Articles By All

Path: /college-football/setting-expectations-college-footballs-second-year-coaches
Body:

Predicting the success of college football coaches on a year-to-year basis is nearly impossible. There’s a baseline of results and history to use, along with a program track record, but good coaches can raise the profile of a team in a short amount of time. Need evidence? How about James Franklin at Vanderbilt?

 

The group of first-year coaches in 2013 had a successful debut, starting with Gus Malzahn at Auburn and continuing through the rest of the FBS with Boston College’s Steve Addazio, Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen.

But as the calendar flips to 2014, what are the reasonable expectations for coaches in their second year on the job? Let’s take a look at last season’s grade and explore what a reasonable expectation should be for these second-year coaches.

 

ACC

 

Steve Addazio, Boston College

 

2013 Record: 7-6 (4-4)

 

First Season Grade: A

 

2014 Expectation: 6-6

 

Addazio and the Eagles exceeded preseason expectations last season, finishing 7-6 and ending a two-year postseason drought with an appearance in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl. Despite the quick turnaround last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Boston College took a small step back in 2014. Several key players have expired their eligibility, including standout running back Andre Williams. The ground attack should be fine with Myles Willis and a solid offensive line leading the way, but quarterback Tyler Murphy has to play better than he did in his limited stint at Florida last season. With only nine returning starters, a successful season at Chestnut Hill would be another trip to a bowl game, with an eye on bigger things in 2015.

 

Scott Shafer, Syracuse

 

2013 Record: 7-6 (4-4)

 

First Season Grade: A

 

2014 Expectation: 8-4/7-5

 

After winning four out of their last six games in 2013, the Orange has momentum entering 2014. The schedule certainly isn’t easy, but non-conference games against Notre Dame and Maryland are winnable, and quarterback Terrel Hunt should be comfortable in his second year under center. Replacing defensive tackle Jay Bromley is Shafer’s biggest concern, especially on a defense that allowed 40 or more points in four out of the six losses. Beating Florida State or Clemson for one of the top two spots in the Atlantic Division is out of reach, but another bowl trip and a one or two-game improvement in regular season record should be expected.

 

Dave Doeren, NC State

 

2013 Record: 3-9 (0-8)

 

First Season Grade: C

 

2014 Expectation: 5-7/6-6

 

Last season’s 3-9 mark was a surprise for a program that won 24 games in the previous three years. However, Dave Doeren’s first year was marked by uncertainty at quarterback, largely due to a foot injury suffered by Brandon Mitchell in the opener against Louisiana Tech. The quarterback concerns in Raleigh should be eased by the arrival of Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett, and the junior will have talent to work with at the skill positions. After averaging only 22.8 points per game last year, expect significant improvement on offense for NC State in 2014. Most of the roster is underclassmen, so this isn’t a team built to win big next season. With four winnable non-conference games to open the year, combined with home ACC swing games against Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Boston College, a bowl game is a very realistic goal for Doeren in Year 2.

 

Big 12

 

Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech

 

2013 Record: 8-5 (5-4)

 

First Season Grade: B

 

2014 Expectation: 8-4

 

If Texas Tech’s final record in 2014 is 8-4, it would represent only a one-game improvement from last year’s 7-5 mark in the regular season. However, it’s tough to envision a significant jump for the Red Raiders in Kingsbury’s second year. But even if Texas Tech finishes 7-5, the future is bright in Lubbock for a program that is on the rise. Quarterback Davis Webb is a breakout candidate for 2014, and there’s talent at skill positions even with tight end Jace Amaro and receiver Eric Ward leaving. Offense shouldn’t be a problem, but the defense returns only three starters and new faces must emerge on the line and in the secondary. The middle of the Big 12 is open, and there’s room for a dark horse like Texas Tech to make the jump into a No. 5 finish in the conference. A small step forward should be anticipated, with even bigger things set to come in 2015.

 

Big Ten

 

Darrell Hazell, Purdue

 

2013 Record: 1-11 (0-8)

 

First Season Grade: D

 

2014 Expectation: 3-9/4-8

 

Hazell inherited a rebuilding project, but the Boilermakers struggled to be competitive in Big Ten games last year, and its 1-11 mark was the worst since a 1-10 record under Jim Colletto in 1993. Hazell needs time to rebuild, so another losing mark wouldn’t be a surprise in 2014 or 2015. With 12 returning starters, combined with the development of quarterback Danny Etling, the Boilermakers should be more competitive in the Big Ten. However, victories in conference play will be tough to come by, as Michigan State and a road trip to Indiana are the crossover games with the East Division, while potential swing matchups against Minnesota and Illinois are on the road.

 

Gary Andersen, Wisconsin

 

2013 Record: 9-4 (6-2)

 

First Season Grade: A

 

2014 Expectation: 10-2

 

Andersen was considered one of the top coaching hires of the 2013 carousel, and the former Utah State coach didn’t disappoint in his first year in Madison. The Badgers lost four games by 10 points or less, including a bizarre last-minute defeat to Arizona State. Even though Wisconsin’s front seven must be revamped on defense, and star receiver Jared Abbrederis has expired his eligibility, expectations are high in Madison. The Badgers have a favorable schedule, including a home date against Nebraska and no Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State in crossover play. Sure, there are personnel concerns. However, the schedule is too favorable to finish 8-4 or 7-5.

 

Pac-12

 

Mark Helfrich, Oregon

 

2013 Record: 11-2 (7-2)

 

First Season Grade: B

 

2014 Expectation: Pac-12 title and a spot in CFB’s Playoff

Oregon has all of the necessary pieces to contend for a national championship in 2014. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is the biggest challenger to Florida State’s Jameis Winston for the Heisman, and the Ducks are three deep with options at running back. The defense will be under the direction of a new coordinator (Don Pellum), but five starters are back, including senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and talented defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. With Mariota likely headed to the NFL after 2014, Oregon has another window of opportunity to play for the national championship.

 

Mike MacIntyre, Colorado

 

2013 Record: 4-8 (1-8)

 

First Season Grade: B

 

2014 Expectation: 4-8

 

Colorado won only one Pac-12 game last season, but there was clear improvement in Boulder. And if you need reinforcement of that, other Pac-12 coaches anonymously praised MacIntyre for the job he did last year. But as the 2014 season approaches, it’s easy to see why Colorado is probably a year away from contending for a bowl. The Buffaloes catch Oregon and Washington in crossover play with the North and must replace standout receiver Paul Richardson. Sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau is promising, and the depth on defense is getting better. An upset or two wouldn’t be a surprise in Pac-12 games. However, a 4-8 final record with a more competitive team in conference action is very likely for MacIntyre.  

 

Sonny Dykes, California

 

2013 Record: 1-11 (0-9)

 

First Season Grade: D

 

2014 Expectation: 3-9

 

Thanks to a rash of injuries, new schemes on both sides of the ball, and a freshman quarterback, California slumped to a 1-11 mark in Dykes’ first year. While last year was brutal, there’s only one way to go - up - in 2014. California’s schedule is challenging, so drastic improvement in the win column is unlikely. But the Golden Bears are healthier, and the depth has improved due to the return of a few injured players on defense. Assuming Goff takes a step forward under center, California’s offense could average 30-35 points per game. Just being more competitive in conference play would be a step forward (and a victory) for Dykes in 2014.

 

SEC

 

Bret Bielema, Arkansas

 

2013 Record: 3-9 (0-8)

 

First Season Grade: C

 

2014 Expectation: 4-8

 

Bielema’s debut wasn’t easy, as the Razorbacks went winless in conference play for the first time as a member of the SEC. Expectations were low in Fayetteville last season, but Arkansas lost its first six conference games by 10 or more points, including a 52-0 defeat at the hands of Alabama and a 52-7 loss to South Carolina. There were small signs of progress by the end of 2013, as the Razorbacks lost in overtime to Mississippi State and lost by four points at LSU. Bielema didn’t inherit much on the roster, so it will take time to rebuild. With one of the SEC’s top backfields, a promising sophomore tight end in Hunter Henry and two potential All-SEC linemen in Trey Flowers and Darius Philon, Arkansas should be more competitive in 2014.  And a healthy year from quarterback Brandon Allen should help the offense improve after averaging only 20.7 points per game last season. After going winless in SEC play in 2013, a conference victory would be a reasonable expectation.

 

Butch Jones, Tennessee

 

2013 Record: 5-7 (2-6)

 

First Season Grade: B

 

2014 Expectation: 6-6

 

Considering the success of Tennessee in the 1990s, it seems odd to consider a 6-6 or 7-5 mark as a good year on Rocky Top. But that’s exactly the situation Jones finds himself in as the Volunteers are clearly in rebuild mode. Nine starters return from a Tennessee team that finished 5-7 last year and lost four out of its final five games. The Volunteers suffered massive personnel losses on the offensive and defensive lines, and both units could see a handful of freshmen taking major snaps. The personnel concerns are heavy, but the schedule is an even bigger hurdle. Tennessee plays Utah State and Oklahoma in non-conference play and catches Ole Miss and Alabama in crossover play. Just getting to a bowl would be a good season for Jones in Year 2.

 

Gus Malzahn, Auburn

 

2013 Record: 12-2 (7-1)

 

First Season Grade: A

 

2014 Expectation: CFB Playoff

 

Malzahn set the bar high last season. The Tigers reached the national championship game after a 3-9 record under Gene Chizik in 2012 and lost to Florida State by only three points. Auburn certainly had good fortune on its side in 2013, using a returned missed field goal for a touchdown to beat Alabama, along with a tipped Hail Mary pass for a score to defeat Georgia. While the good fortune certainly helped, this team was certainly worthy of its No. 2 rank at the end of the season. A year after reaching the national title, Auburn’s goal is simple: Win it all in 2014. With 12 starters back, expect Malzahn’s team to be in the thick of the playoff race all season. One potential pitfall for the Tigers will be the lines of scrimmage, especially after injuries to end Carl Lawson and guard Alex Kozan. The schedule is challenging, but Auburn has the offensive firepower to win the SEC once again.

 

Mark Stoops, Kentucky

 

2013 Record: 2-10 (0-8)

 

First Season Grade: C

 

2014 Expectation: 4-8

 

Stoops is not an easy coach to grade, and an incomplete might be more appropriate than a C rating from 2013. The former Florida State defensive coordinator didn’t inherit much to work with, and the Wildcats finished winless in SEC play for the second consecutive year. But despite the 2-10 record, there are plenty of positives in Lexington headed into 2014. Stoops has upgraded the roster talent through recruiting, and a good chunk of the team’s core is set to return in 2015. Small gains in the win column should be expected. And don’t be surprised if Kentucky finds a way to steal a victory in SEC play.

Teaser:
Setting the Expectations for College Football's Second-Year Coaches
Post date: Monday, August 25, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/week-ahead-previewing-best-five-games-week-1
Body:

Dear college football, please don’t screw up this first weekend.

Week 1 features its fair share of power teams playing other power teams, but we’re not quite sure the first week is going to be the most competitive.

We’ve waited all summer for this, so please, college football, give us some drama.

Let’s pretend Alabama-West Virginia and Florida State-Oklahoma State aren’t going to be lopsided. Let’s pretend Clemson-Georgia and Texas A&M-South Carolina won’t be games where teams are trying to figure their way in some form or another.

We can dream, right?

 

The Week Ahead: Aug. 28-Sept. 12


LSU vs. Wisconsin (Houston)
When and where:
Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... we’re a little concerned the top games in Week 1 may end up lopsided, and this game has as much potential for drama as any. The running back of the present (Wisconsin junior Melvin Gordon) and the running back of the future (LSU freshman Leonard Fournette) could feast against rebuilding front sevens. Both teams also will try to find out if they can win their respective divisions with unsettled quarterback situations.
Vegas says: LSU by 4.5

Clemson at Georgia
When and where
: Saturday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... two Southern powers will actually meet on a campus site instead of a neutral field. That said, this game will be hard-pressed to be a replay of Clemson’s 38-35 win at home last year. Two senior quarterbacks with parallel experiences — Cole Stoudt waited for three years behind Tajh Boyd, Hutson Mason behind Aaron Murray — will try to stay composed. Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley will make that tough on Mason, but the Bulldogs have a healthy Todd Gurley at running back.
Vegas says: Georgia by 8

Texas A&M at South Carolina
When and where:
Thursday, 6 p.m., SEC Network
We’re watching because... we can’t say no to a Thursday night opener even if we have a suspicion South Carolina will roll in a game lacking Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney. The Aggies answered one question by opting for sophomore Kenny Hill in a heated QB competition with freshman Kyle Allen, but  the Aggies may not have an answer for the South Carolina run game if Mike Davis is able to play. The A&M defense was last in the SEC at 5.4 yards allowed per carry before dismissing two front seven starters during the offseason. A banged up Davis may be A&M's only hope.
Vegas says: South Carolina by 10.5

Ole Miss vs. Boise State (Atlanta)
When and where:
Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... we’re still trying to figure out how seriously to take Ole Miss. The Rebels have momentum after back-to-back bowl wins, an eight-win season in 2013 and a standout signing class entering its sophomore season. Ole Miss’ opening three weeks against Boise State, Vanderbilt and UL Lafayette won’t put the Rebels in Playoff contention, but September is a tone-setter. That’s especially true of senior quarterback Bo Wallace, who is finally healthy enough to be confident in his arm.
Vegas says: Ole Miss by 10

Ohio State vs. Navy (Baltimore)
When and where:
Saturday, noon, CBS Sports Network
We’re watching because... we’re intrigued by the Buckeyes without Braxton Miller. Ohio State may win this game convincingly — Navy’s option plays right into Ohio State’s strength in the front seven. Urban Meyer moves on from the Miller injury with freshman J.T. Barrett, who will face a tougher test against Virginia Tech’s secondary in Week 2.
Vegas says: Ohio State by 12.5

Teaser:
The Week Ahead: Previewing the Best Five Games of Week 1
Post date: Monday, August 25, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Oklahoma Sooners, Big 12, News
Path: /college-football/dorial-green-beckham-denied-immediate-eligibility-oklahoma
Body:

Oklahoma and receiver Dorial Green-Beckham received some bad news on Friday, as the NCAA denied the former Missouri standout’s request for immediate eligibility in 2014.

Green-Beckham will sit out 2014 due to NCAA transfer rules and will be eligible to play for the Sooners in 2015.

Green-Beckham was dismissed from Missouri in mid-April after an off-the-field incident and was hoping to use the run-off rule to be eligible in 2014.

Even though there was some optimism about DGB’s hopes of getting a waiver to play in 2014, the standout receiver will be sidelined until 2015. 

Teaser:
Dorial Green-Beckham Denied Immediate Eligibility at Oklahoma
Post date: Saturday, August 23, 2014 - 00:23
Path: /nascar/round-2-jimmie-johnson-vs-ryan-newman-bristol
Body:

Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, as the circuit hits Bristol Motor Speedway for the Irwin Tools Night Race, a new light is shed on last week’s Jimmie Johnson-Ryan Newman post-race conversation. Also, count Charlotte as a market that will bury Saturday night’s NASCAR race and keep an eye on Kyle Larson, who could be the 13th driver to slip into the Chase based on race wins.

 

 

He said what? Ryan Newman vs. Jimmie Johnson got personal  Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman

ESPN’s cameras showed a war of words between Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman after last week’s race at Michigan. Newman declined an interview afterward and Johnson spoke of general frustration with Newman’s driving tactics. But what exactly was said between the two during their original moment of frustration?

 

Well, folks watching on TSN in Canada got to see and hear the showdown in its entirety. Simply put: things got salty. The highlights:

 

Ryan Newman: “I (expletive) raced you clean! Race me clean back. You’re better than that, but not today.”

 

Jimmie Johnson: “Feel better about yourself?”

 

RN: “I don’t have to feel better about myself.”

 

JJ: “You’re in the way (expletive) every single lap —“

 

RN: “I’m driving my ass off. If I had the motor you had I wouldn’t have been in your way. But I didn’t.”

 

JJ: “You had all of the (expletive) I have, and then you made a (expletive) bad decision to put yourself in this position.”

 

RN: “So be it —“

 

JJ: “Just like that on the track just now.”

 

RN: “You made a bad decision there, just let me tell you that.”

 

JJ: “Bring it.”

 

There is a lot to digest there — with the least important being Jimmie’s inconceivably weak closing shot of “bring it” — depending on how much merit you put into a heated, post-race confrontation. If you think there is a little bit of truth in anything, then Johnson’s claim that Newman’s own decisions led to him losing his Stewart-Haas Racing ride (with Hendrick engines) in 2013 strikes as interesting. The public story is that Newman simply wasn’t performing at a level that impressed Gene Haas and the rest was history.

