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The 2014 college football season kicks off on Aug. 27 and concludes in Dallas with the first four-team playoff in the FBS ranks on January 12, 2015. Since it’s never too early to start thinking about the upcoming college football season, Athlon Sports has already released its projected rankings for 2014, as well as conference predictions.

With the predictions released, it’s time to take a look at the best players by conference.

Athlon Sports kicks off its release of preseason all-conference teams with a look at our first, second, third and fourth All-ACC teams for 2014.

Related Content: ACC 2014 Conference Predictions

An important note on the all-conference teams: These are based on how players will perform in 2014. Career statistics and awards matter in the evaluation, but choosing players for the 2014 all-conference team is largely based on predicting and projecting the best for the upcoming year.
 

 
2014 ACC Team Previews
   
 
National
Rank:
642138147283031653661722785

                                                  
Athlon's All-ACC Team for 2014

 First-Team OffenseSecond-Team OffenseThird-Team OffenseFourth-Team Offense
QB
 
Jameis Winston
Florida State
________________
Marquise Williams
North Carolina
________________
Anthony Boone
Duke
________________
Cole Stoudt
Clemson
________________
RBDuke Johnson
Miami
Kevin Parks
Virginia
James Conner
Pittsburgh
T.J. Logan
North Carolina
RBKarlos Williams
Florida State
________________
Shadrach Thornton
NC State
________________
Michael Dyer
Louisville
________________
Myles Willis
Boston College 
________________
WRTyler Boyd
Pittsburgh
Jamison Crowder
Duke
Stacy Coley
Miami
Phillip Dorsett
Miami 
WRRashad Greene
Florida State
DeVante Parker
Louisville
Quinshad Davis
North Carolina
Charone Peake
Clemson 
TENick O'Leary
Florida State
________________
Braxton Deaver
Duke
________________
Gerald Christian
Louisville
________________
Clive Walford
Miami 
________________
CAndy Gallik
Boston College
Jake Smith
Louisville
Shane McDermott
Miami
Ryan Norton
Clemson
GTre' Jackson
Florida State
Josue Matias
Florida State
Jon Feliciano
Miami
Matt Rotheram
Pittsburgh
GLaken Tomlinson
Duke
Shaquille Mason
Georgia Tech
Bobby Vardaro
Boston College
Landon Turner
North Carolina
TCameron Erving
Florida State
Ereck Flowers
Miami
Jamon Brown
Louisville
Isaiah Battle
Clemson
TBobby Hart
Florida State
Sean Hickey
Syracuse
Rob Crisp
NC State
Jonathan McLaughlin
Virginia Tech
 First-Team DefenseSecond-Team DefenseThird-Team DefenseFourth-Team Defense
DEVic Beasley
Clemson
Eli Harold
Virginia
Corey Crawford
Clemson
Anthony Chickillo
Miami 
DEMario Edwards Jr.
Florida State
Lorenzo Mauldin
Louisville
Dadi Nicolas
Virginia Tech
Norkeithus Otis
North Carolina 
DTGrady Jarrett
Clemson
Eddie Goldman
Florida State
Mehdi Abdesmad
Boston College
N. Lawrence-Stample
Florida State 
DTLuther Maddy
Virginia Tech
________________
Adam Gotsis
Georgia Tech
________________
T.Y. McGill
NC State
________________
Darryl Render
Pittsburgh 
________________
LBStephone Anthony
Clemson
Kelby Brown
Duke
Steven Daniels
Boston College
James Burgess
Louisville 
LBDenzel Perryman
Miami
Dyshawn Davis
Syracuse
Cameron Lynch
Syracuse
Brandon Chubb
Wake Forest 
LBTerrance Smith
Florida State
________________
Quayshawn Nealy
Georgia Tech
________________
Matthew Thomas
Florida State
________________
David Helton
Duke 
________________
CBKendall Fuller
Virginia Tech
Ronald Darby
Florida State
Tracy Howard
Miami
Charles Gaines
Louisville 
CBP.J. Williams
Florida State
Brandon Facyson
Virginia Tech
Demetrious Nicholson
Virginia
Kevin Johnson
Wake Forest 
SAnthony Harris
Virginia
Jeremy Cash
Duke
Kyshoen Jarrett
Virginia Tech
Deon Bush
Miami 
SJalen Ramsey
Florida State
Durell Eskridge
Syracuse
Isaiah Johnson
Georgia Tech
DeVon Edwards
Duke 
 First-Team SpecialistsSecond-Team SpecialistsThird-Team SpecialistsFourth-Team Specialists
KRoberto Aguayo
Florida State
Niklas Sade
NC State
John Wallace
Louisville
Ross Martin
Duke 
PA.J. Hughes
Virginia Tech
Thomas Hibbard
North Carolina
Will Monday
Duke
Alec Vozenilek
Virginia 
KRKermit Whitfield
Florida State
DeVon Edwards
Duke
Duke Johnson
Miami
T.J. Logan
North Carolina 
PRRyan Switzer
North Carolina 
Jamison Crowder
Duke
Jamal Golden
Georgia Tech
Stacy Coley
Miami 


Related Content: ACC 2014 Conference Predictions

 

Team-by-Team Breakdown of Athlon's 2014 All-ACC Team

 FirstSecondThirdFourth
Boston College
Offense: 1
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 1
Defense: 2
Sp. Teams:
Offense: 1
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Clemson
Offense: 0
Defense: 3
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 4
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Duke
Offense: 1
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 2
Defense: 2
Sp. Teams: 2
Offense: 1
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 1
Offense: 0
Defense: 2
Sp. Teams: 1
Florida State
Offense: 7
Defense: 4
Sp. Teams: 2
Offense: 1
Defense: 2
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 0
Georgia Tech
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 1
Defense: 2
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 1
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Louisville
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 2
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 3
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 1
Offense: 0
Defense: 2
Sp. Teams: 0
Miami
Offense: 1
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 1
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 3
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 1
Offense: 2
Defense: 2
Sp. Teams: 1
North Carolina
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 1
Offense: 1
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 1
Offense: 1
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 2
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 1
NC State
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 1
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 1
Offense: 1
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Pittsburgh
Offense: 1
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 1
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 1
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 0
Syracuse
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 1
Defense: 2
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Virginia
Offense: 0
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 1
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 1
Virginia Tech
Offense: 0
Defense: 2
Sp. Teams: 1
Offense: 0
Defense: 1
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 2
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 1
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Wake Forest
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 0
Sp. Teams: 0
Offense: 0
Defense: 2
Sp. Teams: 0

 

Teaser:
ACC Football 2014 All-Conference Team
Post date: Tuesday, June 10, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /news/world-cup-2014-3-underdogs-position-advance
Body:

The first FIFA World Cup was held in 1930 in Uruguay and was an absurdly exclusive event. Only 13 teams participated because of the costly trip across the Atlantic Ocean and other financial restrictions. The host nation walked away victorious and one of the greatest events in sports was born. Underdogs have rarely fared well in the tournament’s history, but in a sporting event of this magnitude, no team should be overlooked. In 2002, South Korea finished on top of a group consisting of Poland, the USA, and Portugal. South Korea would go on to defeat Italy and Spain before falling to Germany and finishing in fourth place.

The 2002 World Cup shows that even the least serious of teams can make spectacular runs in the tournament. With cautious confidence and a bit of good fortune, anything can happen. These three teams are poised to surprise tournament viewers this year in spite of their low rankings.

Three Underdogs in Position to Advance in the 2014 World Cup
 

1. Ivory Coast

Though the team is a popular pick to advance to the quarterfinals, FIFA ranks Ivory Coast as the 3 seed in Group C. This means that the Elephants must face Japan, Greece, and a formidable opponent in Colombia starting in mid-June. With Didier Drogba, Gervinho, and Yaya Toure on its side, Ivory Coast should boast one of the strongest attacks of the teams in the field. Additionally, the 20-year-old Serge Aurier is as talented a fullback as you’ll find in the world. At keeper, Ivory Coast plays Boubacar Barry who didn’t allow a single goal during the entirety of the 2012 Nations Cup. This collection of players could serve to energize an Ivory Coast team that has failed to play at a high level during its previous World Cup showings.

 

Advancing out of the group stage would be a first for Ivory Coast. In 2006 and 2010 respectively, the country’s only other World Cup appearances, the Elephants posted just one win and failed to advance to the Knockout Round. But in those instances, Ivory Coast was destined to lose, as it was grouped with powerhouses Argentina and Netherlands in 2006 and Brazil and Portugal in 2010. This year, the team hopes they will have more success.

 

Ivory Coast will showcase a 4-2-3-1 formation, which will provide strength from the midfield and from its overlapping outside defenders. As long as the squad maintains its focus and discipline over the course of the 90-minute matches, there shouldn’t be many defensive lapses. Manager Sabri Lamouchi is hardly proven and is quite possibly the biggest weak point of the team. As long as Lamouchi doesn’t get in the way, considering their relatively easy draw in the first round, Ivory Coast should place in the top 2 of Group C.

 

2. Mexico

Mexico nearly failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup. If the United States hadn't scored against Panama in the last round of qualifying matches, El Tri would be watching the World Cup from the stands. A handful of other “lucky” plays resulted in a decent draw for the Mexicans. Manager Miguel Herrera will do everything he can to thrust his squad into the second round by defying the world’s expectations.

 

Rafa Marquez and Javier Hernandez lead a talented but normally unreliable team into the tournament. El Tri has all of the tools to win, but Mexico never seems to maximize its ability in truly important game situations.

 

El Tri will employ a 5-3-2 formation that will allow both wingbacks to be on the attack together at times. Herrera will not back down from opponents and will attempt to set and control the pace during Mexico’s matches. The manager and the rest of his countrymen realize that Mexico has advanced into the round of 16 in the previous five World Cups, and if they perform well, this trend will continue.

 

Mexico is the 3 seed in Group A and will face off against Brazil, Croatia, and Cameroon. Some see the matchup with Brazil as a punishment, but it's really a blessing in disguise. Mexico historically has a leg up on the host country. Also, Mexico’s style matches up well against the Brazilians who may be looking ahead to future matches since they are the favorites to win the entire World Cup. Croatia and Cameroon are experienced squads, but if teams take Mexico lightly, El Tri will survive the group stage.

 

3. England

England is a nation built around football. When Manchester United and Chelsea go at each other, the whole world stops to watch the action. The Three Lions is one of eight squads in history to have won the World Cup, but the country’s sole victory was half a century ago in 1966. Group D’s members, Uruguay, Italy, and Costa Rica will undoubtedly pose a great challenge to the Brits in the 2014 World Cup.

 

Roy Hodgson, England’s manager, has proven himself on the international stage over the course of his career. Outside of England, Hodgson has managed Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, and Finland and he’s won multiple league titles along with those honors. He has an impressive roster to utilize and he’s expected to deliver after England has disappointed in recent World Cup tournaments.

 

With Luis Suarez recovering from a brutal injury, the window is open for England to pull off what many would consider a major upset by emerging out of Group D. Italy is considered a sure thing to advance into the next round. The Azzuri’s stars, Mario Ballotelli and Andrea Pirlo, will likely punish the Three Lions if England gives them any opportunity to do so. Costa Rica does not have the same talent level as the other teams in the grouping, so the main challenge for England will be playing well against Uruguay and Italy. If Hodgson takes some chances and the youngest Lions excel for this squad, England may turn some heads while navigating deftly through the World Cup stages.

Teaser:
World Cup 2014: 3 Underdogs in Position to Advance
Post date: Tuesday, June 10, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/15-most-shameful-college-football-games-2014
Body:

Georgia Tech’s record for the biggest rout in college football history — 222-0 over Cumberland College in 1916 — may be one of sports’ unbreakable records. Parity and sportsmanship dictate that teams will let up before hitting the century mark.

 

That's not for lack of trying. Seventy-point routs weren't uncommon in 2013. With a backup quarterback, Ohio State defeated Florida A&M 76-0. Georgia Tech did beat Elon by 70. Miami did the same to Savannah State, a team that lost by 84 to Oklahoma State a year earlier.

 

Even as the College Football Playoff has brought about practices to strengthen schedules — whether it’s the SEC’s requirement for teams to play at least one power conference team or nine-game conference schedules in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 — a few patsies have found their way onto 2014 schedules.

 

Schools are opening up wallets to schedule these guarantee games, but schools perhaps should consider a cash reward for fans who sit through all 60 minutes.

 

Let’s keep a few things in mind as we run down the most shameful games of 2014:

 

1. We don’t care how or why the game was scheduled, even if the power team in question is in a bind because a better team backed out of a game.

 

2. These games aren’t shameful simply because the opponent is bad or from the lower division. Georgia State opens with Abilene Christian, a team that was in Division II just two seasons ago. We’ll let that one pass as the Panthers, winless as an FBS member, needs all the help it can get.

 

3. We’ll give a little bit of credit to a major team scheduling a in-state foe. Reaching across state lines, though, for an easy win is an easy way to end up on this list.

 

There are games that will be so obviously lopsided that they shouldn’t be on the schedule.

 

1. Western Carolina at Alabama (Nov. 22)


Nick Saban’s breaking of ranks with the SEC to push the league to a nine-game season may be commendable. But it’s unclear if that conference game would replace the annual warm up for Auburn. The Crimson Tide continue a tradition since 2009 of making sure it has an exhibition before the Iron Bowl by inviting Western Carolina to be walloped this season. Alabama knows exactly what it’s getting from the Catamounts, an opponent that is 14-76 since 2006. Of Western Carolina’s last four wins — spanning three seasons — three are over Division II Mars Hill. Moreover, Alabama has played Western Carolina twice under Saban, defeating the school from Cullowhee, N.C., by a combined score of 101-6.

 

2. Savannah State at BYU (Nov. 22)

 

Scheduling as an independent can be tough for BYU, especially late in the season. And Savannah State has established itself as will to take a beating to keep funds coming into the athletic program. In the last two seasons, Savannah State has lost to Troy (66-3), Miami (77-7), Oklahoma State (84-0) and Florida State (55-0 in a game with a running clock). The Tigers, 4-41 the last four seasons, found another willing partner in BYU.

 

3. Western Illinois at Wisconsin (Sept. 6)

 

Wisconsin lands on the list by scheduling the least of the directional Illinois schools. First, there’s MAC power Northern Illinois. Even Eastern Illinois has been the home of quarterbacks Tony Romo and new England Patriots draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo. Western Illinois, on the other hand, has been mediocre in the Missouri Valley for a decade. The Leathernecks are 9-25 in the last three years.

 

4. Nicholls State at Arkansas (Sept. 6)

 

Bret Bielema needs all the help he can get, especially if Auburn’s up-tempo offense in the first game of the season extends Bielema’s winless start in the SEC. Still, we can’t excuse an SEC team for scheduling Nicholls State, a team that is 6-28 in the last three years and has endured six consecutive losing seasons. Only Miami’s game against Savannah State saved Oregon’s hosting of Nicholls State last season from being the most shameful game of 2013.

 

5. Presbyterian at NC State (Sept. 20)

 

At No. 231 in the 2013 Sagarin Ratings, Presbyterian is the lowest-rated team a major conference program will face in 2014. NC State was winless in the ACC last season, but the Wolfpack already loaded up on two teams new to the FBS level in Georgia Southern and Old Dominion. In other words, if this game took place a year ago, NC State would be facing three FCS teams.

 

6. Presbyterian at Ole Miss (Sept. 20)

 

Again, Presbyterian is a 3-8 team in only its fourth season removed from Division II. Ole Miss shouldn’t be playing this game, but the Rebels have a non-conference schedule that includes league title contenders from the Mountain West (Boise State in Atlanta) and Sun Belt (Louisiana-Lafayette). That’s why NC State should be more embarrassed by scheduling the same opponent.

 

7. Eastern Kentucky at Florida (Sept. 22)


Will Muschamp said he doesn’t want his team playing FCS opponents. That's fine, even if it is amusing since his team lost to an FCS opponent (Georgia Southern) last season. That doesn’t change  he has Eastern Kentucky on the schedule in 2014. The Colonels are better than most of the FCS teams on this list, but Florida gets docked for having two of the worst FBS programs already on the 2014 slate in Idaho and Eastern Michigan.

 

8. South Dakota at Oregon (Aug. 30)

 

At least Oregon found an FCS opponent from within a 2,000-mile radius to clobber this time around. Since facing Portland State in 2010, the Ducks have faced Nicholls State, Tennessee Tech and Missouri State in its annual September exhibition. Still, Oregon scheduled the lesser of two schools in South Dakota. The Coyotes are 4-18 under former Wyoming coach Joe Glenn.

 

9. Idaho State at Utah (Aug. 28)

 

If this game were against Boise State, we’d look forward to it. If it were against Idaho, it would an almost-excusable game against an FBS team. Instead, Utah draws Idaho State, a team that is 9-59 in the last six seasons. Idaho State allowed at least 40 points in every game last season with the exception of a 38-5 win over Division II Black Hills State.

 

10. Weber State at Arizona State (Aug. 28)

 

Weber State was an unlikely victim of the Bobby Petrino fallout at Arkansas when John L. Smith left his post in Ogden, Utah, for Fayetteville before coaching a game. The Wildcats have gone 4-18 since, including a 222-36 margin against four FBS opponents (Fresno State, BYU, Utah and Utah State).

 

11. VMI at Bowling Green (Sept. 6)

 

Bowling Green is a bowl regular and the favorite in the MAC in 2014. The Falcons can do better than scheduling a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1981.

