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If the Indianapolis Colts are guilty of anything the past two seasons, it’s that they’ve won too fast since being resurrected. Eleven wins in each regular season and a playoff victory over Kansas City in January erased memories of the 2–14 implosion in 2011. And so, familiar expectations from the Peyton Manning era have quickly returned — it’s Super Bowl or bust for quarterback Andrew Luck and company. The rest of the AFC South has been mired in mediocrity or worse, which leaves the Colts as the team to beat once again. But division titles aren’t enough. General manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano enter their third season with the understanding that nobody remembers playoff qualifiers who exit in January. It’s about getting to February.
Luck has passed for more yards in his first two seasons (8,196) than any quarterback in NFL history, thriving despite a shaky offensive line and sputtering run game. Grigson, a former O-lineman, didn’t need to be reminded that the line is still a No. 1 priority, considering that Luck has been sacked 73 times.
An obvious question is: Who will play center? Samson Satele was jettisoned with one year remaining on his contract, too expensive and underwhelming. Khaled Holmes, a fourth-round pick last year, couldn’t get on the field. Grigson insists the Colts will start with Holmes. They drafted Ohio State All-America tackle Jack Mewhort presumably to play guard. An addition that's even more important considering the season-ending quadriceps injury suffered by fellow guard and potential center candidate Donald Thomas. Mewhort and second-year right guard Hugh Thornton will both need to perform right away.
Inquiring minds wonder if this is running back Trent Richardson’s last chance to prove he was worth the 2014 first-round pick Grigson sent to Cleveland last year. The former No. 3 overall selection — after Luck and Robert Griffin III — averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and was a step slow. The Colts considered the alternatives and re-signed veteran Ahmad Bradshaw, lost after three games to a neck injury. The team was hopeful to get Vick Ballard, steady as a rookie in 2012, back after he missed last season with a knee injury, but he tore his Achilles early in training camp. It’s hard to believe Richardson will suddenly blossom, but Ballard's already out for the season and Bradshaw has had trouble staying healthy. It's possible someone else emerges, but don’t be surprised if Bradshaw gets most of the workload.
Wide receiver Reggie Wayne has been a leader, but he’s coming off knee surgery that shortened last season to seven games. At 35 and entering the final year of his contract, Wayne has to return to some semblance of his six-time Pro Bowl form. He’s looked strong in rehab. Hakeem Nicks has something to prove after the Colts took a one-year chance on the ex-Giants target. T.Y. Hilton emerged as a go-to player, but the idea is to share the wealth and not be forced to rely on an undersized speedster. Tight end Dwayne Allen is back after missing almost all of last season with a hip injury. He scraped the surface of his talent as a rookie and could have a breakout year. Third-year pro Coby Fleener is a decent tight end, not flashy but reliable.
While the Colts were ninth in points allowed at 21 per game, coordinator Greg Manusky’s unit had issues getting stops. Expect inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (Cleveland) and defensive end Arthur Jones (Baltimore) to shore up the 26th-ranked run defense. Jackson is a tackling machine in the mold of Colts’ top tackler Jerrell Freeman. Jones is versatile and can play anywhere on the line.
The Colts paid big bucks to bring back cornerback Vontae Davis, who excels at the press coverage this 3-4 scheme requires. While effective as a shutdown corner, he’s also been inconsistent. The Colts are paying him $39 million over four years to be one of the NFL’s best cover guys. On the other side, injury-prone Greg Toler lived up to his reputation with just seven starts. When Davis and Toler were on the field together, the 13th-ranked pass defense was effective. But depth is an issue with Josh Gordy and Darius Butler vying for playing time at nickel. They’ve made plays, but they’ve been burned, too.
Robert Mathis, at 33, is still one of the game’s elite pass-rushers. But the Colts will be without the league’s reigning sack champion (19.5) for the first four games of the season due to a league-mandated suspension. With or without Mathis, the Colts need more help rushing the quarterback. Outside linebacker Bjoern Werner, the 2013 first-round pick, got hurt early and struggled. He’ll get every opportunity to rack up sacks, considering that outside linebacker Erik Walden is more suited to stopping the run. Mindful of a lack of pass-rush depth, Grigson used a fifth-round pick on Ball State outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome, who had 16.5 sacks in 23 games for the Cardinals. At best, he’s a situational pass-rusher.
The Colts didn’t keep safety Antoine Bethea, so there’s a hole next to hard-hitting LaRon Landry. Expect Delano Howell, undrafted in 2012, to get the first crack at free safety, provided the neck injury he sustained during training camp doesn't turn out to be too serious. Howell was reliable in six games last season before injuring his foot. Special teams ace Sergio Brown might also get a look and veteran Mike Adams has been added to the mix as well.
Pagano was a defensive coordinator in Baltimore, so nothing less than marked improvement is the expectation. But if the Colts struggle again against the run and don’t have a consistent pass rush, the scheme unravels.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri and punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee were re-signed. While Vinatieri is 41, he was given a two-year contract after showing he still has the leg for long kicks (4-of-6 from 50-plus) and is accurate (35-of-40 overall). McAfee has a strong leg and is excellent on kickoffs and as a holder. Long-snapper Matt Overton is back after going to his first Pro Bowl.
The Colts have struggled to find successful returners — not so much on punts where Hilton has excelled, but on kickoffs. It’s been a revolving door for years. Reserve running back Daniel Herron, wide receiver Griff Whalen and undrafted rookie Loucheiz Purifoy are among the candidates to likely get the first opportunities this season, especially if the coaching staff decides to lessen Hilton's workload.
So many “ifs” suggest that the Colts aren’t quite there yet for a Super Bowl run. But don’t count them out. Despite past injuries and ineffectiveness at key spots, they’re a resilient bunch that rallies around Pagano and often overachieves. The simplified synopsis is this team will go as far as Luck can take them if he gets help. Luck pressed in the playoffs, hence his seven interceptions, but he took better care of the ball in his second season and improved his completion percentage. The run game has to be better and his pass-catchers only need to be reliable for the Colts to field one of the best offenses. That takes some of the pressure off the defense, but this team won’t get to the AFC title game or Super Bowl without stops. It can’t be a carbon copy of so many Manning teams that just tried to outscore opponents.
PREDICTION: 1st in AFC South
Utah won just five games last season but somehow managed to topple mighty Stanford on a fourth quarter, goal-line stand in the waning minutes. It nearly cost the Cardinal a Pac-12 title and did cost Stanford a chance at a national title.
Tennessee has lost seven games four straight seasons but figured out a way to stop Connor Shaw and beat an 11-win South Carolina team last fall. That loss kept the Gamecocks from playing for an SEC title.
A five-loss Arizona team beat Oregon with a Pac-12 title on the line, knocking the Ducks out of the conference championship game.
Notre Dame, a middle-of-the-pack team that lost to Pitt and Michigan, was the only team capable of knocking off Michigan State a year ago. It cost Sparty a chance at a BCS title.
Monumental, championship-altering upsets are a part of college football as much as marching bands and tailgates. It’s part of what makes the game great. The 2014 season won’t be any different.
Here’s a tip: Look for well-coached teams at home against higher-ranked opponents.
Washington over UCLA (Nov. 8)
Many are on board the Bruins train because of all the key home games. Well, UCLA has to travel to the Pacific Northwest to face the physical Huskies in Seattle late in the year. Chris Petersen has all the talent and physicality to pull off the home upset with UCLA looking ahead to USC.
Texas Tech or TCU over Oklahoma
Part of why the Sooners have me doubting my College Football Playoff predictions is that this team wasn’t nearly as good as its 11-win, Big 12-title winning resume indicated from last year. The Sooners topped TCU and Texas Tech in Norman by a total of 11 points last year. Both games are on the road this fall and both the Frogs and Red Raiders could be better.
Missouri over Georgia (Oct. 11)
The Dawgs have averaged 4.6 losses per season over the last five years and a mid-season trip to Missouri could end their SEC East title hopes. The Tigers won in Athens last year with Maty Mauk playing quarterback and now they get Georgia at home. The Tigers will upset someone and odds are it’s UGA.
Maryland over Michigan State (Nov. 15)
The Spartans have more than one tough road trip this fall but only one will happen six days after beating (that’s right) Ohio State. A late-season road trip after toppling the mighty Buckeyes is prime “letdown alert” territory. If the Terps can stay healthy, they have the weapons on offense and the coaching to match up with Michigan State in a one-game showdown.
Florida over South Carolina (Nov. 15)
It may not be a big upset by the time the game rolls around (because the Gators will be markedly improved by that time) but Florida beating South Carolina could knock the Gamecocks out of the SEC title game. This was a 44-11 beatdown for Florida two years ago and was almost a Gators' win in Columbia last year (19-14).
Utah over Oregon (Nov. 8)
The more obvious upset picks for the Ducks are trips to Washington State and Oregon State — since both the Beavers and Cougars figure to be better than the Utes. But Utah plays extremely well at home, upsetting Stanford last year and nearly beating UCLA and Arizona State as well. Oregon will be coming off a home game with Stanford the week before and will be physically exhausted when it heads to Salt Lake City.
LSU over Alabama (Nov. 8)
I don’t see Alabama going undefeated and I don’t see Alabama losing to any school from the state of Mississippi. So where does Bama lose? Baton Rouge is the best bet. LSU could be out of the SEC West race by the time this game comes along and a win over Alabama would cast an entirely different light on the season.
Northwestern over Wisconsin (Oct. 4)
The Wildcats have foiled a Badger season many times before and 2014 could be more of the same for Big Red faithful. A trip to Evanston to start Big Ten play is a dangerous way to begin for Wisconsin. Northwestern figures to be much improved and fired up to get B1G play underway.
Ole Miss or Mississippi State over Auburn
The Tigers' road schedule is arguably the worst in the nation and trips to Oxford and Starkville aren’t even the toughest trips facing Auburn (at Alabama). The trip to face Mississippi State is especially poorly placed between home games with LSU and South Carolina. The Ole Miss bout will come immediately after the home tilt with the Gamecocks. One of these trips to the Magnolia State will be costly.
Pitt over Virginia Tech (Oct. 16)
There are many believe the Panthers to be a sleeper pick to win the Coastal Division. While, I cannot go that far (yet), I will agree that Paul Chryst’s club is a dangerous one that will pull an upset (or two) this fall. Pitt could beat Iowa, both Virginia and Georgia Tech and Duke before it’s all said and done this fall.
The trick to keeping your composure — and your lunch — on those mid-summer stair runs is a sturdy meal.
Weeks before camp, Wisconsin offensive tackle Rob Havenstein watched as many of teammates ran the stairs at Camp Randall. Many gave out and ran to a garbage can. Not Melvin Gordon.
“It depends on what you eat,” Gordon said. “There are different things that play a factor. I try to hold it together.”
Havenstein says Gordon is just being modest. He’s watched Wisconsin’s star running back push himself to the brink in more places than just the stadium steps.
“You felt like he wasn’t satisfied,” Havenstein said.
Gordon isn’t satisfied with what his role can be for Wisconsin. For the last two seasons, he’s been a piece in Badgers’ ground game machine but not the complete focal point.
That will change Saturday against LSU.
A running back leading the way for Wisconsin isn’t a new development, but the Badgers will lean on Gordon in ways they haven’t in recent years.
When Gordon was a freshman, he was the third-leading rusher behind Montee Ball and James White. Last season, Gordon and White split carries essentially half and half. Gordon has only had to carry the ball 20 times in a game twice during the last two seasons. But now White is gone, and Gordon’s new running mate is sophomore Corey Clement, who carried 57 times for 547 yards last season.
At the same time, Wisconsin has a questionable situation in the passing game where former defensive back Tanner McEvoy is set to take over for incumbent drop-back passer Joel Stave. Either way, the Wisconsin quarterback does not have a returning receiver who caught more than 10 passes last season.
In other words, the Wisconsin offense may begin and end with Gordon.
“He’s said it many times: he wants to be a feature back on a great Wisconsin team,” second-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “He’s the feature back, and let’s see if we’re a great team.”
Andersen will find out where Wisconsin stands in a hurry. The Badgers are Athlon Sports’ pick to win the Big Ten West, but their clout on the national stage will be determined by Saturday’s opener in Houston against LSU.
Though the Tigers generally have a stout defense, LSU’s front seven has been decimated by early entries to the NFL Draft in recent years. The Tigers replaced both defensive tackles and shuffled a linebacker corps that underachieved last season.
Even if the LSU defense is rebuilding, Gordon intends to be ready.
He rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on 206 carries last season and has been among the national leaders in yards per carry in each of the last two seasons. With fresh legs, Gordon has averaged 8.3 yards per carry in his career.
Without Ball, White or a consistent passing game, Gordon may need to retain that explosiveness even if he’s regularly hitting the 20-carry mark, something that’s never been required of him. He also hopes to be a more consistent presence on third down.
As a redshirt sophomore, Gordon could have left for the NFL in a draft that didn’t see a running back selected until the 54th pick. Even if Gordon would have left school early and been the first back selected, he had no guarantee of being a coveted first-round pick. That may have to wait.
“Melvin had a laundry list of what he wanted to get better at, and I completely agreed,” Andersen said. “A couple things are important him — grasping of pre-snap awareness, what’s out there on the defensive side of the football. And No. 2 Melvin wants to be a very good pass protector. He’s worked hard at that and he wants to be more involved in the throw game.”
While Andersen says he’s watched Gordon work with the passing machine after practice, he had to put a stop to Gordon’s work in the weight room.
The 510-pound squat was where he drew the line.
“Who cares how much more he can squat?” Andersen said.
Gordon, it seems, agreed.
“I have a problem sometimes,” Gordon said. “I worked really hard last year and every year I feel like I’m not working as hard as I worked last year. Sometimes it probably hurts me more than it helps. My strength coaches talked to me about it because you don’t want your body to fail you during camp.”
Gordon will be far too important to Wisconsin’s hopes in 2014 beyond just the opener against LSU. The Badgers will need Gordon fresh for a November stretch that could determine the division. Wisconsin’s final three regular season games will be against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
At least Andersen knows he won’t need to be a taskmaster for his key player before then.
“Some kids they walk out of the facility, you wonder how much do they really care about football,” Andersen said. “With that one you don’t have to worry about it.”
Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David attempts to isolate each rookie from his team and equipment and properly rank the driving chops of each member of this year’s rookie class.
