day before his senior season in 2010, he and his teammates knew most of the questions that were going to be asked.
“What’s Nick Saban like? What’s Trent (Richardson) like? What’s Mark Ingram like? Can you win the national championship? Can you do it again?” McElroy said. “We knew what the questions are going to be.”
Here’s where C.J. Uzomah was for SEC Media Day:
12:00-12:10 Fox Sports South
12:30-12:50 Print/Online Media
1:30-1:40 SEC Video
1:40-1:50 Sirius XM
1:50-2:00 SEC Radio
2:10-2:40 Radio Row
Jeff Driskel, another veteran quarterback, knew the drill Monday, too, although no one was going to ask about going to the national championship game.
He plopped himself down in front of the media horde.
“Do I just pick someone?”
“All right. Let’s do this.”
Then the standard series of questions on Florida’s new hurry-up offense, Will Muschamp on the hot seat, and his recovery from a broken right leg.
“I’m feeling great ... thanks for asking.”
Rule 3: Stay on schedule
There’s one person on media day whose influence trumps anyone but the coach: The 5-foot-4 woman keeping players on schedule from the main print media room to breakout rooms for SEC broadcast rights holders ESPN and CBS.
Uzomah may be on a roll. The lingering media may still have follow ups. Two more questions in the media pool means two more questions. Exactly.
“She’s the boss,” Uzomah said as he was whisked from newspaper reporters to TV reporters.
And a harsh reminder for reporters: The follow-up to the last question doesn’t start the clock over again.
“They always want to ask more questions,” grumbled one of Monday’s timekeepers.
Rule 4: Have patience
Not only is Uzomah pinch-hitting. He’s putting in extra time.
A radio row trip isn’t on the schedule, but Auburn wants to get its player to local radio outlets and another in the Atlanta area, where Uzomah played in high school.
The first question in one interview with Uzomah: “Is it ‘Ooh-zah-mah’ or ‘Ooh-zoe-mah?’” Answer: Ooh-zah-mah.
The final statement in said interview: “We’re here with C.J. ‘Ooh-zoe-mah.’”
In between: Several questions about Nick Marshall and yet more questions about how Auburn’s spread offense can improve.
“To me, it was a bit of a drag,” McElroy said. “Because it's room after room. You can’t hit everyone all at once, you’re hitting different questions at different times. I remember leaving here and taking a nap on the way home.”
Rule 5: Embrace the fans
The circus atmosphere of a media day is ramped up a notch for Auburn and Alabama in Hoover. The lobby of the Hyatt Regency on the day the Iron Bowl rivals speak is often laced with dozens of fans from 8 a.m. until the afternoon.
As Uzomah exited the main media ballroom onto radio row — the collection of stations conducting live radio shows in the Hyatt Regency lobby — he was greeted at the end of the escalator with chants of “War Eagle.”
In the middle of a TV interview, a fan walks by and says, “War Eagle.” Uzomah interrupts his own answer to respond in kind.
Uzomah is in the final minutes of being herded like cattle from interview to interview to autograph seekers back to interviews. Is this a privilege or a penance?
“I love it,” Uzomah said. “I’m having fun.”
SEC Media Day is here, and Athlon Sports is live from Hoover, Ala., to talk every team around the league. Day 1 started with comments from commissioner Mike Slive plus Auburn, Florida and Vanderbilt.
On the docket for the first day was Mike Slive's push for autonomy, the absence of Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, Florida's hot seat coach and new offense and higher expectations for Derek Mason at Vanderbilt.
HOOVER, Ala. — Will Muschamp opened his meeting with the media in Hoover with an 11-minute filibuster, acknowledging the business of his future employment but still putting off any real questions.
“There will be a lot of chatter about hot seat business,” Muschamp said, unprompted. “That's part of it. The way you combat that is having a winning football team and winning football games, which is what we're going to do.”
The “hot seat” is the media cliche of the preseason — who is on it, who is off, what does a coach need to do to get off of it or get fired.
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After a 4-8 season, Muschamp draws the hot seat straw in the SEC this year, joining names like Derek Dooley, Joker Phillips and Houston Nutt (twice).
“There was never any time in my mind that I didn't think I would be retained,” Muschamp said.
After home losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern and one of the worst offenses in the country, Muschamp isn’t defending record as much as he’s trying to instill hope.
The record includes a Sugar Bowl but also the worst Florida season since 0-10-1 in 1979. The hope is that the offense won’t be ranked around teams like Eastern Michigan, Memphis, UConn and Idaho.
For that, Muschamp added Duke’s Kurt Roper, his third offensive coordinator in four seasons. The move is expected to add more shotgun offense, more quick passes and more running opportunities for quarterback Jeff Driskel, recruited in the spread option under former coach Urban Meyer.
The hope is also that Florida will stay healthier. Driskel was lost for the season in September. The injuries continued with Driskel’s backup, Tyler Murphy, and a host of other players on offense.
By the end of the season, trainer Paul Silvestri visited Muschamp in the defensive coaching room at 10 p.m. one day game week. Silvestri was rarely in the football office at that time of night. He was this night to tell to coach that offensive lineman Tyler Moore injured his elbow in a scooter accident.
“I can't tell you exactly what I said, but it wasn't good,” Muschamp said. “That was at a point where, you know, I asked him, You got to be kidding? That was a point where, you know, it was just very frustrating.”
Was it the injuries? Was it the offense? Was it bad luck? Or was it Muschamp?
Florida may find out this season.
“I’ve mentioned it multiple times today, there is no pressure,” Driskel said. “Every coach is on the hot seat.”
On paper, New Hampshire Motor Speedway should be one of the most exciting racetracks in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Just one mile in length, it’s the shortest oval NASCAR races on between the second week of June and Bristol in late August, part of a summer doldrums stretch that typically produces the lowest ratings of the year. Its second event, held in September, is also in the Chase midway through the first round of eliminations that will cut the field down from 16 drivers to 12 drivers. The layout may be flat, part of the track’s unique makeup, but the action on-track should be the opposite — a welcome respite in the midst of intermediate hell and Indy’s Brickyard Coronation Parade disguised as a 400-mile crown jewel.
Instead? While there’s parity up at the Magic Mile with Brad Keselowski the 13th winner in the last 13 races, the on-track jostling for position rarely materializes. Other than restarts — a frantic two to three laps of insanity — passing was near impossible in a race defined by pit strategy, track position and a Penske car that was often two-tenths quicker than the field. NASCAR officials tried their best, with four of seven cautions called for debris, but the most shuffling they got came from which team took two tires rather than four to stay out front. When the roughest contact came from a 72-year-old simply out there logging laps (more on that in a bit) NASCAR heads into its final off week struggling to sustain momentum. No wonder why aerial shots of the track, the final race covered by TNT, showed the stands as merely three-quarters full.
All that begs a look at the schedule, which could be set for some major changes with the shifting of TV partners come 2015. Right now, the Chase begins with Chicagoland, one of the sport’s weakest intermediate tracks, followed by this type of “yawner” competition. Up third? Dover, whose “Monster Mile” has done little to chew up the field in recent years. That’s your trio, in succession, out of all tracks NASCAR has to offer tasked with getting an audience revved up for this new format. It’s like announcing a world tour with Lady Gaga and kicking it off with Topeka, Bismarck and a smoky casino in Reno.
Is it the cars? Some might say yes, but the racing has been fantastic at other places (Fontana and Bristol immediately come to mind). Is it the drivers? Maybe, but several have abandoned the conservative, racing for points mentality in favor of a more aggressive approach. Is it the track? Perhaps, but after millions in aesthetic improvements following its purchase, owner Speedway Motorsports, Inc. will be reluctant to tear up the asphalt and start over. Is it the tires? Sure, we always seem to blame Goodyear, and too many two-tire stops Sunday were effective. But of course, there’s always a balance here when it comes to aggression and safety, as hung throttles claimed the lives of Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty here 14 short years ago.
The solutions here are complex, and it could be years before we get an effective answer to the monotony. Until then, maybe NASCAR should take a look at rewarding the best tracks with the best racing by saving the best for last. New Hampshire isn’t one of those options right now, making a two-date schedule of April and July (or even just one date on the schedule) a much more appealing option. Throwing Richmond, a road course or even Atlanta to spice things up in the first three Chase races would be far more preferable than putting people to sleep. Why burden the playoffs — which are already under fire — with the threat of potential snoozers like this one?
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Is “Bad Brad” back in charge?
Two of the last three weeks, it’s Team Penske that’s hot, with Brad Keselowski riding full momentum into NASCAR’s last off week. Leading 138 laps, even a green-white-checker finish wasn’t enough to derail perhaps the only car on-track that could pass people with ease.
“Where do I start? The team was just really on it,” said Keselowski who completed a New Hampshire sweep after winning the Nationwide race on Saturday. “From our perspective our car was so fast you hated to do anything to it. It really feels like we hit our stride.”
The victories, combined with some struggles of other top drivers, have lifted Keselowski to third in points. Most importantly, his third win ties him with Jimmie Johnson for most on tour and puts him in position for a potential top seed entering the Chase. Penske, with much of the summer left to keep fiddling around, appears to have hit on a combination that pushes the car ahead handling-wise in the center of the corner. That’s a key advantage to have for both these one-mile, shorter ovals and the bigger 1.5-mile intermediates that make up the bulk of NASCAR’s playoff.
Does that mean the balance of power has shifted? Not quite. Hendrick Motorsports, whose four-car outfit was all over the board Sunday, is also in a comfortable position. Johnson, who had two early tire blowouts that left him in the garage in 42nd, is easily the series’ best driver at Indianapolis. Teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne used radically different setups Sunday — seemingly a test for the fall event so the organization comes back fully prepared.
SECOND GEAR: Gibbs clawing back … or one-race wonder?
It’s no secret that Joe Gibbs Racing has spent all season playing catch up. Matt Kenseth, though fourth in points, remains winless while Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, despite being locked in the Chase, have been bouncing up and down the standings like yo-yos. Consistency, once the hallmark of this program, has been replaced by a Sherlock Holmes mystery: these cars could roll off third best or 30th best off the truck each weekend, with no rhyme or reason as to why. It’s a clear step back for Toyota’s top program, while Ford and Chevy’s best teams (Penske and Hendrick, respectively) run circles around it heading towards the Chase.
That’s why this weekend was so important for JGR to reestablish a baseline. All three teams were capable of winning, with the trio finishing second, fourth and eighth after qualifying first, third and 15th. If Hamlin wasn’t forced to pit due to fuel issues before the green-white-checker, those results could have been even better.
“We haven’t been such dominant forces that we were last year,” admitted Busch post-race. “At this time last year (Matt) Kenseth and myself and the races that Denny (Hamlin) was able to make — we led a lot of laps. Unfortunately, we just haven’t quite seen that yet this year. Trying to get better, and once we do, I think everybody will see, and you’ll start hearing the name JGR a little bit more.”
New Hampshire, for the reasons mentioned above, was a bit of a testing session of sorts for other top rivals. Still, you can’t ignore a trio of top-10 results, the type of confidence boost that gets JGR feeling it’s turned in the right direction with two months and counting left towards the Chase.
THIRD GEAR: The old guy wrecks the party
Here’s one for you: Morgan Shepherd scored his last top-5 finish in Cup when Chase Elliott was less than two years old. Born two months before Pearl Harbor, you’d think the 72-year-old Shepherd incited a war on Sunday when he slammed into a driver 50 years his junior in Joey Logano. Running second at the time, Logano’s race was toast, calling into question whether a driver who hadn’t finished a Cup race in a decade should still be competing.
“I got taken out by the slowest car out there. You would think there would be some courtesy to the leaders,” said Logano, who referenced there should be a driver’s test to someone like Shepherd before they go out and compete. “We were in second place. He gets out of the way on the straightaway and then goes into the corner and slides right up into the lane I was in. Whatever. I don’t know.”
For his part, Shepherd qualified dead last in the 43-car field. He ran far above NASCAR’s minimum speed, so despite running several laps off the pace, had every right to be there. The problem stems not so much from Shepherd but from the lack of outside competition to knock cars backed by this one-time novelty act off the grid. Just 42 cars ran at Kentucky last month, the Cup Series’ first “short field” since 2001. And there seem to be openings at the back of the field every week. With the right amount of cash paired with some previous experience, it seems anyone could earn a NASCAR license and pop up on track — creating a perception that the Cup Series is a “show” to the untrained observer rather than an actual sport.