 

12. Florida A&M at Miami (Sept. 6)

 

Miami will play two teams from Tallahassee. One team was the FBS champion. The other was ranked No. 227 in Sagarin.

 

13. Grambling State at Houston (Sept. 6)


The once-proud Grambling problem is dealing with a host of issues, culminating with a player walk-out in October. Only five teams were ranked lower in Sagarin last season.

 

14. Western Carolina at USF (Aug. 30)

 

This is the same lackluster FBS team Alabama faces in 2014. The difference between USF and Alabama is worth at least 13 spots in our shame rankings.

 

15. Elon at Duke (Aug. 30)

 

As long as David Cutcliffe puts competitive teams on the field at Duke, the less we’ll be able to look away from against against Elon, 5-18 the last two seasons.

 

Teaser:
The 15 Most Shameful College Football Games of 2014
Post date: Tuesday, June 10, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /nascar/dale-earnhardt-jr-reverses-trend-win-pocono
Body:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not have the fastest car at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, but NASCAR’s 11-time most popular driver had strategy, determination and a little bit of luck on his side. And Earnhardt parlayed those attributes into his second win of the season in the Pocono 400.

 

The situation was all-too-familiar for the 2014 Daytona 500 champion. In his six-plus year association with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt has scored 16 runner-up finishes to a paltry four victories. As the laps wound down at Pocono, it appeared he would have to settle for yet another second-place showing. However, when leader Brad Keselowski picked up a piece of trash on the grille of his Ford — causing it to overheat — Earnhardt suddenly found himself in a position to buck the tendency of a career that has found him to be a consistent performer, not a prolific winner.

 

Keselowski attempted to unhinge the debris by momentarily drafting behind the lapped car of Danica Patrick. When he did so, his momentum slowed and Earnhardt blew past on the inside. In clean air, the No. 88 car led the final five laps en route to the driver’s 21st career Sprint Cup victory.  Dale Earnhardt Jr.

 

“I don’t know what his (engine) temperatures were, but they must have been very, very hot for Brad to do that,” Earnhardt said. “I knew right then when he did that, he was so slow, I thought we were going to pass him — we’re going to take the lead, we’re going to have four laps to go, and if I just run tidy corners, he would have trouble with the dirty air and wouldn’t be able to get to us.”

 

In hindsight, Keselowski’s radical move may have not been needed. The engine in his No. 2 Ford lasted the distance.

 

“It was definitely a mistake because the engine made it, but it probably shouldn’t have,” Keselowski said. “It was one of those deals, I think I was going to get passed because I was really down on power down the straightaway. I don’t know — it’s hard to say.”

 

Earnhardt’s win was notable in that it marked the first time since the 2004 season, when he recorded six victories, that Earnhardt has notched multiple wins in one season. The performance has the 16-year veteran — a driver historically at the mercy of the ebbs and flows that momentum brings — brimming with confidence.

 

“I think we have not peaked as a team performance-wise, but we’re certainly at our highest ceiling,” said Earnhardt, who sits third in the point standings and a lock for NASCAR’s Chase. “We’re doing some of our best work, certainly, right now. We should — we have a lot of passion and there's a lot of emotion, considering this is Steve’s (crew chief Steve Letarte) last year, and I think that also adds some drive and determination to the team to do as well as we can.

 

“So that can be dangerous for everybody else if we win to get better. We’re still not the best team — we can always improve, and there’s areas where we can improve. But we’re doing some great work, and I feel like what we do is really dependable. I think our team is very dependable and mistake free, so hopefully we can maintain that.”

 

The circuit visits a track where the performance can be maintained — Michigan International Speedway — where Earnhardt recorded the last two wins of his career prior to the 2014 season. Back-to-back victories are a lot to ask out of any team in the Sprint Cup garage, and last year’s 37th- and 36th-place showings for Earnhardt at the 2-mile track don’t paint a rosy picture. Still, stopping at a facility where he has experienced success is reason for optimism, right?

 

“A win gives you a lot of confidence, but you know how difficult those are to come by and how competitive this garage is,” Earnhardt admitted. “But man, when you win two in a row ... that sets you apart a bit from your competition. That would be a great thing for us.”

 

 

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. scores his second win of the 2014 season by passing Brad Keselowski to win the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway.
Post date: Monday, June 9, 2014 - 15:54
Path: /nascar/can-winning-dale-earnhardt-jr-turn-nascars-tide
Body:

Let’s turn back the clock to 2004. Kyle Larson was adjusting to middle school, simply make it through a daily class routine. People knew Bob Keselowski, Brad’s father, as a former NASCAR driver and Truck Series owner but absolutely nothing about his son. Jimmie Johnson had yet to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup title, while Jeff Gordon was king of the NASCAR hierarchy. Meanwhile, Mark Martin and Viagra remained the most amusing sponsor pairing in sports.

 

That year, NASCAR also had a popular Daytona 500 winner in Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was driving for the team his father built, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Winning six races that season, he came within a curse word at Talladega (and perhaps an ill-fated Atlanta incident) from winning the title he now craves. That first year of the Chase, perhaps its best, also was at the height of NASCAR’s popularity, as the 30-year-old son of a legend popped up on MTV’s Cribs and managed success with the mantra of carrying the sport’s “next generation” of fans onward and upward.  Dale Earnhardt Jr.

 

That brings us to 2014, the modern day of NASCAR uncertainty where Earnhardt, once again, has put himself on the pedestal of a multi-win season. Execs down in Daytona have again combined with fans, drivers and teams to mark Junior as the “savior” who can bring the sport back into mainstream popularity. Barring some sort of computer-geek bid by Josh Wise, Reddit and Dogecoin, Earnhardt will wind up the sport’s Most Popular Driver for a 12th consecutive year.

 

But does he really have the power to turn around the sport’s fortunes? Turning 40 this year, Earnhardt’s Twitter feed still lags behind the numbers of Danica Patrick, who has half the on-track results but received a larger ovation during Sunday’s driver introductions. The NASCAR needle has consistently moved downward despite his Daytona 500 win that was supposed to spark renewed interest in the sport. Junior remains one of the sport’s most engaging interviews, a connection to a past longtime fans hunger for. But the 18-year-old new ones were in kindergarten when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died. They know little — aside from what can viewed on YouTube — of that No. 3 team, its driver’s aggression and how that transformed a sport.

 

There’s no question Earnhardt Sr.’s son, while enjoying a career renaissance and legitimate title bid, is good for the sport. But at this point for those placing unrealistic expectations, there is no excuse. Junior is successful, he’s running up front and he’s killing it in front of the media every week. The stats say NASCAR’s most popular driver should be driving fans back into the seats the way Tiger Woods does for golf.

 

So if the word “savior” is real, if Earnhardt really has that type of power, the stands at Michigan and beyond better start selling out.

 

 

FIRST GEAR: What goes around comes around?

It seems the key moment at Pocono was a “get even” deal for Earnahrdt after a failed fuel-mileage gamble at Las Vegas. That left him settling for second in that March race while Brad Keselowski sped past to take the victory. At Pocono, it was Keselwoski first, Earnhardt second — and in position to finish that way — until the leader made an uncharacteristic mistake.

 

The No. 2 car, dominant on the day with 95 of 160 laps led, wound up with a piece of debris on the grille. Concerned about the engine’s soaring temperatures, Keselowski panicked, thinking that it would blow and went out of his way to slide behind the slower car of Danica Patrick in hopes the turbulent air would dislodge the piece of paper. But Patrick, damaged from an earlier wreck, was running too slow of a pace and what happened next cost Keselowski the race.

 

“I could tell she was trying to let me go on the inside and I don't think she knew the situation I was in,” Keselowski said. “I was trying to follow her, and I was trying to follow her towards the top side and she just kept going higher and higher and higher until it sucked me in higher and higher. I just couldn't get out of the wake and lost my momentum. It's one of those things that happens.”

 

Keselowski’s loss was Earnhardt’s gain, as the driver of the No. 88 car seized his opportunity and took the lead. From there, clean air took control as Earnhardt happily took a second 2014 victory despite knowing he did not have the best car.

 

“I think we had a little luck on our side at the end,” said crew chief Steve Letarte, “But you have to put yourself in this position to have that luck fall your way.” 

 

Indeed. Earnhardt is running a level above what had been his norm at Hendrick and that’s left him ready to cash in on these opportunities once they come.

 

 

SECOND GEAR: Stewart-Haas 2014 theme: How to beat yourself.  

Prior to the race, Tony Stewart looked happier than he’d been all season, a tipoff to what should have been a breakout day for Stewart-Haas Racing. At one point, SHR cars ran 1-2-3, with Stewart leading a contingent that included Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.

 

Only Busch, though, would finish in the top 3. Stewart suffered a mid-race speeding penalty, blowing four sections entering pit road while Harvick had a tire go flat for a second straight week. Both lost the crucial track position needed to contend for the win and never recovered, running 13th and 14th, respectively.

 

Even Busch, who had a potential winning car, saw his chances slip away after overshooting his pit under yellow. While third was a big step forward for the No. 41 team — it was its first top 5 since winning Martinsville in early spring — you have to wonder what might have been for the group that could have used that second “lock” to the Chase. 

 

Or maybe you don’t. The 2014 season, for this recently-expanded outfit, is clearly marked by the slogan “Beat yourself.” All year, Harvick’s had the fastest car to the point Earnhardt even labeled him the man to beat in a winning post-race presser. But the No. 4 car has stumbled badly with tire woes, pit stops and broken parts and sits 12th in points. Stewart, meanwhile, has made a few uncharacteristic mistakes on-track while struggling with feedback with new crew chief Chad Johnston. Busch has been … well, Busch, at times. And let’s not even mention the struggles of the fourth SHR team and Danica Patrick.

 

It’s four very different personalities, so “Type A” that most people thought the organization’s weakness would be Jerry Springer-like dysfunction in its Tuesday debriefs. Who thought the biggest problem would be the drivers individually making a number of self-induced mistakes?

 

 

THIRD GEAR: Pocono’s tricky triangle too tough?

Pocono’s crowd was healthy Sunday, a far cry from Dover a week ago and a feather in the cap to track president Brandon Igdalsky’s phenomenal marketing program. What makes the difference at Pocono, as opposed to other tracks, is the number of choices fans have for pre-race fun outside of the actual racing itself. The plan, according to those in the know, is to turn Pocono into more of an “entertainment facility” within five years: a central location for concerts, special events and other exciting options besides the main focus of racing.

 

That’s good, because the recent repave has faded into a dull NASCAR product the last two years. Denny Hamlin, who ran fourth, called the racing “uneventful” and several drivers complained of a pure inability to pass. Aerodynamics, which had taken a back seat for 2014, have appeared to be very much in play since Kansas, with track speed records weekly leaving drivers on the edge to the point side-by-side racing is a risk not worth taking.

 

“That's part of really all of racing,” said Keselowski, a “surrender” response that brought exactly no fans to the table. “Aerodynamics taking over motorsports — and we've all kind of learned to live around it and it makes the restarts so critical. But it's just kind of part of the deal.”

 

It’s too bad, because Pocono has done so much to modernize itself and relate to fans in the northeast. But until NASCAR follows suit with a package that allows for more passing and (gasp!) attrition to return to the fold, each race at Pocono will follow the same old formula: great restarts, then run-in-place until fuel mileage or a pit stop mistake decides things.

 

Thinkin' Out Loud: Breaking down the Pocono 400

 

 

FOURTH GEAR: The curious case of Kasey Kahne.

Kasey Kahne had a bizarre media session at Pocono Friday, getting so defensive about his season that I wrote in my notes: “General theme: I’m fine. Really.” Kahne was so concerned about repeating how well he’d handled a difficult 2014 campaign that, at times, it felt as if he was busy convincing himself.

 

Not that anyone could blame the poor guy for being frustrated. This year has seen bad luck moment after bad luck moment for the No. 5 car, despite the fact Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis still hit on setups that work. (See: Jimmie Johnson’s Charlotte victory, a direct result of utilizing some Kahne/Francis notes). No doubt, he’s well liked and still a talent loaded with potential. But with Chase Elliott waiting in the wings along with expiring sponsor contracts, there seems to be a greater sense of urgency getting this driver and team into the Chase. A recent Hendrick Motorsports test at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in which all four team participated, seemed designed more to get Kahne in victory lane than help the organization as a whole.

 

But despite all the support, Kahne just can’t seem to get over the hump. His car was clearly fourth out of four HMS machines Sunday — uneventful until a Kyle Busch mistake pushed the No. 5 car hard into the wall and took everyone there out of their misery. It left a normally even-keeled Kahne frustrated enough to take a shot at Busch: “He was probably (ticked off) because his car was slow,” he said, marking the fourth incident where he’s gotten the short end of the stick with Busch in the last 16 months. “Once we hit, my car went hard right.”

 

Sounds like an apt description of Kahne’s season, just replace the word “right” with “down.” And while it’s nice to see him get emotional, the “Mark Martin” mentality here will make it unlikely at best that we’ll see payback to Busch at some point. Will that inability to get an extra “oomph” on the track — and off — from Kahne ultimately be what defines a career?

 

 

OVERDRIVE  

The spectacular rookie season of Kyle Larson sped right along at Pocono. He won the ARCA race, leading unchallenged for most of it on Saturday before using lessons learned to run fifth in the Cup event. But the biggest breakthrough of all? The freshman finally led his first laps of 2014, pacing the field for seven circuits during a cycle of green-flag stops. Despite sitting 10th in points, he hadn’t put the No. 42 out front for a race all year. …  A fire in Turn 3 (right), from firework shrapnel in the pre-race ceremony, caused the first of Pocono’s seven caution flags. Unusual? Hardly. Forces of nature are nothing new to the track, where a deer once ran across to interrupt proceedings several years ago. …  J.J. Yeley, who ran 38th, had a part break, causing a caution but came back to run at the finish, albeit three laps down. Why is that important? It’s the first time the new Xxxtreme Motorsports has done so in 11 Sprint Cup starts. 

 

 

Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Race reaction from NASCAR's Sprint Cup race in Pocono where Dale Earnhardt Jr. recorded his second win of the 2014 season.
Post date: Monday, June 9, 2014 - 15:36
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-june-9-2014
Teaser:
Post date: Monday, June 9, 2014 - 10:27
Path: /college-football/top-10-must-see-non-conference-sec-games-2014
Body:

Obviously, non-conference games have zero impact on conference championships.


But in the SEC, the nation's best and most cut-throat league, a critical non-conference win or loss can mean the difference between playing for a national championship or being relegated to just another bowl game.


Many are quick to point out the SEC's dearth of atrocious matchups in the non-conference in November — Eastern Kentucky (Florida), Charleston Southern (Georgia), South Alabama (South Carolina), Old Dominion (Vanderbilt), Western Carolina (Alabama), Samford (Auburn), UT-Martin (Mississippi State) and Presbyterian (Ole Miss).


But Nick Saban, Les Miles, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina have all challenged themselves year in and year out when it comes to their non-SEC slates. Here are the 10 best non-conference games to watch in the SEC in 2014:


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 the biggest non-conference game in the league. 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. During the five-game winning streak, the Gamecocks have scored between 27 and 34 points while holding Clemson to 17 points or fewer.


2. 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. The winner is buoyed right out of the gate with a top 20 win, the loser may be out of the national title picture after just 60 minutes of football. LSU and Wisconsin feature two of the best power running games in the land and this game will be a throwback showcase for both.


3. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 29)

This was a blowout a year ago but Florida expects to be much improved this year 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 2014 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. Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)

Gus Malzahn's offense led by Nick Marshall, four returning offensive line starters and a deep receiving corps faces Bill Snyder's defensive wizardry on the road on a Thursday night. Both teams will have extra time to prepare for the primetime mid-week meeting and both will be contenders for their respective conference championships. From a coaching standpoint, it doesn't get much better than Malzahn vs. Snyder.


5. 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 — which could be equally as entertaining. Each team has an outside shot at playoff contention so this season-opening meeting is monumental for both teams.


Related: 2014 SEC Football Predictions


6. Boise State vs. Ole Miss (Aug. 28, Atlanta)

The sneaky good matchup in Atlanta features two rising stars on the sidelines in Hugh Freeze and Bryan Harsin. Both offenses should be electric on the fast track in the Georgia Dome and both teams think of themselves as conference contenders. The quarterback play for both teams will be fascinating to watch.


7. Georgia Tech at Georgia (Nov. 29)

Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate featured one of the best comebacks and finishes of the season last year. After leading 20-0 for most of the first half, Georgia finally got on the board with a Hutson Mason to Todd Gurley TD pass with 34 seconds left in the second quarter. Mason, who was making his first career start, kept the rally going, eventually sending the game into overtime tied at 27. In double-overtime, Gurley rumbled 25 yards for the improbable win. Anything close to that in '14 and this Peach State battle will be one of the top non-conference games of the year.


8. Kentucky at Louisville (Nov. 29)

Mark Stoops is making Kentucky more relevant every day and his team should be at its best by season's end. Bobby Petrino will be wrapping up his first season back in Louisville. With in-state recruiting battles growing more fierce by the day, the Wildcats-Cardinals matchup just gets that much more intriguing.


9. Tennessee at Oklahoma (Sept. 13)

It may not be all that close of a game but any time two major power brands like the Vols and Sooners get together, it's must-see TV. Trevor Knight and Oklahoma enter the year thinking Big 12 championship and postseason bid. Butch Jones and Tennessee are slowly working their way out of the worst slump in program history. There is a lot on the line for both coaches and both teams.