With two races remaining in the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season, two rookies in this year’s crop have realistic, albeit uneasy, chances of making the Chase. Kyle Larson sits 26 points behind bubble driver Greg Biffle, while Austin Dillon is a more daunting 40 points behind. They head to an intermediate track this Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, which has quietly hosted a pair of entertaining events the past two years.
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)
A crash disrupted Larson’s Michigan outing and a qualifying accident halted what was evolving into a grand weekend on the high banks of Bristol. That’s a shame, because now the rookie will have to press a bit more in the next two weeks in order to become the first rookie since Denny Hamlin to clinch a Chase spot. Atlanta, a quad-oval track that offers a competitive high groove under nighttime skies seems up Larson’s ally, especially considering he is a) as efficient of a passer at fast intermediate tracks (52.82 percent adjusted pass efficiency) as he is at all normal tracks (a season-long 52.81 percent) and b) he is a more efficient passer at night (54.84 percent) than he is in the day (51.87 percent).
Twenty-six points is not an easy discrepancy to make up in two weeks, but he has proved, this season especially, that he’s capable of pulling off the improbable. A great run at Atlanta could conceivably ignite a playoff-making run.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
The bad news is that Dillon was a non-factor at Bristol, which didn’t help his long-shot Chase chance. The good news is that Dillon embarks on a fast intermediate track this weekend, a track type at which he hasn’t finished in the bottom half of a field all season. Coupled with his recent surge, mentioned in this space two weeks ago, the No. 3 team likely approaches the Peach State this weekend with a big appetite. Crew chief Gil Martin, who jumped Dillon a net total of 19 positions through green-flag pit cycles the last four races, should prepare to employ the strategy that proved successful because Dillon isn’t an above-passer passer on intermediate tracks, sporting a 49.04 percent pass efficiency this year in events at similar facilities.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 3)
Omit the crash and corresponding 42nd-place finish at Michigan and Allgaier finished 16th, 17th and 19th in his last three clean races. It’s a move in the right direction for the rookie who, despite some above-value passing, suffered through rough outings even when displaying flashes near the front of the field. This weekend’s race at Atlanta could serve as a true test of whether Allgaier has improved. Why? Because Allgaier is plus passer everywhere but at fast intermediate tracks like Atlanta. In races at similar facilities — Las Vegas, Texas and Charlotte — he holds a negative adjusted pass differential (minus-23).
4. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 5)
Outside of the enigmatic Greg Biffle, Whitt might be the most difficult driver to evaluate in all of the Cup Series. Despite finishing 30th at Bristol, his passing during the event was admirable; his plus-7.69 percent surplus passing value ranked sixth in the race among all 43 drivers. That performance broke up a three-race skid of below-par passing, though he scored finishes of 21st at Pocono and 25th at Michigan during that time frame. Somehow, there seems to be a silver lining in every Cole Whitt performance.
5. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 4)
Annett’s last two outings were brutal and both ended prematurely, resulting in finishes of 40th at Michigan, due to the effects of an early crash kick-started by Danica Patrick, and 38th at Bristol. Amazingly, his passing efforts, after improving from the first quarter of the season to the second, have continued to blossom; in all circle track races dating back to the second New Hampshire race, he is an above-par passer, amassing an efficiency of 50.88 percent.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 6)
Speed can cure a lot of what ails a race a team and Bowman’s No. 23 at horsepower-hungry Michigan was a terrific example of this. Bowman passed below value (48.53 percent efficiency, 2.67 percent below his average running position’s expected efficiency) and crew chief Dave Winston gave up seven positions across two green-flag pit cycles. But Bowman’s car ranked 27th in average green-flag speed for the race, a whole 10 spots higher than his season-long rank, and he capitalized on it by finishing 26th despite the other poor peripheral numbers.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83 (previous: 7)
Truex, 0.105 points above replacement-level in MotorsportsAnalytics.com’s most recent Production in Equal Equipment Ratings, took a massive hit — literally — in a practice crash at Michigan. He suffered a concussion and sat out the race two weeks ago, replaced by the immortal J.J. Yeley. Truex returned to the BK Racing seat at Bristol, but was registered with a 37th-place finish after blowing an engine.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
College football season is finally here and the guys preview the opening weekend of the season. Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan make picks, talk upsets, discuss Braxton Miller's injury and argue about fall weddings.
Tiger Woods is the one golfer who can make news without picking up a club, earning headlines recently when he had parted ways with swing coach Sean Foley. And Tiger's knack for eliciting strong opinions is not limited to fans and media. Over the weekend at the Barclays, we persuaded many of his peers on the PGA Tour to share their anonymous opinions of Tiger, who may be currently out of sight but is never out of mind.
Will Tiger ever get back to where he was?
"There is no chance Tiger gets back to being at his absolute dominant best from 2000 and times like that. He was as close to unbeatable as you can get in golf back in some of those stretches. But he can certainly get back to a point where he wins more than once in a season."
"I always say, never write off a champion, and Tiger Woods is a champion."
"It depends on the definition. Tiger early 2000 is probably unattainable ever again for anyone. But Tiger 2013 with five wins … I could see that potentially happening once more if he can truly get his body right."
"Tiger Woods will never be as dominant as he was. He will never strike fear into people the way he once did. He used to beat players with his B and even C game because he had them between the ears, but not anymore."
"Back to his best? No. Back to being number one in the game? He could easily do that if healthy."
"I am not prepared to say no. I am probably leaning towards no, but he’s the type that proves people wrong. It is easier for the rest of us if he isn’t at his dominant best!"
"I think age catches up with all of us. And while Tiger can be successful again, I don’t think he can ever be as good as he was at his absolute best. That doesn’t mean he can’t be awesome, just not as good as he was."
Will Tiger challenge Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors?
"I don’t think so. If he can win one next season, he has a small chance, but if he doesn’t then I think it will be a bridge too far."
"Yes. He will win a major or two in 2015, if he really truly can get fit again and then it will be on. You can see the determination in his eyes at majors. All he needs is to be fit and get a little bit of luck and once he gets number 15, over that hump, I think old Tiger will be back."
"I would love to see him get to 18 near the end of his career and then be a great side story at some majors while he’s heading towards retirement. It would be great if he had a Tom Watson Open Championship moment at the Masters."
"Probably not. I think golf fans and even some players would like to see it. There was a time you thought he could get 25 but now it seems the number 15 is a hurdle he can’t get over."
"Won’t even sniff it. There is just too much talent out here now and his body is not up to the challenge."
"Can’t really see it happening any more. But he’s closer than any of the rest of us, and if he did it would be very impressive."
"Sadly, I think his chance at that might have gone."
Should Tiger change teachers (maybe go back to Butch Harmon)?
Note: We posed this question before the news broke that Woods had parted ways with swing coach Sean Foley.
"A coach is a personal choice and you do what feels right for you so for me to suggest who he should go to would be kind of pointless."
"I can’t see Tiger going back to someone he has had before. Maybe he might make another change at some point but he won plenty of times since taking on Sean (Foley)."
"Yes, he should go back to his 2000 swing with Butch. But he won’t."
"Butch is probably one of the game’s best coaches but I’m not sure Tiger is the type to go back. The only person who probably knows what fit is best is Tiger himself."
"At this point I don’t think it would matter who Tiger had coaching him. Probably someone with experience in minimizing strain on the back."
"I would not be surprised if he changes again very soon. But he won’t got to Butch."
Are Tiger’s problems purely physical?
"Not purely but it is a big part. Back surgery, or any surgery in golf is hard to overcome. It is one thing to be healthy again but the difference out here is so close between players anything slightly off can be magnified."
"Almost. He still seems very determined to win."
"I haven’t seen his doctor's notes, nor am I a doctor, so I cannot judge how much of it is physical and what isn’t. I am sure there are some mental scars, because when you have injuries it is very hard not to be thinking about them."
"When you have physical problems it is almost always followed by mental issues as you worry about the injuries and other things instead of just playing golf."
Will Tiger be missed on the Ryder Cup team?
"No doubt. Of course his presence will be missed. You can’t tell me at least half the European side would not be a little afraid if it came down to a singles match against Tiger on Sunday."
"Is that a trick question? The guy is a 14-time major winner with tons of team play experience. Even half fit he would be missed."
"Of course. It is impossible to replace his experience and determination and will to win."
"A little bit, yeah, but the team will be better off not having to try to carry an unfit Tiger. He probably wouldn’t have wanted to sit out at all so it could have been a difficult situation for Tom Watson."
"A fit Tiger would have been a big weapon for the U.S. team, but unfit, he may have just been a passenger and could have actually provided the Europeans with more confidence."
"Yes. You can’t buy experience like his."
"Not in the shape he was in. The European team will be full of stars, and any unfit golfer would have trouble earning points against them."
Can golf thrive without Tiger at the top?
"Yes. Maybe not at the same level, at least for a while, but there is always new talent coming. Rory (McIlroy) and Rickie (Fowler) and guys like this can carry the torch of new viewers."
"Not like it did when he was at his best. But with some careful planning and the right moves the transition, whenever it comes, could be smoother."
"It survived and thrived in times before Tiger and it will do the same again."
"I think so. It is up to all of us to provide quality golf, quality contests and relate to the fans as best we can."
"It will take golf a long time to get back to the massive popularity it had when he was dominant. Plus things like cost to play, time to play and other issues need to be sorted to help the sport grow."
"Yes, but it needs young guys to keep playing well. People like dominance in sports. Guys like Rory, Rickie, Jason Day and the like need to take the torch."
"The game was around well before Tiger and will be around 300 years after him. All sports have their ups and downs."
Can Rory McIlroy fill the post-Tiger void?
"If he gets on and stays on these dominant runs he can. But doing that will be one almighty task. It might fall on Rory and a few other guys with him."
"It doesn’t need to just be Rory. But maybe a few guys in a so-called rivalry with him. If a handful of guys like Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama or even guys a little older like Adam Scott and Bubba Watson could consistently go toe to toe with him it could get really exciting."
"The fans certainly seem to have warmed to him and he’s playing great, so why not?"
"Yes he can. But so can at least 10 other guys should they get on similar runs."
"Golf could really move into an era now where a handful of guys are in the mix in the big events creating great Sunday finishes over and over again."
"Sure. He showed at the British Open he can play the dominant golfer and then at the PGA Championship the way he made the turn when it looked he was being beaten and stepped it up to win shows he is more than the real deal."
Compiled by Ben Everill
Follow him on Twitter @beneverill
Braxton Miller’s season-ending shoulder injury may end up having the most impact of any departure all season, but it won’t be the only one. The Ohio State quarterback and Heisman contender is one of a handful of key players who saw their seasons end before it even started.
Every year, injuries, suspensions and departures put teams in a bind in the final weeks and days before the season. These are the top players who will be absent in 2014.
We’ve dubbed this the “All-Gone” team for 2014, though no player wants to find his name on this list. All the players listed will be out of action for the entire 2014 season. All have sustained their injuries or suspensions since the end of spring practice.
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State
Reason: Shoulder injury
The Buckeyes’ Big Ten and College Football Playoff hopes were thrown into question after Miller re-injured his shoulder. Ohio State instead turns the quarterback position to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett.
RB Venric Mark, Northwestern
Reason: Transfer to Division II West Texas A&M
The exact circumstances of Mark’s departure remain a mystery, but he would have been a key player in Northwestern’s bid to bounce back from a 5-7 season. Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns in his last full season in 2012.
RB Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
Oklahoma hoped Mixon, a five-star prospect, would become the kind of dynamic running back OU has lacked since DeMarco Murray in 2010. Instead, he’ll serve a season-long suspension after an alleged assault of a female Oklahoma student.
WR Christian Jones, Northwestern
Reason: Knee injury
After a cursed 2013, Northwestern got an early start to bad news in 2014. Jones, who led the Wildcats at 668 receiving yards last season, had his season-ending injury announced on the same day as Mark’s departure.
WR DaVaris Daniels, Notre Dame
Reason: “Removal” from team
Daniels is one of four casualties stemming from an investigation of academic fraud at Notre Dame (the school hasn’t gone so far as to say the players are suspended or dismissed). Daniels was the top returning receiver for the Irish after catching 49 passes for 745 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
TE Braxton Deaver, Duke
Reason: Torn ACL
Deaver was second on the Blue Devils last season in receptions (46) and yards (600). Jamison Crowder will be the only returning receiver with more than 30 catches and 300 yards.
OL Tyler Johnstone, Oregon
Reason: Torn ACL
Johnstone’s knee injury is the only thing preventing the Ducks from returning all five offensive line starters. His injury is also the second major setback for the offense after the Ducks lost receiver Bralon Addison in the spring.
OL Damien Robinson, Mississippi State
Reason: Torn ACL
The 6-8, 325-pound lineman was projected to start at tackle after Mississippi State lost standouts Gabe Jackson and Charles Siddoway.
OL Alex Kozan, Auburn
Reason: Back injury
Auburn hoped to go into 2014 with its interior offensive line intact. That won’t happen with back surgery for Kozan, the returning left guard who was an SEC all-freshman performer last season.
OL Moise Larose, Maryland
Offensive line has not been immune to Maryland’s rash of injuries and departures in recent years. Larose himself moved into a starting role at left tackle in the final four games last season when Mike Madaras left the program. Larose was suspended for a violation of the athletic department’s code of conduct
OL Drew Carroll, Rice
Reason: Kidney disease
Carroll had made 25 career starts for the defending Conference USA champions before a kidney condition ended his career. Carroll could face a kidney transplant or dialysis treatment.
DL Devonte Fields, TCU
Reason: Transfer to Stephen F. Austin
Fields earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2012 after recording 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for a loss. Fields missed all but three games last season due to injury and ended his career at TCU after an arrest for misdemeanor assault stemming from an incident with his ex-girlfriend.
DL Carl Lawson, Auburn
Reason: Torn ACL
Lawson was expected to be a major cog in a pass rush that lost Dee Ford. Lawson had four sacks as an SEC all-freshman performer.
DL Jabari Hunt-Days, Georgia Tech
Reason: Academic ineligibility
Hunt-Days was declared academically ineligible after spring practice and headed to Georgia Military College. He was expected to start at defensive end in the new nickel defense after picking up 7.5 tackles for a loss as a linebacker last year.