You stop that process by increasing ownership, reducing costs and encouraging more manufacturers, investors, etc. to fight for a spot on the grid. Until that happens, if there’s a smaller field (36? 38?) to keep from watering-down the product this type of incident may be the tip of an iceberg.
FOURTH GEAR: RTA still overshadowing all
The sport’s new Race Team Alliance (RTA), formed by the top nine multi-car owners, was at the forefront of everyone’s mind in New Hampshire. Even after winning, at the post-race press conference, it was one of the first questions posed to RTA Charter Member Roger Penske.
“I support it 100 percent,” he said. “And Rob Kauffman communicates the message for all the owners. I really don’t have any other comments.”
Kauffman, co-owner for Michael Waltrip Racing has been named chair of the new organization, which publicly says its motive is to “cut costs and streamline ideas” for the sport going forward. But it’s also a grouping that NASCAR has never seen, long-term, throughout its 65-year history. Why not? In the past, totalitarian leadership by Bill France Sr. or Bill France Jr. would stamp out any such attempts to “unionize.” When drivers didn’t want to run Talladega in 1969 fearing safety issues, Bill Sr. still ran the race, building a replacement field. In the 1960s, when Curtis Turner led a potential movement towards a driver’s union? The move wound up destroying Turner’s career, not NASCAR’s.
But this time around, with millions of dollars on the line, the owners appear to have more leverage than ever. Look no further than Morgan Shepherd and the sobering reality of point three: if these owners don’t like a decision from NASCAR and choose to leave and/or boycott, there is no one, and I mean no one in position to replace them on the grid. It’s a powerful chess piece, one that could be played when it comes to receiving more TV money under the sport’s new contract or in opposition to rule changes. Owners see declining ratings and a threat of potential reductions to their country club; how they respond to it, along with the way they work together in this arrangement (despite remaining competitors on-track), could be the most important piece to NASCAR’s future over the next decade.
Let’s give a shout-out to Jeff Burton, 20th, in just his second race all season driving a Michael Waltrip Racing-supported No. 66. Burton was on the lead lap, a consistent performer throughout the day and could have finished higher if not for late contact with Danica Patrick. It’s the last Cup race currently scheduled for the veteran before making a full-time transition to the Sprint Cup booth for NBC in 2015. … See, NASCAR? You throw all those debris cautions (four out of seven Sunday) in what seemingly was a Herculean effort to keep the race competitive. Yet the green-white-checker finish developed naturally, with a David Ragan-Justin Allgaier wreck forcing the yellow with four laps left. Shouldn’t that be a lesson even boring races don’t have to be manipulated? Sometimes, the action simply fixes itself. … Kyle Larson had a strong recovery Sunday, erasing a summer slump by jumping to third on the race’s final restart. A top-10 car all day, Larson is tied with rookie Austin Dillon for the final Chase spot; only one is likely to make the field when all is said and done. … Kevin Harvick, after running out of gas at New Hampshire, has gone 11 races without a win. During that time, he’s posted three runner-up finishes, has led 367 laps and qualified no worse than 13th. Yes, Harvick’s temper has erupted one too many times and irritated the crew, but the list of missed opportunities is getting long enough to frustrate anyone.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
LeBron James has officially announced that he’s returning home to the great state of Ohio. Just like that, the tectonic plates that normally lie dormant at the foundation of the NBA have undeniably shifted, in doing so redesigning the landscape of what was becoming a predictable league. Without LeBron, it seems as though the Miami Heat will snap back to reality. On the other hand, Cleveland, the winner of the LeBron-sweepstakes, should benefit enormously. It’s easy to get caught in the stardom of LeBron James, but this offseason has brought change to plenty of other franchises as well.
With James leaving the city, Chris Bosh will star as the main man in Miami. After adding Luol Deng to the roster, the Heat will look to contend an Eastern Conference that lacks a clear frontrunner. Elsewhere, Carmelo Anthony decided to ante-up in New York, while teams like the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers failed to catch the big fish despite having ample spending money. The Chicago Bulls added Pau Gasol but unless Derrick Rose is back in full force, it’s tough to buy into this team without the addition of another star.
Ultimately, there were more losers than winners in the 2014 Free Agency period. It’s not over, and there are still moves to be made (a Kevin Love trade, perhaps?), but as this offseason comes to a close, it has become easier to imagine what the 2015 NBA season will bring. Teams like Atlanta, Houston, and New York lost out on adding a big-time difference-maker and consequently squandered their title hopes for the next few years. Others, like Golden State, Portland, and the Clippers watched the madness unfold, realizing that less is more in this particular free agent class.
The King’s relocation, along with a handful of other free agency moves, redistributes the balance of power in the NBA. With No. 6 departing South Beach, what city becomes the new “Mecca of Basketball”? Here’s a tentative outlook on the NBA’s elite for the upcoming 2014-2015 season.
1. San Antonio Spurs
With endless noise emerging from the camps of various agents, owners, and alleged “sources” this NBA offseason, it would have been easy to forget about the 2014 NBA Champions, the San Antonio Spurs. Somehow, the Spurs put together one of the quietest yet simultaneously one of the most dominating post-season runs of all time. That’s just the way the Spurs do business; they prefer to fly under the radar.
After celebrating the franchise’s fifth NBA Championship in 40 years, the professionals in black and silver quickly got back to work. 38-year-old legend Tim Duncan opted-in to his contract with the team, ensuring a $10.3 million paycheck for himself in 2015. Coach Gregg Popovich also extended his deal with the Spurs, and with these two basketball geniuses sticking with the organization I’d be a fool to put the Spurs anywhere outside of the top five. Important role players Patty Mills and Boris Diaw also re-signed with the team, signaling this offseason is more about fine-tuning than retooling for the reigning champs.
Considering the fact that San Antonio is fresh off an NBA Finals victory, it’s understandable that they rank no. 1 before the season begins. The consistency of this program is simply remarkable. Expect no less from the Spurs in 2015. This team will be back, largely in tact, and will have another tremendously successful yet overlooked campaign this year.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers were one team that did not have a lot of cash to blow this offseason. That’s because the foundation that has been built in LA is enough to win an NBA Finals series. The Clippers just needed to add a few serviceable pieces around Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan to reach the next level. Ownership (not named Donald Sterling) is smart enough to realize how close the team is to a championship. The free agency period is not over, but the Clippers have made all of the right moves to position themselves for a championship run in 2015.
The Clippers return five starters and the reigning 6th man of the year to a squad that fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semi-finals amidst a great deal of controversy last year. Vegas gives the Clippers 10/1 odds of winning the championship in 2015, ranking only behind the Cavs, the Spurs, the Thunder, the Bulls, and the Rockets, in that order. For a bunch of reasons, I’m not buying those other teams. For Chicago, how will Rose play? For Houston, how will Ariza fill in for Parsons? For Oklahoma City, can you win a championship without a coach? For the Cavs, will the chemistry be there? As you can see, there is reason to doubt any NBA team (except one coached by Pop, then you just shut up and watch). But the Clippers provide very little wiggle room for an analyst’s criticism. Coach Doc Rivers has a championship ring and the only thing holding Chris Paul back from being considered one of the best point guards in NBA history is the acquisition of one.
LA has been a relatively calm town this offseason though it’s a city renowned worldwide for its star-power and its flashy scene. To date, center Spencer Hawes and point guard Jordan Farmar, both backups, have been the major additions to the roster for the Clippers. With the news of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony staying in the East, it’s easy to dismiss these smaller signings as inconsequential, simply filling out a roster with 15 spots needing to be filled. But Hawes’ size and three-point shooting will surprise skeptical fans in Los Angeles. Farmar is no Darren Collison, but he may prove valuable in his ability to stretch the floor and shoot the lights out. There are still two more open spots on the roster, so the Clippers aren’t done making moves. As a cash-strapped team, the Clips won’t be adding any major pieces to the team in the remainder of free agency. But if the Spurs have taught us anything, it’s that continuity in the form of excellent coaching and a strong core of players can produce results. A championship is all that’s in mind for Chris Paul and company this year.
3. Washington Wizards
Five years ago, had I put Washington on this list you would have looked at me like I was crazy. Two years ago, if the Wizards found their way onto this list, I would have been called delusional. Today, I declare the Washington Wizards the No. 3 team in the league. You’re staring at your computer screen like I’m a madman. But hear me out; this ranking isn’t as absurd as you’re thinking.
First off, the Wizards benefit from a desolate Eastern Conference. Playing out West, the Wizards would likely end up as a No. 4 or 5 seed. But back home in the East, there’s no obvious pick for the No. 1 spot. Indiana looked shaky at last year’s end, and the Heat should take a step back after LeBron’s departure. The Nets fell apart after a convincing second half of the season display and the Toronto Raptors are too young to do much this year. The Bulls could have grabbed this spot if D Rose was healthy or adequate help had been acquired in free agency, but I’m not convinced. And so, this is how the 2014 5 seed Washington Wizards have ended up in my 2015 top five.
So they lost Trevor Ariza. But the Wizards added some guy named Paul Pierce to the roster for the mid-level exception. Ariza did net 30 against the Bulls during the playoffs last year, a number that Pierce probably won’t eclipse for the remainder of his career. However, in Pierce, Washington finds an experienced veteran, a leader, a teacher for their younger players, and even a proven champion. It’s hard to argue that this signing doesn’t make the Wizards a much better team, especially with Pierce determined to make a last run at a championship before he retires.
The core that is in tact for the Wizards is solid and reminiscent of an older NBA that wasn’t always all about making a big splash in free agency. Washington secured C Marcin Gortat with a 5-year, $60 million contract. Add Gortat to an already fearsome and continually improving trio of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Nene and you have a recipe for a 50+ win season. Call me crazy, but if things remained as they were, I’d give the Washington Wizards a decent shot at winning the Eastern Conference this year.
4. Dallas Mavericks
The real winner of NBA Free Agency: the Dallas Mavericks. With LeBron James taking his sweet time to make a decision, other players and teams around the league were held in limbo due to the offseason’s inevitable complications. Because of the nature of restricted free agency, the cap space of each team, and the preferences of individual players, James’ commitment to the Cavs opened up a “Pandora’s Box” scenario for the rest of the league. With the NBA’s best player off the market, teams could turn their attention to negotiating and targeting some of the less advertised options out there.
For Dallas, the strain put on the Houston Rockets by a Chris Bosh decision put-on-hold resulted in talented small forward Chandler Parsons falling right into the team’s lap. A 3-year, $46 million contract doesn’t make Parsons a cheap pick-up, but for a squad that barely fell short to the eventual champions in a 7-game series, a player of Parson’s caliber should provide enough firepower to push the Mavs over the top. With Dirk Nowitzki restructuring his contract and nearing the end of his career, 2015 will likely be the last good chance for the Mavericks to bring a championship back to Dallas for quite some time.
Free agency isn’t over, and I expect the Mavs to bring in more help as the clocks winds down. Vince Carter won’t return, but his best basketball is behind him so it’s not the worst situation in the world. Lance Stephenson, formerly of the Indiana Pacers, is an intriguing option to add scoring and athleticism on the wing. Stephenson is expensive though and has been known to be a bit of a troublemaker. Whatever the case may be, Dallas has already made enough of an upgrade this offseason to earn them the No. 2 spot on this list. When the chips finally fall in place, the Mavs will be confidently working towards a bid to represent their conference in the 2015 NBA Finals.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs will go from having the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft to a playoff appearance this year. That’s what LeBron does; he makes everything an improved version of itself. The record will be better. The players will perform at a higher level. The new coach will look good. The net worth of the franchise has already jumped by more than $100 million. And now, the Cavaliers have qualified for my NBA top five. This is the LeBron effect.
Honestly, the roster is geared towards the distant future more than the 2015 season. Still, after bringing his team to the NBA Finals four years in a row, LeBron James will try to resume his journey to collect as many championships as possible in what’s left of his legendary basketball career. He’ll be without teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade who provided invaluable support in Miami. Now, he’s paired himself with point guard Kyrie Irving and a cast of promising and gifted youngsters. Anthony Bennett, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, will improve his game alongside James. This year’s first selection, Andrew Wiggins, has shown flashes of greatness in the NBA Summer League and will patiently work to develop his limitless potential under James' tutelage. Dion Waiters won’t be demanding more touches or asking to be shopped anymore, he’s right where he wants to be. A loaded, albeit inexperienced, roster gets even stronger with the addition of James.
