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All taxonomy terms: Chicago Bears, NFC, NFC North, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/chicago-bears-2014-team-preview-and-predictions
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A year ago Bears general manager Phil Emery and new coach Marc Trestman spent the offseason rebooting an offense that was one of the NFL’s worst.

 

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

 

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

 

OFFENSE

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

 

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

 

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

 

DEFENSE

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

 

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

 

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

 

SPECIALISTS

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

 

FINAL ANALYSIS

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

 

PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC North

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Arizona: 5.8

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

 

Arizona State: 37.6

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

 

Cal: 87

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

 

Colorado: 6.08

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

 

Oregon: 4

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

 

Oregon State: -1.17

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

 

Stanford: 6.4

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

 

UCLA: 6.53

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

 

USC: 7.8

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

 

Utah: 5.5

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

 

Washington: 4.83

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

 

Washington State: 3

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

 

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

Teaser:
Pac-12 Advanced Stats You Need to Know for 2014
Post date: Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-august-21-2014
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This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 21:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Great news in Jim Kelly's battle with cancer.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Watch two crazy bros kayak down a storm drainage ditch.

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 10:38
Path: /college-football/ranking-college-footballs-top-50-players-2014
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Ranking the best college football players in the nation is an impossible task, but that’s exactly what Athlon Sports has set out to do with the start of the 2014 season less than 10 days away.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jacob Coker, QB, Alabama

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

 

Shon Coleman, OT/LaDarius Owens, DE, Auburn

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

 

Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State

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

 

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

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

 

Joel Heath/Damon Knox, DT, Michigan State

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

 

Xavien Howard, CB, Baylor

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

 

Jordon James, RB, UCLA

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

 

Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma

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

 

Damian Swann, CB, Georgia

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

 

Andre Yruretagoyena, OT, Oregon

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

1. Michigan State at Oregon (Sept. 6)

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

 

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

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

 

3. Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 29)

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

 

4. Wisconsin at Iowa (Nov. 22)

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

 

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

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

 

6. Michigan at Michigan State (Oct. 25)

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

9. Nebraska at Iowa (Nov. 29)

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

 

10. Nebraska at Wisconsin (Nov. 15)

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

 

11. Nebraska at Michigan State (Oct. 4)

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

 

12. Penn State at Michigan (Oct. 11)

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

 

13. Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 6)

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

 

14. Michigan State at Maryland (Nov. 15)

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

 

15. Ohio State at Maryland (Oct. 4)

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

 

Best of the Rest:

 

16. Minnesota at Wisconsin (Nov. 29)

17. Wisconsin at Northwestern (Oct. 4)

18. Nebraska at Northwestern (Oct. 18)

19. Miami at Nebraska (Sept. 20)

20. Iowa at Pitt (Sept. 20)

21. Northwestern at Notre Dame (Nov. 15)

22. Iowa at Minnesota (Nov. 8)

23. Michigan State at Indiana (Nov. 18)

24. Iowa at Maryland (Oct. 18)

25. Maryland at Penn State (Nov. 1)

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

Conferences don’t win championships, teams do.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

1. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 29)

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

 

2. Clemson at Georgia (Aug. 30)

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

 

3. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 29)

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

 

4. Clemson at Florida State (Sept. 20)

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

 

5. Florida State at Louisville (Oct. 30)

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

 

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

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

 

7. Louisville at Clemson (Oct. 11)

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

 

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

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

 

9. North Carolina at Clemson (Sept. 27)

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

12. Miami at Louisville (Sept. 1)

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

 

13. Florida State at Miami (Nov. 15)

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

 

14. Miami at Nebraska (Sept. 20)

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

 

15. Miami at Virginia Tech (Oct. 23)

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

 

Best of the Rest:

 

16. Virginia Tech at Pitt (Oct. 16)

17. North Carolina at Miami (Nov. 1)

18. North Carolina at Duke (Nov. 20)

19. Georgia Tech at Georgia (Nov. 29)

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

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

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

23. Pitt at North Carolina (Nov. 15)

24. Pitt at Miami (Nov. 29)

25. Virginia Tech at Duke (Nov. 15)

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

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

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

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

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

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


2014-15 All-Freshman Squad


All-Freshman First Team

G Tyus Jones, Duke

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

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

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

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

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

All-Freshman Second Team

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

All-Freshman Third Team

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

OFFENSE

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

DEFENSE

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

SPECIALISTS

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

 

FINAL ANALYSIS

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

 

PREDICTION: 2nd in NFC South

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

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

 

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

 

OFFENSE

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

DEFENSE

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

SPECIALISTS

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

 

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

 

FINAL ANALYSIS

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

 

PREDICTION: 3rd in AFC North

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Fantasy football has gone too mainstream for comfort.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Breaking down Blaney  Ryan Blaney

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

The Woods upgrade everything

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Penske, it seems, values repetition.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Analyzing the transaction that brings Ryan Blaney to the the Wood Brothers — and eventually Team Penske — in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 11:09
Path: /nascar/ryan-blaney-promotion-boon-both-penske-and-woods
Body:

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Breaking down Blaney  Ryan Blaney

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

The Woods upgrade everything

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Penske, it seems, values repetition.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Analyzing the transaction that brings Ryan Blaney to the the Wood Brothers — and eventually Team Penske — in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Post date: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 11:09
All taxonomy terms: High School, News
Path: /high-school/2014-athlon-sports-high-school-football-national-top-25
Body:

The NFL season is two weeks away. The college football season is a week away.

That means this week high school football has the spotlight to itself. ESPN will air a handful of featured national games this weekend as a kickoff to the Friday Night Lights.

Among the national top-25 teams in action this weekend on national TV include Rock Hill (S.C.) Northwestern against in-state foe Byrnes, Hoover (Ala.) against Miami Central and Buford (Ga.) against Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian.

Beyond those three teams, here are the top 25 teams you should keep an eye on for 2014:


Rankings and game breakdowns for every state are available in the Athlon Sports' High School Football Preview.


1. Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas
Last season: 10-3

St. Thomas is a private school that draws from the talent-rich populations of Broward and North Dade counties, two of the top football-producing counties in the country. The influx of star power this year is greater than ever. Top players like running back Jordan Scarlett, cornerback Rashard Causey and defensive end Brandon Boyce, all seniors, and junior wide receiver Sam Bruce all transferred from cross-town University School and dropped a surplus of wealth in coach Rocco Casullo’s lap.

2. Hoover (Ala.)
Last season: 15-0

The Bucs ended their time at the 6A level with two straight state titles and will hope to carry that momentum into the newly formed 7A division this fall. Despite losing Alabama signee Marlon Humphrey on defense, the Bucs may have their most talented senior class in years this fall, including pass-rushing demons Christian Bell and Darrell Williams on defense and running back Bradrick Shaw on offense.

3. Allen (Texas)
Last season: 16-0

Allen rolled to its second consecutive state championship in convincing fashion a year ago behind all-everything quarterback Kyler Murray. He’s back for a third season along with most of the Allen offense, which could put up record-breaking numbers in 2014. If there is a concern, it’s on defense, where graduation hit the Eagles hard. Allen has won 27 consecutive games heading into the 2014 season.

4. Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage
Last season: 15-1

The top two teams in the state will open the season in a big-time battle of Broward County’s best at the Miami Dolphins’ home stadium. Gifted do-everything quarterback Torrance Gibson leads the way for Heritage, and last year no team could corral the athletic playmaker, who led the Patriots to the Class 5A crown.

5. Cedar Hill (Texas)
Last season: 14-2

Cedar Hill avenged its 2012 loss to Katy in the Div. II title game with a win over the Tigers in the 2013 title matchup. Senior wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge will look to lead a repeat charge in 2014.

6. Katy (Texas)
Last season: 15-1

Katy fell just short of a second straight title last year, losing to Cedar Hill in the 5A Division II title game. That’s the bad news. The good news is that 2013 was supposed to be a rebuilding year. With a talented defense and running back Rodney Anderson — an Oklahoma commit — returning, the Tigers appear to be loaded.

7. Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward
Last season: 11-2

Coach Rick Finotti has made this program the envy of the state. After coming up a field goal shy of the D-I state final in 2013, the Eagles are loaded and poised to navigate the season unscathed as they did in 2010. The key will be the play of a fresh-faced O-line.

8. Bellevue (Wash.)
Last season: 14-0

No longer just one of the top programs in the West, this national power will be gunning for its 12th state title since 2001. Junior quarterback Justus Rogers is a dual threat and will had the ball to Sam Richmond behind an always-stout offensive line.

9. Concord (Calif.) De La Salle
Last season: 14-1

The Spartans of the Bay Area have been a dominant program since 1979 when Bob Ladouceur took over as coach. Ladouceur stepped down following the 2012 season but is back as an assistant to Justin Alumbaugh. De La Salle has gone 413–26–3 over the past 35 years with 22 consecutive North Coast Section titles and eight state title game appearances in the eight years it’s been held, with five titles. The Spartans are again dominant on both lines of scrimmage, led by Kahlil McKenzie, Drew Sullivan and Boss Tagaloa. How new QB Anthony Sweeney adjusts will be the key.

10. Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco
Last season: 16-0

The Braves in 2013 capped their finest season as the best team in the history of Southern California, according to the Los Angeles Times, with a State Open Division title win over storied De La Salle, 20–14. Bosco returns UCLA-commit QB Josh Rosen (3,200 yards, 39 TDs) and 2,000-yard rusher Sean McGrew to run behind D-I prospects Matthew Katnik and Zach Robertson. Ten D-I signees have graduated, but scores of newcomers are ready.

11. Clifton (Va.) Centreville
Last season: 15-0

The Wildcats are expected to welcome back 15 starters from a dominating team that last season won the program’s first state championship since 2000. A pair of two-way standouts — running back/defensive back A.J. Turner and wide receiver/defensive back Charles Tutt — return after helping Centreville win the Group 6A state title. The Wildcats went 15–0 and finished with a average margin of victory of 34 points per game.

12. Gardena (Calif.) Juniperro Serra
Last season: 13-1

Players come, they graduate and new ones come in, including new QB prospects in Khalil Tate and Caleb Wilson, a 6-5 transfer from Georgia. Running back Malik Roberson returns for a program that has become a scholarship factory.

13. Powder Springs (Ga.) McEachern
Last season: 11-3

A Cobb County school hasn’t won a state championship in the highest classification since Marietta in 1967. The Indians have a shot after losing in the state semifinals in 2013, but the non-region schedule — featuring North Gwinnett, Buford, Lovejoy and Peachtree Ridge — is brutal. Running back Taj Griffin is an all-state candidate, and Chuma Edoga is one of the best lineman prospects in America. A dominant defensive lineman was a hallmark of the championship runs by Grayson and Norcross over the past three years. The Indians have one in Julian Rochester, one of the top junior recruits in Georgia.

14. Lafayette (La.) Acadiana
Last season: 14-1

Any team that rushed for 634 yards and scored 77 points in the state championship game should probably start the ensuing season at No. 1 regardless, but the Wreckin’ Rams deserve to be here anyway. The Wreckin’ Rams have five players on the Athlon Sports preseason all-state and could easily have more. Coach Ted Davidson’s squad is favored to make it back to the Class 5A championship game in 2014. The Rams have an intriguing early out-of-state test against Shades Valley (Ala.).

15. Las Vegas Bishop Gorman
Last season: 13-2

Head coach Tony Sanchez has built a national power and distanced the Gaels from the rest of the state, with no losses to a Nevada team since 2008. The passing game gets a boost from transfer wide receiver Cordell Broadus.

16. Anaheim (Calif.) Servite
Last season: 6-6

A.J. Gass takes over as head coach at his alma mater for one of the power programs on the West Coast. The Friars will score with duel-threat QB Travis Waller, who will work behind linemen Tommy Garcia and Clayton Johnston, and the defense returns seven starters.

17. Buford (Ga.)
Last season: 15-0

Buford went undefeated in 2013 and won a ninth state championship since 2001. The state’s winningest program, however, moves up to Class AAAA, a two-classification jump from where it competed in 2011.

18. Bentonville (Ark.)
Last season: 11-2

The defending Class 7A state champions return a solid nucleus, led by gifted junior quarterback Kasey Ford and senior defensive lineman Javier Carbonell. Senior placekicker Bennett Moehring is a weapon as well.

19. Philadelphia St. Joseph’s Prep
Last season: 12-3

The defending state champions bring back a large number of starters on both sides of the ball. Skill players Olamide Zaccheaus, D’Andre Swift and John Reid anchor the team along with linemen Jon Runyan and Jake Strain.

20. Miramar (Fla.)
Last season: 12-1

The Patriots could be deeper than the 2011 state runner-up squad. Tyrek Cole (a Florida State commit) provides leadership for new coach Mat Strout, who takes over for Damon Cogdell, now at West Virginia. The Patriots could face Apopka for the 8A title.

21. South Jordan (Utah) Bingham
Last season: 14-0

One of the state’s most consistent powers, this program looks poised to repeat as 5A state champion. While the offensive line needs a facelift, the Miners tend to reload there. Quarterback Kyle Gearig is a dual threat, and the defense should be strong again behind linebacker Daniel Langi.

22. DeSoto (Texas)
Last season: 14-1

DeSoto is 28–2 the past two seasons, with both losses coming in the semifinals to Allen. As always, the Eagles will have plenty of speed to bring to the table on both sides of the ball.

23. Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peter’s Prep
Last season: 10-2

St. Peter’s Prep looks set to make a push toward its first No. 1 statewide ranking in 20 years. The Marauders have the best player in New Jersey in five-star defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, an Alabama commit, and arguably the state’s best quarterback in Penn State commit Brandon Wimbush, along with receiver/defensive back Corey Caddle, linebacker Jordan Fox and defensive tackle David Tolentino.

24. Folsom (Calif.)
Last season: 14-1

The Bulldogs have emerged as the second best team in Northern California behind De La Salle, the only team to defeat them in each of the past two seasons. Few teams in the country score like Folsom, led by QB Jake Browning, who is closing in on 11,000 career yards and 200 touchdowns. Lineman leaders include Cody Creason and Sam Whitney.

25. Rock Hill (S.C.) Northwestern
Last season: 15-0

The defending State 4A Division II Champions will have a new quarterback for the season after graduating South Carolina Varsity’s Mr. Football, Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State). But coach Kyle Richardson’s proven system is in place and the Trojans return the state’s most exciting skills player in wide receiver Dupree Hart. A tough non-region schedule will prepare the Trojans for the playoffs, and they should be the favorite again in 2014.
 

Teaser:
2014 Athlon Sports High School Football National Top 25
Post date: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 11:00
Path: /nfl/nfl-scouts-talk-anonymously-about-afc-south-teams
Body:

The AFC South was the only division in the NFL last season with three teams that finished with a losing record. Reigning division champion Indianapolis went 11-5, while Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee combined for a 13-35 mark. With the Texans and Titans under new leadership and the Jaguars still rebuilding, there’s little debate, if any, that the Colts are heavy favorites to repeat as AFC South champs. So if the Colts are No. 1, which team is best positioned to challenge them or, at the very least, produce better results on the field in 2014?

 

In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC South breaks down entering the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans.

 

Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff. 

 

Houston Texans

 

“No way this organization should have only won two games last year, but it just goes to show how quarterback play and turnovers override everything else.” …

 

“Gary Kubiak did not survive, so Bill O’Brien was brought in to fix the QB situation over the long haul and that’s why they chose Jadeveon Clowney No. 1 overall in the draft.” …

 

“When healthy, the Texans have enough skill with Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins and Arian Foster to pose some matchup problems, however, the right side of the offensive line and tight end positions need upgrades for them to compete at a high level again.” …

 

“O’Brien and GM Rick Smith signed Ryan Fitzpatrick for this year and drafted Tom Savage (Pittsburgh) in the fourth round, but the success of the QB spot will dictate how long this team stays down.” …

 

“The defense stays in the 3-4 and shifts from Wade Phillips to Romeo Crennel, both old-school pros that believe the players should be self-motivated, which makes for an interesting watch on Clowney.” …

 

“J.J. Watt is one of the best players in the entire league and has no trouble competing on a down-to-down basis.” …

 

“The Texans signed Jerrell Powe from KC to help at NT and drafted Louis Nix III (Notre Dame) as a reinforcement.” …

 

“Brian Cushing is a great player when healthy, but has missed 20 games over the past two years. Whitney Mercilus must step up opposite of Clowney and Brooks Reed may become the third LB on the outside and inside.” ...