10. Arkansas at Texas Tech (Sept. 13)

Fans in Fayetteville and around the SEC may learn all they need to know about the Hogs in Week 3. Should Bret Bielema's team play well in Lubbock or even pull the upset, then Arkansas could be a much bigger factor in the SEC than expected. If not and Kliff Kingsbury out tempos the Razorbacks, it could signal a long year for Pig Sooie. This is a huge game for Bielema and his staff.


Other games to watch:


Indiana at Missouri (Sept. 20)

There should be a lot of offense in what is Mizzou's toughest non-conference tilt.

Utah State at Tennessee (Aug. 31)

Vols fans will get to watch Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton's return to college football in what should be a sneaky good Week 1 game.

West Virginia vs. Alabama (Aug. 30, Atlanta)

It won't be the matchup many thought it would be when it was scheduled, but anytime Nick Saban or Dana Holgorsen is on the field, fans need to pay attention.

UCF at Missouri (Sept. 13)

The Knights want to prove they have staying power after a 12-win season and BCS bowl victory. A trip to Mizzou is a good way to do it.

East Carolina at South Carolina (Sept. 6)

Ruffin McNeil historically plays very well against the big boys of his region. Spurrier and company better be ready.

Teaser:
Top 10 must-see non-conference SEC games of 2014
Post date: Monday, June 9, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/american-athletic-conference-football-2014-predictions
Body:
2014 American Athletic Predictions
 American AthleticOverall
1. Cincinnati7-19-3
2. East Carolina7-18-4
3. UCF6-28-4
4. Houston5-38-4
5. South Florida5-36-6
6. UConn3-55-7
7. SMU3-54-8
8. Memphis3-55-7
9. Tulane2-63-9
10. Temple2-63-9
11. Tulsa1-72-10

After a few years of instability and changes, the American Athletic Conference seems to be on solid footing entering the 2014 season. Although the league has been bumped from the power conference designation, the American Athletic Conference still boasts a handful of top-50 programs and teams like Cincinnati, Houston, East Carolina and UCF are each capable of winning their way into a spot in one of college football’s top bowl games in 2014.
 

The race to win the American Athletic Conference is a wide-open battle in 2014. Four teams – Cincinnati, UCF, East Carolina and Houston – all received consideration for the No. 1 spot in Athlon’s prediction meeting.


Cincinnati is Athlon’s favorite to win the league, as the Bearcats have won at least eight games in seven out of the last eight seasons. Tommy Tuberville made a few changes to his defensive staff in the offseason, and with seven starters back, this should be one of the American Athletic Conference’s top defenses. The offense is guided by Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel at quarterback, the skill positions are loaded with the return of running back Ralph David Abernathy IV and receiver Chris Moore. Three starters headline an offensive line that should be the best in the conference.

A huge reason to like Cincinnati as the preseason favorite is the schedule. The Bearcats host East Carolina and Houston and won’t have to play UCF this year.
 

The Knights will take a small step back without quarterback Blake Bortles, two all-conference linemen and running back Storm Johnson, but George O’Leary’s team is still loaded with enough talent to win the league. With eight starters back, expect UCF’s defense to improve in 2014. One potential pitfall: UCF went 7-1 in one-score games last season – a number not easy to repeat.
 

2014 American Team Previews
CincinnatiTemple
East CarolinaTulane
HoustonTulsa
MemphisUConn
SMUUCF
South FloridaNavy (2015)

East Carolina makes the switch from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference and is picked No. 2 in the league behind Cincinnati. The Pirates are explosive on offense, but the defense returns only four starters. Quarterback Shane Carden threw for over 4,000 yards last season, and he will have the services of Justin Hardy (114 catches, 1,284 yards in 2013) at receiver. The Dec. 4 date at home against UCF could decide which team finishes higher in the conference standings.
 

Houston went 5-7 in Tony Levine’s debut in 2012, but the Cougars made a nice rebound to 8-5 and held their own against Louisville, UCF and Cincinnati. The departure of offensive coordinator Doug Meacham to TCU was a big loss, but new play-caller Travis Bush should provide an easy transition. Quarterback John O’Korn needs to play better against the league’s top teams, and he should have plenty of help from a deep receiving corps, including potential All-American Deontay Greenberry. The Cougars had a +25 turnover margin last season, which won’t be easy to repeat. However, there’s plenty of talent returning to expect a run at the conference title.
 

South Florida should be the most improved team in the American Athletic Conference in 2014. The Bulls are a team on the rise under the direction of Willie Taggart and inked the league’s No. 1 recruiting class. Sophomore quarterback Mike White showed promise in limited action last year, and South Florida as a team played better down the stretch. Look for the Bulls to take a step forward in 2014.
 

First-year coach Bob Diaco inherits a UConn team that won its final three games in 2013. The Huskies have a promising quarterback in Casey Cochran, and five starters return from a defense that should develop under Diaco’s watch. UConn has talent, but how much of a difference will the new coaching staff make in 2014? The biggest concern is an offensive line that returns only one starter.
 

SMU and Memphis are two teams with sleeper potential in 2014. The Mustangs need to replace quarterback Garrett Gilbert, but Neal Burcham and Matt Davis are intriguing options. And as usual under June Jones, there is talent at the skill positions. A brutal schedule awaits SMU, and there’s very little margin for error to get to a bowl.

American Athletic
Bowl Tie-Ins for 2014

 

Military Bowl: 
American vs. ACC


Miami Beach Bowl:
American vs. BYU

Birmingham:
American vs. SEC

Armed Forces Bowl:
American vs. Army/Big 12

St. Petersburg:
American vs. ACC



Memphis is making steady progress under Justin Fuente, and the Tigers could surprise in 2014. Quarterback Paxton Lynch needs to take a step forward for Memphis to reach the postseason, but the defense will be among the best in the league.
 

Tulane is coming off a bowl appearance in Curtis Johnson’s second season, but the Green Wave will have trouble repeating last year’s seven wins. The schedule is tougher, and Tulane needs to find a quarterback, replace standout receiver Ryan Grant and nose guard tackle Chris Davenport. Johnson has the program on the right track, but Tulane may have to take a step back to take a step forward in 2015.
 

Temple and Tulsa are projected to be the No. 10 and No. 11 teams in the American Athletic Conference. However, both teams should be better than they were in 2013. The Owls have a rising star at quarterback in P.J. Walker and had several close losses last year. If Temple can address its defense and give Walker time to throw, the Owls should easily exceed the three-win projection.
 

Tulsa will have to rely on its defense to exceed last year’s three-win mark. The Golden Hurricane lost running back Trey Watts, and quarterback Dane Evans struggled last season.

Teaser:
American Athletic Conference Football 2014 Predictions
Post date: Monday, June 9, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/big-12-football-2014-predictions
Body:

2014 Big 12 Predictions

 Big 12Overall
1. Oklahoma (No. 4)8-111-1
2. Baylor (No. 10)7-210-2
3. Texas (No. 17)7-29-3
4. Kansas State (No. 20)6-38-4
5.  Oklahoma State (No. 37)5-47-5 
6. TCU (No. 39)4-57-5
7. Texas Tech (No. 41)4-57-5
8. Iowa State (No. 66)2-74-8
9. West Virginia (No. 67)2-73-9
10. Kansas (No. 78)0-92-10

With Oklahoma coming off a huge Sugar Bowl win against Alabama, Baylor emerging as a national title contender under Art Briles, and Texas trending in the right direction under new coach Charlie Strong, the Big 12 appears poised to take a step forward as a conference. With Texas struggling to compete for league titles in recent years, the Big 12 was struggling to find its place among the SEC, Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten for conference supremacy. While the Big 12 still has a ways to go, the conference is moving in the right direction.

Oklahoma is Athlon’s projected Big 12 champion for 2014. However, there doesn’t appear to be much separation between the Sooners and Baylor. 

Oklahoma finished 11-2 in 2013, in a year largely considered a rebuilding effort by most in the Big 12. The Sooners return 13 starters, and quarterback Trevor Knight is expected to take a step forward in his development after a standout performance in the Sugar Bowl. Nine returning starters lead a stout defense, and Oklahoma hosts Baylor in what could be a de facto Big 12 championship game.
 

The Bears are loaded on offense, but the defense – a key part of last year’s Big 12 title team – needs to reload with just four returning starters. Quarterback Bryce Petty is Athlon’s projected first-team all-conference quarterback, and Baylor has depth, speed and talent at the skill positions. If the defense plays up to last year’s totals, the Bears will be a playoff contender.
 

There’s a gap between Oklahoma and Baylor to Texas and Kansas State, but the Longhorns and Wildcats both rank inside of Athlon’s projected final top 25 for 2014. The Longhorns have loads of talent for new coach Charlie Strong and should be among the Big 12’s best on defense with the return of seven starters. Quarterback play is Strong’s biggest concern, especially since David Ash missed most 2013 due to a concussion. The Wildcats always seem to be underrated under Bill Snyder, and this will be a dangerous team once again in 2014. Kansas State returns quarterback Jake Waters, and standout defensive end Ryan Mueller anchors a defense that returns five starters.
 

After Texas and Kansas State, there’s a bit of a drop until the projected No. 5 team in Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have been a reliable pick for a spot among the top-25 teams in the nation in recent years under Mike Gundy. However, there’s a significant rebuilding effort underway in Stillwater for 2014. 
 

TCU and Texas Tech could both surprise this year, but both teams also have question marks. The Horned Frogs need to take a step forward on offense, while the Red Raiders have concerns on defense. 


It’s a close call for No. 8 between Iowa State and West Virginia, but the Cyclones had a small edge over the Mountaineers in Athlon’s prediction meeting. Iowa State made a huge staff upgrade by hiring Mark Mangino to coordinate the offense, and the Cyclones have a scheduling advantage by hosting West Virginia.

Kansas should show improvement in Charlie Weis’ third season, but the Jayhawks are still projected to finish in the cellar.
 

Prep for the 2014 season, follow Athlon Sports and its college football editors on Twitter: @AthlonSports, Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), David Fox (@DavidFox615) and Braden Gall (@BradenGall)

 

Inside the War Room: Key Questions That Shaped Athlon's 2014 Predictions
 

How close was the pick for No. 1 between Oklahoma and Baylor?

It was very close. There is a lot to like about Baylor. The offense returns only four starters — and there are some concerns on the offensive line — but there is no doubt that the Bears will again roll up a ton of yards and score a bunch of points. That’s a given. There are some concerns on a defense that loses three first-team All-Big 12 performers. This group has come a long way under Phil Bennett in recent years, but the Bears gave up 34 points or more in four of their final five games, including 52 to UCF in the Fiesta Bowl. Baylor’s schedule is also a concern; the Bears play both Oklahoma and Texas — two of their chief competitors in the league — on the road. The last time we saw Oklahoma, the Sooners were putting the finishing touches on a shockingly easy 45–31 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. We don’t want to put too much stock in a bowl game, but the Sooners were very, very impressive against an elite Alabama team. OU welcomes back 16 starters from that team, most notably nine on a defense that figures to be the best in the league. Offensively, we need to see more consistency from quarterback Trevor Knight, but he showed — on a big stage — what he is capable of in the Sugar Bowl. Oklahoma, unlike Baylor, has a favorable league schedule. The Sooners host Baylor and Kansas State and play Texas, as usual, on a neutral site. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)

 

How close are Texas and Kansas State to the “Big Two” in the Big 12?

Texas is always tough to evaluate. The Longhorns are never short on talent but have underachieved in recent years due in large part to problems at quarterback. If David Ash can stay healthy — a big if — Texas could compete for a league title. The Longhorns should be strong on the offensive line and have a nice stable of running backs. With seven starters back, the defense should be improved despite some key losses on the line. The biggest difference in Austin, however, will be the coaching. The arrival of Charlie Strong and his staff has re-energized the program and should allow the Longhorns to play to their potential. Strong engineered a quick turnaround at Louisville, and we expect the same at Texas. We also like Kansas State in 2014 — a lot. The Wildcats closed the ’13 season with six wins in their last seven games, highlighted by a dominant performance against Michigan in the bowl game. They lost to the top four teams in the Big 12, but all four games were competitive. With Jake Waters firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback and two All-Big 12 offensive linemen back, the offense should be improved this fall. If the defense can remain among the best in the league, Kansas State could emerge as a dark horse contender in the Big 12. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)

 

Why is West Virginia picked ninth when most expect the Mountaineers to improve?

We have West Virginia at No. 9 and projected to have only three wins, which would be a huge disappointment in Morgantown. Admittedly, three wins could be low for this team. But even if the Mountaineers improve, the schedule is one of the toughest in the nation. West Virginia is staring at two non-conference losses against Alabama and Maryland and swing conference games against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Iowa State are on the road. Also, the Mountaineers have a significant question mark at quarterback, and the defense is under the direction of new coordinator Tony Gibson. Make no mistake: West Virginia has talent. The backfield and receivers will give quarterback Clint Trickett plenty of options. However, if the defense allows 33.3 points a game once again, and Trickett is unable to solidify the quarterback position, a tough schedule will keep the Mountaineers out of the bowl picture once again. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

 

Oklahoma State has emerged as one of the most consistent programs in the league. Why don’t the Cowboys get the benefit of the doubt?

The Pokes have been very good of late and have recruited well under Mike Gundy. Still, this team figures to take a small step back in 2014. The losses on defense — including four All-Big-12 players on the front seven and a first-team all-conference cornerback — are too great to ignore. There is still some firepower on offense, but the Cowboys no longer have the type of depth at quarterback that made them so strong in recent years. J.W. Walsh is the last man standing from the three-headed monster that began the 2012 season. Junior Daxx Garman will be given a look in the fall, and true freshman Mason Rudolph is highly touted, but this position is not as strong as in recent years. The Pokes will still be good — we are forecasting a 5–4 Big 12 record — but we just don’t see this team as a legitimate contender in 2014. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)

 

Texas Tech or TCU: Which is more likely to surprise in 2014?

TCU. Despite missing out on the postseason with a 4-8 mark last year, the Horned Frogs were much closer to a winning record in Big 12 play than some may realize. TCU lost four games by a touchdown, including a three-point defeat to Baylor and a three-point loss at Oklahoma. Coach Gary Patterson will always have one of the Big 12’s top defenses, but the offense has to improve for TCU to take the next step. Hiring Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham as co-offensive coordinators should help the offense improve, while senior transfer Matt Joeckel will push Trevone Boykin for the starting job. With an improved offense, the Horned Frogs should be able to turn a couple of close losses into wins in 2014. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
 

2014 Big 12 Team Previews

BaylorOklahoma State
Iowa StateTCU
KansasTexas
Kansas StateTexas Tech
OklahomaWest Virginia

 

 

 

Big 12 Notebook

by John Helsley (@jjhelsley)


Parity on Parade

The Big 12 is developing a roll call of champions for football. And hands are rising outside the usual places. Over the past five seasons, five different programs have claimed the conference championship: Baylor (2013), Kansas State (2012), Oklahoma State (2011), Oklahoma (2010) and Texas (2009).

 

So when league coaches talk about parity, it’s not just babble. It’s real. The five different champions, representing half the Big 12’s membership, are the most among the power conferences. Since 2009, here’s how many teams have won league titles elsewhere: four of 14 in the ACC; three of 12 in the Big Ten; three of 14 in the SEC; and two of 12 in the Pac-12.

 

A year ago, the Big 12 was one of only three leagues — and the only one among the power conferences — to have every team win at least one league game.

 

Upon his arrival at Texas, new coach Charlie Strong acknowledged the challenges ahead, complimenting Oklahoma and coach Bob Stoops and recognizing the league’s reputation for high-powered offenses.

 

“There are some great offenses (in the Big 12),” Strong says. “You look at what Coach (Mike) Gundy has there at Oklahoma State. You look at Coach (Art) Briles at Baylor… It’s a track meet out there. Guys are up and down the field, touchdown after touchdown, so it will be a big challenge for us.”
 

Non-Conference Notice

So much for soft starts in the Big 12. The non-conference schedule features a combined 11 bowl teams from a year ago, highlighted by programs responsible for the past three national championships and both participants from last year’s BCS title game.

 

Oklahoma State takes on defending national champ Florida State in Arlington, Texas, at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. Kansas State hosts last year’s runner-up, Auburn, in one of the biggest non-conference games ever in Manhattan. West Virginia and Alabama meet in Atlanta in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff.

 

For all three, it means they’ll each face three teams that appeared in BCS games last winter, since Baylor played in the Fiesta and Oklahoma played in the Sugar.

 

For the Cowboys, who are rebuilding on defense, getting FSU in the season opener represents an immediate wake-up call.

 

“We can debate scheduling that game,” says OSU coach Mike Gundy, who saw athletic director Mike Holder sign off on the matchup. “We have to go play that game.”



Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the College Football Playoff:
 

 

 

Quarterback Quotient

Once snapped, the ball should be in good hands this fall. Every Big 12 team returns at least one quarterback with starting experience, led by Baylor’s Bryce Petty, the reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and a Heisman Trophy candidate.

 

A year ago, several schools were in transition at the position, with quarterback competitions and even controversies carrying throughout preseason and the season in some cases. That does not mean all jobs are closed entering this season, but most league coaches have reason to feel good about the position.

 

Eight of the top 10 league leaders in passing efficiency return from last season. One of those — Oklahoma’s Blake Bell — has moved to tight end, but he has been replaced by exciting sophomore Trevor Knight, coming off a breakout performance against Alabama in the Sooners’ Sugar Bowl victory.
 

