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College football’s new playoff format has added a layer of intrigue to the regular season. While finishing in the top two – just like the old BCS format – is important, two additional teams have a chance to win the national title in a four-team postseason format.
The first release of the playoff committee's rankings provided some insight into the process, but with five weeks to go until the four teams are officially announced, plenty of changes are ahead in the weekly top 25 rankings.
What are some factors that will shape how the final rankings look? Scheduling is a huge element to consider, but quarterback play, defenses and emergence of freshmen are other factors to watch.
Here are 10 things to watch over the next five weeks:
10 Things That Will Shape CFB Playoff in Final Five Weeks
1. Showdowns in the SEC West
A significant piece of the inaugural College Football Playoff will be shaped by what happens in the SEC West. Will Mississippi State win out? If the Bulldogs win out, a victory over Alabama would seem to eliminate the Crimson Tide from the playoff picture. And what happens to Auburn if a two-loss Crimson Tide squad wins in the Iron Bowl? But that’s not all. What about the SEC Championship Game if the East winner (Georgia or Missouri) beats the West champion? That’s a huge wrench in the final ranking. It’s safe to say the SEC gets at least one team in the playoff this year. However, getting two will largely be determined on what happens in the remaining showdowns in November.
2. Florida State’s Emerging Young Talent
Florida State’s 2014 team isn’t as dominant as its '13 version. But that’s not a huge issue for coach Jimbo Fisher, as this team is pretty good in its own right. The biggest concern for the Seminoles remains in the trenches, but the offensive line showed some promise by clearing the way for 173 yards and three scores against Louisville. The defensive line is probably Florida State’s biggest concern, especially on the interior where Nile Lawrence-Stample was lost for the season. Even if the Seminoles allow 30 points a game, their offense could score 35-40 each week. Quarterback Jameis Winston is the headliner, but the sophomore has emerging stars at his disposal in a trio of true freshmen — running back Dalvin Cook and receivers Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane. Cook is averaging 5.6 yards per rush, while Rudolph has 14 of his 19 catches over the last three games, and Lane caught a touchdown pass against Louisville. Florida State’s offense was already lethal without Cook, Rudolph and Lane. But this unit is even more deadly with the emergence of these talented first-year players on offense.
3. Ohio State-Michigan State Showdown
Barring major upsets and a complete shake up at the top of the playoff committee's rankings, the Big Ten is only getting one team into the four-team playoff. And as of Nov. 4, Michigan State and Ohio State need a lot of help to reach the top four. The Spartans have the better resume so far, with their only loss coming at Oregon in early September. The Buckeyes lost to Virginia Tech in September and do not have a win over a ranked team heading into Week 11. With all of that in mind, Saturday’s showdown in East Lansing is critical to the Big Ten getting one team in the mix. If Michigan State beats the Buckeyes handily, and Ohio State wins out to finish 10-2, coach Mark Dantonio’s team should be in the mix for a playoff spot. But what happens if the Spartans win a close game and the Buckeyes lose to Minnesota? That scenario would hurt the Big Ten’s case for a team in the top four. Regardless of what happens after Nov. 8, the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan State game is the only playoff contender left from the Big Ten.
4. Alabama QB Blake Sims
Quarterback play was the biggest concern in Tuscaloosa this offseason. Sims has been steady through the first eight games, completing 65.5 percent of his throws and tossing 15 touchdowns to just three picks. However, in Alabama’s only loss (Ole Miss), Sims had a costly interception. One week later against Arkansas, Sims threw for just 161 yards in a 14-13 win. With one of the nation’s best rushing attacks and defenses on his side, Sims doesn’t have to post huge numbers for the Crimson Tide to win each week. However, the senior has to be efficient and will be under scrutiny in upcoming games against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. It’s not unrealistic to suggest Sims’ play could determine whether or not Alabama wins the SEC or finishes 10-2.
5. Oregon’s Defense
If the Ducks win out, it’s a safe bet coach Mark Helfrich’s team will be in the four-team playoff. But Oregon still has three games and, presumably, the Pac-12 Championship Game remaining, including a road trip to Utah on Nov. 8. Of the remaining three regular-season games, the Utes should be the toughest opponent for the Ducks, but the Pac-12 title game also looms large against (potentially) offensive-minded teams like Arizona State or USC. Scoring points hasn’t been a problem for Oregon, but the defense is allowing 28.2 points per game in Pac-12 contests, 5.7 yards per play and is last in the conference in third-down defense. Will this cost the Ducks a game before the playoff? Maybe not, but it could prevent Oregon from winning the national title. Can the Ducks' defense make strides over the final month of the season?
6. Kansas State’s Road Trips
No team has a tougher road schedule over the final five weeks than Bill Snyder’s Wildcats. Kansas State plays at TCU this Saturday, followed by a road date at West Virginia on Nov. 20 and then a matchup at Baylor on Dec. 6. Navigating that road schedule without a loss is challenging, but certainly not impossible for the Wildcats. The Big 12 has more depth than most anticipated at the start of this year, and an 11-1 K-State team should make the playoff. Let’s also not forget the Wildcats have just one loss (Auburn, 20-14) in a game where they had three turnovers and missed three field goals.