 

“The secondary has been an Achilles heel since the Texans entered the league, maybe Kareem Jackson can improve, but he’s average and Johnathan Joseph wasn’t the same guy here as he was in Cincinnati.” …

 

“They drafted D.J. Swearinger as a strong safety and added Kendrick Lewis, who has never been able to run, so they are speed deficient in the back end.” …

 

“The biggest questions surrounding the Texans are the idea of a franchise QB and O’Brien’s ability to change the mentality of this team that some around the league questioned in terms of persistent toughness.” …

 

Indianapolis Colts

 

“Most around the league are envious of GM Ryan Grigson who had the good fortune of being able to pick QB Andrew Luck in his first draft, but he also picked a quality coach in Chuck Pagano and this organization has a chance to be competitive for a long time.” …

 

“The true test for Grigson and Pagano will be putting enough pieces in place around Luck and strengthening their defense in order to be in the Super Bowl conversation.” …

 

“Luck is legitimately a generational-level QB, look at what he has done in his first two seasons without a full complement of players around him and a defense that has been hit-and-miss.” …

 

“The offense should get a boost with the return of Reggie Wayne, TE Dwayne Allen and Ahmad Bradshaw from season-ending injuries, and the club is very hopeful that a full offseason with Trent Richardson will unlock the abilities he showed as an All-American talent at Alabama.” …

 

“In truth, the offensive line is average at best with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus being middle-tier performers at the tackle positions. Indy let Samson Satele go, so there is a ton of pressure on center Khalid Holmes who was a fourth-round pick in 2013.” …

 

“Defensively, DE Arthur Jones and LB D’Qwell Jackson are the two significant pieces added during free agency. Jones is a favorite of Pagano and Jackson was a consistent performer in bad circumstances at Cleveland.” …

 

“Bjoern Werner, their first-round pick from a year ago, needs to come through in a big way in order to provide some pass rush opposite of Robert Mathis. Mathis has had an amazing career and actually had his best year in 2013 with 19.5 sacks.” …

 

“Up front, keep an eye on Montori Hughes, he has the needed size/athleticism to potentially breakout in 2014.” …

 

“They lost FS Antwuan Bethea to the 49ers and the safety spot appears to be the weakest position on the roster.” …

 

“Vontae Davis re-signed, Greg Toler returns and Darius Butler has always had cover ability, but this is a thin group, too.” …

 

“Again, as long is Luck is healthy and they get positive play out of the players that are returning from injury, this team should contend for the Super Bowl on an annual basis.” …

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

 

“Head coach Gus Bradley’s enthusiasm and leadership was put to the test in 2013 because the Jaguars had the least-talented team in the entire NFL. They have the right ownership and front office (Shad Khan and GM Dave Caldwell) in place to steer the ship through this reclamation project.” …

 

“Offensively, Chad Henne is in place as the bridge QB, which will allow them to sit No. 3 overall draft pick Blake Bortles as a rookie. He will be developed the old-fashioned way and this should really pay dividends for the Jags in the end.” …

 

“Prior to the draft, this offense was very short on talent, but Luke Joeckel should become a legit left tackle, Marcedes Lewis still has something left and Cecil Shorts is as competitive as any WR in the league.” …

 

“I loved the selection of USC WR Marquise Lee and Penn State WR Allen Robinson, both should become future starters.” …

 

“They signed OG Zane Beadles from Denver and RB Toby Gerhart from Minnesota to provide more stability along the OL and in the backfield.” …

 

“Jacksonville should be able to compete more quickly on the defensive side of the football. They added Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood to the front, to go along with incumbents Tyson Alualu and Sen’Derrick Marks.” …

 

“Paul Posluszny is very steady on the inside, but this LB group lacks a real difference-maker.” …

 

“Two 2013 rookies, corner Dwayne Gratz and safety Johnathan Cyprien have pro futures, but again, this is another area of this team that needs to be upgraded.” …

 

“Owner Khan is taking the correct approach in letting Bradley and Caldwell reshape this roster, and with six wins or so in 2014, the momentum should build for the future. This division is not all that great, so they can make a move as soon as this year.” …

 

Tennessee Titans

 

“After 31 years as a player and coach, the Titans’ organization made the difficult decision to move away from Mike Munchak as head coach. GM Ruston Webster recruited offensive-minded Ken Whisenhunt really hard, because everyone’s fate is tied to the play of Jake Locker.” …

 

“On paper and in a snapshot, Locker has everything a team would want in a legitimate NFL signal-caller. However, on the field, his accuracy is inconsistent and his injury history has kept him from becoming their present and long-term answer at the position.” …

 

“Tennessee grew weary of RB Chris Johnson and parted ways with him in early April. Washington RB Bishop Sankey was their second-round choice and with Shonn Greene, Jackie Battle and Leon Washington, they have enough talent and depth there to make this work.” …

 

“Delanie Walker and Craig Stevens form a nice complementary duo at tight end and Kendall Wright has emerged as the best of an adequate group of receivers.” …

“Justin Hunter is a young prospect that could breakout in 2014 with more passes directed his way.” …

 

“They added Dexter McCluster and it will be interesting to see how he is utilized in this offense.” …

 

“The offensive line has always been a focus for the Titans and they drafted Michigan OT Taylor Lewan in the first round, despite there not being a pressing need with Michael Roos being a long-time veteran. Brian Schwenke, Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack form one of the best interior line units in the AFC, but newly signed Michael Oher could be the weakest link up front as the right tackle replacement for David Stewart.” …

 

“Ray Horton takes over as the defensive coordinator, so the Titans will shift from their traditional 4-3 and move to the 3-4. Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard were both signed from Denver and should pair off well with Akeem Ayers and  Colin McCarthy [Editor’s note: McCarthy suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second preseason game] .”…

 

“This scheme may hurt Derrick Morgan, but could help Kamerion Wimbley who re-structured his deal, so there are always unintended consequences when changing defensive philosophies.” …

 

“They did not retain Alterraun Verner and that puts big pressure on Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Jason McCourty. The back end seems secure with Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin.” …

 

“Barring injuries, if Whisenhunt can make a huge difference with Locker, this team is ahead of Houston and Jacksonville and could challenge for a playoff berth. Otherwise, the Titans will be in search of a franchise QB in 2015 or potentially turning the reins over to sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger from LSU.” …

Teaser:
NFL Scouts Talk Anonymously About AFC South Teams
Post date: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 10:30
Path: /college-football/big-ten-advanced-stats-you-need-know-2014
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Visit Football Study Hall to get in-depth team previews, advanced stats and features for the 2014 season .

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Illinois: -8.4

Every time Illinois and a Big Ten opponent traded possessions, the Illini basically gave up 8.4 yards. The Illini had by far the worst field position margin in conference play; their average possession started at their 24.8 while opponents started at the 33.3, a margin of minus-8.4 yards. It’s hard to win when the field is constantly tilted in your opponent’s favor.

 

Indiana: 5.3

Indiana’s defense gave up by far the most yards per play in Big Ten games in 2013 (7.4), but if it’s possible, the Hoosiers’ defense actually got even worse near the goal line. They allowed 5.3 points per trip inside their 40-yard line, easily 12th in the conference. The offense ranked second at 4.8 points per trip, but the defense was far too much of a sieve and did the offense no favors.

 

Iowa: 5.9

Iowa was able to raise its scoring output by a touchdown per game (from 19.3 points to 26.3) in 2013, in part because the Hawkeyes were great at creating third-and-manageable situations. The average Iowa third down required only 5.9 yards to go, fifth-lowest in the country. It’s not a coincidence that Iowa’s third-down conversion rate also improved, from 36.4 percent to 43.8.

 

Maryland: 38.9

Big plays are important, and Maryland’s offense generated quite a few of them – the Terrapins gained 20 or more yards 73 times last fall. But you still have to gain 10 yards every four plays, and efficiency was a problem. Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football; Maryland’s success rate was just 38.9 percent, 96th in the country.

 

Michigan: 8.0

With such a shaky running game, it felt like every pass quarterback Devin Gardner attempted came on third-and-8. That actually wasn’t far from the truth: the average Michigan third down required 8.0 yards to go, 121st in the country. That makes the Wolverines’ 39.2 percent third-down conversion rate (75th in the country) actually seem rather impressive.

 

Michigan State: 3.8

Against the first three FBS opponents on the schedule, the Spartan offense averaged only 3.8 yards per play; for a full season, that average would have ranked 123rd out of 125 FBS teams. But State committed to Connor Cook at quarterback, and eventually it paid off. In their final 10 games, the Spartans averaged 5.7 yards per play and 29.6 points per game, more than enough for the MSU defense.

 

Minnesota: 9.3

Minnesota quarterbacks took a few too many sacks in 2013. Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner were sacked on 9.3 percent of their pass attempts; only two FBS teams had worse rates (Kentucky and Pittsburgh). You can get away with negative plays if you’re getting the ball downfield, and Nelson and Leidner did average 14.1 yards per completion, but this was still far too high.

 

Nebraska: 6.3

Nebraska’s defense made a lot of aggressive plays in 2013; the Huskers recorded 93 tackles for a loss (17th in the country) and defended 54 passes (66th) and came up big on third downs by holding opponents to a 31.0 percent conversion rate (sixth-lowest). This level of successful aggression is impressive considering the Huskers allowed 6.3 yards per play on first down, 97th in the country.

 

Northwestern: 0.200

Northwestern went 1–4 in games decided by one possession in 2013, a 0.200 win percentage. From 2007-12, the Wildcats win percentage in such games was 0.676 (25–12). Be it sudden regression to the mean in the luck department, total randomness, or something else, fortunes changed drastically for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad.

 

Ohio State: 4.5

Ohio State allowed an average of 4.5 points per trip inside its 40-yard line in conference play. That ranked the Buckeyes ninth in the Big Ten. The Ohio State offense was predictably great at cashing in on scoring opportunities — its 5.2 points per trip led the conference — but the defense gave away a lot of those gains. It was the story of the Buckeyes’ season.

 

Penn State: 48

Penn State managed only 48 plays of 20 or more yards from scrimmage in 2013, 95th in the country. This was down from 53 in 2012. The Nittany Lions were reasonably efficient considering the youth at quarterback, but there weren’t enough big plays to create easy scores, and if you have to sustain drives, you are likely to make a mistake at some point.

