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The ACC saw more than a dozen underclassmen declare for the upcoming NFL Draft, most of whom probably did not come as a surprise to their teammates and fans. Still, this is a league that was arguably the best in the nation in 2016, and it will be replacing players like a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and multiple 1,000-yard rushers — no easy feat to duplicate.
Who are the new names you should get to know for 2017, and what kind of shoes are they looking to fill? Here is a list of the 10 ACC faces that need to step up next season in light of their predecessors’ early draft departures.
Gone: Deshaun Watson, QB
What more needs to be said about Watson, who exits Clemson with a 32-3 record, three MVP awards over the four College Football Playoff games he played in, more than 11,000 yards of total offense and 115 touchdowns?
In: Kelly Bryant, rising junior
Dabo Swinney has said Bryant will enter spring atop the depth chart. Of course, it would be too much to ask Bryant to be the next Watson, and he’ll also face stiff competition for the job from Tucker Israel, Zerrick Cooper and early enrollee Hunter Johnson.
2. Florida State
Gone: Dalvin Cook, RB
Cook exits FSU as one of the best players in program history, and his Orange Bowl performance was a fitting finale. Cook rushed for 4,464 yards and 46 TDs in just three seasons, adding 935 receiving yards and two TD catches, often while playing hurt.
In: Jacques Patrick, rising junior
Patrick has rushed for 655 yards and nine TDs in reserve duty the past two seasons, but he — nor anyone else, for that matter — will likely not replicate what Cook was able to do. Elite tailback prospect Cam Akers has enrolled early and could figure into the picture from the start as well.
3. North Carolina
Gone: Mitch Trubisky, QB
Trubisky was a full-time starter for just one year, but he impressed enough to earn serious early consideration to be the top QB drafted in 2017, having thrown for 3,748 yards with 30 TDs and just six picks.
UNC returns four second-year players at QB, but none who have extensive experience: Nathan Elliott, Chazz Surratt, Logan Byrd and Manny Miles. Could the Tar Heels’ answer come via a graduate transfer, such as Notre Dame’s Malik Zaire?
Gone: Brad Kaaya, QB
This wasn’t too surprising, considering that Kaaya was a three-year starter, but his absence makes QB among the biggest question marks for a team that finally looks ready to make a run at an ACC Coastal Division title. Kaaya exits Coral Gables as the Hurricanes’ all-time leader in passing yards (9,968), completions (720) and attempts (1,188).
In: Malik Rosier, rising redshirt junior
The Canes have a handful of options here — including Jack Allison and incoming freshman N’Kosi Perry — but Rosier is the most experienced of the bunch, and will probably get the first chance to run Mark Richt’s offense.
5. Virginia Tech
Gone: Jerod Evans, QB
Evans was one of the biggest surprises of the ACC in 2016, leading the Hokies to a Coastal title and 10-win season behind 3,552 passing yards and 29 TDs and another 846 and 12 scores on the ground. The only bigger surprise may have been his decision to leave early, which means someone will have to grow up fast for Virginia Tech.
In: Josh Jackson, rising redshirt freshman
Jackson dang near won the job in fall camp before redshirting, but he’ll still have a crowded field to beat out come 2017, as Virginia Tech welcomes in A.J. Bush from Nebraska and Ryan Willis from Kansas.
Gone: Mike Williams, WR
Williams recovered from a broken neck suffered in Week 1 of 2015 to lead Clemson’s receiving corps this past season, catching 98 balls for 1,361 yards and 11 TDs. He was arguably the most dangerous red-zone threat in the country and he could very well be a first-round pick come this spring.
In: Deon Cain, rising junior
Fans are familiar with Cain, who has shown flashes of promise in his first two years but also managed to get suspended for the 2015 College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma. With Williams and Artavis Scott both gone now, though, Cain may find himself as the Tigers’ No. 1 target, after a 2016 that saw him catch 38 passes for 724 yards and nine TDs.
7. North Carolina
Gone: Elijah Hood, RB
Hood rushed for 2,321 yards and 25 TDs over the past two seasons, and he declared after initially stating his intentions to return for his senior year. The combined loss of Hood and Mitch Trubisky gives the Heels plenty of backfield questions for 2017.
In: Jordon Brown, rising redshirt freshman
Simply enough, Brown is the only returning scholarship back from the 2016 roster, so the Heels need some reinforcements. Perhaps they’ll get some help from incoming recruit Michael Carter.
8. Virginia Tech
Gone: Bucky Hodges, TE
Hodges exits Virginia Tech as the school’s career leader among tight ends in catches (133), receiving yards (1,747) and TDs (20). The losses of Hodges, Jerod Evans and Isaiah Ford mean that offensive wizard Justin Fuente may have his work cut out for him in Year 2.
In: Chris Cunningham, rising redshirt sophomore
Cunningham caught six passes for 48 yards and four TDs in his first season of playing time, giving him the inside track to replace Hodges at the Hokies’ top tight end.
Gone: James Conner, RB
Conner became an inspiration this season after rushing for more than 1,000 yards and setting the ACC career TDs mark after beating cancer in the offseason. The 2014 ACC Player of the Year will be missed enormously in the Steel City, but the Panthers have loaded up on running backs in recent years.
In: Qadree Ollison, rising redshirt junior
Ollison was the ACC offensive rookie of the year in 2015 after rushing for more than 1,000 yards in place of Conner, who had missed most of that season with a knee injury. Ollison had just 127 yards in 2016, but with him, Chawntez Moss and Darrin Hall all returning, Pitt has several capable backs.
10. Florida State
Gone: Roderick Johnson, LT
Johnson is the reigning two-time winner of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy, given annually to the ACC’s top blocker. Losing him in addition to Dalvin Cook means a national title contender has huge holes to fill at two key positions.
In: Ethan Frith, rising junior; or Rick Leonard, rising senior
Frith was listed as Johnson’s backup this season, but with so many talented underclassmen across the FSU O-line, the race to replace Frith is still very much open-ended. Leonard, meanwhile, started at right tackle last season and could provide some veteran stability for Deondre Francois’ blind side.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.
The battle for conference supremacy is an ongoing race to catch the SEC, but the Big Ten has made considerable progress in recent years to close the gap. Thanks to outstanding coaching hires, Ohio State (Urban Meyer), Penn State (James Franklin), Michigan (Jim Harbaugh) and Wisconsin (Paul Chryst), all four teams finished inside of the top 10 in the CFB Playoff poll. All four programs will begin 2017 ranked high in most preseason polls, with the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions as the early favorites. The Wolverines have a handful of key personnel losses to address on both sides of the ball and could take a small step back in 2017 before contending for a playoff berth in 2018. Wisconsin is the favorite in the West Division, with Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern vying for the No. 2 spot.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2017 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big Ten for 2017:
Early Big Ten Predictions for 2017
1. Ohio State
Even though Ohio State reached the CFB Playoff in what was considered a rebuilding year, coach Urban Meyer wasn’t content this offseason. The Buckeyes are making significant and needed changes on offense. Former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson was brought in as the play-caller, and Ryan Day was hired from the NFL to coach quarterbacks. The combination of Day and Wilson should provide a huge boost for Ohio State’s offense and help get quarterback J.T. Barrett back to the level he played at as a freshman in 2014. The ground game is set with the return of running back Mike Weber, but the Buckeyes need to develop playmakers at receiver with the departure of Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown to the NFL. For the second year in a row, Ohio State’s defense was hit hard by early departures to the next level. However, just as the Buckeyes did in 2016, this unit should rank as one of the best in college football next fall. The line is loaded with depth and talent, while finding replacements for linebacker Raekwon McMillan and defensive backs Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore will be the top priority for coordinator Greg Schiano.
2. Penn State
The Nittany Lions were a year ahead of schedule in their quest to contend for the Big Ten Championship. Despite a slow start in 2016, Penn State rallied behind quarterback Trace McSorley to win nine out of the final 10 games. McSorley and the offense showed marked improvement under coordinator Joe Moorhead last fall and should take another step forward in 2017. In addition to McSorley and a solid group of receivers, the Nittany Lions also return running back (and Heisman candidate) Saquon Barkley. Center Brian Gaia is the only starter from the Rose Bowl leaving the offensive line. However, this unit is better equipped with depth and overall talent than it had two years ago. The biggest concerns for coach James Franklin’s team rest on defense. Ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels, linebacker Brandon Bell and safety Malik Golden won’t return for 2017. Safety Marcus Allen, linebacker Jason Cabinda and cornerback Grant Haley headline the key returnees for coordinator Brent Pry. Penn State hosts Michigan but has to travel to Ohio State next fall.
Even though coach Jim Harbaugh’s team has a few significant personnel losses to address, this team should still factor into the mix to win the Big Ten East in 2017. Quarterback Wilton Speight is back after a solid first season under center, but the supporting cast features a few question marks. Can the Wolverines generate a better push (and overall play) from the offensive line? And who will step up to replace Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt in the receiving corps? With De’Veon Smith expiring his eligibility, Chris Evans, Karan Higdon, Ty Isaac and redshirt freshman Kareem Walker headline a deep group of options in the backfield. The defense limited opponents to just 4.2 yards per play but also faces a significant loss of talent at each level. The front seven must replace linebacker Jabrill Peppers and linemen Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow. The secondary loses four key seniors, including lockdown cover corner Jourdan Lewis. While the personnel losses are significant, Harbaugh reeled in the No. 5 signing class last year and is on pace for another top-five group in 2017.
4. Michigan State
After winning at least 11 games in five out of six seasons, a 3-9 record for Michigan State was one of college football’s biggest surprises from 2016. The Spartans won’t be down for long under coach Mark Dantonio and should rebound back into a bowl next fall. However, this team could be a year away from returning to the top 25. Brian Lewerke has the inside track on the starting quarterback job over Damion Terry. The offense is expected to lean heavily on running back LJ Scott (994 yards) until the passing attack settles behind Lewerke and a revamped receiving corps. Despite the three-win season, the Spartans weren’t bad on defense. Michigan State held opponents to 21.7 points per game and limited offenses to 5.5 yards per play. However, each level of the defense suffered a key loss to address this spring. The line must replace standout tackle Malik McDowell, linebacker Riley Bullough has expired his eligibility, and the secondary loses both starting safeties (Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson) and cornerback Darian Hicks.
New coach Tom Allen is tasked with elevating Indiana football a notch higher in 2017 and beyond. The Indiana native was hired by former coach Kevin Wilson to coordinate the defense after one year as USF’s defensive coordinator and the move paid dividends for the Hoosiers. Indiana allowed 27.2 points per game in 2016, which was a significant improvement from the 37.6 total allowed in 2015. This unit should be the strength of the team in 2017, as linebacker Tegray Scales should be one of the best in the nation, and cornerback Rashard Fant returns after breaking up 17 passes last year. Linebacker Marcus Oliver and lineman Ralph Green III are the biggest losses for Allen’s defense. The Hoosiers are in relatively good shape on offense, but this unit has a couple of big question marks to answer in spring ball. Will quarterback Richard Lagow (19 TDs, 17 INTs) take a step forward under new play-caller Mike DeBord? And who steps up at running back to replace Devine Redding (1,122 yards) and on the line to fill the void left behind by standout lineman Dan Feeney?
D.J. Durkin has Maryland trending in the right direction and a finish higher than sixth in the Big Ten East is certainly within reach. Quarterback Perry Hills expired his eligibility after the Quick Lane Bowl, and the Terrapins have a handful of candidates vying for the starting nod. Sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome would figure to have the inside track based upon experience. However, North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson and freshman Kasim Hill will push for snaps. The strength of this team should be its rushing attack thanks to the return of Lorenzo Harrison and Ty Johnson at running back. Receiver D.J. Moore (41 grabs) is back, and the offensive line returns four starters. However, the front five must improve after giving up a whopping 49 sacks in 2016. After allowing 34.4 points per game in 2015, the defense cut that total to 29.5 in Durkin’s first year. Linebacker Jermaine Carter is quietly one of the best in the Big Ten, and rush end Jesse Aniebonam is back after recording nine sacks in 2016.
Second-year coach Chris Ash inherited a major rebuilding project, so it is no surprise the Scarlet Knights finished 2016 without a win in Big Ten play. Some of the pieces are starting to fall into place for Ash, as veteran coach Jerry Kill joined the staff to call the plays in 2017. Developing more consistency from the quarterbacks is Kill’s top priority. However, there are promising skill players returning next fall, including running back Robert Martin (625 yards) and receiver Jawuan Harris (39 catches). The offense also received a boost around the NFL Draft deadline, as receiver Janarion Grant decided to return to campus after suffering a season-ending knee injury early in the 2016 campaign. The Scarlet Knights allowed 37.5 points per game last fall and did not have a player earn consideration for All-Big Ten honors. This unit returns largely intact, but there are a few key departures. Linemen Julian Pinnix-Odrick and Darius Hamilton and safety Anthony Cioffi will be missed.
After facing one of the nation’s toughest schedules in 2016, the 2017 slate is a little lighter for Wisconsin and coach Paul Chryst. A trip to Provo to take on BYU is the toughest matchup in non-conference play, and the Badgers host Michigan and catch Indiana and Maryland in crossover play. That’s a lot easier than facing Ohio State at home, taking on LSU in non-conference play and making road trips to Michigan State and Michigan as this team did in 2016. With Bart Houston expiring his eligibility, Alex Hornibrook should assume the full-time job under center. However, the formula for success – a strong rushing attack and offensive line – isn’t going to change. Running back Corey Clement departs, but Pitt transfer Chris James, Bradrick Shaw and Taiwan Deal is a capable trio. The loss of tackle Ryan Ramczyk is the biggest concern in the trenches. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox left to take the head coaching job at California, and this unit must replace standout linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. The return of Jack Cichy and Chris Orr from injury should alleviate some of the concerns about the departure of Watt and Biegel.