7. Receivers at Ole Miss
Ole Miss is going to miss Laquon Treadwell. The sophomore was one of the SEC’s best receivers and led the team with 48 catches through the first nine games. Without Treadwell, the Rebels are looking to Vince Sanders, Cody Core, Quincy Adeboyejo and tight end Evan Engram to pick up the slack in the passing game. Why this is position critical? Even though Ole Miss has two losses, this team still has a chance to impact the four teams in the playoff with a game against Mississippi State on Nov. 29. Finding a way to replace Treadwell’s production for quarterback Bo Wallace is a huge priority for coach Hugh Freeze over the next two weeks.
8. Notre Dame’s Defense
Three of top four outputs (yards per play) against Notre Dame has taken place over the last three weeks. The Fighting Irish’s schedule has increased in difficultly during that span, so it’s not a surprise the defensive numbers aren’t as promising as they were earlier in the season. Notre Dame allowed 5.7 yards per play against Florida State, 5.9 against Navy and 6.1 against North Carolina. Linebacker Joe Schmidt was a key piece of the defense, and he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the win over Navy. Add in the recent performance, combined with Schmidt’s loss and a challenging remaining slate - at Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC – and it’s easy to see why this unit will be under the microscope over the next four games. Notre Dame’s offense averages 35.4 points per contest, and coach Brian Kelly may need that type of production each week to help his young defense survive the Irish's most critical stretch of their season.
9. Todd Gurley’s Return at Georgia
Gurley’s return to the Georgia lineup on Nov. 15 is an interesting late-season development to consider in the overall playoff picture. The Bulldogs have a capable option in freshman Nick Chubb (501 yards in last three games), but prior to his suspension, Gurley may have been the best player in the nation. In five appearances this year, Gurley rushed for 773 yards and eight scores on 94 attempts. The junior is slated to return against Auburn, which is a game that is critical to the Bulldogs’ SEC East title hopes. And of course, the Tigers have their own playoff implications to deal with each week, as coach Gus Malzahn’s team ranked No. 3 in the first committee rankings. Is Gurley’s return enough for Georgia to knock off Auburn?
10. The Darkhorses and Upsets
College football changes drastically from week-to-week and upsets (see Florida over Georgia) are bound to happen over the final five weeks. Pinpointing the upsets is impossible, but there are a few teams to consider. Could Duke threaten Florida State in the ACC Championship Game? Probably not. Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State? That’s an interesting rematch scenario. If Arizona State reaches the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Sun Devils’ offense would be a tough matchup for Oregon’s defense. And we can’t forget about the SEC East champion (likely to be a heavy underdog) against the West. All of those scenarios don’t include a team like Miami taking down Florida State as an upset possibility or Utah beating Oregon. Count on an upset or two happening and changing the playoff outlook before college football's Final Four is released.
The original reality TV show is sports. No contrived setting where seven strangers living in a house or one bachelor searching for love can match the excitement the Iron Bowl delivered last fall.
The beauty of college football lies in its complete unpredictability and drama. Here are some outrageous predictions for Week 11.
Note: The point of this column is to have some fun and make some outlandish predictions. Please react accordingly.
A quarterback in East Lansing will enter the Heisman race
Connor Cook and JT Barrett will square off in the biggest and most pivotal Big Ten game of the year this weekend in East Lansing when Ohio State visits Michigan State. Cook and Barrett are the top two QBs in the Big Ten in terms of efficiency and are posting great numbers. Cook (1,868 yds, 17 TDs, 5 INTs, 44 rush, 2 TDs) is one of the most underrated players in the nation and Barrett (1,856 yds, 23 TDs, 7 INTs, 496 rush, 6 TDs) has posted some big numbers of his own. One of these two will be squarely in the Heisman race following this weekend (my bet is Cook).
Marcus Mariota will have the worst game of his season… and will still win
Marcus Mariota will have the worst game of his season this weekend on the road against Utah and the nation’s best sack-masters (39.0 sacks). Mariota will throw for a season-low in yards (currently 210), post a season-low in total offense (277) and account for a season-low in terms of total touchdowns (two), but the Ducks will still win. Royce Freeman, Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall will literally carry Oregon to a critical road win over the Utes.
24 points will win the Baylor-Oklahoma game
The winner of the Oklahoma-Baylor game has scored more than 40 points in four consecutive games and six of the last seven. In fact, the winner of this tilt (mostly Oklahoma) has scored more than 30 points in every meeting since 1998. So with that information, the winner this season will only need to score three touchdowns (and maybe a field goal) to get the win. Both teams are better on defense than outsiders think. Take the under.
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Trevone Boykin and Jake Waters will account for a combined 10 TDs
I missed on the Boykin-Clint Trickett showdown last weekend, as both defenses showed up in Morgantown. I’m going back to the Big 12 QB well this week, as both Jake Waters (18 total TDs) and Boykin (26 total TDs) are set for a purple-clad battle in Fort Worth. Both defenses are solid, but this league has shown the nation how to play offense in the big games. Look for both QBs to get going both on the ground and through the air much like all of TCU’s other big games (SEE: Oklahoma, Baylor).