 

Purdue: 124th

Purdue was perhaps the worst third-down team in the country. The offense ranked 119th in third-down conversions, and the defense ranked 124th. But the damage was done mostly on first and second downs: the offense averaged 7.9 yards to go on third downs (119th) while the defense averaged 5.7 (dead last in FBS). On third down, the Boilermakers simply performed as dictated by first and second.

 

Rutgers: 8.0

When you’ve got shaky quarterback play — and to be sure, a 55 percent completion rate with 21 touchdowns to 20 interceptions could certainly be considered shaky — the last thing you want to do is put them in uncomfortable down-and-distance situations. But Rutgers couldn’t avoid third-and-long; the Scarlet Knights averaged 8.0 yards to go on third down, 123rd in the country.

 

Wisconsin: 5th

Almost nobody controlled the ground like Wisconsin. S&P+ is a comprehensive play-by-play measure at Football Outsiders that measures explosiveness and efficiency and adjusts for the quality of the opponent, and in Rushing S&P+, the Badgers ranked fifth on offense and ninth on defense. Alabama was the only other team to rank in the top 10 on both sides of the ball.

 

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

Teaser:
Big Ten Advanced Stats You Need to Know for 2014
Post date: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/secs-top-20-must-see-games-2014
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The SEC is still the nation’s best conference. No conference in the nation can match the week-in, week-out grind that the SEC offers from Aug. 28 through Championship Saturday on Dec. 6.

 

The round robin in both divisions should be superb to watch every single week. Top that off with marquee non-conference showdowns with the Big 12 (Oklahoma, Kansas State), the Big Ten (Wisconsin) and ACC (Florida State, Clemson) and there are no breathers in this conference.

 

It makes for an extremely lengthy list of must-see games this fall.

 

1. Auburn at Alabama (Nov. 29)

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

 

2. Alabama at LSU (Nov. 8)

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

 

3. Georgia at South Carolina (Sept. 13)

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

 

4. LSU at Auburn (Oct. 4)

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

 

5. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 29)

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

 

6. Auburn at Ole Miss (Nov. 1)

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

 

7. Auburn at Georgia (Nov. 15)

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

 

8. South Carolina at Auburn (Oct. 25)

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

 

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

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

 

10. LSU at Florida (Oct. 11)

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

 

11. Florida at Alabama (Sept. 20)

Don’t expect Florida to win the game but any time these two marquee southern brands step onto the same field, it’s must-see theatre. Should Florida acquit itself well early in the season — even in defeat — it could be a sign of much bigger things to come for both. Like a possible rematch in Atlanta where these two have staged monumental national title bouts in recent years.

 

12. Ole Miss at LSU (Oct. 25)

Ole Miss has won just three of the last 12 meetings between these two. But that includes last year’s 27-24 thriller in Oxford and an even 3-3 split in the last six bouts. Yet, Ole Miss has played surprisingly well in Baton Rouge. In their last nine trips to the Bayou, the Rebels have won four times. LSU needs to be on high alert when Colonel Reb comes to town for Halloween weekend.

 

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

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

 

14. Clemson at Georgia (Aug. 30)

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

 

15. South Carolina at Florida (Nov. 15)

It may not be the prettiest game that is played in the SEC, but the East Division could hang in the balance when these two physical programs get together late in November. The Steve Spurrier Bowl is always quirky and the last time the Head Ball Coach visited the Swamp his team was smoked 44-11.

 

16. Alabama at Ole Miss (Oct. 4)

Much like Auburn, a division front-runner from the state of Alabama will have to win in Oxford if it wants to earn a trip to Atlanta. The Crimson Tide has won 10 straight over the Rebels and has outscored Ole Miss 155-34 over the last five. Nick Saban has never lost in Oxford going 5-0 with both Bama and LSU.

 

17. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 29)

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

 

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

Last season's Egg Bowl was one for the ages and the 2014 edition could be even better. Both programs are surging entering this season with eyes on finally contending in the West Division. Both have proven quarterbacks and respected coaches as well as defenses that are deeper and more talented than possibly ever before. MSU head coach Dan Mullen is 4-1 against Ole Miss.

 

19. Georgia at Missouri (Oct. 11)

If the Dawgs are the front-runner in the East then the trips to both Columbias might be the biggest games of the year in the division. Georgia knocked James Franklin out of this game last year and still couldn’t beat the Tigers at home. Now, UGA must head up to the Show Me State and show the SEC it is the top Dawg in the East.

 

20. Auburn at Kansas State (Sept. 18)

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

 

Best of the Rest:

 

21. Auburn at Mississippi State (Oct. 11)

22. Mississippi State at Alabama (Nov. 15)

23. Mississippi State at LSU (Sept. 20)

24. Texas A&M at Alabama (Oct. 18)

25. Missouri at South Carolina (Sept. 27)

26. Texas A&M at Auburn (Nov. 8)

27. Missouri at Florida (Oct. 18)

28. Missouri at Texas A&M (Nov. 15)

29. Texas A&M at Mississippi State

30. Texas A&M at South Carolina (Aug. 28)

31. LSU at Arkansas (Nov. 15)

32. Ole Miss at Vanderbilt (Aug. 6)

33. Florida at Vanderbilt (Nov. 8)

34. Tennessee at Vanderbilt (Nov. 29)

35. Florida at Tennessee (Oct. 4)

Teaser:
The SEC's Top 20 Must-See Games of 2014
Post date: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 08:30
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Notre Dame’s uniforms haven’t changed much in its program history, but the Fighting Irish break out an alternate look for the Shamrock Series every year.

On Tuesday, the program unveiled its 2014 Shamrock Series uniforms for its Sept. 13 date against Purdue.

The special edition uniforms feature a helmet with the “ND” logo and alterations to the jersey and pants.

Here’s a look at Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series uniforms:

Teaser:
Notre Dame Unveils Uniforms for Shamrock Series Game vs. Purdue
Post date: Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 16:22
All taxonomy terms: Detroit Lions, NFC, NFC North, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/detroit-lions-2014-team-preview-and-predictions
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Jim Caldwell believes he was brought to Detroit, replacing the fired Jim Schwartz last winter, to win a championship. And not two or three years down the road, either. “I believe the time is now,” the Lions’ new head coach announced at his introductory press conference. Time ran out on his predecessor, though, as the Lions coughed up a division lead and a shot at Detroit’s first home playoff date in 20 years by losing six of their last seven games in confounding fashion. Now the pressure’s on Caldwell and his revamped staff — particularly offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi — to harness Matthew Stafford’s potential at quarterback and demand accountability from a talented roster that couldn’t seem to get out of its own way in 2013. 

 

OFFENSE

The Lions doubled down on their investment in Stafford last summer, signing the former No. 1 overall pick to a three-year, $53 million extension that runs through 2017. But after his erratic play down the stretch helped turn a 6–3 start into a 7–9 finish, essentially giving away the NFC North title, much of the team’s offseason decision-making seemed to revolve around the franchise quarterback.

 

Stafford, entering his sixth NFL season, already owns most of the Lions’ franchise passing records. And after some questioned his durability early in his career, he has started 49 consecutive games, including the Lions’ lone playoff berth in 2011. But Stafford’s 14 turnovers and a 54.4 percent completion rate in the final seven games last season raised new concerns about both his decision-making and his mechanics. “The good news is that he’s not broken,” Lombardi says. “That much is clear.”

 

What’s also clear is the Lions are intent on helping him succeed. A year after signing all-purpose back Reggie Bush to bolster the offense, they went out and added receiver Golden Tate, a free agent coming off a career-best season with Seattle.

 

Then the Lions spent the No. 10 overall pick in the draft on an athletic, pass-catching tight end. Lombardi envisions the same role for Eric Ebron in Detroit as the one Jimmy Graham fills in the Saints’ offense, while former first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew returns as more of an in-line blocker and safety valve. The Lions brought back Kris Durham and Kevin Ogletree, and still are hoping Ryan Broyles can return from a third ACL surgery in three years. Sixth-round pick T.J. Jones, a sure-handed route technician, has a real chance to be the slot receiver.

 

All of them, of course, are complementary pieces to Calvin Johnson, who had another hugely productive season despite playing much of 2013 with knee and finger injuries that required offseason surgery. Ideally, more receiving help will mean less punishment for Megatron, too.

 

Bush will continue to work in tandem with Joique Bell. The pair became the first teammates in NFL history to top 500 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. And a young offensive line that was one of last year’s bright spots returns intact. Guard Larry Warford showed Pro Bowl potential in his first season, while 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff held his own at left tackle. The Lions believe they’ve solidified the right tackle spot with long-levered LaAdrian Waddle, who started eight games last year as an undrafted rookie. Dominic Raiola is back for a 14th season at center, but the Lions drafted his likely successor in Travis Swanson.

 

DEFENSE

The Lions made strides on defense in 2013, ranking first in the NFL in both third-down and red-zone defense. But they were 28th in sacks and 21st in forced turnovers, and with few changes in personnel, they’re counting on marked improvement.