Projecting the order between the next three teams – Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern – is impossible prior to spring ball. There’s very little separation among those three programs, so some shuffling is likely in order prior to offseason practices. For now, let’s give the edge to Mike Riley’s Cornhuskers. One advantage Nebraska could have over Northwestern and Iowa is both teams must visit Lincoln, and the Cornhuskers catch Rutgers in crossover play. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong and receiver Jordan Westerkamp are the biggest losses on offense. Coordinator Danny Langsdorf has a couple of intriguing options to replace Armstrong under center, including Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Until a quarterback emerges, expect Langsdorf to lean heavily on the ground game, which is headlined by Devine Ozigbo, Mikale Wilbon and Tre Bryant. New coordinator Bob Diaco will implement a 3-4 approach on defense. The transition comes at a good time for Nebraska’s defense, as this unit struggled to get to the quarterback in 2016 and allowed 38 or more points in three out of the final five games. Cornerback Chris Jones, linebacker Dedrick Young and end Freedom Akinmoladun are three of the top returning players on defense for Diaco to build around this spring.
The Hawkeyes were unable to build off their West Division title and Rose Bowl berth from 2015, as coach Kirk Ferentz’s team finished 8-5 and lost in the Outback Bowl to Florida. While Iowa didn’t quite meet preseason expectations, this team has not posted a losing record in Big Ten play since 2012 and has recorded four consecutive bowl trips. The 2017 version of Iowa should feature one of the Big Ten’s top running backs in Akrum Wadley and a standout line that returns James Daniels and Sean Welsh. New play-caller Brian Ferentz will make a few tweaks to the offense, and new quarterback Nathan Stanley needs more help from a receiving corps that is slated to lose Riley McCarron and tight end George Kittle. The return of Matt VandeBerg from a season-ending injury should help. Replacing cornerback Desmond King and tackle Jaleel Johnson won’t be easy. However, Iowa’s defense should be solid in 2017, as ends Matt and Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse anchor the edge. Additionally, linebacker Josey Jewell should be one of the best in the nation.
As mentioned under the Nebraska writeup, the gap is small between No. 2 and No. 4 in the Big Ten West next season. Northwestern could emerge as the top contender to Wisconsin if quarterback Clayton Thorson continues to develop after a solid sophomore campaign. Running back Justin Jackson turned down the NFL for another season with the Wildcats, but top receiver Austin Carr (90 catches) leaves big shoes to fill. The offensive line loses only one starter (tackle Eric Olson) and must take a step forward after giving up 39 sacks last year. The defense limited opposing offenses to 22.2 points a game in 2016, but there are a couple of glaring losses for this unit. Linebacker Anthony Walker left early for the NFL, while standout edge rusher Ifeadi Odenigbo and defensive end C.J. Robbins expired their eligibility. Northwestern misses Ohio State and Michigan in crossover play but still has to play Penn State and travel to Nebraska and Wisconsin in key conference road tests.
P.J. Fleck elevated Western Michigan’s program to new heights, and the former Northern Illinois receiver hopes to do the same in Minneapolis for a Minnesota team coming off a successful nine-win campaign in 2016. Fleck’s first order of business was the 2017 signing class and all signs point to a fast finish on the recruiting trail. As far as the team returning for Fleck, the biggest question mark for the Golden Gophers will be at quarterback after the departure of Mitch Leidner. Former walk-on Conor Rhoda is the team’s most-experienced option, but incoming freshman Tanner Morgan, junior college recruit Neil McLaurin, sophomore Demry Croft and redshirt freshman Mark Williams will factor into the mix. Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see plenty from running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith (combined 1,808 yards last year) behind an offensive line that loses only one senior (Jonah Pirsig). The Golden Gophers limited opponents to 22.1 points per game last season and will be under the leadership of former Arkansas coordinator Robb Smith. Tackle Steven Richardson and linebackers Blake Cashman and Jonathan Celestin will be the leaders for Smith to build around in 2017.
The Boilermakers will be an interesting team to watch in 2017. New coach Jeff Brohm is one of the offseason’s best hires and is bringing his high-powered offense to West Lafayette. Quarterback David Blough (21 picks) has to cut down on the mistakes, but he could post huge numbers in this offense. The ground game should be solid with the return of Markell Jones at running back. Brohm has to replace two starters on the offensive line, while the top three targets at receiver – DeAngelo Yancey, Bilal Marshall and Cameron Posey – have expired their eligibility. New coordinator Nick Holt has a huge task ahead this spring after Purdue’s defense gave up 38.3 points per game in 2016. This unit returns largely intact but tackles Evan Panfil and Jake Replogle and safety Leroy Clark will be tough to replace. Linebacker Markus Bailey (97 stops) led the team as a freshman in tackles and should be part of the foundation for Holt. End Gelen Robinson and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley are two other key returning players for this defense in 2017.
A quick fix was unreasonable for coach Lovie Smith in his first season, so it was no surprise Illinois finished 3-9 in 2016. The Fighting Illini are probably another recruiting class (or two) away from contending for a bowl and escaping the cellar of the West Division will be tough in 2017. After averaging 16.8 points per game in Big Ten contests last season, Smith and coordinator Garrick McGee are searching for answers on offense. One solution could come via the junior college ranks, as quarterback Dwayne Lawson could win the starting job. Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin form a solid duo at running back. Malik Turner returns after catching 48 passes last season, and Mike Dudek is also back in the mix after missing 2016 due to a knee injury. Center Joe Spencer and tackle Austin Schmidt depart from the offensive line. In addition to the concerns on offense, Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson are losing some of the unit’s top players. Ends Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips, tackle Chunky Clements, linebacker Hardy Nickerson and safety Taylor Barton have all expired their eligibility.
Trying to find your optimal DraftKings lineup for this week's (Jan. 19-22) golf tournament: the CareerBuilder Challenge at the Stadium Course in La Quinta, Calif.? Our fantasy golf experts are ready to help.
Here's what our optimal lineup looks like.
Bill Haas ($10,500)
The two-time winner of the CareerBuilder is the leading money winner in the tournament's 57-year history. He's riding an amazing streak of 39 consecutive under-par rounds at the event.
Jamie Lovemark ($9,600)
Lovemark is coming off a T4 finish at the Sony and had a T6 at the 2016 CareerBuilder, where he was second after 36 holes (65-65).
Luke List ($8,600)
List is riding a streak of five consecutive top-15 finishes on Tour. In other words, he's finally harnessing his considerable talent. He finished T6 here last year.
Lucas Glover ($7,700)
Glover's building a nifty resume at the CareerBuilder — five top-20 finishes in eight appearances. He's ninth on Tour this season in greens in regulation.
Sean O'Hair ($7,300)
He's finished T10 and T11 in his last two starts and had a final-round 64 at the Sony, where he co-led the field in greens in regulation.
Andrew Loupe ($6,200)
Loupe is playing for the first time since August due to a lengthy recovery from a torn ligament in his thumb, but he finished T3 at the CareerBuilder last year, one of four top 10s on his 2016 season.
Jerry Jones had big dreams, but they were ruined when the Packers beat the Cowboys on Sunday.
The EA Sports Madden account took the time to bring up a very interesting quote from the Cowboys owner when he said he believed that Tony Romo would play in the Super Bowl. They quote-tweeted it with a sick burn/shameless plug.
Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas may be out of school, but he still has thoughts on college and criticism for the NCAA.
When news of Oregon players being hospitalized due to a grueling workout became public, that was enough for the All-Pro tackle to go off on those involved.
.@NCAA These are the petty games "coaches" play when they are clueless about actually coaching the game and developing the kids. Gives FB bad name— Joe Thomas (@joethomas73) January 17, 2017
Tough words, but he has a point. Only time will tell if the NCAA will take action.
The NFL Draft’s early entry deadline officially passed on Monday evening and over 90 players declared for the next level. The official list of players leaving for the NFL will be released on Friday. While the official list isn't out yet, it's no secret which players have already announced their intentions for the next level and which teams will be filling the most voids this offseason.
With the early entrants declared, it’s time to take a look at the winners and losers from a college perspective.
The early entry deadline is a key moment in any college football offseason, as this allows coaches to get a better view of which players are returning and how the roster looks headed into Signing Day.
Which teams are the big winners and which progams have big shoes to fill thanks to the 2017 draft deadline? Here are the winners and losers with the draft deadline process:
The Sun Devils are coming off a disappointing 5-7 season, but coach Todd Graham’s team received good news at the draft deadline with running back Kalen Ballage’s decision to return for 2017. The duo of Ballage and Demario Richard should be one of the nation’s best tandems next fall.
Center Frank Ragnow was one of the SEC’s top linemen in 2016 and returns to anchor the Arkansas offensive line next fall. Ragnow should challenge for All-America honors.
Kicker Daniel Carlson, guard Braden Smith and running back Kamryn Pettway decided against the NFL Draft, but end Carl Lawson left for the next level.
With a wealth of talent in the ACC on the defensive line, end Harold Landry was largely overlooked on a national level in 2016. Expect that to change next fall, as Landry decided to return to Boston College after recording 16.5 sacks last year.
Despite the departure of receiver Isaiah McKenzie early to the NFL, coach Kirby Smart’s team is a big winner for the draft deadline. Running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel decided to pass on the NFL for one more season in Athens. Additionally, safety Dominick Sanders (nine interceptions over last two years) is also returning for 2017.
Related: Early SEC Predictions for 2017
Indirectly, the Yellow Jackets were a big winner for the NFL Draft’s early entry deadline. The starting quarterbacks at Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech declared early, and Pitt lost running back James Conner. Georgia Tech will be a sleeper to watch in the Coastal Division title race next year.
The Hawkeyes must replace Athlon Sports first-team All-America cornerback Desmond King and quarterback C.J. Beathard, but the rebuilding effort in Iowa City got a little easier with Akrum Wadley’s decision to return in 2017. The running back recorded 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016. All-Big Ten linebacker Josey Jewell is also returning to anchor the defense next fall.
Second-year coach Matt Campbell picked up an offseason victory as receiver Allen Lazard pass on the NFL for another season in Ames. Lazard caught 69 passes for 1,018 yards and seven scores in 2016.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2017
The Tigers could be the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference’s West Division next season. Quarterback Riley Ferguson was already slated to return, but the offense received an extra boost with receiver Anthony Miller (95 catches for 1,434 yards) turning down the NFL.
Losing quarterback DeShone Kizer to the NFL was a setback, but the losses around the draft deadline could have been worse for coach Brian Kelly’s team. Linemen Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson – two of the best in college football – passed on the NFL for another season in South Bend. Linebacker Nyles Morgan (90 stops) is also slated to return to lead the Fighting Irish defense. Sophomore Brandon Wimbush - a four-star recruit out of high school - should be a capable replacement for Kizer.
Defensive tackle Vincent Taylor is a big loss, but quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington both passed on the NFL. The Rudolph to Washington connection should keep Oklahoma State in contention for the Big 12 title in 2017.
New coach Willie Taggart scored an early victory when running back Royce Freeman, tackle Tyrell Crosby and receiver Darren Carrington all decided to return to Eugene for 2017.
The Mustangs are a team on the rise for 2017. Receiver Courtland Sutton (76 catches) is back after considering an early departure to the NFL.
Tight end Adam Breneman (70 catches for 808 yards) passed on the NFL for one more season as the top target for the Minutemen offense.
Second-year coach Bronco Mendenhall’s rebuilding project picked up some good news this offseason. Safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser – both All-ACC players for 2017 – are coming back next season.
Quarterback Luke Falk has passed for more than 4,000 yards in each of the last two seasons and is returning for one more year to guide coach Mike Leach’s high-powered offense.
Safety Josh Jones declared early for the NFL, but standout end Bradley Chubb decided to return for his senior year.
All-Big Ten linebacker Anthony Walker will be missed. However, running back Justin Jackson decided to return for his senior year.
Receiver Chris Godwin and end Garrett Sickels declared early for the next level. However, coach James Franklin received good news with the decisions by tight end Mike Gesicki and safety Marcus Allen to return to campus in 2017.
The Cowboys lost running back Brian Hill early to the NFL, but quarterback Josh Allen’s decision to return to Laramie should keep coach Craig Bohl’s team in contention for the Mountain West title.
Four of the ACC’s top quarterbacks are headed to the next level, as Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans and Miami’s Brad Kaaya passed on their senior year.
Nick Saban’s program is a factory for NFL talent, and three more players are set to pass on another year in Tuscaloosa for the next level. Left tackle Cam Robinson, receiver ArDarius Stewart and cornerback Marlon Humphrey all decided to bolt early to the NFL. The early departures add to a list of offseason concerns for Saban, as he already has to replace standout defenders in linebacker Reuben Foster and end Jonathan Allen.
New coach Matt Rhule was already short on depth for 2017, and the Bears will be looking for a new duo of go-to receivers to emerge after the early departures of KD Cannon (87 catches for 1,215 yards) and Ishmael Zamora (63 grabs) to the NFL. Chris Platt, Blake Lynch and Pooh Stricklin headline the top returning targets for quarterback Zach Smith.
Not only must new coach Justin Wilcox find a replacement for quarterback Davis Webb, he will have to find a new go-to receiver after Chad Hansen (92 catches) bolted early for the next level. The return of Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall (combined 92 catches as freshmen) eases the departure of Hansen.
The Tigers will begin their national title defense without some of the biggest names from last season’s team. Quarterback Deshaun Watson, running back Wayne Gallman and receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott are all slated to depart for the next level.