LSU will score more than 20 points against Alabama… and will still lose
Nick Saban has won three straight in the series against LSU and has done so in convincing fashion. Over that span, Alabama has outscored LSU 80-34. Even in LSU’s last win in 2011, the Tigers failed to score double-digit points. The Tigers' offense has gotten on track of late, scoring a total of 81 points in three straight wins. LSU may not win this weekend against the Tide at home but it will score at least 20 points against Alabama for the first time since 2010.
Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David attempts to isolate each rookie from his team and equipment and properly rank the driving chops of each member of this year’s rookie class.
This year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie class has collectively lived up to the hype. Billed as the best rookie class since 2006 — one containing Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex — the 2014 crop might be short on wins, but they were big on immediate impact, despite most of the class wheeling less-than-ideal equipment, and produced one bona fide superstar.
They lost the battle if you’re solely staring at top-10 finishes — the 2014 class, led by Kyle Larson has combined for 21 top-10 finishes with two races remaining, while five different drivers in the class of ’06 united for 44 top-10 results. If you’re scoping each driver individually, though, and isolate the driver from his team, the Production in Equal Equipment Ratings (PEER) for the ’14 group are stronger than those of their predecessors.
Denny Hamlin was the last rookie to score a serviceable PEER — a weighted results measurement on MotorsportsAnalytics.com — with a rating of 1.986 that ranked seventh in the Cup Series that season. Larson, presently with a 2.324 PEER, will shatter Hamlin’s effort. He currently ranks as the sixth-most productive driver in the series this season.
Of the eight drivers that began the season as rookies, seven (87.5 percent of the class) will end the season with ratings above replacement level, a mark 16 percent better than what the 2006 group was able to accomplish.
No driver in either of the two classes shone brighter than Larson, who ends the season as Athlon Sports’ number one rookie, topping the final Rookie Report Ranking of 2014:
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)
Larson ranks fourth among series regulars in adjusted pass efficiency, carrying a 52.96 percent mark to Phoenix this weekend. He ranks fifth among regulars in surplus passing value, passing at an efficiency 2.14 percent better than what a driver with his average running position is expected to produce. He ranks sixth in PEER. Unlike Denny Hamlin, he didn’t make the Chase and he hasn’t won, but that shouldn’t take away from what’s been a brilliant season by a quick-assimilating rookie. The sky is the limit, and his season it worthy of its own column, coming next week.
2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
The chatter was somewhat nauseating early on and none of it had anything to do with him (it had everything to do with the color and number of his car). After all the nostalgic nonsense settled, we were left with a young driver still trying to find his identity as a racer while ironing out some wrinkles in his repertoire. He’ll end the season with a sub-serviceable PEER and sub-par passing numbers, but there has been some notable improvement. His current Chase-only PEER stands at 1.034 through eight races, an increase over the 0.632 that spans his entire year to date. Based purely on average finish, Dillon and his Richard Childress Racing team’s 16.7-place mark is better than those of Kasey Kahne (17.7), Brian Vickers (18.4) and Tony Stewart (19.9). Passing remains a sore subject for a driver who struggled overtaking for position in NASCAR’s lower divisions, but it’s clear that if he ever develops a passing game he’ll be a consummate Chase contender.
3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 4)
I’ll remember this team’s closing problem — they’ve lost 59 positions in the final 10 percent of races — above anything else about them in 2014, but it’s mostly due to a disastrous early part of the season. Through the first 21 races, Allgaier and crew chief Steve Addington gave up 74 red zone positions. They’ve gained 15 across the 12 races they’ve competed in since, a sign that things might be coming together in time for a formidable finish to an otherwise decent rookie season. Allgaier is a plus passer through 33 races this year, sporting a 50.88 percent adjusted efficiency and a plus-1.53 percent surplus value.
4. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 3)
It’s almost as if Whitt and longtime crew chief Randy Cox have built their own wing onto the BK Racing shop, because they don’t appear to be from the same stable that trots out entries for Alex Bowman and whatever other veteran hanger-on the team’s execs fancy on a particular weekend. The cars in which Whitt and Cox invested sweat equity were faster, per NASCAR’s average green-flag speed measurement, than entries from Tommy Baldwin Racing and Front Row Motorsports. Whitt, sometime after the Darlington race, cooly learned that 500-mile races were feats of patience, not pizazz. His race approach shifted accordingly and resulted in six of his best eight finishes this year coming in the second half of the season.
5. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 5)
Inconsistency might be tolerable when you’re Kyle Busch, whose 14.0 finish deviation on top of his 16.5-place average result is the most inconsistent among series regulars. When you’re a rookie with a 29.3-place average finish, a relatively inconsistent deviation is troublesome and that’s what is plaguing Annett, with a 7.3 finish deviation, this season. His rookie-year results have very much been trick or treat — his three most recent results at quad-oval tracks were straightforward finishes of 21st at Atlanta, a four laps-down 33rd-place effort at Charlotte and a lead-lap 22nd-place run at Texas. With more consistency — and that should be the focus in his sophomore campaign — he’d be the best driver Tommy Baldwin Racing has ever had.