 

A suspect secondary remains exactly that, especially after the front office balked at adding a potential starter there on the first two days of the draft. One projected starter at cornerback was expected to be Chris Houston, who endured a confidence-sapping finish to last season marred by a toe injury that required surgery in May. The team, however, decided to cut its losses and released Houston in June, a little more than a year after signing him to a five-year, $25 million contract. The other starting corner, Darius Slay, will try to rebound from an up-and-down rookie effort. No surprise, then, the Lions brought back aging vet Rashean Mathis, who played better than Houston and Slay last season and ended up making 13 starts. Bill Bentley proved himself a capable nickel back but has yet to prove he can stay healthy enough to be counted on. Rookie Nevin Lawson is a scrappy, tough candidate to play inside as well, while Jonté Green and Chris Greenwood are 2012 draft projects entering make-or-break years in Detroit.

 

The Lions did add one new piece to the secondary in free-agent strong safety James Ihedigbo, who played for new coordinator Teryl Austin in Baltimore. He’s a solid run-stopper to complement versatile Glover Quin, but depth behind them might be a concern.

 

Austin’s new scheme will feature a different look from the front seven. The wide-nine technique is gone, though one defensive end still will be asked to pin his ears back and rush the passer from the open side opposite the tight end. Presumably, that’ll be Ziggy Ansah, who had eight sacks in 12 starts as a rookie. Devin Taylor, a rangy 6'7" athlete, also fits into the plans after making big strides as a rookie. Jason Jones, who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, is penciled in as the other starting end. But inside is where the strength of this defensive line is, with All-Pro Ndamukong Suh and former first-round pick Nick Fairley.

 

One way to improve the sack total is with blitzing linebackers, and that’s one reason the Lions traded up to snare BYU’s Kyle Van Noy in the second round of the draft. A big-play machine in college, Van Noy should win the starting strong-side job over Ashlee Palmer, who’s better suited as a backup and special teams ace. Sure-tackling Stephen Tulloch holds down the middle, while DeAndre Levy — coming off a breakout season (six INTs) — handles the weak-side duties.

 

SPECIALISTS

Detroit used its final draft pick in May on Boston College’s Nate Freese, who went 20-for-20 on field-goal attempts as a senior.  That completes an overhaul in the kicking game, as the Lions spent a fifth-round pick in 2013 on punter Sam Martin, who ranked 10th in the NFL in net punting as a rookie. Tate excelled as a punt returner in Seattle, but the Lions finally found a game-breaking special teams threat last season in Jeremy Ross. He took over the job at midseason and was one of the NFL’s best return men in the second half, highlighted by his two-TD effort — one kickoff, one punt — in a snowstorm in Philadelphia.

 

FINAL ANALYSIS

Most coaching changes come with a grace period. And Caldwell’s quiet leadership and even-keeled approach will be welcomed. But in Detroit, there’s an urgency to win now. And with so much salary cap space tied up in a handful of stars, the roster is largely set. The onus is on Stafford and the new staff to make this an elite offense, and a playoff team.

 

PREDICTION: 3rd in NFC North

Teaser:
Detroit Lions 2014 Team Preview and Predictions
Post date: Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 15:30
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC South, Tennessee Titans, NFL, News
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The Tennessee Titans are turning the page to a new chapter in franchise history. The 2014 season marks the first year since the Houston Oilers franchise was founded in 1960 that K.S. “Bud” Adams will not be calling the shots. The longest-tenured owner in NFL history died at age 90 in October. While ownership of the team remains in the hands of Adams’ immediate family, Tennessee has gone outside the Oilers-Titans family tree to hire the 17th head coach in franchise history — and only the second coaching change since the franchise planted roots in Nashville and became the Titans in 1999, the year of the “Music City Miracle” run to Super Bowl XXXIV.

 

Unlike predecessors Jeff Fisher (1994-2010) and Mike Munchak (2011-13), new coach Ken Whisenhunt was not promoted from within. The 52-year-old Whisenhunt was arguably the top free-agent coach on the market after coordinating the San Diego Chargers’ fifth-ranked offense (compared to the Titans’ 22nd-ranked unit) last season. Prior to that, the former tight end — who played seven seasons in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins and New York Jets — served as coach of the Arizona Cardinals, leading the Redbirds to a Super Bowl XLIII loss against his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Before six seasons in the desert from 2007-12, Whisenhunt coached in Pittsburgh from 2001-06 and was the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl XL champions.

 

OFFENSE

Whisenhunt won a Super Bowl with a 23-year-old Ben Roethlisberger and lost the big game with a 37-year-old Kurt Warner. Now fans in Nashville hope their new quarterback guru can just make the playoffs with 26-year-old Jake Locker, who enters the final year of his rookie deal after being the No. 8 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Locker has not lived up to his “face of the franchise” expectations — throwing for a combined 3,432 yards, 18 TDs and 15 INTs with a 58.0 completion percentage, along with 446 rushing yards, three rushing TDs and five lost fumbles over a total of 18 starts in 2012-13. Locker’s 2013 season was cut short after seven games due to a Lisfranc injury in his foot. In 2012, the Washington product missed five games with a non-throwing shoulder injury.

 

Keeping Locker upright and on the field is priority No. 1. And after years of subpar line play under Hall of Fame O-lineman Munchak, the Titans have invested heavily in the front five during the past two offseasons. It was too little, too late to save Munchak, who is now the offensive line coach in Pittsburgh. But this year’s line should be among the best in the game, as the team’s past two first-round draft picks, guard Chance Warmack (No. 10 overall pick in 2013) and rookie tackle Taylor Lewan (No. 11 in 2014), join former Pro Bowl left tackle Michael Roos and guard Andy Levitre (80 consecutive starts), giving Tennessee legitimate star power up front.

 

Chris Johnson, the third-leading rusher (7,965 yards) in Oilers-Titans franchise history — behind Eddie George and Earl Campbell — was allowed to leave as a free agent and signed with the Jets. The runner once known as CJ2K will be replaced by second-round pick Bishop Sankey (1,870 yards and 20 TDs at Washington in ’13) and Shonn Greene, who had two 1,000-yard seasons before managing just 295 yards in his first year in Tennessee.

 

Offensive coordinator Jason Michael and game-day play-caller Whisenhunt will have a variety of options in the passing game — with Nate Washington and Justin Hunter providing vertical threats downfield while Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker work the middle. Triple-threat Dexter McCluster will be a wild card as a receiver-runner-returner jack of all trades.

 

DEFENSE

Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is transforming the Titans from a base 4-3 defense to a hybrid 3-4 scheme. Horton played 10 seasons as a defensive back in the NFL and coached alongside Whisenhunt in both Pittsburgh and Arizona, including 2011-12 as the defensive coordinator. Last season, Horton coordinated the ninth-ranked Cleveland Browns’ stop-unit. The 54-year-old defensive boss inherits plenty of talent in Tennessee. But even the powers that be aren’t exactly sure where all of the pieces to the puzzle will fit just yet.

 

Jurrell Casey was one of the worst Pro Bowl snubs from last season. But there were few players on the big island of Oahu better than the Titans’ 305-pound big man, who had 10.5 sacks and commanded constant double teams in his third season out of USC. Health permitting, the 24-year-old Casey will make plenty of Pro Bowl trips in the future. He will anchor the defense. And although much has been made of Tennessee’s switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under Horton, the new coach’s scheme will allow Casey to remain a disruptive 3-technique tackle. Former Steeler Al Woods and 6'4", 328-pound Sammie Hill should man the all-important nose tackle position. Rookie DaQuan Jones, 6'8" Ropati Pitoitua and overachiever Karl Klug bring versatility and depth to the D-line rotation.

 

Derrick Morgan appears to be the odd man out. A traditional 4-3 end, Morgan — a former first-round pick with 16.5 sacks in four seasons — does not have an obvious fit in the new hybrid 3-4 defense.

 

There’s upside off the edge at linebacker, where Akeem Ayers, Shaun Phillips, Kamerion Wimbley and possibly Morgan will pin their ears back to rush the passer. Inside, Zach Brown, Wesley Woodyard will look to stuff the run and shoot the gaps. Unfortunately, the injury bug struck Colin McCarthy once again, as he suffered a shoulder injury in the second preseason game. He underwent surgery and is out for the season.

 

The secondary will miss cornerback Alterraun Verner, who had five INTs and a pick-six in his final season in Tennessee before signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent. Jason McCourty is a proven corner, but Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Coty Sensabaugh must step up. Center fielder Michael Griffin and sledgehammer Bernard Pollard bring stability to the safety spots.

 

SPECIALISTS

“M-M-M-My Bironas!” will no longer be played over the speakers at LP Field following the departure of Rob Bironas. The kicking game will be uncertain for the first time since 2005. Punter Brett Kern returns for his sixth season in Tennessee. Game-breaking return specialist Leon Washington is one of the best in the business, with a record-tying eight career kick return touchdowns. 