A new coach, a new star player, and a new system mean that there will be growing pains in Cleveland this year. The Heat couldn’t win a championship in their first year with LeBron, and I wouldn’t expect the Cavs to reach that level either. But with the best player on the world on your team, you’re going to have a reason to cheer. I would bet on the Cavs finishing no higher than a No. 4 seed in a balanced Eastern Conference. Add Kevin Love to the mix through any manner and the Cavs jump to No. 1 on my list. That possibility is still there, but for now, Cleveland humbly takes the 5 spot.
The Best of the Rest:
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
7. Houston Rockets
8. Chicago Bulls
9. Portland Trailblazers
10. Golden State Warriors
Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall was recently cited for possession of marijuana and was replaced at SEC Media Days by tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Marshall’s citation raised questions about his status for Auburn’s opener against Arkansas on Aug. 30, and coach Gus Malzahn did not clarify his quarterback situation in Hoover, Ala. on Monday.
“It is a privilege and a reward to represent Auburn here at the SEC Media Days,” Malzahn said.
“Last Friday Nick lost that privilege. We have high expectations for our players, but specifically our quarterback, being the face of our program.
Up until last Friday, Nick has been a model student, teammate, and citizen. Nick made a mistake and he'll have to deal with the consequences. I'm not ready to say what those consequences are at this time, but he will deal with it. I know he's regretful and he feels very bad about it.”
In his first season at Auburn in 2013, Marshall threw for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns and added 1,068 yards and 12 scores on the ground.
Marshall began his career at Georgia but was dismissed from the team due to off-the-field issues.
If Marshall is suspended or benched for the opener against Auburn, the Tigers will turn to sophomore Jeremy Johnson.
Johnson threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns in limited action last year.
Auburn’s defense is expected to improve in its second year under the direction of veteran coordinator Ellis Johnson, but the Tigers have suffered their first setback of the 2014 season. Coach Gus Malzahn announced at SEC Media Days that defensive end Carl Lawson suffered a torn ACL and is expected to miss most of the 2014 season.
“I'd like to confirm that Carl had successful ACL surgery the first part of May,” Malzahn said at SEC Media Days.
“He injured his knee the last week of spring practice. Dr. Andrews looked at it, wanted to wait a couple weeks till the swelling went down to be sure. He confirmed he needed surgery. It was successful.
Carl is working extremely hard and he's determined to come back towards the end of this year.”
Lawson is expected to return at some point during the 2014 season, and it would be a surprise if he spent the year as a redshirt, especially with a likely early entry into the NFL Draft after his junior year. The sophomore could target a late-season return, especially with key conference games against South Carolina, Ole Miss and Georgia in the final half of the year.
As a true freshman last season, Lawson played in all 14 games, registered 20 tackles (7.5 for a loss) and recorded four sacks.
Lawson was projected to be a third-team Athlon Sports All-SEC performer in 2014. His emergence was critical for an Auburn defense that was already losing first-round pick Dee Ford and defensive tackle Nosa Eguae.
With Lawson out indefinitely, the Tigers need more from sophomore Elijah Daniel and senior LaDarius Owens off the edge.
Auburn’s defense allowed 5.9 yards per play last season and gave up 29.6 points per game in SEC contests.
Despite the yards and points allowed, the Tigers made stops when it counted. Auburn led the SEC in third-down defense and finished second in redzone defense.
HOOVER, Ala. — Invoking quotes from Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, SEC commissioner Mike Slive on Monday reiterated his goal to change the NCAA's legislative process granting more autonomy for the five power conferences.
Slive outlined the goals of the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 to have autonomy in decision-making within in the NCAA or establish a new division. Slive’s statements at SEC Media Day on Monday mirrored his statements earlier in the spring.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany have made similar such statements.
“We are not deaf to the din of discontent across collegiate athletics that has dominated the news,” Slive said.
“The educational and cultural significance of intercollegiate athletics is far too important for us not to seek positive solutions to existing challenges. This is why we have been actively engaged in building a bridge to provide a needed avenue of change for the NCAA with the primary objective of enhancing the support enjoyed by Division I student‑athletes while maintaining and preserving the collegiate model.”
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Autonomy would allow the SEC and the other four power conferences more ability to offer full cost-of-attendance scholarships, expanded health care and scholarships beyond five years.
The NCAA board of directors is expected to vote on autonomy in August.
“As I have said before, if we do not achieve a positive outcome under the existing big tent of Division I, we will need to consider the establishment of a venue with similar conferences and institutions where we can enact the desired changes in the best interests of our student‑athletes” Slive said.
In the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports’ Pro Football preview, we called on Ourlads Scouting Services to rank the NFL’s best at every position on the field. When it comes to determining who is the best quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, etc., who better to make that determination than a company that’s been in the gridiron talent evaluation business for nearly three decades?
Carolina’s Luke Kuechly may be the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but according to Ourlads, he’s not even the best at his position. The top two inside linebackers — NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis — play for the same team in the NFC West. In fact, when you pair Bowman and Willis with Aldon Smith, San Francisco boasts three of the top eight linebackers overall.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, the likelihood of this trio being intact at the start of the season doesn’t appear to be too high. Bowman sustained a serious knee injury in the NFC Championship Game loss to Seattle and is a fairly safe bet to start the season on the PUP list, while Smith is facing a possible suspension of some length from the league for his various off-the-field incidents. It may be more of a one-man show in the middle of the 49ers’ defense this fall.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads Scouting Services
2014 NFL Player Rankings: Inside Linebackers
1. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco
Joins teammate Patrick Willis as a Pro Bowl-caliber productive athlete. Instinctive with rare change of direction. Aggressive and competitive. Coming off a knee injury.
2. Patrick Willis, San Francisco
Had another Pro Bowl season with his excellent tackling ability versus the run and the speed to excel in coverage.
3. Luke Kuechly, Carolina
The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Tackling machine is the heart and soul of the Panthers’ defense. A sideline-to-sideline player who is only entering his third year.
4. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City
Was voted to the Pro Bowl for the third consecutive season. A downhill sideline-to-sideline player with speed and a closing burst.
5. Karlos Dansby, Cleveland
Signed with the Browns in the offseason. A productive and athletic run-and-hit linebacker with good speed and range. A good blitzer who makes plays.
6. Sean Lee, Dallas
Has been the leader of the Cowboys’ defense since stepping on the field in 2010. Injuries have set him back at times, but he’s productive when on the field. (Editor's note: Lee tore the ACL in his left knee during OTAs on May 27 and will miss the entire 2014 season.)
7. Stephen Tulloch, Detroit
An undersized but instinctive linebacker who makes plays all over the field. Elevated his game in 2013 after coming off a 2012 knee injury.
8. Kiko Alonso, Buffalo
Played beyond expectations as a rookie in the middle last fall and will be moved to the weak side in 2014. A focused and intense competitor versus the run and pass. (Editor's note: Alonso tore the ACL in his left knee while working out earlier this summer and will miss the entire 2014 season.)
9. Brian Cushing, Houston
Was lost for two years in a row with injury. When on the field, this big-time hitter is instinctive and active in defending the run and pass.
10. Bobby Wagner, Seattle
Battled an injury in 2013 after an outstanding rookie campaign. A quick and explosive reactor who attacks blockers. Has good range and takes good downfield angles in pursuit.
11. Daryl Smith, Baltimore
12. Daryl Washington, Arizona (Editor's note: Washington has been suspended for the entire 2014 season for another violation of the league's substance-abuse policy.)
13. Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh
14. James Laurinaitis, St. Louis
15. Brandon Spikes, Buffalo
16. Josh Bynes, Baltimore
17. Wesley Woodyard, Tennessee
18. Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis
19. Akeem Jordan, Washington
20. David Harris, NY Jets
2014 NFL Player Rankings: Outside Linebackers
1. Von Miller, Denver
Became a more complete linebacker, excelling in coverage before an ACL injury late in the season. His impact is immense — pressuring and sacking the quarterback.
2. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay
Is one of the more unheralded and well-rounded linebackers in football. His skills are tailor-made for the new Tampa-2 scheme.
3. Robert Mathis, Indianapolis
Versatile enough over his career to play as a down end or a standup rusher for the Colts. Undersized athlete with rare initial quickness and speed. Can turn speed to power. Plays low to the ground with good knee and hip flexibility. (Editor's note: Mathis will miss the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.)
4. Aldon Smith, San Francisco
Has been a productive player on the field, especially when Justin Smith helps clear a free running lane. Has outstanding athletic ability and long arms to rush the passer. Productive with 42 sacks in three years.
5. Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati
Led the Bengals in tackles his first two years in the league. Has come a long way from his undisciplined college career, where the talent was evident, but production was uneven.
6. Thomas Davis, Carolina
Came back from a third ACL tear to play at a high level in 2013. An aggressive and explosive hitter who is a consistent wrap-up tackler.
7. Akeem Ayers, Tennessee
Will be making a move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme linebacker, which may get him to the quarterback more in 2014. Drives quickly on check-downs and ball-carriers in front of him.
8. Danny Trevathan, Denver
Had a breakout year in 2013 and racked up 129 tackles from the weak side. Physical and tough in his play. Quick to key and diagnose a play.
9. Dont’a Hightower, New England
Stepped into the starting lineup as a rookie and hasn’t looked back since. A physical run-stuffer who sheds quickly at the point of attack.
10. DeAndre Levy, Detroit
Elevated his playmaking ability in 2013. An athletic linebacker who can run and hit. Plays square with good hand and arm use to shed and tackle.
11. Malcolm Smith, Seattle
12. Sio Moore, Oakland
13. Jerod Mayo, New England
14. Bruce Irvin, Seattle
15. Alec Ogletree, St. Louis
16. Chad Greenway, Minnesota
17. James Anderson, Chicago
18. Philip Wheeler, Miami
19. Kevin Burnett, Oakland
20. K.J. Wright, Seattle
There’s a new era upon college football in 2014. The BCS era ended with Florida State’s victory over Auburn in Pasadena, and the playoff era is set to begin at the end of this season.
There are plenty of changes for the new format, which features a four-team playoff, with a championship game that’s bid out to cities similar to the Super Bowl.
And of course, there’s the hardware.
The crystal ball trophy was an easily recognizable piece of hardware that was awarded to the champion in previous years. However, starting in 2014, the champion of college football’s playoff will get to hoist a new trophy.
Check out college football’s new trophy, which was unveiled on Monday in Dallas:
A new era, a new trophy. pic.twitter.com/anXBuxO7uV— CFB Playoff (@CFBPlayoff) July 14, 2014
A new era, a new trophy. pic.twitter.com/anXBuxO7uV— CFB Playoff (@CFBPlayoff) July 14, 2014
Fact sheet for the new trophy pic.twitter.com/uhOfdVMBbc— FootballScoop Staff (@footballscoop) July 14, 2014
The College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy has been unveiled! pic.twitter.com/VYbjhXGCh7— CFB Playoff (@CFBPlayoff) July 14, 2014
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 14:
• To the victor goes the spoils: Germany's Mario Gotze celebrated with smokeshow WAG Ann Kathrin Vida Brommel.
• It's time for SEC Media Days. Here's a fun sampling of quotes from past years, including the wisdom of one Lester Miles.
• Interesting account of SI's LeBron exclusive. It was so exclusive, even the mag's ad sellers didn't know.
• Monday morning buzzkill: A long, sobering account of a sexual assault on a college campus involving an athlete.
• I'm not a Family Guy fan, but I gotta admit that this guy nails his Peter Griffin impersonation.
• Interesting detail from this Mickelson story: He drank a $40,000 bottle of wine out of the Claret Jug.
• This is strange: KISS is starring on MLB-themed t-shirts.
• One legend pays tribute to another, as Jordan honors Jeter with this star-studded commercial.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at firstname.lastname@example.org
The 2014 season represents the 25th anniversary of Duke’s ACC Championship team from 1989.
To honor the 1989 team, Duke is making a few alterations to its jersey for the 2014 season.
The Blue Devils recently unveiled three new (white, blue and black) jerseys for 2014, a new chrome decal on the black helmet, and stripes on the jersey sleeves.
Here are the new photos from Duke’s uniform release for 2014:
The Seattle Seahawks won't officially begin defense of their Super Bowl title until Sept. 4 when they host the Green Bay Packers in the opening game of the 2014 NFL regular season. However, the real work begins July 24 with the start of training camp in Renton, Wash.