6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 6)
Watch Bowman and you’ll get a sense that he’s capable of more — he passes the eye test and is the youngest driver in the series this season. But his results on paper do nothing to support the senses. His 0.103 PEER is barely above replacement level, his 45.82 percent adjusted pass efficiency is the third worst in the series and his 0.41 per race crash frequency was a smidge too high for a race team on a tight budget. Since I’m not inside the halls of BK Racing, I don’t know whether Bowman will, or did enough to, be back with them next season; however, I don’t believe it’s fair to assume he is as good now as he’s ever going to be. He needs seasoning — he spent exactly one season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, one season in K&N East and competed in a smatter of ARCA Series races over the last three years. The team that provides it might reap the rewards of a young driver coming into his own.
7. Ryan Truex, No. 83
Truex initially struggled and grew to struggle less — his passing did improve, but he still holds the second-worst pass efficiency (44.9 percent) in the series. BK Racing parted with him following the Chicagoland race. While he is still contractually tied to Richard Petty Motorsports, with whom he signed a development contract in 2013, the future is murky for the two-time champion of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
8. Parker Kligerman, No. 30
Kligerman had the year from hell, registering five finishes of 40th or worse in eight races. He also amassed a crash frequency of 0.50 — tied as the second highest in the series — and failed to find a landing spot after Swan Racing closed its doors. The good news is that he is currently an entertaining, stat-savvy analyst for NBC Sports; however, he is a talent deserving of a ride somewhere, evident by his past efforts in the Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
Athlon Sports has formed a Heisman Trophy committee. Each week, we will ask 13 members of the national college football media to rank their top candidates for the Heisman Trophy.
Each voter will rank their top five candidates, with each first-place vote getting five points and each last-place vote getting one point.
Stewart Mandel, FOX Sports
Dave Revsine, Big Ten Network
Adam Zucker, CBS Sports
Steven Godfrey, SBNation
Zac Ellis, Sports Illustrated
Bryan Fischer, NFL.com
Tom Dienhart, Big Ten Network
Barrett Sallee, Bleacher Report, B/R Radio
Josh Ward, MrSEC.com
Mitch Light, Athlon Sports
David Fox, Athlon Sports
Steven Lassan, Athlon Sports
Braden Gall, Athlon Sports, SiriusXM
Dropped out: None
Listen to the Week 10 recap podcast:
The Top 3:
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
The Oregon quarterback exorcized some demons against archrival Stanford and landed all but one first-place vote this week because of it. He completed 19-of-30 passes for 258 yards, two touchdowns, one interception in the air while rushing nine times for 85 yards and two more scores in the blowout win over the Cardinal. He’s 10th nationally at 327.9 yards per game and is tops nationally with a 187.21 rating.
Season Stats: 2,541 yards, 68.1%, 26 TDs, 2 INTs, 410 rush yards, 7 TDs
2. Dak Prescott, Mississippi St
Prescott threw for a career-high 331 yards while running for 61 yards in Week 10. However, he also threw two interceptions and barely defeated Arkansas at home. This gave Mariota a slight edge entering Week 11 over the Bulldogs quarterback. With Tennessee-Martin on the slate this week, Prescott can only hurt his Heisman case before visiting Alabama in two weeks.
Season Stats: 2,025 yards, 61.1%, 16 TDs, 7 INTs, 725 rush yards, 10 TDs
3. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
The Badgers' star tailback rolled up his sixth consecutive game with at least 122 yards rushing by carrying 19 times for 128 yards and two more touchdowns in the easy win over Maryland. He is second nationally at 162.0 yards per game (just 0.5 yards per game behind Tevin Coleman) and is second nationally with 18 rushing touchdowns. Among the top 17 players in terms of rushing attempts, his 7.5 yards per carry is the best.
Season Stats: 173 att., 1,296 yards, 7.5 ypc, 18 TDs, 8 rec., 39 yards, 1 TD
Shabazz Napier called his team the Hungry Huskies during the post-national championship celebration at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in April. They fed off returning to the NCAA Tournament after serving a postseason ban and went on an improbable March Madness run.
But Napier, an All-America guard and inspirational leader, has graduated and moved on to the NBA. DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey, two other key players, also are pursing professional careers.
Only six players, including just one who averaged in double figures, return.
According to coach Kevin Ollie, UConn’s appetite for success remains the same. “Every year is a different year,” Ollie says. “But we’re going to have the same mindset. … It’s a work ethic. It’s to have humility, the understanding that it’s not about you, it’s about our great university. If we can have those things with the talent we have, success is going to follow. I really, really believe that.”
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Ollie is excited about the potential of his maturing frontcourt and hopes to get more production out of the group.
Junior Phil Nolan is battled-test, appearing in 63 games over two seasons, and has added muscle. He’ll look to improve on last year’s numbers (3.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg).