 

FINAL ANALYSIS

Munchak posted a 6–12 division record in three seasons against a relatively weak AFC South. Whisenhunt must reverse that trend if the Titans are to return to relevance. All eyes will be on Locker, who is in a make-or-break season. If Locker can stay healthy and the new-look defense gels early, the Titans could earn their first trip to the playoffs since 2008. If not, Whisenhunt could be looking for a new QB to mentor heading into 2015.

 

PREDICTION: 2nd in AFC South

Teaser:
Tennessee Titans 2014 Team Preview and Predictions
Post date: Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 15:30
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/jon-gruden-previews-2014-nfl-season
Body:

A man for all seasons — if all of those seasons happen to be football — Jon Gruden is a Super Bowl-winning coach, the lead analyst on ESPN’s Monday Night Football telecasts and the source material for comedian Frank Caliendo’s hilarious over-the-top impression, which is highlighted by fake play-calls like “tarantula” and “albacore 3 Y quesadilla.”

 

Athlon Sports caught up with Coach Gruden, who hasn’t coached since 2008 but remains the hottest free-agent visor on the market. The soon-to-be 51-year-old brought his trademark intensity, laser-beam death stare and plenty of sizzling takes to preview the upcoming 2014 NFL season.

  

Was Super Bowl XLVIII the beginning of a Seahawk dynasty?

JG: “I think they’re still a great team. The way they finished the season put an exclamation point on that. I mean, they buried Denver. They met every challenge presented to them. Their defense showed they can stop any offensive attack in football. They got better and better. And their quarterback is electrifying. He is a difference-maker, and they are blessed to have one of the most unique quarterbacks in football right now.”

           

Can the Broncos bounce back from being buried and make another Super Bowl run?

JG: “Oh, no question. They added some interesting pieces. And a lot of people forget the amount of injuries Denver had heading into the Super Bowl. If Von Miller and Ryan Clady can come back, if DeMarcus Ware can play like he once did in Dallas a few years ago, if Aqib Talib is healthy, they can be much better than a year ago. We all know that Peyton Manning and that offensive attack is going to score points, but they have to get those injured guys back to playing status.”

           

Will the Cowboys and Tony Romo ever live up to their promise?

JG: “One thing I like about Dallas is they have an outstanding offensive line. From left tackle to right tackle it’s a very good offensive line. So they’re able to run it and they’re able to pass protect. If Romo is healthy I think Dallas will be a team that can possess the ball, keep their defense off the field and win a few games. But they’ve got to play much better on defense. They were a far cry from Cowboys defenses of the past. They’ve got to find a way to stop some people. They’re going to struggle on defense.”

 

How will your brother’s first season as the head coach of the Washington Redskins go?

JG: “If (Robert) Griffin can fit into that scheme, and with the arrival of DeSean Jackson, they have some really good skill players. I don’t think their offensive line is as deep or proven as Dallas’ or Philadelphia’s, but they do have some firepower at the skill positions. But their defense has got to play better, particularly in the secondary. They gave up way too many big plays.”

 

Who are some sleeper teams to watch this year?

JG: “It’s so hard to predict from year to year. You’d like to say Cincinnati could jump into the mix this year. Chicago is a team that is on the cusp. Green Bay with Julius Peppers playing opposite Clay Matthews, that’s exciting.”

           

Johnny ManzielWhat can we expect from Johnny Football in Cleveland?

JG: “I think it depends on a couple of things. You’ve got to remember he’s a blank slate. He still has two years of college eligibility left. So hopefully he doesn’t get rushed into it too quickly. But they don’t have a lot of marquee players at the skill positions. They have an unknown as their feature back. With the Josh Gordon situation they have some obscure receivers. They don’t have a great supporting cast at this time. And I don’t know what Kyle Shanahan wants to do with that offense. What will he be able to run if Johnny Manziel is at quarterback?”

           

What rookie is most likely to have a major impact this season?

JG: “I really like the kid the Saints drafted, Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State. I think when you get Sean Payton and Drew Brees involved and they’re committed to making a young player successful, I think good things are going to be in store. I’m going to be surprised if he doesn’t have 1,000 yards receiving. That’s saying a lot for a young receiver. Most rookies don’t gain 1,000 yards their first year in the league. I really like that kid a lot. I think he’s got a chance to make a huge splash on the scene.”

 

What can we expect from Megatron, Calvin Johnson?

JG: "I think he's got a chance to have four or five more great years. I saw Jerry Rice do it. Jerry took great care of himself. These receivers, if they take care of themselves off the field throughout the years, they can sustain it. And I've seen him do it. It's just going to be a matter of how does Calvin Johnson respond to a new offense? Remember, he's had Linehan down there for some time. He's got to react to new formations and new audibles and things of that nature. Hopefully Golden Tate can take some pressure off of him. But I don't think the best way to judge Calvin Johnson is just through the statistics. I think it's time for Detroit to take a step forward and start winning some crunch time games in December."

 

What teams do you have your eye on to make a serious run at Super Bowl XLVIX?

JG: “I like where we finished the season last year. Seattle, they’ve lost some good players, but they’ve mostly kept it intact. I like where they are at the top of the NFC, there’s no question about it. And in the AFC I like Denver and I like the New England Patriots. I’m anxious to see Darrelle Revis and Bill Belichick on the same team. With Brandon Browner, after his suspension is over, they have the ability to challenge some receivers on the outside, to play like they did when they had Asante Samuel and Ty Law. I think the acquisition of those two corners could put New England right back into the Super Bowl. That’s a good way to go. Instead of making a bunch of crazy predictions, I’m going to stay with some really good, hot stock. How’s that?”

Teaser:
Athlon Sports caught up with Coach Gruden, who hasn’t coached since 2008 but remains the hottest free-agent visor on the market. The soon-to-be 51-year-old brought his trademark intensity, laser-beam death stare and plenty of sizzling takes to preview the upcoming 2014 NFL season.
Post date: Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 14:00
Path: /college-football/impact-braxton-millers-injury-ohio-state-and-big-ten
Body:

Ohio State’s playoff and Big Ten title hopes suffered a significant blow on Tuesday, as quarterback Braxton Miller was ruled out for the 2014 season as a result of a shoulder injury suffered at practice on Monday, according to ESPN's Brett McMurphy.

Miller reportedly suffered the shoulder injury in a non-contact drill Monday. The senior had shoulder surgery during the spring and was slow to return to full work in Ohio State’s offense due to his recovery. Prior to his injury, Miller was being eased into a full workload for the opener against Navy.

 

The Buckeyes were projected to finish No. 3 by Athlon in the 2014 preseason magazine, but Miller’s injury will have a profound effect on the upcoming year.

 

Here’s a look at how Miller’s injury impacts the Big Ten, Ohio State, college football playoff and who is up next under center in Columbus.

 

What’s Next for Ohio State

 

The No. 1 priority for coach Urban Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman over the next 10 days is to get J.T. Barrett ready to play. The redshirt freshman recently passed Cardale Jones for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart and spent some time with the No. 1 offense due to Miller’s limited workload.

Barrett brings a similar skill set to the offense that Meyer and Herman were able to use with Miller. The Texas native is a dangerous runner and is regarded for his quick release in the passing game.

While Miller’s impact — one of the best quarterbacks in the nation — will be felt, Barrett is a talented option, and Ohio State isn’t short on skill talent. Barrett ranked as the No. 137 recruit in the 247Sports Composite in the 2013 signing class and spent 2013 learning under Miller and Kenny Guiton.

With Barrett likely to suffer a few growing pains in his first season under center, expect the Buckeyes to lean more on their defense and running backs. The back seven on defense needs to take a step forward under new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, but the defensive line could be the best in the nation. And even though Carlos Hyde is no longer at running back, Ezekiel Elliott, Dontre Wilson, Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn are capable options on the ground.

 

Barrett’s mobility will be valuable with an offensive line that must replace four starters. Left tackle Taylor Decker is an All-Big Ten candidate, and guard Pat Elflein is a rising star after playing well against Michigan State in the conference title game.

 

 

Ohio State Can Still Contend

 

Yes, losing Miller is a huge loss. However, Ohio State’s Big Ten title hopes aren’t over. The Buckeyes own the Big Ten’s No. 1 roster (according to recruiting rankings), and coach Urban Meyer ranks as Athlon’s No. 2 coach. The two toughest games on Ohio State’s schedule — at Michigan State and at Penn State — are both past the midway point of the 2014 season.

With time for Barrett to develop until the showdown against Michigan State, along with an elite defensive line and crop of skill players, Ohio State is still slated to be a factor in the Big Ten. Prior to Miller’s injury, the Buckeyes were considered by most to be the favorites. But with Miller sidelined, the expectation only drops the No. 2 spot in the East Division and 10-11 wins is still a realistic goal.