The Buffalo Bills will be the first team to open training camp in Pittsford, N.Y., on July 18, while the Detroit Lions will be the last of the 32 teams to get things going in Allen Park, Mich., on July 27. Regardless of which team gets back to work first or last, they will all begin their quest towards the same goal - the opportunity to play for the Lombardi Trophy in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 1.
Below are the dates and locations for 2014 training camps for all 32 NFL teams:
|Arizona||University of Phoenix Stadium||Glendale, AZ||7/25|
|Atlanta||Atlanta Falcons Training Facility||Flowery Branch, GA||7/24|
|Baltimore||Under Armour Performance Center||Owings Mills, MD||7/23|
|Buffalo||St. John Fisher College||Pittsford, NY||7/18|
|Carolina||Wofford College||Spartanburg, SC||7/24|
|Chicago||Olivet Nazarene University||Bourbonnais, IL||7/24|
|Cincinnati||Paul Brown Stadium||Cincinnati, OH||7/23|
|Cleveland||Cleveland Browns Training Facility||Berea, OH||7/25|
|Dallas||River Ridge Playing Fields||Oxnard, CA||7/22|
|Denver||Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre||Dove Valley, CO||7/23|
|Detroit||Detroit Lions Training Facility||Allen Park, MI||7/27|
|Green Bay||St. Norbert College||Green Bay, WI||7/25|
|Houston||Methodist Training Center||Houston, TX||7/25|
|Indianapolis||Anderson University||Anderson, IN||7/23|
|Jacksonville||Florida Blue Health & Wellness Practice Fields||Jacksonville, FL||7/24|
|Kansas City||Missouri Western State University||St. Joseph, MO||7/23|
|Miami||Miami Dolphins Training Facility||Davie, FL||7/20|
|Minnesota||Minnesota State University, Mankato||Mankato, MN||7/24|
|New England||Gillette Stadium||Foxboro, MA||7/23|
|New Orleans||The Greenbrier &||White Sulphur Springs, WV &||7/24|
|New Orleans Saints Training Facility||Metairie, LA||8/17|
|New York Giants||Timex Performance Center||East Rutherford, NJ||7/21|
|New York Jets||SUNY Cortland||Cortland, NY||7/23|
|Oakland||Napa Valley Marriott||Napa, CA||7/24|
|Philadelphia||NovaCare Complex||Philadelphia, PA||7/25|
|Pittsburgh||Saint Vincent College||Latrobe, PA||7/25|
|St. Louis||Russell Athletic Training Center||Earth City, MO||7/24|
|San Diego||Chargers Park||San Diego, CA||7/23|
|San Francisco||Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Center||Santa Clara, CA||7/23|
|Seattle||Virginia Mason Athletic Center||Renton, WA||7/24|
|Tampa Bay||One Buccaneer Place||Tampa Bay, FL||7/25|
|Tennessee||Saint Thomas Sports Park||Nashville, TN||7/25|
|Washington||Bon Secours Training Center||Richmond, VA||7/23|
Dates and locations subject to change. Information culled from several sources.
(Top photo courtesy of Seattle Seahawks Web site, www.seahawks.com)
SEC Media Days kicks off today in Hoover, Alabama.
While it can be quite burdensome to cover and navigate for the novice journalist — and is probably too big for its own good — SEC Media Days has become a tradition in and of itself down South.
No real news happens in Hoover. Coaches aren’t ripping apart the Playoff Committee or honestly explaining why they are so vehemently opposed to the nine-game schedule. More than 1,300 credentialed media folks gather to listen to coaches and players say nothing of real importance.
But it signifies the start of the college football season. That camps are opening up across the nation. That football is back.
Part of what makes the SEC the best league in America is the passion of the fans and the interwoven nature of the community with their favorite team. It’s these traditions that make college football the best sport in the land and the SEC the best conference in the sport.
Here are our favorite SEC football traditions every fan needs to add to their bucket list of sports experiences:
The 12th Man
Born in January 1922, the phrase and tradition stemmed from one particular game with the nation’s top team at the time, Centre College. Because the team was so battered and injured, head coach Dana Bible had to call for E. King Gill, a basketball player at the time, from the stands to join the team. Texas A&M went on to win 22-14 and although Gill never made it into the game, he was the last and only man standing on the sideline. He answered the call to help his team and no one has ever forgotten about it.
It just might be the best place on Earth. This beautiful collection of oak, elm and magnolia trees surrounds a 10-acre plot adjacent to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss. The party in The Grove has been going on since football began at Ole Miss, but became the Holy Grail of Tailgating by the 1950s. The gorgeous, um, scenery is second to none and the setting is historic. Everyone is undefeated in The Grove.
Death Valley, La.
There is no singular way to describe a night home game in Tiger Stadium. The variety and flavor of an LSU tailgate is second to none with a wide-ranging menu from some of the best chefs in college football. And the stadium is arguably the loudest in the nation, especially when the Bayou Bengal fans have had all day to marinate.
May it rest in peace… for now. The Harvey Updyke saga is one of the most bizarre tales of fandom gone wrong in history. At the corner of Magnolia Avenue and College Street in front of 130-year-old Toomer’s Drug store, Auburn fans have rolled the two massive southern live oaks for roughly six decades. While those trees have been poisoned and subsequently cut down, there is hope that the new entryway to campus and new trees will continue one of the SEC’s greatest traditions.
Since 1990, 22 immovable cabooses have sat dormant on an unused railroad track behind the south end of Williams-Brice Stadium. Each caboose is privately owned and features running water, restrooms, working television, air condition and heat. The set up offers a perfect way to tailgate in style before each Gamecocks home game and provides a cool resting spot afterwards while traffic clears out. Packaged with the "2001: A Space Odyssey" entrance, the pre-game rituals in Columbia are second to none.
The Vol Navy
It isn’t nearly as picturesque as Sailgating on Lake Washington, but Tennessee has its own fan flotilla every Saturday. The tradition of floating to the game instead of driving actually began when former broadcaster George Mooney didn’t want to sit in traffic and instead traveled by boat down the Tennessee River to Neyland Stadium.
Originally an impromptu post-dinner get-together to “learn heartily the old time pep,” Midnight Yell Practice at Texas A&M didn’t officially start until 1931. Today, the tradition is held on Friday nights before home games at Kyle Field and Thursday before road games at The Arches. It is a fairly self-explanatory tradition as fans and cadets gather to practice cheering for the Aggies — and making out some too.
It might be the most recognizable fight song in the nation. Yes, visiting teams and fans get tired of the jingle after the 30th or 40th rendition on any given Saturday but Big Orange Nation never tires of the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant song written back in 1967.
Woo Pig Sooie
There isn’t a clear story as to when or how this one came about, but since at least the 1920s, Arkansas fans have been Calling the Hogs. The high-pitched chant echoes throughout the hills of Arkansas over and over and over again every Saturday.
Supposedly, the origin of Ole Miss’ famous chant remains unknown only adding to its mystique. Some claim it was taken from Virginia Tech’s “Highty Tighties,” which was an old World War II cheer about, appropriately, an alcoholic beverage.
Combine The Rammer-Jammer, the University of Alabama's student newspaper and a Yellowhammer, the state bird, and you get this unique and signature cry, which dates back to the '20s. And generally speaking, it is at its best at the end of the game when Bama just “beat the hell out of you!”
Like many of the older SEC traditions, no one is quite sure when or why or how Mississippi State started bringing cowbells to football games. However they got there, the cowbells were so effective that the SEC had to ban artificial noisemakers in 1974 — before reversing course on the decision in 2010.
Stemming from Mississippi State’s band’s version of "Jaws" in 1981, some Florida band members modified the tune slightly and added the famous vertical chomping motion. It eventually spread across the stadium and is now synonymous with Gators football.
Possibly the best pre-game, live mascot ritual in all of college football, Auburn’s Golden Eagle “Nova” performs the War Eagle Flight down through the rabid home crowd and onto its perch. Nova is officially the eighth such bird to grace Jordan-Hare Stadium as War Eagle I is said to have started the timeless tradition in 1892.
Smokey the Dog
Dating back to 1953, the Tennessee Vols have played with Smokey the Blue Tick Hound at their side. The Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity cares for him and currently Smokey X, who made his debut last fall, will be standing on the sidelines in Neyland Stadium each Saturday.
Mike the Tiger
In 1934 some LSU powers that be decided they wanted a live Bengal tiger on the field in Death Valley. Conveniently placed near the visitors’ entrance to the field, Mike the Tiger has been striking fear into opposing players and coaches for over nearly 80 years. Few mascots embody their school like Mike does.
Nine different English Bulldogs have stood on the Georgia sideline dating back to 1956 with Uga I. However, this pup gets the royal treatment between the hedges, residing in his own air-conditioned dog house. The marble mausoleum near the entrance of the Southwest corner of Sanford Stadium is the resting place for Ugas of yesteryear.
The “First Lady of Aggieland” is the highest-ranking member of the Corps of Cadets, as she is technically a Five-Star General. She showed up at games in 1931 for the first time and the full-blooded Collie is cared for by Company E-2.
World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party
This rivalry is so great that these two SEC East powers won’t even agree on how many times they have played. Georgia claims 92 meetings while Florida claims 91 (1904 is in dispute) and all but two since 1933 — when the SEC was created — have come in Jacksonville, Fla. When thousands of fans from both teams pour onto St. Simon’s Island East Beach the Friday before the game, the term Outdoor Cocktail Party comes to life.
The Iron Bowl
The state of Alabama is the most territorial in the nation when it comes to college football. Just ask Paul Finebaum or Mr. Updyke or Chris Davis. And many times, the in-state season finale carries great importance in the SEC standings. The name stems from Birmingham’s historic role in the steel industry, as up until the mid-'90s the state's biggest game hosted the game.
The Egg Bowl
It may not carry the national importance of other famous rivalries but this Magnolia State showdown is as heated as any in the land. Mississippi State and Ole Miss have met 110 times dating back to 1901 and it's the longest continuous rivalry game in the nation.
The Third Saturday In October
Each year on the third weekend in October, Alabama and Tennessee get together one more time. These two have met 95 times and Alabama holds the edge 51-37-8.
Deep South's Oldest Rivalry
Georgia and Auburn began playing in 1892 and have met 117 times with the series standing nearly deadlocked at 55-54-8 (Auburn).
Ali-Frazier. Manning-Brady. Magic-Bird. Mariota-Hundley?
Okay, maybe I’m over doing it a bit. But as far as college football fans are concerned, there will be no bigger quarterback matchup in 2014 than when UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota battle it out on the same field.
College football entered the “super quarterback” era when Michael Vick ran around on the Superdome floor in the 2000 Sugar Bowl nearly bringing Virginia Tech what would have been one of the most improbable national championships in college football history. And it’s never looked back since. Names like Hundley and Mariota now regularly wow fans with precision passing, electric athletic ability and spotlight showcases.
Since Vick took the football world by storm, names like Vince Young, Tim Tebow, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel have stolen the college football headlines. There is no reason to think this season won’t be any different.
Here are the most anticipated quarterback battles of the 2014 college football season:
1. Marcus Mariota at Brett Hundley
Oregon at UCLA, Oct. 11
It would take UCLA or Oregon reaching the national title game against Florida State for there to be a better QB matchup than when Brett Hundley welcomes Marcus Mariota to town in mid-October. Division, conference and national championship implications are on the line for two players who could be top-10 draft picks next May. Each has unique dual-threat and leadership abilities for two top-10 teams. Every fan of every team should kick back and enjoy this one.
2. Bryce Petty at Trevor Knight
Baylor at Oklahoma, Nov. 8
The Big 12 title could very well hang in the balance when Baylor visits Oklahoma on Nov. 8. Petty, who accounted for 46 touchdowns and just three interceptions last year, put a 41-12 beatdown on the Sooners last year. Knight, fresh off an immaculate Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama, is looking for revenge in what should be a breakout season. Petty is more experienced, more of a passer, runs an offense as good as any in the land and is a defending Big 12 champ. Knight is a superstar in the making who can drop jaws and is leading the team picked to win the Big 12.
3. Braxton Miller at Christian Hackenberg
Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 25
Penn State could have the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft under center and Urban Meyer could have a Heisman Trophy candidate running his offense. The Buckeyes will face two difficult road tests en route to what many believe will be a playoff berth and visiting Happy Valley will be one of them.