 

Perhaps there was more to the story.

 

Otherwise, this is a continuation of several drivers having problems with Newman’s driving style and a negative assessment of the engines at Richard Childress Racing. Both Newman and Johnson seem to tacitly agree that the Hendrick Chevrolets are stronger than Childress’.

 

All told, the conversation seems very bitter. It’s tough to think Johnson and Newman will be fishing together anytime soon. And it might be a bit of a tinderbox of emotion just waiting to explode under the lights of Bristol on Saturday night.

 

 

Charlotte among 15 television markets burying Bristol race coverage

This isn’t the first time a NASCAR race on ABC has been moved in some markets to accommodate other programming, but it may be the most notable thanks to the actions of the local ABC affiliate in NASCAR’s de facto hometown.

 

Saturday night, residents of Charlotte, N.C., (and 14 other markets including the likes of Austin, Houston, Nashville and Washington D.C.) won’t get to see the Irwin Tools Night Race from Bristol like the rest of the country on the local ABC channel. Instead, WSOC-TV in Charlotte will bump the race to a sister channel (WAXN TV64) while Baltimore and Washington square off in a pre-season NFL tilt on the flagship channel.

 

The move is rooted from the time when Charlotte’s hometown team — the Carolina Panthers — didn’t exist, thus creating an extensive Washington fanbase in the land of the pines. Look no further than Kannapolis, N.C.’s own Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his extensive fandom of Daniel Snyder’s team for proof that Washington will draw ratings in the market.

 

The move is an implication of two things: first, WSOC expects the preseason NFL game to draw better than a fairly marquee NASCAR event, and two, NASCAR’s fan base — even in its hometown — isn’t nearly as fervent as it once was. Even casual observers of the sport know that, though.

 

While Charlotte is the most notable of the bunch, fans in locations like Casper and Cody, Wyo., St. Joseph, Mo., and San Antonio, Tex., may get completely hosed in the name of local affiliates opting to show alternate (typically sports) programming. Those markets will only see NASCAR on ABC if the subscribers have satellite television. Cable and over-the-air viewers will be out of luck.

 

ABC/ESPN, for its part, doesn’t control local programming decisions.

 

“We respect the right of ABC affiliates to make their own programming decisions and we appreciate that many of them were able to place the race telecast on alternate channels in their markets in order to serve NASCAR fans,” said Andy Hall, associate director of ESPN Communications.

 

 

Want to win at Bristol? Get up front by lap 300

As Saturday night cycles toward completion, it won’t be hard to spot the eventual winner. That’s because Bristol is a track that heavily rewards track position and tends to not favor those who need a late-race comeback.

 

Put simply: Giving up track position sometime after halfway in the 500-lap race doesn’t bode well for those who want to reach the checkered flag first.

 

In the past 15 races at Bristol, 12 race winners were running third or better at lap 300. Fourteen of those race winners were fifth or better. The lone outlier? Matt Kenseth, 2013 night race winner, who was scored in 24th on lap 300. Kenseth’s efforts that night were all together heroic as he drove the No. 20 from 27th to first in less than 100 laps after a mid-race setback.

 

Kenseth aside, the numbers tell the story. Drivers with a shot to win simply have to be in contention by just after halfway. Expect more of the same Saturday night.

 

 

The weekend of Kyle Larson?  Kyle Larson

With three races left until the cutoff, he’s not currently in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But for Cup rookie Kyle Larson, Bristol Motor Speedway could serve as his best shot to change all of that.

 

Larson, coming off his worst finish of the season last week at Michigan (he blew a tire, walloped the wall and finished dead last), desperately needs a few breaks should he want to join the 16-driver playoff field after Richmond. Currently 14th in points but winless, Larson is chasing Greg Biffle from 24 points back for the last spot currently available to non-race winners in the field.

 

That situation is highly fluid, of course, as any driver in the top 30 who gets a win between now and the Richmond finale would displace the last driver trying to get in via point standings. Larson could very well play that role at Bristol.

 

Friday at Bristol, Larson was quick in practice — he led the speed charts early in the session — and appeared ready to duplicate a solid spring performance at the half-mile. He finished 10th in March, but ran as high as second after starting 20th and spent 97.4 percent of the race inside the top 15. Also telling of more Bristol success is Larson’s Nationwide Series record at the track that includes two runner-up finishes and three top-5 showings in three starts.

Kyle Larson needs a boost to make the Chase. Maybe he’ll get it at Bristol.

 

 

Officiating blunders continue for NASCAR

NASCAR’s return to Bristol this weekend is also a return to the track where it suffered its biggest officiating mistake in quite some time. In the March Cup race delayed by rain, an errant flip of the caution light switch brought out a yellow flag in the closing laps of the race.

 

Fortunately for NASCAR, the mistake coordinated with a heavy rain shower that ultimately allowed series officials to consider the race complete and not force a green-white-checker restart. Carl Edwards got the win that looked firmly in hand before the yellow flag came out just before the white flag, and potential ramifications on the Chase — remember wins are considered all important now — were avoided.

 

But the issue came before a similar mistake at Auto Club Speedway a week later when an official failed to accurately indicate the opening of pit road to all drivers and this week’s revelation that an inspector in the Camping World Truck Series contributed to part failures on two trucks owned by Brad Keselowski. In the BKR instance — a problem from last week at Michigan — the team was told inaccurately to modify the noses of the race trucks in a way that ultimately caused structural failure and unnecessary pit stops during the race. Truck series director Chad Little apologized to the team afterward.

 

The issues, individually, are part of life for any sport with human officiating. But as NASCAR barrels toward its first use of a playoff system where individual races will mean so incredibly much to determining the sport’s champion, such mistakes just can’t happen.

 

 

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, as the circuit hits Bristol Motor Speedway for the Irwin Tools Night Race, a new light is shed on last week’s Jimmie Johnson-Ryan Newman post-race conversation. Also, count Charlotte as a market that will bury Saturday night’s NASCAR race and keep an eye on Kyle Larson, who could be the 13th driver to slip into the Chase based on race wins.
Post date: Friday, August 22, 2014 - 14:02
All taxonomy terms: NFC, NFC East, Philadelphia Eagles, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/philadelphia-eagles-2014-team-preview-and-predictions
Body:

In the high-speed world of Chip Kelly football — where players are encouraged to get nine hours of sleep a night, drink their individually engineered energy shakes without question and endure eardrum-slicing music during “training” — success is measured not just by wins and losses but also by style points. The Birds must not just defeat their opponents; they must impose their will through tempo. They must create havoc.

 

Year 2 of Kelly’s regime promises more jet-fueled offensive success and some games in which the Eagles appear to be working at a connection rate much faster than their opponents. The question is whether 2014 will feature an improvement on Kelly’s debut, when the Eagles overcame a 3–5 start to finish 10–6, or if the rest of the NFL catches on to the team’s outscore-’em philosophy and controls games by beating up on an overworked Philadelphia defense.

 

OFFENSE

From the moment the Birds smacked Washington in the face during the first half of their debut, they employed the same lightning-fast attack that Kelly favored while in the college ranks. One would suspect the 2014 Eagles would be even more capable of shredding defenses, thanks to a greater familiarity with the system. Their one loss, however, is a big one. DeSean Jackson, who caught a team-leading 82 passes for 1,332 yards and nine scores last year, was cut loose, leaving the Eagles’ receiving corps thin and somewhat inexperienced. But Kelly believes in the power of tempo and his ability to create matchup advantages, and fans must hope that can overcome the loss of a gamebreaker on the outside.

 

Triggering it all will be third-year quarterback Nick Foles, who took over for Michael Vick midway through last year and tossed 27 TD passes against just two picks. Foles may not be Kelly’s ideal at the position given his lack of foot speed, but he makes good decisions, delivers the ball on time and doesn’t turn it over. Now, he must improve his ability to avoid sacks while continuing to complete a high percentage of passes (64.0 percent in 2013). Vick is gone, and former Jets starter Mark Sanchez has assumed the backup role, with second-year man Matt Barkley in the hole. Should Foles regress, the Eagles are in some trouble.

 

Kelly hopes Jackson’s departure is offset by the return of Jeremy Maclin from a torn ACL that forced him to miss all of 2013. Maclin is a reliable target but hardly the deep weapon Jackson can be. Riley Cooper overcame some self-induced stupidity to have his best season and was rewarded with a fat — and some say undeserved — contract. He is now expected to be a prime target, rather than a complement. Rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff will be expected to make immediate contributions, with the 6'3", 212-pound Matthews likely to be ready sooner.

 

Although veteran tight end Brent Celek showed signs of slowing down last year, Zach Ertz demonstrated great promise and should become a more valuable part of the passing game.

 

LeSean McCoy returns after a season (1,607 yards, nine TDs) that established him among the league’s elite backs. McCoy thrived in Kelly’s spread system and was often stronger at the end of games, despite a career-high and NFL-best 314 carries. When healthy, he is one of the best. Former Saints all-purpose standout Darren Sproles has joined the team and will be expected to spell McCoy but also see heavy work in the passing game and help as a returner.

 

The line returns intact after a great 2013 season that featured no serious injuries and tremendous continuity. Left tackle Jason Peters remains one of the best in the business, and guard Evan Mathis emerged as a standout. Jason Kelce has become one the league’s more reliable pivots, while Todd Herremans is comfortable at guard, and second-year right tackle Lane Johnson should build on a solid debut. There isn’t a lot of quality depth, which could be tested early given Johnson's four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but the front five is stout.

 

DEFENSE

The Eagles did little during the offseason to bolster a unit that finished 29th in total defense. Safety Malcolm Jenkins was signed from New Orleans, but he won’t help much against the run. Top draft pick Marcus Smith addresses the need for an edge-rusher in the team’s 3-4, but he isn’t likely to be a starter right away. The other additions are backups, mid-to-late-round rookies and special teams players. Part of the problem is personnel, but Kelly’s insistence on playing offense at 100 miles per hour means less possession time and more pressure on the D.

 

The three-man front had its moments last year but isn’t a fire-breathing unit. Ends Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton can stuff the run, but neither is a pass-rushing specialist, and it’s too early to determine whether second-year nose man Bennie Logan will be the plug in the middle the team needs. Backup end Vinny Curry can get to the quarterback on occasion.

 

Smith’s arrival promises no immediate salvation for an ordinary group of linebackers. Trent Cole had trouble adjusting to life as an outside man after a career as a 4-3 end, while his counterpart on the other side, Connor Barwin, has his moments but is not a consistent standout. Kelly hopes Smith can be a situational pass-rusher as a rookie and mature into a full-time player.

 

Inside, veteran DeMeco Ryans showed he could handle work in a 3-4 better than he did while with Houston. If nothing else, he provides energy and leadership. Third-year man Mychal Kendricks has sideline-to-sideline speed and plenty of potential but needs to be more consistent.

 

Jenkins’ arrival should help a secondary that was vulnerable last year. He’ll team with Nate Allen in a back line that won’t scare many people. Second-year man Earl Wolff can provide help in reserve. Cary Williams, Brandon Boykin and Bradley Fletcher are not great cover men, but they comprise a relatively solid crew that could get some help from former Dolphin Nolan Carroll.

 

SPECIALISTS

Punter Donnie Jones had a great 2013, averaging 44.9 yards per kick, and was rewarded with a new contract. Placekicker Alex Henery did not have a similar glowing season, struggling a bit from beyond 40 yards and failing to kick off deep consistently. The loss of Jackson hurts the return game, and Kelly is hoping Sproles can be a weapon in that area. Another potential option could be running back/return specialist Kenjon Barner, who Kelly coached at Oregon and the Eagles acquired from Philadelphia on Aug. 19 for a conditional 2015 seventh-round pick.

 

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Eagles are the favorites in the NFC East almost by default, thanks to problems in Washington and New York and the Cowboys’ history of self-destruction. The question is whether Philadelphia can be more than a first-round playoff participant. That will depend on whether the offense continues to crackle and even surpasses last year’s efficiency. Foles must grow at quarterback, and the outside weapons have to produce. It can’t just be about the scheme. The defense could improve, thanks to the development of the younger players, but it will never be a raging outfit, at least not in this iteration. The Eagles are contenders, but the level of achievement depends on whether they can outstrip the league’s efforts to slow them down.

 

PREDICTION: 1st in NFC East

Teaser:
Philadelphia Eagles 2014 Team Preview and Predictions
Post date: Friday, August 22, 2014 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC North, Baltimore Ravens, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/baltimore-ravens-2014-team-preview-and-predictions
Body:

Instead of dismissing a substandard season as an aberration, the Ravens have devoted considerable resources to trying to regain their former status as an annual playoff squad. One year after winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens missed the playoffs, as a lackluster offense was the primary culprit for the regression. The Ravens ranked 29th in total offense and 30th in rushing offense as their streak of five consecutive seasons of making the playoffs under coach John Harbaugh ended. “Our players are more motivated than ever,” Harbaugh says. “It’s just not acceptable.”

 

So, the Ravens hired a new offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak along with signing five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith and two-time Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels. They also held onto tight end Dennis Pitta and left tackle Eugene Monroe with $32 million and $37.5 million contracts, respectively. With the financial emphasis on fixing the offense, the Ravens hope they’ve done enough to get back to the postseason. “It’s fair to say it’s a failure because our goal is to be one of the top 12,” owner Steve Bisciotti said after last season. “If 8–8 is a failure, I hope it’s a long time before I feel worse than this.”

 

OFFENSE

Quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t live up to the expectations that accompany a blockbuster $120.6 million contract as he threw a franchise-record 22 interceptions. It was an uncharacteristic season for the Super Bowl XLVII MVP. Some of the biggest priorities for the Ravens are providing Flacco with more time to throw and getting him into a comfort zone. “It’s a new year, a new beginning and a chance to do new things,” Flacco says. “I think we’ve got a good team and an offense that can put up some numbers.”

 

That’s where Steve Smith could become the key to a potential offensive turnaround. The Ravens brought him in to work in tandem with Torrey Smith and Pitta, who missed all but four games last season due to a fractured, dislocated hip. Steve Smith has a toughness and veteran savvy that’s been absent from the offensive huddle since Baltimore unloaded Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers in a trade following a contract dispute. Torrey Smith should have more room to operate as a deep threat with Steve Smith and Pitta working underneath in the middle of the field. Daniels’ knowledge of Kubiak’s offense from their days with the Texans, along with his sound hands and route-running, should be invaluable. Marlon Brown is more than just a red-zone threat, but he did catch seven touchdowns as an undrafted free agent last year.

 

The running game remains an area of concern because a heavier, hobbled Ray Rice stumbled to a 660-yard season in which he lacked tackle-breaking capabilities and his trademark elusiveness. He played as heavy as 225 pounds. He’s now down to 210 pounds, which should help him regain his Pro Bowl form. Rice had a serious off-field issue this offseason in which he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault for a domestic violence incident involving his girlfriend (now wife). Rice was suspended two games by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and now faces even more pressure to step up, both on and off of the field. Backup Bernard Pierce is expected to carry the load in Rice's absence, but Pierce had his own struggles last season and is coming off rotator cuff surgery. The Ravens are going to give rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, a 230-pound small-school standout, a long look during training camp.

 

The return of Monroe, an athletic, polished tackle, for a full season after being acquired in October should give Flacco a better shot at remaining upright. They’ve upgraded at center by trading for Jeremy Zuttah, who replaces Gino Gradkowski after the latter struggled as a starter last season. Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda is a constant gritty presence. Right tackle is a question mark with Rick Wagner getting a shot at winning the job. If he falters, the Ravens could sign a veteran or shift left guard Kelechi Osemele to right tackle. Osemele is well ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation from back surgery that sidelined him last year.

 

DEFENSE

Middle linebacker Daryl Smith is one of the most underrated defenders in the NFL. Smith remains fast in pursuit, sharp in pass coverage and is a good blitzer, contributing 123 tackles, three interceptions and five sacks last year. Former Alabama star C.J. Mosley is the frontrunner to start next to Smith at inside linebacker. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs made the Pro Bowl for the sixth time, but the Ravens want to see him become more productive for the entire season after watching him wear down last year. In a situational pass-rusher role, Elvis Dumervil delivered 9.5 sacks before an ankle injury slowed him down. Courtney Upshaw unselfishly stuffs blockers and sets the edge at strong-side outside linebacker.