LB Frank Shannon, Oklahoma
Shannon’s status has not been cemented yet, but Oklahoma’s leading tackler is appealing the university’s decision to suspend him for a year. Shannon is facing a Title IX sexual misconduct allegation.
LB Kelby Brown, Duke
Reason: Torn ACL
Brown returned from two ACL surgeries on his right knee to become an All-ACC performer for the Coastal Division champs. Now, he’ll miss the season after sustaining a torn ACL in his left knee.
LB Michael Rose-Ivey, Nebraska
Reason: Knee injury
Rose-Ivey would have entered 2014 with plenty of momentum after racking up 49 tackles in the final five games of last season. The middle linebacker’s 66 total tackles was a freshman record for the Huskers.
LB Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
Claiborne was one of two defensive starters dismissed in June along with nose guard Isaiah Golden. Linebacker may have been a weak spot a year ago, but Claiborne’s departure dwindles the numbers.
DB KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame
Reason: “Removed” from team
Russell was arguably the biggest loss among the four players Notre Dame removed from the roster. He was a rising star at cornerback who could have challenged for All-America honors. Projected starting defensive end Ishaq Williams also was lost due to the investigation.
DB Shaq Wiggins, Georgia
Georgia’s troubled secondary took another hit when Wiggins, who started eight games as a freshman, elected to transfer at the end of spring practice.
DB Rayshawn Jenkins, Miami
Reason: Back injury
One of the strengths of the Miami defense took a hit when Jenkins, a returning starter at strong safety, was lost for the season to a chronic back injury. He recorded 46 tackles and three interceptions last year.
DB Jered Bell, Colorado
Reason: Torn ACL
A fifth-year senior who already missed a year due to a torn ACL won’t have a chance to follow up his breakout season. Bell is a returning starter who had 71 tackles last year.
K Ross Krautman, Syracuse
Reason: Hip injury
Krautman, who hadn’t played since the second game of 2013, will end his career due to a chronic hip injury. Krautman was 49-of-63 on field goals in his career.
P Sean Covington, UCLA
Reason: Academically ineligible
Covington left the program due to eligibility concerns. He averaged 41.9 yards per punt last season
The Cardinals’ goal this year is simple but also extraordinary: Become the first team in NFL history to turn the Super Bowl into a home game. Super Bowl XLIX will be played Feb. 1 in University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, and the Cardinals believe they’ve put together a team that can topple the pecking order in the NFC.
That’s a tough task given that they’re in the same division as the two best teams in the conference, Seattle and San Francisco. But there’s no question that Arizona is trending in the right direction under second-year coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim.
Keim has proven to be an astute judge of talent both in the draft and free agency, and Arians, who likes to think of himself as the “cool uncle,” has the players’ trust and respect.
It was the Cardinals’ bad luck last season to finish 10–6 and not make the playoffs while Green Bay finished 8–7–1 and hosted a playoff game. Maybe the football gods owe Arizona one this season. Like, say, a home game in February.
It all begins, or ends, with quarterback Carson Palmer. There are times when Palmer looks like he’s color-blind — he threw 22 interceptions in 2013 — but he’s tough, and he throws a great deep ball, a prerequisite in Arians’ offense. It’s too late for Palmer, 34, to again be an elite quarterback in the league, but he can be effective. The key is to avoid too many games like he had against Seattle last year, when he completed just 13-of-25 passes and was intercepted four times. The Cardinals accept that Palmer is going to have an off Sunday or two — he has so much confidence in his arm that he sometimes forces throws, leading to picks. But as long as the good outweighs the bad, the team can live with the inconsistency.
Palmer should have a cleaner pocket from which to operate — he was sacked 41 times last season — because the Cardinals have dramatically upgraded their offensive line, particularly on the left side. Left tackle has been a problem spot for years, but the Cardinals signed free agent Jared Veldheer to a five-year deal after the Raiders inexplicably didn’t franchise tag the 27-year-old. Jonathan Cooper, the team’s top pick last year and the seventh overall selection, will be plugged into the left guard spot after missing all of last season with a broken leg. He has Pro Bowl potential. If there’s a question mark up front, it’s at right tackle, where the Cardinals don’t have a ready replacement for Eric Winston.
Like many teams, the Cardinals have gone to a committee at running back, and they have an ideal combo in second-year pros Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor. Ellington was a revelation as a rookie. He’s a home-run hitter — the best comparison is a younger version of Darren Sproles — who averaged 5.5 yards per rush and has the potential to wow you every time he touches the ball. But, at 5'9" and 199 pounds, Ellington can’t handle a heavy workload. That’s where Taylor comes in. The Stanford product is a more effective inside rusher, and he’ll allow the Cardinals to limit Ellington’s carries to 15 or so per game.
The running game will serve as an appetizer to Arians’ love for the deep passing game. Don’t be surprised if this is the year Michael Floyd supplants Larry Fitzgerald as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Floyd had more receiving yards (1,041) than Fitzgerald (954) last year. Fitzgerald, who will turn 31 in late August, is simply not as dominant as he once was. The Cardinals needed a third receiver after losing Andre Roberts to Washington, and they filled the void by signing Ted Ginn, who had 36 catches and five touchdowns last year with Carolina.
When at full strength, the Cardinals have one of the best defenses in the NFL. They ranked sixth in total defense last year, first in rushing defense and allowed just 20.3 points per game. Unfortunately, injuries and other circumstances have already significantly impacted this unit's depth chart.
The biggest blow came on Aug. 18 when veteran defensive end Darnell Dockett tore the ACL in his right knee during a training camp practice. Dockett enjoyed a bounce-back year under coordinator Todd Bowles last season. Now even more of the burden will fall on fellow end Calais Campbell, who plays at a Pro Bowl level, even if he is snubbed by the voters every year. Nose tackle Dan Williams likely will never live up to his draft position (26th pick overall in 2010), but he’s become an effective player who can disrupt the inside running game. The team also added veteran defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga on a one-year deal to take Dockett's roster spot.
If there’s a concern defensively, it’s at linebacker. Karlos Dansby was the team’s best player last year, but he left for bigger dollars in Cleveland. Inside linebacker Daryl Washington was expected to anchor the defense in Dansby's absence, but he has been suspended for all of 2014 for another violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Additionally, fellow veteran John Abraham, who led the team with 11.5 sacks in 2013, could be facing league discipline stemming from a DUI incident in June. Arizona does have 2013 second-round pick Kevin Minter waiting in the wings, but he's dealing with a strained pectoral muscle. The bottom line is that more than one player will have to step up in order for this group to be effective.
If there is a silver lining for this defense, it's in the secondary. Arizona has two shutdown corners in Patrick Peterson and free-agent signee Antonio Cromartie and a dynamic playmaking free safety in Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu likely will miss most of training camp as he recovers from knee surgery, but Arizona expects him back early in the season. Peterson, a first-team All-Pro last season, signed a five-year, $70 million ($48 million guaranteed) contract extension in late July that made him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL.
The Cardinals addressed their glaring need for a big, physical strong safety with the first-round selection of Deone Bucannon. Tight ends killed the team last year, but Arizona believes the 6'1", 208-pound Bucannon can limit that damage and, over time, become the reincarnation of Adrian Wilson.
The Cardinals should have one of the best special teams units in the NFL. The only question mark enterting the season is at placekicker. Despite connecting on 30 of 36 field goal attempts last season, Arizona cut veteran Jay Feely near the end of training camp. That leaves the kicking duties to undrafted rookie Chandler Cantanzaro, who was one of college football's most productive kicker during his tenure at Clemson. Punter Dave Zastudil is one of the best in the business at placing the ball inside the 20, and gunner Justin Bethel made the Pro Bowl last year for his coverage skills. The big offseason addition was Ginn, who will replace Peterson on punt returns and give Arizona some much-needed explosiveness on kick returns. Ginn averaged 12.2 yards per punt return and 23.8 yards per kick return in 2013.
If they were in any other division and they were completely healthy, the Cardinals would be considered a sure-fire playoff team. At full strength, they have one of the best defenses in the NFL, their offense should benefit from the upgraded offensive line, and Palmer should be more effective now that he’s had a season to digest Arians’ offensive system. But, of course, the Cardinals reside in the NFC West, home of the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and much-improved St. Louis Rams. That combined with the personnel losses on defense have made what was already a tough road to the postseason that much more difficult. It’s hard to imagine these Cardinals being able to take that next step and supplant both the Seahawks and 49ers — unless both those teams suffer an important long-term injury of their own. Arizona's best option would be to earn one of the Wild Card berths, but remember the Cardinals went 10-6 last season and didn't get in.
PREDICTION: 3rd in NFC West
Expectations are high in San Diego after the Chargers rallied to return to the playoffs following a three-year absence. Fans mostly like what they see in coach Mike McCoy and GM Tom Telesco, who took over after Norv Turner and A.J. Smith were fired following the 2012 season. Of course, the road to the Super Bowl goes through division rival Denver, which beat the Chargers in the divisional round. San Diego didn’t exactly charge into the playoffs, but its four-game December winning streak was the difference as Miami and Baltimore faltered. Although McCoy made some glaring mistakes as a rookie coach, he and Telesco have changed the mindset at Chargers Park.
McCoy was right. Philip Rivers didn’t need to be fixed. Everyone else around him needed to get better. That’s why the Chargers remain Rivers’ team, whether he’s throwing to Keenan Allen or Antonio Gates or handing off to Ryan Mathews. Rivers will turn 33 in December, when he hopes to again be leading a late-season run that will get the Bolts into the postseason. After two rough seasons, the franchise quarterback adjusted to McCoy’s quicker-tempo offense and had one of the best statistical seasons of his 10-year NFL career. He completed a team-record, career-best and NFL-leading 69.5 percent of his passes for 4,478 yards and 32 touchdowns, with just 11 interceptions. Frank Reich has been promoted to offensive coordinator after Ken Whisenhunt was hired as head coach at Tennessee, and Reich is expected to continue to run the offense that has Rivers dropping back only three steps before throwing. The Chargers also sometimes run a no-huddle.
Besides Rivers’ resurgence, the most pleasant surprise for the Chargers was Allen’s emergence. The third-round draft pick didn’t even play in the season opener but was a starter by the third game. Showing a remarkable knack for getting separation from defenders, he went on to catch 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. He goes into this season holding down one starting spot. The Chargers are waiting to find out if Malcom Floyd will return after he sustained a scary, season-ending neck injury in the season’s second game. Gates remains motivated, in part because some outsiders have written him off as being over the hill. He’ll be 34 by opening day, yet he’s coming off a 77-catch season that led the Bolts. The Chargers are excited about his backup, third-year pro Ladarius Green.
Mathews heads into the final year of his rookie contract. If this season is like last year, when he ran for a career-best 1,255 yards and scored six touchdowns, the Chargers will be trying to figure out a way to keep him. Mathews played in all 16 regular-season games for the first time and avoided the kind of major injuries that sidelined him in previous years. Little Danny Woodhead will once again provide a nice change of pace and he signed a two-year extension prior to the start of training camp.
The Chargers didn’t have a bruiser to replace Mathews when he went out of the playoff game at Denver, so they signed free agent Donald Brown, who was Indianapolis’ first-round draft pick in 2009, and used their sixth-round draft pick on Arizona State’s Marion Grice.
The offensive line isn’t nearly the mystery it was last offseason. Coach Joe D’Alessandris has his players ready to move around if needed. King Dunlap has settled in at left tackle, and the unit is anchored by center Nick Hardwick, who’s entering his 11th season. D.J. Fluker settled in at right tackle during his rookie season, though he also made three starts at left tackle.
Only three NFL teams had pass defenses more porous than San Diego’s, which is why Telesco used his first two draft picks and three of the first four on defensive players. First-round pick Jason Verrett is expected to start at cornerback opposite Shareece Wright. Second-round pick, outside linebacker Jerry Attaochu, and fourth-round pick, nose tackle Ryan Carrethers, will at the very least be in the rotation if they don’t earn a starting job.
The focus is on competing with Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Denver won two of the three games between the teams last year, including in the divisional round of the playoffs.
If anything, the Chargers will have fresh legs in the secondary. Verrett is only 5'10" but is tough and confident, and cornerback Steve Williams, a fifth-round pick in 2013, is ready to go after missing last year with a training camp injury. San Diego also signed Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers after he was released by Kansas City in June as a salary cap casualty.
The Chargers certainly have the makings of a tough defense. One of their first offseason moves was to re-sign one of their own, inside linebacker Donald Butler, before he could hit the free-agent market. Butler is a thumper who helps set the tone and wanted to stay in San Diego rather than try to collect a big paycheck elsewhere. Butler plays next to Manti Te’o, who will be looking to build on a solid rookie season. There were times early last season when Te’o always seemed to be a step behind, but he came on late and was sixth on the team in tackles. He’s still waiting to make a big signature play, be it an interception, sack or fumble recovery.
The Chargers will find out if outside linebacker Dwight Freeney has anything left. He returns for the final year of a two-year contract after missing most of 2013 with a quadriceps injury. The Chargers are looking to Freeney to help tutor Attaochu, a rookie linebacker who is expected to add speed on the edge of San Diego’s 3-4 defense. Attaochu set Georgia Tech’s career sacks record with 31.5. San Diego’s defense came on late in the year, coinciding with the return of outside linebackers Jarret Johnson and Melvin Ingram from injuries.
Carrethers could be the nose tackle the Chargers have been looking for since Jamal Williams left after the 2009 season. Carrethers was San Diego’s fifth-round pick, cited by Telesco for his “uncommon production” in 2013 at Arkansas State, when he had 93 tackles, including eight for a loss.
The Chargers remain in good hands with kicker Nick Novak, punter Mike Scifres and long-snapper Mike Windt. Novak set a team record with a 91.9 percent conversion rate, 34-of-37. He was 11-of-11 from beyond 40 yards. Scifres had the highest percentage in the NFL of punts inside the 20, 53.6 (30-of-56). Seventh-round draft pick Tevin Reese wasn’t part of Baylor’s return game, but he’ll be given the chance with the Chargers.
The Chargers certainly are capable of returning to the playoffs, but they’re going to have their hands full. With a killer schedule, they don’t have room for the kind of mystifying losses they had last year. The Chargers did win at Kansas City and Denver, both in the season’s second half. Yet they needed about four miracles down the stretch, not to mention having to go overtime at home to beat the Chiefs’ backups in the season finale in order to make the playoffs. The Chargers spent most of December scoreboard-watching because of a midseason slump. They can’t push their luck like that this year, or they’ll be staying home in January.
PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC West
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 26:
• We may not care about tennis, but I think we can all agree that it boasts some of sports' loveliest ladies, like Maria Sharapova.
• The Yankees haven't lost since Shawn Kelley bought a rubber horse head. If they lose, that head will wind up in someone's bed.
• According to Mike Schmidt, Bud Selig had a plan in place to reinstate Pete Rose before Charlie Hustle screwed it up.
• Tennessee is getting pretty creative with its recruiting, although I bet this kid's never read Rolling Stone, since he's under 50.
• Master photobomber Chris Bosh struck last night at the Emmys. His victim: Matthew McConaughey.
• This is alarming: Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen had his truck torched. Imagine what will happen when the season goes south.
• Watch a solitary bee disrupt the proceedings at the U.S. Open.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at firstname.lastname@example.org
Penske Racing has been a multi-car team since the beginning of 1998. Despite making over 1,000 starts in the first 15 years in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, it had only a single 1-2 finish — and that in itself was rolling snake eyes on a craps table: mastering plate-racing luck in the 2008 Daytona 500.
You’d think with its extensive experience in IndyCar, Penske would take the teamwork approach and run with it. But while other organizations like Hendrick Motorsports prided themselves on sharing information, the Penske shops operated like a modern-day Cold War. For Penske, a good week was when Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman carried out their arguments in private, scuffling at each other’s personalities, instead of dropping passive-aggressive hints through the press. Sharing setups? They were lucky to share the same space on the racetrack without hitting each other.
That was the way racing used to be. But NASCAR evolved and Penske needed to keep up. Over time, a new philosophy was put in place, but the right personnel were not there to execute. Newman was paired with the tempestuous Kurt Busch, then open-wheel convert Sam Hornish Jr., who contributed in the equivalent of a foreign language. Next up was Brad Keselowski, a man of immense talents and ideas but without the cache of consistent success to carry them out. It took Busch’s temper, combined with Keselowski’s rise to prominence, to finally put the latter, a Michigan man with Hendrick-based training, a true place at the operation’s table.
Success led to trust from the hierarchy, as the brass realized a single-car success story within a multi-car team would be short-lived. The only thing needed next was the right teammate. Hornish, banished to the Nationwide Series, never quite fit Keselowski’s unique, outgoing personality. Busch? A mentor and a cancer all in one. His high-energy replacement, AJ Allmendinger, quickly failed a drug test and suddenly there was an opening with a long list of resumes to fill it. Keselowski, despite heading straight toward a title without a real “sidekick,” became heavily involved, knowing NASCAR’s evolution and the impossibility of a two-car team competing without full cohesion going forward. Whatever selection was made had to be someone he could mold — a younger version of himself with the raw talent to match him inch-for-inch on the track.
Enter Joey Logano. In the span of two seasons, the Joe Gibbs Racing cast off has sliced through his career win total, tripling it from two to six. A pledge to follow Keselowski, become his accomplice and learn the racing world from his eyes has been fulfilled. The 25-year-old, once socially awkward and meek, comes to every media session brimming with the confidence a second chance provides. After his third win of the season at Bristol on Saturday night, he triumphantly proclaimed his team was championship material … and he’s right. Part of a 1-2 finish — the second of Penske’s tenure on the Cup circuit — it’s clear this dynamic duo is in-step both on and off the racetrack.
“Joey and I and we’ve developed a pretty good friendship,” Keselowski said about balancing both drivers’ success heading toward the Chase. “Certainly, we’re both hungry to be winners and there’s a balancing act. (But) I think we’re both legitimate threats to win the championship this year and I’m proud of that.”
Across the garage, Hendrick looms, clearly the best team over the course of the season. Penske is the underdog. But in a sense, that plays right into this team’s hands, the exact role Keselowski likes. And now, he’s got the right guy to play along.
Can they challenge? It’s a tough, uphill climb — at least for this upcoming 10-race playoff. But one thing is for certain: it won’t be 15 years before another 1-2 finish for Penske. I’m not even sure it’ll be another 15 races.
“Through the Gears,” post-Bristol we go …
FIRST GEAR: Penske makes its mark
Penske’s Bristol performance was impressive, with Logano on top of his game after a late-race caution left him sixth with 63 laps left. Armed with fresh rubber on the final restart, recent history said the jig was up: in the spring, Carl Edwards won by using old tires and one less pit stop for track position. In the past, that would have been the kiss of death for a driver that struggled to find the mental focus on-track.
“I wasn’t too concerned,” said Logano. “I didn’t really think about it. I made sure I had a good start there, pass as many cars off the get go as we can, then settling in and start working on the 20 (Matt Kenseth).”
Within 10 laps, Logano was second and then he blew by Kenseth like he was stopped. Leading the final 45 laps, his third win capped off a trifecta sweep for Penske Racing drivers at Bristol: Ryan Blaney won the Nationwide race Friday night while Keselowski triumphed in the Truck Series three days earlier.
“We all contribute,” said Walt Czarnecki, Penske’s Executive Vice President. “We all have the same access to information, the same access to resources, and I think it's really demonstrated that in the performance of the team this year.”
Logano’s victory leaves Penske with six wins, three apiece for him and teammate Keselowski. Only HMS can match it, with the trio of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson creating a logjam atop the Sprint Cup leaderboard. HMS still seems a step above the rest but if there’s one team that can make a run, at this point it appears to be this two-car tandem.
SECOND GEAR: JGR frustration boils over
Bristol’s dragstrip is called “Thunder Valley,” but the moniker fits the half-mile oval, as well, as it’s a place where tempers routinely boil over. Typically, that frustration is aimed at a competitor, not members of one’s own team. But at Joe Gibbs Racing, a season of frustration has reached its peak. Even Kenseth, the third-place finisher, when questioned after the race acted like he had a 20th-place car and just got lucky. Ignoring crew chief Jason Ratcliff’s order to pit, old tires helped him but also didn’t create warm and fuzzy feelings with his team.
“I just had such a hard time,” Kenseth claimed. “I knew clean air would cover up a lot of problems.”
Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin looked despondent after Kevin Harvick sent his No. 11 spinning while fighting for the lead. Hamlin, whose car wound up getting pinged by Earnhardt Jr., watched a potential momentum-building run evaporate. It was the second straight year Hamlin and Harvick have tangled at Bristol, leaving the latter scratching his head on how to fix the problem.
“(Harvick) just thinks he knows everything and probably thought he knew everything again,” Hamlin said in frustration. “I just wish I had some kind of car left so I could show him the favor back.”
Hamlin then complained about the new Bristol track surface, which has narrowed the groove but gotten rave reviews from fans for producing more “old school” racing. It’s a familiar refrain for the veteran; instead of moving on, push those ugly feelings onto somebody else to place the blame.
But the worst of the three scenarios that played out at BMS was that of Kyle Busch, who chalked up his fourth straight finish of 36th or worse. Involved in someone else’s mess early, the No. 18 was a shell of itself most of the evening as the tension between Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers never eased. Parking his damaged car, Busch’s sarcasm got to Rogers on the radio, yelling at his driver to “drive his whiny ass back to the truck.” Communication between the two has been suffering for several weeks, as several mistakes by Busch on track have dropped him to 17th in series points. On Saturday, a pit road speeding penalty left Busch mired in traffic, and that’s when he found himself in someone else’s melee.
The sad thing is while Busch is at fault, it’s he and sponsor M&M’s, who have secure, long-term contracts with JGR’s No. 18. With Edwards coming into the fold in the offseason, don’t be surprised to see a crew chief shakeup with Busch, although at least one rival thinks the organization can get it together by November.
“I think we’ve all got our eyes on all the Gibbs cars,” said Keselowski on Saturday night. “I just don’t see a whole season going by without them having a dominant race car in one section of time. I think we’re all fearful that will happen in the Chase when it counts the most.”
THIRD GEAR: Jamie McMurray’s lost opportunity
For awhile, it looked like Bristol would become another summer Chase Cinderella story in the form of Jamie McMurray. The emotional, well-liked driver already has a win this season but it doesn’t make him Chase-eligible, as NASCAR’s All-Star Race is just an exhibition. But after leading a career-high 148 laps, it looked like Chip Ganassi Racing might shock the grid and put pressure on bubble drivers like Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and in-house rookie Kyle Larson by stealing a spot in the Chase.
However, it wasn’t to be, as the last caution doomed McMurray. Sneaking in for fresh tires, it left him back in traffic for the final restart and the car seemed to change for for the worse from that point on.
“I don’t know what happened,” McMurray said. “Our car got really tight with about 100 laps to go. We freed it up on the last pit stop and it didn’t really help.”
That left him eighth, a whiff for a team that must win in order to get in. But that should leave McMurray on your radar for Richmond, a track he ran well at last fall in nearly pulling a major upset. Teammate Larson won the pole there in the spring and with McMurray’s penchant to pop up at random moments, he can’t be fully counted out.
FOURTH GEAR: Kasey Kahne lost in space
Typically, Kasey Kahne is one of the most mild-mannered drivers on tour. But after showing strength early at a track where he ran second last August, the Hendrick Motorsports pilot went ballistic after poor adjustments left his Chevy a handful to handle. Add in a loose wheel, twisting right-front suspension parts and a promising run quickly fizzled into an extended trip behind the wall.
A 35th-place result — Kahne’s worst since Pocono in June — leaves him 33 points behind Biffle for the final Chase spot. It’s a Grand Canyon-like dip in performance compared to his three teammates, and begs the question, with Chase Elliott waiting in the wings, whether Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis already feel like they’re a “lame duck” effort before Elliott’s ascension to Cup is even announced. While contracts are signed through 2015, it’s clear the Nationwide Series title contender with the famous last name has the bigger upside at this point. Can Kahne regain confidence without the promise of long-term security at Hendrick?
Danica Patrick had a rough weekend at Bristol, qualifying 24th and getting spun by Alex Bowman in-race. But while the rookie driver got paranoid, concerned “Danica Nation” and her occasional temper would get the best of him, it looks like hard feelings won’t carry over. “I think we’re fine,'' she told Motor Racing Network’s Dustin Long. "He's just got to know that when you do that and you don't leave room for error and you hit me and take me out, I'm right there. As soon as I find you again I'm going to let you know I'm not happy. We're fine. If he does it again, worse things will happen.” … A planned lap 14 tribute for Tony Stewart, along with a lap 13 standup to honor the tragic loss of Kevin Ward Jr. by fans went as planned at Bristol. However, ESPN didn’t show the fan-organized effort, choosing just to briefly mention it later in the race through play-by-play man Allen Bestwick. It is still unclear if New York authorities will charge Stewart for his involvement in Ward’s death, as the investigation now stretches into its third week. It’s hard to imagine the three-time champion returning to the track in any form or fashion until that concludes. … Kyle Larson (right) pulled another Herculean effort, coming from the back of the field in a back-up car after wrecking in practice, then hitting the wall in-race to finish 12th. Pulling together a lead-lap effort with a car in pieces is admirable but his Chase bid will probably fall short based on a common rookie problem: one too many crashes.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Louisville’s offense suffered a significant setback on Monday, as top receiver DeVante Parker suffered a foot injury in fall camp and will miss 6-8 weeks.
Parker was expected to be the Cardinals’ top receiving threat after recording 55 catches for 885 yards and 12 scores last season. Parker was limited some by injury in the middle of the year but averaged 16.1 yards per reception in 2013.
The timetable for Parker’s return is uncertain, but if the 6-8 week span holds true, the senior could miss key ACC contests against Florida State and Clemson.
There’s no doubt Parker’s absence will be a huge loss for Louisville. However, coach Bobby Petrino is one of the best in the nation at maximizing the X’s and O’s. Expect to see more of sophomore James Quick and seniors Eli Rogers and Kai De La Cruz targeted in the passing game. And senior tight end Gerald Christian should be an even bigger part of the offense and should push for All-ACC honors in 2014.
Parker’s injury is a definite setback for Louisville, but the Cardinals could still be favored to win their first six games.
With the start of the 2014 NFL season quickly approaching, what better time to present the “final” version of Athlon Sports’ Fantasy Football Big Board (Top 280), right? If anything, the goal in the preseason as far as established superstars go is to emerge healthy. Unfortunately that has not been the case, and is a reason why there’s a new No. 1 atop our list.
Adrian Peterson, the last man to rush for 2,000 yards in a season and the league’s best running back, has fittingly claimed the top spot. Everyone is eager to see how new Minnesota offensive coordinator Norv Turner will utilize Peterson, especially in the passing game, but it’s more the fact that both LeSean McCoy (bruised thumb) and Jamaal Charles (bruised foot) were unable to make it out of the preseason unscathed. Honestly, there’s not much separation between these three backs, or even Matt Forté for that matter, but someone has to be No. 1 and we decided to go with the guy who appears to be the healthiest at this point.
Others around the league have not been as fortunate, however. Sam Bradford tore his ACL again, presenting an opportunity for Shaun Hill to start in St. Louis, while Cam Newton (fractured rib) and Wes Welker (concussion) are among those whose conditions should be monitored closely, whether your league has held its draft already or not. Injuries aren’t the only factor at play here either, as suspensions and pending suspensions could impact draft- and roster-related decisions. For example, while everyone is eagerly waiting to hear what ends up happening with Josh Gordon’s appeal, don’t look past the news that Denver kicker Matt Prater has been suspended the first four games of the season. After all, that’s why you won’t see Gordon or Prater’s name listed below. Kickers count too!