4. Brett Hundley at Taylor Kelly
UCLA at Arizona State, Sept. 25
These two quarterbacks will square off for the third time in three years. Hundley and UCLA won 45-43 in Tempe in 2012 while Kelly and Arizona State knocked off the Bruins in the Rose Bowl 38-33 last fall. The fireworks should continue in what could be a de facto Pac-12 South Division championship game.
5. Braxton Miller at Connor Cook
Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 8
The first meeting between these two signal-callers was an epic battle in the Big Ten title game that won’t soon be forgotten by either. Miller rushed for 142 yards, threw for 101 and scored three times in the loss. Cook had his coming out party, throwing for a career-high 304 yards and made clutch plays down the stretch to lead the Spartans to their first Big Ten crown in nearly three decades. And a trip back to the Big Ten title game will likely be on the line in this contest.
6. Everett Golson at Jameis Winston
Notre Dame at Florida State, Oct. 18
Golson returns after sitting out last year with a nearly perfect record as a starter. The Irish could be the best team on the Seminoles' schedule and Golson makes them a playoff contender now that he is back in control. Winston’s resume speaks for itself and his best matchup under center comes against Notre Dame.
7. Connor Cook at Marcus Mariota
Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6
It’s the biggest marquee non-conference showdown in college football and it will feature two quarterbacks eyeing a trip to the college football playoff. Cook set career highs with 300 yards passing in both the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl. Mariota, now fully healthy, might be the nation’s best player. The X's and O's on both sides of the ball will be fascinating to watch, as both teams will likely be ranked in the Top 10 when they meet in Week 2.
8. Chuckie Keeton at Taysom Hill
Utah State at BYU, Oct. 3
When it comes to pure athletic ability, few players in the nation can match Hill’s speed and size. He is a must-watch player every time the ball is in his hands. Keeton, arguably Utah State’s greatest football player, returns to the team after missing the entire second half of last season because of injury. Add popcorn and beer, shake well and enjoy.
9. Nick Marshall at Bo Wallace
Auburn at Ole Miss, Nov. 1
Last year, Wallace threw for 336 yards as Ole Miss significantly out-gained Auburn (464 to 375) but lost at home to the Marshall-led Tigers. The Auburn quarterback threw for just 93 yards but ran for 140 on the ground and scored two touchdowns in the thrilling and critical SEC West win. Both teams have eyes on getting to Atlanta in 2014.
10. Connor Cook at Christian Hackenberg
Michigan State at Penn State, Nov. 29
There is a good chance Michigan State is still in playoff contention when the season finale in Happy Valley rolls around. Hackenberg will be finishing his second full season and will have a chance to make an early Heisman statement for 2016, especially if Penn State doesn’t have a bowl game to go to again. Just ask Wisconsin fans what it’s like to face Hackenberg in a season finale.
Best of the rest:
Texas Tech vs. Baylor: Davis Webb vs. Bryce Petty
Notre Dame at Arizona State: Everett Golson vs. Taylor Kelly
Oregon at Oregon State: Marcus Mariota vs. Sean Mannion
Oklahoma at Texas Tech: Trevor Knight vs. Davis Webb
Auburn at Mississippi State: Nick Marshall vs. Dak Prescott
Stanford at Oregon: Kevin Hogan vs. Marcus Mariota
Oregon at Washington State: Marcus Mariota vs. Connor Halliday
Stanford at UCLA: Kevin Hogan vs. Brett Hundley
Auburn at Kansas State: Nick Marshall vs. Jake Waters
Mississippi State at Ole Miss: Dak Prescott vs. Bo Wallace
Football Nerds Unite!
Keenan Reynolds vs. Braxton Miller
Navy vs. Ohio State, Aug. 30
This duo combined for 2,414 yards rushing and a staggering 43 scores on the ground last year.
Cody Fajardo at Taysom Hill
Nevada at BYU, Oct. 18
Two of the most explosive athletes in the nation go at it in mid-October.
Rakeem Cato at Taylor Heinicke
Marshall at Old Dominion, Oct. 4
The top two QBs in C-USA combined for 7,938 yards and 72 passing TDs last year.
Terrance Broadway at Fredi Knighten
UL Lafayette at Arkansas State, Oct. 21
The top two signal callers in the Sun Belt battle for a potential league title.
Nate Sudfeld at Matt Johnson
Indiana at Bowling Green, Sept. 13
This could be a shootout pitting two elite passing attacks early in the year.
Bob Stoops fired surprising shots at the SEC last offseason, calling out the nation’s power conference and causing his sanity to be called into question in most corners of the country.
“They’ve had the best team in college football. They haven’t had the whole best conference,” the Oklahoma coach said in May 2013, just months after Alabama had won another national title, the SEC’s seventh straight national championship.
“You’re listening to a lot of propaganda that gets fed to you.”
So had Big Game Bob become Big Mouth Bob?
Little did we or Stoops know that he’d be staring down the mighty Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl in January. Suddenly, Stoops’ months-old words had become fighting words.
Yet the swaggering Stoops and his Sooners hardly backed down.
No, they backed it all up, pounding Bama and capping a late-season turnabout that altered everything in Norman, flipping feelings on the season and the program’s recent substandard perceptions, and of course, the future.
Big Game Bob was back. And taking a victory lap.
Oh, Stoops wasn’t boasting, not in a finger-wagging way. Still, he didn’t waste the opportunity to offer some semi-subtle reminders.
“I won’t have to dodge any punches, I guess you could say that,” he said in the aftermath of the Sooners’ 45–31 romp. “I have the utmost respect for Alabama. And I think this shows that obviously we can play with anybody.
“So enough of that. And I just watched them go through their entire conference and play pretty well. And, again, I admire the way they play, I really do, and Coach (Nick) Saban and the way they do things. I’m not pointing any fingers, but I think sometimes the comparisons aren’t necessarily very true.”
Neither, it seems, are perceptions of Stoops and his program.
Not of late, anyway.
Stoops reset the high bar at Oklahoma, winning a national championship in his second season and playing for three more in his first 10 years of restoring the Sooners as a college football powerhouse. Entering his 16th season, he’s the winningest coach in OU history, having passed Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer and Bennie Owen. His teams have captured eight Big 12 titles, with a 7–1 record in conference championship games, and gone to a program-record 15 consecutive bowl games.
Still, critics have picked at Stoops in recent years. They’ve pointed to his 0–3 record in national title games since the 2000 breakthrough. They’ve suggested that he’s beaten a retreat in the Big 12, where three other teams (Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor) have risen up to claim the past three league trophies.
Legitimate critiques, or nitpicking?
The Sooners, after all, have posted double-digit win totals each of the past four seasons and in seven of the last eight.
Have they reached that high bar Stoops has set? Not quite. So in truth, there are probably some valid arguments on both sides. And even Stoops signaled a need to alter course while acknowledging that things may have grown stagnant, firing a total of five assistants in the two years prior to the 2013 season after not sending a single coach packing his previous 12 years on the job.
As recently as last November, there was a degree of panic among the fan base, after the Sooners were thumped 41–12 at Baylor in what had been anticipated as a showdown. That, after they’d been gouged 36–20 by archrival Texas in the Red River Rivalry a month earlier.
The Sooners were shuffling quarterbacks, with Blake Bell, Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson taking turns behind center, and none thriving.
Then, in the span of little more than four quarters, everything turned. For the Sooners. For program pride. For Stoops.
It started in Bedlam, with Oklahoma State poised to win for the second time in three years in the series, marching to a 24–20 lead with 1:46 remaining. But Bell, inserted for the injured Knight and an ineffective Thompson, guided the Sooners to their first offensive touchdown of the day, finishing the drive with a 7-yard scoring pass to Jalen Saunders with 19 seconds left to lift OU to the improbable win.
Then came the matchup with Bama in the Sugar Bowl, a game analysts and fans from across the country counted as a Tide throwdown before kickoff, before the 17-point underdog Sooners surged ahead early and kept pouring it on.
“I get annoyed when people ask me if I’m afraid,” OU defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue said at the time, reflecting his head coach’s brashness. “Just shut up.”
Said Stoops: “We weren’t coming in on a load of wood. We’ve won some games around here. That’s how we feel. Everyone else, we weren’t that concerned about.
“We played how we expected to play, to be quite honest. And, again … I’ve got the absolute utmost respect for Alabama. But we have a lot of confidence in what we do, too.”
Stoops, in good times and bad, is confident. So his remarks about the SEC shouldn’t have come as a shock. Asked a question, he simply answered, honestly and boldly. And that confidence flows through his coaching staff and players, who seem to operate with a permanent chip on their shoulder, despite their status among college football’s elite.
“What we were able to do against Alabama was no fluke,” says defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, Bob’s younger brother. “That was our team playing on all cylinders as a young team.
“That gave us a lot of momentum heading into the last month of recruiting. … We feel like we’re a championship-caliber team. That’s what the kids want to play for.”
Don’t expect that confidence to wane anytime soon.
The Sooners’ late-season surge fueled a recruiting rally, provided strong answers to critical personnel questions and thrust OU back into national title talk for 2014 as a heavy favorite in the Big 12.
Bob Stoops’ stock enjoyed a surge of sorts, too. Trusting his instincts, he again seems to be pulling all the right strings, whether making over his staff or overseeing tweaks to both sides of the ball or returning to the gambling in-game decision-making style that marked his earlier years at the helm.
Big Game Bob appears to be back and charging forward, thankful for the Sugar Bowl rush, yet ready to move on.
“They’re not sitting back thinking about that and not doing what they need to do moving forward,” Stoops says of his team. “I think, more than anything, it’s made them hungrier to build on it and to keep improving.”
Written by John Helsley (@jjhelsley) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
Social media crackled with disbelief on the day word leaked that former University of Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino was in line to become the replacement for Charlie Strong at U of L last January.
Talk-radio hyperventilated. Opinions flew from every direction. Louisville can’t be hiring that two-timer, can it? National columnists powered up their keyboards and took their most vicious shots.
Considering the way Petrino had walked out on Louisville for the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 and then driven his career (and motorcycle) off the road at Arkansas in 2012, outsiders howled that athletic director Tom Jurich had finally fumbled a big decision.
Actually, the decision to bring Petrino back from Western Kentucky was every bit a calculated Jurich move. People who know Jurich know that Petrino was the first option from the moment Strong’s name was linked to Texas.
The reaction in Louisville to Petrino’s return for a job that he didn’t want seven years earlier? That he was getting a deal worth $3.5 million per season with a $10 million buyout?
Primarily long and sustained applause.
“The offense isn’t going to be boring around here any more,” former Louisville running back Michael Bush said on a live microphone in front of 27,500 fans at the Cardinals’ spring game.
In the aftermath of Petrino’s arrival, the demand for U of L football season tickets increased. The waiting list grew. Any complaints within the ambitious fan base disappeared after a few days.
Because Petrino wins football games, and Louisville has become accustomed to winning after ringing up victories in the Sugar and Russell Athletic bowls the last two seasons.
“I don’t think anybody will quarrel with his knowledge,” Jurich says.
Louisville is making its move into the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, and the program needed a head coach who could scheme with Jimbo Fisher and the other big dogs in a more demanding league. “He’s as good as anybody I’ve seen or been around,” says Jurich.
What about it, coach?
Says Petrino, “It’s been great. Every day has been great, for me and my family. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be back.”
The Cardinal fan base adored Petrino when he was the head coach from 2003-06, when his teams would routinely score 40, 50, 60 points — and never trailed Kentucky for one second in four games.
Louisville started 2013 with a victory in the Sugar Bowl, won the men’s basketball NCAA title, finished second in the women’s basketball tournament and sent its baseball team to the College World Series. If any athletic director had the muscle to sell Petrino, it was Jurich.
But there was another reason insiders were not surprised: They knew that Jurich played a critical role in helping Petrino land his initial comeback job at Western Kentucky.
Without a strong endorsement from Jurich, WKU athletic director Todd Stewart would have never hired Petrino only eight months after Arkansas fired him for hiring his mistress on the Razorbacks’ staff and then lying about it.
Petrino was toxic then. Jurich did as much as anybody to help Petrino repair his reputation and career.
Stewart called Jurich to discuss Petrino before WKU hired him as Willie Taggart’s replacement in December 2012. Jurich had every reason to bury Petrino, and why not? Petrino had misled him several times while interviewing for other jobs early in his Louisville career. He flirted with jobs at LSU, Notre Dame, Florida and elsewhere, even though Jurich was the first guy to give Petrino a head coaching opportunity.