 

The defensive line is in transition with Arthur Jones leaving in free agency. Rookie Timmy Jernigan is competing with Brandon Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore to take over Jones’ versatile role. The Ravens will need Pro Bowl nose tackle Haloti Ngata to be even more disruptive inside. Defensive end Chris Canty was far too quiet in his first season in Baltimore. Fourth-round draft pick Brent Urban was expected to be a part of the rotation, but he tore his ACL in training camp and is out for the season.

 

The Ravens exercised a fifth-year option for 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith, who has emerged as one of the better young cornerbacks in the game. Lardarius Webb was starting to get back his quickness and trust his surgically repaired knee by the end of last season and should be back to full strength. Safety is an area of concern. The Ravens are hoping to move Matt Elam back to his natural strong safety position to capitalize on his aggressiveness. To be able to make this move, either rookie Terrence Brooks or veteran Darian Stewart needs to prove to be capable at free safety. Nickel back is being contested between Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson after Corey Graham signed with the Buffalo Bills. Like most NFL defenses, the Ravens don’t have the luxury of having three starting-caliber cornerbacks. The team signed veteran Aaron Ross in June, but he tore his Achilles during training camp. Baltimore then turned to Will Hill, a former teammate of Ross' with the Giants who was released by New York after it was announced Hill would be suspended for the first six games of the season for another violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Secondary depth could be an issue for the Ravens, especially early on.

 

SPECIALISTS

Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker emerged as a budding star last season with his clutch performances, including a franchise-record 61-yarder to beat the Detroit Lions. Tucker has become a reliable scoring weapon with his ability to hit long-distance field goals. Jacoby Jones remains an explosive threat as a return man, helping the Ravens beat the Minnesota Vikings in the snow with a kickoff return for a touchdown last season. Sam Koch was rumored to be on thin ice due to his salary-cap figure, but Harbaugh has insisted that the veteran punter is safe. 

 

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Ravens look like they’re primed for a bounce-back season. While it’s unclear if they’re as talented as the division rival Cincinnati Bengals, this team, at the least, is probably headed back to the playoffs as a wild card qualifier. The schedule isn’t overly demanding, and the Ravens have a proven winning coach in Harbaugh.

 

PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC North

Teaser:
Baltimore Ravens 2014 Team Preview and Predictions
Post date: Friday, August 22, 2014 - 12:00
Path: /college-football/college-football-2014-conference-and-national-title-predictions
Body:

College football’s 2014 season is slated to begin on Wednesday, Aug. 27, and the first playoff format of the FBS concludes on Jan. 12 with the national championship game. And with kickoff right around the corner, it’s time to finalize predictions, picks and rankings for the upcoming year.

Athlon’s editors met before the preseason magazine was released to iron out the predictions for the upcoming year, but there wasn’t a consensus on every conference title race or top 25 rankings.

From the ACC to the Sun Belt, there was plenty of disagreement from the staff on conference winners or the predicted order of finish.

In addition to the predicted winners of the conferences, Athlon’s editors also project the four teams to make the playoff and a national champion.    

* Indicates projected champion of league's conference title game.


Predicting CFB's Conferences, Playoff and National Champion

ACC

Atlantic Division
 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
1** * **
2
3
4
5
6
7
      
Coastal Division
1
2
3
4
5
6
7

Listen to Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast: Predicting the 2014 season

 

American Athletic

 
 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11

Big 12

 
 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
 Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
1 
2 
3 
4 
5 
6 
7 
8 
9 
10 

Big Ten

East Division
 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
1*****
2
3
4
5
6
7
      
West Division
 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
1
2
3
4
5
6
7

Conference USA

East Division
 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
1*****
2
3
4
5
6
7
      
West Division
1
2
3
4
5
6

MAC

East Division
 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
1*****
2
3
4
5
6
7
      
West Division
1
2
3
4
5
6

Mountain West

Mountain Division
 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
1****
2
3
4
5
6
      
West Division
1
2
3
4
5
6

Pac-12

North Division
 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
1****
2
3
4
5
6
      
South Division
1*
2
3
4
5
6

SEC

East Division
 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
      
West Division
1*****
2
3
4
5
6
7

Sun Belt

 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11

Independents

 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
1
2
3
4

Playoff Predictions

 Steven Lassan
@AthlonSteven
Mitch Light
@AthlonMitch
Braden Gall
@BradenGall
David Fox
@DavidFox615
Mark Ross
@AthlonMarkR
  
 
 
  
 
 
 
  
  

National Champion

 

 

Teaser:
College Football 2014 Conference and National Title Predictions
Post date: Friday, August 22, 2014 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-august-22-2014
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 22:

 

• Apple doesn't fall far from the tree: Jean-Claude Van Damme's rather attractive daughter did the splits for her ice bucket challenge.

 

• Speaking of solid ice bucket challenge performances, Win McMurry of the Golf Channel gets a gold star.

 

• The SI cover jinx strikes a 13-year-old: Mo'ne Davis' LLWS is over.

 

• After last night's Keystone Showdown debacle, Snoop Dogg made his feelings about Steelers OC Todd Haley known via Instagram. Strong language warning, naturally.

 

Things are getting testy at Bills camp. They're all realizing they live in Buffalo.

 

"John from Kentucky" called Mike Francesa to defend John Calipari's coaching.

 

So now V. Stiviano is claiming that Donald Sterling's gay and she was his beard.

 

There's a Premier League text message scandal erupting involving racism, homophobia, all the biggies.

 

Grantland is doing a bracket of best SNL cast members. I think I'd have to go with Phil Hartman.

 

• Don't know about you, but I'm not man enough to play rugby.

 

More compelling evidence that Jim Harbaugh is just an overgrown kid.

 

• Indiana coach Kevin Wilson had a nice post-practice run on a slip 'n' slide.

 

 

--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, August 22, 2014 - 10:18
Path: /college-football/ranking-top-15-players-big-ten-2014-experts-poll
Body:

The Big Ten may have slipped slightly in terms of conference pecking order over the last couple of seasons, but there’s no shortage of talent returning to the league in 2014. Of course, the season-ending shoulder injury to Braxton Miller eliminates one of the league’s Heisman contenders, but Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon is a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports, and there’s star power on defense with ends Shilique Calhoun and Randy Gregory.

 

In order to rank the top 15 players in the Big Ten for 2014, Athlon Sports sought the insight of several experts from the conference. The voting process was simple. Using criteria such as career performance so far, 2014 potential/projection, pro outlook, recruiting ranking, value to team or overall talent, each voter was asked to rank their top 15 players for 2014.

 

A point system was assigned, giving 15 points for a player with a No. 1 vote, 14 points for a No. 2 vote, 13 points for a No. 3 vote and so on.

 

The Voters:

 

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), AthlonSports.com

Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com
Jeff Rapp (@RappUp), SportsRappUp.com

Marc Morehouse (@MarcMorehouse), The Cedar Rapids Gazette

Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88), StateCollege.com

Jesse Temple (@JesseTemple), Fox Sports Wisconsin

Doug Bucshon (@IllinoisRivals), Orange&BlueNews.com

Joe Rexrode (@JoeRexrode), Detroit Free Press
Jeff Potrykus (@JayPo1961), JSOnline.com
Brandon Cavanaugh (@Eightlaces), HuskerCorner.com
Joshua Henschke (@JoshuaHenschke), MaizeNBrew.com
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch), AthlonSports.com

Mike Fiammetta (@B5Q), Bucky's 5th Quarter
Mike Babcock (@MDBabs), HailVarsity.com
Jim Weber (@JimMWeber), LostLettermen.com
Pete Volk (@Pete_Volk), TestudoTimes.com
Kevin Noon (@Kevin_Noon), BuckeyeGrove.com

Braden Gall (@BradenGall), AthlonSports.com

Joe Hudson (@HuskerMax), HuskerMax.com

Pat Harty (@PatHarty), Iowa City Press-Citizen

Tony Gerdeman (@GerdOzone), The-Ozone.net

Kevin Trahan (@K_Trahan), InsideNU.com
Ross Binder (@BHGP), BlackHeartGoldPants.com
Travis Miller (@HammerAndRails) HammerandRails.com
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com
David Fox (@DavidFox615), AthlonSports.com

Jon Firman (@GopherHole), GopherHole.com
Kevin Recio (@KevRecio), OnTheBanks.com
Jim Vainisi (@JVainisi005), TheChampaignRoom.com
Tyler Waddell (@Tyler_Waddell), AACFootballFever.com

Adam Johnson (@CrimsonQuarry), CrimsonQuarry.com
Jon Johnston (@CornNationCornNation.com

Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR), Athlon Sports.com

 

Ranking the Big Ten's Best Players for 2014 (Experts Poll)
RankPlayerTeam12345678910Overall
1Melvin Gordon, RB15374300000444
2Shilique Calhoun, DE5737811000405
3Brandon Scherff, OT4845421201397
4Ameer Abdullah, RB0577541112376
5Randy Gregory, DE6483331200374
6Stefon Diggs, WR2121276125301
7Christian Hackenberg, QB1323242643298
8Michael Bennett, DT0101164222204
9Joey Bosa, DE0002034220156
10Kurtis Drummond, S0000204242155
11Connor Cook, QB0000002161117
12Devin Funchess, WR0000011233114
13Carl Davis, DT000000012373
14Jake Ryan, LB000010031166
15Jeremy Langford, RB000000020262
16Trae Waynes, CB000010111260
17Noah Spence, DE000000111050
18Rob Havenstein, OT000000001141
19Tevin Coleman, RB000001010037
20Kenny Bell, WR000010110036
21Shane Wynn, WR000000001127
22Blake Countess, CB000000100024
23Jeff Heuerman, TE000001000123
24Devin Gardner, QB000000000121
25Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB000000010118
26Ibraheim Campbell, S000000001012
27Jack Allen, OL000000100011
28Taiwan Jones, LB00000000007
29Andre Monroe, DL00000000007
30David Cobb, RB00000000007
31Jabrill Peppers, CB00000000005
32Kyle Costigan, OL00000000004
33Corey Cooper, DB00000000004
34Geno Lewis, WR 00000000004
35Jesse James, TE00000000004
36K. Martin-Manley, WR00000000003
37Darius Hamilton, DT00000000003
38Maxx Williams, TE00000000003
39Sean Davis, S00000000003
40Mike Sadler, P00000000002
41Josh Ferguson, RB00000000002
42Matt Robinson, LB00000000002
43Michael Geiger, K00000000002
44Alex Lewis, OT00000000001
45Maliek Collins, DT00000000001
46Jordan Lucas, CB00000000001
A Few Observations:
 

* Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon had the most first-place votes (15), but the junior did not record a majority of No. 1 rankings among the voters. 18 other first-place votes were cast, including five for Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun.

* Nebraska claimed two of the top five players in the experts poll.

* Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs recorded two first-place votes and ranked the highest among players from the conference’s two new teams (Maryland and Rutgers).
 

* Three Ohio State defensive linemen ranked among the top 17 players.

* Four Michigan State defenders received votes, including two in the top 10.

* 13 teams had players receive votes. Purdue was the only team not to have a player receive a top 15 vote.

Teaser:
Ranking the Top 15 Players in the Big Ten for 2014 (Experts Poll)
Post date: Friday, August 22, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/big-12-advanced-stats-you-need-know-2014
Body:
Visit Football Study Hall to get in-depth team previews, advanced stats and features for the 2014 season .

Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?

 

When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.

 

That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
 

Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the Big 12’s best.

 

Baylor: 82

Baylor defensed (intercepted or broke up) 82 passes in 13 games, the most of any major conference team and fifth in all of FBS. The Bears were also 12th in the nation in tackles for a loss with 99. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett has crafted an aggressive, physical defense that forces mistakes as opponents grow desperate to keep up with the explosive Baylor offense. It worked in 2013.

 

Iowa State: 6.3

Iowa State’s offense has never been particularly impressive under Paul Rhoads, but the typically salty defense struggled in 2013. Iowa State allowed 6.3 yards per play against Big 12 opponents, worst in the league. Run defense was the primary culprit, but it was bad combination with an offense that averaged just 4.7 yards per play in Big 12 play (ninth).

 

Kansas: 3.1

Kansas wasn’t particularly good at creating scoring opportunities, but the Jayhawks were even worse at converting opportunities into points. They averaged just 3.1 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40 in conference play in 2013. Nobody else averaged under 3.6. Meanwhile, Big 12 opponents averaged 4.6 points per trip inside the 40 against the Jayhawks, ninth in the conference.

 

Kansas State: 6.9

Kansas State’s offense averaged 6.9 yards per play on first down in 2013, 15th in the country. The first-down run was just effective enough to set up a strong downfield passing game, especially in the second half of the season; the Wildcats averaged at least 16.0 yards per completion in five of their last seven games.

 

Oklahoma: 14

Oklahoma didn’t allow many big plays in 2013, but the Sooners did allow some enormous ones. Oklahoma allowed just 155 plays of 10 or more yards — a respectable 20th in the country — but allowed 14 of 40 or more, tied for 80th. Ten of the 14 came via pass, which certainly isn’t surprising given the conference.

 

Oklahoma State: 3.3

Oklahoma State allowed just 3.3 points per trip inside its 40-yard line in 2013, fifth in the country. Field goals are failures for an offense — more often than not a sign of a missed opportunity — and the Cowboys held opponents to basically a field goal per trip.

 

TCU: 4.82

TCU allowed just 4.8 yards per play to Big 12 opponents in 2013, barely behind Oklahoma State (4.75) and Baylor (4.78) for third in the league. The defense has been as successful as the Horned Frogs could have hoped in moving to perhaps the most explosive offensive conference in the country, but the offense, beset with injuries and attrition, has not kept up its end of the bargain.

 

Texas: 6.4

In 15 games with David Ash as its primary quarterback, Texas has averaged 6.4 yards per play and gone 11–4. Without him, the Longhorns have averaged 4.9 yards per play and gone 6–5. Defensive struggles played a large role in Texas’ fall to 8–5 in 2013, but Ash’s injury troubles were as or more important.

 

Texas Tech: 4.7

The Red Raider defense did reasonably well in limiting big plays in 2013, but they struggled to stiffen when points were on the line. In Big 12 play, Texas Tech allowed 4.7 points per trip inside the 40, worst in the conference. A few more forced field goals will go a long way.

 

West Virginia: -5.6

When West Virginia’s offense failed, it failed quickly. The Mountaineers were terribly inefficient on offense and had no return game to help them out. The result: a drastic field position disadvantage. WVU had a minus-5.6 field position margin (average starting field position: 28.7; opponents’ average: 34.3), losing ground on nearly every possession and eventually giving in.

 

Stats provided by Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) of Football Study Hall for Athlon Sports. 

Teaser:
Big 12 Advanced Stats You Need to Know for 2014
Post date: Friday, August 22, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-50-games-watch-2014
Body:

You need to know which games you can’t miss in 2014? Here is a comprehensive list of the Top 50 must-see college football games of the year. Set the DVR now.

 

1. Auburn at Alabama (Nov. 29)

Not only are in-state and conference bragging rights on the line for 364 days in the nation’s biggest event this year, but the winner of this one game also played in each of the final five BCS National Championship Games. And after the way last year’s clash ended, fans can bet the intensity will reach a fevered pitch by Rivalry Week — especially, if there is as much on the line in 2014 as there was last fall.

 

2. Stanford at Oregon (Nov. 1)

The Pac-12 South has gotten much better and has its own elite battles but the top ticket in the Pac-12 this fall is still the Ducks and Cardinal. The winner of this game has won the last four Pac-12 titles and that is likely the case again this fall. A knee injury hampered Marcus Mariota last year and a fully healthy QB for Oregon could finally give the Ducks a win over the Cardinal with No. 8 under center.

 

3. Oregon at UCLA (Oct. 11)

There is no better quarterback matchup in the nation than when Mariota and the Ducks fly south to battle Brett Hundley and the Bruins in the Rose Bowl. This is likely a preview of the Pac-12 title game and could have divisional, conference and national championship implications. Loosen up the scoreboard operator for this one.

 

4. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)

It cannot be overstated what a win for Michigan State in this game would mean for the Big Ten. So Oregon cannot overlook the rebuilt Sparty defense early in the year or the Ducks could be knocked out of playoff contention by Week 2. The schematic chess match between Marcus Mariota and Mark Dantonio's defense should be fascinating to watch.

 

5. Ohio State at Michigan State (Nov. 8)

Some of the luster has certainly worn off this monumental showdown but these are still the two best teams in the Big Ten. The winner of this game is still likely the East Division champ, is still likely to win the Big Ten title and is still in line to snag the final playoff spot. This should still be a physical clash of top-ranked teams.