2014 Fantasy Football Big Board (Top 280)
|1||Adrian Peterson||MIN||RB||Potential in new O puts him on top for now.|
|2||LeSean McCoy||PHI||RB||Will bruised thumb be an issue?|
|3||Jamaal Charles||KC||RB||Hopefully he won't be moving again soon.|
|8||Peyton Manning||DEN||QB||Already getting chippy with opposing defenses.|
|11||Doug Martin||TB||RB||Charles Sims' injury could mean more work.|
|13||Drew Brees||NO||QB||Looked pretty good in preseason debut vs. Colts.|
|16||Le'Veon Bell||PIT||RB||Suspension coming?|
|21||Julio Jones||ATL||WR||Foot looks healed so far.|
|24||Montee Ball||DEN||RB||Back to practice after appendectomy.|
|32||Reggie Bush||DET||RB||Broke off 86-yard TD run vs. Jags on Friday.|
|35||Rob Gronkowski||NE||TE||Week 1 status still uncertain. Be wary.|
|42||Frank Gore||SF||RB||Too soon to write "old" man off?|
|46||Andre Ellington||ARI||RB||His potential is tied to the touches he gets.|
|49||Torrey Smith||BAL||WR||Expecting more versatile role on offense.|
|55||Trent Richardson||IND||RB||Colts continue to show patience w/ T-Rich.|
|56||Ray Rice||BAL||RB||Bruised shoulder be OK after suspension.|
|57||Rashad Jennings||NYG||RB||If anything he should get plenty of touches.|
|58||Nick Foles||PHI||QB||Has more INTs (3) this preseason than all of '13 (2).|
|59||Cam Newton||CAR||QB||Fractured rib cause for concern?|
|60||Robert Griffin III||WAS||QB||Has not looked good in new offense.|
|62||Jeremy Maclin||PHI||WR||Appears to have survived injury scare Thursday.|
|66||Shane Vereen||NE||RB||Most active Patriot back in last preseason game.|
|67||Reggie Wayne||IND||WR||Looking good in return from ACL injury.|
|69||Kendall Wright||TEN||WR||Expect Titans to stretch field more this season.|
|70||Wes Welker||DEN||WR||Preseason concussion not a good start.|
|72||Stevan Ridley||NE||RB||Ball security already an issue once more.|
|73||Bishop Sankey||TEN||RB||Rookie off to somewhat of a slow start.|
|74||Pierre Thomas||NO||RB||Could lead RBs in receptions.|
|78||Sammy Watkins||BUF||WR||Bruised ribs kept him out of last preseason game.|
|79||Emmanuel Sanders||DEN||WR||Role could increase depending on Welker's status.|
|80||Mike Wallace||MIA||WR||Seems to be better fit for new offense.|
|81||Eric Decker||NYJ||WR||Settling in as Jets' new No. 1 WR.|
|86||Khiry Robinson||NO||RB||Competing more with Ingram than Thomas.|
|94||Bernard Pierce||BAL||RB||Suffered concussion, but should be good to go Week 1.|
|98||Matt Ryan||ATL||QB||Falcons' offense has looked good in preseason.|
|105||Justin Hunter||TEN||WR||Everyone is expecting a breakout from tall, athletic target.|
|106||Dwayne Bowe||KC||WR||Suspended for Week 1.|
|110||Mark Ingram||NO||RB||Could be interesting sleeper if he's effective early on.|
|116||Tavon Austin||STL||WR||Will QB change help or hinder Austin?|
|117||Rueben Randle||NYG||WR||Could be Eli's favorite target in red zone.|
|118||Tony Romo||DAL||QB||Early hits not welcome sign for recovering Romo.|
|122||LeGarrette Blount||PIT||RB||Suspension coming?|
|123||Carlos Hyde||SF||RB||Should be factor even if Gore remains starter.|
|125||Brandin Cooks||NO||WR||Seems to be only a matter of "when" and not "if."|
|134||Andrew Hawkins||CLE||WR||Josh Gordon's status still up in the air.|
|135||Kelvin Benjamin||CAR||WR||Could emerge as Newton's No. 1 target quickly.|
|140||49ers||SF||DST||Will injuries lead to issues early on?|
|143||Eli Manning||NYG||QB||Slowly getting comfortable in new offense.|
|150||Zach Ertz||PHI||TE||Popular breakout candidate this season.|
|160||Ryan Tannehill||MIA||QB||Accuracy has not been an issue during preseason.|
|167||Johnny Manziel||CLE||QB||Hoyer the starter, for now.|
|174||Jake Locker||TEN||QB||Early signs in new offense are promising.|
|186||Antonio Gates||SD||TE||Enough targets for two relevant TEs in SD?|
Did enough to hold off Bridgewater, but for how long?
|201||Odell Beckham Jr.||NYG||WR||How far behind is he b/c of hamstring issue?|
|204||Brian Hoyer||CLE||QB||He gets the starting nod, but for how long?|
|205||Teddy Bridgewater||MIN||QB||Has lived up to his "pro-ready" label thus far.|
|210||Shaun Hill||STL||QB||Bradford's injury opens door for Hill to shine.|
|216||Dexter McCluster||TEN||RB||Could end up being a PPR sleeper.|
|224||Kirk Cousins||WAS||QB||Has outperformed RG3 in preseason, but does it matter?|
|225||Blake Bortles||JAC||QB||Jags' future appears in good hands w/ Bortles.|
|227||Travis Kece||KC||TE||Could end up being Chiefs' No. 1 target by season's end.|
|229||Jonathan Grimes||HOU||RB||He or Alfred Blue could be a factor this season.|
|245||Marvin Jones||CIN||WR||Broken foot will keep him out until at least Week 5.|
|254||Mohamed Sanu||CIN||WR||Will get his chance while Jones (foot) is sidelined.|
|255||Santonio Holmes||CHI||WR||Late addition could emerge as reliable No. 3 WR.|
|259||Bobby Rainey||TB||RB||Sims' injury presents opportunity for Rainey and James.|
|262||Ronnie Hillman||DEN||RB||If Ball falters, Hillman or Anderson could emerge.|
|267||James White||NE||RB||Rookie looking to overtake Ridley in pecking order.|
|273||Mark Sanchez||PHI||QB||Has looked very comfortable in Chip Kelly's system.|
|279||Charles Sims||TB||RB||Out 12-14 weeks (ankle). Stash for later?|
|280||Marcus Lattimore||SF||RB||Will he see the field this season?|
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The goal for the New Orleans Saints is a straightforward albeit difficult one: Secure home-field advantage in the postseason. Easier said than done in the brutally competitive NFC, which has produced four of the past five Super Bowl champions. Still, it’s imperative for the schizophrenic Saints, who were 8–0 at the Superdome in the 2013 regular season and 3–5 on the road. In the postseason during the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era, they are 4–0 at home and 1–4 on the road. It’s no coincidence that the Saints’ lone Super Bowl title came in 2009 when they played host to the NFC Championship Game. Since then, three of the Saints’ four seasons have ended on the West Coast with playoff losses at Seattle and San Francisco. Somehow, the Saints need to win enough games in the regular season to secure home-field edge in the playoffs and force their competition to visit them in January rather than vice versa.
As long as the crafty Brees is under center and the aggressive Payton is on the sideline, the Saints are going to gain yards and score points at a high rate. Brees will turn 36 in January, making him the third-oldest quarterback in the NFL, but he remains as prolific as ever. Only Peyton Manning passed for more than Brees’ 5,162 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2013.
While Brees remains one of the truly elite quarterbacks in the game, there are legitimate concerns about the rest of the offense. The line yielded 37 sacks last season, the most in the Brees/Payton era. The staff believes the late-season promotion of athletic Terron Armstead to left tackle will be a big part of the solution. The Saints are counting on Armstead to blossom after a full offseason in the club’s strength and conditioning program. Right tackle Zach Strief was re-signed to protect Brees’ other flank. He engulfs opponents with his massive 6'7" frame, but speed rushers can sometimes give him trouble for the same reason. The strength of the unit is inside, where Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs form a powerful tandem to anchor the pass protection. The Saints will open the season with a new center. The staff is high on Tim Lelito, a former undrafted free agent who will try to make the switch from guard. Depth is a concern up front.
Depth isn’t the problem in the Saints’ receiving corps — production is. Backs and tight ends caught 63 percent of Brees’ passes last season, mainly because his receivers struggled to get open. Then again, when you have a freakishly talented tight end like Jimmy Graham, it’s hard not to look his way. Graham has usurped Marques Colston as Brees’ go-to man in the red zone and should again rank among the league leaders in catches and touchdowns. The steady Colston remains a reliable target on third down, but injuries have taken their toll on the ninth-year veteran. The Saints hope speedy rookie Brandin Cooks can add some much-needed explosiveness to the receiving corps. He led FBS schools with 32 catches of 20 or more yards as a junior. He will compete with second-year receiver Kenny Stills for the starting spot opposite Colston and play a featured role in Payton’s nickel packages. Stills should build on his surprisingly productive rookie season (32 catches with a team-high 20.0 yards per catch).
The Saints’ backfield will continue to employ a running back-by-committee approach, partly by strategic design and partly out of necessity. It’s make-or-break year for Mark Ingram. The former Heisman Trophy winner showed signs of promise down the stretch in 2013 and led the club with a 4.9-yards-per-carry average, but the Saints tellingly did not pick up the fifth-year option on his contract, rendering him a free agent after this season. He should be motivated for a big season and needs it. If Ingram slips, look for Khiry Robinson to assume his carries. The former free agent from West Texas A&M has a rare combination of power and shiftiness. Pierre Thomas is the top option in Payton’s nickel and two-minute offense.
Injuries forced coordinator Rob Ryan to scrap his 3-4 scheme for a 4-2-5 alignment, and the Saints responded with one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the league. A year removed from allowing the most yards in a season in NFL history, the Saints ranked fourth in total defense, primarily because of their imposing young line. End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker/end hybrid Junior Galette form one of the best pass-rush tandems in the league. Both are quick and explosive off the edge. The unit’s unsung hero is towering end/tackle Akiem Hicks, who collapses the pocket with his powerful bull rushes. Brodrick Bunkley and John Jenkins anchor against the run at nose tackle. Their dirty work allows linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne the freedom to roam and make tackles sideline to sideline.
The overhauled secondary is led by cornerback Keenan Lewis and safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. Lewis thrived in Ryan’s bump-and-run system and emerged as a shutdown corner in his first season in New Orleans. More often than not, teams choose to throw away from his side of the field. The Saints paid big money to lure Byrd to New Orleans in free agency. The hope is that he’ll produce more takeaways with his instincts and playmaking ability in center field. Vaccaro lacks Byrd’s ball skills but is the perfect complement with versatility and physical intimidation.
Veteran Champ Bailey has the inside track for the starting spot opposite Lewis. The Saints are hoping to squeeze a final productive season or two out of the future Hall of Famer. Former first-round pick Patrick Robinson, Corey White and second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste will compete for the nickel and dime spots. All have the rangy size Ryan loves.
The Saints are a mixed bag here. Punter/kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead is one of the best in the league. His powerful right leg accounts for scores of hidden yards each game. Veteran kicker Shayne Graham is solid if not spectacular as he enters his 14th season. The return units are dying for a spark. Cooks and Travaris Cadet will get the first crack at punt and kickoff return duties, respectively.
The Saints are the class of the NFC South. Their young defense should only improve in its second season under Ryan, and the offense remains the most prolific in the division. A fifth playoff berth in six seasons looks certain, but the Saints must find a way to overcome NFC kingpins Seattle and San Francisco out West. The Saints hold one major advantage in the potential competition for home-field advantage: The NFC South is a cupcake festival compared to the NFC West gauntlet. If the Saints can win enough games to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs, they’ll be a threat to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIX. But that’s a big “if.” Otherwise, the 49ers and Seahawks remain a slight cut above the Saints in the NFC.
PREDICTION: 1st in NFC South
Three straight trips to the playoffs have produced nothing but disappointment, topped by last January’s 27–10 loss at home against San Diego. The Bengals have improved their record each of the last three regular seasons, going from 9–7 in 2011 to 10–6 in 2012 and then 11–5 while winning the AFC North title last season, but that’s little consolation to an organization that hasn’t won a postseason game in 23 years. The core remains intact, but the Bengals did little in the offseason outside of the draft when it came to adding frontline players. That sends the message that head coach Marvin Lewis and the front office believe the pieces are in place to get over that playoff barricade. The question remains how much longer the Bengals can stay with a cast that has repeatedly stumbled when the calendar turns to January.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has been good enough to win Player of the Week and Player of the Month honors, and he’s been bad enough to lose in the playoffs. Hue Jackson is the new offensive coordinator, replacing Jay Gruden, who left to take over as Washington’s head coach, and it’s Jackson’s job to get more out of Dalton. Jackson hopes to do so by asking less of Dalton. His 586 passing attempts equaled a franchise record, but his 61.9 completion percentage is lower than the team needs. While he set franchise records for yards (4,296) and touchdowns (33), Dalton also threw a career-high 20 interceptions. He had at least one pass picked off in 12 of the team’s 17 games, including the playoffs, and threw multiple interceptions in six games. Despite his postseason struggles, the team signed Dalton to a six-year, $115 million contract extension in early August, seemingly cementing his status as Cincinnati's franchise quarterback.
As the Bengals ask Dalton to do less, they must simultaneously improve the efficiency of their run game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a workmanlike back, but Giovani Bernard is going to get the ball more in his second season. Second-round draft choice Jeremy Hill is going to play sooner than later; he’s a younger, more explosive version of Green-Ellis.
The backs will get the focus, but the offensive line needs to improve its push. Andrew Whitworth will slide back out to play left tackle after the loss of Anthony Collins to Tampa Bay in free agency. Center is up for grabs after the Bengals released Kyle Cook in the offseason. Fourth-round pick Russell Bodine will push veteran Mike Pollak for the job. With left guard Clint Boling recovering from a torn ACL, Pollak could wind up starting in his place while Bodine takes over at center. Boling is a good candidate to start the season on IR and then be brought back after Week 8. The Bengals lack depth should Whitworth or right tackle Andre Smith go out.
Marvin Jones has become a dangerous No. 2 receiver opposite A.J. Green, who is the focus of attention for every defense the Bengals face. Like Dalton, Green is guilty of not playing his best in the postseason. He’s added about 10 pounds of muscle in his upper body this offseason with the hopes of taking his considerable production (260 catches for 3,833 yards and 29 touchdowns in three seasons) to a higher level. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Green has had 21 dropped passes the last two seasons after dropping just five passes as a rookie in 2011. A hot start from Green may be needed even more since Jones will likely miss the first month of the regular season after breaking a bone in his foot during training camp. Jones' absensce presents an opportunity for Mohamed Sanu or Brandon Tate to step up or perhaps tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham to become more of a factor in the passing game.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict led the NFL in tackles last season. The secondary has six players who entered the league as first-round draft picks. But it’s the defensive line that drives everything the Bengals do on this side of the ball. Paul Guenther moves from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator, taking over for Mike Zimmer, now the head coach in Minnesota. The philosophy and system won’t change much. The Bengals still want to stop the run first and get after the passer with their front four as much as possible without having to blitz. There will be as many as eight players rotating throughout the game without much drop-off.