Then Petrino bolted for the Falcons less than a week after coaching the Cardinals to an Orange Bowl victory over Wake Forest.
Jurich is first-team all-loyalty. He’s been at Louisville since October 1997, even though several prime-time programs, including Texas, inquired about his interest. Not only was Petrino always in a hurry to get to the next job, but he’d also later walked out on the Falcons in the middle of his first season and then embarrassed Arkansas.
But Jurich did not encourage Stewart to scratch Petrino from his list of WKU coaching candidates. He told him that Petrino deserved a chance — and that he would do excellent work in Bowling Green.
Petrino and Jurich had repaired their relationship while the coach sat out the 2012 season. He apologized for things that happened at Louisville. He asked Jurich if he would help him mend his career. Jurich told him that the first thing he needed to do was mend his life with his family — his wife, Becky, and their four children.
They had several conversations. By the time WKU called to inquire about Petrino, Jurich was convinced that his former coach was ready for another chance. And he endorsed Petrino for that job.
The contract and the buyout were structured that if Petrino left during the first two seasons, WKU would make money. If it didn’t work out, WKU would only suffer a small PR hit. But it worked — for WKU, for Petrino and for Louisville.
How would the Cardinals benefit?
Because the stories about everything that Petrino did wrong were written during the buildup to his first season at Western Kentucky. He talked about the mistakes he had made and lessons that he had learned.
Becky Petrino came to Bowling Green with him. So did two of their children. Two other Petrino children were already in Louisville, attending U of L. If the family was going to make it again, they were going to make it in Kentucky.
Most of the negative stories would be aired out at Western Kentucky. By the end of his first season, there would be a fresh Petrino narrative. He was the coach who beat Kentucky in his season-opener as well as the guy who won eight games, more than WKU had ever won as an FBS program.
He was the guy grateful for a second chance, a coach who understood this was his last chance to make it right.
“I think the opportunity to get someone who is very seasoned as we head into the ACC (is critical),” Jurich says. “But somebody who is definitely a changed person.
“I think the opportunity to get Bobby Petrino is what sold me. Like I said, if it was the same Bobby Petrino as eight years ago, I wasn’t interested, and I had to be convinced of that.”
“The first mistake I made was leaving Louisville,” Petrino says, and he has said it multiple times. “But now I feel like my family and I have come back home.”
Written by Rick Bozich (@RickBozich) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 ACC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.
Jerseys can’t be unburned, but perhaps the love between a city and an athlete can be rekindled.
LeBron James will put that to the test with his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers and his home state of Ohio. His exit — ahem, taking his talents to South Beach — wounded an entire city in 2010. Four years and two NBA championships later and James will return to team that drafted him.
The move is somewhat unprecedented. Rarely has an athlete, never mind one of the greatest in the world, gone from hometown hero to archvillain and back to favorite son. All while he's still in his prime.
We asked ourselves, what would be some of the other returns in the sports world that could compare? Which would be the most awkward, and somewhat plausible, reunions in sports?
Here are our 10.
Steve Spurrier to Florida
Perhaps one of the closet parallels to LeBron and Cleveland. Spurrier won the Heisman at Florida and built the Gators into one of the premier programs in college football. After Ron Zook was fired, a segment of Florida fans wanted Spurrier to return when the Ol’ Ball Coach was looking for work after his short-lived tenure in the NFL. Florida hired Urban Meyer instead, and Spurrier went to South Carolina. The idea of a Spurrier return to Florida may warm the hearts of older Florida fans. Meyer on the other hand...
Rick Pitino back to Kentucky
Pitino brought back the Kentucky program back after NCAA sanctions. He led “The Unforgettables” to the Elite Eight and won Kentucky’s first national title in 18 years. When Pitino left for the Boston Celtics, he left enough for successor Tubby Smith to win a national title of his own, but what really burned Big Blue Nation was Pitino’s return to the college game at rival Louisville. Kentucky fans are thrilled with the coach they’ve got now, but they had to go through the Billy Gillispie dark ages to get there.
Peyton Manning back to the Indianapolis Colts
Yes, the Colts' offense is in perfectly good hands with Andrew Luck under center. However, the organization's, and, perhaps more important, the fan base's bond with Manning remains. Besides, Manning certainly isn't getting any younger, so perhaps playing time won't be an issue another year or two down the road? After all, the only Super Bowl Manning has won so far has come in a Colts uniform.
Michael Vick to the Atlanta Falcons
Believe it or not, but it's been 13 years since Vick was taken No. 1 overall by the Falcons in the 2001 NFL Draft. Obviously a lot has happened between now and then, but Vick's clearly not the same person (or football player for that matter) that he was when he first entered the league as a young, electric, dual-threat quarterback. They say time heals all wounds, so perhaps the timing is just right for a reunion. And the Falcons wouldn't have to worry about a potential quarterback controversy either, as Vick already seems to have embraced his backup role with the Jets.
Albert Pujols back to the St. Louis Cardinals
Pujols was starting to be mentioned with Stan Musial around St. Louis before bolting for the Angels. Cardinals fans were heartbroken, but they’re doing just fine without him with a trip to the World Series and the NLCS. The longer St. Louis goes without a championship and the more Pujols starts to look like his old self, the more the Cardinals may start to miss him.
Greg Schiano back to Rutgers
Rutgers had one bowl appearance in over 100 years of football before Schiano showed up in Piscataway. So after six bowl appearances and building a posh on-campus home, Schiano broke Scarlet hearts when he tried his hand at the NFL in 2012. His disciplinarian tactics didn't go over well in the pro ranks, and he was shown the door. He’s out of work now, but we're pretty sure the Knights would beg him to return to Jersey.
Texas A&M back to the Big 12
Awkward, yes. Realistic, no.
Bobby Petrino back to Arkansas
Petrino already returned to where he built his name with a return to Louisville. If not for a fateful motorcycle ride, Petrino may still be at Arkansas, where he had the Razorbacks just a step behind Alabama and LSU. Few things would be more Petrino than using Louisville (again) to take a better job.
Kurt Busch back to any former NASCAR team
Busch has burned so many bridges in NASCAR that a return to anywhere (Team Penske, Roush Fenway Racing) would be beyond awkward.
Brett Favre back to Green Bay
Where is Ed Werder when you need him? We set out to look at only active athletes, but retirement is all relative when it comes to Favre. After an ugly divorce in Green Bay, Packers fans weren't all that upset to watch their departed quarterback squirm during a Deadspin-fueled scandal with a Jets broadcaster or when he was on the wrong end of Bounty Gate while playing for the rival Vikings. Green Bay has a fine quarterback of their own now, but you never know when he might need a new backup.
David Fox, Braden Gall, Mark Ross and Matt Taliaferro contributed to this post.
In the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports’ Pro Football preview, we called on Ourlads Scouting Services to rank the NFL’s best at every position on the field. When it comes to determining who is the best quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, etc., who better to make that determination than a company that’s been in the gridiron talent evaluation business for nearly three decades?
With the NFL evolving into a pass-happy league, a disruptive defensive line is becoming even more important. Look no further than this past Super Bowl when Seattle relied primarily on its defensive line, instead of blitzes, to put pressure on Denver’s Peyton Manning. Even though the Seahawks finished with just one sack, the pressure was effective. Michael Bennett and company held the record-setting MVP to 280 yards passing and one touchdown, while picking him off twice in their dominating 43-8 victory.
So whether it’s a 3-4 or a 4-3 scheme, one of the keys to success in today’s NFL is a strong first line of defense. Just ask the Seahawks.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads Scouting Services
2014 NFL Player Rankings: 3-4 Defensive Ends
1. J.J. Watt, Houston
A dominant defensive lineman who had another stellar year. Explodes off the snap and plays the game with great passion and emotion. A relentless competitor.
2. Calais Campbell, Arizona
Has become a welcomed star on the Cardinals’ defensive line and a disruptive high-effort player. Chases the ball down effectively from the backside.
3. Sheldon Richardson, NY Jets
Was voted the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. Instinctive with lightning-quick reactions and the ability to change direction. An explosive high-effort talent.
4. Kyle Williams, Buffalo
Is an explosive up-the-field penetrator who battles every down. Has inside pass-rush ability. Keeps his hands and feet moving with an upfield burst.
5. Cameron Jordan, New Orleans
Blossomed at the 5-technique position under Rob Ryan and turned in a big year that included 12.5 sacks.
6. Muhammad Wilkerson, NY Jets
Like his running mate Sheldon Richardson, he shuts down the run. He also added 10.5 sacks, showing his quickness, athletic ability and field awareness.
7. Justin Smith, San Francisco
Is shedding age and time like the blockers he regularly defeats. Still has an explosive first step and takes on blockers aggressively. Active hands and body control.
8. Arthur Jones, Indianapolis
Left the Ravens in free agency after a big year and landed in Indianapolis. A blue-collar worker who is an ascending player with the ability to stop and stack in the run game.
9. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia
Played as a 5-technique in the Eagles’ 3-4 scheme and demonstrated strong pass-rush skills along with lateral quickness and run-stuffing ability.
10. Mike Daniels, Green Bay
Is a quick and resourceful defender who had his best year since the Packers drafted him in the fourth round in 2012.
11. Cedric Thornton, Philadelphia
12. Vinny Curry, Philadelphia
13. Antonio Smith, Oakland
14. Akiem Hicks, New Orleans
15. Allen Bailey, Kansas City
16. Mike DeVito, Kansas City
17. Cory Redding, Indianapolis
18. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh
19. Alan Branch, Buffalo
20. Ray McDonald, San Francisco
2014 NFL Player Rankings: 4-3 Defensive Ends
1. Robert Quinn, St. Louis
An explosive right end who recorded a team-record 19 sacks in 2013. Possesses natural hand, foot and lateral quickness. Tough to block, exhibiting outstanding flexibility.
2. Greg Hardy, Carolina
Was awarded the franchise tag tender after recording 15 sacks in 2013 and 11 in 2012. Explosive edge speed. Can bend the corner and turn speed to power.
3. Cameron Wake, Miami
A natural 4-3 end who draws protection and frees up guys like Olivier Vernon, who corralled 11.5 sacks in 2013. Has the strength, quickness and leverage to control the blocker and stack the run.
4. DeMarcus Ware, Denver
Signed with the Broncos after his Cowboy release and will team with productive Von Miller to form a formidable defensive duo.
5. Michael Bennett, Seattle
Led the Super Bowl champions with 8.5 sacks and was re-signed during the offseason. Versatile enough to play end and tackle. A good athlete who plays with strength and leverage.
6. Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati
Signed a contract extension last year and overcame chronic injuries to elevate his overall game and pass-rushing abilities.
7. Lamarr Houston, Chicago
A versatile inside or outside competitor whose motor is always running hot. Explosive first-step quickness to split blockers. A disruptive pass-rusher who bats balls down or pressures throws.
8. Michael Johnson, Tampa Bay
Was signed in the offseason to pressure the quarterback in Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2. Rare athletic ability with explosive initial quickness.
9. Derrick Morgan, Tennessee
Has developed into a solid pro. Demonstrates jolt and explosion to shock the blocker. Relentless player. Could struggle in move 3-4.
10. Chandler Jones, New England
Athletic pass-rusher with a long and rangy build. Has elusive first-step quickness and can close laterally on inside runs. Finishes long crossfield pursuit. Flies around the field looking to make plays.
11. Chris Long, St. Louis
12. Charles Johnson, Carolina
13. Willie Young, Chicago
14. Robert Ayers, NY Giants
15. Rob Ninkovich, New England
16. Justin Tuck, Oakland
17. Cliff Avril, Seattle
18. Brian Robison, Minnesota
19. Shaun Phillips, Tennessee
20. Everson Griffen, Minnesota
2014 NFL Player Rankings: Defensive Tackles
1. Ndamukong Suh, Detroit
Is the league’s most dominant interior lineman, with explosive strength and top-level athletic ability. A disruptive player who is generally double-teamed and makes big-time plays because of extra effort. Must eliminate untimely penalties.
2. Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay
Finally came into his own in 2013 after avoiding injury. He emerged as a one-gap disruptor and made his second Pro Bowl.