Star Power

Until Oklahoma delivered a statement win over Bama, the Big 12’s national appeal had taken a hit in 2013, with the conference far removed from national title talk. The slip was at least partly due to a lack of star power in a year of transition across the league. The conference should be trending back up.

 

The Big 12 returns its Offensive Player of the Year (Petty), Defensive Lineman of the Year (Ryan Mueller, Kansas State), Special Teams Player of the Year (Tyler Lockett, Kansas State) and a long list of underclassmen who have already made an impact on the league and are now poised for greater breakthroughs.

 

Big 12 Coordinator Carousel 

by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
 

Iowa State: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Courtney Messingham;

New: Mark Mangino

Messingham was fired after five seasons at Iowa State, the final two as the offensive coordinator. Mangino, the former head coach at Kansas, was the tight ends coach at Youngstown State last year.
 

Kansas: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Charlie Weis; 

New: John Reagan

Weis, the head coach at Kansas, no longer has the title of offensive coordinator. Reagan, an assistant at KU from 2005-09, had been the offensive line coach and offensive coordinator at Rice. Reagan will call the plays.
 

TCU: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Jarrett Anderson, Rusty Burns;

New: Sonny Cumbie, Doug Meacham

Anderson and Burns are still on the TCU staff, though their roles have yet to be determined. Meacham was the offensive coordinator at Houston last season. Cumbie was the quarterbacks coach and offensive co-coordinator at Texas Tech, his alma mater. Meacham will call the plays.
 

Texas: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Major Applewhite, Darrell Wyatt;

New: Shawn Watson, Joe Wickline

Applewhite and Wyatt, both members of Mack Brown’s staff, were not retained by Charlie Strong. Watson, who has the title of Assistant Head Coach for Offense, made the move from Louisville with Strong. Wickline was the offensive line coach at Oklahoma State. Watson will call the plays.
 

Texas: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Greg Robinson;

New: Vance Bedford

Robinson rejoined the Texas coaching staff in September as the defensive coordinator. He was not retained by the new staff and accepted a position as the coordinator at San Jose State. Bedford was the defensive coordinator at Louisville under Charlie Strong.
 

Texas Tech: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Sonny Cumbie, Eric Morris;

New: Eric Morris

Cumbie left his alma mater to accept a similar position at TCU. Morris has the title of offensive coordinator, but head coach Kliff Kingsbury calls the plays.
 

West Virginia: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Keith Patterson;

New: Tony Gibson

Patterson left to take a similar position at Arizona State. Gibson was promoted from his position as the safeties coach after Patterson departed. He was the defensive coordinator at West Virginia Tech from 1999-2000 and then served as West Virginia’s defensive backs coach under Rich Rodriguez from 2000-07. 

Teaser:
Big 12 Football 2014 Predictions
Post date: Monday, June 9, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /nascar/tunnel-turn-johnsons-roll-nascar-tnt-tap-pocono
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, a new feature in Pocono’s “Tunnel Turn,” ARCA action, Jimmie Johnson’s win streak, a winless Matt Kenseth and TNT’s return highlight the storylines leading up to the Pocono 400.


Corner curbing at Pocono’s Turn 2 removed
Did Pocono Raceway just bring a feature from the desert — namely, the dogleg corner at Phoenix International Raceway — to its already unique layout?

That’s how one Sprint Cup crew chief sees Pocono’s overhaul of the track’s Turn 2, the infamous “Tunnel Turn.” Gone is the traditional curbing on the inside of the high-speed left-hander, replaced by a wide, flat apron.

“I think that the new paved area in Turn 2 may add a new element to (track preparation) and possibly make it like the dogleg we have at Phoenix,” says Jason Ratcliff, crew chief on Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota.

That dogleg has become a source of controversy in NASCAR since Phoenix’s redesign in 2012. Drivers can now sweep low through the corner, off the banking and through a Mario Kart-like shortcut. The advantage is often minimal but the wide-open space has created some crashes entering Phoenix’s Turn 3.

An identical move won’t be available at Pocono — the apron is not nearly as wide and the corner is much faster — but it will change how drivers utilize Turn 2. In the past, racing two-wide through the Tunnel Turn was always a treacherous plan because the corner’s exit was so narrow.

Now, without the curbing and widened space, the corner — long considered one of NASCAR’s most treacherous — may become more of a passing zone.


Ahead of Pocono Cup debut, Larson makes ARCA start  Kyle Larson
The value of racing in support series races during Sprint Cup weekends has long had drivers at both ends of the debate. Some love the idea of getting track time for a better understanding of tire wear and track changes during race conditions. Others find much of the information learned in a lower series not directly attributable to Sprint Cup success.

Pocono may be the exception to that rule — especially for rookies. For that reason, Kyle Larson will be the lone Sprint Cup driver making a start in Saturday’s ARCA Racing Series event on the 2.5-mile track. The ARCA race will serve as a warm-up for Larson as he makes his Cup debut on the track Sunday.

The unique layout simply has no comparable track in the U.S. and it stands as one of three tracks where Sprint Cup drivers actually shift gears during each lap. Larson will pilot the No. 4 Chevrolet owned by Steve Turner in the 200-mile ARCA race.

Seven current Sprint Cup drivers — Ryan Newman, Casey Mears, Travis Kvapil, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier and Joey Logano — have ARCA series wins at Pocono.


Anybody but Jimmie?  Jimmie Johnson
Two weeks ago, Jimmie Johnson looked like NASCAR’s top underperformer of 2014 largely because he had yet to win a race in 11 starts. Such is the sledding for a driver with double the amount of wins of any other competitor in the last decade racing in NASCAR’s newest championship structure. Wins are now treated as the most sacrosanct barometer of success in the Cup regular season — a measure that creates a type of blindness to other on-track successes.

Now with consecutive victories in the last two weekends, Johnson has laughed away the concerns about his season and likely set fire to NASCAR fans’ latest slogan of “Anybody but (insert recent dominating driver here).”

And wouldn’t you know? Smart money this weekend at Pocono Raceway has Johnson as the favorite based on how fantastic his No. 48 was at Pocono last summer in two races. Johnson scored the checkered flag in one of them — a commanding performance last June that saw his Chevy out front for 80 percent of the race. He never dropped lower than seventh in the race’s running order even during green flag pit stops.

Johnson was just as good in the August race until he blew a tire and smacked the Turn 1 wall while leading. Despite the damage, Johnson still managed to finish on the lead lap in 13th.


Points leader Kenseth continues under the radar
Next up on the list of drivers who seem to be slightly off in 2014 —for the entirely not egregious sin of failing to win in the season’s first 13 tries — is Matt Kenseth. Of course, Kenseth arrives at Pocono Raceway as the Sprint Cup points leader. It’s hardly a concerning predicament.

Consider that Kenseth, 42, has seven top-7 finishes in his last nine races. Consider that his No. 20 only has one finish worse than 10th in that stretch — a 37th-place result thanks to a crash in the Cup season wild card that is Talladega Superspeedway. Consider, again, that he has scored more points to date in 2014 than any other driver.

It’s all a nice set up for a driver who seems to do his best driving away from the spotlight, whether that be with traditionally mediocre qualifying abilities that allow him to move forward in races without acclaim or how he scored a modest three wins in 2012 even as he had one foot out of the door in his final season with Roush Fenway Racing.

Expect Kenseth to play in Sunday’s proceedings in a similar fashion. He’s not a central storyline and two crashes a year ago at Pocono held him back from potential up-front finishes. But Kenseth has grown more favorable of the three-corner track since a repave in 2012. Maybe his first win at the track is coming soon.


TNT returns for final NASCAR broadcast series
With FOX’s 2014 section of broadcasting Sprint Cup Series races over after Dover, cable network TNT moves in this weekend to handle a six-race stretch that will also be its last for at least the next decade. TNT opted to not pursue future NASCAR broadcasting rights during negotiations last year that ended with FOX and NBC signing long-term deals with the sanctioning body.

As a result, TNT plans to go reflective during the six-race span by showing highlights from 32 years of NASCAR coverage produced by the network during pre-race shows. The Pocono pre-race show will include segments like Dale Earnhardt Jr. racing Charles Barkley in a go-kart race and a behind-the-scenes feature from Josh Wise’s internet-fueled run to the Sprint All-Star Race in May.

A year ago, TNT’s stretch of broadcasting was marked by a heavy rotation of commercials during races that elicited severe fan criticism on social networks.

Adam Alexander returns as lap-by-lap announcer in the booth, flanked by analysts Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach. Larry McReynolds returns to his pit road post, as well.


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos 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, a new feature in Pocono’s “Tunnel Turn,” ARCA action, Jimmie Johnson’s win streak, a winless Matt Kenseth and TNT’s return highlight the storylines leading up to the Pocono 400.
Post date: Friday, June 6, 2014 - 13:33
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-june-6-2014
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for June 6.

Presenting the WAGs of the 2014 Stanley Cup final.

Game 1 winner: the air conditioning system in San Antonio, which claimed LeBron.

Noted tough guy Jonathan Martin called out LeBron on Twitter for his weakness. Pot, kettle, etc.

As usual, the Internet at large was quick to pounce with timley LeBron memes.

Even Gatorade trolled King James for his cramping.

• Imitation, flattery, etc.: Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen take a crack at each other's windups.

Philip Rivers donned an outrageous outfit for a softball game, including mullet, short shorts and tube socks.

Rashad McCants made the Dean's List at UNC without going to class.

Johnny Miller's about to do his last U.S. Open. I'll miss him.

The Bulls logo flipped upside down looks like a robot reading the Bible. Don't believe me? Click the link.

Survival guide for the 2014 World Cup.

• Norichika Aoki learned first hand about the strength of Yadier Molina's arm.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, June 6, 2014 - 11:26
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/colin-kaepernick-best-qb-nfl
Body:

As far as headlines go, that one is a doozy, right?

 

However, the San Francisco 49ers made it all possible by making fourth-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick the highest paid signal-caller in the NFL this week. This, for a guy who has made 23 professional regular season starts in his career.

It has been reported by many outlets (ESPN’s Adam Schefter, NFL’s Ian Rapoport) that the 49ers inked Kaepernick to a six-year, $110 — or $126 million, depending on who you read — contract this week with an NFL-high $61 million in guaranteed money. The deal keeps him entrenched in the Bay Area through 2020.

 

In the NFL, the overall value of the deal is always extremely nebulous unlike contracts in Major League Baseball or the NBA. So analyzing the guaranteed money is the best way to compare this deal with other massive quarterback contracts in the NFL.

 

The $61 million makes the SanFran QB the highest paid player in the NFL with Matt Ryan ($59 million), Tom Brady ($57 million), Drew Brees ($55 million), Tony Romo ($55) and Aaron Rodgers ($54 million) playing second fiddle to No. 7 in terms of guaranteed money.

 

Clearly, no one can intelligently argue that Colin Kaepernick is a better player than Ryan, Brady, Brees or Rodgers. So how can the 49ers justify a nine-figure investment in a player who hasn’t been a starter for two full seasons yet — on a team that was last in the NFL in pass attempts a year ago no less?

 

Related: Order your San Francisco 49ers 2014 preview magazine

 

While he is extremely young and extremely inexperienced, Kaepernick, at times, looks like the future of the position with his elite athletic ability and big-time throwing arm. He has set NFL playoff rushing records for a quarterback and has totaled 937 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground in 23 regular season starts. While he has just two career 300-yard passing games and 11 starts in which he failed to even reach 200 yards passing, Kaepernick has proven to be an efficient passer in short order.

 

Since becoming the starter in Week 11 two years ago, the $61-million man has been the fourth-winningest quarterback in the NFL with 17 wins and the third-rated passer in the league behind only Peyton Manning and Rodgers. He has 31 touchdown passes against just 11 interceptions in his career and has proven to be an extremely effective postseason player. Try 1,374 yards passing, 507 yards rushing and 11 total TDs in six postseason games (4-2). Still, the highest paid player in the NFL?

 

Former San Francisco great and broadcasting star Steve Young, for one, has been outspoken about Kaepernick’s need to learn to work through his progressions and to hang in the pocket more consistently. The former Nevada great saw his completion percentage drop from 62.4 percent in 2012 to 58.4 percent a year ago. Both numbers sit significantly behind the league’s best and highest paid like the elder Manning (68.3), Brees (68.6), Ryan (67.4) and Rodgers (66.6). In fact, Kaepernick was 31st in the NFL in completion percentage a year ago, a clear indicator that he still has plenty of work to do within the passing offense.

 

The good news for Jim Harbaugh and the rest of the 49ers, is that Kaepernick is aware of his shortcomings and, ideally, should continue to improve.

 

"Colin's hard work and dedication have played an integral role in the recent success of the 49ers organization," general manager Trent Baalke’ statement read. "His work ethic, leadership and on-field production have positively influenced our team, and we look forward to his continued growth in all areas."

 

Clearly, Baalke and Harbaugh are excited to have locked up their QB through 2020. (Although, Andrew Luck might have been the happiest guy on the planet when he heard about the $126 million pact this week.) Kaepernick was due just $1 million in 2014, the final year of his rookie contract. But the 49ers were willing to ante up an eye-popping amount for a deal structured in a way that would allow flexibility to negotiate with other future free agents on the team — something that was very important to Kaepernick.

 

It’s just an added bonus that the new deal puts the screws to their archrival in Seattle, who will need to negotiate Russell Wilson’s contract in less than two seasons.

 

It sounds like Kaepernick knows that the money is an extraordinary blessing but that winning a championship — something he’s come up just short of doing in two consecutive seasons — is what will define him as a quarterback. Joe Flacco was considered “overpaid” when he signed his enormous deal, but his Super Bowl ring validates his net worth.

 

Maybe that makes Kaepernick worth every penny. Maybe not. Only time will tell if the San Francisco 49ers made a savvy business decision or horrific professional gamble.

Teaser:
Is Colin Kaepernick the best QB in the NFL?
Post date: Friday, June 6, 2014 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/big-ten-win-total-projections-2014
Body:

The start of the 2014 college football season is still over 80 days away, but there is no shortage of news to fill the offseason in the Big Ten. Although there’s a long way until kickoff, the preview magazines for 2014 are already on newsstands, and Vegas isn’t far behind with its projections for the upcoming season.
 
CG Technology has released some its win total projections for 2014, and Athlon Sports examined the SEC totals on Thursday. With the early picks for the SEC in the books, it’s time to shift focus and examine the Big Ten.
With the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, the Big Ten is now a 14-team league and has shuffled the divisions once again.
 
The East is stronger than the West in 2014, as Ohio State and Michigan State are both contenders for the college football playoff. There’s also quality depth in the East with Penn State, Michigan and improving teams like Indiana and Maryland. The West Division is headlined by Wisconsin, with Iowa and Nebraska not too far behind.
There is plenty of time to refine predictions over the next few months, but with the release of the win total projections, let’s take a look at the early thoughts on the over/under projections.
 
Athlon’s Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven) give their early thoughts on CG Technology’s projections for 2014.
 

Big Ten Win Total Projections for 2014: Over, Under or Push

 

Big Ten East Division

 

Indiana (Opening Number: 5)

Braden Gall: Push

The Hoosiers draw the much tougher division and non-conference games with Missouri and Bowling Green seem to indicate making a bowl game is a long shot. Push or under for Indiana.
 
Steven Lassan: Push
Indiana is on the right track under Kevin Wilson, but the schedule is brutal in 2014. Non-conference games against Bowling Green, Missouri and North Texas are challenging, and the Hoosiers get Iowa in crossover play. With an explosive offense, Indiana could sneak into an upset somewhere along the way. However, the Hoosiers need new coordinator Brian Knorr to quickly find answers on a defense that allowed 7.4 yards per play in conference games last year.
 
 

Maryland (Opening Number: 6.5)

Braden Gall: Under
Maryland is in much better shape to compete in the new league than Rutgers, but three interesting non-conference games and landing in a brutal division makes a winning season seem far-fetched. This team still gets to a bowl game but does so at .500.
 
Steven Lassan: Under
I think six wins is reasonable for Maryland in 2014. The Terrapins are transitioning to a tougher league, but the offense will be dangerous if receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long stay healthy. Getting to seven victories is possible if Maryland picks up a win in a swing game against Syracuse in non-conference play.
 
 

Michigan (Opening Number: 8)

Braden Gall: Push
Vegas knows what it’s doing. This team has talent, and the new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier should be an improvement. But the schedule is still hard enough that challenging for the division is likely out of the conversation.
 
Steven Lassan: Push
Plenty of talent in Ann Arbor, but Michigan’s win total rests on an unsettled offensive line and rushing attack. Hitting the over likely rests on swing games against Notre Dame and Penn State.
 
 

Michigan State (Opening Number: 9.5)

Braden Gall: Over
There are a lot of losses on defense but some serious talent returning as well. The offense is a strength for the first time in years, and Mark Dantonio is still running the show in East Lansing. Getting Ohio State at home makes the over almost a foregone conclusion.
 
Steven Lassan: Over
This pick seems like one of the safest on the board in the Big Ten. I think Michigan State could win at Oregon, but road trips to Penn State and Maryland (one week after playing Ohio State) could be tougher than some may expect. Even though Mark Dantonio needs to replace a few names on defense, the offense will be dangerous with the return of quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford.
 
 

Ohio State (Opening Number: 10.5)

Braden Gall: Over
The Buckeyes have been 12-0 in the last two regular seasons and this defensive line is much better than the previous two teams. With Braxton Miller and Urban Meyer still joined at the hip on offense, there is no reason to think they won win at least 11 games again.
 