Boise State’s offense has produced a 1,000-yard rusher for eight straight years, and the cupboard is hardly empty with Alexander Mattison (328 yards) set to return next fall. However, Jeremy McNichols (1,709 yards) leaves big shoes to fill.
New coordinator Randy Shannon loses four key contributors from last season’s defense. Tackle Caleb Brantley, linebacker Alex Anzalone and cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Jalen Tabor are all off to the NFL. Left tackle David Sharpe also decided to pass on his senior season in Gainesville.
As expected, running back Dalvin Cook (1,765 yards in 2016) is off to the next level. Incoming freshman Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick will help to fill the void left behind by Cook in 2017. The Seminoles also lost tackle Roderick Johnson and receiver Travis Rudolph to the next level. The news around the deadline wasn't all bad for Florida State. Defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi and linebacker Matthew Thomas are slated to return next season.
The Wildcats were already set to lose standout end Jordan Willis and safety Dante Barnett from a defense ranked No. 1 in the Big 12 in scoring (22.3 ppg) last season. The departure of linebacker Elijah Lee adds to the rebuilding effort for coach Bill Snyder this spring.
Benny Snell (1,091 yards) is expected to push for All-SEC honors in 2017, but the Wildcats will miss Boom Williams’ big-play ability (6.84 ypc in 2016) out of the backfield.
Both sides of the ball lost a key player for new coach Tom Allen’s team in 2017. Running back Devine Redding departs after recording 1,122 yards in 2016, while linebacker Marcus Oliver (15.5 TFL) is also passing on his senior season for the NFL.
After avoiding major losses to the NFL last January, the Tigers were hit with four early departures this offseason. Running back Leonard Fournette, receiver Malachi Dupre, safety Jamal Adams and lineman Davon Godchaux are all headed to the next level.
The Bulldogs will have to defend their C-USA West Division title with a new set of go-to receivers. Trent Taylor (136 catches) expired his eligibility, but Carlos Henderson (82 catches and 18.7 ypc) declared early for the next level.
Mark Richt’s return to Coral Gables resulted in a 9-4 record in 2016, but the Hurricanes have some work to do this offseason if they want to win the Coastal Division. Quarterback Brad Kaaya was one of the best in the ACC and passed on a senior year for a shot at the 2017 NFL Draft. He could be one of the first quarterbacks off the board. Tight end David Njoku (43 catches) also left early for the NFL.
Coach Jim Harbaugh received a bit of good news around the deadline when offensive lineman Mason Cole announced his intentions to return to the team in 2017. However, the defense lost hybrid linebacker/safety Jabrill Peppers to the NFL. Peppers’ departure is just another void coordinator Don Brown will have to fill from a defense that limited opponents to 14.1 points per game in 2016.
After a surprising 3-9 record in 2016, the list of preseason question marks for coach Mark Dantonio grew a little longer after tackle Malik McDowell and safety Montae Nicholson decided to leave East Lansing for the NFL.
Missouri’s pass rush is looking for the next standout in the trenches to emerge after Charles Harris left Columbia for the NFL. Harris led the team in sacks in each of the last two seasons.
The Tar Heels suffered big losses on both sides of the ball to the NFL. Coach Larry Fedora’s offense must replace standout quarterback Mitch Trubisky and running back Elijah Hood, while the defense lost tackle Nazair Jones (9.5 TFL) to an early departure.
After losing nine players early to the NFL last season, the Buckeyes once again appear in this space for the 2017 deadline. Headed to the next level are three defensive backs – Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Malik Hooker – and All-Big Ten linebacker Raekwon McMillan from a defense that limited opponents to 15.5 points a game in 2016. The offense must replace receivers Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel – a combined 106 of Ohio State’s 255 receptions from last season.
Thanks to the return of quarterback Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma should be the favorite to claim the Big 12 title in 2017. However, coordinator Lincoln Riley has to replenish the skill positions for Mayfield after the early departures of running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine and go-to receiver Dede Westbrook.
The Panthers have a couple of talented backs waiting in the wings but losing running back James Conner (1,092 yards) is still a big loss for this offense.
Coach David Shaw is replacing the best player on offense (Christian McCaffrey) and defense (Solomon Thomas) after both players left for the NFL. Christian McCaffrey was the nation’s best all-purpose player over the last two seasons and earned a spot among the Heisman finalists in 2015. Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas led the team with eight sacks and was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection in 2016.
As expected, defensive end Derek Barnett (33 career sacks) decided to leave Knoxville for the NFL. Barnett was one of the SEC’s top defenders over the last three seasons and was a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports in 2016. Running back Alvin Kamara (5.8 ypc) and No. 1 receiver Josh Malone (50 catches for 972 yards) are also headed to the NFL.
The Longhorns only lost one player, but running back D’Onta Foreman (2,028 yards in 2016) leaves big shoes to fill. Helping to fill the void left behind by Foreman will be Chris Warren (366 yards) and Kyle Porter (206 yards).
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2017
With three consecutive 8-5 seasons, 2017 could be a make-or-break year for coach Kevin Sumlin in College Station. The Aggies were already facing some personnel uncertainty on both sides of the ball, which includes finding a replacement for quarterback Trevor Knight and receiver Josh Reynolds. However, likely No. 1 pick Myles Garrett is off to the NFL, and the receiving corps had two players – Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones – depart a year early.
Coach Kliff Kingsbury heads into a potential make-or-break year needing to replace quarterback Patrick Mahomes after he declared early for the NFL. Mahomes led the nation in total offense per game in each of the last two seasons.
The Trojans’ 2017 playoff hopes took a hit with the departure of three key players to the NFL. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (70 grabs), cornerback/all-purpose threat Adoree’ Jackson and lineman Damien Mama are all off to the NFL. With Mama’s early departure, USC will have three voids to fill in the trenches this spring.
New coach Charlie Strong inherits a team capable of finishing 2017 as the top Group of 5 team in the CFB Playoff selection committee rankings. Quarterback Quinton Flowers is back, but the offense will miss the steady play of running back Marlon Mack (1,187 yards).
In his only season at Utah, left tackle Garett Bolles emerged as one of the Pac-12’s top linemen and earned fourth-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports. Safety Marcus Williams picked off 10 passes over the last two years and is a big loss for a secondary already set to lose cornerbacks Dominique Hatfield and Reggie Porter and nickel back Justin Thomas.
Aaron Jones was one of the nation’s most underrated running backs in 2016 and declared early after recording 1,773 yards and 17 scores in 12 contests.
The news at the draft deadline wasn’t all bad for coach Derek Mason. Running back Ralph Webb is back for his senior year, but All-America linebacker Zach Cunningham won’t be easy to replace.
Defending the Coastal Division title won’t be easy for the Hokies in 2017. Quarterback Jerod Evans and receiving targets Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges decided to depart Blacksburg to go to the NFL.
Repeating as Pac-12 champs could depend on how quickly Washington is able to replace its early entries to the NFL. On offense, the big-play ability of receiver John Ross (14.2 ypc) will be missed. However, the losses on defense could be tougher to fill. The Huskies lose two talented players (cornerback Sidney Jones and safety Budda Baker) and lineman Elijah Qualls early to the next level. All four players were first-team All-Pac-12 selections in 2016.
The Mountaineers lost only one player to the NFL Draft, but it’s a big one for the offense. Receiver Shelton Gibson (22.1 ypc) is headed for the next level. Ka’Raun White (48 catches) and Jovon Durante headline the receiving corps for 2017.
Left tackle Ryan Ramczyk was a first-team All-American in his only season of snaps with the Badgers. His ability to dominate one side of the defense will be missed by quarterback Alex Hornibrook in 2017. Linebacker T.J. Watt (11.5 sacks) is also leaving early. However, the Badgers will regain the services of Chris Orr and Jack Cichy at linebacker after both were lost to season-ending ailments in 2016.
Conventional wisdom says Erik Jones earned his big break when Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing came together last summer to find the Michigan native a promotion into NASCAR’s Premier Series. But his big break really came four years ago when Jones, then 16, beat Kyle Busch in the Snowball Derby, a 300-lap late model stock car race in Pensacola, Fla.
Ever since, Busch, Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing have pulled out all of the stops to support Jones’ racing career — and Jones hasn’t let any of them down. He’s won seven Camping World Truck Series races and captured the 2015 championship. He also has six XFINITY Series wins, including four last season, and he was in line to battle for the 2016 title before a disorienting final restart at Homestead-Miami Speedway allowed teammate Daniel Suárez to take the crown.
Jones’ success at the early stages of his career — including his performance as a Cup substitute for Busch (one race) and Matt Kenseth (two races) during the 2015 season — is a good indicator that the 20-year-old will be a consistent winner, at some point, at NASCAR’s highest level.
“This is every young driver’s dream, to be with a manufacturer like Toyota, an organization like Furniture Row with its successful technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, and an incredible sponsor like 5-hour Energy who is so well known for promoting its racing program,” Jones said in August. “They have given me a life-changing opportunity, and my mission is to make each of them proud.”
Jones takes over the new No. 77 starting at Daytona, a ride that marks the first expansion of FRR in its 11 years of existence as NASCAR’s Denver outpost. He’ll be a teammate to Martin Truex Jr. and will be paired with Chris Gayle, a JGR crew chief since 2013 who also will be in his first full season in NASCAR’s Premier Series.
“[Erik’s] talent and maturity are beyond his years and there’s not a better young driver to work with as I begin a new chapter in my career,” Gayle says.
Gayle and Jones worked together sporadically in 2015 during Jones’ part-time run in the XFINITY Series as he competed full time for the Truck Series championship. The pair earned one win, at Chicagoland Speedway.
Jones’ biggest challenges will be the same as for any rookie at NASCAR’s top level. He’ll need to refine his skills to give quality feedback about car handling while delivering results that show awareness to the specific situations at hand. His 2016 results show room for growth in the latter, as he netted just 23 lead-lap finishes in 33 XFINITY Series starts.
Comparatively, Suarez had 28 lead-lap finishes — and thus an average finish nearly four positions better. Jones’ accident that collected Ty Dillon at Kentucky Speedway last September serves as a good example of what to avoid.
In that case, Jones appeared to overdrive the situation with Dillon on the outside as the two scrambled for position after a late restart. Jones’ Toyota got loose, slid up the track and wrecked both.
“It’s a big jump. You’re going from a field where 10-to-12 cars can win to a field where 20 cars can win,” Jones says. “All of those guys are talented. It’s going to be tough, but I think I’m in the best situation to succeed.”
Jones will have the benefit of racing for a chartered entry after FRR purchased the charter of the now-defunct HScott Motorsports’ No. 46 in the offseason.
The most-used phrase among NFL Draft prospects coming from the FCS level is, “I have a chip on my shoulder.”
It’s understandable. Such prospects go from being all-conference and All-American to being considered “small school” players leading into the April 27-29 draft.
Few, and basically none, will ever be the next Carson Wentz, but many former FCS players will fill NFL rosters – generally about 150 each season. Some are among the best players in the league, such as Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
On Saturday, nine from the FCS level will try to make their mark at the 92nd East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., and 23 will participate at the sixth NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Carson, Calif. Both games will conclude a week's worth of practices, meetings with NFL teams and sessions on playing at the next level.
All of the prospects figure to be in an NFL camp this summer. Drake tight end Eric Saubert, Penn quarterback Alek Torgersen and North Dakota State offensive guard Zack Johnson are currently considered the most draftable FCS players at the Shrine Game, while the NFLPA Game has a particularly strong group, including Chattanooga offensive guard Corey Levin, Coastal Carolina running back De’Angelo Henderson, Missouri State linebacker Dylan Cole and Saint Francis free safety Lorenzo Jerome.
East-West Shrine Game
When: Saturday, Jan. 21 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Tropicana Field (St. Petersburg, Fla.)
TV Channel: NFL Network
East Roster (coach Brentson Buckner): Villanova linebacker Austin Calitro, Jackson State linebacker Javancy Jones, Drake tight end Eric Saubert, Northern Iowa defensive end Karter Schult and Penn quarterback Alek Torgersen
West Roster (coach George Edwards): Charleston Southern offensive tackle Erik Austell, Samford wide receiver Karel Hamilton, North Dakota State offensive guard Zack Johnson and Youngstown State defensive end Avery Moss
NFLPA Collegiate Bowl
When: Saturday, Jan. 21 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: StubHub Center (Carson, Calif.)
TV Channel: FS1
Team American (coach Jim Zorn): Southern Illinois inside linebacker Chase Allen, North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen, Missouri State outside linebacker Dylan Cole, Jackson State defensive tackle Cornelius Henderson, Coastal Carolina running back De’Angelo Henderson, Saint Francis free safety Lorenzo Jerome, Weber State linebacker Tre’von Johnson, Illinois State offensive guard Cameron Lee, Western Illinois wide receiver Lance Lenoir, Chattanooga offensive guard Corey Levin and Southern Utah cornerback Josh Thornton
Team National (coach Mike Martz): San Diego cornerback Jamal Agnew, South Dakota place-kicker/punter Miles Bergner, Eastern Washington wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, Eastern Washington defensive end Samson Ebukam, Cornell punter Chris Fraser, Montana quarterback Brady Gustafson, Alabama State defensive tackle Roderick Henderson, South Carolina State offensive tackle Javarius Leamon, Dartmouth inside linebacker Folarin Orimolade, Southern running back Lenard Tillery, William & Mary offensive tackle Jerry Ugokwe and Grambling State wide receiver Chad Williams
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by Coastal Carolina Athletics)
The 2017 NASCAR season is just around the corner with a brand new title sponsor (say hello to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup) in tow and renewed energy and anticipation. And after watching Jimmie Johnson make history with his record-tying seventh championship, fans can't wait for the green flag to drop on a new season.