 

6. Baylor at Oklahoma (Nov. 8)

The Bears have never won in 11 tries in Norman and the Big 12 title likely hangs in the balance on Nov. 8 when Art Briles brings his squad into Memorial Stadium. This was a 29-point blowout in favor of Baylor last year in Waco but both teams will be different this fall. Bryce Petty will have to be near perfect and the BU defense must develop before November if it wants to win this marquee showdown.

 

7. Alabama at LSU (Nov. 8)

The Tigers aren’t picked to finish first, second or third in the SEC West but that doesn’t take much away from what is a yearly battle between these two powerhouses. Bama doesn’t have too many tests this fall and a trip to Baton Rouge might be its toughest test (until the Iron Bowl). Nick Saban has won three straight overall in this series and has won two of the last three trips to the Bayou.

 

8. Oklahoma vs. Texas (Oct. 11, Dallas)

The Red River Shootout (no, I don’t call it the Rivalry) enters a new era with a new chapter as Charlie Strong takes part in his first Cotton Bowl showdown. Texas won this game inexplicably a year ago and the Sooners should be plenty motivated to get revenge against a first-year coach. For better or worse, Strong’s work with the offensive line will be on full display.

 

9. Georgia at South Carolina (Sept. 13)

The SEC East title could be on the line in Week 3 when these two tangle in Columbia. South Carolina lost narrowly in Athens last year after three straight relatively easy wins over the Dawgs from 2010-12. Georgia last won at South Carolina in 2008.

 

10. Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 29)

Yes, this game may not have as much meaning to either team at the end of the season in terms of the standings but that didn’t stop last season’s meeting from being an instant classic. Brady Hoke desperately needs wins against a rival and Ohio State could still need this game to win the division. The bottom line is a winless Wolverines-Buckeyes matchup is still must-see TV.

 

11. LSU at Auburn (Oct. 4)

The battle of Tigers from Auburn and LSU is one of the yearly treats for SEC fans. Last fall, LSU was the only team to beat Auburn in the regular season and it wasn’t really competitive. Revenge will certainly be on the minds of Gus Malzahn and his squad. The right to challenge Alabama likely also hangs in the balance for this early October meeting as well.

 

12. USC at UCLA (Nov. 22)

This crosstown rivalry is getting some extra juice, as both programs appear to be surging in the right direction. Both teams are ranked in the preseason top 20 and both have elite starting rosters. Depth could be a big issue for the Trojans come late November but if they can stay healthy, USC could find itself in a winner-take-all South Division title match against one of its biggest rivals.

 

13. Stanford at UCLA (Nov. 28)

The Cardinal are the two-time defending champs but have to play all of its toughest games on the road, including a trip to UCLA on the final weekend of the regular season. These two played in back-to-back weeks two years ago and the Bruins haven’t forgotten. It could happen again this fall. Whether both divisions are already locked up or not, this game should be supremely entertaining.

 

14. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 29)

As far as deeply entrenched rivalries and overall importance of the game to the national landscape go, it's hard to argue the Palmetto State season finale won't be one the biggest non-conference games of the year. Carolina and Steve Spurrier are eyeing an SEC East title and possible playoff berth, so a loss to the Tigers for the first time since 2008 would be crippling to those hopes.

 

15. Army vs. Navy (Dec. 13, Baltimore)

It has no bearing on the national landscape and neither team plays a “conference” schedule, but the annual bout between Army and Navy has to be recognized. The two have met 114 times with Navy holding a 58-49-7 edge in the all-time series, including a 12-game winning streak. There is a reason this game stands alone on its own weekend (Week 16, technically) and attending this patriotic and emotional contest should be on every fan’s sports bucket list.

 

16. Auburn at Ole Miss (Nov. 1)

With the recent influx of talent, Ole Miss finds itself closer to the top of the West Division than the bottom. That means home tests against conference front-runners become marquee showdowns. The Tigers have won eight of the last 10 against the Rebels but Ole Miss dominated Auburn the last time they visited (41-20 in 2012) and has won two out of three in Oxford.

 

17. Auburn at Georgia (Nov. 15)

The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry offered fans one of the most remarkable games in SEC history last fall. While the 2014 edition will be hard pressed to match last year’s drama, the gravity of this year’s showdown could be much greater as both teams eye a College Football Playoff berth. Auburn hasn’t won in Athens since 2005.

 

18. South Carolina at Auburn (Oct. 25)

Auburn got no favors this fall by having to face the top two contenders in the East in crossover play. The difference is the lack of history between these two SEC title contenders. The duo has played just 11 times and Auburn holds a commanding 9-1-1 lead in the series. The Gamecocks would have won the East had it not lost the last meeting in Columbia in 2011. South Carolina’s lone win over Auburn came way back in 1933.

 

19. Baylor at Texas (Oct. 4)

The Bears topped both Texas and Oklahoma at home last year but to repeat as Big 12 champs, Briles’ bunch must top both conference powers on the road this fall. The Bears have won in Austin before but this isn’t Mack Brown's Longhorns anymore. As far as early-season conference games go, this one is fascinating.

 

20. Wisconsin vs. LSU (Aug. 30, Houston)

From a pure entertainment standpoint, the Tigers-Badgers semi-neutral field battle in Houston might be the one to watch in '14. This game will feature what should be two equally matched opponents, both of whom are expecting to compete for division titles in their respective conferences. LSU and Wisconsin feature two of the best power running games in the land and this game will be a throwback showcase for both.

 

22. UCLA vs. Texas (Sept. 13, Arlington)

UCLA has Pac-12 South Division title hopes and possibly more as Brett Hundley enters his third season under center. Texas will be three weeks into the Charlie Strong Era in Austin and will provide a nasty early-season test for the Bruins on a “neutral" field in Dallas. Both teams have outside chances at landing a spot in the College Football Playoff and an early-season slip up must be avoided for both programs.

 

22. Stanford at Notre Dame (Oct. 4)

This historic rivalry has been elevated in recent years after a memorable overtime goal-line stand for Notre Dame in 2012 and a physical 27-20 victory for Stanford a year ago. Only four times have both teams been ranked at the time of the meeting (28 total games) and three of those have come in the last three years. A fourth straight meeting of two ranked teams is likely to happen again this year and a playoff berth could be on the line this time around.

 

23. Florida vs. Georgia (Nov. 1, Jacksonville)

This game is massive for both teams, but especially Gators head coach Will Muschamp. He’s 0-3 against UGA and will need a win in Jacksonville to stay in East contention. Despite winning three straight, Mark Richt’s squad was anything but dominating as it has won those three contests by a combined 15 points.

 

24. LSU at Florida (Oct. 11)

Looking for a midseason signature win for Florida to prove it's back in the SEC mix? This is the one Les Miles better be circling. The home team has won the Muschamp-Miles bout in each of the three years, including a 14-6 suffocating home win for the Gators in 2012. Miles is 1-3 in The Swamp.

 

25. Clemson at Georgia (Aug. 30)

Last year's meeting was an epic offensive showdown that featured elite playmakers and provided a memorable experience for everyone. This year, Clemson's defense is its strength while Georgia returns nine starters on D. With two new quarterbacks for both teams, expect a sloppier performance from both offenses in the first week of the season — which could be equally as entertaining.

 

The Next 25:

 

26. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 29)
27. UCLA at Arizona State (Sept. 25)

28. Stanford at Washington (Sept. 27)

29. Florida at Alabama (Sept. 20)

30. Wisconsin at Iowa (Nov. 22)

31. Ole Miss at LSU (Oct. 25)

32. USC at Stanford (Sept. 6)

33. South Carolina at Florida (Nov. 15)

34. Alabama at Ole Miss (Oct. 4)

35. UCLA at Washington (Nov. 8)

36. Stanford at Arizona State (Oct. 18)

37. Michigan State at Penn State (Nov. 29)

38. Arizona State at USC (Oct. 4)

39. Clemson at Florida State (Sept. 20)

40. Notre Dame at USC (Nov. 29)

41. Florida State at Louisville (Oct. 30)

42. Notre Dame at Florida State (Oct. 18)

43. Louisville at Clemson (Oct. 11)

44. Mississippi State at Ole Miss (Nov. 29)

45. Michigan at Michigan State (Oct. 25)

46. Washington at Oregon (Oct. 18)

47. Arizona State at Washington (Oct. 25)

48. Georgia at Missouri (Oct. 11)

49. Ohio State at Penn State (Oct. 25)

50. Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)

Teaser:
College Football's Top 50 Games to Watch in 2014
Post date: Friday, August 22, 2014 - 08:30
Path: /college-football/ranking-top-15-players-acc-2014-experts-poll
Body:

Florida State snapped the SEC’s reign of dominance by defeating Auburn 34-31 in the national championship last season, and the Seminoles are set for another run at the title in 2014. Quarterback Jameis Winston headlines a deep roster, including a secondary and offensive line that should be the best in the nation. Florida State’s top competition is likely Clemson, a team that features standout defensive end Vic Beasley and a track record of success on offense under coordinator Chad Morris.

 

In order to rank the top 15 players in the ACC for 2014, Athlon Sports sought the insight of several experts from the conference. The voting process was simple. Using criteria such as career performance so far, 2014 potential/projection, pro outlook, recruiting ranking, value to team or overall talent, each voter was asked to rank their top 15 players for 2014.

 

A point system was assigned, giving 15 points for a player with a No. 1 vote, 14 points for a No. 2 vote, 13 points for a No. 3 vote and so on.

 

The Voters:

 

Steven Lassan, (@AthlonSteven), AthlonSports.com
David Teel, (@DavidTeelatDP), DailyPress.com
Mitch Light, (@AthlonMitch), AthlonSports.com

David Glenn, (@DavidGlennShow), ACCSports.com

Sam Werner, (@SWernerPG), Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Chris Moore, (@Moore_ACCSports), ACCSports.com
Braden Gall, (@BradenGall), AthlonSports.com
Lauren Brownlow, (@lebrownlow), FoxSportsCarolinas.com

Mark Watson, (@BlueDevilNation), BlueDevilNation.Net

Adam Powell, (@ACCSports), ACCSports.com

Nate Mink, (@MinkNate), Syracuse.com

Mark Ennis, (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com
Matt Porter, (@Mattyports), Palm Beach Post
Adam Rowe, (@BlueDevilLair), BlueDevilLair.com
Joe Lanza, (@thekeyplay), TheKeyPlay.com

Ryan Tice, (@RyanTice), TheWolfpacker.com
Ariya Massoudi, (@AriyaMassoudi), TomahawkNation.com
John Cassillo, (@JohnCassillo), NunesMagician.com
David Fox, (@DavidFox615), AthlonSports.com
Brian Favat, (@BCInterruption), BCInterruption.com

David Hood, (@MDavidHood), TigerNet.com
Bob Ferrante, (@BobFerrante), BleacherReport.com

Chris Coleman, (@ChrisColemanTSL), TechSideline.com

Kelly Quinlan, (@Kelly_Quinlan), Jacketsonline.com

Brian Lewis, (@Brian_Goodison), ShakinTheSouthland.com
Ethan Moore, (@LvilleSprtsLive), LouisvilleSportsLive.net

A.J. Black, (@BCHysteria), BCInterruption.com
Matt McClusky, (@MatthewMcClusky), NunesMagician.com

Anson Whaley, (@AnsonWhaley), Cardiachill.com
Mark Ross, (@AthlonMarkR), AthlonSports.com

Riley Johnston, (@BSD_RaJohnston), BloggerSoDear.com

 

Ranking the ACC's Best Players for 2014 (Experts Poll)
RankPlayerTeam12345678910Total
1Jameis Winston, QB31000000000465
2Vic Beasley, DE01981200100412
3Duke Johnson, RB0795520110367
4Cameron Erving, OT0427533120312
5Kendall Fuller, CB0102273332235
6Rashad Greene, WR0013322521232
7Jamison Crowder, WR0054321201225
8Tyler Boyd, WR0011014422170
9Mario Edwards Jr., DE0012211222161
10Tre Jackson, OG0011123132146
11DeVante Parker, WR0011102203135
12Denzel Perryman, LB0001114032129
13P.J. Williams, CB0000161312127
14Anthony Harris, S000020010281
15Luther Maddy, DT000011101477
16Jalen Ramsey, S000101111274
17Karlos Williams, RB000100104065
18Nick O'Leary, TE001010100058
19Ryan Switzer, WR000000100141
20Ronald Darby, CB000101000133
21Stephone Anthony, LB000000101032
22Grady Jarrett, DT000001011131
23Jeremy Cash, S000000110028
24Laken Tomlinson, OG000000010013
25Anthony Boone, QB000000000111
26Lorenzo Mauldin, DL/LB000000000110
27Terrance Smith, LB00000000007
28Quayshawn Nealy, LB00000000007
29Josue Matias, OG00000000006
30Kevin Parks, RB00000000005
31Bobby Hart, OT00000000005
32Trey Edmunds, RB00000000004
33Isaiah Johnson, S00000000004
34Marquise Williams, QB00000000003
35Andy Gallik, C00000000002
36Jake Smith, OL00000000002
37Jacoby Brissett, QB00000000001
38Charles Gaines, CB00000000001
39Kevin Johnson, CB00000000001
40Shaq Mason, OG00000000001
41Travis Rudolph, WR00000000001
A Few Observations


* This poll reinforces just how loaded Florida State’s roster is for 2014. Jameis Winston is a clear No. 1 in the voting and five of the top 10 also represent the Seminoles.

* The Seminoles had 14 players receive votes in this experts poll.

* Four different Coastal teams had a player ranked in the top 10: Duke, Pittsburgh, Miami and Virginia Tech.

* There’s a clear drop in quarterback play for the ACC after Jameis Winston. Duke’s Anthony Boone recorded only 11 points, while North Carolina’s Marquise Williams received only three points.

* Four of the top 11 players were wide receivers: Rashad Greene, Jamison Crowder, Tyler Boyd and DeVante Parker.

Teaser:
Ranking the Top 15 Players in the ACC for 2014 (Experts Poll)
Post date: Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 12:30
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC West, Kansas City Chiefs, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/kansas-city-chiefs-2014-team-preview-and-predictions
Body:

The “nuclear” option — removing Scott Pioli as general manager and Romeo Crennel as coach and jettisoning the entire stable of quarterbacks — turned the Kansas City Chiefs into Godzilla in 2013, a Cinderella with teeth. The franchise buried arguably the worst season in team history (2–14) in 2012 by rebounding to a historic, cathartic 11–5 record and an AFC Wild Card berth last fall. The Chiefs rolled to a 9–0 start and became the first NFL team in the modern era to open a season with nine straight victories after winning two or fewer games the year before. Even a deflating 45–44 loss at Indianapolis in the first round of the playoffs couldn’t take all the shine off of coach Andy Reid’s and general manager John Dorsey’s first full season at the wheel. What was supposed to be a transition year instead turned into something magical. But with a slate in 2014 that is the NFL’s seventh-toughest, that magic could be hard to recapture, at least in the short term. 

 

OFFENSE

When Reid was hired, many Chiefs fans worried that the pass-happy coach might be the worst thing to happen to running back Jamaal Charles. They aren’t worried anymore. Whether Charles was lined up in the backfield, in the slot, or even out wide, Reid made it a point to get the ball into the hands of Kansas City’s best playmaker, who led all NFL backs in rushing touchdowns (12) and total scores (19). 

 

Reid and Dorsey blew up roughly half the roster left from 2012, but the positional changeover was most dramatic under center, where every incumbent was off the roster by the end of August. Alex Smith, acquired from San Francisco for two second-round picks, picked right back up where he left off in 2012, throwing for 23 touchdowns while setting the Chiefs’ single-season rushing record by a quarterback with 431 yards on the ground. His numbers and efficiency improved dramatically over the final six weeks of the season, and Smith feels even more comfortable with a second full year of running Reid’s West Coast scheme.

 

If there was a criticism of the Chiefs’ new ace signal-caller, it was the strength of his arm and propensity for check-downs and dumps. In Smith’s defense, the downfield passing game was hindered by a rash of injuries at tight end, a staple of Reid’s offenses, and the aging of star wideout Dwayne Bowe, who at 29 posted the worst full regular season of his NFL career. Bowe also is suspended for the season opener against Tennessee for a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. The weapons available to Smith this fall are largely the same as they were last season — and the starters at receiver, Bowe and Donnie Avery (40 catches in 2013), are a year older. If there’s a silver lining, it’s the expected return to health of the club’s top two tight ends, Anthony Fasano and second-year man Travis Kelce. Another bonus: Rookie speed merchant De’Anthony Thomas, a former track star at Oregon, is expected to be used as a hybrid slotback/tailback type, much the way the departed Dexter McCluster thrived this past fall.