Steven Lassan: Over
There are few obstacles standing in the way of a playoff run by Ohio State. The offensive line is a concern, and the defense has to improve, but coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Braxton Miller is still one of the best combinations in the nation. The Buckeyes play at Penn State and Michigan State, but a split of those two games is likely.
 
 

Penn State (Opening Number: 8)

Braden Gall: Over
The offensive line is a major concern but the quarterback is special and the new coaching staff is one of the best in the land. Most importantly, the schedule is a cinch with two, maybe three, tough games all year.
 
Steven Lassan: Over
Perhaps our magazine prediction of 10 wins for Penn State is a bit high, but I think the over is very attainable. The Nittany Lions host both Ohio State and Michigan State this year and catch UCF without Blake Bortles in the opener. Also, new coach James Franklin always maximized the talent on the roster at Vanderbilt.
 
 

Rutgers (Opening Number: 4.5)

Braden Gall: Under
Rutgers got a really bad draw in its first Big Ten season with a tough non-conference game in Seattle against Washington State, as well as Wisconsin and Nebraska in crossover play. More than one Big Ten win is a long shot.
 
Steven Lassan: Under
Expect Ralph Friedgen to help the offense, but Rutgers still has concerns about its secondary and the consistency of quarterback Gary Nova. The schedule is brutal, and after winning six games in the American Athletic Conference, some regression is ahead in the Big Ten in 2014.
 
 

Big Ten West Division

 

Illinois (Opening Number: 5)

Braden Gall: Under
The talent simply isn’t there for Tim Beckman to work with. The offense under Bill Cubit will be solid, but this team has to play at Washington in non-conference action before getting Ohio State and Penn State in crossover matchups. Unlucky Illini win four times in 2014.
 
Steven Lassan: Under
Tempted to take the push here. I have no doubt Illinois is going to score a ton of points this year. Unfortunately, the Fighting Illini still has major concerns on defense. Perhaps Illinois pulls an upset at home against Minnesota or Penn State, but until I see improvement on defense, the under is the better pick.
 
 

Iowa (Opening Number: 8.5)

Braden Gall: Under
The schedule sets up nicely for Iowa, but this team rarely is good when it’s supposed to be. The defense is rebuilding and the offense is still one of the Big Ten’s worst (9th a year ago). The Hawkeyes will slip up once on the road (at Pitt, Maryland, Minnesota, Illinois) and that gives me the under.
 
Steven Lassan: Over
Iowa is the biggest threat to Wisconsin in the West Division this year. Sure, the Hawkeyes need to replace all three linebackers, but that’s usually a strength under Kirk Ferentz. With the Badgers and Nebraska visiting Kinnick Stadium, Iowa will have a chance to surprise in 2014.
 
 

Minnesota (Opening Number: 6.5)

Braden Gall: Under
This program is heading in the right direction but some key pieces are gone from a team that won eight games last year. A non-conference road trip to TCU makes seven wins look very difficult.
 
Steven Lassan: Under
I think it’s likely the Golden Gophers could be a better overall team than they were in 2013, but it may not show in the win column in 2014. A road trip to TCU limits the win total to three in non-conference play, and the November slate is brutal with games against Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Seems like six is the perfect number for Minnesota.
 
 

Nebraska (Opening Number: 8)

Braden Gall: Push
Death, taxes and four losses for Bo Pelini. Another 8-4 season appears to be in the cards for Nebraska with two tricky non-conference game (at Fresno State, Miami) as well as a really tough road Big Ten slate: at Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa.
 
Steven Lassan: Push
This one is tough. I think eight or nine is the right number, and I could probably switch my opinion on that one on a daily basis. With Miami breaking in a new quarterback, the Sept. 20 matchup against the Hurricanes looks very winnable. However, the road slate in the Big Ten is challenging, and Bo Pelini’s team catches Michigan State in crossover play.
 
 

Northwestern (Opening Number: 6)

Braden Gall: Push
There is no way the Wildcats are as unlucky as they were a year ago (See: Hail Mary and injuries). Logic would indicate with a coach as solid as Pat Fitzgerald and just a touch of luck, Northwestern will at least get back to a bowl game.
 
Steven Lassan: Over
Bad luck and injuries hindered Northwestern last season. A healthy Venric Mark makes a big difference at running back, and the defense takes a step forward with seven starters returning.
 
 

Purdue (Opening Number: 3.5)

Braden Gall: Under
This team was so uncompetitive a year ago that winning three more games in 2014 seems highly unlikely. The West Division is easier but Notre Dame and Michigan State are on the slate too. A 3-9 season would be marked improvement (right?).
 
Steven Lassan: Under
Darrell Hazell’s second year at Kent State resulted in a six-game improvement from a 5-7 record in 2011. Don’t expect to see a similar jump in the win total, but I do see Purdue making small progress in 2014. However, small progress is winning only three games and being more competitive against Big Ten opponents.
 
 

Wisconsin (Opening Number: 9.5)

Braden Gall: Over
The schedule is very manageable with the exception of one tough non-conference game (LSU) and two tough divisional bouts. Otherwise, it’s hard to see the Badgers losing very often.
 
Steven Lassan: Over
There’s a ton of new faces stepping into the starting lineup for the Badgers in 2014. However, the schedule is very manageable, with the toughest games against Nebraska and Iowa taking place late in the year – allowing plenty of time for Wisconsin to develop its passing attack.
Teaser:
Big Ten Win Total Projections for 2014
Post date: Friday, June 6, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/sun-belt-2014-football-predictions
Body:
2014 Sun Belt Predictions
 Sun BeltOverall
1. UL Lafayette (No. 60)8-010-2
2. South Alabama (No. 84)7-18-4
3. Arkansas State (No. 93)6-27-5
4. Troy (No. 108)5-36-6
5. ULM (No. 110)5-35-7
6. Texas State (No. 113)4-45-7
7. Georgia Southern (No. 122)3-54-8
8. Appalachian State (No. 123)2-64-8
9. Idaho (No. 125)2-62-10
10. Georgia State (No. 126)1-72-10
11. New Mexico State (No. 128)1-72-10

The Sun Belt is a conference in transition, but even with the changes around the league, the contenders remain the same. UL Lafayette has won nine games in each of the last three seasons and is Athlon’s projected champion for 2014.
 

The Ragin’ Cajuns return 15 starters and coach Mark Hudspeth is the best in the Sun Belt. Quarterback Terrance Broadway guides an offense that averaged 33.8 points per game last season and features a deep stable of running backs. Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire will both push for all-conference honors in 2014. Hudspeth’s team doesn’t have many personnel concerns, but the secondary and linebacking corps are two areas for the coaching staff to watch in the fall. UL Lafayette will also have a chance to play spoiler on the Sept. 13 date at Ole Miss.
 

UL Lafayette was a clear No. 1 in Athlon’s projected Sun Belt predictions, but it was a close battle for No. 2 with South Alabama and Arkansas State. The Red Wolves are on their fourth coach in four years, but a strong core of talent remains in Jonesboro. Running back Michael Gordon is poised for a breakout year, and receiver J.D. McKissic is back after catching 82 passes in 2013. The departure of Ryan Carrethers on the defensive line is one of Arkansas State’s biggest concerns for 2014.
 

South Alabama has made steady progress under Joey Jones, finishing 6-6 in its second year of Sun Belt play. The Jaguars return 12 starters, but quarterback Ross Metheny and a couple of key defenders must be replaced. South Alabama also has a tough November road stretch, featuring trips to Arkansas State and UL Lafayette. However, if Brandon Bridge settles in at quarterback, the Jaguars will have a chance to win both games.
 

After the top three teams, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the Sun Belt.

Troy and ULM are proven programs within the Sun Belt, and both teams should be in the mix for bowl games in 2014. The Trojans need to replace quarterback Corey Robinson, but the skill players and offensive line should be among the best in the league. For Troy to push for a spot among the top three, the defense has to improve after allowing 35.9 points a game in 2013.
 

ULM will miss quarterback Kolton Browning, and a challenging non-conference schedule doesn’t leave much margin for error for a bowl appearance. But the Warhawks should be solid on defense with the return of nine starters, and NC State transfer Pete Thomas could be the answer at quarterback.
 

Texas State is a program on the rise, but only four starters are back on defense, and there figures to be a few growing pains in Tyler Jones’ second year under center. The Bobcats own one of the league’s top linebacking corps with senior Michael Orakpo and David Mayo leading the way.
 

Georgia Southern and Appalachian State headline four newcomers into the Sun Belt for 2014. The Eagles finished the 2013 season by beating Florida in the Swamp and catch a break in scheduling by not playing UL Lafayette and Arkansas State. New coach Willie Fritz was one of the top hires of the offseason.
 

Appalachian State played better at the end of 2013, which was the first year under the direction of Scott Satterfield. The Mountaineers are a solid program and will eventually be a consistent winner in the Sun Belt. With running back Marcus Cox leading the way, Appalachian State could match last year’s win total.
 

Idaho and New Mexico State join the Sun Belt after spending 2013 as a FBS Independent. Both teams are in rebuild mode, with the Vandals in better shape in terms of personnel. However, Idaho is banned from postseason play in 2014. The Aggies return just eight starters and have uncertainty at quarterback and several holes to fill on defense.
 

Georgia State didn’t win a game in Trent Miles’ debut, but the Panthers showed progress. With Miles upgrading the roster through recruiting, as well as his track record of success at Indiana State, expect Georgia State to show more improvement in 2014. 



Sun Belt Bowl Tie-Ins for 2014

New Orleans Bowl: MW vs. Sun Belt

GoDaddy Bowl: Sun Belt vs. MAC

Camellia Bowl: Sun Belt vs. MAC


2014 Sun Belt Team Previews
Appalachian
State
Texas
State
Arkansas
State
Troy
Georgia SouthernUL Lafayette
Georgia
State
ULM
Idaho 
New Mexico State 
South Alabama 

 

Teaser:
Sun Belt 2014 Football Predictions
Post date: Friday, June 6, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/conference-usa-2014-football-predictions
Body:
2014 C-USA Predictions 
East DivisionC-USAOverall 
1. Marshall (No. 40)8-013-0 
2. MTSU (No. 90)6-27-5 
3. FAU (No. 91)5-36-6 
4. WKU (No. 92)4-45-7 
5. UAB (No. 109)2-64-8 
6. Old Dominion (No. 116)2-64-8 
7. FIU (No. 127)0-82-10 
West DivisionC-USAOverall 
1. North Texas (No. 86)6-27-6 
2. Rice (No. 87)6-27-5 
3. UTSA (No. 89)6-27-5 
4. Louisiana Tech (No. 112)3-54-8 
5. Southern Miss (No. 115)2-64-8 
6. UTEP (No. 117)2-63-9 
C-USA Championship   
Marshall over North Texas 

Conference USA enters 2014 with more changes in its league roster, adding WKU and Old Dominion to replace East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa to have a 13-team format for one season. UNC Charlotte will join the league in 2015 to give Conference USA 14 teams and seven teams in each division.
 

While the future of the league appears to be stable, could 2014 be a special season for Marshall? The Thundering Herd will be favored in every game and return dynamic senior quarterback Rakeem Cato. With 13 overall starters returning and MTSU, FAU and Rice visiting Huntington, Marshall has a good shot at an unbeaten record, as well as the opportunity to be the No. 1 team from outside of the five power conferences. If the Thundering Herd finishes 2014 unbeaten and rank as the top team from outside of the power leagues, Marshall would play in one of college football’s top bowl games.
 

MTSU, FAU and WKU are the top challengers to Marshall in the East. The Blue Raiders return only three starters on offense, but the schedule is favorable. MTSU does not play one of the predicted top-three teams from the West.
 

New FAU coach Charlie Partridge inherits a team that won its final four games to finish 6-6. The Owls have talent, and Partridge is a noted recruiter in Florida. However, this will be Partridge’s first head coaching position, and the Owls have question marks on the offensive line. FAU’s strength should be a defense that ranked No. 1 in Conference USA against the pass and No. 1 in fewest yards allowed in 2013.
 

WKU has a tough schedule to navigate in its Conference USA debut, featuring road trips to MTSU, FAU and Marshall, along with a crossover game against UTSA. The Hilltoppers must replace standout running back Antonio Andrews, but junior Leon Allen is a capable replacement, and quarterback Brandon Doughty should improve his second year under center. WKU's biggest concern is a defense that returns only two starters.
 

UAB, Old Dominion and FIU round out the East Division predictions, with the Blazers picked at No. 5, the Monarchs at No. 6 and the Panthers at No. 7. New UAB coach Bill Clark is the right man for the job in Birmingham, but the Blazers lack experience at quarterback. Old Dominion should have no trouble scoring points behind quarterback Taylor Heinicke, but the defense is a huge issue. FIU struggled in Ron Turner’s debut and has several question marks to address before escaping the cellar of the division.
 

There’s not much separating the top three teams in the West. North Texas, Rice and UTSA are all contenders for the division title, with the Mean Green checking in as Athlon’s pick to win the West.
 

North Texas has plenty of personnel losses on offense, but the line will be a strength with four starters back. And even though the Mean Green return only four starters on defense, there’s plenty of optimism this unit will remain near the top of the conference.
 

Rice might have the most favorable schedule in the West, as North Texas and UTSA play at Rice Stadium in 2014. Of course, the Owls also have to play at Marshall in crossover play. If new quarterback Driphus Jackson picks up where he left off in a reserve role in 2012, Rice could push Marshall for the No. 1 spot in the conference.
 

UTSA is loaded with 17 starters back in 2014. The Roadrunners have a senior-laden depth chart and won’t have to play Marshall during the regular season. Coach Larry Coker and his staff built UTSA into a Conference USA title contender in just four years. Even with the talent in the San Antonio area, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss and UTEP round out the predictions for the West Division.
 

The Bulldogs struggled in Skip Holtz’s debut, and offensive line concerns could keep Louisiana Tech out of the postseason once again. Running back Kenneth Dixon should be a 1,000-yard rusher, and the addition of Manny Diaz as coordinator should help the defense. But in addition to the concerns on the line, Louisiana Tech needs to find a quarterback.
 

Southern Miss has been on a surprising decline over the last few seasons, but it appears the program is headed on the right track. Second-year coach Todd Monken finished 2013 with a little momentum, and sophomore quarterback Nick Mullens is a promising prospect.
 

UTEP has a dangerous offense, but the Miners ranked near the bottom of the nation in scoring and total defense. With Jameill Showers back at quarterback and two solid running backs in Aaron Jones and Nathan Jeffery, UTEP has potential to average 30 points a game. However, the Miners may need to win a lot of shootouts to exceed last year’s two-win mark.


2014 Conference USA Team Previews

 Conference USA Bowl Tie-Ins for 2014


New Mexico: C-USA vs. MW

Hawaii: MW vs. C-USA

Heart of Dallas: C-USA vs. Big Ten

Boca Raton: C-USA vs. MAC

New Mexico: MW vs. C-USA


East DivisionWest Division
FAULouisiana
Tech
FIUNorth
Texas
MarshallRice
MTSUSouthern
Miss
Old
Dominion
UTEP
UABUTSA
Western
Kentucky
 

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the College Football Playoff:

Teaser:
Conference USA 2014 Football Predictions
Post date: Friday, June 6, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-june-5-2014
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for June 5.

The Oregon cheerleaders are apparently enjoying their summer.

• Spurs-themed haircuts have become a thing in San Antonio. Here's the best one I've seen.

Baseball lost a legend yesterday. RIP, Zim.

• Chris Davis' teammates ignored him after his home run, so he high-fived the teammates of his imagination.

Lip-readers will enjoy A.J. Pierzynski's takedown of the home-plate umpire. Worth the ejection.

A breakdown of the mistakes that led to the Kings' Game 1-winning goal.

Colin Kaepernick's insane-sounding contract is actually more team-friendly than it appears.

The 14 smartest players in college football in 2014.

An accused carjacker gave a live TV interview and even tried to hit on the reporter. He was later arrested.

• Creative senior prank: The kids hired a mariachi band to follow the principal around.

A Ghanian witch doctor is claming credit for Cristiano Ronaldo's injury problems

• A Rays reporter got choked up sharing the news of Don Zimmer's death.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, June 5, 2014 - 11:16
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/its-time-washington-redskins-change-their-name
Body:

Matthew McConaughey doesn’t look like he cares. Daniel Snyder certainly appears to have no cause for concern. Robert Griffin III doesn’t have time to worry. And I don’t really care either.

 

But, the thing is, it really isn’t up to any of us to decide if the Washington Redskins should change their name.

 

It’s up to our Native American brethren to decide — maybe, with a little help from some corporate sponsorship (or lack there of) — if the name “Redskins” is offensive.

 

Is the term offensive to me? Not particularly. I've never lost one minute of sleep over what any of our sports teams, college or pro, are called. But as a white male in this country, it’s not my place to decide if the name is hateful or not.

 

(Photo by Dianna Marie Russini)
 

As Snyder and many others have reported, there is plenty of support for the Redskins name among Native Americans. That is their prerogative and their right and we should all respect that. But that opinion is not one that is shared amongst all Native Americans, and if there is just one cross-section, one group or one tribe who deem this term insulting, then isn’t changing the name the right thing to do?

 

When Snyder created The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation (OAF), the National Congress of American Indians responded:


“This foundation will only contribute to the problems in Indian Country if it does not address the very real issue of how Native people are consistently stereotyped, caricaturized and denigrated by mascot imagery and the use of the R-Word slur.”