The 15th edition of Athlon Sports Racing magazine arrives on newsstands today, just in time to provide the preseason analysis and predictions craved by race fans from Sonoma to Daytona and everywhere in between. We take a few laps around the track, asking "10 Tough Questions" and providing the politically incorrect answers — exploring hot topics like whether Monster Energy is a good fit for the sport, the verdict on franchising, NASCAR's controversial yellow-flag system and more.
In this year's edition, Athlon gets personal with some of the sport's most compelling figures. We take a look at how Martin Truex has built a championship-contending operation far from the sport's epicenter in Charlotte, N.C. Our exclusive Q&A with Rusty Wallace brings you the unfiltered opinions of a true NASCAR legend.
Of course, there's no more compelling figure in NASCAR than the sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and his return from concussion symptoms will provide the season's most-watched storyline. Writer Matt Crossman digs deep into the uncertain future of NASCAR's favorite son in his essay "What's Next for Dale Jr.?"
As always, Athlon Sports takes you inside the garage with anonymous, highly-opinionated quotes from rival head wrenches, crewmen and wheelmen. Every track is previewed extensively, as are the top 25 drivers and the best of the rest racing for the checkers. There's also a rundown of the XFINITY Series and Truck Series, both of which are populated by racing's future stars. Athlon Sports Racing is the most complete preview available today.
Look for it on your local newsstand or order your copy online now!
Even though Alabama made the national championship game and claimed the No. 1 ranking for the CFB Playoff, the 2016 college football season was a down year for the SEC. Every team outside of the Crimson Tide finished with at least four losses. However, the league won’t be down for too long, as the 2017 campaign should see a couple of teams rebound and result in a deeper overall conference. In the West, Alabama is once again the early favorite to claim the division crown. LSU and Auburn are next in line, with Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M locked into a tight battle for the No. 4 spot. In the East Division, not much separates Georgia, Florida and Tennessee at the top. Kentucky should take another step forward under coach Mark Stoops next fall, while South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Missouri round out the final three spots in the East.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2017 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the SEC for 2017:
Early SEC Football Predictions for 2017
Headed into spring practice, not much separates the top three in the SEC East next season. For now, the early nod as the favorite in the division goes to Georgia. Quarterback Jacob Eason threw for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns as a true freshman last year and will only get better with another offseason to work as the No. 1 signal-caller. Running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb form one of the nation’s best one-two combinations in the backfield, while Terry Godwin (38 catches) and tight end Isaac Nauta (29) headline the top pass catchers. The line is the biggest concern for coach Kirby Smart to address this offseason. The Bulldogs were loaded with underclassmen on defense and limited opponents to 24 points a game in 2016. This unit should be one of the better defenses in the SEC next fall, especially with the development of lineman Trenton Thompson and linebacker Roquan Smith to anchor the front seven. Safety Dominick Sanders leads the way in the secondary.
Despite a lackluster offense, Florida has managed to win the SEC East in each of coach Jim McElwain’s first two seasons in Gainesville. Improving that side of the ball is McElwain’s top priority this spring, and the question marks for next fall start at quarterback. Can talented redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks beat out Luke Del Rio for the starting nod? The depth and talent in the receiving corps is improving, with Antonio Callaway (54 catches) and fellow receiver Tyrie Cleveland (21.3 ypc) headlining the options on the outside. Running back Jordan Scarlett (889 yards) emerged as the team’s top back in the second half of the season and should push for 1,000 yards with more of a workload in 2017. The line loses tackle David Sharpe but returns largely intact and should improve this offseason. The losses are heavy on defense, and this unit has a new play-caller with Geoff Collins leaving to be the head coach at Temple. New coordinator Randy Shannon must replace both starting cornerbacks (Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson), linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone and standout tackle Caleb Brantley. Another obstacle for McElwain’s team to overcome is a tough schedule. Florida plays Michigan in AT&T Stadium to begin the 2017 season, while LSU, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Florida State visit the Swamp.
As mentioned above, little separates the top three teams in the East Division next season. Tennessee has won nine games in back-to-back years under coach Butch Jones and is looking to breakthrough with a division crown and a trip to Atlanta in early December. Despite losing quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara and standout end Derek Barnett, don’t count out the Volunteers in the East. Vying to replace Dobbs are two talented options in Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. Top receiver Josh Malone declared for the NFL Draft, but Jauan Jennings (14.5 ypc) is back. John Kelly (630 yards) impressed in limited action at running back and could push for All-SEC honors with a full season of snaps. A key area to watch in spring practice is the development of an offensive line that surrendered 25 sacks. Injuries took a toll on Tennessee’s defense last season, and coordinator Bob Shoop has some work to do this spring retooling a group that surrendered 5.8 yards per play. Barnett and cornerback Cameron Sutton are the biggest losses to address. Linebacker Darrin Kirkland should be one of the best in the SEC.
With a 7-6 record and an appearance in the TaxSlayer Bowl, the Wildcats are coming off their best season under coach Mark Stoops. And there’s optimism for this program to continue its upward trend in 2017. With Drew Barker returning from injury, coordinator Eddie Gran will have two options at quarterback. However, the strength of the offense is on the ground with Benny Snell at running back, as well as an offensive line that returns four starters. Center Jon Toth and receiver Jeff Badet are the biggest losses on offense. The defense has not finished higher than 11th in the SEC in points allowed in each of the last four seasons. Will that change in 2017? Linebacker Jordan Jones (15.5 TFL) is a rising star, and the cornerback spot is in good shape with Derrick Baity, Jordan Griffin and Chris Westry. This defense has to get better against the run after surrendering 228.5 yards per game in 2016. Key swing games against South Carolina, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are on the road in 2017. However, the Wildcats host Ole Miss, Florida and Tennessee next fall.
5. South Carolina
South Carolina was one of the SEC’s biggest surprises in 2016. Despite returning only six starters under new coach Will Muschamp, the Gamecocks finished 6-7 and picked up three wins in SEC play. While South Carolina has a ways to go in order to challenge for a spot among the top three in the East, a winning record should be within reach for 2017. A promising trio of sophomores – quarterback Jake Bentley, running back Rico Dowdle and receiver Bryan Edwards – returns to anchor the offense next fall. Receiver Deebo Samuel (59 grabs) and tight end Hayden Hurts (48 catches) add to a promising group of playmakers for Bentley. The biggest concern on offense remains the line, which surrendered 41 sacks (most in the SEC) last fall. Coordinator Travaris Robinson and Muschamp combined to help the defense cut down its yards per play allowed from 6.03 in 2015 to 5.6 in 2016. A handful of key seniors are set to depart, but standout linebacker Skai Moore returns after missing all of last season. Finding players who can get to the quarterback will be a priority after the defense generated only 21 sacks in 2016 and must replace end Darius English (nine sacks).
The Commodores took a step forward in coach Derek Mason’s third season and earned the program’s first bowl trip since the 2013 campaign. Improving upon the six-win mark from 2016 won’t be easy, especially with a schedule that features a non-conference game against Kansas State, road trips to Ole Miss and South Carolina, along with a visit from Alabama in late September. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur struggled in the Independence Bowl but finished the regular season by torching Tennessee for 416 yards. If Shurmur can build off a solid month of November, the Commodores should easily improve off the 23 points a game total this unit posted in 2016. Running back Ralph Webb returns after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and the receiving corps returns largely intact. Vanderbilt tied for fifth in the SEC in scoring defense (24.0 ppg) last season and should one of the better units in the conference once again. However, Mason has to replace standout linebacker Zach Cunningham, cornerback Torren McGaster and lineman Adam Butler.
The Tigers finished 2016 by winning two out of their three games but ending a two-year bowl drought won’t be easy in 2017. The offense averaged 31.4 points per game last season. However, that average dipped to 22.6 per contest in league play. Quarterback Drew Lock threw for 3,399 yards and 23 scores and is expected to take another step forward under the play-calling of coordinator Josh Heupel. Lock has a solid supporting cast at his disposal, including running back Damarea Crockett (1,062 yards) and the team’s top four statistical receivers from 2016. All five starters from a line that limited opponents to just 14 sacks are back for 2017. After limiting opponents to 16.2 points a game in 2015, the Tigers surrendered 31.5 last year. Can this unit improve on that total after losing end Charles Harris to the NFL and linebackers Michael Scherer Donavin Newsom and cornerback Aarion Penton to graduation? Missouri also has a tough crossover with the West Division with a road trip to Arkansas, as well as a visit from Auburn in September.
Alabama enters another season as the team to beat in the SEC. Coach Nick Saban’s team has its share of personnel losses on both sides of the ball, but the Crimson Tide continue to recruit at an elite level and won’t suffer much of a drop off in their overall play. The nation’s best defense from 2016 must replace linemen Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, linebackers Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, Reuben Foster, and cornerback Marlon Humphrey. That’s a deep group of talent departing to the next level, but the next wave of standouts is ready to emerge. In the trenches, tackle Da’Ron Payne and end Da’Shawn Hand anchor the line, while Rashaan Evans looks to build off a strong close to the 2016 season. The secondary could be the strength of the defense with the return of safety/cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Crimson Tide also have top recruit Dylan Moses (linebacker) and touted junior college prospect Isaiah Buggs on campus for spring workouts. Even if the defense takes a small step back, the offense should be ready to pick up more of the slack in 2017. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has a full offseason to develop under coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s watch, and the Crimson Tide feature one of the nation’s deepest backfields with the return of Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris. Tackle Cam Robinson, receiver ArDarius Stewart and tight end O.J. Howard leave big shoes to fill on offense.
Ed Orgeron’s first full year at the helm begins with a familiar question mark. What will LSU get out of its offense in 2017? The good news: Orgeron’s hire of Matt Canada as the team’s play-caller should pay dividends, and the offense returns one of the nation’s best running backs in Derrius Guice. However, in order for the Tigers to challenge Alabama in the SEC West, the passing attack has to take a step forward. Quarterbacks Danny Etling and Brandon Harris will battle for the starting job once again, but the receiving corps suffered a huge blow after Malachi Dupre declared early for the NFL Draft. Standout center Ethan Pocic will be missed in the trenches. LSU’s defense limited opponents to 15.8 points per game last fall and is slated to be one of the best in the SEC once again in 2017. Lineman Davon Godchaux, linebacker Kendell Beckwith and defensive backs Jamal Adams and Tre’Davious White leave big shoes to fill for coordinator Dave Aranda. However, rush end/linebacker Arden Key returns, and the Tigers have reeled in plenty of top talent in recent years to fill some of the voids on defense.
With the arrival of junior college prospect (and former Baylor) quarterback Jarrett Stidham, Auburn could be the biggest challenger to Alabama in the SEC West. Stidham was a four-star recruit out of high school and is the best passer Malzahn has landed since taking over as the program’s head coach in 2013. Stidham has a strong supporting cast at his disposal. Running back Kamryn Pettway battled injuries late in the season but still finished with 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns. Additionally, the Tigers return four out of the team’s top five receivers from 2016 and a solid foundation in the trenches. Coordinator Kevin Steele has a few voids to fill on defense after end Carl Lawson declared for the NFL Draft, and tackle Montravius Adams, cornerback Joshua Holsey and safety Rudy Ford expired their eligibility. End Marlon Davidson and cornerback Carlton Davis headline the key returnees for a defense that limited opponents to 17.1 points per game in 2016.
4. Texas A&M
The Aggies have recorded three consecutive 8-5 seasons but have not finished above .500 in SEC play since 2012. Is 2017 a make-or-break year for coach Kevin Sumlin? Topping the eight-win mark will be tough next fall, especially with the quarterback Trevor Knight expiring his eligibility and the departure of end Myles Garrett to the NFL. Senior Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and true freshman Kellen Mond will compete to replace Knight at quarterback. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, expect to see plenty of running back Trayveon Williams (1,057 yards). The receiving corps was hit hard by departures, but Christian Kirk (83 catches in 2016) is back to give the new quarterback a go-to weapon on the outside. In addition to the concerns at receiver, the Aggies have to find two new tackles after the departure of Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor. Texas A&M’s defense improved under coordinator John Chavis in 2015 but took a step back last fall and surrendered just over six yards per play (6.07) in SEC games. Finding a replacement for Garrett and fellow end Daeshon Hall is the top priority for Chavis this spring. The strength of the defense should be the secondary, which is headlined by safety Armani Watts and cornerbacks Nick Harvey and Priest Willis.
The gap between No. 4 and No. 7 in the SEC West next season is very small. For now, let’s give the edge to Bret Bielema’s team. The Razorbacks ended the year on a down note by losing to Missouri and lost in the Belk Bowl after building a commanding 24-0 lead. The offense should be the strength of this team once again in 2017, as quarterback Austin Allen and running backs Devwah Whaley and Rawleigh Williams return to Fayetteville. Finding new playmakers at receiver and developing the offensive line will be the top priorities this spring for Bielema. After giving up 31.1 points a game on defense, it was clear change was needed for this unit headed into 2017. Coordinator Robb Smith won’t return, and the Razorbacks could shift to more of a 3-4 approach under new play-caller Paul Rhoads next fall. Adding to the concerns for Rhoads is the departure of a few key cogs – linemen Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Taiwan Johnson, linebacker Brooks Ellis and cornerback Jared Collins.
6. Ole Miss
The Rebels missed on a bowl and posted the first losing season under coach Hugh Freeze in 2016. Ole Miss probably won’t rebound back to a nine-win campaign, but a return to the postseason and a winning record should be within reach. Quarterback Shea Patterson gained valuable experience by starting the final three games of 2016 and heads into 2017 as one of the SEC’s top breakout candidates. Tight end Evan Engram will be missed, but the Rebels have a wealth of promising talent and options at receiver. Finding some balance on offense is critical for new coordinator Phil Longo after this offense averaged 3.9 yards per rush in SEC games last season. New defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff inherits a group that finished last in the conference in points allowed (34.0 ppg) and surrendered 6.2 yards per play. End Marquis Haynes, linebacker DeMarquis Gates, tackle Benito Jones and defensive backs Jaylon Jones and Myles Hartsfield return as the foundation for the defense in 2017.
7. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs earned their seventh consecutive trip to a bowl last year and finished the 2016 season with momentum on their side. After a dominant win over rival Ole Miss (55-20) in the Egg Bowl, Mississippi State edged Miami (Ohio) 17-16 in the St. Petersburg Bowl to finish the year at 6-7. While coach Dan Mullen’s team is penciled in at No. 7 here, this team is a lot closer to No. 4 than it is the cellar of the West Division. As we mentioned above, there is little separation between these teams. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is back after a breakout season to headline an offense that averaged 30.4 points a game in 2016. Receiver Fred Ross, center Jamaal Clayborn and tackle Justin Senior are three big losses on offense. However, running back Aeris Williams (720 yards) and receiver Donald Gray (17.3 ypc) provide two weapons in the skill positions for Fitzgerald to utilize. Improving a defense that surrendered 31.8 points per game is a must in 2017. And Mullen already took a big step in addressing those concerns by hiring coordinator Todd Grantham away from Louisville. Linebacker Leo Lewis and safety Brandon Bryant are two building blocks for Grantham in 2017. Don't be surprised if the Bulldogs move up this list as we see what transpires in spring ball.
Every time the Cowboys lose, people look to Skip Bayless.
FS1's resident Cowboys fan was disappointed but he chose to focus on the good, which was Dak Prescott's play. The young quarterback was good, but Bayless said he outplayed Aaron Rodgers and many disagreed with that.
Congratulations to Dak Prescott for again outplaying Aaron Rodgers, again holding off Romo and again performing like a clutch MVP.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) January 16, 2017
Naturally, that garnered some reaction from people on Twitter.
Well he's going home........ https://t.co/DPybmM9Lak— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) January 16, 2017
@RealSkipBayless More like Skip Yay-less because no one would ever say yay about, oh never mind - you suck.— pourmecoffee (@pourmecoffee) January 16, 2017
I can only hope, reading replies to him, that Skip Bayless' mentions are as painful to him as his career is to everyone else.— Piss Lotus Jeb Lund (@Mobute) January 16, 2017
I'm so proud of @RealSkipBayless for always finding a way to look like a total fool.— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) January 16, 2017
Perhaps Bayless should take a break from tweeting after Cowboys' losses in the future.
It’s still January, but baseball will be back before you know it with the start of MLB’s spring training less than a month away. Those who have already had enough of winter can focus on the fact that all 30 teams will soon be reporting to facilities in Florida and Arizona in preparation for the 2017 season, which begins April 2.
Pitchers and catchers are set to report starting on Feb. 12 with all teams present and accounted for by Feb. 17. Baseball is giving fans a nice Valentine’s Day present of sorts with 14 teams kicking things off on that day including the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs in Mesa, Arizona. Position players are scheduled to start showing up on Feb. 16, providing fans with the opportunity to see familiar and perhaps some new faces back in uniform.
Whether your preference is the Grapefruit League in Florida or the Cactus League out in Arizona, here is when and where all 30 teams will hold their spring training.
2017 MLB Spring Training Dates and Locations
|Team||Location||Pitchers & Catchers||Position Players|
|Reporting Date||First Workout||Reporting Date||First Workout|
|Arizona Diamondbacks||Scottsdale, AZ||Feb. 13||Feb. 13||Feb. 16||Feb. 17|
|Atlanta Braves||Lake Buena Vista, FL||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|Baltimore Orioles||Sarasota, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 16||Feb. 17|
|Boston Red Sox||Lee County, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 16||Feb. 17|
|Chicago Cubs||Mesa, AZ||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|Chicago White Sox||Glendale, AZ||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 18||Feb. 19|
|Cincinnati Reds||Goodyear, AZ||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 16||Feb. 17|
|Cleveland Indians||Goodyear, AZ||Feb. 12||Feb. 13||Feb. 16||Feb. 17|
|Colorado Rockies||Scottsdale, AZ||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 19||Feb. 20|
|Detroit Tigers||Lakeland, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|Houston Astros||West Palm Beach, FL||Feb. 15||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|Kansas City Royals||Surprise, AZ||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|Los Angeles Angels||Tempe, AZ||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||Glendale, AZ||Feb. 15||Feb. 16||Feb. 20||Feb. 21|
|Miami Marlins||Jupiter, FL||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 17|
|Milwaukee Brewers||Phoenix, AZ||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|Minnesota Twins||Fort Myers, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 18||Feb. 19|
|New York Mets||Port St. Lucie, FL||Feb. 12||Feb. 13||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|New York Yankees||Tampa, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 18||Feb. 19|
|Oakland A's||Mesa, AZ||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 18||Feb. 19|
|Philadelphia Phillies||Clearwater, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 16||Feb. 17|
|Pittsburgh Pirates||Bradenton, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 16||Feb. 17|
|St. Louis Cardinals||Jupiter, FL||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|San Diego Padres||Peoria, AZ||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|San Francisco Giants||Scottsdale, AZ||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 16||Feb. 17|
|Seattle Mariners||Peoria, AZ||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 18||Feb. 19|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Charlotte County, FL||Feb. 13||Feb. 14||Feb. 18||Feb. 19|
|Texas Rangers||Surprise, AZ||Feb. 14/17||Feb. 15/18||Feb. 20||Feb. 21|
|Toronto Blue Jays||Dunedin, FL||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
|Washington Nationals||West Palm Beach, FL||Feb. 14||Feb. 15||Feb. 17||Feb. 18|
(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
The Chiefs lost to the Steelers 18-16, and one person in particular isn't happy at all about how it went down.
Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce did not hesitate to rip the referees for the holding call that caused the Chiefs to retry, and eventually fail, a 2-point conversion in the final minutes of the game.
Kelce didn't go into the shove that some saw as a pivotal point in the game. Though he was pushed first, Kelce's push was much more noticeable and did result in a penalty.
What was the point of this? pic.twitter.com/OeDKeeUCQj— Jasmine (@JasmineLWatkins) January 16, 2017
There's no love lost between these squads.
Clemson will enter the 2017 season as college football's reigning national champion, but it’s the Tigers’ division rival, Florida State, along with — dare we say — Clemson’s national title game rival, Alabama, who have the game to watch in 2017. And fortunately for us all, we won’t have to wait all that long to see this potential No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup.
But the Seminoles-Crimson Tide clash in Week 1 is just one of many high-profile games we’re anxious to see. And yes, Clemson finds itself featured in plenty of those contests — from its annual face offs with FSU, and Louisville, to less familiar opponents like Auburn and Virginia Tech.
Next season will bring us no shortage of interesting inter-conference matchups, but four of our top five games to watch will be between familiar faces. And if 2016 was any indication — especially in the Big Ten — you just never know which game may end up mattering than most.
Really, Really, Ridiculously Early 2017 Top 25
With that, here are the top must-see college football games of 2017. Start planning your fall weekends now.
|1.||Sept. 2||Atlanta, GA|
It is very possible this Week 1 matchup will feature the preseason’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams.
|2.||Nov. 25||Ann Arbor, MI|
How long do you think Jim Harbaugh’s had this one circled?
Can the defending national champs handle the likely ACC favorites for a third straight year?
|4.||Sept. 30||Tuscaloosa, AL|
Clemson aside, which team has played Bama better the past three years than Ole Miss?
|5.||Nov. 25||Auburn, AL|
Will the Tigers be the only thing standing in the way of the Crimson Tide’s fourth straight trip to Atlanta?
|6.||Sept. 9||Columbus, OH|
These two figure to be preseason title contenders once again, but will the Sooners show more in this rematch?
|7.||Sept. 16||Los Angeles, CA|
Didn’t these two play a fairly memorable game in 2006?
|8.||Sept. 5||Tuscaloosa, AL|
Whatcha got, Coach O?
Last year’s classic featured the top two Heisman vote-getters, one of whom is back and looking for revenge.
|10.||Oct. 14||Dallas, TX|
It’s Tom Herman’s first taste of the Red River Showdown, where anything can happen.
|11.||Oct. 21||State College, PA|
Michigan helped keep the Big Ten champs out of the College Football Playoff, but the Nittany Lions should be loaded in 2017.
Lamar Jackson embarrassed the Seminoles in 2016, and FSU surely hasn’t forgotten.
|13.||Nov. 28||Columbus, OH|
It’s Michigan and OSU back-to-back for PSU, which is no longer sleeping on anyone.
|14.||Nov. 18||Madison, WI|
Playing Wisconsin and Ohio State back-to-back is no picnic for the Wolverines.
Can FSU make it eight in a row against its Sunshine State rival?
|16.||Sept. 9||South Bend, IN|
The Irish face an SEC team in the regular season for the first time since 2005.
|17.||Oct. 7||College Station, TX|
Will Kevin Sumlin’s squad finally turn the corner in another high-profile matchup?
|18.||TBA||Palo Alto, CA|
Think David Shaw will have his guys ready after a 44-6 loss last year?
|19.||Sept. 9||Clemson, SC|
It’s Tigers at Tigers in the defending champs’ first true test of the 2017 season.
|20.||Dec. 9||Philadelphia, PA|
Arguably the best rivalry in sports has even more juice to it now after the Black Knights’ upset win in 2016.
A rematch of the ACC title game is always worth checking out.
|22.||Sept. 9||State College, PA|
Last year’s rivalry renewal was memorable. Can this one match it?
It’s Willie Taggart’s first test vs. new Pac-12 chief Chris Petersen.
|24.||Nov. 4||Ann Arbor, MI|
P.J. Fleck vs. Jim Harbaugh? Sign us up!
What, like this one needs an explanation?
Best of the Rest:
26. Washington at Colorado (TBA)
27. Oklahoma at Oklahoma State (Nov. 4)
28. Tennessee at Alabama (Oct. 21)
29. Florida vs. Michigan (Sept. 2)
30. Stanford at USC (TBA)
31. Clemson at South Carolina (Nov. 25)
32. USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 21)
33. Florida State at Florida (Nov. 25)
34. Michigan State at Michigan (Oct. 7)
35. USC at Colorado (TBA)
36. Notre Dame at Miami (Nov. 11)
37. Wisconsin at BYU (Sept. 16)
38. Tulsa at Oklahoma State (Sept. 2)
39. BYU vs. LSU (Sept. 2)
40. Wisconsin at Minnesota (Nov. 25)
41. Tulsa at USF (TBA)
42. Louisville at North Carolina (TBA)
43. Oregon at Stanford (TBA)
44. Utah at BYU (Sept. 9)
45. Nebraska at Oregon (Sept. 9)
46. TCU at Arkansas (Sept. 9)
47. Notre Dame at Stanford (Nov. 25)
48. Western Michigan at USC (Sept. 2)
49. Navy at Florida Atlantic (Sept. 2)
50. Cincinnati at Miami (Ohio) (Sept. 16)
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
The definition of a breakout player in college football varies from each analyst or fanbase, but one thing is certain when looking ahead at the next season and the players returning. Regardless of the position, breakout players will have a huge role in shaping the national championship and playoff picture. Which quarterback could be the next Lamar Jackson or Sam Darnold? Or which running back could emerge like LSU's Derrius Guice or Auburn's Kamryn Pettway? Both of those questions could be answered this spring.
The emergence and development of young talent can play a critical role in any team’s position in the race to win a college football national championship or conference title. The unpredictability of finding the next star or breakout player is also what makes preseason predictions difficult.
Spring practice is still a month or two away for some teams, but let’s take a look at 10 potential breakout stars for 2017.
10 Early College Football Breakout Candidates for 2017
Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
Alabama’s front seven is set for an offseason makeover after linebackers Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Reuben Foster and linemen Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson expired their eligibility. The losses are significant for coach Nick Saban, but as usual, there’s no shortage of promising talent waiting in the wings. Evans is a player due for a larger role after finishing 2016 with 53 tackles (4.5 for a loss), four sacks and one forced fumble. Evans recorded the first two starts of his career in 2016 following a season-ending injury to Shaun Dion Hamilton in the SEC Championship. Evans will be a major part of Alabama’s front seven next fall.
Rashan Gary, DL, Michigan
Gary was the No. 1 overall prospect in last year’s signing class and played in all 13 games for the Wolverines. As a true freshman, Gary recorded 27 tackles (five for a loss), one sack and seven quarterback hurries. Michigan’s defensive line was loaded with experienced talent and depth last season, so Gary wasn’t needed for a starter workload in snaps. With Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow and Taco Charlton departing from the trenches, Gary should assume a starting role and produce in a big way for coach Jim Harbaugh’s defense.
Rasheem Green, DL, USC
USC is one of the frontrunners to claim a spot in the College Football Playoff next year. Quarterback Sam Darnold is back to lead a dynamic offense, but the Trojans need to solidify a few spots on defense. Standout nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu departs after earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2016, with safety Leon McQuay and linebacker Michael Hutchings headlining the other key departures. Green should be one of the answers in the trenches after recording 55 tackles (6.5 for a loss) and six sacks in his first full season as a starter. With another offseason to work under coordinator Clancy Pendergast, Green is primed for a monster 2017 campaign.
Will Grier, QB, West Virginia
The combination of Dana Holgorsen’s offense and Grier’s passing ability should be a lethal mix for West Virginia in 2017. As a true freshman at Florida in 2015, Grier played in six games and threw for 1,204 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also added 116 yards and two scores on the ground. West Virginia’s passing game has ranked lower than fifth in the Big 12 in each of the last two seasons, but Holgorsen and the staff have adapted the offense to utilize the talent at running back. With Grier eligible in 2017, the Mountaineers should have one of the better passing games in the Big 12.