Watch out for sophomore center Amida Brimah. Already a shot-blocking force, averaging a team-best 2.3 per game, he’s working on elevating his offensive game. He spent the offseason recovering from shoulder surgery. “Amida is going to be a force,” Ollie says.
Sophomore Kentan Facey adds a different dynamic off the bench, possessing the ability to attack inside or shoot outside.
Highly touted freshman Daniel Hamilton, an athletic 6-7 wing, has the potential to be a special player. Hamilton averaged 20.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists while leading St. John Bosco to a state title in California last season.
Freshman Rakim Lubin owns the mindset and muscle to be a factor on the glass, one of team’s few weaknesses last season.
UConn Huskies Facts & Figures
Last season: 32-8, 12-6 AAC
Postseason: National champion
Consecutive NCAA appearances: 1
Coach: Kevin Ollie (52-18 at UConn, 22-14 Big East/AAC)
AAC Projection: Second
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 32
Stocked with skilled guards, UConn will continue to be a perimeter-powered team.
Ryan Boatright, the top returning scorer and a defensive pest, steps into the spotlight after residing in Napier’s shadow. Following a terrific postseason, Boatright considered turning pro before deciding to return for his senior season. “He has to take over that leadership role,” Ollie says. “I think Boat is going to do that. I see a lot of great qualities in Ryan. … He has a great competitiveness about him.”
Sophomore Terrence Samuel, who emerged as a valuable contributor off the bench last season, and junior Omar Calhoun are other returning guards. Calhoun is looking to bounce back from a sophomore slump.
Last season, Ollie referred to Rodney Purvis, a transfer from NC State, as his Ferrari in the garage. The explosive Purvis is ready to hit the accelerator and take off. “He can score at a high level,” Ollie says.
Newcomer Sam Cassell Jr., who starred on the junior college level, is a fierce competitor with a high basketball IQ. He gives UConn another playmaker.
Expectations are high for the Huskies, who’ll likely be a top-25 team, an American Athletic Conference title contender and NCAA Tournament team.
Another trip to the Final Four will be difficult to pull off considering that UConn lost four of its top five scorers and top three rebounders. But with a nice blend of promising newcomers, developing underclassmen and proven veterans, the Huskies possess the talent to complete a quality makeover. They’ll rely on scoring by committee and look to push the pace to utilize their team speed and versatile roster.
Ollie, who received a new five-year, $15 million contract in May, will stick to his winning formula — play team basketball and tenacious defense, limit turnovers and convert from the foul line, where UConn shot 77.7 percent last season.
With the roster changes, UConn needs time to become a cohesive unit.
“We’ve got some talent,” Ollie says. “We’ve got to pull it together. We’ve got to get in (the gym) and work hard. But all the guys have great attitudes. That’s the one thing that I pride myself on — having a great attitude and being a great teammate. I think all of our guys have that.”
Rakim Lubin, a rugged forward, will provide a much-needed physical presence and rebounder. Sam Cassell Jr., son of the former NBA guard, averaged 18.7 points in junior college. He’ll add valuable depth and experience in the backcourt. Daniel Hamilton, a multi-talented wing, is considered one of the top scorers at his position in his recruiting class. A gifted guard, Rodney Purvis averaged 8.3 points as a freshman at NC State.
For one, the AAC is the home of the defending national champion that loses star Shabazz Napier but returns coach Kevin Ollie and guard Ryan Boatright while adding NC State transfer Rodney Purvis and highly regarded freshman Daniel Hamilton.
The Huskies, though, may have trouble making a run at the AAC title thanks to upstart SMU. Even without freshman Emmanuel Mudiay, the top point guard prospect in the NBA draft who will be playing in Europe, the Mustangs have enough talent and experience returning to make a historic run for the program.
With the arrival of Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson, Memphis may be able to make the AAC a three-team race. Cincinnati and league newcomer Tulsa, the latter under first-year coach Frank Haith, will try to maintain momentum after NCAA runs a year ago.
After those top teams, though, watch out. The AAC had five teams in the top 40 on Kenpom.com last season (including Louisville). The other five teams were ranked 125th or worse. That trend may continue in a league that adds Conference USA also-rans East Carolina and Tulane this season.
Previews of every American team and more are available in the 2014-15 Athlon Sports College Basketball Preview.
2014-15 American Athletic Conference Predictions
1. SMU (team preview)
The turnaround under Larry Brown has been very impressive. Emmanuel Mudiay’s decision to play overseas hurts, but the Mustangs are still talented.
2. Connecticut (team preview)
The defending national champs bid farewell to Shabazz Napier, but bring in Rodney Purvis and Daniel Hamilton — and kept Kevin Ollie.
3. Memphis (team preview)
The immediate eligibility of Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson gives the guard-starved Tigers a major boost.
4. Cincinnati (team preview)
Without Sean Kilpatrick and Justin Jackson, Mick Cronin loses his leaders. Can Shaquille Thomas take the next step?
Postseason projection: NIT
After reaching the NCAA Tournament last season, the Golden Hurricane will look to get back as Frank Haith replaces Danny Manning.