3. Geno Atkins, Cincinnati
Collected 20 sacks from the interior in 2011 and ’12, the most in the NFL. He was on his way to another banner season with six sacks when he suffered an ACL injury against Miami in early November.
4. Marcell Dareus, Buffalo
Provides quickness and strength to anchor the inside gaps. Long-armed power player becoming more consistent with his hands and technique.
5. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee
Led the Titans in sacks with 10.5 last season. He must now make a scheme change to a 3-4 defense from a 4-3. A high-effort competitor who is quick and explosive.
6. Randy Starks, Miami
Was re-signed and the big-framed tackle is a solid run-defender and explosive as a leverage player. A good effort competitor who finishes pursuit.
7. Jason Hatcher, Washington
Signed in the offseason and is expected to hold down one of the end spots for the Redskins. With the Cowboys, he moved inside to a 4-3 tackle.
8. Dontari Poe, Kansas City
Started his career slowly but went from lamb to lion in 2013. He proved that he is an immovable anchor against the run and gets explosive push in the pass game.
9. Jared Odrick, Miami
Is physical at defensive end on run downs and is versatile enough to move down inside on pass downs. A disruptive athlete who gets upfield pressure.
10. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore
He’s 30 now, but had another productive year at nose tackle. A dominant force when healthy.
11. Pat Sims, Oakland
12. Terrance Knighton, Denver
13. Brandon Mebane, Seattle
14. Damon Harrison, NY Jets
15. Star Lotulelei, Carolina
16. Malik Jackson, Denver
17. Kawann Short, Carolina
18. Linval Joseph, Minnesota
19. Paul Soliai, Atlanta
20. Glenn Dorsey, San Francisco
21. Barry Cofield, Washington
22. Kevin Williams, Free agent
23. Cullen Jenkins, NY Giants
24. Jonathan Babineaux, Atlanta
25. Phil Taylor, Cleveland
26. Tony McDaniel, Seattle
27. Karl Klug, Tennessee
28. Corey Peters, Atlanta
29. Nick Fairley, Detroit
30. Clinton McDonald, Tampa Bay
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, the newly-announced Race Team Alliance takes center stage, while testing issues, Brian Vickers’ race-win and the possibility of night racing in New Hampshire’s future highlight the storylines leading up to the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Make no mistake: Race Team Alliance has ushered in new era of NASCAR
NASCAR president Mike Helton gathered reporters at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Friday morning to deliver one specific message: Animosity between NASCAR and the newly-formed Race Team Alliance is non-existent and NASCAR will continue to operate as planned.
It was the most direct feedback yet from the sanctioning body after Monday’s surprising announcement of the new collective consisting of nine race teams operating 25 cars in the 2014 Sprint Cup field. Publicly, the RTA is maintaining the stance that the group is about reducing costs among its group and finding better ways to do business in their volatile market.
Privately, of course, the intentions may be much grander. The RTA now wields a significant amount of strength in the sport’s power balance. That doesn’t mean the group has a goal of supplanting the France family as NASCAR’s leaders, but it does open some avenues for change of the sport’s entire business structure – a shift well beyond the norm of operation for the powers that be in Daytona Beach. Such is life when the word “billions” becomes part of the sport’s vocabulary.
This is a scenario for both groups where treading lightly is the best course of action. Wrong moves could quickly become disastrous. But it’s also a curious one because intelligent, cohesive decision-making between the two could be a boon for the sport.
Chase testing may play role in Sunday’s race
With a race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and handling similarity to Phoenix International Raceway (another Chase track), NHMS can be an appealing place for Cup teams to use part of their testing allotment. That’s why Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Michael Waltrip Racing and Richard Childress Racing have all made mid-week trips to the northeast already this season.
Ganassi and Hendrick tested the one-mile track in early June, bringing all six combined cars and drivers to the two-day session. RCR and MWR were in Loudon just last week.
“We went to New Hampshire trying to find that little bit extra as a whole group,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr. “You only get four tests from which to choose and the whole company has to agree on where we’re going. It’s a company-wide initiative to try and improve, so I think it says a lot that we chose New Hampshire as one of those tests.”
Morgan Shepherd continues oldest competitor streak
Hopefully this time won’t be a start-and-park. But don’t hold too much hope.
Morgan Shepherd, 72, will start the Sprint Cup race Sunday at New Hampshire to continue his own record of being the oldest driver in NASCAR’s top division. Only 43 cars are on-hand for this weekend’s race, meaning no teams will be packing up after qualifying.
Shepherd raced once earlier this season at Phoenix and made his first Cup start since 2006 one year ago at NHMS. In both races, Shepherd failed to even get to one-third distance when he start-and-parked. Last year, Shepherd stopped for a “vibration” and at Phoenix the given cause was brake issues.
The car he’s racing – Circle Sport’s No. 33 – attempted to race the full distance last week at Daytona with Bobby Labonte behind the wheel until it was caught in a crash on Lap 98.
Brian Vickers, one year later
The career arc of Brian Vickers completely changed a year ago at New Hampshire. Then a part-time driver for Michael Waltrip Racing, Vickers put the No. 55 in victory lane despite the best intentions of a late debris cautions to foil his drive.
Vickers would eventually sign a multi-year full-time deal with MWR and boost Aaron’s to return as the primary sponsor on his Toyota.
The moment was one of those unexpected moments of redemption in sports. Vickers, saddled with the baggage of underperformance in his time at Hendrick Motorsports, the closure of Red Bull Racing and blood clot issue that sidelined him from racing, was able to claw back up to the ranks of full-time.
Now 18 races into the 2014 season, Vickers is on pace for the best season of his career. He has three top-5 finishes and ranks 16th in the point standings.
Final daytime summer race at NHMS?
Last week at Daytona, NASCAR CEO Brian France hinted that some significant changes to the Sprint Cup schedule may be in the works for 2015. The moves – should they happen – are made possible by the new television rights deal in place effective next season and would reflect NASCAR’s desire to stymie drooping television ratings and at-track attendance.
NHMS may play a pivotal role in those shifts. The one-mile oval is the only track on the calendar with two races past the season’s halfway point (Sprint Cup returns on Sept. 21) and previous overtures by track general manager Jerry Gappens indicate night racing may be in the cards. Such a switch may require either a date change or another night race on the Sprint Cup calendar to become a daytime event based on the desires of Fox or NBC.
The Associated Press reported last fall that Gappens had asked NASCAR for a night race this year. That didn’t happen, obviously, but Gappens held out hope for 2015. NHMS, opened in 1990, does not currently have lights. It was purchased by Speedway Motorsports, Inc., in 2008 and remains the only operating oval in the SMI portfolio without lights.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Tiger Woods came out of the gate with Jack Nicklaus' major championship record as his ultimate target. That number — 18 career major championship wins — seemed utterly out of reach, until Tiger started winning majors with alarming regularity.
For a long time, Woods was well ahead of Nicklaus' career pace, but a drought that has now exceeded six years in duration has put a serious dent in Tiger's major aspirations. Of course, Nicklaus won his last major at age 46, giving Woods eight more years of viability on the major championship scene, a reasonable assumption considering the similarity of their career trajectories, although Woods' health issues are now bringing that into question.
Here are the final four majors of Nicklaus' career, all of which came at age 38 and beyond:
1978 British Open (age 38)
1980 U.S. Open (age 40)
1980 PGA Championship (age 40)
1986 Masters (age 46)
Woods turns 46 in December 2021. Between now and then, counting this week's British Open, there will be 30 major championships contested; Woods needs to win five of them to reach his career Holy Grail of 19 major championships.
Of course, Tiger has already moved well past Nicklaus into second on the Tour's all-time wins ledger. Tiger trails only Sam Snead, who won 82 times over a 30-year span; Woods has crammed his 79 wins into 17-plus stellar, occasionally storm-tossed seasons on Tour.
Jack still thinks he'll do it, and the Golden Bear even gives Tiger a shelf life that lasts until age 50. "If he's healthy, I think Tiger's got 10-plus years to play top-quality tournament golf," Nicklaus said. "I've said many times, he's got a little over 40 tournaments to play the major championships, he's only got to win five to pass my record. As good a player as he is, I don't think that should be a big deal."
No big deal for the guy who's already in the clubhouse with 18. A slightly bigger deal for a guy with a bad back who hasn't hoisted any major hardware in more than six years.
So let's compare the two legends through their age-38 seasons (although Tiger still has more golf to play in 2014).
Bottom line from the data presented here: Tiger's building the better overall career, but Jack remains the greatest performer in major championship history. That's the carrot that Tiger is still chasing, and he's running out of time to get there.
Tiger Woods-Jack Nicklaus Career Comparison (Through Age-38 Season)
|TIGER WOODS||JACK NICKLAUS|
|Major winning % (as professional)||21.9||22|
|Major top 5s||31||46|
|Major top 10s||38||55|
|Longest streak of top-5 in majors||6||7|
|Longest streak of top-10 in majors||8||13|
|Lowest scoring avg.||9 times||8 times|
|Money leader||10 times||8 times|
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for July 11:
• This Belgian beauty was spotted in the crowd at the World Cup and earned a modeling gig. She then lost the gig because she's a hunter. It's a strange world.
• Derek Jeter is part-owner of a company that produces underwear that cools your junk? Is this real life?
• Watch a planeload of Argentines go nuts when they find out their soccer team won.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at email@example.com
Fall college fantasy football drafts are right around the corner and Athlon is here to help win your league in 2014. Athlon Sports has teamed with Joe DiSalvo of thecffsite.com to provide the latest rankings for the upcoming year.
Thecffsite.com is the No. 1 place for college fantasy news, rankings and weekly projections during the year.
Below is the projected top 50 overall performers for 2014. Want to go deeper? Check out thecffsite.com’s draft kit, which contains keeper league information, more rankings and analysis.
Scoring system rankings based upon:
All draft values are based on a 12-team, 20-round draft using the following scoring system:
Passing—25 pass yds = 1 point
Passing TD = 4 points
Rushing—10 rushing yards = 1 point
Rushing TDs = 6 points
Receiving—.5 points per reception, 10 receiving yards = 1 point, Receiving TDs = 6 points
Updated: July 4, 2014, by Joe DiSalvo (@theCFFsite)
Visit Fantrax.com to play college fantasy football in 2014.
Note: This is not a list of the best players in college football. This is a ranking of the best players in terms of fantasy value (players who will have the best numbers in college football for 2014).
Other Positional Rankings: Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers
College Fantasy Football: Top 50 Overall for 2014
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
3. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor
4. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
5. Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State
6. D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State
7. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
8. Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall
9. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
10. Matt Johnson, QB, Bowling Green
11. Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech
12. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
13. Antwan Goodley, WR, Baylor
14. Justin Hardy, WR, East Carolina
15. Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State
16. Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana
17. Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston
18. Travis Greene, RB, Bowling Green
19. Taysom Hill, QB, BYU
20. Byron Marshall, RB, Oregon
21. Nelson Agholor, WR, USC
22. Jahwan Edwards, RB, Ball State
23. Tyler Lockett, WR, Kansas Sate
24. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
25. Jamison Crowder, WR, Duke
26. Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy
27. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
28. Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo
29. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
30. Josh Harper, WR, Fresno State
31. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State
32. Jamaal Williams, RB, BYU
33. Shane Carden, QB, East Carolina
34. DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville
35. Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor
36. Ezekiel Elliot, RB, Ohio State
37. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
38. Javorius Allen, RB, USC
39. Desmond Roland, RB, Oklahoma State
40. Titus Davis, WR, Central Michigan
41. Tommy Shuler, WR, Marshall
42. Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State
43. Thomas Tyner, RB, Oregon
44. Jordan Williams, WR, Ball State
45. Marcus Cox, RB, Appalachian State
46. Devante Davis, WR, UNLV
47. Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State
48. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
49. William Stanback, RB, Central Florida
50. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
To find additional college fantasy football material, visit The College Fantasy Football Site and check out their 2014 College Fantasy Football Preseason Draft Guide.
• Over 500 player rankings (QB, RB, WR, TE, K, and D/ST).
• Bullet-point analysis for over 100 players (QB, RB, WR).
• 2014 Sleepers
• Draft Day Cheat Sheet
• Blank cheat sheet to customize rankings for your draft.
• Results of a 12-team, 10-round mock draft based on theCFFsite rankings, roster
requirements, and scoring system.
• Schedule Analysis
• 35-plus Freshmen to Watch
• 18-page printable PDF document
• Access to updates throughout the preseason.