The return of All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins from a torn ACL is the most significant upgrade from a season ago. The Bengals still finished ranked No. 3 in yards allowed and tied for fifth in points allowed without Atkins for the final two months of the season. Brandon Thompson played well in his absence but doesn’t command double teams the way Atkins does. Carlos Dunlap has always had a combination of size, arm length and speed that made one take notice, and now he’s playing every down with greater consistency and a higher motor. Michael Johnson isn’t on the other side of him now after signing with Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent. Wallace Gilberry tied with Dunlap for the team lead in sacks (7.5) and will start at the right end spot, with second-year player Margus Hunt seeing increased playing time.
Burfict has gone from draft castoff to Pro Bowler in two seasons and he was rewarded by the team with a four-year, $20 million contract extension. He gets to the ball fast and is a sure tackler when he gets there. He stays on the field in nickel packages, which is vital these days as teams increasingly utilize multiple-receiver sets. Vinny Rey proved he belonged on the field last season when he stepped in for an injured Rey Maualuga and produced, including a three-sack game at Baltimore. He’s a little undersized but holds up well against the run. Maualuga is better against the run than he is in coverage. Emmanuel Lamur missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. His return should help in the nickel.
The secondary added another talented piece with the first-round selection of cornerback Darqueze Dennard. It was a pick with an eye toward the future, but Dennard has the ability to play right away. Leon Hall is coming back from a second Achilles tear in two years. This one is his left leg as opposed to the right one he injured in 2011. Hall turns 30 in December. Adam Jones and Reggie Nelson will each be 31 in the first month of the season, while Terence Newman will turn 36. Dre Kirkpatrick, the team’s first pick in 2012, has shown some flashes of ability but is far too inconsistent. The Bengals are still waiting for him to take playing time away from one of the veteran corners. Safety George Iloka will start next to Nelson in the back end.
Punter Kevin Huber returns from suffering a broken jaw and a hairline fracture of cervical vertebrae on a hit from Pittsburgh linebacker Terence Garvin. His ability to pin opponents inside the 20 without touchbacks (24-to-4 ratio in 2013) is his biggest attribute. Kicker Mike Nugent made 18-of-22 field goals last season, including 3-of-4 from 50-plus yards. Brandon Tate hasn’t always been a fan favorite, but all he’s done in three seasons is become the franchise leader in kickoff return average and second in punt return average.
The Bengals can win the division again, and it won’t be a shock if they do, but at some point their best players have to show up when the calendar turns to January. The talent is present to make a deep run in the postseason and challenge for a conference title. It falls heavily upon the shoulders of Dalton, Green and the defense to make that happen.
PREDICTION: 1st in AFC North
The quarterback position has been a revolving door for Miami this offseason, but coach Al Golden ended the carousel by naming true freshman Brad Kaaya the starter for the Week 1 matchup against Louisville.
While Golden’s decision to name Kaaya the starter was made easier due an injury to Ryan Williams (torn ACL), and a suspension for Kevin Olsen, this is the right move for Miami in 2014 and beyond.
Kaaya was competing with Jake Heaps for the starting job this fall, as both quarterbacks enrolled this summer to push for the starting job. Having a veteran like Heaps is beneficial, but he’s struggled in two previous stops (BYU and Kansas).
After throwing 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions as a true freshman at BYU in 2010, Heaps lost the starting job to Riley Nelson in 2011 and transferred to Kansas to start in 2012. However, Heaps was benched after a slow start, completing only 49 percent of his throws and tossing 10 picks on 261 attempts.
There’s no doubt Kaaya is going to make mistakes – he’s a true freshman after all. Starting a true freshman quarterback on the road in a hostile environment (Louisville) is tough, but the upside is worth the risk over Heaps. The senior is a known commodity, and he’s been limited some in fall camp due to an elbow injury. Maybe Heaps is a better quarterback than he showed at BYU or Kansas, but it's tough to envision the Washington native being the answer for Miami in 2014.
On the other side, Kaaya is a quarterback with enormous upside. The California native ranked as the No. 141 national recruit by 247Sports in the 2014 signing class and was considered a four-star prospect.
The bar has been set high by freshman quarterbacks in recent years (Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel), and it’s unfair to pin those expectations on Kaaya. However, the gamble and upside of starting Kaaya outweighs the risk.
Could Kaaya be the next star quarterback in Coral Gables? Perhaps. And knowing what Miami has in Heaps, it only makes sense to go with upside and Kaaya’s potential.
2014 isn’t a make or break year for Golden, but the Hurricanes need to take a step in the right direction. Step one is finding a quarterback. Maybe Kaaya is that guy. It’s better to find out now than next season.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 25:
• It's college football week. Here are the sexiest fan bases in the world's greatest sport.
• A guy promised on Twitter to buy the world drinks if Michael Sam sacked Johnny Manziel and gave the money sign. Sam delivered, and the guy did, too, sort of.
• In case anyone cares, Brittney Griner dunked in the WNBA playoffs.
• So apparently Queen Bey brought the house down at the VMAs. Her daughter Blue Ivy agreed. So did Eric LeGrand, who shocked the Twitterverse with a little jab at his own paralysis.
• Cops spotted Alan Branch vomiting out of his car. The Bills then vomited him off their roster.
• Troy Aikman and Joe Buck made a bizarre Mexican soap opera parody.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at email@example.com
We all know the Gunner Kiel story — he was a high-profile recruit that led a short, yet illustrious career at Columbus East High School (IN), verbally committed and de-commited to both Indiana and LSU, signed with Notre Dame and then transferred to Cincinnati.
Now a redshirt sophomore, Kiel has finally found stable ground with the Bearcats. Nevertheless, having never taken a college snap—not to mention just 16 starts in high school—his expectations have skyrocketed over the last nine months.
And for what reason?
Cincinnati has been picked as the favorite to win the American Athletic Conference this season, despite returning only 13 starters to a team that fell short of preseason expectations in 2013. Most of this rides on Kiel; if he competes at the level that most of everyone believes he’s capable of, then the Bearcats should take the AAC by storm. But if he is another Brendon Kay, then UC’s chances are decreased significantly and an eight-win season is imminent.
It’s a gamble, really—there’s so much uncertainty that goes along with Kiel’s hype that it’s almost absurd to think he can step in and be the best quarterback Cincinnati has ever had (which is pretty much the consensus at this point).
We can thank his recruiting profile for these lofty expectations. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds and a rocket arm, Kiel was a five-star prospect coming out of high school and the No. 1-rated pro-style quarterback. He had a 98.6 247Sports Composite rating and offers from anywhere you could think of.
The only quarterback from his class that was considered a better recruit (for a lack of a better term) was Jameis Winston, and, well, you know how he’s turned out. Winston was given a 99.1 rating, meaning there’s supposed to be a difference of .5 between the two quarterbacks’ overall abilities.
What is .5? A touchdown? One less interception? A few more completed passes? According to these ratings—which everyone abides by nowadays, even coaches—Gunner Kiel is comparable to the reigning Heisman winner, national champion and future top-10 selection in the NFL draft (probably).
It doesn’t stop there, either.
There are some pretty big names from that 2012 recruiting class that have already made a name for themselves in the collegiates, and all were rated lower than Kiel: Trevor Knight, Maty Mauk, and Wes Lunt were among that list.
Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns in a colossal upset over Alabama in last season’s Sugar Bowl, and has positioned Oklahoma for a College Football Playoff run in 2014.
Mauk took over for the injured James Franklin mid-season, throwing 10 touchdowns in four starts as Missouri went on to play for the SEC Championship.
Lunt had strong moments as a true freshman for Oklahoma State in 2012 before transferring to Illinois, where he was named the starter just a few short days ago.
And then there of course are names like Cyler Miles (Washington), Chad Kelly (Clemson), Chad Voytik (Pittsburgh), Travis Wilson (Utah), and Tommy Armstrong (Nebraska), who are all projected to have strong performances in 2014, but were all rated lower than Kiel.
On top of everything, Cincinnati owns the 95th most difficult schedule in the country, according to Phil Steele. The Bearcats play a strong non-conference schedule with road games at Ohio State (albeit, no Braxton Miller) and Miami (Fla.), but avoid UCF in AAC play and get both ECU and Houston at home.
It doesn’t help that Kiel went 17-of-22 for 300 yards in the first half of Cincinnati’s spring game in April. That’s quite exceptional by anyone’s standards, especially during a time when the defense is generally ahead of the offense when it comes to chemistry and knowing the terminology. It’s also the equivalent to an NFL preseason game, in which other words means close to nothing.
Realistically, Kiel isn’t going to replicate the kind of success Jameis Winston had in his first year as a starter with Florida State. However, if he can be as productive as Tony Pike was back in the Brian Kelly days—or even slightly better, for the sake of his billing—then Cincinnati will be good. Really good.
We’ll find out when Kiel takes his first-ever college snap as the Bearcats take on Toledo on Sept. 12 in the season opener.
Written by Tyler Waddell of AACFootballFever.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler_Waddell and @AAC_FB_Fever
Predicting the success of college football coaches on a year-to-year basis is nearly impossible. There’s a baseline of results and history to use, along with a program track record, but good coaches can raise the profile of a team in a short amount of time. Need evidence? How about James Franklin at Vanderbilt?
The group of first-year coaches in 2013 had a successful debut, starting with Gus Malzahn at Auburn and continuing through the rest of the FBS with Boston College’s Steve Addazio, Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen.
But as the calendar flips to 2014, what are the reasonable expectations for coaches in their second year on the job? Let’s take a look at last season’s grade and explore what a reasonable expectation should be for these second-year coaches.
Steve Addazio, Boston College
2013 Record: 7-6 (4-4)
First Season Grade: A
2014 Expectation: 6-6
Addazio and the Eagles exceeded preseason expectations last season, finishing 7-6 and ending a two-year postseason drought with an appearance in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl. Despite the quick turnaround last year, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Boston College took a small step back in 2014. Several key players have expired their eligibility, including standout running back Andre Williams. The ground attack should be fine with Myles Willis and a solid offensive line leading the way, but quarterback Tyler Murphy has to play better than he did in his limited stint at Florida last season. With only nine returning starters, a successful season at Chestnut Hill would be another trip to a bowl game, with an eye on bigger things in 2015.
Scott Shafer, Syracuse
2013 Record: 7-6 (4-4)
First Season Grade: A
2014 Expectation: 8-4/7-5
After winning four out of their last six games in 2013, the Orange has momentum entering 2014. The schedule certainly isn’t easy, but non-conference games against Notre Dame and Maryland are winnable, and quarterback Terrel Hunt should be comfortable in his second year under center. Replacing defensive tackle Jay Bromley is Shafer’s biggest concern, especially on a defense that allowed 40 or more points in four out of the six losses. Beating Florida State or Clemson for one of the top two spots in the Atlantic Division is out of reach, but another bowl trip and a one or two-game improvement in regular season record should be expected.
Dave Doeren, NC State
2013 Record: 3-9 (0-8)
First Season Grade: C
2014 Expectation: 5-7/6-6
Last season’s 3-9 mark was a surprise for a program that won 24 games in the previous three years. However, Dave Doeren’s first year was marked by uncertainty at quarterback, largely due to a foot injury suffered by Brandon Mitchell in the opener against Louisiana Tech. The quarterback concerns in Raleigh should be eased by the arrival of Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett, and the junior will have talent to work with at the skill positions. After averaging only 22.8 points per game last year, expect significant improvement on offense for NC State in 2014. Most of the roster is underclassmen, so this isn’t a team built to win big next season. With four winnable non-conference games to open the year, combined with home ACC swing games against Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Boston College, a bowl game is a very realistic goal for Doeren in Year 2.
Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech
2013 Record: 8-5 (5-4)
First Season Grade: B
2014 Expectation: 8-4
If Texas Tech’s final record in 2014 is 8-4, it would represent only a one-game improvement from last year’s 7-5 mark in the regular season. However, it’s tough to envision a significant jump for the Red Raiders in Kingsbury’s second year. But even if Texas Tech finishes 7-5, the future is bright in Lubbock for a program that is on the rise. Quarterback Davis Webb is a breakout candidate for 2014, and there’s talent at skill positions even with tight end Jace Amaro and receiver Eric Ward leaving. Offense shouldn’t be a problem, but the defense returns only three starters and new faces must emerge on the line and in the secondary. The middle of the Big 12 is open, and there’s room for a dark horse like Texas Tech to make the jump into a No. 5 finish in the conference. A small step forward should be anticipated, with even bigger things set to come in 2015.
Darrell Hazell, Purdue
2013 Record: 1-11 (0-8)
First Season Grade: D
2014 Expectation: 3-9/4-8
Hazell inherited a rebuilding project, but the Boilermakers struggled to be competitive in Big Ten games last year, and its 1-11 mark was the worst since a 1-10 record under Jim Colletto in 1993. Hazell needs time to rebuild, so another losing mark wouldn’t be a surprise in 2014 or 2015. With 12 returning starters, combined with the development of quarterback Danny Etling, the Boilermakers should be more competitive in the Big Ten. However, victories in conference play will be tough to come by, as Michigan State and a road trip to Indiana are the crossover games with the East Division, while potential swing matchups against Minnesota and Illinois are on the road.
Gary Andersen, Wisconsin
2013 Record: 9-4 (6-2)
First Season Grade: A
2014 Expectation: 10-2
Andersen was considered one of the top coaching hires of the 2013 carousel, and the former Utah State coach didn’t disappoint in his first year in Madison. The Badgers lost four games by 10 points or less, including a bizarre last-minute defeat to Arizona State. Even though Wisconsin’s front seven must be revamped on defense, and star receiver Jared Abbrederis has expired his eligibility, expectations are high in Madison. The Badgers have a favorable schedule, including a home date against Nebraska and no Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State in crossover play. Sure, there are personnel concerns. However, the schedule is too favorable to finish 8-4 or 7-5.