 

Look up the word “redskin” in any dictionary. The one word that is consistent throughout all definitions is “offensive.” It doesn’t take an Ivy League professor of sociology to understand that the word isn’t meant as a compliment. Even if it is just used to describe a football team.

 

Imagine how horrific the response would be if “red” was changed to describe any other race of American citizen? We would, rightly so, explode in outrage.

 

From a moral standpoint, the decision seems pretty clear. Even if I’ve only ever used the word to describe a bunch of grown men running head-first into each other at full speed for millions of dollars.

 

As much as I don’t want this type of debate to be removed from the court of public opinion and placed into the hands of politicians, unfortunately, it’s the powerbrokers in D.C. and Corporate USA who could control the future of the name. Recently, 50 U.S. Senators signed a letter urging the NFL to formerly support a name change. In a perfect world, these elected officials are representing their constituents. In a perfect world, their motives would be completely pure and for the betterment of the people.

 

We all know this isn’t a world we live in and that money, not moral obligation, is the driving force behind most major decisions. The NFL won’t be forced into action based on a letter signed by Harry Reid. No, it would formally support a name change if — and only if — the debate begins to impact the bottom line. That means sponsorship dollars.

 

A recent social media ploy/blunder from the Redskins to garner public support over NOT changing their name completely backfired. If the responses to the below tweet are indicative of how the greater Native American population feels — which may still be up for debate — then the discussion has reached a tipping point.
 

Teaser:
It's Time for the Washington Redskins to Change Their Name
Post date: Thursday, June 5, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /nba/heat-spurs-2014-nba-finals-preview
Body:

The San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat face off for the second year in a row in the NBA Finals. Last year, the flashy stars from South Beach prevailed over the fundamental, blue-collar team from the Lonestar State. But this year, the home court advantage is reversed, with the majority of the games being played at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. 


The reigning champions had a rocky road leading up to the playoffs, entering the bracket as the No. 2 seed behind the Indiana Pacers. However, the Miami Heat have flipped a switch in the postseason, displaying a dominance and efficiency that has the sports world on the edge of its seat. The Spurs, as usual, steadily steamrolled their opponents all season with a 62-20 record. Their win mark is one of the franchise’s best record in the past 10 years and although the Spur’s big three is cumulatively 106 years old, the team is playing with a remarkable level of youth and energy. 


The NBA Finals air on ABC during primetime (typically at 9 p.m. ET) and will likely register some of the highest TV ratings the NBA has ever seen.  The coaches are the same and the stars are the same, but there have been some changes that may affect the outcome of the series. The NBA Finals has switched the format from a 2-3-2 setup, which was implemented in order to reduce travel issues, to a 3-2-1-1-1 format. This slight change means that the Spurs have true home court advantage this year, which could prove to be a deciding factor since these squads are so evenly matched. Bookies at Bovada list the odds of the Spurs winning at 4/5 with the Heat as the underdog at 21/20. The teams wanted to see each other again, the fans wanted it too, and the NBA gods have blessed us with a Heat-Spurs II, a showdown that should be one for the ages.

 

Game No.DateTime
Game 1 (in San Antonio)Thursday, June 5th9:00 PM
Game 2 (in San Antonio)Sunday, June 8th8:00 PM
Game 3 (in Miami)Tuesday, June 10th9:00 PM
Game 4 (in Miami)Thursday, June 12th9:00 PM
Game 5 (in San Antonio)*Sunday, June 15th8:00 PM
Game 6 (in Miami)*Tuesday, June 17th9:00 PM
Game 7 (in San Antonio)*Friday, June 20th9:00 PM

Positional Matchups

Point Guard
Tony Parker continues to dazzle spectators with his quick and smooth style of play, even in his later years. There's no question that he's one of the premier guards in the NBA, one could even make the argument for Parker as the league’s best. He is, in my opinion, the most important cog in the Spurs’ well-oiled machine and plays well on both ends of the court.  Parker is nursing an ankle injury that could mean problems for the Spurs if he's not 100%.  A true warrior, Tony insists he's fine and will play in Game 1 so only time will tell if his body is in good enough condition to finish out the season on a high note.

The Heat have a less solid answer at the PG position, with Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, LeBron James and even Dwyane Wade taking the ball up the floor at times. Against the Pacers, Cole slowly worked his way into playing big time minutes and was highly effective against the 1 seed, averaging a +12 impact in the Heat’s wins. But in this series last year, Chalmers played the fourth most minutes on the team. Additionally, in the regular season matchups, Chalmers has been featured as the main point guard and is capable of guarding Tony Parker. Chalmers is volatile, as evidenced by his explosion against the Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals. The most important way that Chalmers can affect the game though is on defense, since the Heat have enough scoring at other positions.

Verdict: Advantage Spurs

Shooting Guard
The Spurs are an extremely versatile team at the 2 spot, with terrific role players such as Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, and Marco Bellinelli filling in from time to time. All of those guys, except Ginobili, offer a dangerous weapon off the edge: deadly 3-point shooting. Last year, Green lit up the defending champs from beyond the arc, and Popovich will do all he can to create the same shooting barrage again this year, regardless of who it comes from.

The Heat have two future Hall of Famers playing at the SG position, so they have little to fear regarding this matchup. Dwyane Wade is much healthier now than he was at this time last year, which is one of the major reasons the Spurs shouldn’t be too confident heading into the series. Ray Allen is the best shooter in the history of the NBA and he usually comes off the bench. That’s how stacked this Heat team is.  As long as these two stay on the floor and play quality defensive minutes, the Heat can count on a win in this area.

Verdict: Advantage Heat 

Small Forward
Kawhi Leonard has been developing into a quietly talented player. Whenever the Spurs’ big three decide to retire (which will never happen), Kawhi will take over and become the team’s most important contributor. He has the size and athleticism to match LeBron James on defense, which is crucial for any team that wants to beat the Heat. Guarding the King is easier said than done though, and over the course of a 7-game series, you simply aren’t going to outplay the best player in the world.

LeBron James. You see him on TV everyday. He can guard every player on the court and he can score on anyone. If he plays his best on any given night, he wins the matchup and the Heat most likely win the game. Last year in the finals, LeBron nearly averaged a triple double. After being denied the MVP award this season, James is looking to send a message to the league that the King still reins over the NBA. LeBron forced Charlotte and Brooklyn's defenders into foul trouble and the Pacers were outright overwhelmed by his greatness. Even 1st Team NBA defender Paul George couldn't contain James, which leads one to believe that Kawhi Leonard is in for a long series.

Verdict: Advantage Heat

Power Forward

Tim Duncan is 38 years old and he’s better than you. If you made the case for him as the best PF of all time, I’d listen, so don’t feel too bad that he’d school you and the rest of the NBA’s big men in the low post over and over again. What Duncan lacks in athleticism he makes up for in wisdom and experience.  He’s won 50 or more games every season he’s been in the NBA, making him a model of consistency and the league’s golden standard of professionalism. He’s too tall for Chris Bosh and too skilled for Chris Andersen, so it’s a given that Duncan will produce during this series. The real issue will be slowing him down.

At power forward for the Heat, a couple of players can make an impact.  Udonis Haslem might see some minutes but he’s too small to guard Duncan. LeBron James can shift into the 4 offensively if the Heat want to play super-small-ball, which he did for a good portion of last year’s NBA Finals. Rashard Lewis has been playing decently as of late, but ultimately one of the Heat’s biggest challenges will be finding players to matchup against the Spurs’ bigs. Bosh usually checks in at center, but this series he may find himself paired with Birdman in order to add some size to the lineup. 

Verdict: Advantage Spurs

Center
The Spurs’ weakest position is down low at center, but don’t let Tiago Splitter hear you say that. Splitter averaged 8.2 points and 6.2 rebounds this year and is probably best known for LeBron’s vicious rejection on his dunk attempt last year in the NBA Finals. Yet his size advantage (6’11) makes him a real factor in this series and a key player to watch. He may not be the most exciting athlete on the court, but if Splitter can corral a good amount of rebounds against the Heat, the Spurs may be hoisting the coveted golden ball over their heads this year.     

It’s often overlooked: Chris Bosh is a great player. Playing alongside Wade and James, Bosh can sometimes be overshadowed by his more explosive counterparts.  But when Bosh plays well, the Heat’s winning percentage is through the roof. No one can truly stop Tim Duncan, but if Chris Bosh gets his mid-range jumper going, the same can be said about him. Bosh has added a new facet to his game this year: the 3-pointer. If Bosh heats up from outside, he’ll force the Spurs’ big men to close out quicker on his shots. With the lane clear, LeBron and Wade will have a field day against the Spurs. Even when he plays his best basketball, Bosh is always more of a role player on this Heat team, creating space and diverting defenders away from his teammates. But this role is critical to the team’s success and Bosh seems to have gotten into a groove late in the 2014 playoffs.

Verdict: Advantage Heat

Bench

The Spurs have the best bench in basketball. Almost every player subbing in for San Antonio can knock down threes like James Jones can in a shooting contest. Manu Ginobili has the most left-handed points of all time in the playoffs, and he comes off the bench. When Boris Diaw isn’t occupied at the buffet line, he guards LeBron James surprisingly effectively. The Heat have some serviceable guards and forwards that can offer relief at times, but few of their bench players are that dependable. Rashard Lewis had a great series against the Pacers, even when he wasn’t scoring. But the biggest addition that the Heat can look to against the Spurs will be Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who brings the defending champs an intensity and an uncanny ability to block shots and finish plays that energizes the team and the fanbase. Overall, the Spurs just have too much firepower off the bench and because of their trio’s age, their role players have played valuable minutes over the course of the season that should benefit them down the stretch.

Verdict: Advantage Spurs

Coaching Matchup

Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA. He won the Coach of the Year award this year for stringing together 62 wins with guys who physically shouldn’t be playing basketball any longer. But, Erik Spoelstra triumphed in this matchup last year, and many critics questioned Popovich’s lineup that allowed the Heat to earn an incredible comeback win in Game 6 last year. This is Spo’s fourth finals appearance in four years, as he has mastered the art of small-ball that is taking the league by storm. You have to give him credit for resting Wade for most of this year and still making it to the NBA Finals. Still, Pop is one of the greatest coaches of all time, in any sport. It's hard to bet against that.

Verdict: Advantage Spurs

Prediction

Through the 6 matchups, I have the Heat and Spurs tied 3-3. Much like this outcome, I expect the series to be extremely closely contested. I give a slight edge to the Heat because they have the best player in the world and they are peaking at the perfect time. With Tony Parker’s ankle in doubt and Wade at prime physical form, the Heat have just enough gas left in the tank to grab another championship.

Verdict: Heat in 7

What It Means For Their Legacies

There are almost too many storylines to cover heading into this year’s NBA Finals. Coach Pop is aiming to become the fifth coach in league history to register five NBA championships (he would tie Pat Riley for fifth place). Coach Spo is trying to become the fourth coach to pull off the 3-peat. The Spurs are out for revenge and hoping to solidify themselves as the best post-Jordan’s Bulls franchise. The Heat are in their fourth NBA Finals, which hasn’t been done since the mid-'80s. Duncan and James are each gunning for a Finals MVP, which would give LeBron his third straight and Duncan his fourth total, both amazing accomplishments. The loser of this series could be deprived of an opportunity to make history. This is likely the Spurs’ last shot at a championship because of age restraints, but we’ve been saying that for years. If the Heat lose, with the upcoming free agency period looming, the roster could be altered monumentally and their fantasy-team potentially dismantled. Whatever the case is, this series is a high stakes rematch that will vault the winner into the argument for the greatest dynasties of all time. But no pressure.

Teaser:
Heat-Spurs: 2014 NBA Finals Preview
Post date: Thursday, June 5, 2014 - 08:00
Path: /college-football/sec-win-total-projections-2014
Body:

The start of the 2014 college football season is still over 80 days away, but there is no shortage of news to fill the offseason in the SEC. The preview magazines for 2014 are already on newsstands, and Vegas isn’t far behind with its projections for the upcoming season.

CG Technology has released its win total projections for 2014, with Alabama picked the highest at the over/under of 10.5. The lowest team in the projections was Kentucky at just 3.5.

As expected, the East was a tossup. South Carolina checks in at the over/under of 9.5, while Georgia is on the board at nine. CG Technology also thinks Florida makes a big jump in the win total this year, as the Gators are placed at eight.

There is plenty of time to refine predictions over the next few months, but with the release of the win total projections, let’s take a look at the early thoughts on the over/under projections.

Athlon’s Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven) give their early thoughts on CG Technology’s projections for 2014.

SEC Win Total Projections for 2014: Over, Under or Push
 

East Division

Florida
Opening Number: 8

Braden Gall: Under
A four-game improvement isn’t out of the question and this offense should be dramatically improved. But Alabama, Florida State and LSU are just the tip of the scheduling iceberg in Gainesville this year. I’ll say 7-5.

Steven Lassan: Under
Under, but not by much. Florida has too much talent to finish 4-8 again, and the Gators should have better luck in the injury department. New coordinator Kurt Roper should help Jeff Driskel develop into a solid quarterback, and Florida should be solid on defense once again. Crossover games against LSU and Alabama keep the Gators’ win total under eight.
 

Georgia
Opening Number: 9

Braden Gall: Push
Two tough non-conference games and some brutal SEC tests (at South Carolina, Auburn, Florida, at Mizzou) means that the Bulldogs could win the East at 9-3 even if South Carolina has a better overall record.

Steven Lassan: Over
Georgia is my pick to win the SEC East this year, and I think the Bulldogs could push for 10 or 11 wins. Road games against Missouri and South Carolina are swing dates, and the annual trip to Jacksonville against Florida is never easy. The addition of Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator, along with a healthy Todd Gurley at running back is enough for Georgia to get to 10 victories.
 

Kentucky
Opening Number: 3.5

Braden Gall: Over
The schedule is brutal, but the overall talent is improving for the Wildcats and this coaching staff has to be good for two more wins, right? Only one SEC win likely gets Kentucky to four wins.

Steven Lassan: Over
I see three guaranteed wins for Kentucky – Tennessee-Martin, Ohio and ULM. On paper, it’s hard to find a win in SEC play, but the Wildcats made progress under Mark Stoops last year and should take another step forward in 2014. I don’t know which team it will be, but I think Kentucky beats someone in the SEC this year.
 

Missouri
Opening Number: 8

Braden Gall: Push
I really want to pick Mizzou to win the East but a couple of tough road games temper my expectations . I will take the push, however, due to a very weak non-conference slate. A 5-3 SEC mark wins the over on this bet.

Steven Lassan: Push
Missouri’s slate isn’t overwhelming, but it seems there are a lot of swing games. The Tigers play at Texas A&M and Tennessee late in the year – two teams that will improve as the season progresses. Could easy take the over here if Missouri finds a replacement for receiver Dorial Green-Beckham.
 

South Carolina
Opening Number: 9.5

Braden Gall: Over
There are holes to plug on both sides (QB/DL) but this is a great year to rebuild in the East and the Gamecocks schedule isn’t overly taxing. South Carolina gets a lot of key games at home.

Steven Lassan: Over
Over, but it’s close. Road dates against Florida and Auburn will be challenging, and I like Georgia to win in Columbia this year. Even with the departure of quarterback Connor Shaw and a couple of key losses on the defensive line, South Carolina will be a top-10 team.
 

Tennessee
Opening Number: 5

Braden Gall: Push
This is the hardest schedule in the SEC in 2014 and it includes a road trip to Oklahoma in the non-conference. Even the Vols pull an upset, Tennessee has to win three SEC games to reach bowl eligibility and that is difficult to see.

Steven Lassan: Over
Admittedly, this is going to be tough. However, as I mentioned with Kentucky, I think Tennessee beats someone we don’t expect. The Volunteers should go 3-1 in non-conference play and will need to pickup three wins against SEC foes. The late-season slate – Kentucky, Missouri and at Vanderbilt – might be the best opportunity for the Volunteers to get to six victories.
 

Vanderbilt
Opening Number: 6

Braden Gall: Over
The non-conference schedule (or lack there of) provides four locks for the Dores so a 3-5 mark in the SEC would win the over. This is the toughest conference slate Vandy has played three years but three SEC wins feels very doable for a team with 18 wins in the last two seasons.

Steven Lassan: Push
Derek Mason has a tough assignment ahead as he tries to replace James Franklin after back-to-back nine-win seasons. If LSU transfer Stephen Rivers brings stability to the quarterback position, the Commodores have the defense and rushing attack to push for seven or eight wins. Vanderbilt should go 4-0 in non-conference play, with swing games against Kentucky and Mississippi State the key to whether or not the Commodores hit the over.

 

West Division

Alabama
Opening Number: 10.5

Braden Gall: Over
But just barely. I have Bama winning the SEC and playing in the playoff so 11-1 is almost a must. Frankly, this isn’t an overly troublesome SEC schedule, especially for a team as talented as Bama.

Steven Lassan: Over
I get the preseason concerns about Alabama and the concern at quarterback. But let’s consider this: Only one of the Crimson Tide’s victories was decided by seven points or less last year (Texas A&M). Alabama still has plenty of talent, including a defense and rushing attack that will be among the best in the nation. It seems likely the Crimson Tide drops a game, but I can’t see two losses in the regular season.
 

Arkansas
Opening Number: 4.5

Braden Gall: Under
This one will be tight but with a really tough trip to Lubbock in the non-conference and another nasty slate in the SEC, it’s hard to find more than four wins for Bret Bielema and the Hogs.