The Green Wave could be a sleeper. Louis Dabney and Jonathan Stark should form one of the best duos in the league.
7. East Carolina
Leading scorer Akeem Richmond is gone, but Jeff Lebo brings back several key pieces — and adds transfer Terry Whisnant.
The Owls took a major step back last season, going from 24 wins to nine wins. Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey do return.
Stan Heath is gone and former Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua is in. Anthony Collins needs a bounce-back season at the point.
Kelvin Sampson has already added talent to the roster, including transfers Torian Graham and Devonta Pollard.
The Knights were next-to-last in the conference last season, and lose their top three scorers. Donnie Jones’ star has dimmed.
2014-15 American Athletic Conference Superlatives
Player of the Year: Nic Moore, SMU
The absence of Emmanuel Mudiay will put more pressure on Moore, but he may be up to the task. He averaged 13.6 points and 4.9 rebounds last season and contributed clutch play during SMU’s run to the NIT championship game.
Best Defensive Player: Amida Brimah, Connecticut
The shot-blocking extraordinaire averaged 2.3 blocks per game in just 16.2 minutes and 17 starts.
Most Underrated Player: James Woodard, Tulsa
The 6-3, 183-pound guard averaged 15.5 points and 5.9 rebounds for the Conference USA champions last season. Now he gets to shine on a bigger stage.
Newcomer of the Year: Daniel Hamilton, Connecticut
UConn will hope this high-scoring wing will help offset the losses of Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels.
Top coach: Larry Brown, SMU (complete AAC coach rankings)
G Nic Moore, SMU
G Ryan Boatright, Connecticut
G James Woodard, Tulsa
F Shaq Goodwin, Memphis
F Markus Kennedy, SMU
G Will Cummings, Temple
G Jonathan Stark, Tulane
G Rodney Purvis, Connecticut
F Daniel Hamilton, Connecticut
F Austin Nichols, Memphis
G Anthony Collins, USF
G Louis Dabney, Tulane
G Quenton DeCosey, Temple
F Justin Martin, SMU
F Shaquille Thomas, Cincinnati
The obvious issue for Cincinnati in 2014-15 is how to replace first-team All-America guard Sean Kilpatrick, who finished his career as the second-leading scorer in school history behind the legendary Oscar Robertson.
But that’s not how coach Mick Cronin sees his challenge as he begins his ninth year at his alma mater armed with a new seven-year contract extension.
“We quickly have to realize it’s a new day,” Cronin says. “That’s my message to the guys. It’s your team. We don’t have to replace nobody. We have to become the 2014-15 version of the Bearcats.”
Cincinnati will have seven new players and no double-figure scorers returning from the 2013-14 team that shared the inaugural American Athletic Conference title with Louisville and lost to Harvard in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament.
The Bearcats won’t have much experience, but they will have plenty of size on the front line, which is a major departure from last season.
“We’ll be a couple inches bigger and a lot stronger on the front line and deeper on the front line,” Cronin says. “With Shaq Thomas, you talk about six guys that are 6-7 or bigger and either really athletic or 265 or 270 pounds. We have a chance to be a great rebounding team.”
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The Bearcats were looking forward to seeing how much top-25 recruit Jermaine Lawrence had improved after his disappointing freshman year in 2013-14, but Lawrence transferred to Manhattan because he wanted to be closer to his home in New York after he learned that his father had been diagnosed with cancer.
Thomas, a 6-7 junior forward, is Cincinnati’s leading returning scorer after averaging 6.8 points last season, but he still has not reached the potential the coaching staff sees in him. Thomas scored in double figures only once in the final 12 games of the season.
The Bearcats are hoping for immediate help from 6-10, 270-pound junior college transfer Coreontae DeBerry and 6-10 junior college transfer Octavius Ellis. The 6-10, 220-pound Ellis is the most intriguing of the newcomers because he began his career at Cincinnati in 2010, but was asked to leave after his involvement in a nightclub incident. He returns after earning All-America honors at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College, where he averaged 14.8 points and 9.7 rebounds last year. Ellis is one of four Cincinnati players who were suspended after the infamous fight against cross-town rival Xavier three years ago.
Jamaree Strickland, at 6-10, 270 pounds, will make his debut after being forced to sit out last year because the NCAA would not accept all of his high school courses.
Gary Clark, a 6-7 freshman, was a prolific scorer in high school, and 6-8, 230-pound forward Quadri Moore provides another physical player on the front line. Jermaine Sanders, a valuable player at times off the bench last year, is back for his senior year.
Cincinnati Bearcats Facts & Figures
Last season: 27-7, 15-3 AAC
Postseason: NCAA round of 64
Consecutive NCAA appearances: 4
Coach: Mick Cronin (162-107 at Cincinnati, 72-70 Big East/AAC)
AAC Projection: Fourth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
Ge’Lawn Guyn returns at point guard, but he’ll be pressed by sophomore Troy Caupain, who has better all-around skills and is more of a scoring threat. Deshaun Morman will make his debut after being redshirted last year due to a broken foot.