Follow theCFFsite on twitter: @theCFFsite
Here are Athlon Sports' favorite, most important and most interesting Big 12 statistics you need to know about in 2014:
3: Players who declared early for the NFL Draft
A record 98 underclassmen declared early for the 2014 NFL Draft — up from the previous high of 73 set in '13. The SEC had 28 early departures and the Pac-12 lost 25 underclassmen to the NFL. The Big 12, however, was last among all Big 5 conferences with just three early departures. The overall trend of diminishing elite talent in the Big 12 is a concern and the recruiting rankings don’t provide any comfort. The entire league signed seven Top 100 recruits in 2014 (247Sports). Alabama signed 13 and Texas A&M almost matched the entire Big 12 on its own with five. To top it all, the Texas Longhorns went without a player taken in the NFL Draft for the first time since 1937.
0: Times Baylor has won in Norman
Baylor and Oklahoma have played 24 times total in history and the Bears have only won twice. One of those was a 41-12 beatdown the Bears put on the Sooners last season in Waco. The other was a 48-38 win in Waco in 2011. But to defend their Big 12 championship in 2014, Baylor will have to beat Oklahoma (and Texas) on the road this season. Baylor is 0-11 in Norman all-time against the Sooners. So while the Bears have won two of the last three against Oklahoma (and three out of four against Texas), Baylor will most likely have to do something it has never done before in 2014 if it wants to have a chance of repeating as conference champs.
46 and 3: Bryce Petty total TDs and INTs
Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy. Nick Florence set multiple school records. But Bryce Petty took Art Briles' offense to a new level statistically. Petty accounted for 46 total touchdowns a year ago (32 pass, 14 rush) while throwing just three interceptions in 403 pass attempts. Baylor scored 70 points four times and scored at least 59 points seven different times en route to the team’s first-ever Big 12 title. Petty also helped Baylor set a single-game Big 12 record with 872 yards against West Virginia — which would be a record in every other conference in the nation except the Pac-12. Petty is back with a plethora of talented wide receivers and should find himself in New York as a Heisman finalist at season’s end.
5: Touchdowns thrown by Trevor Knight in the regular season
Most fans only remember the remarkable Sugar Bowl performance from Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight in which he completed 32-of-44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Alabama. No one really remembers the fact that he threw a grand total of five touchdowns during the entire regular season — three of which came against Louisiana-Monroe in Week 1. He missed five games due to injury and does a lot of damage with his legs, but he also was benched due to inconsistency at times. The Sooners' offense is now his alone in Norman and most believe he has the talent to develop into a superstar, but there could still be plenty of learning curves to navigate for the Oklahoma signal-caller.
11-4: Texas' record the last two years with David Ash starting at quarterback
Over the last two years, David Ash has been the starter in 15 games for the Longhorns. He missed 10 games a year ago and the Kansas State game in 2012. In those 15 games, the Longhorns went 11-4 and averaged 6.4 yards per play on offense. In the other 11 games, Texas went 6-5 and averaged just 4.9 yards per play. For perspective, 6.4 yards per play would have averaged 22nd in the nation last fall while 4.9 would have tied Akron for 108th nationally. Needless to say, Texas needs Ash to stay healthy for Charlie Strong to build a winner.
23-3: Charlie Strong’s record in 2012-13
Texas has been ranked in the final AP poll just once since 2009 (19th in 2012) and the fall off from the BCS national title game in ’09 led to the hiring of Charlie Strong. The no-nonsense defensive guru brings with him a sterling resume of success at Louisville. The Cardinals won 23 games over the last two years, including two top 15 finishes and a BCS bowl thumping of Florida two years ago. Strong won at least 11 games in each of the last two years, something Texas hasn’t done since 2009.
8.5: Average margin of defeat for TCU
The Horned Frogs suffered their first losing season since 2004 and lost as many games in Big 12 play last year (7) as it had during its entire seven-year tenure as a member of the Mountain West Conference. A big reason, however, why Athlon Sports likes TCU to bounce back in 2014 was how those losses took place. TCU lost eight games in 2014 by an average of just 8.5 points per game. Included in the Frogs' seven losses were just two by more than 10 points and four by a field goal or fewer points. With eight starters returning to a defense that ranked sixth in the nation in average yards allowed on first down (4.4), Gary Patterson should expect to be back in the postseason this fall.
32: Oklahoma State departing lettermen
Mike Gundy has his work cut out for him this fall and part of the reason the Pokes aren’t really considered in the mix for a Big 12 championship is roster turnover. Oklahoma State loses 32 of 70 players who earned a letter last year. That 54.3 percent rate of returning letterman is ranked dead last in the nation (128th), making the Cowboys the least experienced team in the entire country. Basically, it’s the worst possible time to face the defending national champions in the first week of the season.
48.6: Points allowed per game by Texas Tech in its last five games
Kliff Kingsbury began his career as the Red Raiders head coach with seven consecutive wins. But his team lost five straight games and allowed nearly 50 points per game along the way. Coach Skinny Jeans had a lot of work to do on his defense in his first full offseason in Lubbock after allowing 48.6 points per game over the final five games of regular season a year ago. The schedule isn’t that much different this time around either, as Tech will face the top three teams in the preseason rankings (Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas) in the final month of the season.
7.8: West Virginia's average yards to go on third down
Staying ahead of the chains is a big deal in football. In fact, there are entirely new statistical measures of offensive efficiency dedicated to defining a “successful offensive play.” Basically, gaining at least 50 percent of necessary yards on first down, 70 percent on second down and 100 percent on third or fourth down would be considered successful. West Virginia, a team that averaged nearly 40 points per game just two seasons ago, was behind the chains constantly a year ago. The Mountaineers ranked 115th nationally by averaging 7.8 yards to go on third down a year ago and it led to West Virginia scoring just 26.3 points per game (79th).
4.29: Kansas' yards per play
Kansas averaged just 4.29 yards per play last year on 825 offensive snaps. That number ranked 122nd nationally and dead last among all Big 5 teams — worse than Florida, UConn, Purdue, Virginia and Wake Forest. The Jayhawks were also one of just eight teams in the nation to average less than 300 yards of total offense per game (294.7 ypg) and finished last in the Big 12 and 119th in the nation at finishing drives. Kansas scored just 3.27 points per trip inside the opponent's 40-yard line. Basically, the KU offense was completely inept, something that should be totally unacceptable for a head coach who has made a serious living as an offensive guru.
The scene played out in Jordan-Hare Stadium like an improbable dream or a horrific nightmare, depending on whether you say “War Eagle” or “Roll Tide.” Auburn’s Chris Davis fielded Alabama’s missed field goal opportunity with no time on the clock of a tie game and kept running and running and running.
When Davis finally stopped, it was Auburn — not two-time defending national champion Alabama — in position to reach the final BCS National Championship Game. Gus Malzahn had fired the opening shot at Nick Saban in their first meeting as head coaches. After that, Malzahn won — at least for now — the intense offseason debate over hurry-up offenses in college football that drew battle lines in Alabama as if the debate paired Democrats vs. Republicans.
Bubbling at the surface of Auburn’s surprising 2013 season and Malzahn’s unique offense is one very important question: Can Alabama and Auburn consistently be elite at the same time in a relatively small state with 4.8 million people?
History suggests no. Something usually happens to quickly swing the balance of one of the teams — coaching changes, NCAA violations, or lack of enough players in a state the size of Alabama.
But a funny thing happened as the Iron Bowl produced five straight BCS Championship Game participants, including four national champions. The majority of players on both Alabama and Auburn that make up this intensely local grudge match are no longer from Alabama. And the respective teams’ national recruiting efforts will only continue when the SEC Network debuts this season.
The 78th Iron Bowl last year produced arguably the highest-stakes game in series history. Not only did Alabama and Auburn meet in a winner-take-all game for the SEC West title for the first time, but both were also in the national championship race.
From 1975-2009, the two bitter rivals met as top-10 opponents only once. That’s now happened twice in the past four years, including last season’s first top-4 matchup ever in Iron Bowl history.
Did we just witness the reinvention of the Iron Bowl into a high-stakes national game on a consistent basis? Or was 2013 the culmination of the state of Alabama’s dominance on the national scene? Recruiting, as it usually does, plays a significant role in answering those questions.
Last season, 34 percent of Crimson Tide players came from the state of Alabama. That was down from 55 percent in 2008 and 66 percent in 2003. Saban, who has built a recruiting juggernaut, can pick and choose while competing for the best players in different states. Alabama had players from 19 different states last season, compared to 12 five years ago. Seventeen percent of Alabama’s 2013 roster grew up west of the Mississippi River.
Meanwhile, only 35 percent of Auburn’s 2013 roster hailed from Alabama, down from 45 percent in 2008. The Tigers came from 19 different states, up from 11 five years ago in Tommy Tuberville’s final season. Thirteen percent of last year’s Auburn players came from west of the Mississippi.
The trend continued for Alabama’s 2014 recruiting class in which only 30 percent of the signees were in-state recruits. Saban signed a five-star defensive back from Texas, a five-star defensive end from Virginia and a five-star offensive lineman from Louisiana, in addition to three five-star recruits from Alabama. Saban journeyed to faraway places such as Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado and California in compiling the nation’s No. 1 class.
Auburn had only 35 percent of its 2014 class come from Alabama. The class was ranked ninth nationally by Rivals, yet only seventh in the SEC — a sign of how competitive recruiting is in the nation’s strongest football conference. Auburn signed more players from nearby Georgia than from Alabama.
There is only so much talent to go around in less-populated states, even a football-crazy state such as Alabama, which is fourth in the nation per capita in producing NFL players. Alabama ranked 11th last season in NFL players with 48, well behind states such as California (225), Florida (186), Texas (184) and Georgia (95).
Forty-five percent of Auburn’s roster last year came from California, Florida, Texas and Georgia, up from 42 percent in 2008. At Alabama, 37 percent of its players were from California, Florida, Texas and Georgia, compared to 26 percent five years ago.
As the SEC won seven straight national titles and negotiated more lucrative television deals, Alabama and Auburn took advantage. More money and exposure equals more opportunities to recruit nationally. Only three schools produced Rivals top-10 recruiting classes in each of the past five years: Florida State, Alabama and Auburn. Those were your national champions in the past five years.
Alabama and Auburn care so much about winning in football that it’s simply unacceptable whenever they drop off. Also, when one team does well or goes on NCAA probation, the other side attempts to bring them down.
Over the past 22 years, Alabama and Auburn have never gone more than five years without one of them getting hit with major violations in one sport or another. Some of college football’s great rivalries have never had that occur over any 20-year period: Florida-Florida State, Miami-Florida State, USC-Notre Dame, Texas-Texas A&M, Nebraska-Oklahoma and Oklahoma-Texas.
But what happens when both Alabama and Auburn are on top? How long can it last in the ultra-competitive SEC?
Gene Chizik won a national title with Cam Newton in 2010. Two years later, amid a program with major discipline issues, Chizik was fired after going winless in the SEC. A year after being fired, Chizik told USA Today that the coach of Auburn must “get up every day trying to figure out how to beat Alabama in everything, and if you don’t get up every day and strategize on how you’re going to beat them on the field and in recruiting, it’s going to be hard to do it.”
In Malzahn, does Auburn have the coach who can both recruit and coach up players to consistently compete with Saban? That question loomed over a proposed rule by the NCAA Football Rules Committee that would have prevented offenses from snapping the ball until 10 seconds had passed on the play clock.
The proposal was justified for safety reasons, but up-tempo coaches such as Malzahn doubted that was the reason. Up-tempo offenses, if they don’t substitute, pin defenses at the line of scrimmage and prevent them from making substitutions based on down and distance.
Situational subbing has been a major part of Saban’s defenses at Alabama. Saban has publicly questioned whether football should be a “continuous game,” and along with another traditional-offense proponent, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, met with the rules committee prior to the proposal being passed.
After the outcry, the rules committee tabled the idea. But the debate isn’t going away. And although it impacts the entire sport, the argument is squarely centered in Alabama between Malzahn and Saban.
The questions are fast and furious within Alabama, where football is debated 365 days a year.
Auburn fan: Does Saban need a rule change to compete with Malzahn?
Alabama fan: Does Malzahn need a gimmick offense to beat Saban?
Auburn fans will forever have the 2013 Iron Bowl memory. What remains to be seen is if that was a seminal moment that changed the rivalry moving forward.
Written by Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.