Related: Early Big 12 Predictions for 2017
Caleb Kelly, LB, Oklahoma
Jordan Evans leaves big shoes to fill at linebacker, but Kelly is ready for a bigger role after playing in 11 games as a true freshman last fall. Kelly finished 2016 with 36 tackles (three for a loss) and one sack. He ended the year on a high note by recording 12 stops in the Sugar Bowl win over Auburn. Kelly should be one of the breakout stars for Oklahoma’s defense in 2017.
Bryce Love, RB, Stanford
Stanford’s backfield will have a new look in 2017, as Christian McCaffrey left for the NFL after recording 6,987 all-purpose yards over the last three seasons. But the cupboard is far from empty for coach David Shaw. Love averaged 7.8 yards per rush in limited action (29 carries) as a freshman in 2015 and recorded 783 yards and two scores on 111 carries as McCaffrey’s backup last fall. It’s no secret McCaffrey will be missed. However, Love is more than capable of finishing 2017 as one of the top rushers in the Pac-12.
Nyqwan Murray/Auden Tate, WR, Florida State
With Travis Rudolph (56 catches) off to the NFL, Murray and Tate shift from secondary targets to the primary weapons for quarterback Deondre Francois. Both players flashed potential in limited action in 2016. Murray grabbed 27 catches for 441 yards and five catches, while Tate nabbed 25 receptions for 409 yards and six scores. Both players could be in the mix for All-ACC honors next fall.
Shea Patterson, QB, Ole Miss
Patterson was headed for a redshirt year prior to a season-ending injury to quarterback Chad Kelly. Rather than hand the controls on offense to Jason Pellerin, coach Hugh Freeze pulled the redshirt from Patterson and the starting nod for the last three games of 2016. Patterson showcased the potential that made him a five-star prospect, as he threw for 880 yards and six touchdowns and added 169 yards on the ground. New coordinator Phil Longo engineered one of the top offenses at the FCS level, and the Rebels have a talented group of playmakers returning at receiver for Patterson to utilize.
Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn
Stidham was one of the nation’s top quarterback recruits in the 2015 signing class and was pressed into duty at Baylor as a true freshman following a season-ending injury to starter Seth Russell. In 10 appearances with the Bears, Stidham showcased his potential with 1,265 passing yards and 12 touchdowns and completed 68.8 percent of his passes. Stidham left Baylor after coach Art Briles was fired in May and spent 2016 out of football at McLennan Community College. Stidham ranked as the No. 1 junior college prospect by the 247Sports Composite and should immediately upgrade an Auburn passing offense that ranked last in the SEC in 2016.
Brandon Wimbush, QB, Notre Dame
With DeShone Kizer off to the NFL and Malik Zaire leaving as a graduate transfer, Wimbush is set to take over the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. The New Jersey native ranked as the No. 45 recruit in the 2015 signing class and completed three of five throws for 17 yards in two games in 2015. After taking a redshirt year in 2016, Wimbush is ready to assume the controls of Notre Dame’s offense.
The Big 12 embarks on another new era in 2017. The league passed on expansion to remain a 10-team league, but a conference championship game returns in December. With a nine-game schedule and 10 teams, the league is guaranteed a rematch in Arlington, Texas next December to decide the conference crown. However, the additional game could help Oklahoma (or another champion) next season, especially if Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Texas and West Virginia are ranked in the top 25 to help improve the strength of schedule.
Oklahoma enters 2017 as the early favorite to win the Big 12 for the third consecutive year in a row. The Sooners closed 2016 by beating rival Oklahoma State and defeated Auburn in dominant fashion (35-19). Quarterback Baker Mayfield is back to lead Oklahoma’s run to another conference title, but the supporting cast features a couple of new faces after Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon left early for the NFL. Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Texas and West Virginia headline the next group of contenders. Texas Tech must replace quarterback Patrick Mahomes, while Baylor begins a new era under coach Matt Rhule. TCU should rebound after a 6-7 mark last fall. However, the Horned Frogs need better quarterback play to finish in the top half of the Big 12. Iowa State and Kansas are improving but are likely a year away from making a push for a bowlg ame.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2017 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big 12 for 2017:
Early Big 12 Football Predictions for 2017
The Sooners have a few holes to fill this spring, but coach Bob Stoops’ team is the frontrunner to claim the Big 12 title in 2017. After setting a new NCAA quarterback rating record (196.4), Baker Mayfield should be one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman next fall. Mayfield’s supporting cast experienced some turnover after running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon declared for the NFL Draft and standout receiver Dede Westbrook expired his eligibility. The Sooners have options at running back with Abdul Adams and Rodney Anderson the expected frontrunners for carries, and junior college recruit Marquise Brown should help right away at receiver. In addition to Mayfield, the strength of the offense should be a line that returns all five starters from the Sugar Bowl and guard Cody Ford is back from injury. Although the transition to a new set of skill players won’t be easy, the biggest concern for Oklahoma remains on defense. Can this unit take a step forward after losing linebacker Jordan Evans, linemen Jordan Wade and Austin Roberts and safety Ahmad Thomas? The losses aren’t too heavy, especially with rush linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo returning and the emergence of Caleb Kelly. As a freshman linebacker, Kelly finished with 36 tackles and ended the year by recording 12 in the win over Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. Jordan Thomas is back to anchor one side of the secondary, with Jordan Parker (eight starts as a freshman) expected to handle the other side. Safety Steven Parker should contend for All-America honors.
2. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys have won at least 10 games in three out of the last four seasons. Coach Mike Gundy seems to have a team capable of contending for the Big 12 title, especially after quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington turned down the NFL one more season in Stillwater. Washington will be joined by LSU transfer Tyron Johnson, Marcell Ateman and Jalen McCleskey at receiver, while running back Justice Hill returns after a 1,000-yard season as a freshman. Two starters on the offensive line must be replaced, including All-Big 12 left tackle Victor Salako. The defense ranked seventh in the Big 12 in 2016 by limiting opponents to 5.93 yards per play. Can this unit improve on that total after losing tackle Vincent Taylor early to the NFL and linebackers Jordan Burton and Devante Averette, cornerback Ashton Lampkin and safety Jordan Sterns to graduation? Road trips to Texas and West Virginia won’t be easy, but Oklahoma State hosts Oklahoma and Kansas State next season.
3. Kansas State
Bill Snyder’s Wildcats finished 2016 by winning six out of their last seven games and should be in the mix to win the Big 12 title next fall. The offense is in great shape on the ground, as quarterback Jesse Ertz (1,012 yards) and rising star Alex Barnes (442 yards) return for 2017. Ertz did not throw for more than 200 yards in a game during Big 12 play in 2016 but threw only one interception over his last six contests. While the passing attack won’t take a huge step forward on the stat sheet next fall, Ertz has two talented and proven targets at his disposal in Byron Pringle and Dominique Heath. The offensive line is set with four returning starters. Reloading on defense is the biggest hurdle for K-State in order to challenge for the Big 12 title. End Jordan Willis, linebackers Charmeachealle Moore, Will Davis and defensive backs Dante Barnett and Dante Starks have expired their eligibility. Additionally, All-Big 12 linebacker Elijah Lee left early for the NFL. Helping to ease the transition on defense will be end Reggie Walker, cornerback D.J. Reed and tackle Will Geary.
The Longhorns are the toughest team to rank in the early Big 12 predictions for 2017. New coach Tom Herman should help this program take a significant step forward next fall. However, just how high can this team climb? Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Herman. Quarterback Shane Buechele headlines an offense that averaged over 30 points per game (31.9) for the first time since 2012 last fall. Running back D’Onta Foreman departed for the NFL after a 2,000-yard season in 2016. However, Chris Warren is back from injury, and Kyle Porter is another option to handle the ground game. Anchored by tackle Connor Williams, guard Patrick Vahe and center Zach Shackelford, the Longhorns have a promising trio in the trenches and should be one of the better lines in the Big 12 next fall. New defensive coordinator Todd Orlando inherits a depth chart full of talent, but Texas has to improve on defense after surrendering 31.5 points per game in 2017. Linebacker Malik Jefferson, end Bryce Cottrell and hybrid end/linebacker Breckyn Hager are a key trio for Orlando to build around this spring. The Longhorns have a favorable path to a finish among the top three teams in the Big 12, as Oklahoma State and Kansas State visit Austin next fall.
5. West Virginia
Coming off a 10-3 record and a No. 18 finish in the Associated Press poll, coach Dana Holgorsen has some much-needed job security. After the regular season ended, Holgorsen inked a five-year extension with the school. Additionally, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson – one of the best assistant coaches in the Big 12 – signed a new three-year deal. The Mountaineers also improved their staff this offseason by hiring former assistant Jake Spavital as offensive coordinator. Even though both sides of the ball suffered a few key losses, West Virginia should be in the mix to be a top 25 team in 2017. Florida transfer Will Grier takes over under center, and the backfield is stocked with options, including Justin Crawford and Kennedy McKoy. Receiver Shelton Gibson departed early for the NFL, and the line must replace standout center Tyler Orlosky. For the second year in a row, Tony Gibson’s defense is facing a significant overhaul. However, this unit will regain the services of safety Dravon Henry-Askew after he missed all of 2016 due to a knee injury. End Noble Nwachukwu and cornerback Rasul Douglas won’t be easy to replace.
For just the third time in Gary Patterson’s coaching career at TCU, the Horned Frogs are coming off a losing season. However, following the two previous years with a losing record, TCU won at least 11 games the next season. That’s a good omen for a team that returns enough talent to push for a spot among the top five in the Big 12. Co-offensive coordinator Doug Meacham was instrumental in the recent improvement for TCU’s offense. However, co-coordinator Sonny Cumbie should keep this unit on track. Kenny Hill had his share of ups and downs in his first season as the No. 1 quarterback, and he will be pushed for time by incoming freshman Shawn Robinson. Running back Kyle Hicks (1,042 yards) returns, and the receiving corps is in great shape with the return of Taj Williams, John Diarse and KaVontae Turpin. The line surrendered 31 sacks in 2016 but improvement should be noticeable with four starters returning. Patterson is one of the best defensive minds in college football, and this unit has not ranked lower than third in the Big 12 in fewest yards per play allowed since 2012. Next year’s version should feature a strong back seven, but the line must replace ends James McFarland and Josh Carraway and tackle Aaron Curry. Standout safety Denzel Johnson also expired his eligibility.
Matt Rhule was an outstanding hire for Baylor, but the former Temple coach has a lot of work to do in his first season in Waco. The Bears were already shorthanded due to the departure of a handful of recruits after Art Briles was dismissed in May. Quarterback Zach Smith showed potential after taking over for an injured Seth Russell under center. Smith will face competition from Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon for the starting nod. Smith and Solomon is surrounded by a solid supporting cast, including running backs Terence Williams and JaMycal Hasty and four starters on the offensive line. Rebuilding the receiving corps is the biggest concern for Rhule after KD Cannon and Ishmael Zamora left early for the NFL Draft. Safety Orion Stewart and linebacker Aiavion Edwards are the biggest losses on defense. Depth on both sides of the ball is a concern.
8. Iowa State
Matt Campbell has Iowa State trending up entering 2017. The Cyclones finished 2016 with a 3-9 record, but this team won two out of its last three games and lost five by 10 points or less. Jacob Park and Joel Lanning shared time at quarterback in 2016 and both players are slated to return next fall. Park (12 TDs, 5 INTs) is the better thrower, while Lanning (518 yards) is a superior runner. The running back position is in good hands with David Montgomery (563 yards) and Mike Warren (559). Allen Lazard is one of the top receivers in the Big 12 and turned down the NFL for one more season in Ames. Deshaunte Jones (37 catches) joins Lazard as a key target in the passing game after a promising freshman season. The biggest concern for Campbell remains up front on the offensive line and on defense. The Cyclones must replace three standouts in the trenches, as Mitchell Meyers, Demond Tucker and Jhaustin Thomas have expired their eligibility. Cornerback Brian Peavy and safety Kamari Cotton-Moya should be two of the Big 12’s top defensive backs in 2017.
9. Texas Tech
It’s no secret 2017 is a critical year for coach Kliff Kingsbury. The Red Raiders are 7-11 in Big 12 play over the last two seasons and have missed on a bowl in two out of the last three years. As usual, scoring points hasn’t been a problem for Texas Tech. However, the defense has surrendered at least 40 points per game (on average) over each of the last three seasons. Can this unit take a step forward next fall? Coordinator David Gibbs returns a good chunk of the depth chart, including linebacker Jordyn Brooks and end Kolin Hill. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes leaves big shoes to fill after deciding to enter the NFL Draft. Nic Shimonek is the frontrunner to start at quarterback after throwing for 464 yards and six scores in four games in 2016. Shimonek won’t be hurting for options at receiver, as Jonathan Giles (69 catches), Keke Coutee (55), Cameron Batson (61) and Dylan Cantrell (57) return for 2017.
David Beaty has this program moving in the right direction, but the Jayhawks might be a year away from escaping the Big 12 cellar. The hire of Doug Meacham from TCU was a huge addition for an offense that averaged 20.3 points per game in 2016. Meacham was instrumental in TCU’s improvement on offense over the last three seasons and takes over the play-calling duties after Beaty called the plays last year. Peyton Bender arrives from the junior college ranks (and a stint at Washington State) as frontrunner to start at quarterback in 2017. The Jayhawks need to generate more production out of the ground attack, but the receiving corps features three talented players, including LaQuvionte Gonzalez, Steven Sims and Alabama transfer Daylon Charlot. The defense allowed 6.04 yards per play in 2016 but that was a slight improvement from the 6.96 mark in 2015. End Dorance Armstrong (10 sacks) is quietly one of the Big 12’s top defenders, and safety Mike Lee is another promising player for Beaty to build around on defense.