Sophomore Kevin Johnson hit some big shots in a reserve role as a freshman and could blossom into a consistent perimeter scoring threat. The Bearcats were not a great 3-point shooting team last year even with Kilpatrick in the backcourt, so they signed junior college transfer Farad Cobb, who averaged 15.1 points and shot 46.3 percent from beyond the arc last year at Northwest Florida Community College. Cobb began his career at Chattanooga.
Cincinnati has been on a nice run with four straight NCAA Tournament appearances and a 101–39 record during that span, but the Bearcats will have a much different look this year with a roster heavy on strong physical players on the front line.
If the Bearcats are going to make a fifth straight NCAA appearance, they’ll need a big boost from Caupain and incoming guard Cobb and hope that the front-line players blossom quickly.
With no proven returning scorer and so many untested players on their roster, it’s a stretch to predict that the Bearcats will win their second straight AAC title.
Guard Farad Cobb is being counted on to provide 3-point shooting. Deshaun Morman, who redshirted last year, will provide depth in the backcourt. Forward Coreontae DeBerry is a strong, physical player who should help right away. Center Octavius Ellis has two years of junior college experience and one year in the Cincinnati program. Jamaree Strickland is an unknown commodity after sitting out last year. Forward Gary Clark is a potential big-time scorer, and forward Quadri Moore will provide a physical presence up front.
When Kelvin Sampson tries to convince a high school prospect to play basketball for Houston, he’s probably not going to spend too much time talking about the glory days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
Three Final Fours, two Hall of Famers and one great team nickname (Phi Slama Jama) in a three-year period is a fine brag sheet — if Sampson could guarantee that these 18-year-old recruits would have any idea who he’s talking about.
“These kids think Michael Jordan is the guy on the Hanes commercial,” Sampson says.
He’s joking, maybe. But the sentiment still echoes what kind of an uphill battle Sampson might have at Houston with challenges he never had to face at Oklahoma and Indiana.
Like Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Sampson is re-starting his college head-coaching career after a detour spurred by NCAA sanctions. Sampson agreed to a buyout from Indiana in February 2008, weeks after the NCAA charged the coach with five major violations. Sampson was charged with making 100 impermissible phone calls to recruits and providing misleading information to investigators, all while he was under sanctions stemming from similar violations while at Oklahoma.
The NCAA penalized Sampson with a five-year show-cause that expired in 2013. The sanctions and the fallout that contributed to a 28–66 record in the ensuing three seasons at Indiana (under Tom Crean’s watch) would have made Sampson a tough sell for more high-profile programs, even if most of the phone call rules Sampson violated are no longer in place. Houston, instead, assumed the risk.
“He said the rules were the rules then, and he broke them and there’s no excuse,” Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades says. “He’s earned a second chance, no question. I think he’s going to make the most out of it.”
While Sampson’s history with the NCAA infractions committee was in question upon his return to the college game, his coaching credentials remain impressive. He reached the NCAA Tournament in 13 of his final full 14 seasons, dating back to his final year at Washington State.
He succeeded at two rebuilding projects early in his career, with Washington State (1987-94) and Division II Montana Tech (1981-85).
No doubt Sampson has rebuilding to do at Houston. The Cougars have had six head coaches, including Drexler himself, and no NCAA Tournament wins in four appearances since the Phi Slama Jama era ended in 1984. The challenge doesn’t seem to faze Sampson.
“I didn’t care about going back to the level I left,” he says.
But Sampson could have stayed at the level where he was. He spent six seasons as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets and interviewed for NBA head-coaching jobs. The allure of a return to college didn’t hit him until a conversation with his father in the final days before Ned Sampson’s death in February. Sampson’s return also gives him a chance to work with son Kellen, who joined Houston as an assistant after three seasons at Appalachian State.
“It’s been 30 years since (Houston) won an NCAA Tournament game,” Sampson says. “That’s what I needed. I needed a reclamation project. I needed something that required a lot of work and a lot of commitment.”
It will be hard work. Sampson is optimistic that Houston, with its recruiting base in the state of Texas, can make a move in the American Athletic Conference. The league contains defending national champion Connecticut, consistent programs in Memphis and Cincinnati and an in-state upstart in SMU. But after that, Houston is as good a bet to move up as any team in a league that includes UCF, South Florida, East Carolina and Tulane. Houston, at least, has a history those programs lack.
Sampson says he’s not interested in talking about the past — he’s referring to Olajuwon and Drexler, but he may as well be talking about himself.
The future to him is more pressing. Houston has hired a name coach, one that the Cougars wouldn’t have been able to lure if not for NCAA baggage, and the school has approved a $20 million practice facility.
“The school is a little bit of a have-not right now,” Sampson says. “Phi Slama Jama isn’t going to win any more games. A new practice facility will. A new arena will. Those are things we’re going to push for, and we’re going to push for them until they’re done.”
Larry Brown was already ahead of schedule at SMU, taking only two seasons to transform the moribund program. Twenty years removed from their last postseason appearance, the Mustangs last season won 27 games and advanced to the NIT title game.