Mark Helfrich, Oregon
2013 Record: 11-2 (7-2)
First Season Grade: B
2014 Expectation: Pac-12 title and a spot in CFB’s Playoff
Oregon has all of the necessary pieces to contend for a national championship in 2014. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is the biggest challenger to Florida State’s Jameis Winston for the Heisman, and the Ducks are three deep with options at running back. The defense will be under the direction of a new coordinator (Don Pellum), but five starters are back, including senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and talented defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. With Mariota likely headed to the NFL after 2014, Oregon has another window of opportunity to play for the national championship.
Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
2013 Record: 4-8 (1-8)
First Season Grade: B
2014 Expectation: 4-8
Colorado won only one Pac-12 game last season, but there was clear improvement in Boulder. And if you need reinforcement of that, other Pac-12 coaches anonymously praised MacIntyre for the job he did last year. But as the 2014 season approaches, it’s easy to see why Colorado is probably a year away from contending for a bowl. The Buffaloes catch Oregon and Washington in crossover play with the North and must replace standout receiver Paul Richardson. Sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau is promising, and the depth on defense is getting better. An upset or two wouldn’t be a surprise in Pac-12 games. However, a 4-8 final record with a more competitive team in conference action is very likely for MacIntyre.
Sonny Dykes, California
2013 Record: 1-11 (0-9)
First Season Grade: D
2014 Expectation: 3-9
Thanks to a rash of injuries, new schemes on both sides of the ball, and a freshman quarterback, California slumped to a 1-11 mark in Dykes’ first year. While last year was brutal, there’s only one way to go - up - in 2014. California’s schedule is challenging, so drastic improvement in the win column is unlikely. But the Golden Bears are healthier, and the depth has improved due to the return of a few injured players on defense. Assuming Goff takes a step forward under center, California’s offense could average 30-35 points per game. Just being more competitive in conference play would be a step forward (and a victory) for Dykes in 2014.
Bret Bielema, Arkansas
2013 Record: 3-9 (0-8)
First Season Grade: C
2014 Expectation: 4-8
Bielema’s debut wasn’t easy, as the Razorbacks went winless in conference play for the first time as a member of the SEC. Expectations were low in Fayetteville last season, but Arkansas lost its first six conference games by 10 or more points, including a 52-0 defeat at the hands of Alabama and a 52-7 loss to South Carolina. There were small signs of progress by the end of 2013, as the Razorbacks lost in overtime to Mississippi State and lost by four points at LSU. Bielema didn’t inherit much on the roster, so it will take time to rebuild. With one of the SEC’s top backfields, a promising sophomore tight end in Hunter Henry and two potential All-SEC linemen in Trey Flowers and Darius Philon, Arkansas should be more competitive in 2014. And a healthy year from quarterback Brandon Allen should help the offense improve after averaging only 20.7 points per game last season. After going winless in SEC play in 2013, a conference victory would be a reasonable expectation.
Butch Jones, Tennessee
2013 Record: 5-7 (2-6)
First Season Grade: B
2014 Expectation: 6-6
Considering the success of Tennessee in the 1990s, it seems odd to consider a 6-6 or 7-5 mark as a good year on Rocky Top. But that’s exactly the situation Jones finds himself in as the Volunteers are clearly in rebuild mode. Nine starters return from a Tennessee team that finished 5-7 last year and lost four out of its final five games. The Volunteers suffered massive personnel losses on the offensive and defensive lines, and both units could see a handful of freshmen taking major snaps. The personnel concerns are heavy, but the schedule is an even bigger hurdle. Tennessee plays Utah State and Oklahoma in non-conference play and catches Ole Miss and Alabama in crossover play. Just getting to a bowl would be a good season for Jones in Year 2.
Gus Malzahn, Auburn
2013 Record: 12-2 (7-1)
First Season Grade: A
2014 Expectation: CFB Playoff
Malzahn set the bar high last season. The Tigers reached the national championship game after a 3-9 record under Gene Chizik in 2012 and lost to Florida State by only three points. Auburn certainly had good fortune on its side in 2013, using a returned missed field goal for a touchdown to beat Alabama, along with a tipped Hail Mary pass for a score to defeat Georgia. While the good fortune certainly helped, this team was certainly worthy of its No. 2 rank at the end of the season. A year after reaching the national title, Auburn’s goal is simple: Win it all in 2014. With 12 starters back, expect Malzahn’s team to be in the thick of the playoff race all season. One potential pitfall for the Tigers will be the lines of scrimmage, especially after injuries to end Carl Lawson and guard Alex Kozan. The schedule is challenging, but Auburn has the offensive firepower to win the SEC once again.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
2013 Record: 2-10 (0-8)
First Season Grade: C
2014 Expectation: 4-8
Stoops is not an easy coach to grade, and an incomplete might be more appropriate than a C rating from 2013. The former Florida State defensive coordinator didn’t inherit much to work with, and the Wildcats finished winless in SEC play for the second consecutive year. But despite the 2-10 record, there are plenty of positives in Lexington headed into 2014. Stoops has upgraded the roster talent through recruiting, and a good chunk of the team’s core is set to return in 2015. Small gains in the win column should be expected. And don’t be surprised if Kentucky finds a way to steal a victory in SEC play.
Dear college football, please don’t screw up this first weekend.
Week 1 features its fair share of power teams playing other power teams, but we’re not quite sure the first week is going to be the most competitive.
We’ve waited all summer for this, so please, college football, give us some drama.
Let’s pretend Alabama-West Virginia and Florida State-Oklahoma State aren’t going to be lopsided. Let’s pretend Clemson-Georgia and Texas A&M-South Carolina won’t be games where teams are trying to figure their way in some form or another.
We can dream, right?
The Week Ahead: Aug. 28-Sept. 12
LSU vs. Wisconsin (Houston)
When and where: Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... we’re a little concerned the top games in Week 1 may end up lopsided, and this game has as much potential for drama as any. The running back of the present (Wisconsin junior Melvin Gordon) and the running back of the future (LSU freshman Leonard Fournette) could feast against rebuilding front sevens. Both teams also will try to find out if they can win their respective divisions with unsettled quarterback situations.
Vegas says: LSU by 4.5
Clemson at Georgia
When and where: Saturday, 5:30 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... two Southern powers will actually meet on a campus site instead of a neutral field. That said, this game will be hard-pressed to be a replay of Clemson’s 38-35 win at home last year. Two senior quarterbacks with parallel experiences — Cole Stoudt waited for three years behind Tajh Boyd, Hutson Mason behind Aaron Murray — will try to stay composed. Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley will make that tough on Mason, but the Bulldogs have a healthy Todd Gurley at running back.
Vegas says: Georgia by 8
Texas A&M at South Carolina
When and where: Thursday, 6 p.m., SEC Network
We’re watching because... we can’t say no to a Thursday night opener even if we have a suspicion South Carolina will roll in a game lacking Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney. The Aggies answered one question by opting for sophomore Kenny Hill in a heated QB competition with freshman Kyle Allen, but the Aggies may not have an answer for the South Carolina run game if Mike Davis is able to play. The A&M defense was last in the SEC at 5.4 yards allowed per carry before dismissing two front seven starters during the offseason. A banged up Davis may be A&M's only hope.
Vegas says: South Carolina by 10.5
Ole Miss vs. Boise State (Atlanta)
When and where: Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... we’re still trying to figure out how seriously to take Ole Miss. The Rebels have momentum after back-to-back bowl wins, an eight-win season in 2013 and a standout signing class entering its sophomore season. Ole Miss’ opening three weeks against Boise State, Vanderbilt and UL Lafayette won’t put the Rebels in Playoff contention, but September is a tone-setter. That’s especially true of senior quarterback Bo Wallace, who is finally healthy enough to be confident in his arm.
Vegas says: Ole Miss by 10
Ohio State vs. Navy (Baltimore)
When and where: Saturday, noon, CBS Sports Network
We’re watching because... we’re intrigued by the Buckeyes without Braxton Miller. Ohio State may win this game convincingly — Navy’s option plays right into Ohio State’s strength in the front seven. Urban Meyer moves on from the Miller injury with freshman J.T. Barrett, who will face a tougher test against Virginia Tech’s secondary in Week 2.
Vegas says: Ohio State by 12.5
Oklahoma and receiver Dorial Green-Beckham received some bad news on Friday, as the NCAA denied the former Missouri standout’s request for immediate eligibility in 2014.
Green-Beckham will sit out 2014 due to NCAA transfer rules and will be eligible to play for the Sooners in 2015.
Green-Beckham was dismissed from Missouri in mid-April after an off-the-field incident and was hoping to use the run-off rule to be eligible in 2014.
Even though there was some optimism about DGB’s hopes of getting a waiver to play in 2014, the standout receiver will be sidelined until 2015.
BREAKING: OU announces Dorial Green-Beckham's eligibility waiver has been denied by the NCAA. He won't play in 2014.— SoonerScoop.com (@SoonerScoop) August 23, 2014
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, as the circuit hits Bristol Motor Speedway for the Irwin Tools Night Race, a new light is shed on last week’s Jimmie Johnson-Ryan Newman post-race conversation. Also, count Charlotte as a market that will bury Saturday night’s NASCAR race and keep an eye on Kyle Larson, who could be the 13th driver to slip into the Chase based on race wins.
He said what? Ryan Newman vs. Jimmie Johnson got personal
ESPN’s cameras showed a war of words between Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman after last week’s race at Michigan. Newman declined an interview afterward and Johnson spoke of general frustration with Newman’s driving tactics. But what exactly was said between the two during their original moment of frustration?
Well, folks watching on TSN in Canada got to see and hear the showdown in its entirety. Simply put: things got salty. The highlights:
Ryan Newman: “I (expletive) raced you clean! Race me clean back. You’re better than that, but not today.”
Jimmie Johnson: “Feel better about yourself?”
RN: “I don’t have to feel better about myself.”
JJ: “You’re in the way (expletive) every single lap —“
RN: “I’m driving my ass off. If I had the motor you had I wouldn’t have been in your way. But I didn’t.”
JJ: “You had all of the (expletive) I have, and then you made a (expletive) bad decision to put yourself in this position.”
RN: “So be it —“
JJ: “Just like that on the track just now.”
RN: “You made a bad decision there, just let me tell you that.”
JJ: “Bring it.”
There is a lot to digest there — with the least important being Jimmie’s inconceivably weak closing shot of “bring it” — depending on how much merit you put into a heated, post-race confrontation. If you think there is a little bit of truth in anything, then Johnson’s claim that Newman’s own decisions led to him losing his Stewart-Haas Racing ride (with Hendrick engines) in 2013 strikes as interesting. The public story is that Newman simply wasn’t performing at a level that impressed Gene Haas and the rest was history.
Perhaps there was more to the story.
Otherwise, this is a continuation of several drivers having problems with Newman’s driving style and a negative assessment of the engines at Richard Childress Racing. Both Newman and Johnson seem to tacitly agree that the Hendrick Chevrolets are stronger than Childress’.
All told, the conversation seems very bitter. It’s tough to think Johnson and Newman will be fishing together anytime soon. And it might be a bit of a tinderbox of emotion just waiting to explode under the lights of Bristol on Saturday night.
Charlotte among 15 television markets burying Bristol race coverage
This isn’t the first time a NASCAR race on ABC has been moved in some markets to accommodate other programming, but it may be the most notable thanks to the actions of the local ABC affiliate in NASCAR’s de facto hometown.
Saturday night, residents of Charlotte, N.C., (and 14 other markets including the likes of Austin, Houston, Nashville and Washington D.C.) won’t get to see the Irwin Tools Night Race from Bristol like the rest of the country on the local ABC channel. Instead, WSOC-TV in Charlotte will bump the race to a sister channel (WAXN TV64) while Baltimore and Washington square off in a pre-season NFL tilt on the flagship channel.
The move is rooted from the time when Charlotte’s hometown team — the Carolina Panthers — didn’t exist, thus creating an extensive Washington fanbase in the land of the pines. Look no further than Kannapolis, N.C.’s own Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his extensive fandom of Daniel Snyder’s team for proof that Washington will draw ratings in the market.
The move is an implication of two things: first, WSOC expects the preseason NFL game to draw better than a fairly marquee NASCAR event, and two, NASCAR’s fan base — even in its hometown — isn’t nearly as fervent as it once was. Even casual observers of the sport know that, though.
While Charlotte is the most notable of the bunch, fans in locations like Casper and Cody, Wyo., St. Joseph, Mo., and San Antonio, Tex., may get completely hosed in the name of local affiliates opting to show alternate (typically sports) programming. Those markets will only see NASCAR on ABC if the subscribers have satellite television. Cable and over-the-air viewers will be out of luck.
ABC/ESPN, for its part, doesn’t control local programming decisions.
“We respect the right of ABC affiliates to make their own programming decisions and we appreciate that many of them were able to place the race telecast on alternate channels in their markets in order to serve NASCAR fans,” said Andy Hall, associate director of ESPN Communications.
Want to win at Bristol? Get up front by lap 300
As Saturday night cycles toward completion, it won’t be hard to spot the eventual winner. That’s because Bristol is a track that heavily rewards track position and tends to not favor those who need a late-race comeback.
Put simply: Giving up track position sometime after halfway in the 500-lap race doesn’t bode well for those who want to reach the checkered flag first.
In the past 15 races at Bristol, 12 race winners were running third or better at lap 300. Fourteen of those race winners were fifth or better. The lone outlier? Matt Kenseth, 2013 night race winner, who was scored in 24th on lap 300. Kenseth’s efforts that night were all together heroic as he drove the No. 20 from 27th to first in less than 100 laps after a mid-race setback.
Kenseth aside, the numbers tell the story. Drivers with a shot to win simply have to be in contention by just after halfway. Expect more of the same Saturday night.
The weekend of Kyle Larson?
With three races left until the cutoff, he’s not currently in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But for Cup rookie Kyle Larson, Bristol Motor Speedway could serve as his best shot to change all of that.
Larson, coming off his worst finish of the season last week at Michigan (he blew a tire, walloped the wall and finished dead last), desperately needs a few breaks should he want to join the 16-driver playoff field after Richmond. Currently 14th in points but winless, Larson is chasing Greg Biffle from 24 points back for the last spot currently available to non-race winners in the field.
That situation is highly fluid, of course, as any driver in the top 30 who gets a win between now and the Richmond finale would displace the last driver trying to get in via point standings. Larson could very well play that role at Bristol.