Steven Lassan: Under
Much like Kentucky, Arkansas is going to show improvement in 2014. However, the SEC West is college football’s toughest division and there are few guaranteed wins. I would slot the Razorbacks in for wins against Nicholls State, Northern Illinois and UAB and bank on this team finding one in conference play. After all, Arkansas nearly beat LSU last year and lost by seven to Mississippi State on Nov. 23.
 

Auburn
Opening Number: 9.5

Braden Gall: Under
This might be the toughest team to tackle (literally) in 2014. The offense should be unstoppable again but the defense has questions and the road schedule is nasty: at Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, Miss. State and Kansas State.

Steven Lassan: Over
This might be the toughest prediction on the board. Auburn’s offense is lethal even without tackle Greg Robinson and running back Tre Mason. The defense will show improvement in the second year under coordinator Ellis Johnson. However, the biggest obstacle to Auburn’s win total is the schedule. Road dates against Mississippi State, Kansas State, Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss are all games the Tigers could lose.
 

LSU
Opening Number: 9

Braden Gall: Push
The Tigers have issues under center and play a pretty nasty slate, including a neutral site game with Wisconsin. The talent is still there to post another 9-10 wins but the rest of the league appears to have caught up with Les Miles. I'd go under if I had to pick one but Vegas seems to have this one right on.

Steven Lassan: Push
Don’t see LSU hitting the over, but I could see the under. The Tigers have loads of talent, but Les Miles’ team is very young at some key spots – quarterback, defensive tackle and wide receiver. The schedule isn’t terribly taxing, but Ole Miss and Mississippi State have closed the gap and road dates against Auburn, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Florida will be a challenge.
 

Mississippi State
Opening Number: 7

Braden Gall: Push
I really want to take the over and Hail State is surging on defense and under center. But the slate is still really tough and this team rarely finishes better than 3-5 in SEC play.

Steven Lassan: Over
The Bulldogs should be 4-0 in non-conference play, which means they need to get four wins in SEC play to hit the over. That seems reasonable with crossover games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, along with home dates against Texas A&M and Arkansas.
 

Ole Miss
Opening Number: 7.5

Braden Gall: Over
This feels like one of the safer bets on the board as the talent for Ole Miss is as strong as its ever been. It also gets some big swing games at home. An 8-4 seasons feels almost like a lock with 9-3 well within reach.

Steven Lassan: Over
There’s little doubt Ole Miss is trending in the right direction. The talent level is improving under coach Hugh Freeze, and the Rebels should have a healthy Bo Wallace at quarterback and C.J. Johnson at defensive end in 2014. Boise State and UL Lafayette are tough non-conference matchups, but with Auburn, Alabama and Mississippi State visiting Oxford, the potential is there for Ole Miss to play spoiler. 8-4 is reasonable and don’t rule out a 9-3 finish.
 

Texas A&M
Opening Number: 7

Braden Gall: Push
This number is right on. The Aggies will really struggle early in the year but could be very dangerous late in the season (especially, with all those home games). Four easy wins in the non-conference makes the under tough to see.

Steven Lassan: Push
Tempted to take the under here, but I will guess Texas A&M finds a way to get to seven victories. The defense is a huge concern and losing linebacker Darian Claiborne and tackle Isaiah Golden certainly doesn’t help. The Aggies still have a ton of talent, and the offense will score plenty. Expect Texas A&M to improve throughout the year, making this team a threat to Missouri or LSU at the end of 2014.

Teaser:
SEC Win Total Projections for 2014
Post date: Thursday, June 5, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/pac-12-football-2014-predictions
Body:
2014 Pac-12 Predictions
North DivisionPac-12Overall
1. Oregon (No. 6)7-211-2
2. Stanford (No. 12)7-29-3
3. Washington (No. 24)5-49-4
4. Oregon State (No. 53)3-66-6
5. Washington State (No. 56)3-66-6
6. California (No. 76)1-82-10
South DivisionPac-12Overall
1. UCLA (No. 7)7-210-3
2. USC (No. 14)6-39-3
3. Arizona State (No. 16)6-39-3
4. Arizona (No. 45)4-57-5
5. Utah (No. 54)4-56-6
6. Colorado (No. 71)1-84-8
Pac-12 Championship
Oregon over UCLA

The SEC is still college football’s No. 1 conference, but the Pac-12 has made considerable progress in closing the gap over the last few seasons. The Pac-12 is positioned to produce a few contenders in the new playoff format, and the league features a wide-open battle for the No. 1 spot in 2014.
 

Oregon is Athlon’s projected champion of the Pac-12, but Stanford, UCLA and USC aren’t far behind. The Ducks need to keep quarterback Marcus Mariota healthy and find new set of receivers after the loss of Bralon Addison for the year due to injury.


Stanford has defeated Oregon in each of the last two years and is a close No. 2 in the North. Both teams are breaking in new defensive coordinators, but there is a clear advantage in the schedule to Oregon. The Cardinal has a tougher slate ahead – one that features five teams projected to finish in Athlon’s top 25 for 2014. Despite the changes on the coaching staff, Stanford should be solid on defense, while quarterback Kevin Hogan should benefit from a stocked receiving corps.
 

Washington is projected to finish No. 3 in the North, and the Huskies will be an intriguing team to watch. With quarterback Cyler Miles back in the mix, Chris Petersen’s first year in Seattle got a lot easier. Petersen was regarded as one of the nation’s top coaches from his stint at Boise State, and he inherits a team with enough talent to push Oregon or Stanford in the North standings.


Rounding out the North Division projections is Oregon State at No. 4, Washington State at No. 5 and California at No. 6. The Golden Bears struggled in Sonny Dykes’ first year, but injuries played a major role in the team’s win total. With better luck in the health department, combined with improvement by quarterback Jared Goff, California will be a much-improved team in 2014. Oregon State and Washington State have a chance to surprise this year, but both teams have considerable question marks on the offensive line.
 

Much like the North Division, the South is crowded at the top. UCLA is Athlon’s projected champion, but USC is a close No. 2. The Bruins have one of the conference’s toughest schedules in 2014. However, UCLA hosts USC, Stanford and Oregon this year. The Bruins also return quarterback Brett Hundley and seven starters from one of the Pac-12’s top defenses.

USC appears to have the right coach in Steve Sarkisian, but the Trojans still have depth issues from NCAA sanctions. If USC avoids major injuries – especially on the offensive line – the Trojans could be a top-10 team in 2014.
 

Arizona State is the defending Pac-12 South champion, and Todd Graham’s team will be in the mix once again. However, the Sun Devils have several holes to fill on defense. Only two starters are back, and standouts like tackle Will Sutton must be replaced.
 

Arizona is an intriguing team to watch in 2014. The Wildcats are making steady gains under third-year coach Rich Rodriguez, but there’s uncertainty at quarterback, and running back Ka’Deem Carey must be replaced.

Utah and Colorado are predicted to finish at the bottom of the South, but both teams will show improvement in 2014.
 

Prep for the 2014 season, follow Athlon Sports and its college football editors on Twitter: @AthlonSports, Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), David Fox (@DavidFox615) and Braden Gall (@BradenGall)

 

Inside the War Room: Key Questions That Shaped Athlon's 2014 Predictions
 

Stanford has beaten Oregon two years in a row and won the division title two years in a row, yet Oregon is the pick again. Please explain.

Maybe we’re slow learners, but we still like Oregon in the Pac-12. A healthy Marcus Mariota is perhaps the top quarterback in the country and a Heisman contender. When Mariota’s mobility was hindered due to injury, Oregon’s offense stalled. He’ll have to stay healthy, and with five returning offensive linemen, that’s possible. We’re a little curious how the Ducks’ defense will turn out with Nick Aliotti gone, but Oregon has a building block at every level of the defense, led by Thorpe-contending cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Stanford should remain a Pac-12 contender, but the Cardinal lost much of the foundation of the last two teams, both on the offensive line and in the linebacker corps. Stanford should be able to reload, but that process might not be immediate. We also have questions about Kevin Hogan’s potential. He doesn’t need to be as dynamic a quarterback as many of his counterparts in the Pac-12, but he needs to give Stanford more than he did last season. It’s a close call for the No. 1 spot in the North, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that Oregon has a much easier schedule than Stanford in 2014. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
 

Washington, with Chris Petersen now in charge, seems to be on the move. Can this team challenge Stanford for second place in the North?

Yes. In our rankings meeting, we even talked about Washington finishing as high as second in the North. Many of the big names are gone on offense, including Keith Price, Bishop Sankey and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but Washington’s offense should be in capable hands with highly regarded quarterback prospect Cyler Miles, who was reinstated to the team after spring practice. Five offensive line starters return, three of whom were honorable mention All-Pac-12 selections. The defense also returns seven starters. Steve Sarkisian rebuilt the roster with top-25 classes from 2010-13, so the core of this team is ready to compete. Throw in a Stanford team with question marks, and one that Washington has played well the last two seasons, and the Huskies could be ready to make a move. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
 

What gives UCLA the edge in the South? The Bruins have a tough schedule.

The schedule is tough, as UCLA draws Oregon and Stanford for the second consecutive season, plus a road trip to Washington from the North. But compared to last season, UCLA gets a bit of a break. The Bruins faced both Stanford and Oregon last year, both on the road and in back-to-back weeks. Having both games at home separated by seven weeks is a fortunate change of pace. In addition, UCLA may be equipped to handle a tough schedule. Brett Hundley will be one of the better quarterbacks in the nation, and he is surrounded by outstanding talent. With a coaching change at USC and the defense rebuilding at Arizona State, the timing has never been better for UCLA to compete for a Pac-12 title under Jim L. Mora. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
 

Is there a potential sleeper in the North?

Washington is definitely a team that could surprise this year, but let’s use the sleeper designation on a team picked No. 5 in the standings – Washington State. The Cougars took a step forward under Mike Leach last year, finishing 6-7 and winning four games in Pac-12 play. With 12 starters back, Washington State could improve upon its win total even more in 2014. Quarterback Connor Halliday threw for 4,597 yards and 34 scores last season and has another offseason to learn Leach’s pass-first offense. The Cougars also have one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps, along with an underrated front seven on defense. The biggest areas of concern are in the secondary, and an offensive line that has just two starters back. Expect more improvement from Washington State in 2014, and this team has potential to pull an upset or two this year. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
 

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the College Football Playoff


Arizona has a big question at quarterback. If the Wildcats find a suitable signal-caller, can they challenge?

That’s an interesting question, considering that at this point last season, no one would have picked B.J. Denker to be the quarterback to lead Arizona to an 8–5 season. With Denker gone, Arizona has a crowd at quarterback, but the pieces are there for the winner of the job to succeed — an experienced offensive line and standout receiving corps. We wonder how the running game will recover without Ka’Deem Carey, but, again, this is an area to trust Rich Rodriguez. The defense has improved under RichRod, but this is still a team with too many questions to realistically compete with UCLA, USC and Arizona State. Can this team challenge for a bowl berth and a surprising season? Yes. A South Division title? No. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
 

What is Utah’s outlook in the South?

After winning four conference games in their Pac-12 debut in 2011, the Utes are just 5-13 over the last two years. Utah has also missed a bowl for two consecutive seasons. Despite the losing record from 2012-13, the Utes could rebound back into the postseason in 2014. Sure, the schedule is tough. Crossover games against Oregon and Stanford will be challenging, and Utah has a non-conference date against Michigan. However, quarterback Travis Wilson is on track to return to the team, and new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen should help an offense that averaged only 29.2 points per game last season. As usual, Utah will be solid on defense. It may require an upset, but the Utes have a good shot to get back into the postseason in 2014. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
 

Which of Cal or Colorado is closer to being relevant?

Both teams are a long way from returning to where they’ve been, but Colorado is in better shape for 2014 and the short-term future. Both teams struggled to compete against Pac-12 teams last year, but Colorado defeated Cal 41–24 in mid-November. Cal had an exodus of players leaving early for the NFL Draft, plus a restructuring of the defensive coaching staff. Colorado, which returns 14 starters, had no such turnover in Mike MacIntyre’s second offseason. That’s going to give Colorado a leg up as the Buffaloes try to return to bowl contention. Both teams are improving, but it would be a surprise to see either in a bowl this year. – David Fox (@DavidFox615) 
 

2014 Pac-12 Team Previews

 

Pac-12 Bowl Tie-Ins for 2014

At-Large Access Bowl: Pac-12 Champion*

Alamo: Pac-12 vs. Big 12

Holiday: Pac-12 vs. Big Ten

San Francisco: Pac-12 vs. Big Ten

Sun: Pac-12 vs. ACC

Las Vegas: Pac-12 vs. Mountain West

Buffalo Wild Wings: Pac-12 vs. Big 12

* If conference champ is not in CFB Playoff

NorthSouth
CaliforniaArizona
OregonArizona State
Oregon StateColorado
StanfordUCLA
WashingtonUSC
Washington StateUtah



 

















 

Pac-12 Notebook

 

by Dan Raley

 

Help Wanted

In search of a starting quarterback, Arizona had six players take significant snaps in spring practice. There were recycled signal-callers galore, including little-used transfers from LSU, Louisiana Tech, USC and Texas. Big ones, short ones, everything but a clear-cut leader. It was a reality TV show in the making. Amazing Race II.


No Pac-12 position battle has more candidates, uncertainty or wackiness than the Wildcats’ long-running audition for someone to run the huddle. Coach Rich Rodriguez is still taking applications, checking references.
 

Just two of the spring QB candidates played in an actual game at the position, and their experience comes with a disclaimer: Nick Isham (transferred from Arizona after spring practice) started seven times for Louisiana Tech in 2011 and wound up that season as a wide receiver; Jesse Scroggins got in for a solitary play to end a USC game in 2011. That’s it.
 

Rodriguez likely will need most of fall camp to find his guy. Hey, does Nick Foles have any eligibility left?


“If you’re trying to figure that out, good luck,” Rodriguez says of the competition.


For Pete’s Sake 

He may be considered one of college football’s bright coaching minds after compiling a gaudy 92–12 record at Boise State, but Chris Petersen still has a lot to prove at Washington: Mainly, he needs to prove that, unlike his two Broncos coaching predecessors, he can make a splash at a bigger school.
 

In 2000, Dirk Koetter left Boise State — after collecting consecutive bowl victories and posting a 26–10 record — and landed at Arizona State, where he was fired after posting a mediocre 40–34 mark over six seasons. Dan Hawkins compiled a 53–11 record and won two of four bowl games in Boise through 2005, but he bombed at Colorado, winning just 19 of 58 outings in the Big 12. He was fired, too. 


“We just know our way,” a hopeful Petersen says of his Broncos-turned-Huskies staff. “It’s been successful for us.”


Leach’s Reach 

One of the Pac-12’s major developments in 2013 was Washington State’s return to the postseason. It had been a while — since the Holiday Bowl against Texas in 2003, to be exact. This particular step was an important barometer for rebuilding coach Mike Leach, overlooking the fact that the Cougars blew a 22-point lead to Colorado State in the New Mexico Bowl and lost 48–45.
 

“Even though we all felt like we left meat on the table, the program hadn’t been to a bowl game in 10 years,” Leach says. “So from that standpoint, we’re ahead of schedule.”


Oregon Identity Crisis

Arik Armstead is a 6’8”, 280-pound Oregon junior and a player long regarded as one of the top pro prospects in the Pac-12. The only question is where. The Ducks list him as a defensive tackle. He prefers defensive end. NFL scouts say, with his footwork, he should be an offensive tackle. One thing he’s not anymore: a college basketball player. After two abbreviated seasons with the Oregon hoops team, Armstead decided he was done trying to be a two-sport athlete and was ready to concentrate solely on football. “I have decided to focus my full attention on academics and being the best football player for the University of Oregon I could possibly be,” he said.
 

Secondary Issue

The late hiring didn’t get a lot of outside attention, coming on the eve of spring practice, but Stanford picked up one of the college game’s true characters in defensive backs coach Duane Akina. An inspirational and well-traveled leader, the fiery Akina was responsible for Texas being nicknamed “DBU” in his 13 seasons there, played a key role in the assembly of Arizona’s “Desert Swarm” defense in his 14 seasons there, and first learned the game while handling two roles for Washington’s legendary coach, Don James, as a graduate assistant coach and Warren Moon’s backup quarterback. That’s a track record that's hard for anyone to beat.
 

Pros and Cons 

UCLA junior quarterback Brett Hundley took the bold step of passing on a certain NFL career and returning for one more season in Westwood. It was a decision worth millions. Had he come out, pro scouts considered Hundley a top-10 pick, possibly the top QB on the draft board.

Hundley, who will be a Heisman Trophy contender, consulted with former Bruins turned pro players in Johnathan Franklin and Datone Jones, with the former telling him, “There are some things in life that you don’t want to rush.” Hundley’s decision likely would have been far different had UCLA coach Jim Mora accepted an offer to coach at Washington, his alma mater.

 

Pac-12 Coordinator Carousel

 

by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)

 

Arizona State: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Chris Ball, Paul Randolph; New: Chris Ball, Keith Patterson

Randolph is still on staff and will continue to coach Arizona State’s defensive ends. Patterson, the defensive coordinator at West Virginia the past two seasons, has known Arizona State head coach Todd Graham for decades. The two were college roommates at East Central University in Texas, and Patterson previously worked for Graham at Pitt.
 

California: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Andy Buh; New: Art Kaufman

Buh is still at California but not in a coaching role. He was reassigned to a new role in the athletic department in March. Kaufman was fired as the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati in January despite leading the Bearcats’ defense to a final ranking of No. 9 nationally.
 