 

But the biggest challenge for Smith is navigating behind a reconfigured offensive line. The Chiefs lost three starters to free agency, including left tackle Branden Albert. Former No. 1 pick Eric Fisher, who played an injury-marred and inconsistent right tackle as a rookie last year, has been penciled in as Albert’s replacement, while super-sub Donald Stephenson is expected to hold down Fisher’s old spot on the right side.

 

DEFENSE

After years of wandering, the Chiefs found their identity early and ran with it — an aggressive, attacking, man-press, 3-4 defensive front that was beloved in Kansas City. Through the first six games of the season, the Chiefs recorded 31 sacks and were on a pace to push the ’84 Bears’ single-season record of 72. But as the opponents and signal-callers improved over the final seven weeks of the regular season, the sacks started to dry up.

 

The pieces remain in place for another strong unit, starting with a spine up the middle that’s built around three Pro Bowlers: nose tackle Dontari Poe, linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry. Poe shed more than 20 pounds after a so-so rookie season, recording 4.5 sacks while emerging as an every-down defensive lineman and one of the league’s top disruptive forces. Johnson, who’ll turn 32 in November, remains one of the steadier tacklers in the AFC. After a bounce-back season that saw him run two interceptions back for touchdowns, Berry could be slotted in at either his familiar strong safety slot or try his hand at replacing the departed Kendrick Lewis at free safety. Reid and coordinator Bob Sutton are excited to see what second-year man Sanders Commings can do at safety after a broken collarbone wiped out his rookie season entirely. The Chiefs re-signed Husain Abdullah as a special teams ace and nickel back and figure to give him the first long look as a candidate to replace Lewis in the lineup. 

 

But the defense will probably go, as it did last autumn, as the players on the edge go — the outside linebackers who rush the passer and the cornerbacks who are often left to cover one-on-one. The quarterback-seeking combo of outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali was among the best in the NFL last year, combining for 22 sacks, but both missed significant time over the second half of the season to injuries. When Houston and Hali are at full speed, the Chiefs are dangerous defensively, but when they’re hurt or absent, things can get ugly. Reid and Dorsey sought to remedy that in the draft by selecting former Auburn defensive end Dee Ford late in the first round.

 

Dorsey likes tall corners who can motor, and he drafted 6'1" Phillip Gaines to join a rotation that includes 6'3" Sean Smith, 6'2" Marcus Cooper and 6'0" Ron Parker.

 

SPECIALISTS

Under the guidance of new coordinator Dave Toub and then-assistant Kevin O’Dea, Kansas City’s special teams units went from an NFL non-factor to one of the league’s most potent — two punt returns for touchdowns, two kick returns for touchdowns and a new NFL single-season record for the highest kickoff return average (29.9). Punter Dustin Colquitt will be looking to complement the Chiefs’ aggressive defense again after dropping 40.2 percent of his efforts inside the opposition’s 20-yard-line last fall. Kicker Ryan Succop was less of a sure thing, but he’ll get plenty more opportunities and has Reid’s trust. The Chiefs’ return game was a revelation last fall — and with Thomas or CFL import Weston Dressler likely to replace McCluster on punts, a team strength just might have gotten even stronger.

 

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Chiefs were expected to bounce back in a big way in their first season under Reid and Dorsey, but last season’s nine-win improvement exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. The pass rush should still be excellent, the quarterback slot is stabilized (for now), and Charles is arguably the best all-around tailback in the AFC. But a brutal schedule and a slew of free-agent losses point to a small step back before the Chiefs push forward again.

 

PREDICTION: 3rd in AFC West

Teaser:
Kansas City Chiefs 2014 Team Preview and Predictions
Post date: Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Chicago Bears, NFC, NFC North, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/chicago-bears-2014-team-preview-and-predictions
Body:

A year ago Bears general manager Phil Emery and new coach Marc Trestman spent the offseason rebooting an offense that was one of the NFL’s worst.

 

The results were impressive. The Bears jumped from No. 28 to No. 8 in total yards, from No. 28 to No. 3 in yards per play, from No. 29 to No. 5 in passing yards and from No. 27 to No. 4 in sack percentage allowed.

 

This year the attention of the front office and the coaching staff was focused on a defense that was an embarrassment in 2013. No defense in the NFL was worse last year in rushing yards, average gain per rushing play and total yards per play allowed. The Bears also allowed a franchise-worst 478 points. The problems began up front, so the top three free-agent signings were all defensive ends, and four of their first five draft picks addressed defensive weaknesses. 

 

OFFENSE

The goal was to keep intact a unit that scored more points than any team except the Broncos. Mission accomplished. Quarterback Jay Cutler was given a seven-year, $126 million extension, guaranteeing that he’ll be running the attack for the foreseeable future. The hope is that with the security of a lucrative long-term deal, in addition to the most productive wide receiver tandem in the NFC and a multi-talented Pro Bowl running back, Cutler will finally join the elite class of quarterbacks. Not that Cutler was bad last year. His 89.2 passer rating was the highest of his eight seasons. But 12 players had higher passer ratings, including his backup, Josh McCown, who was almost 20 points higher at 109.0. McCown is the only significant contributor from last year who is gone, signed by the Buccaneers. That leaves veterans Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen and sixth-round rookie David Fales to compete for backup roles.

 

In Trestman’s first year, the Bears threw the ball 94 more times than they did in Lovie Smith’s final season. That shouldn’t change with targets like 6'4", 230-pound Brandon Marshall and 6'3", 216-pound Alshon Jeffery creating mismatches all over the field. Both players were voted to the Pro Bowl, and deservedly so. Marshall caught 100 balls for 1,295 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jeffery piled up 1,421 yards on 89 catches with seven touchdowns and 16.0 yards per catch. Matt Forté had career bests of 74 catches, 594 receiving yards and 1,339 rushing yards. Throw in tight end Martellus Bennett’s 65 catches and 759 yards, and it makes sense that the Bears will continue to chuck it all over the lot. Last year’s No. 3 receiver, Earl Bennett, was cut, but the team was hopeful 2013 seventh-round pick Marquess Wilson would emerge during training camp to claim that role. Unfortunately, Wilson fractured his left clavicle and he is expected to miss a few games, at minimum. The Bears signed veteran Santonio Holmes, who will compete with journeymen Josh Morgan and Domenik Hixon for the remaining wide receiver spots.

 

The rebuilt O-line played a major role in facilitating the aerial circus. With new starters in four of five spots, the sack total dipped from 44 to 30 despite the increase in pass attempts. It helped tremendously that the Bears started the same five players at the same positions for all 16 games. That included first-round pick Kyle Long at right guard and fifth-round pick Jordan Mills at right tackle. The other new starters were free-agent additions Jermon Bushrod at left tackle and Matt Slauson at left guard. They all merged impressively under the leadership of center Roberto Garza, who re-signed for one year, his 14th. Versatile Eben Britton saw extensive playing time as a sixth offensive lineman in an alignment the Bears used frequently. If the 35-year-old Garza starts to show his age — he hasn’t yet — Brian de la Puente was signed in free agency to step into that role. 

 

DEFENSE

The Bears waived good-bye to eight-time Pro Bowl end Julius Peppers, who signed with the rival Packers after showing up on film only occasionally last season — not nearly enough to justify has $18 million price tag. Tackle Henry Melton is gone as well. But the Bears’ D-line should be improved this year. They signed three starting-caliber ends in free agency, including former Viking Jared Allen, who had 11.5 sacks last season. Allen is 32, but that’s two years younger than Peppers, and he’ll be paid about half of what Peppers would have made. Allen has traditionally played a higher percentage of snaps than almost every NFL D-lineman. But he won’t have to carry such a heavy load, since the Bears also signed former Raider Lamarr Houston, one of the NFL’s best run-defenders among ends, and ex-Lion Willie Young, who still has upside at 28. Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea are the probable starters inside, but the Bears hope to use a rotation, which should include Nate Collins and rookies Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson.

 

Emery has said that seven-time Pro Bowler Lance Briggs is the only linebacker guaranteed to start. D.J. Williams was signed a year ago to succeed Brian Urlacher, but a chest injury ended his season after six games. He was re-signed for one more year but will have to hold off a challenge from 2013 second-round pick Jon Bostic, who got nine starts last year and showed flashes but also was prone to rookie mistakes. Last year’s 16-game starter on the strong side, James Anderson, was not re-signed. But Shea McClellin is moving from end to linebacker, and the hope is he will provide another pass-rush threat from his new spot.

 

The Bears hope to get another year at cornerback from the tandem of Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. The 6'2" Tillman is invaluable for his ability to handle the league’s biggest receivers, while the feisty 5'8" Jennings plays bigger than his size. Both players are tough in run support, but Tillman missed half of last season with a triceps injury and he’s 33. That’s why the Bears used their first-round pick on cornerback Kyle Fuller, who should be the nickel until taking over for Tillman. Safety was a mess last year. Strong safety Major Wright was allowed to leave in free agency. Free safety Chris Conte, who may not be 100 percent healthy for the start of training camp after shoulder surgery, will have to play a lot better than he did last year to keep his job. The Bears added four safeties in free agency — Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Adrian Wilson and Danny McCray — but fourth-round pick Brock Vereen could wind up starting. 

 

SPECIALISTS

There are several candidates to replace Devin Hester, maybe the greatest return specialist of all time, including receivers Hixon, Chris Williams, running back Shaun Draughn and Darius Reynaud, who was signed halfway through training camp. The Bears will also have a new punter after Adam Podlesh was cut. The favorite is sixth-round draft pick Pat O’Donnell. Robbie Gould is the third-most accurate placekicker in NFL history and has hit 16-of-19 from 50 yards or farther in the past five years.

 

FINAL ANALYSIS

If the remaking of the defense comes close to matching the success that similar efforts had on the offense last year, the Bears will be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and just the second time in eight years.

 

PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC North

Teaser:
Chicago Bears 2014 Team Preview and Predictions
Post date: Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 12:00
Path: /college-football/pac-12-advanced-stats-you-need-know-2014
Body:
Visit Football Study Hall to get in-depth team previews, advanced stats and features for the 2014 season .

Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?

 

When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.

 

That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
 

Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the Pac-12’s best.

 

Arizona: 5.8

Coaches always preach staying in “third-and-manageable” situations for young or limited quarterbacks. Arizona personified this quest; the average third down for the Wildcats averaged only 5.8 yards to go, fourth-lowest in the country. That allowed them to pull off a third-down conversion rate of 47.2 percent (19th) and kept quarterback B.J. Denker out of obvious passing situations.

 

Arizona State: 37.6

Arizona State allowed only a 37.6 percent success rate in Pac-12 games in 2013. Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football, and ASU’s defense was the opposite of a bend-don’t-break unit. For the second straight year, the Sun Devils recorded more than 100 tackles for a loss as well.

 

Cal: 87

The Golden Bears allowed 87 plays of 20 yards or more in 2013, easily the most in FBS and 36 more than it allowed in 2012. In fact, only one other team (UTEP at 81) allowed more than 80 last season. Big plays were especially problematic in conference play; the Golden Bears allowed 7.0 yards per play to Pac-12 opponents, in essence turning every Pac-12 offense into Oregon’s.

 

Colorado: 6.08

Colorado’s defensive output improved by more than a yard per play in 2013, from 7.11 per play in 2012 to 6.08. But the Buffaloes still ranked just 101st  in the category and allowed 6.7 per play against Pac-12 opponents.

 

Oregon: 4

Only four offenses ranked in the nation’s top 10 in yards per play, points per trip inside the 40, and success rate (an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure): Florida State, Auburn, Ohio State, and Oregon.

 

Oregon State: -1.17

On a per-play basis, Oregon State was an average Pac-12 team in league games, gaining 6.1 yards per play (fourth in the conference) and allowing 6.1 (ninth). But the balance shifted when the goal line was within reach. Oregon State averaged just 3.96 yards per trip inside the opponent’s 40 (10th), while opponents averaged 5.13 points (12th). That’s an awful margin of minus-1.17 points per trip, 10th in the Pac-12.

 

Stanford: 6.4

Despite its reputation, Stanford’s offense was consistent and explosive in 2013; the Cardinal averaged 6.4 yards per play in conference games, second in the Pac-12 behind just Oregon. Only twice all year did the Cardinal average under 5.4 yards per play (4.7 vs. Washington, 4.8 vs. Oregon), and on four occasions they averaged better than 7.0 per play.

 

UCLA: 6.53

Score one for UCLA’s coverage units. The Bruins ranked 16th in net punting, 17th in opponent kick return average, and 24th in touchback percentage on kickoffs. That, and a strong turnover margin gave UCLA one of the best field position teams in the country — on average, Bruin possessions started at the 33.06 and opponents’ started at the 26.53. The plus-6.53 yard margin was fifth-best in the country.

 

USC: 7.8

Good offenses are both explosive and efficient. USC’s offense generated plenty of big plays in 2013 — 206 plays gained at least 10 yards (tied for 36th in the country) — but fell drastically behind schedule at times. The average USC third down required 7.8 yards to go, 117th in the country and far too much for a young quarterback like Cody Kessler to consistently overcome.

 

Utah: 5.5

No defense had a worse set of butter fingers than Utah’s. On average, a team intercepts about 22 percent of its overall passes defended (interceptions plus pass break-ups); Utah, however, defended a solid 55 passes in 2013 but intercepted only three, 5.5 percent (worst in FBS). A normal ratio would have resulted in about nine more interceptions in a season that saw the Utes lose three games by seven or fewer points.

 

Washington: 4.83

Bishop Sankey was one of the nation’s best short-yardage backs in 2013; he scored 20 touchdowns and was a primary reason why Washington finished with a 49 percent third-down conversion rate (12th in the country) and averaged 4.84 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line (18th). The Huskies were also pretty stiff on defense, for that matter, allowing just 3.83 points per trip (26th).

 

Washington State: 3

Washington State managed only three rushes of more than 20 yards in 2013, the smallest number in the country. Conference mate Oregon averaged more than that per game. Granted, the Cougars also attempted fewer rushes than anybody else, but 1.2 percent of WSU rushes (three of 243) went for 20-plus yards, the third-worst rate in the country. 

 

Stats provided by Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) of Football Study Hall for Athlon Sports. 

Teaser:
Pac-12 Advanced Stats You Need to Know for 2014
Post date: Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-august-21-2014
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 21:

 

• There's a new "Sin City" movie opening. For your clicking convenience, here's a compilation of the ladies of the Sin City movies, including the latest star, Eva Green.

 

More fodder for the Manziel haters, courtesy of the elder Manziel.

 

Mo'ne ran out of magic last night. And here's a helpful reminder that Miss Davis is just a kid, not a commodity.

 

• This one's for the Notre Dame haters: Deadspin's Drew Magary relentlessly trolls the Domers.

 

Great news in Jim Kelly's battle with cancer.

 

Interesting longform read about a powerful AAU leader-slash-drug kingpin.

 

The Cubs can't win even when they try to win.

 

• Undercover boss: Vernon Davis visits his own Jamba Juice store to check up on things.

 

Watch two crazy bros kayak down a storm drainage ditch.

 

Here's a compilation of hot female celebrities doing the ice bucket challenge. You're welcome.

 

• A fan lost his beer to a foul ball, so the Brewers broadcasting crew bought him another one.

 

 

--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 10:38
Path: /college-football/ranking-college-footballs-top-50-players-2014
Body:

Ranking the best college football players in the nation is an impossible task, but that’s exactly what Athlon Sports has set out to do with the start of the 2014 season less than 10 days away.

 

Florida State’s Jameis Winston takes the No. 1 spot in the player rankings, with Oregon’s Marcus Mariota a close No. 2. Winston and Mariota headline a deep group of quarterbacks in 2014, while there’s also a strong cast of options returning at defensive end, including USC’s Leonard Williams, Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun.

The criteria for the top 50 player rankings includes a variety of factors. Performance from previous years, pro potential, recruiting rankings, projection on 2014 and value to a team. While running backs are a key part of any team, they are not as important as a standout quarterback, left tackle, defensive end or shutdown cornerback.

With the variety of factors in mind, it’s also important to consider what’s ahead in 2014. Every year is a different case study. Expecting a player to replicate his output from one year to the next is unlikely, as each team has personnel losses, scheme changes or new coaches on the staff.