Despite a three-game improvement in the win column from 2015, Nebraska coach Mike Riley isn’t sitting idle this offseason. Instead, Riley made a significant change to his coaching staff after defensive coordinator Mark Banker was dismissed in favor of former UConn head coach and Notre Dame assistant Bob Diaco. College football’s assistant coach carousel isn’t finished, but Riley’s decision to hire Diaco as the team’s new defensive coordinator is a significant move and potentially one of the best hires of the offseason.
Just how important was getting Diaco for Nebraska? Check out his salary. Diaco is slated to make $825,000 in 2017 and $875,000 in 2018. That’s the highest mark for an assistant in program history.
A changing of play-callers is a significant moment in Riley’s tenure with the Cornhuskers. Nebraska is 15-11 under Riley and has work to do in order to return to the top of the Big Ten West. Dismissing Banker certainly wasn’t an easy decision for Riley considering the two coaches have worked together for over 20 years. And after improving by three games from 2015 to 2016, Riley simply could have stayed with the approach and staff when he was first hired in December of 2014. However, it was clear change was needed in order for Nebraska to take a step forward in 2017 and 2018.
Nebraska ranked seventh in the Big Ten in scoring defense (23.9 ppg) in 2016 and finished 10th in 2015 (27.8 ppg). This unit also ranked near the bottom in yards per play (5.5 in 2016 and 5.9 in 2015), gave up 14 plays of 40 yards or more in 2016 (10th in the Big Ten) and struggled to generate takeaways or pressure on the quarterback.
Under Diaco, Nebraska will shift to more of a 3-4 approach. The Cornhuskers struggled to generate a pass rush out of the 4-3, so moving to a 3-4 scheme should help spark more production from the edge rushers. This scheme should also allow for more flexibility when defending some of the pass attacks Nebraska could face by switching out a linebacker for a defensive back to help with coverage. Additionally, Diaco’s hire should pay off on the recruiting trail. Diaco is just 43 years old and isn’t short on energy or enthusiasm for the job. As a former player at Iowa (1995-95) and graduate assistant under Hayden Fry, Diaco has roots in the Big Ten.
Shifting defensive schemes is never easy, but 2017 would seem to be an ideal time for Nebraska to make the move. Safety Nathan Gerry, tackle Kevin Maurice, end Ross Dzuris and linebackers Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey have all expired their eligibility. However, linebacker Dedrick Young, end Freedom Akinmoladun and cornerback Chris Jones is a solid trio to build upon this spring.
Diaco comes to Lincoln after a three-year stint as UConn’s head coach from 2014-16. While at UConn, Diaco guided the Huskies to an 11-26 record and an appearance in the 2015 St. Petersburg Bowl. After his playing career ended at Iowa in 1995, Diaco served as a graduate assistant with the Hawkeyes from 1996-97. He later made stops at Western Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Virginia before landing on Brian Kelly’s staff at Cincinnati in 2009. After one season with the Bearcats, Diaco followed Kelly to Notre Dame. Under Diaco’s direction, the Fighting Irish never finished lower than 27th nationally in scoring defense and never finished a season by allowing more than 5.2 yards per play. The 2012 version of the Fighting Irish defense – which was instrumental in the run to the national championship game – earned Diaco the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant.
How have Diaco's defenses performed in the past? Here are the numbers behind Diaco's defenses as a coordinator or as UConn's head coach:
Defenses Under Bob Diaco
|Pass Eff. Defense|
|2009||Cincinnati (DC)||23.1 (44th)||374.0 (67th)||5.2||37||19||170.3 (89th)||128.4 (59th)|
|2010||Notre Dame (DC)||20.2 (23rd)||358.5 (51st)||5.2||26||25||143.9 (51st)||115.8 (25th)|
|2011||Notre Dame (DC)||20.7 (24th)||344.2 (30th)||5.1||25||14||138.9 (47th)||129.3 (58th)|
|2012||Notre Dame (DC)||12.8 (2nd)||305.5 (7th)||4.8||33||23||105.7 (11th)||111.4 (16th)|
|2013||Notre Dame (DC)||22.4 (27th)||366.2 (31st)||5.1||21||17||168.0 (71st)||120.8 (39th)|
|29.8 (86th)||378.6 (50th)||5.2||13||15||169.8 (71st)||126.7 (59th)|
|19.5 (15th)||355.1 (33rd)||5.2||21||25||165.8 (60th)||112.7 (24th)|
|28.1 ppg (65th)||410.8 (65th)||5.7||17||11||146.01 ypg (41st)||141.01 (98th)|
Stephen A. Smith has a take on everything, and the head coaching job of the Rams is no different.
The First Take host talks about about the Los Angeles team hiring Sean McVay, who is only 30, and the fact that it may have been based a little more on who he knows rather than his skill set. Smith brought up Mike Tomlin, who was 34 when he was picked to be the head coach of the Steelers, but this hiring seems to have a different vibe to Smith.
It's getting hard to think of a team Smith doesn't have a hot take about.
Hockey Twitter is cold.
During the Kings game against the Blues, the team's Twitter account wasted no time taking a dig at the fact that they were up in score and, since the Rams' departure, football teams as well. Too soon, LA. Too soon.
Los Angeles now leads St. Louis 2-0.— #LAKings (@LAKings) January 13, 2017
...both in this game and in professional football teams.
#LAKings (@LAKings) January 13, 2017
Don't expect any St. Louis natives to visit California in the near future.
As the dust settles on Carl Edwards’ departure from the sport, questions swirl as to whether he’s a NASCAR Hall of Famer. His retirement, done in the peak of his career cuts short as much as a decade’s worth of potential starts, wins, even championships.
Does that mean it cuts off his chances at immortality?
That’s tough to predict, considering NASCAR’s Hall of Fame is still in its infancy. Established in 2010, the five-member-a-year induction rule means a sport that’s been around for nearly 70 years has an honor roll of just 40 as of late January 2017. It’s a small sample size to build around a simple question of where, exactly, the line is between a “good” career and one “great” enough to be enshrined forever?
We do know this much: Edwards’ zero championships on the Cup level won’t be a potential hurdle for induction. Mark Martin, who failed to win a title throughout a 30-year NASCAR career is part of the Class of 2017. He’s the first driver to make the cut without a championship although the court of popular opinion deems him the best driver to never win one.
Martin also fell short on two key events, also holes in Edwards’ resume, going winless in both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. In fact, a closer look at their careers shows the former Roush teammates have similar trajectories.
|Wins||Top 5s||Top 10s||Poles||Starts|
In nearly half as many starts as Martin, Edwards was on pace for about the same number of top 5s, top 10s, and plenty more wins. He also finished second in the championship twice, in 2008 and ’11 and third another time, losing the tiebreaker to Greg Biffle in ’05. Compare that to Martin’s five runner-up title performances, done in multiple eras and including with his second-place Chase finish to Jimmie Johnson in 2009.
Martin also owns 49 XFINITY wins, once a record in that series. But Edwards has comparable numbers there, too. He won 38 times, finished top three in the standings six straight years and owns a series title (2007). He did that double-dipping, running full Cup and XFINITY schedules which included several helicopter flights to and from race weekends to keep it all straight.
Some voters will take that as Edwards beating up on the little guy, a modern-day NASCAR problem of top drivers diving down into the minor leagues. But the sheer willpower and physical condition needed to drive 70 races in a full season, at the top of his game at both leagues should be considered. While Edwards was “beating up” the XFINITY guys he also was making NASCAR Cup Chases regularly, the only driver in history to earn second-place finishes in both point systems in the same year (2008). His 5,985 laps led in XFINITY fall just short of the 6,136 laps he led in Cup.
Moving on, it’s clear that Edwards left more wins on the table by retiring early, a stat we can’t prescribe to Martin or fellow Hall of Famers Terry Labonte and Dale Jarrett. So let’s look at their win percentages to gauge a fair comparison.
As you can see, Edwards beats them all. Does that compare to recently-retired Jeff Gordon’s 11.6 percent? Absolutely not. But we’re asking whether Edwards is a Hall of Famer, not the greatest driver of his era. The stats we just showed indicate he makes a good case.
It’s true Edwards could have accomplished more. He never won a restrictor plate Cup race, fell short on all those title bids and earned just one top-5 finish apiece at Indy and Martinsville. But he did win the Southern 500 at Darlington, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (the sport’s longest race) and earned nine victories in a single year (2008).
That last one? Former champions Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth have never accomplished those numbers.
For Edwards, I think it boils down to how much voters are able to forgive his early retirement. He left the sport mere laps away from a championship, his team entering 2017 intact on the strength of three wins and a series-high six poles. He could have been a factor for several years to come, but if the Hall of Fame was based on pretend you or I would have our busts alongside Dale Earnhardt.
Edwards will have to rest on his laurels. My take? It’s probably enough. We’ll have to see if everyone else agrees.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)
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The hottest team in the NFL meets the best in the NFC as the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys hook up in the postseason once again for what should be an epic clash at AT&T Stadium.
The Pack enter as winners of their last seven games and are coming off a 38-13 beatdown of the New York Giants in their wild card matchup last week. Star quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been playing phenomenally ever since guaranteeing to win out two months ago and threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns in his last outing against one of the best defenses in the league. Green Bay’s defense also has stepped up its game in recent weeks, led by Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Looking to slow down that runaway train is the No. 1 seed in the conference. The Cowboys are led by their pair of rookie stars in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott who have taken the league by storm and led the team to a surprising 13-3 record. The team’s mammoth offensive line has played a big role in the pair’s success but may not have as important a role in the outcome of this one as their opposite numbers on defense will considering the opponent.
This is the eighth time the two teams have met in the postseason, with Dallas holding a slim 4-3 lead. The Packers won the last postseason encounter back in 2014 by a score of 26-21 in a game that was far more memorable for the controversy that resulted from a non-catch by Dez Bryant. Both squads met this season in mid-October in a game that solidified Prescott as the Cowboys’ quarterback after leading the team to a 30-16 victory at Lambeau Field. That win tied the all-time series between the two historic franchises at 17-all heading into this playoff clash.
NFC Divisional Playoff: Green Bay at Dallas
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 15 at 4:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Cowboys -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Playoff Jitters
Ever since they won three Lombardi Trophies back in the early 1990s, Dallas’ playoff history has been a bit tortured as America’s Team has found ways to lose in a variety of ways. That was certainly the case the last time they played the Packers back in 2015’s Divisional Round as Dez Bryant’s catch/no-catch is still being talked about. This year feels a little different for the Cowboys though, and that’s thanks mostly to the rookie tandem in the backfield of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. While both have played in big games during their college careers (and in the league this year), the playoffs are a different animal and it will be interesting to see how both perform on the spot’s grandest stage. They’ve been incredible on the field this season but things will certainly be very amped up to start this game so pay attention to any early jitters and how the tandem responds if there’s any adversity to start their first playoff game.
2. Stopping Rodgers
There’s no getting around it, but Aaron Rodgers is having another MVP-caliber season this year and has only enhanced his profile as one of the game’s best on this recent run. Stopping him remains a priority for the better-than-expected Cowboys defense but it’s easier said than done given the number of weapons the signal-caller has at his disposal. While Jordy Nelson left in the first half against the Giants and didn’t return (his status is in doubt for this one), the team had plenty of replacements to trot out for him as Randall Cobb caught three touchdown passes and Davante Adams added another 125 yards and a score last week. Dallas made life difficult in the first matchup but this is a much different group than the one they played in mid-October. Luckily for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, he does get some good news on the injury front with cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive ends Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence all expected to be in the lineup for the game. It’s a good thing because they’ll need all the help they can get to slow down the maestro under center.
3. Winning in the Trenches
One of Elliott’s most memorable games this season came back at Lambeau Field in Week 6 when he gashed the then-No. 1-ranked rushing defense in the league to the tune of 157 yards. The Cowboys’ offensive line put on a clinic and dominated the line of scrimmage in ways the Packers probably don’t forget. Green Bay’s offense has gotten most of the press during the recent run but if the Packers have any hope of knocking off the top seed in the NFC, the defense will need to have a heck of a game as well. That includes guys up front like Letroy Guion winning battles and closing down running lanes if the team wants a different result from their first meeting. Dallas won’t make things easy, but it’s safe to say that the winner of this one will be the team that dominates in the trenches when the Cowboys have the ball.
There has been a ton of talk this season about the NFL’s television ratings dropping but it’s probably safe to say that won’t be an issue for this game. In terms of matchups, it really doesn’t get much better than this given how historically successful the two franchises have been in the postseason and some of the big names involved in this year’s meeting on both sides of the ball.
For the Packers, that obviously starts with their star quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. He’s been shredding defenses left and right as his team got hot and when he’s not dancing around in the pocket, he’s launching Hail Marys in effortless fashion. Ty Montgomery has really come on late as a converted wide receiver-turned-tailback and there are weapons for days in the passing game even if Jordy Nelson won’t make it out for this game. Defensively, Green Bay can certainly get after teams with Clay Matthews shutting down run lanes and Julius Peppers still going strong coming off the edge.
They’ll be tested against a Dallas team that has seen all the pieces come together at the right time however. That starts up front with the high-priced offensive line the team has assembled but has paid off with career-defining seasons from rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. That backfield tandem will have no problem grinding out a win in the playoffs but you can’t overlook Dez Bryant and others in the Cowboys’ offense causing some matchup nightmares too.