Oregon: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Nick Aliotti; New: Don Pellum

Aliotti retired following the 2013 season. Pellum was promoted after serving as a position coach — most recently linebackers — at Oregon since 1993. This is his first stint as a defensive coordinator on any level.
 

Oregon State: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Danny Langsdorf; New: John Garrett

Langsdorf took a job as the quarterbacks coach of the New York Giants. Garrett was the wide receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013 after a six-year stint with the Dallas Cowboys. His brother, Jason, is the Cowboys’ head coach.
 

Stanford: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Derek Mason; New: Lance Anderson

Mason is now the head coach at Vanderbilt. Anderson was promoted from his position as outside linebackers coach to defensive coordinator.
 

UCLA: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Lou Spanos; New: Jeff Ulbrich

Spanos was hired by the Tennessee Titans to coach linebackers. Ulbrich was promoted after serving as UCLA’s linebackers coach the past two seasons. 
 

USC: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Lane Kiffin, Clay Helton; New: Clay Helton

Kiffin was fired as the Trojans’ head coach last October. He is now the offensive coordinator at Alabama. Helton was retained by new USC coach Steve Sarkisian.
 

USC: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Clancy Pendergast; New: Justin Wilcox

Pendergast was not retained by Steve Sarkisian and did not have a job as of late April. Wilcox followed Sarkisian from Washington, where he had been the Huskies’ defensive coordinator the past two seasons.
 

Utah: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Dennis Erickson, Brian Johnson; New: Dave Christensen

Erickson was demoted and will now only serve as the running backs coach. Johnson, a former starting quarterback at Utah, left in February to take a job as the quarterbacks coach at Mississippi State. Christensen was fired as the head coach at Wyoming following the 2013 season.
 

Washington: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Eric Kiesau; New: Jonathan Smith

Kiesau is now the wide receivers coach at Kansas. Smith, a former standout quarterback at Oregon State, previously was the quarterbacks coach at Boise State under new Washington coach Chris Petersen.
 

Washington: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Justin Wilcox; New: Pete Kwiatkowski

Wilcox followed Steve Sarkisian from Washington to USC. Kwiatkowski was the defensive coordinator at Boise State the past four seasons. This is his first job in the Pac-12.

Teaser:
Pac-12 Football 2014 Predictions
Post date: Thursday, June 5, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/mountain-west-2014-football-predictions
Body:

2014 Mountain West Predictions

Mountain DivisionMWOverall 
1. Boise State (No. 46)7-111-2 
2. Utah State (No. 49)6-29-4 
3. Colorado State (No. 74)5-37-5 
4. Wyoming (No. 94)3-55-7 
5. Air Force (No. 105)1-74-8 
6. New Mexico (No. 106)1-73-9 
West DivisionMWOverall 
1. Fresno State (No. 62)8-57-1 
2. Nevada (No. 82)5-36-6 
3. San Diego State (No. 83)5-37-5 
4. UNLV (No. 101)4-45-8 
5. San Jose State (No. 103)3-54-8 
6. Hawaii (No. 118)1-72-11 
Mountain West Championship
 Boise State over Fresno State 
The Mountain West didn’t have any changes in membership or realignment talk this offseason, but it was a busy period for the conference’s top programs.
 
Boise State lost coach Chris Petersen to Washington, but former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin was hired away from Arkansas State to keep the program at the top of the conference. Harsin inherits a team that returns 12 starters, but there are concerns for the Broncos on the offensive and defensive lines. Youth and injuries hurt Boise State’s overall depth last season, and a challenging schedule is on tap early in the year, including a neutral site game against Ole Miss.
 
Boise State is Athlon’s projected champion in the Mountain West, but the Broncos are ranked only No. 46 nationally. The Mountain West isn’t as strong as it was in 2013, largely due to the personnel losses at Utah State and Fresno State. The Aggies are a close No. 2 in the Mountain Division to Boise State, and quarterback Chuckie Keeton is back from a torn ACL suffered in early October. Keeton’s return is crucial for an offense that returns only three starters and must replace four key cogs on the line.
 
Even though Colorado State loses standout center Weston Richburg and running back Kapri Bibbs, the Rams were a clear No. 3 in Athlon’s predictions for the Mountain Division. Quarterback Garrett Grayson leads an improving passing attack, and third-year coach Jim McElwain has the program trending in the right direction.
 
Rounding out the rest of the Mountain Division is Wyoming, Air Force and New Mexico. New Wyoming coach Craig Bohl was one of the top hires by any program this offseason, and the Cowboys could push for a bowl in 2014. Air Force and New Mexico will also show improvement, but both programs have to find answers on defense to push for a postseason appearance.
 
Fresno State is Athlon’s projected champion of the West Division, and the Bulldogs have a considerable edge over Nevada and San Diego State. Despite losing quarterback Derek Carr, Fresno State is still a Mountain West title contender, as receiver Josh Harper is one of the best in the conference, and eight starters return on an improving defense.
 

Mountain West Bowl Tie-Ins for 2014

 
Las Vegas: MW vs. Pac-12
New Orleans: MW vs. Sun Belt
Poinsettia: MW vs. Navy
Hawaii: MW vs. C-USA
Famous Idaho Potato: MW vs. MAC
New Mexico: MW vs. C-USA
It’s a tossup between Nevada and San Diego State for the No. 2 spot, but the Wolf Pack should be better in the second year under Brian Polian. Quarterback Cody Fajardo battled injuries last season, and new coordinator Scott Boone should help a defense that allowed over 500 yards per game in 2013. The Aztecs should be solid once again, but a tough road schedule could prevent this team from matching last year’s eight wins.
 
UNLV made considerable progress under Bobby Hauck last year, but the Rebels are banned from postseason play. Hauck will have to fight motivation concerns all year, and standout guard Cameron Jefferson transferred to Arkansas this summer.
 
San Jose State has to find a replacement for quarterback David Fales, and coach Ron Caragher hopes the addition of veteran coordinator Greg Robinson will improve a defense that allowed 35.1 points per game in 2013.
 
Hawaii is picked to finish No. 6 in the West, as the Warriors have a handful of question marks on both sides of the ball. A full season from running back Joey Iosefa will help, but there’s uncertainty at quarterback, and the defense allowed nearly 40 points per game in 2013. The Rainbow Warriors showed some improvement in Norm Chow’s second year and need to take another step forward to escape the bottom of the West Division in 2014.
 
Related Content: Projected Final Ranking for All 128 College Football Teams for 2014
 
 

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the College Football Playoff

 

Five Key Conference Games to Watch in 2014

 
San Diego State at Fresno State (Oct. 3)
Aztecs lost by seven in overtime last year. Without Derek Carr and Davante Adams, can the Bulldogs hold off San Diego State once again?
 
Fresno State at Boise State (Oct. 17)
Rematch of last year’s entertaining 41-40 shootout at Fresno, and this game could be an early preview of the Mountain West title game in December.
 
San Diego State at Boise State (Nov. 15)
Aztecs have won two in a row over Boise State. Can San Diego State continue their success against the Broncos?
 
Fresno State at Nevada (Nov. 22)
If the Wolf Pack want to challenge for the West Division title, beating the Bulldogs on Nov. 22 is a must.
 
Utah State at Boise State (Nov. 29)
The Aggies have not won a game at Boise since 1996. A win over the Broncos on Nov. 29 could decide the Mountain Division.
Teaser:
Mountain West 2014 Football Predictions
Post date: Thursday, June 5, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /2014-college-football-summer-media-days-schedule
Body:

The Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 has been unveiled. This means that the next big date on the college football calendar will be summer media events.

Media Days are more matter of fact than breaking news but no matter how you view these kickoff luncheons, they signify the beginning of the season for most coaches, administrators, coaches and fans.

Here is a complete summer media days schedule for 2014:

SEC: July 14-July 17
Hoover, Ala. (Wynfrey Hotel)

Monday will feature Mike Slive and defending champ Gus Malzahn as well as Florida’s Will Muschamp and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason. Steve Spurrier, Dan Mullen, Kevin Sumlin and Butch Jones will visit with the throngs on Tuesday. Gary Pinkel, Les Miles and Bret Bielema go on Wednesday and Mark Richt, Hugh Freeze, Nick Saban and Mark Stoops show up on Thursday.

ACC: July 20-21
Greensboro, N.C. (Grandover Resort)

Always revolving around golf, the 14 schools will provide coaches and players as well as plenty of sunshine on the links.

Sun Belt: July 21
New Orleans, La. (Superdome)

Mountain West: July 22-23
Las Vegas, Nev. (The Cosmopolitan Hotel)

C-USA: July 22-23
Irving, Texas (TBD)

MAC: July 22-23
Detroit, Mich. (Ford Field)

Big 12: July 23-24
Dallas, Texas (Westin Galleria)

Wednesday will feature TCU, Iowa State, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech while Thursday will be Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas and West Virginia.

Pac-12: July 23-24
Los Angeles, Calif. (The Studios at Paramount)

Few events are held at a cooler place than The Studios at Paramount. Players and coaches hobnob with media types from all over in the most laid back media days in the country.

Big Ten: July 28-29
Chicago, Ill. (Hilton Chicago)

The 43rd annual Kickoff Luncheon is always a highlight of the summer media tour as the keynote player speech has turned into a highlight. Kirk Cousins, Denard Robinson and John Urschel (last year) have given excellent performances of late.

American Athletic: July 28-29
Newport, R.I. (Hyatt Regency)

The final media event is always one of the more enjoyable from a media standpoint. Monday will feature a golf outing and dinner at the Hyatt Regency Newport while all players and coaches will visit with the media on Tuesday.

Teaser:
2014 College Football Summer Media Days Schedule
Post date: Wednesday, June 4, 2014 - 11:25
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-june-4-2014
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for June 4.

Happy 29th birthday to swimsuit legend Bar Rafaeli.

Robocop threw out the first pitch at the Tigers game yesterday. He short-hopped it. Can't Detroit do anything right?

• This is fun: NHL logos redone, Simpsons-style.

• Vine of the day: 50 Cent vs. Bartolo Colon.

• Runner-up for Vine of the day: Jose Abreu almost kills a guy with a screaming liner. Put your head on a swivel when Abreu's batting.

• Second runner-up for Vine of the day: A video glitch gives Brett Lawrie a rather jittery batting stance.

So did Ben Tate diss Johnny Manziel or not? You be the judge.

Max Scherzer puzzled over a crossword clue about himself. The most interesting thing about the story to me: Scherzer's eyes are two different colors.

Wrestler Abdullah the Butcher gave another wrestler Hepatitis C in the ring. I'm going to go vomit now.

The Cubs are giving away a Babe Ruth "called shot" bobblehead. Three problems here: It looks nothing like him; he never actually called his shot; and the Cubs are honoring a moment that was bad for them. Other than that, great idea.

It'll be all business when tennis hotties Maria Sharapova and Genie Bouchard face off.

• Slightly terrifying moment from the Rays-Marlins game. Terrifying for Casey McGehee, anyway.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, June 4, 2014 - 10:59
Path: /college-football/vanderbilt-finds-its-starting-qb-lsu-transfer-stephen-rivers
Body:

Vanderbilt heads into its first season under Derek Mason with uncertainty at quarterback, but the Commodores officially added LSU transfer Stephen Rivers into the mix on Wednesday. Rivers graduated from LSU, so he will be eligible to play immediately in 2014. The junior is expected to start for Vanderbilt in 2014, with Patton Robinette or Johnny McCrary battling for the No. 2 job.

In three years at LSU, Rivers threw two passes in mop-up duty and played in four career games.

The Alabama native is the brother of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and was a three-star recruit as a high school senior.

Although Rivers doesn’t have much experience, his addition bolsters a thin quarterback depth chart for Mason.

At 6-foot-7 and 223 pounds, Rivers is an intriguing prospect and will have to get acclimated to the offense in a hurry. Vanderbilt opens the year with Temple, followed by a SEC date against Ole Miss in Week 2.

New coordinator Karl Dorrell is expected to lean heavily on the ground game, but if Rivers develops into a solid option at quarterback, the Commodores should reach a bowl game for the fourth consecutive season.
 

Teaser:
Vanderbilt Finds its Starting QB in LSU Transfer Stephen Rivers
Post date: Wednesday, June 4, 2014 - 10:29
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/ranking-nfl-defensive-rookies-year-candidates-2014
Body:

Four rookies went to the Pro Bowl in 2013. Three played on offense and they all were from the NFC North — the Packers' Eddie Lacy, the Bears’ Kyle Long and Vikings’ Cordarrelle Patterson. The lone defensive Pro Bowler was San Francisco thumper Eric Reid.

However, the NFL AP Defensive Rookie of the Year was Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. The former Mizzou star and first-round pick (13th overall) was just the second non-linebacker to win the DROY award since 2002 (Ndamukong Suh in 2010). A linebacker has taken home nine of the last 11 DROY honors and no defensive back has won the award since Charles Woodson in 1998.

Additionally, the last seven DROYs were not only first-round picks but were all top-15 selections. DeMeco Ryans in 2006 was the last NFL DROY taken outside of the first round (33rd overall). So the best bets for 2014 ROY on defense would have to be a linebacker or a defensive lineman taken in the first half of the first round.

With that in mind, here are our favorites for AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014:

Note: Odds courtesy of Sportsbook.com

1. C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore (15/1)
He was taken with the 17th overall pick — basically, the halfway mark — and plays a pure linebacker position for a defense traditionally built around the position. Mosley is incredibly instinctual, will stuff the stat box, will play on a team pushing for a division title and/or playoff spot and should start from the first week of the season. Mosley is already a high-profile name after two national championships at Alabama, so he should be a household name quickly on the NFL level as well.

2. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston (2/1)
Both literally and figuratively, the biggest name in the ’14 draft class is the star defensive end from South Carolina. The No. 1 overall pick could play a variety of spots for the Texans and is the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors according to Vegas lines. Clowney is a physical specimen the draft hasn’t seen since Julius Peppers won ROY a decade ago. With J.J. Watt opposite of Clowney, the Texans' hybrid pass-rusher has a great chance to live up to the remarkable hype.

3. Ryan Shazier, LB, Pittsburgh (8/1)
From a playmaking standpoint, few players were as good in college as the former Ohio State Buckeye. Shazier posted 144 tackles, 23.5 for a loss, seven sacks and four forced fumbles last year. He was taken in the top 15 (15th) and lands on a team that is known for developing linebackers. Look for Shazier to play all over the defense, to stuff the stat sheet and find himself in the heart of the ROY race at year’s end.

4. Khalil Mack, LB, Oakland (4/1)
Mack is an explosive edge player that may get lost on  a really bad team. The former Buffalo Bulls linebacker could finish with admirable stats — 50 tackles, 12.0 TFL and 8.0 sacks, for example — and still not find himself atop the ROY charts. Playing in the Bay Area on a bad team is a recipe for obscurity. Barring a monstrous first season, Mack won’t win Rookie of the Year honors despite what many believe is electric playmaking ability.

5. Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis (8/1)
The former Pitt Panthers nose guard posted arguably the most productive and decorated single-season in NCAA history for a D-lineman. He won every award and posted 59 tackles, 28.5 for a loss, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles while stepping up in competition from the former Big East to the ACC. And with opposing offensive lines focused on Robert Quinn and Chris Long, Donald has a chance to have a Richardson-like season in St. Louis.

6. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Green Bay (25/1)
Few safeties step into a better situation than Clinton-Dix in Green Bay. He will learn alongside a great player in Morgan Burnett and comes from a school known for producing elite defensive backs. Clinton-Dix will start from day one and has a long track record of elite talent (five-star recruit) and big-time success (two-time NCAA champion). It’s tough for a defensive back to win the award but a playmaking safety in Titletown might be the best bet.

7. Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota (10/1)
Barr is a lengthy, prototypical hybrid edge rusher who was a terror getting after quarterbacks at UCLA. He posted 23 sacks over the last two seasons and has only been playing defense for a few seasons after entering college as an offensive player. Barr will have some development to get through but his size, athleticism and playmaking ability on a defense that is rebuilding quickly should make him a factor in the ROY race next year.

8. Deone Bucannon, S, Arizona (40/1)
On a team with an excellent front seven and plenty of other playmakers in the secondary, Bucannon has a chance to step right into a starting role and make a huge impact. What will make Bucannon a candidate for ROY, however, will be his highlight-reel hits. The former Washington State Cougars safety is arguably the hardest thumper in this class and his game film will stand out among most rookies.

9. Dee Ford, LB, Kansas City (15/1)
Normally, a first-round defensive lineman for the Chiefs would be a recipe for disaster but Ford should break that mold. First, he will play both end and linebacker but his bread and butter in college was rushing the passer. He will make plays off the edge for a team that is loaded with first-round picks all over the defense. He won’t be asked to be a star — which will help him develop into a better player but likely won’t get him into the ROY conversation.

10. Calvin Pryor, S, NY Jets (25/1)
As previously mentioned, defensive backs rarely win the ROY award but there is a trio of safeties in this class who are excellent players stepping into big roles on quality teams. Pryor is one of them as he should start right away for the defensive-minded Jets. He was a big-time winner and produced at an elite level for a Louisville team that won a lot of games during his career (try 23-3 in the last two seasons).

Other names to consider:

Kyle Fuller, CB, Chicago (15/1)
DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas (40/1)
Timmy Jernigan, DE, Baltimore (30/1)
Darqueze Dennard, CB, Cincinnati (20/1)
Bradley Roby, CB, Denver (25/1)

Teaser:
Ranking the NFL Defensive Rookies of the Year Candidates for 2014
Post date: Wednesday, June 4, 2014 - 07:15

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