As with any list, there will be plenty of disagreement about Athlon’s top 50 players for 2014. However, keep in mind, the criteria includes a variety of factors and is not strictly based on last year’s stats. Projecting what’s ahead in 2014, position importance and pro potential should be weighed more than stats from previous years.

 

Projecting CFB's Top 50 Players for 2014
RankPlayerTeamNotes
1Jameis Winston, QBTough to repeat '13 stats, but Winston the No. 1 QB in nation.
2Marcus Mariota, QBBack to full strength after late-season knee injury.
3Todd Gurley, RBNeeds to stay healthy after limited 2013 season.
4Andrus Peat, OTAnchors rebuilt Stanford OL - top OL in CFB.
5Leonard Williams, DLHas 14 sacks over the last two seasons.
6Bryce Petty, QBThrew only 3 picks on 403 attempts last year.
7Brett Hundley, QBStill developing as passer, best yet to come.
8Melvin Gordon, RBAveraged nearly eight ypc on 206 carries in 2013.
9Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CBHas earned back-to-back 1st team All-Pac-12 honors.
10Vernon Hargreaves III, CBBright spot on Florida's disappointing 4-8 2013 season.
11Cedric Ogbuehi, OTThird straight A&M LT to be selected in first round of draft?
12Brandon Scherff, OTExpected to be a first-round pick in 2015.
13Vic Beasley, DELast year's 23 TFL is No. 1 among returning defenders.
14Randy Gregory, DELed Big Ten with 9.5 sacks last season.
15Shilique Calhoun, DEEarned Big Ten DL of the Year honors last year.
16Christian Hackenberg, QBRising star in Happy Valley.
17Myles Jack, LBExpected to focus mostly on defense in 2014.
18Amari Cooper, WRExpected to bounce back after quiet 2013.
19Landon Collins, SKey presence with inexperienced Alabama CBs.
20Ameer Abdullah, RBTopped 100 yards in 11 out of 13 games last year.
21Nelson Agholor, WRShould have big season under new coach Steve Sarkisian.
22Mario Edwards Jr., DEThe nation's most underrated defender?
23Duke Johnson, RBSuffered broken leg in early November last season.
24Chris Jones, DLSettled at DT last year and got better as year progressed.
25Nick Marshall, QBExpected to improve as a passer in second year under Malzahn.
26Cameron Erving, OTConverted DL is one of top offensive tackles in nation.
27Eric Striker, LBPrimed for big season after recording three sacks vs. Alabama.
28T.J. Yeldon, RBNo question about talent. Expect more Derrick Henry in '14.
29Derrick Henry, RBExpect a bigger role for Henry in 2014.
30Kendall Fuller, CBIntercepted six passes as true freshman.
31Michael Bennett, DTOne of three potential All-Americans on OSU's DL.
32Mike Davis, RBRushed for 100 yards in 6 out of first 7 games in 2013.
33Jaylon Smith, LBStarted all 13 games as true freshman in 2013.
34Robert Nkemdiche, DTOle Miss expecting big things from Nkemdiche this year.
35Taylor Kelly, QBAccounted for 4,243 total yards last season.
36Stefon Diggs, WRElectric all-purpose threat for Terps.
37Tyler Boyd, WRCaught 85 passes in standout freshman campaign.
38Shaq Thompson, LBAlready All-Pac-12 LB. Could see time at RB.
39P.J. Williams, CBNation's No. 1 secondary resides in Tallahassee.
40Nick O'Leary, TEShould see more passes his way in 2014.
41O.J. Howard, TEAveraged 19.2 yards per catch in 2013.
42A'Shawn Robinson, DLVersatile lineman coming off breakout freshman year.
43Joey Bosa, DETeams with Noah Spence to form dynamic DE combo.
44Tre Jackson, OGStarted 28 career games for Noles.
45Tyler Lockett, WRAll-purpose threat is No. 1 WR in Big 12.
46Rashad Greene, WRShould be Winston's favorite target once again.
47Antwan Goodley, WRAveraged whopping 18.9 ypc in 2013.
48Taysom Hill, QBDangerous dual-threat, improving passer.
49Leonard Fournette, RBCould have huge season behind stellar OL.
50Rakeem Cato, QBHas 91 TD tosses in three seasons.

Next Up: Florida State CB Ronald Darby, Florida State S Jalen Ramsey, Oregon C Hroniss Grasu, Texas DE Cedric Reed, Ole Miss OT Laremy Tunsil, Oregon State QB Sean Mannion, South Carolina OG A.J. Cann, Michigan State QB Connor Cook, Auburn C Reese Dismukes, LSU OT La'El Collins

Teaser:
Ranking College Football's Top 50 Players for 2014
Post date: Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/10-players-who-will-decide-college-footballs-2014-national-title
Body:

Every college football team has personnel issues heading into the 2014 season. But some teams have roster concerns with national title implications. Whether it’s a quarterback battle, an open spot at defensive tackle or cornerback, every personnel concern is magnified in the race to win a national championship.

 

Florida State is college football’s defending national champion, and the Seminoles have few holes on a roster that might be the best in the nation this year. Replacing Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin at receiver is a tough task for coach Jimbo Fisher, but true freshman Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane look like future stars in Tallahassee. Finding replacements for defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan appears to be Fisher’s biggest task this fall.

 

And the personnel concerns among national title contenders aren’t just limited to Florida State. Alabama needs to settle its secondary and find a quarterback, while Auburn has concerns on both lines of scrimmage after preseason injuries. Oregon lost left tackle Tyler Johnstone due to injury this fall, and Michigan State must replace both starters at defensive tackle from last season.

 

What players could play a huge role in college football’s national championship picture? Athlon examined 10 key players to watch – some well-known names, as well as a few under-the-radar players at key positions for 2014.

 

10 Players Who Will Decide CFB’s National Title in 2014

 

Jacob Coker, QB, Alabama

Alabama’s biggest personnel concern could be its secondary, but this team needs to have stability under center to win another national title. Coker transferred from Florida State after spring practice and is eligible immediately after graduating in three years. The Alabama native completed 21 of 41 passes for 295 yards and one touchdown in two seasons of game action with the Seminoles and is being pushed by Blake Sims for the starting job this fall. Coker doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards every week, but in key games against Ole Miss, LSU and Auburn, can he make the necessary throws to lead Alabama to victory? With a strong defense and rushing attack, Coker won’t be asked to do much. However, his performance in key SEC contests could be the difference in Alabama winning the SEC or missing out on the college football playoff.

 

Shon Coleman, OT/LaDarius Owens, DE, Auburn

Auburn has been hit hard by the injury bug in the trenches this offseason. Defensive end Carl Lawson suffered an ACL injury in the spring and is expected to miss a significant chunk of the 2014 season. Guard Alex Kozan suffered a back injury and has been ruled out for the year. Kozan’s absence means Auburn will have a revamped left side of the line after tackle Greg Robinson left for the NFL. Kozan and Lawson are huge losses, as both players were slated to be All-SEC performers. Coleman is expected to win the left tackle job to replace Robinson, but he’s under extra scrutiny with the lost of Kozan. On the defensive side, Owens is the Tigers’ most experienced option at end, with sophomore Elijah Daniel and junior college recruits DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence also factoring into the mix. In 14 games last season, Owens recorded 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks. The senior will be asked to increase his production in 2014, especially as the defense could be without Lawson (a top pass-rusher) for most of the season. Auburn's defense made key stops on third downs and inside the redzone last season, but this unit has to take a step forward in its development to ensure the Tigers reach the SEC title game once again.

 

Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State

Florida State’s roster is arguably the best in the nation in 2014 and it’s hard to establish a (is there one?) glaring weaknesses. The receiving corps needs new targets to emerge with the departure of Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, and the punting situation is a concern. However, the defensive tackle position is the one position to watch this year. The Seminoles must replace standout Timmy Jernigan (left early for the NFL Draft), while Jacobbi McDaniel and Demonte McAllister expired their eligibility. Jernigan anchored the run defense in 2013, which limited opponents to just 118.7 yards per game in ACC contests last year. Goldman is slated to move from the outside to the interior to help replace Jernigan, and the junior has the size (320 pounds) to hold the point of the attack against opposing run offenses. The former five-star recruit has big shoes to fill in Jernigan’s place, and with little in the way of proven depth behind him, new coordinator Charles Kelly needs a big season from the Washington, D.C. native.

 

Wesley Green/Al Harris Jr./Carlos Lammons, CB, South Carolina

Even though the Gamecocks’ defensive line must be revamped due to the departures of Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles, the biggest concern for coordinator Lorenzo Ward has to be the secondary. South Carolina lacks proven options at cornerback, and three incoming freshmen could see major snaps in 2014. Al Harris Jr., Wesley Green and Carlos Lammons were key pickups on the recruiting trail for Ward and coach Steve Spurrier, and it wouldn’t be a surprise for all three to make starts this year. With Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia through the first three weeks, South Carolina’s secondary and young defensive backs will be tested.

 

Joel Heath/Damon Knox, DT, Michigan State

The Spartans should have one of the nation’s top trios at defensive end with junior Shilique Calhoun, senior Marcus Rush and redshirt freshman Demetrius Cooper. Calhoun anchors a pass rush that recorded 22 sacks in Big Ten games last year but replicating that total in 2014 could largely depend on the development at defensive tackle. Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds were unsung cogs on the defensive front in 2013 and are slated to be replaced by Knox and Heath in 2014. Heath played in nine games last season, while Knox recorded 22 tackles and one sack in 14 appearances. True freshmen Enoch Smith and Malik McDowell will push for time, but all four players will be needed in the rotation up front. In order to keep Calhoun attacking off the edge, the tackles have to hold their own and prevent teams from keying too much on the ends. If Heath and Knox can successfully replace Reynolds and Hoover, Michigan State’s defensive line should be among the best in the nation once again.

 

Xavien Howard, CB, Baylor

Baylor’s explosive offense garnered most of the headlines last season, but the turnaround on defense was just as critical to winning the Big 12 championship. The Bears allowed only 4.8 yards per play in conference games in 2013 and held league opponents to 25.7 points per game. Only four starters return for 2013, and coordinator Phil Bennett has to fill three spots in the secondary. Howard played in 13 games as a reserve last season and recorded five tackles and one interception. The sophomore has good size (6-foot-2) and speed to become a shutdown corner for the Bears. Baylor’s front seven should be solid, but Howard’s (and other new starters in secondary) development will be critical to keeping the Bears in the mix for a spot in the playoff. With quarterback play expected to improve in the Big 12 this year, it’s even more critical for Howard to assert himself as the team’s No. 1 cover option.

 

Jordon James, RB, UCLA

With 14 returning starters from a team that went 10-3 last season, the expectations are high for UCLA entering 2014. The Bruins are picked by some to win the Pac-12 and should be in the mix for a playoff spot if they can claim a conference title. UCLA isn’t without flaws, as its offensive line needs to play better, and the defense must find a replacement for standout linebacker Anthony Barr. Quarterback Brett Hundley led the team with 160 rushing attempts last season, while James ranked third with 101 carries. Keeping Hundley healthy is critical to UCLA’s title hopes, and coordinator Noel Mazzone needs to find more playmakers to take the pressure off of his junior quarterback. James opened 2013 with three consecutive 100-yard efforts but suffered an ankle injury early in the year and never appeared to be at full strength the rest of the way. If James is capable of handling 20-25 carries per game, it will allow Mazzone to save Hundley from unnecessary wear and tear.

 

Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma

Was Knight’s standout performance against Alabama a sign of things to come? In Oklahoma’s 45-31 upset win over the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl, Knight gashed Alabama’s secondary for 348 yards and four scores. Prior to the bowl, Knight had just five touchdown passes over his previous seven appearances. While Knight’s one-game performance is gaining all of the offseason headlines, let’s not overlook his output against Kansas State (171 passing yards, 82 rushing yards) from Nov. 23. The sophomore certainly has room to develop and will benefit from having a clear path to the starting job after battling with Blake Bell last season. With Oklahoma possessing one of the Big 12’s top defenses, Knight doesn’t have to throw for 300 yards every week for the Sooners to reach the college football playoff. However, if Oklahoma is to make the leap from fringe contender to national champion, Knight has to take a take step forward in his development over the course of the season.

 

Damian Swann, CB, Georgia

Senior quarterback Hutson Mason also deserves a mention in this space, but Georgia’s secondary is the bigger concern heading into 2014. This unit ranked No. 84 nationally in pass efficiency defense and intercepted a SEC-low two passes in conference games in 2013. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is revamping the defensive backfield and plans to play a handful of young players in 2014. Swann is the team’s most experienced option at cornerback with 28 career starts under his belt. The senior will have a handful of new faces surrounding him this year, which means Swann has to be a leader for the secondary and handle most of the duties against opposing team’s top receivers. With a front seven that should be one of the best in the SEC, Georgia’s secondary has plenty of help. However, Swann and his defensive backfield mates have to rebound after a tough 2014 season.

 

Andre Yruretagoyena, OT, Oregon

Yruretagoyena was slated to work as a backup tackle this year, but an injury to left tackle Tyler Johnstone pressed the junior into the starting lineup. Johnstone’s absence is a huge blow for Oregon’s offense, as the Arizona native started 26 games from 2012-13 and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection for 2014 by Athlon Sports. The Ducks were slated to have one of the Pac-12’s top offensive lines this year, especially if the play of guards Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt improved after an inconsistent 2013. Yruretagoyena does not have a career start but played in eight games last season. The Arizona native was considered a four-star recruit in the 2011 signing class and ranked as the No. 85 prospect in the 247Sports Composite. Yruretagoyena will be thrown into the fire right away in 2014, as Oregon has a huge test against Michigan State – and All-America defensive end Shilique Calhoun – in Week 2. Protecting the blindside of Mariota is crucial to the Ducks’ Pac-12 title hopes. 

Teaser:
10 Players Who Will Decide College Football's 2014 National Title
Post date: Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/big-tens-top-15-must-see-games-2014
Body:

Braxton Miller’s season-ending shoulder re-injury might be the biggest piece of offseason personnel news in all of college football this year.

 

It likely makes the Michigan State Spartans the team to beat in the Big Ten, and, when it comes to the B1G earning a College Football Playoff berth, all eyes now turn to Sparty’s trip to Oregon in Week 2. A win in Eugene might be a must if the Spartans want to get into the first-ever playoff.

 

Ohio State is still the most talented team in this league and still has a good shot to win the league title. But games at Michigan State, Penn State and Maryland are now magnified.

 

In the West Division, the three-team round robin at the top should be fun to track all season long until November rolls around when all three face each other in a three-week span.

 

1. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)

It cannot be overstated what a win for Michigan State in this game would mean for the Big Ten. So Oregon cannot overlook the rebuilt Sparty defense early in the year or the Ducks could be knocked out of playoff contention by Week 2. The schematic chess match between Marcus Mariota and Mark Dantonio's defense should be fascinating to watch.

 

2. Ohio State at Michigan State (Nov. 8)

Some of the luster has certainly worn off this monumental showdown but these are still the two best teams in the Big Ten. The winner of this game is still likely the East Division champ, is still likely to win the Big Ten title and is still in line to snag the final playoff spot. This should still be a physical clash of top-ranked teams.

 

3. Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 29)

Yes, this game may not have as much meaning to either team at the end of the season in terms of the standings but that didn’t stop last season’s meeting from being an instant classic. Brady Hoke desperately needs wins against a rival and Ohio State could still need this game to win the division. The bottom line is a winless Wolverines-Buckeyes matchup is still must-see TV.

 

4. Wisconsin at Iowa (Nov. 22)

These are the top two teams in the West Division entering the season and both schedules set up for two sterling records to be on the line late in November. These two traditional rivals have produced classic battles dating back to the 1800s and this meeting marks the third straight trip for UW to Iowa City. The Badgers have won the last two in the series, which is nearly dead even at 43-42-2 (UW).

 

5. LSU vs. Wisconsin (Aug. 30, Houston)

From a pure entertainment standpoint, the Tigers-Badgers semi-neutral field battle in Houston might be the one to watch in '14. This game will feature what should be two equally matched opponents, both of whom are expecting to compete for division titles in their respective leagues. LSU and Wisconsin feature two of the best power running games in the land and this game will be a throwback showcase for both.

 

6. Michigan at Michigan State (Oct. 25)

Hoke has snapped both long losing streaks to rivals Ohio State and Michigan State, but lost to both last fall. And the 29-6 drubbing at home to Sparty wasn’t pretty. Late in October, Hoke and his new-look offense will go on the road for a season-defining bout with their in-state rival and everyone will be watching.