It should all make for one great game and install the winner as the likely favorite to make it all the way down the road to Houston for Super Bowl LI. This figures to be one of those close games with several back-and-forth momentum shifts that come as a result of big plays. So in the end will it be a red-hot Green Bay team or the NFC’s No. 1 seed that moves on to the conference championship game.
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
It was clear that AFC North champion Pittsburgh had more on its mind than survive and advance in last week’s wild card matchup against Miami. After all, the Dolphins had embarrassed the Steelers in Week 6 by a score of 30-15. Mike Tomlin’s team wanted a little revenge and got in in the form of a 30-12 blowout victory, its eighth straight win. The irony is that Pittsburgh finds itself on the other side of that coin entering the Divisional Round against AFC West champ Kansas City. The Steelers dominated the Chiefs in a lopsided Week 4 victory, as they scored a season-high 43 points. It was arguably Pittsburgh’s best performance of the season, and unquestionably Kansas City’s worst.
The Steelers now face the daunting task of trying to knock off the payback-minded Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium, one of the toughest venues in the NFL for a visiting team to escape with a win. The revenge factor and hostile environment will be tough for Pittsburgh to overcome. And the challenge is further compounded by the fact that a well-rested Kansas City team had an extra week of preparation following a bye last week. This also is significant because Chiefs head coach Andy Reid in 19-2 in his career coming off of a bye, including 3-0 in the playoffs. With so many factors seemingly in Kansas City’s favor, can the Chiefs exact a little revenge by stopping the momentum of the red-hot Steelers?
AFC Divisional Playoff: Pittsburgh at Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 15 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Kansas City -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Pittsburgh Passing Game vs. Kansas City Pass Defense
The last time Ben Roethlisberger faced the Chiefs, he lit them up for 300 passing yards and a season-high five touchdowns. But that was then, and this is now. Roethlisberger not only has to face a much improved Kansas City secondary this time around, he also must do so in a very hostile environment on the road. In eight games away from Heinz Field this season, Roethlisberger has just nine TD passes compared to eight interceptions while posting a passer rating of just 78.4. For comparison’s sake, his QB rating at home is a very impressive 116.7.
Roethlisberger also is dealing with a foot injury. That certainly doesn’t improve his chances against three of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL in Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Tamba Hali. Houston alone is a one-man wrecking crew, and his absence (knee injury) in the Week 4 matchup helped make life much easier on Big Ben. It will be intriguing to see how a much healthier Kansas City pass rush matches up against a Pittsburgh offensive line that allowed the second-fewest sacks (21) in the NFL during the regular season.
If Pittsburgh’s front isn’t up for the challenge, an opportunistic Chiefs defense will force Roethlisberger and company into costly mistakes. Kansas City led the league in takeaways (33), while tying for the top spot in both interceptions (18) and turnover margin (+16). All-Pro defensive backs Marcus Peters and Eric Berry are the Chiefs’ top ball hawks combining for 10 interceptions during the regular season.
One of the marquee individual matchups to keep an eye on will be Peters against All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown. Peters will not shadow Brown, but they should see plenty of each other throughout the game. Peters will look for redemption after enduring arguably his worst game of the season in the previous meeting. He was targeted seven times, allowing five completions for 86 yards. Brown hauled in four passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns in the 43-14 blowout win, although none of those came against Peters.
2. Le’Veon Bell: X-Factor Extraordinaire
Regardless of Roethlisberger’s road struggles, the Pittsburgh offense can always rely on the elite talents and contributions of Bell. The Steelers’ running back has been virtually unstoppable in the second half of the season. In his last seven games, Bell has more than 1,000 rushing yards while averaging a whopping 180.7 yards from scrimmage with a total of nine touchdowns. His 167 rushing yards last week against the Dolphins broke a Pittsburgh postseason record, which is no small feat considering the franchise’s championship pedigree.
Bell had a field day against the Kansas City defense in Week 4, his first after serving a three-game suspension to open the season. He ran for 144 yards in his 2016 debut while adding 34 receiving yards on five catches. Expect the Steeler offense to lean heavily on its versatile running back again on Sunday. And Bell could be in for an even bigger performance this time around against a defense that finished near the bottom of the NFL against the run (121 ypg). The Chiefs also will be without linebacker Derrick Johnson (Achilles), their leading tackler and the defense’s anchor in the middle. Kansas City will throw everything it has at Bell to slow him down, but that may not be enough. Bell’s production, or lack thereof, will have an enormous impact on determining the outcome of this game.
3. Kansas City Offense vs. Pittsburgh Defense
High-powered is a term that has rarely, if ever, been used to describe the Chiefs’ offense under the direction of head coach Andy Reid. However, the numbers this unit put up in the last two games of the regular season paint a slightly different picture. In wins over Denver and San Diego, Kansas City averaged 424 yards and 30 points per game, including 484 and 33 in a blowout home win over the Broncos on Christmas night.
The evolution of the Chiefs’ offense can largely be attributed to the emergence of all-purpose dynamo Tyreek Hill. Hill’s explosive playmaking abilities as a wide receiver, running back and punt returner have produced eight touchdowns in the last six games. Tight End Travis Kelce has done his part as well with 100 or more receiving yards in five of the last seven contests. And while quarterback Alex Smith hasn’t put up monster numbers, he has been productive as both a passer and runner in recent weeks. Smith’s ability to manage a game and minimize mistakes may be unmatched by any other quarterback in the league.
While Kansas City’s offense has been hitting on all cylinders of late, it figures to have its hands full trying to move the ball and put some points on a Pittsburgh defense that shut the Chiefs down in Week 4. The Steelers’ defense has been playing really well recently with 38-year-old linebacker James Harrison turning the clock back a little with his play on the field and 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree having an impact as a pass rusher. A young Pittsburgh secondary that was once viewed as a huge liability has become an asset down the stretch as well.
You will likely see Reid and co-offensive coordinators Brad Childress and Matt Nagy try and attack with plenty of short passes and screens in hopes that they can avoid a potent Steeler pass rush, and utilize their own players’ speed in an attempt to break through for big gains. Hill will definitely be one to watch in this regard. If Le’Veon Bell is the x-factor for Pittsburgh, Hill has to be considered the same for Kansas City. But in addition to Hill, running backs Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West are exceptional receivers out of the backfield. A much healthier Jeremy Maclin could be a difference-maker in that respect as well.
Home-field advantage, the revenge factor, the extra week of rest and preparation, Andy Reid’s track record following a bye and Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles on the road are all great reasons to like Kansas City in this matchup. However, it’s difficult to get past the thorough 43-14 beating Pittsburgh put on the Chiefs earlier this season. It’s not uncommon for NFL teams to avenge an early-season loss, even a bad loss. The Steelers did just that last week against Miami. And sure, a lot has changed since Week 4. Kansas City is unquestionably a much better team now than it was back on Oct. 2. But the same can be said for a red-hot Pittsburgh team that is riding an eight-game winning streak. It will definitely be a much closer game this time around, and a Chiefs win would not come as a total surprise for the reasons listed above. However, the Steelers were clearly the better team in Week 4, and that appears to be the case again with the stakes even higher. So will Kansas City hold serve at home or can Pittsburgh keep things rolling?
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
The NFL playoffs move on to hopefully a better place after an awful Wild Card Weekend. There were blowouts and efforts by teams that certainly didn't belong in the postseason. Now we get to bring the top seeds off of bye and get a few rematches from the regular season. There are still some teams left that could challenge perceived favorites New England and Dallas as well.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5), 4:35 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Rematch number one of the weekend takes place in Atlanta as the Falcons look for revenge after a 26-24 Week 6 loss in Seattle. The big takeaway from the first meeting is the non-call on a Julio Jones incompletion that would have made a huge difference. Atlanta is a completely different team at home, where the Falcons average more than 400 yards and 35 points per game. The problem is still their defense which allows almost 28 points per contest in the Georgia Dome. Seattle is still a hard team to figure out despite winning three of its last four. The Seahawks’ offense, mainly Thomas Rawls, ran it well against Detroit last week. Two of their last three road games were 14-5 and 38-10 losses at Tampa Bay and Green Bay, respectively. Atlanta was able to keep things close in Seattle back in October despite the lack of a ground game. Atlanta is 8-18 the last three years against the spread as a favorite. I'm not a believer in Matt Ryan and the Falcons in the postseason. SELECTION: Seattle 28-24
Houston Texans (10-7) at New England Patriots (14-2), 8:15 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Rematch number two has drastically different circumstances then the first meeting. Jacoby Brissett was under center for the Patriots, who were also welcoming Rob Gronkowski back into the flow of the offense. New England won in Houston way back in Week 3 easily 27-0 despite managing only 282 yards of offense. The Pats have dominated this series, winning seven of the last eight meetings while covering six of them. The biggest question here is if Bill Belichick will go full throttle or pull back the reins a little. The Pats were 13-3 against the spread this season and have covered in six of their last nine games as a home favorite of 14.5 to 21 points. Brock Osweiler and the Texans beat Oakland in the previous round, but this is where the ride ends. SELECTION: New England 38-10
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4), 1:05 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Arguably the best game of the weekend, we've already seen a swap of favorites going from Pittsburgh to Kansas City. The Steelers demolished the Chiefs 43-14 back in October, putting up more than 400 yards of offense. Pittsburgh is one of the hottest teams in the league behind its explosive offense, but the defense has done its job as well, holding five of the last seven opponents to 20 points or fewer. Kansas City has won five of its last six and you can point to the team’s increased offensive output. Tyreek Hill has been a revelation to go along with Travis Kelce. We've seen Alex Smith get better and that's key to a team whose defense already has lockdown potential. The Chiefs can be thrown on, but can Ben Roethlisberger conquer his road issues? I want to believe that the winner of this one can beat New England if they don't beat each other up too much. SELECTION: Kansas City 27-24
Green Bay Packers (11-6) at Dallas Cowboys (13-3), 4:40 p.m. ET (Sunday)
The final rematch of the weekend features a Dallas team who already beat the Packers at their place 30-16 back on Oct. 16. Green Bay was left for dead before Thanksgiving, but has reeled off seven straight wins, several in impressive fashion. The Packers have been exceptional with their ball security (1 turnover vs. 17 takeaways) during this streak, but will most likely be without No. 1 wide receiver Jordy Nelson on Sunday. Aaron Rodgers has been fantastic, but I don't know if he's enough. The Green Bay secondary is awful and has allowed three of the last four opponents to pass for more than 300 yards. Dallas probably was happy to see the Pack win last week considering the Cowboys’ struggles with the Giants. Ezekiel Elliott and the running game should be able to find some traction, which opens up things for Dak Prescott. I think the Packers’ train reaches its final stop on Sunday. SELECTION: Dallas 26-21
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
The NFL's Wild Card Weekend games were not exactly the most competitive we've seen recently. Not only did all four home teams win, but they all did so fairly convincingly. A couple of this weekend's divisional round games look like they could be hotly contested matchups that could go down to the wire. But, as so often is the case, when we are expecting one thing, something outrageous happens.
Outrageous Predictions for NFL Divisional Playoff Games
Matt Ryan tops 400 passing yards against Seattle
Ryan has thrown for nearly 900 yards and eight touchdowns in his last three games. That was without Julio Jones in one game and a less-than-100 percent Jones in the other two. Now, the best receiver in the game is healthy and Seattle is without the top safety in the league. That's a recipe for disaster for the Seahawks, who now need to figure out how to simultaneously contain Ryan and the Falcon passing attack while remaining cognizant of the damage Atlanta can do on the ground. Expect Ryan to force the issue early and challenge the Seattle secondary with several deep balls to Jones and Mohamed Sanu right out of the gate. Falcons should win this one easily on the back of Ryan's MVP-like performance.
New England beats Houston without Tom Brady throwing a single touchdown pass
Despite being suspended for the first four games of the season, Brady has been the story of the year — playing at an MVP level. And that right there tells you that Bill Belichick plans to dissect the Houston Texans with Brady playing a minimal role (at least in terms of actual scoring). The Texans' pass rush is one of the best in the game. To counter that, look for Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to install a game plan full of screen passes and off-tackle runs between the 20s. In the red zone, look for a heavy dose of LeGarrette Blount in a repeat of his performance against Houston in Week 3. In that game, Blount ran for 105 yards and two touchdowns. As good as Houston's defense has been this season, they are in the bottom half of the league in terms of rushing touchdowns allowed.
The Chiefs defeat the Steelers by double digits
Forget the earlier matchup between these teams. Two key factors will decide this one: the Arrowhead crowd and Ben Roethlisberger's hindered mobility. Look for the Chiefs to feed off of the crowd in one of the NFL's loudest stadiums early. Big plays by Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce — both matchup problems for the Steelers — will give Kansas City an early lead. After that, look for Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley to all but abandon the run game altogether in an effort to play catch up through the air. Though the Steelers are saying Roethlisberger's foot injury will not hinder him, common sense says you are not going to be 100 percent one week after wearing a walking boot. Look for the Chiefs' defense to bring heavy pressure every time the Steelers pass, leaving the more-than-capable Marcus Peters to take Antonio Brown away as an option. This game could get ugly in a hurry.
Green Bay and Dallas combine for more than 75 points
The over/under for this contest is set at around 52.5. That seems ridiculously low, considering the high-powered nature of both of these offenses and the fact that the game will be in the very offense-friendly AT&T Stadium. Jordy Nelson's injury should not be a factor in terms of the points these two teams hang on the scoreboard. The Packers have group of receivers who are up to the task and the hottest quarterback on the planet tossing the football their way. When Dallas has the ball, I have a hard time seeing the Packers slowing down the Cowboys — especially on the ground. If you like points, this is the game for you.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.