 

Impact on Big Ten East

 

Michigan State is now the favorite in the East. The Spartans defeated the Buckeyes 34-24 in the Big Ten Championship last year and return 10 starters from a team that finished No. 3 in the final Associated Press poll. An offense that features quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford is set to improve after finishing No. 7 in the Big Ten in scoring last season. The defense allowed only 13.2 points per game in 2013 and returns a standout at each level.

While Miller’s injury would seem to benefit Michigan State the most in preseason predictions, this should allow Michigan and Penn State to close the gap in the division.

 

Impact on CFB Playoff

 

Ohio State was a popular pick for the college football playoff, but Miller’s injury adds another element of uncertainty to the new format. Florida State is a heavy favorite to claim one of the four spots, and the SEC champion — projected by Athlon to be Alabama — is expected to be a lock for the playoff. But what happens outside of those two spots? Can a 12-1 Michigan State team with a loss to Oregon rank in the top four? Assuming the Spartans beat Ohio State, how does Miller’s injury impact how the committee views the Buckeyes? Regardless of how much talent is still in Columbus, this is not the same team. How the committee will determine and view strength of schedule is up for debate, but Michigan State’s playoff hopes could take a hit without a win over a top-five (and Braxton Miller-led) Ohio State team.

If the Big Ten doesn’t have a playoff contender, this would help the odds of a two-loss Pac-12 team (with a strong schedule) or a second SEC team making it into the new four-team format.

 

What Happens Next for Braxton Miller?

 

With a redshirt year available, Miller could spend this season rehabbing his shoulder in Columbus for a chance to lead Ohio State into the playoff in 2015. However, Miller could choose to forego one more year in college and enter the 2015 draft.

Considering the slow recovery from shoulder surgery and the significant injury this fall, the odds of a return to Ohio State seem likely for the Ohio native.

If Miller returns in 2015, the Buckeyes would be one of the favorites once again for a spot in the playoffs. Ohio State could start only three seniors on defense and five on offense this year. A good chunk of the roster talent is in the sophomore and junior ranks in 2014, including skill talent at receiver and in the back seven on defense.

Even if Miller doesn’t return, Ohio State would be in good shape in 2015 with Barrett having a full year of starting experience.

While this injury is a significant setback to the Buckeyes’ national title hopes in 2014, whether it’s Miller or Barrett under center next year, Ohio State will be a factor for the top spot in 2015.

Teaser:
Braxton Miller's Injury has Major Impact on Ohio State, Big Ten and CFB Playoff
Post date: Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 13:40
Path: /college-football/ranking-top-15-players-pac-12-2014-experts-poll
Body:

The SEC is college football’s No. 1 conference, but the Pac-12 isn’t far behind. With playoff contenders in Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, and USC, the league has a deep group of teams pushing for a spot among the top 10 this year. And the depth of the Pac-12 is strong, highlighted by Arizona State, Washington, Washington State, Oregon State and Arizona. Strong quarterback play highlights the Pac-12, including Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley.

 

In order to rank the top 15 players in the Pac-12 for 2014, Athlon Sports sought the insight of several experts from the conference. The voting process was simple. Using criteria such as career performance so far, 2014 potential/projection, pro outlook, recruiting ranking, value to team or overall talent, each voter was asked to rank their top 15 players for 2014.

 

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

 

The Voters:

 

Steven Lassan, AthlonSports.com, (@AthlonSteven)
Tyler Lockman, FoxSportsArizona.com, (@TylerLockman)
Braden Gall, AthlonSports.com, (@BradenGall)
Kyle Kensing, CFBHuddle.com, (@kensing45)
Mitch Light, AthlonSports.com, (@AthlonMitch)
Andrew Greif, The Oregonian, (@AndrewGreif)
Ryan Kartje, OCRegister.com, (@Ryan_Kartje)
Jeremy Mauss, MWCConnection.com, (@JeremyMauss)
Mark Ross, AthlonSports.com, (@AthlonMarkR)
Avinash Kunnath, PacificTakes.com, (@PacificTakes)
Ryan Abraham, USCFootball.com, (@InsideTroy)
Nick Krueger, HouseofSparky.com, (@NickPKrueger)
Jon Woods, RalphieReport.com, (@RalphieReport)
Jeff Nusser, CougCenter.com, (@NussCoug)
Jack Follman, PacificTakes.com, (@JackFollman)
Chris Huston, HeismanPundit.com, (@HeismanPundit)
David Fox, AthlonSports.com, (@DavidFox615)

 

Ranking Pac-12's Best Players for 2014
RankPlayerTeam12345678910Total
1Marcus Mariota, QB14300000000252
2Leonard Williams, DE1744001000222
3Brett Hundley, QB0643301000214
4Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB1041631010191
5Andrus Peat, OT0123120220147
6Myles Jack, LB1013112101143
7Taylor Kelly, QB0012312100113
8Sean Mannion, QB000122120298
9Hroniss Grasu, C000003222297
10Jaelen Strong, WR000002301289
11Ty Montgomery, WR000000224287
12Nelson Agholor, WR000011023180
13Shaq Thompson, LB000001222177
14Henry Anderson, DE000001000026
15Eric Kendricks, LB000000010025
16Byron Marshall, RB000000001123
17Hayes Pullard, LB000000000222
18Hau'oli Kikaha, DE001000000021
19Marcus Peters, CB000000000013
20A.J. Tarpley, LB000000010013
21Danny Shelton, DT000000000011
22Jordan Richards, S000000010011
23Su'a Cravens, S00000000007
24D.J. Foster, RB00000000007
25Alex Carter, CB00000000007
26Darryl Monroe, LB00000000006
27Thomas Tyner, RB00000000006
28Jamil Douglas, OL00000000005
29Cyler Miles, QB00000000005
30Isaac Seumalo, OL00000000005
31Bryce Treggs, WR00000000004
32Buck Allen, RB00000000004
33Dres Anderson, WR00000000003
34Connor Halliday, QB00000000003
35Greg Henderson, CB00000000001
36Addison Gillam, LB00000000001
37Fabian Moreau, CB00000000001
A Few Observations:


* Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota recorded 14 of the 17 first-place votes. Mariota did not rank lower than second on any ballot.

* Three of the top nine players in this experts poll are from Oregon: Mariota, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and center Hroniss Grasu.

* The top 10 players in this experts poll are split evenly: Five from the North, five from the South.

* Arizona is the only team to not have a player represented in this poll.

* Four of the top 10 players are quarterbacks: Mariota, Mannion, Kelly and Hundley.

 

Teaser:
Ranking the Top 15 Players in the Pac-12 for 2014 (Experts Poll)
Post date: Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-august-19-2014
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 19:

 

Enjoy the cheerleaders of the AP Top 25, starting with the top-ranked Noles.

 

Leave it to Johnny Football to enliven an otherwise dreadful Browns-Skins preseason snoozer. He'll see your casually racist nickname and raise you a middle finger. To his credit, Manziel was visibly embarrassed when he was informed that the brass was aware of what he'd done. Brian Orakpo, who had Manziel running for his life, was amused by the gesture.

 

Tiger and Rory went on Fallon to awkwardly shill for Nike.

 

Jay Feely defends the lowly extra point.

 

• Colin Cowherd blamed racer Kevin Ward Jr.'s death on "Southern culture." Mike Huckabee (about whom I have mixed feelings) told Cowherd to shut his pie hole (which I endorse).

 

Kate Upton took the ice bucket challenge. Trust me before you click — it's far better in your mind than it actually was. Here's a funny compilation of ice bucket fails (language alert at the link).

 

Steve Ballmer introduced himself to Clippers fans in a very Steve Ballmer-y way.

 

David Letterman paid tribute to Robin Williams, his friend for almost four decades.

 

• The Rhode Island Little League coach gave a great post-game speech after his team's loss.

 

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 10:37
Path: /nfl/nfl-scouts-talk-anonymously-about-afc-east-teams
Body:

Winners of 10 of the last 11 division titles, the AFC East has been dominated by New England ever since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady joined forces in 2001. This is not expected to change in 2014 either, not with Darrelle Revis joining the secondary and Rob Gronkowski back to jumpstart the passing attack. So if the Patriots are the heavy favorite to finish first, how will the rest of this division shake out? Will Buffalo or New York take a step forward behind their second-year quarterbacks or did Miami make the right moves in free agency to be a threat this fall?

 

In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC East shapes up entering the 2014 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Bills, Dolphins, Patriots and Jets.

 

Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff. 