 

7. Michigan State at Penn State (Nov. 29)

With the Spartans moving into the driver’s seat in the preseason Big Ten predictions, the season finale road trip to Happy Valley for the “coveted” Land Grant Trophy takes on more meaning. The Nittany Lions could be bruised and battered by that time or perhaps James Franklin will have developed his roster into a solid contender. Pat Narduzzi against Christian Hackenberg? Yes, please.

 

8. Ohio State at Penn State (Oct. 25)

The Lions host two huge games at home against the top two teams in the league and an upset over either for the first-year head coach would be huge. A win over Ohio State, Miller or no Miller, would be a signature moment for Franklin's PSU tenure. That said, Herb Hand and the OL will have to stay healthy and develop quickly to stop OSU’s defensive front.

 

9. Nebraska at Iowa (Nov. 29)

A week after Iowa hosts Wisconsin and two weeks after Nebraska visits Madison, the Cornhuskers have to travel to Iowa City. Big Red fans and Bo Pelini (nor the officials) have forgotten what happened in the season finale last fall in Lincoln where the Hawkeyes smoked the Huskers 38-17. A West Division crown could hang in the balance.

 

10. Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15)

The lesser of the three big round robin contests out West features the dairy-fed Big Red hosting the corn-fed Big Red. The two best running backs in the conference and two of the best in the nation will be on display when NU heads north to face UW.

 

11. Nebraska at Michigan State (Oct. 4)

This is one of the newly formed rivalries that fans should be excited about now that Nebraska is a Big Ten mainstay. Ameer Abdullah against the Spartans' defense is must-see TV. Even though this one takes place early in October, it could still serve as a Big Ten title elimination game.

 

12. Penn State at Michigan (Oct. 11)

Anytime these two brands get together, the Big Ten pays attention. The Lions and Wolverines have posted some seriously memorable matchups, including last year’s 43-40 overtime thriller in Happy Valley. Look for more fireworks between these two in 2014.

 

13. Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 6)

There is rich history and tradition between these two programs, and with the game going the way of the dodo bird, this meeting has more meaning. These two teams are breaking in three new coordinators, most importantly, Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. A win for Brady Hoke entering Big Ten play can’t be overvalued.

 

14. Michigan State at Maryland (Nov. 15)

If fans are looking for a sleeper team in the Big Ten this fall, look no further than College Park. Maryland has an excellent coaching staff, playmakers all over the offense and a stable quarterback situation. Are they good enough to topple the Big Ten champs? Maybe not, but MSU should be on upset alert late in November.

 

15. Ohio State at Maryland (Oct. 4)

One look at the home schedule for the Terps and it’s easy to see why Maryland made the jump to the Big Ten. Along with Michigan State, Randy Edsall’s bunch will host Ohio State, Iowa, West Virginia and Rutgers. Those are marquee brands coming to town this fall… and Rutgers.

 

Best of the Rest:

 

16. Minnesota at Wisconsin (Nov. 29)

17. Wisconsin at Northwestern (Oct. 4)

18. Nebraska at Northwestern (Oct. 18)

19. Miami at Nebraska (Sept. 20)

20. Iowa at Pitt (Sept. 20)

21. Northwestern at Notre Dame (Nov. 15)

22. Iowa at Minnesota (Nov. 8)

23. Michigan State at Indiana (Nov. 18)

24. Iowa at Maryland (Oct. 18)

25. Maryland at Penn State (Nov. 1)

Teaser:
The Big Ten's Top 15 Must-See Games of 2014
Post date: Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/accs-top-15-must-see-games-2014
Body:

Conferences don’t win championships, teams do.

 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the ACC. Florida State is so far ahead of the league that a good majority of the best games in this league won’t be conference games. Notre Dame faces five quality ACC teams and, of course, there are plenty of SEC rivalry games as well.

 

But within the league, there are very few marquee matchups because the Seminoles are head and shoulders (and legs and feet) above the rest of the ACC.

 

There are loads of intriguing games within the league once Florida State is removed from the equation but very few will register with a national audience.

 

1. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 29)

As far as deeply entrenched rivalries and overall importance of the game to the national landscape go, it's hard to argue the Palmetto State season finale won't be one the biggest non-conference games of the year. Carolina and Steve Spurrier are eyeing an SEC East title and possible playoff berth, so a loss to the Tigers for the first time since 2008 would be crippling to those hopes.

 

2. Clemson at Georgia (Aug. 30)

Last year's meeting was an epic offensive showdown that featured elite playmakers and provided a memorable experience for everyone. This year, Clemson's defense is its strength while Georgia returns nine starters on D. With two new quarterbacks for both teams, expect a sloppier performance from both offenses in the first week of the season — which could be equally as entertaining.

 

3. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 29)

This was a blowout a year ago but Florida expects to be much improved and the historic Sunshine State rivalry could hold national championship implications for the Seminoles. Florida may have the best roster of any team Florida State will face in the regular season so fans should expect a much closer bout this time around — as long as the Gators' coaching staff is still intact by season's end.

 

4. Clemson at Florida State (Sept. 20)

Is this the most important ACC game of the year? Likely. Will it be the closest, most entertaining conference game in the ACC this year? Unlikely. Clemson was smoked at home and is rebuilding on offense while Florida State actually appears to be improving from 2013. Best of luck on the road in Week 4, Tigers.

 

5. Florida State at Louisville (Oct. 30)

It’s later in the year and on the road. That is why the Louisville game might actually be Florida State’s toughest conference test of the regular season. Look for Bobby Petrino’s offense to be in full swing by the end of October and playing in primetime on a Thursday night should make for a raucous atmosphere.

 

6. Notre Dame at Florida State (Oct. 18)

Florida State’s toughest regular season test in 2014 may come from the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame has the talent, gets its signal-caller back under center and could be on a roll by mid-October. Few games in the nation will feature two more powerful brands with more at stake than when Brian Kelly brings his team south to Tallahassee. These two have met seven times with FSU holding a 5-2 edge.

 

7. Louisville at Clemson (Oct. 11)

If the Cardinals and Tigers are the second- and third-best teams in the ACC, then this game should be a fantastic first edition. Chad Morris and Bobby Petrino are two of the top offensive minds in the game and Death Valley is as good a setting as there is in college football. This one should be fun for everyone.

 

8. Virginia Tech at North Carolina (Oct. 4)

Many believe that Tech and Carolina are the teams to beat in the Coastal Division. And while there are four or five other key divisional games in what could be a five-team Coastal round robin, this early October bout in Chapel Hill could be the deciding matchup. Who doesn’t want to see Larry Fedora and Bud Foster scheming against one another?

 

9. North Carolina at Clemson (Sept. 27)

The Tar Heels are the sexy pick in the Coastal right now and Clemson is widely regarded as the second-best team in the league. An early-season trip into Death Valley will provide clarity for those who are eagerly watching North Carolina’s surge this fall.

 

10a. North Carolina at Notre Dame (Oct.11)

Much like Louisville and Notre Dame, North Carolina has a shot at a headline-making, non-conference win if it can go into South Bend and pull the upset. The Tar Heels may not have the same talent as the Seminoles or the coaching of the Cardinals, but North Carolina should be fairly competitive in mid-October. The Heels are 2-16 all-time against the Irish but won the last meeting 29-24 in Chapel Hill in 2008.

 

10b. Louisville at Notre Dame (Nov. 22)

Bobby Petrino has a few marquee showdowns on his schedule this fall and the biggest one might be a trip to South Bend in late November. The meeting will mark the first time in history that these two programs have ever met despite being just four hours apart. The matching of offensive wits between Petrino and Brian Kelly will be a thing to behold and must-see TV.

 

12. Miami at Louisville (Sept. 1)

Some of the intrigue with this game is the timing. A Week 1, Labor Day night, conference game between two teams that played in a bowl game last year has plenty of sizzle. Especially, when the team hosting the bout is playing in its first-ever ACC league game. Miami has plenty of revenge to exact after the 36-9 drubbing to cap 2013.

 

13. Florida State at Miami (Nov. 15)

This was a 41-14 beatdown in Tallahassee a year ago despite Miami’s 7-0 record at the time. Miami appears to be getting better across the board, however, as Al Golden’s freshman class is expected to buoy the defense and the quarterback position. Can they win at home over their archrival late in the year? Anything is possible.

 

14. Miami at Nebraska (Sept. 20)

From an intrigue standpoint, few non-conference games in college football will feature two more powerful brands than this Week 4 meeting in Lincoln. These two have met in multiple national title situations, including four Orange Bowls and three national title games. The last two meetings were a Miami beatdown in the BCS title game in 2001 and a Nebraska national championship-clinching win in the 1995 Orange Bowl. And, of course, who could forget the 1984 Orange Bowl and the most infamous two-point conversion attempt in college football history?

 

15. Miami at Virginia Tech (Oct. 23)

It’s traditionally one of the better matchups in the Coastal Division and this one could carry title game implications. If Tech was visiting the Canes in Florida, this game would be a much bigger test for the Hokies and would rank higher on the list.

 

Best of the Rest:

 

16. Virginia Tech at Pitt (Oct. 16)

17. North Carolina at Miami (Nov. 1)

18. North Carolina at Duke (Nov. 20)

19. Georgia Tech at Georgia (Nov. 29)

20. NC State at North Carolina (No. 29)

21. Florida State vs. Oklahoma State (Aug. 30, Arlington)

22. Virginia Tech at Ohio State (Sept. 6)

23. Pitt at North Carolina (Nov. 15)

24. Pitt at Miami (Nov. 29)

25. Virginia Tech at Duke (Nov. 15)

Teaser:
The ACC's Top 15 Must-See Games of 2014
Post date: Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 08:30
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/college-basketballs-2014-15-all-freshman-team
Body:

A year after Duke had one of the most versatile players in the country in No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker, the Blue Devils will have a different kind of stud freshman who seems destined for a high draft pick.

Jahlil Okafor won’t be the jack-of-all-trades Parker was. That said, Okafor isn’t merely a classic center. He’s a throwback to an earlier era expected to be the best at the position in several seasons.

As decorated as Okafor may be by the end of the season, he’s not the only highly touted freshman in Duke’s class. The Blue Devils add a point guard (Tyus Jones) and small forward (Justise Winslow) in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.

Duke’s haul relegated Kentucky to No. 2 in the 247Sports Composite, but as usual the Wildcats will have their normal group of potential draft picks in the class. Kansas and Arizona, a year after having some of the best rookies in college basketball, again find their way near the top of the list of top freshmen in 2014-15.

Other Class Teams
All-Sophomore
All-Junior
All-Senior


2014-15 All-Freshman Squad


All-Freshman First Team

G Tyus Jones, Duke

One of three stud freshmen signed by Duke in 2014-15, Jones will push veteran Quinn Cook for minutes at point guard.

F Stanley Johnson, Arizona
At 6-7, 226 pounds, Johnson can play either the 2 or the 3 for Arizona in his first (and potentially only) season at Arizona. He steps in for Aaron Gordon, but Johnson may be more explosive offensive threat.

F Cliff Alexander, Kansas
Alexander is another Kansas freshman who can score down low. His toughness and rebounding ability, though, has been one of his key assets.

F Karl Towns, Kentucky
Towns arrives into a crowded frontcourt at Kentucky, but the seven-footer’s offensive game may set him apart. He should be able to stretch the floor in a way the Wildcats’ other star forwards can’t.

C Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Okafor will challenge for All-America and national freshman of the year honors in addition to being Duke’s best big man is several years. He’s a traditional back-to-the-basket center who will be among the top picks in the 2015 draft.

All-Freshman Second Team

G Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
G Kelly Oubre, Kansas
G/F Daniel Hamilton, UConn
F Trey Lyles, Kentucky
C Myles Turner, Texas

All-Freshman Third Team

G Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
G Rashad Vaughn, UNLV
G/F Justin Jackson, North Carolina
F Abdul-Malik Abu, NC State
F Kevon Looney, UCLA

Teaser:
College Basketball's 2014-15 All-Freshman Team
Post date: Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: Carolina Panthers, NFC, NFC South, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/carolina-panthers-2014-team-preview-and-predictions
Body:

The Carolina Panthers shocked almost everyone with their success in 2013 — a 12–4 regular season, an NFC South championship, their first playoff berth in five years and a slew of postseason awards.

To maintain and increase that success, however, they will need to get quick contributions from a number of newcomers — especially on the offensive side.

 

In 2013, Carolina won for three reasons: The Panthers’ sterling defense ranked No. 2 in the NFL behind only Seattle; quarterback Cam Newton had the best season of his career; and coach Ron Rivera located his inner gambler and became “Riverboat Ron.”

 

The defense is paced by a front seven that returns largely intact. It includes middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, who combined for 26 sacks last season. The secondary is the only real question mark on a defense that should be the Panthers’ primary strength in 2014.

 

The player who scored Carolina’s only TD in a 23–10 playoff loss to San Francisco — wide receiver Steve Smith, who also holds virtually all the team’s reception records — was surprisingly released. He now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. Newton’s offensive line and all-new receiving corps are both questionable, and how well new players fill those positions may determine Carolina’s fate.

 

OFFENSE

Everything starts with Newton, who is coming off a season in which he set career highs in passing TDs (24), completion percentage (61.7) and passer rating (88.8). More important, the quarterback who wasn’t great in the clutch in his first two seasons was exceptional in the final two minutes of games in 2013, leading the Panthers to four come-from-behind wins. Newton had offseason ankle surgery in March — his left ankle had obviously limited his mobility toward the end of the year — but should be ready for training camp. He says he plans to take more “ownership of the offense” this season, and he will need to step into the leadership void vacated by Smith.

 

The Panthers will keep allowing Newton to run 6-8 times per game because he’s such a good scrambler, but they mostly want him to throw the ball downfield instead of taking off. The questions are: Who will he throw it to most, and will he have time to throw it at all?

 

The Panthers lost their top four wide receivers in the offseason and have replaced them with No. 1 draft pick Kelvin Benjamin and veterans Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and Jason Avant. None of the vets is considered a No. 1 receiver. The Panthers hope Benjamin can grow into one, but that would be a tall order for a rookie. Underwood will be the speedster, Benjamin the best threat at the goal line (he’s 6'5", 241) and Cotchery and Avant the crafty possession receivers.

 

Newton’s favorite target likely will be sure-handed tight end Greg Olsen, one of the NFL’s better pass-catchers and one of the two players Newton looked to (Smith was the other) most of the time last season when in trouble in the pocket.

 

The offensive line is iffy. Jordan Gross retired after playing left tackle for years, so there’s a gaping hole there. The Panthers have moved Byron Bell from right tackle to left tackle, but Bell’s feet may not be quick enough to handle the position. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil will be asked to do a lot of leading by example. He likely will have youngsters on either side of him at guard — rookie Trai Turner may start right away at right guard. Right tackle Nate Chandler is a converted defensive lineman who may struggle, but he does have good athleticism.

 

The Panthers like to consider themselves a running team, and they have invested a whole lot of money and draft picks in a corps of good tailbacks. The top two — DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart — are aging, though, and Stewart in particular has a hard time staying healthy. Williams remains the Panthers’ best breakaway threat. Mike Tolbert is a fan favorite and a bulldozer near the goal line who can play tailback or fullback. 

 

DEFENSE

The Panthers used their franchise tag this season on Greg Hardy to make sure the 15-sack defensive end from 2013 didn’t get away. And despite having Johnson (11 sacks) on the other side, they still spent their second-round pick on another pass-rusher in Missouri’s Kony Ealy. “You can’t have too many pass-rushers,” GM Dave Gettleman says. “It’s impossible.”

 

The Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks in 2013. Hardy and Johnson were so effective as bookends because the middle of the opponent’s offensive line was often pushed back into the quarterback’s face by Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who each had exemplary rookie seasons at defensive tackle. They will be counted on for even more production this season. Colin Cole, Dwan Edwards and Mario Addison are all solid D-line backups.

 

The Panthers' depth up front could be tested early considering the possibility of Hardy being suspended by the league following a domestic incident in July. Hardy was charged and subsequently convicted on two counts of domestic violence and was sentenced to 18 months probation (a 60-day jail term was suspended). An appeal by Hardy's lawyer is possible, which would put his probation on hold, but it's still possible that Hardy could be suspended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, especially given the precedent that was set in regards to Ray Rice's situation.

 

Kuechly is flanked by strong-side linebacker Thomas Davis, who has come back from three ACL surgeries to play some of his best football. He is as fast as Kuechly and gives Carolina a second playmaker at linebacker. While Davis and Kuechly rarely come off the field, weak-side linebacker Chase Blackburn is a run-stopper who is replaced in passing situations. Second-year linebacker A.J. Klein is rapidly improving and could take Blackburn’s spot.