Friday at Bristol, Larson was quick in practice — he led the speed charts early in the session — and appeared ready to duplicate a solid spring performance at the half-mile. He finished 10th in March, but ran as high as second after starting 20th and spent 97.4 percent of the race inside the top 15. Also telling of more Bristol success is Larson’s Nationwide Series record at the track that includes two runner-up finishes and three top-5 showings in three starts.
Kyle Larson needs a boost to make the Chase. Maybe he’ll get it at Bristol.
Officiating blunders continue for NASCAR
NASCAR’s return to Bristol this weekend is also a return to the track where it suffered its biggest officiating mistake in quite some time. In the March Cup race delayed by rain, an errant flip of the caution light switch brought out a yellow flag in the closing laps of the race.
Fortunately for NASCAR, the mistake coordinated with a heavy rain shower that ultimately allowed series officials to consider the race complete and not force a green-white-checker restart. Carl Edwards got the win that looked firmly in hand before the yellow flag came out just before the white flag, and potential ramifications on the Chase — remember wins are considered all important now — were avoided.
But the issue came before a similar mistake at Auto Club Speedway a week later when an official failed to accurately indicate the opening of pit road to all drivers and this week’s revelation that an inspector in the Camping World Truck Series contributed to part failures on two trucks owned by Brad Keselowski. In the BKR instance — a problem from last week at Michigan — the team was told inaccurately to modify the noses of the race trucks in a way that ultimately caused structural failure and unnecessary pit stops during the race. Truck series director Chad Little apologized to the team afterward.
The issues, individually, are part of life for any sport with human officiating. But as NASCAR barrels toward its first use of a playoff system where individual races will mean so incredibly much to determining the sport’s champion, such mistakes just can’t happen.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
In the high-speed world of Chip Kelly football — where players are encouraged to get nine hours of sleep a night, drink their individually engineered energy shakes without question and endure eardrum-slicing music during “training” — success is measured not just by wins and losses but also by style points. The Birds must not just defeat their opponents; they must impose their will through tempo. They must create havoc.
Year 2 of Kelly’s regime promises more jet-fueled offensive success and some games in which the Eagles appear to be working at a connection rate much faster than their opponents. The question is whether 2014 will feature an improvement on Kelly’s debut, when the Eagles overcame a 3–5 start to finish 10–6, or if the rest of the NFL catches on to the team’s outscore-’em philosophy and controls games by beating up on an overworked Philadelphia defense.
From the moment the Birds smacked Washington in the face during the first half of their debut, they employed the same lightning-fast attack that Kelly favored while in the college ranks. One would suspect the 2014 Eagles would be even more capable of shredding defenses, thanks to a greater familiarity with the system. Their one loss, however, is a big one. DeSean Jackson, who caught a team-leading 82 passes for 1,332 yards and nine scores last year, was cut loose, leaving the Eagles’ receiving corps thin and somewhat inexperienced. But Kelly believes in the power of tempo and his ability to create matchup advantages, and fans must hope that can overcome the loss of a gamebreaker on the outside.
Triggering it all will be third-year quarterback Nick Foles, who took over for Michael Vick midway through last year and tossed 27 TD passes against just two picks. Foles may not be Kelly’s ideal at the position given his lack of foot speed, but he makes good decisions, delivers the ball on time and doesn’t turn it over. Now, he must improve his ability to avoid sacks while continuing to complete a high percentage of passes (64.0 percent in 2013). Vick is gone, and former Jets starter Mark Sanchez has assumed the backup role, with second-year man Matt Barkley in the hole. Should Foles regress, the Eagles are in some trouble.
Kelly hopes Jackson’s departure is offset by the return of Jeremy Maclin from a torn ACL that forced him to miss all of 2013. Maclin is a reliable target but hardly the deep weapon Jackson can be. Riley Cooper overcame some self-induced stupidity to have his best season and was rewarded with a fat — and some say undeserved — contract. He is now expected to be a prime target, rather than a complement. Rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff will be expected to make immediate contributions, with the 6'3", 212-pound Matthews likely to be ready sooner.
Although veteran tight end Brent Celek showed signs of slowing down last year, Zach Ertz demonstrated great promise and should become a more valuable part of the passing game.
LeSean McCoy returns after a season (1,607 yards, nine TDs) that established him among the league’s elite backs. McCoy thrived in Kelly’s spread system and was often stronger at the end of games, despite a career-high and NFL-best 314 carries. When healthy, he is one of the best. Former Saints all-purpose standout Darren Sproles has joined the team and will be expected to spell McCoy but also see heavy work in the passing game and help as a returner.
The line returns intact after a great 2013 season that featured no serious injuries and tremendous continuity. Left tackle Jason Peters remains one of the best in the business, and guard Evan Mathis emerged as a standout. Jason Kelce has become one the league’s more reliable pivots, while Todd Herremans is comfortable at guard, and second-year right tackle Lane Johnson should build on a solid debut. There isn’t a lot of quality depth, which could be tested early given Johnson's four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but the front five is stout.
The Eagles did little during the offseason to bolster a unit that finished 29th in total defense. Safety Malcolm Jenkins was signed from New Orleans, but he won’t help much against the run. Top draft pick Marcus Smith addresses the need for an edge-rusher in the team’s 3-4, but he isn’t likely to be a starter right away. The other additions are backups, mid-to-late-round rookies and special teams players. Part of the problem is personnel, but Kelly’s insistence on playing offense at 100 miles per hour means less possession time and more pressure on the D.
The three-man front had its moments last year but isn’t a fire-breathing unit. Ends Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton can stuff the run, but neither is a pass-rushing specialist, and it’s too early to determine whether second-year nose man Bennie Logan will be the plug in the middle the team needs. Backup end Vinny Curry can get to the quarterback on occasion.
Smith’s arrival promises no immediate salvation for an ordinary group of linebackers. Trent Cole had trouble adjusting to life as an outside man after a career as a 4-3 end, while his counterpart on the other side, Connor Barwin, has his moments but is not a consistent standout. Kelly hopes Smith can be a situational pass-rusher as a rookie and mature into a full-time player.
Inside, veteran DeMeco Ryans showed he could handle work in a 3-4 better than he did while with Houston. If nothing else, he provides energy and leadership. Third-year man Mychal Kendricks has sideline-to-sideline speed and plenty of potential but needs to be more consistent.
Jenkins’ arrival should help a secondary that was vulnerable last year. He’ll team with Nate Allen in a back line that won’t scare many people. Second-year man Earl Wolff can provide help in reserve. Cary Williams, Brandon Boykin and Bradley Fletcher are not great cover men, but they comprise a relatively solid crew that could get some help from former Dolphin Nolan Carroll.
Punter Donnie Jones had a great 2013, averaging 44.9 yards per kick, and was rewarded with a new contract. Placekicker Alex Henery did not have a similar glowing season, struggling a bit from beyond 40 yards and failing to kick off deep consistently. The loss of Jackson hurts the return game, and Kelly is hoping Sproles can be a weapon in that area. Another potential option could be running back/return specialist Kenjon Barner, who Kelly coached at Oregon and the Eagles acquired from Philadelphia on Aug. 19 for a conditional 2015 seventh-round pick.
The Eagles are the favorites in the NFC East almost by default, thanks to problems in Washington and New York and the Cowboys’ history of self-destruction. The question is whether Philadelphia can be more than a first-round playoff participant. That will depend on whether the offense continues to crackle and even surpasses last year’s efficiency. Foles must grow at quarterback, and the outside weapons have to produce. It can’t just be about the scheme. The defense could improve, thanks to the development of the younger players, but it will never be a raging outfit, at least not in this iteration. The Eagles are contenders, but the level of achievement depends on whether they can outstrip the league’s efforts to slow them down.
PREDICTION: 1st in NFC East
Instead of dismissing a substandard season as an aberration, the Ravens have devoted considerable resources to trying to regain their former status as an annual playoff squad. One year after winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens missed the playoffs, as a lackluster offense was the primary culprit for the regression. The Ravens ranked 29th in total offense and 30th in rushing offense as their streak of five consecutive seasons of making the playoffs under coach John Harbaugh ended. “Our players are more motivated than ever,” Harbaugh says. “It’s just not acceptable.”
So, the Ravens hired a new offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak along with signing five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith and two-time Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels. They also held onto tight end Dennis Pitta and left tackle Eugene Monroe with $32 million and $37.5 million contracts, respectively. With the financial emphasis on fixing the offense, the Ravens hope they’ve done enough to get back to the postseason. “It’s fair to say it’s a failure because our goal is to be one of the top 12,” owner Steve Bisciotti said after last season. “If 8–8 is a failure, I hope it’s a long time before I feel worse than this.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco didn’t live up to the expectations that accompany a blockbuster $120.6 million contract as he threw a franchise-record 22 interceptions. It was an uncharacteristic season for the Super Bowl XLVII MVP. Some of the biggest priorities for the Ravens are providing Flacco with more time to throw and getting him into a comfort zone. “It’s a new year, a new beginning and a chance to do new things,” Flacco says. “I think we’ve got a good team and an offense that can put up some numbers.”
That’s where Steve Smith could become the key to a potential offensive turnaround. The Ravens brought him in to work in tandem with Torrey Smith and Pitta, who missed all but four games last season due to a fractured, dislocated hip. Steve Smith has a toughness and veteran savvy that’s been absent from the offensive huddle since Baltimore unloaded Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers in a trade following a contract dispute. Torrey Smith should have more room to operate as a deep threat with Steve Smith and Pitta working underneath in the middle of the field. Daniels’ knowledge of Kubiak’s offense from their days with the Texans, along with his sound hands and route-running, should be invaluable. Marlon Brown is more than just a red-zone threat, but he did catch seven touchdowns as an undrafted free agent last year.
The running game remains an area of concern because a heavier, hobbled Ray Rice stumbled to a 660-yard season in which he lacked tackle-breaking capabilities and his trademark elusiveness. He played as heavy as 225 pounds. He’s now down to 210 pounds, which should help him regain his Pro Bowl form. Rice had a serious off-field issue this offseason in which he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault for a domestic violence incident involving his girlfriend (now wife). Rice was suspended two games by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and now faces even more pressure to step up, both on and off of the field. Backup Bernard Pierce is expected to carry the load in Rice's absence, but Pierce had his own struggles last season and is coming off rotator cuff surgery. The Ravens are going to give rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, a 230-pound small-school standout, a long look during training camp.
The return of Monroe, an athletic, polished tackle, for a full season after being acquired in October should give Flacco a better shot at remaining upright. They’ve upgraded at center by trading for Jeremy Zuttah, who replaces Gino Gradkowski after the latter struggled as a starter last season. Pro Bowl right guard Marshal Yanda is a constant gritty presence. Right tackle is a question mark with Rick Wagner getting a shot at winning the job. If he falters, the Ravens could sign a veteran or shift left guard Kelechi Osemele to right tackle. Osemele is well ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation from back surgery that sidelined him last year.
Middle linebacker Daryl Smith is one of the most underrated defenders in the NFL. Smith remains fast in pursuit, sharp in pass coverage and is a good blitzer, contributing 123 tackles, three interceptions and five sacks last year. Former Alabama star C.J. Mosley is the frontrunner to start next to Smith at inside linebacker. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs made the Pro Bowl for the sixth time, but the Ravens want to see him become more productive for the entire season after watching him wear down last year. In a situational pass-rusher role, Elvis Dumervil delivered 9.5 sacks before an ankle injury slowed him down. Courtney Upshaw unselfishly stuffs blockers and sets the edge at strong-side outside linebacker.
The defensive line is in transition with Arthur Jones leaving in free agency. Rookie Timmy Jernigan is competing with Brandon Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore to take over Jones’ versatile role. The Ravens will need Pro Bowl nose tackle Haloti Ngata to be even more disruptive inside. Defensive end Chris Canty was far too quiet in his first season in Baltimore. Fourth-round draft pick Brent Urban was expected to be a part of the rotation, but he tore his ACL in training camp and is out for the season.
The Ravens exercised a fifth-year option for 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith, who has emerged as one of the better young cornerbacks in the game. Lardarius Webb was starting to get back his quickness and trust his surgically repaired knee by the end of last season and should be back to full strength. Safety is an area of concern. The Ravens are hoping to move Matt Elam back to his natural strong safety position to capitalize on his aggressiveness. To be able to make this move, either rookie Terrence Brooks or veteran Darian Stewart needs to prove to be capable at free safety. Nickel back is being contested between Chykie Brown and Asa Jackson after Corey Graham signed with the Buffalo Bills. Like most NFL defenses, the Ravens don’t have the luxury of having three starting-caliber cornerbacks. The team signed veteran Aaron Ross in June, but he tore his Achilles during training camp. Baltimore then turned to Will Hill, a former teammate of Ross' with the Giants who was released by New York after it was announced Hill would be suspended for the first six games of the season for another violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Secondary depth could be an issue for the Ravens, especially early on.
Pro Bowl kicker Justin Tucker emerged as a budding star last season with his clutch performances, including a franchise-record 61-yarder to beat the Detroit Lions. Tucker has become a reliable scoring weapon with his ability to hit long-distance field goals. Jacoby Jones remains an explosive threat as a return man, helping the Ravens beat the Minnesota Vikings in the snow with a kickoff return for a touchdown last season. Sam Koch was rumored to be on thin ice due to his salary-cap figure, but Harbaugh has insisted that the veteran punter is safe.
The Ravens look like they’re primed for a bounce-back season. While it’s unclear if they’re as talented as the division rival Cincinnati Bengals, this team, at the least, is probably headed back to the playoffs as a wild card qualifier. The schedule isn’t overly demanding, and the Ravens have a proven winning coach in Harbaugh.
PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC North
College football’s 2014 season is slated to begin on Wednesday, Aug. 27, and the first playoff format of the FBS concludes on Jan. 12 with the national championship game. And with kickoff right around the corner, it’s time to finalize predictions, picks and rankings for the upcoming year.
Athlon’s editors met before the preseason magazine was released to iron out the predictions for the upcoming year, but there wasn’t a consensus on every conference title race or top 25 rankings.
From the ACC to the Sun Belt, there was plenty of disagreement from the staff on conference winners or the predicted order of finish.
In addition to the predicted winners of the conferences, Athlon’s editors also project the four teams to make the playoff and a national champion.
* Indicates projected champion of league's conference title game.
Predicting CFB's Conferences, Playoff and National Champion
Listen to Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast: Predicting the 2014 season
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