 

Buffalo Bills

 

“With the passing of owner Ralph Wilson, the Bills’ future will be discussed endlessly outside the football part of the organization. Regardless of what people say, this circumstance is always a distraction to a degree.” …

 

“Doug Marrone quietly did a solid job as a first-year NFL head coach in 2013 and Buffalo has more talent than meets the eye.” …

 

“Offensively, everything begins and ends with their QB play. EJ Manuel was selected in the first round of the 2013 draft and flashed the ability to be a long-term answer, but showed enough negatives to leave the question open at this point.” …

 

“Buffalo was 29th in the league in third down conversions (34.0 percent) and that is an area of much-needed improvement.” …

 

“There is enough skill around the QB to make for an effective offense. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson work well together and Anthony Dixon was signed from the 49ers.” …

 

“TE Scott Chandler was brought back and he is a dependable target. Buffalo traded their 2015 first-round pick to move up in the draft to get Sammy Watkins. With his addition, this is a nice mix of wide receiver styles in the form of Robert Woods, T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin.” …

 

“The offensive line does not have a superstar, but LT Cordy Glenn, OC Eric Wood and RG Kraig Urbik are functional starters. Chris Williams was lured from St. Louis to plug in at left guard.” …

 

“Nathanial Hackett is the offensive coordinator and is a coach worth tracking in the future, especially if he can coax the best out of Manuel.” …

 

“Jim Schwartz, the former head coach of the Lions, takes over as defensive coordinator and he is expected to stay as aggressive as his predecessor, Mike Pettine.” …

 

“Defensively, Marcell Dareus had a breakout year and Kyle Williams is one of the most underrated players in the league.” …

 

“Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and Jerry Hughes combined for 27 sacks and should provide the outside pass rush for this team.” …

 

“The Bills lost Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd to New Orleans, however, Aaron Williams was retained, Da’Norris Searcy has extensive experience and the coaches have high hopes for Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks.” …

 

“This team has enough ability to legitimately get into the fight with Miami and the NY Jets for second place in the AFC East, but almost everything will hinge on the play of the quarterback.” …

 

“And make no mistake about it, this current administration took a big swing in the draft to either save their jobs with a new owner or slash-and-burn their way out the door.” …

 

Miami Dolphins

 

“The Dolphins demonstrated their dysfunction on and off the field in 2013. While the locker room fiasco unfolded in front of the nation, Richie Incognito became the ‘face’ of the franchise and Jonathan Martin left the building.” …

 

“Upstairs, former GM Jeff Ireland and VP Dawn Aponte had their own turf battles going and owner Stephen Ross ultimately sided with her, leading Ireland to step down.” …

 

“Meanwhile, somehow head coach Joe Philbin survived despite two late-season losses and the Wells report that spotlighted his lack of awareness and his staff’s poor judgment in diffusing the Incognito/Martin situation.” …

 

“Ultimately, Dennis Hickey, who was likely to be fired from the Bucs by their new GM Jason Licht, emerged as the Miami GM after a protracted interviewing process led by Ross and Aponte.” …

 

“Now to the football, Ryan Tannehill did not get much help last year. Miami’s OL composed of bullies and tough guys allowed 58 sacks and never generated much room for an ordinary set of running backs. Center Mike Pouncey is the only returning starter in 2014.” …

 

“Hickey made a splash in free agency by signing Branden Albert and Shelley Smith for the line and probably over-drafted Ja’Wuan James in the first round, but to completely repair an entire OL is nearly impossible with other pressing needs, too.” …

 

“After Dustin Keller went down with a knee injury during the preseason, the tight end position was essentially handled by H-back Charles Clay. Clay is an underrated performer and maybe the most reliable teammate Tannehill has had over the past two seasons.” …

 

“The Dolphins signed Knowshon Moreno from Denver and he should help in a big way primarily through his pass protection skills. With an entirely new OL, he can serve as Tannehill’s personal protector and that should be a major help in 2014.” …

 

“Mike Wallace will probably never live up to the contract he received last year because he is a vertical, one-trick pony. He can really run, but most of his effectiveness comes on take-off routes and WR screens. He thrived in Pittsburgh because of the culture there and the people around him. Without that same kind of structure, he does not have the discipline needed to be a legit No. 1 receiver.” …

 

“On the defensive line, Randy Starks returns and they signed Earl Mitchell from Houston. They have to figure out how to get more production from 2013 No. 3  overall pick Dion Jordan.” …

 

“The linebackers were over-paid, under-produced and have now been re-shuffled into different roles under DC Kevin Coyle.” …

 

“Brent Grimes stayed off the market, but one of their young corners has to come through opposite of him, because Cortland Finnegan is not a long-term answer.” …

 

“The safeties are ordinary, so the pass rush is vital for them to hold up.” …

 

“Rebuilding both the OL and DL is tough to do in one offseason.” …

 

“This team can be competitive again, but I just don’t see enough blue-chip talent across the board to think they make the playoffs in 2014.” …

 

New England Patriots

 

“As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are paired together, the Patriots will always be the front-runners of the AFC East. Through the Patriots’ most savvy draft picks to their worst personnel choices, this duo seems to be able to overcome most any set of circumstances.” …

 

“As long as Brady can get ample time and avoid too many pocket hits, he can still carve people up from the pocket. No QB in the league plays with as much poise and confidence as Brady.” …

 

“There were growing pains with rookie WRs Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, but both made key plays in 2013, and Julian Edelman emerged to catch 100-plus passes after stepping in for the departed Wes Welker.” …

 

“Danny Amendola is quite capable, however, his injury history showed up again in ’13, when he missed four games.” ...

 

“New England thinks that newly acquired WR Brandon LaFell (from the Panthers) has yet to reach his potential and can do so in their system.” …

 

“The one-two punch of Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen gives them great versatility on offense because both players can do multiple jobs. Brandon Bolden is likely to be the inside run replacement for LaGarrette Blount who ended up in Pittsburgh.” …

 

“The Pats need a counterpart to Rob Gronkowski at tight end and would love to see D.J. Williams come through as a potential pass-catcher. In the meantime, Michael Hoomanawanui is consistent and gives NE a viable end-of-line blocker.” …

 

“Barring injury, the OL can get the job done with Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer (coming back from injury) manning the tackle spots and Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell and Dan Connelly on the inside.” …

 

“On defense, Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia run a hybrid scheme that allows them to exploit the rush/drop skills of Jamie Collins and Rob Ninkovich.” …

 

“New England should get a big boost up the middle of their D with the return of Vince Wilfork (coming back from Achilles rupture) and Jerod Mayo, a team leader and their most productive defender.” …

 

“It remains to be seen what they can get out of first-round choice Dominique Easley who suffered torn ACLs in both knees at Florida.” …

 

“They made a huge splash in free agency with the addition of Darrelle Revis. Because of his man-to-man skills, expect more pressure calls up front and more safety help to Alfonzo Dennard in the back end.” …

 

“Their offense will carry the load again in 2014, but with Revis on board and Mayo and Collins maximizing their talents at the linebacker level, there is a confidence in Foxboro that the Pats have enough pieces in place to go win the Super Bowl.” …

 

New York Jets

 

“The media is way off when it comes to the relationship between GM John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan. They have quietly found compromise on a number of issues and actually work well together. Now, that doesn’t mean that there is no pressure on Rex, but this team finished 8-8 after many pundits felt they were one of the worst outfits in the entire league during preseason.” …

 

“Everyone with the Jets has a ton riding on Geno Smith, but he really needs a lot of help when it comes to their tight ends and receivers.” …

 

“Michael Vick was signed to push Smith and even take over if he struggles again in camp or down the stretch, but he has played 16 games one time in his career.” …

 

“Eric Decker was signed from Denver and he will be an upgrade, but he is only a No. 2 in reality. Stephen Hill is one-dimensional and will never be a complete receiver, while Jeremy Kerley will flash a play, but he is difficult for a QB to find in traffic.” …

 

“The offensive line is a strength and, if they can stay healthy, maybe this team will be able to run the football better in 2014. Breno Giacomini comes from Seattle and replaces Austin Howard at RT with D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold still being in the top third of the league at their positions.” ...

 

“Chris Johnson was cut from the Titans and the Jets are hoping he has something left in the tank to go along with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell.” …

 

“The defensive line may be the most dominant in the NFL with Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson being legit forces in their front seven. NT Damon Harrison is one of the most underrated defensive lineman in the AFC.” …

 

“The biggest issue is the Jets’ lack of pressure from the outside. Quinton Coples is out of position as a hybrid OLB/DE and Calvin Pace is a middle-of-the-pack edge rusher.” …

 

“David Harris has been a consummate pro during his career, but Demario Davis has emerged as the best LB on the roster, he is fast to the football and explosive when he gets there.” …

 

“The Jets have lost Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie over the past two offseasons, so they are banking heavily on Dee Milliner to live up to his No. 9 overall draft status from 2013. Dimitri Patterson was inked from Miami because Kyle Wilson has been so disappointing in his career.” …

 

“They added hard-hitting Calvin Pryor from Louisville in the draft, but in some ways, they now have four strong safety-types in the back end and that’s not good in this era of ‘space’ football. Dawan Landry and Antonio Allen are better coming up than going back and Jaiquawn Jarrett is the same way.” …

 

“Rex Ryan didn’t get enough credit for getting this group to 8-8, because it is truly amazing they won that many games.” …

 

“If Geno Smith responds in his second year with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and some new additions, expect the Jets to battle for second in the division and a playoff berth.” …

Teaser:
NFL Scouts Talk Anonymously About AFC East Teams
Post date: Tuesday, August 19, 2014 - 10:30

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