 

The secondary has been retooled and will be attacked until it proves itself. The Panthers hope strong safety Roman Harper and free safety Thomas DeCoud have a couple of good years left. Cornerback Melvin White was an undrafted rookie free agent only a year ago, and corner Antoine Cason is new to the team, too. Charles Godfrey, trying to make the switch from safety to cornerback, may help in the slot but also might be released if he doesn’t catch on fast.

 

SPECIALISTS

One of the strongest parts of the Panther team is led by kicker Graham Gano, who made 24-of-27 field goals last season, led the NFL with a 79.7 touchback percentage on kickoffs and was rewarded with a new contract. Punter Brad Nortman set team records for gross and net punting average. The Panthers will need to find a new returner to replace Ted Ginn. Second-year running back Kenjon Barner was expected to get the first shot, but he was traded on Aug. 19 to Philadelphia, where he will be reunited with his coach at Oregon, Chip Kelly. The Panthers will receive a seventh-round pick in next year's draft if Barner remains on the Eagles' 46-man, active roster for at least four games.

 

FINAL ANALYSIS

Carolina should be in almost every game due to its defense and its two franchise-level players (Newton and Kuechly). But will the Panthers be able to score enough? Carolina’s offensive line is vulnerable, and a standout wide receiver will need to emerge early. How well the secondary handles itself against the likes of Drew Brees and Matt Ryan will be the final factor in determining whether this team can repeat its NFC South championship of a year ago.

 

PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC South

Teaser:
Carolina Panthers 2014 Team Preview and Predictions
Post date: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 16:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC North, Pittsburgh Steelers, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/pittsburgh-steelers-2014-team-preview-and-predictions
Body:

Mike Tomlin all but reached for a red challenge flag before interrupting a question on the Steelers trying to return to the playoffs after consecutive 8–8 seasons. “Getting to the postseason is not my goal,” the Steelers head coach said in March at the NFL owners meetings. “My goal is to win the world championship.”

 

Achieving the goal — or at least making a serious run at it — has become more difficult than it was in Tomlin’s early years with the Steelers. Only a handful of core players remain from the teams that played in three Super Bowls and won two of them from 2005-10. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger always gives the Steelers a chance, and the offense really came together in the second half of 2013. But a defense that is in transition slipped appreciably last season. And reinforcements and improvement from second-year players such as outside linebacker Jarvis Jones are vital if the Steelers are going to play with the kind of defensive swagger that has long been their hallmark. 

 

OFFENSE

Roethlisberger, who celebrated his 32nd birthday in March, is still playing at a high level, and the Steelers gave him more ownership of the offense than ever in the second half of last season. 

 

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley loosened the reins on the no-huddle attack, and Roethlisberger thrived while calling the plays and directing the offense like the seasoned veteran he has become. As a result, fans are no longer dissecting the relationship between Roethlisberger and the similarly strong-willed Haley, and the no-huddle attack is now a staple of the offense after the Steelers averaged 28.2 points in their final nine games last season.

 

Le’Veon Bell rescued an abysmal ground attack after missing the first three games of 2013 with a foot injury. The Steelers like everything about Bell, who broke Franco Harris’ Steelers rookie record for yards from scrimmage (1,259). Bell’s running style is a blend of patience and power, and he catches the ball well and is also adept at picking up blitzing linebackers. LeGarrette Blount will ease some of the burden on Bell, and ultra-fast rookie Dri Archer offers a complement to the two bruising backs in front on him on the depth chart. Pittsburgh's backfield depth could be tested at some point now that Bell and Blount are reportedly facing marijuana-related charges stemming from an Aug. 20 traffic stop. The charges (one count of possession for each as well as driving under the influence for Bell) are misdemeanors, but given NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's track record, it's certainly not out of the question that Bell and Blount will end up sitting out a game or two at some point this season.

 

Pro Bowler Antonio Brown leads a receiving corps that took an unexpected hit in free agency when productive veteran Jerricho Cotchery signed with the Carolina Panthers. The Steelers need 2013 third-round pick Markus Wheaton to emerge after a hand injury limited him to 157 snaps last season. Rookie Martavis Bryant gives the Steelers a tall and speedy wide receiver, a dimension that the offense has lacked. Tight end Heath Miller should become a bigger part of the passing game now that he has fully recovered from reconstructive knee surgery.

 

The offensive line should be a strength with all five starters returning, including Maurkice Pouncey. The Pro Bowl center missed all but eight snaps last season after tearing the ACL in his right knee, and he is the unquestioned leader of the line as well as its best player. The Steelers’ most significant offseason acquisition may have been the hiring of offensive line coach Mike Munchak. A Pro Football Hall of Fame guard, Munchak is considered one of the best line coaches in the business. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum summed up the hiring of the former Tennessee Titans head coach in two words: “Instant credibility.”

 

DEFENSE

The Steelers have gotten drastically younger on this side of the ball as strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor are the only projected starters over the age of 30. How much better the Steelers will be after an infusion of speed due to additions such as inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and free safety Mike Mitchell remains to be seen.

 

The defense regressed noticeably in 2013 as the Steelers struggled to stop the run and failed to put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Only five teams had fewer than the 34 sacks the Steelers managed, their lowest total since 1990, and the pass rush all starts with their outside linebackers. Jason Worilds came into his own last season, and he played so well that the Steelers kept the fifth-year veteran and released LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers need a similar jump from Jones, their first-round pick in 2013. Jones started eight games but managed just one sack as he too often was thinking instead of just playing, something that is common for rookies in Dick LeBeau’s complex defense. Jones is expected to be among the most improved Steeler after getting stronger during the offseason. The former Georgia All-American had better be, as the Steelers have little at outside linebacker behind him and Worilds.

 

Mitchell, who had a breakout season in 2013 for the Carolina Panthers, makes the Steelers younger and faster in the secondary. The Steelers should be fine at safety, assuming Polamalu stays healthy for a second consecutive season, but there are questions at cornerback. Taylor has ceded the designation of No. 1 cornerback to Cortez Allen, and the Steelers have to hope Taylor still has something left after teams repeatedly picked on the veteran last season.

 

Defensive end Cameron Heyward leads a line that is in transition. Heyward also came into his own in 2013, leading the Steelers in quarterback pressures while playing well against the run. A combination of Cam Thomas and rookie Stephon Tuitt will have to get the job done at the end spot opposite Heyward, and Steve McLendon has to make strides at nose tackle. The Steelers have little in the way of proven depth along their defensive line.

 

SPECIALISTS

Shaun Suisham returns after missing just two field goals last season, though both came in a deflating loss at Oakland. The Steelers, meanwhile, hope free-agent signee Adam Podlesh performs well enough to stop them from cycling through punters. Consistency at a position that is crucial in the battle for field position has too often eluded them during Tomlin’s tenure.

 

Archer gives the Steelers a home-run threat as a kickoff returner, and he is likely to relieve Brown of his duties as the primary punt returner. Brown excels in this area of the game as well, but the Steelers would like to keep him fresh and minimize his exposure to big hits. Brown could be used as a situational specialist with Archer handling the bulk of the returns. 

 

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Steelers haven’t missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons since 1998-2000. Tomlin is safe even if that happens — the Steelers are exceedingly patient with their head coaches — but there better be a sense of urgency this season. Roethlisberger and an offense that came into its own in the second half of last season are reasons for hope. So too is a favorable schedule in which the Steelers don’t play west of the Mississippi River. If the defense makes enough strides, the Steelers could win 10 or more games. If it continues to decline or sustains injuries at key positions, the Steelers could be staring at a third straight 8–8 season.

 

PREDICTION: 3rd in AFC North

Teaser:
Pittsburgh Steeleers 2014 Team Preview and Predictions
Post date: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 16:00
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-august-20-2014
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 20:

 

• Forget Manziel: Blake Bortles is the rookie star of the preseason, mainly because of GF Lindsey Duke.

 

• I'm linking to this story mainly because I like the headline: Johnny Football Becomes Johnny Bench. Then there's this: Manziel reportedly lost the job based on his frat-boy behavior.

 

• DISH continues to use college superstars-turned-pro flameouts like Jamarcus Russell and Matt Leinart to great effect in its advertising.

 

• My favorite GIF in a long time: Chip Kelly belly-flopping into a plastic pool in lieu of the ice bucket challenge.

 

• My second-favorite GIF today: Yasiel Puig pulls off a nifty move with his batting helmet.

 

• Speaking of those ubiquitous ice buckets, one bucket was not enough for the Hulkster. And then there's Alabama Boss, whose ice bucket challenge included beer, a lawn chair and a shotgun.

 

Fantasy football has gone too mainstream for comfort.

 

Bo Pelini delivers a touching message to young cancer patient Jack Hoffman.

 

Former NFL ref Mike Carey avoided doing Redskins games because of the name.

 

• Bobby Bowden did a Reddit Ask Me Anything and gave a memorable answer.

 

 

--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 12:18
Path: /nascar/ryan-blaney-promotion-boon-both-penske-and-woods
Body:

Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.

 

Today, David analyzes the transaction that brings future Cup Series rookie Ryan Blaney to one of the sport’s most storied teams.

 

 

It’s not in a driver’s mindset to root for other drivers, but a slew of young racers owe a debt of gratitude to Kyle Larson, this year’s likely runaway Rookie of the Year, who is also within sniffing distance of a spot on the Chase grid. In a copycat sport (is there any other kind?), once one young driver succeeds, other organizations want young drivers to call their own. That’s what is happening right now, as two major organizations — Roush Fenway Racing and Team Penske — have been integral in this year’s transaction season, promoting youth to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

 

Roush Fenway announced in May that Trevor Bayne, a development driver for the organization since 2010, would be promoted to the Cup Series next season, acting as the de-facto replacement, for the departing Carl Edwards. Bayne’s promotion left a driver-shaped hole in the Wood Brothers Racing roster.

 

Last week, the Woods announced that Ryan Blaney would take the wheel of the famed No. 21 for a partial schedule in 2015. In signing Blaney, they didn’t just land a potential upgrade, they upgraded their race program by entering into a technical alliance with Team Penske, the organization for which Blaney has been a development driver since 2012. It’s a win for all parties involved.

 

 

Breaking down Blaney  Ryan Blaney

Grab a hot dog and sit in the bleachers at any short track in America and it’s almost certain that you’ll see a fast kid. What you likely won’t see is a kid that has smarts in addition to speed. Most young drivers appear young in this regard, mashing the gas from the onset of limited-lap dash races. Blaney is one of the rare few that packed a veteran punch at an early age. He picked his spots wisely when, at age 15 and 16, he was competing in the veteran-heavy Pro All-Stars Series (PASS), a regional-touring Super Late Model division in which he claimed the series title in 2011. He won at Phoenix in his first NASCAR K&N Pro Series West start by biding his time until the second half of the race, during which he tallied all of his 44 laps led. That high Race IQ has played a big factor in his early success in NASCAR’s rough-and-tumble Truck division.

 

In 2012, he scored a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win at Iowa and amassed a 2.611 Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) through nine races, which ranked ninth out of 56 drivers. He produced a similar production rating, 2.386, in a full 22-race slate in the Truck Series last year, again ranking ninth and scoring one win (Pocono). This year, wins have eluded him; however, he ranked fourth in PEER prior to this week’s Michigan-Bristol jaunt, sports a career-best average finish (8.5) and ranks second in average green-flag speed for a Brad Keselowski Racing team that has traditionally lacked the lights-out speed that organizations like Kyle Busch Motorsports or Richard Childress Racing showcased in recent years.

 

Blaney also scored his first career NASCAR Nationwide Series victory last season at Kentucky behind the wheel of Penske’s No. 22 car. In June, I ranked him the second-best Cup Series prospect in America.

 

 

The Woods upgrade everything

“Ryan Blaney is better than Trevor Bayne” is arguably true, though it may not lead to better immediate results. It’s tough sledding for any rookie in the Cup Series after all, so anticipate that Blaney will experience a turbulent transition while assimilating to a field consisting of 42 other Cup-level talents. Bayne, outside of his 2011 Daytona 500 win, never broached serviceable production, ample passing (his 48.99 percent adjusted pass efficiency this year sits below the 50 percent par, though it does bring a positive surplus value) or finishing efficiency (his minus-20.8 percent top 15 efficiency ranks dead last in the series this season) in his four years driving partial seasons for the Woods.

 

Blaney, neither a plus-passer (48.21 percent efficiency), nor an efficient finisher (minus-12.3 percent T15E) in the Nationwide Series this season, doesn’t evoke a notion of an immediate upgrade, but he has demonstrated an ability to improve. His trouble with closing out races — in 2013, he retained his red zone position 57.14 percent of the time in Truck Series races — has changed after a crew chief switch from Doug Randolph to late-race setup specialist Chad Kendrick. Currently, Blaney is retaining red zone spots 70 percent of the time (a 13 percent enhancement) and is no longer dropping positions, evident by a position retention difference of zero percent, up from minus-18.9.

 

His maturation will likely take time, which the Wood Brothers team will happily provide thanks to the transaction kicker offered by Penske.

 

After years of hitching their wagon to Roush Fenway for engineering assistance, the Wood Brothers will enter into a technical alliance with Penske, which, in the last few years, is the fastest-growing organization, in terms of personnel and innovation, in NASCAR. This is a coup for the Woods who, despite not having Paul Wolfe on its roster will receive Wolfe’s spec setups and a peek at his notes — likely for a relatively palatable rate. In helping develop Blaney at Penske’s behest, their entire organization receives a jolt in engineering, something that Roush Fenway has been failing to maintain, evident in average speed and baseline results.

 

 

Penske fills partial-season void and, potentially, nabs a customer  Ryan Blaney

If you’re at all privy to the NASCAR social media scene, you’ve likely seen Brad Keselowski get blasted by fans for competing in too many Nationwide Series races for Penske. The Tweeters feel that Ryan Blaney should get more races in NASCAR’s top training ground. It’s a fine sentiment, but its underlying logic is false considering that a) Blaney’s eight races in the No. 22 car, which includes this weekend’s start at Bristol, are equal to that of Keselowski’s total (8) and two more than Joey Logano’s (6) in that entry — and once the two Cup regulars tackle the Chase, it will likely free up more opportunities for Blaney, and b) those eight races, tacked on to a scheduled 22 Truck Series starts and two Cup Series attempts, equal 32 total races this year, which is the same amount Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher and other Nationwide-only youngsters will get. With additional Nationwide starts, Blaney will take on a bigger workload this season than most Cup Series prospects across NASCAR’s three premier divisions.

 

Penske, it seems, values repetition.

 

Next year, his schedule might change, but right off the bat Blaney will get a dozen or so races at NASCAR’s highest level, attaining valuable experience without Penske forcing its efficient shop to take on a third, part-time team acting as a 10-race distraction. As they did with Keselowski, who ran partial schedules for Hendrick Motorsports and Phoenix Racing in 2009, Penske will be happy to tap Blaney for a full-time Cup Series ride under their banner once they and the driver are good and ready.

 

But this equivalent to a player loan in European football nets Penske something in addition to additional seat time for Blaney. In a grand hypothetical, let’s say Penske, with an engine shop at the ready having supplied Dodge motors until their switch to Ford in 2013, decides to either buy Roush/Yates Engines or produce their own version of a Ford engine. If that were to happen, it seems as if they have a team, in Wood Brothers Racing, eager to become a customer.

 

In a world of ownership alliances and a shallow sponsor pool, finding alternative sources of revenue have become increasingly important. RCR landed a reported $20 million this year from technical alliances alone. With the Penske machine churning out a large quantity of fast cars this season for Keselowski and Logano — the latter of which will be due a pay raise in the coming years (Keselowski got his late last season) — their coffers will need to be replenished. Though sponsorship acquisition hasn’t been a biting issue with the organization, as Penske’s business-to-business leverage is an enticing carrot, they also aren’t ones to turn down lucrative opportunities. The engine leasing business pays well, and whether it is resuscitated at Penske or not, a customer waiting list isn’t a bad asset to have.

 

Blaney’s promotion, albeit a subtle one amid bigger announcements, is a shrewd business move by Penske that warrants a no-brainer reaction from one of NASCAR’s longest-running operations. Blaney benefits, Penske benefits and the Wood Brothers, who lost a driver they covet three short months ago, benefit.

 

 

David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projection, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Analyzing the transaction that brings Ryan Blaney to the the Wood Brothers — and eventually Team Penske — in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 11:09

Pages