So, Moody Madness had returned to the Hilltop before Mudiay Madness culminated in the loss of Brown’s most prized prospect. Emmanuel Mudiay, the nation’s No. 1 ranked point guard, announced in July that he would play professionally overseas.
With Mudiay, many early projections had the Mustangs in the top 10. Without him, they may still be the best team in the American Athletic Conference. They return most of the key players who posted four wins over ranked opponents, including a sweep of eventual national champion UConn.
Big man Markus Kennedy and point guard Nic Moore were among the best at their positions in the American. And transfers Justin Martin from Xavier and Jordan Tolbert from Texas Tech, both three-year players at their respective schools, figure to make a significant impact. They join a deep group of young players fighting for minutes.
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The Mustangs are a difficult team to play because they have a Hall of Fame coach who stresses defense. Turnovers set up fast breaks, and their halfcourt offense thrives on working the ball inside for high percentage shots. They are relentless on the boards, outrebounding all but 10 of their opponents. They look even stronger underneath with center Yanick Moreira healthy and the addition of established forwards Martin and Tolbert.
Kennedy’s confidence is high after averaging 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds and notching a team-high 44 blocked shots in his first season at SMU. He plays much larger than his 6-9 frame.
Moreira, the former junior college All-American, led the team in scoring, rebounding and minutes early last season but never returned to top form after having arthroscopic knee surgery. Unhappy with reduced minutes, he has plenty of motivation to display his shot-blocking and rebounding potential.
Senior post Cannen Cunningham’s playing time declined with Kennedy’s emergence, but Brown is determined to use Cunningham’s shooting and rebounding skills. Ben Moore was one of the team’s biggest surprises as a freshman, averaging 6.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in 14.8 minutes. The 6-8 forward has the athleticism to play virtually any position.
SMU Mustangs Facts & Figures
Last season: 27-10, 12-6 AAC
Last NCAA appearance: 1993
Coach: Larry Brown (42-27 at SMU, 17-17 CUSA/AAC)
AAC Projection: First
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 32
SMU led the conference in field goal percentage (48.3), but that figure was bolstered by second-chance points. Although the Mustangs shot 37.9 percent from beyond the arc, they lacked a pure outside shooter.
That role usually went to Moore, who kept the Ponies rolling in the NIT with game-winning baskets. Moore earned All-AAC first team honors, but he has no true point guard behind him. That’s one reason Mudiay would have been a great fit.
Thus, the pressure is on sophomore Keith Frazier to display the outside shooting that made him the first McDonald’s All-American SMU ever signed. With the loss of departing senior Nick Russell and Mudiay no longer in the picture, Frazier should improve with more minutes. He averaged 5.4 points in 14.8 minutes as a freshman.
Sterling Brown, the brother of NBA player Shannon Brown, and Ryan Manuel are diverse role players who can drive for layups, create scoring chances and draw fouls.
Although SMU’s Q-rating may suffer without Mudiay, Brown made the Mustangs relevant with their plus-12 turnaround in wins from 2012-13.
They are coming off a season in which they were ranked for the first time since 1985, posted the second-most wins in program history and set attendance records that included nine sellouts in renovated Moody Coliseum.
After finishing tied for third in the inaugural American Athletic Conference season, SMU will be shooting for a league title. It doesn’t hurt that Louisville has left for the ACC, and UConn and Cincinnati have big holes to fill.
Poised to make the NCAA Tournament, the Mustangs have last season’s snub to use as motivation. More important, they have even more depth than last year, when they averaged 25.6 points off the bench. They have eight players who averaged at least 12.9 minutes last season and two transfers who are potential starters.
Anything shy of a top two or three finish in the league and a trip to the
NCAA Tournament would be a disappointment.
Justin Martin, who played three seasons at Xavier, averaged 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds last season — second on the team in both categories. Jordan Tolbert played three seasons at Texas Tech, averaging 10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds while starting 91 games.
This time last year Josh Pastner had a backcourt some were describing as college basketball’s best thanks to the presence of four senior guards, all of whom had previously averaged double-figures in points at the Division I level. He was going to press and run and overwhelm opponents with talented veterans. And though Memphis did remain in the Associated Press Top 25 poll every week of the regular season, the truth is that none of the senior guards had what anybody would describe as a terrific season, and the Tigers failed to advance out of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year.
Those four senior guards are now gone.
The situation in the Memphis backcourt won’t be as dire as it could have been. The eligibility of Kedren Johnson, who transferred from Vanderbilt, gives Pastner one guard who has played at the Division I level. The news came only weeks before the first practice of the season. Johnson, who led the Commodores in scoring two seasons ago, was suspended for the 2013-14 season at Vanderbilt but received received a wavier to play this season after transferring to Memphis. His arrival can’t be understated as Memphis now has an experienced point guard to go with a solid frontcourt.
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What Memphis lacks in backcourt experience it makes up for in frountcourt experience (and talent) thanks to the return of Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols, a pair of forwards who both started a year ago. Goodwin, a junior, averaged 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds last season. Nichols, a sophomore, averaged 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds last season.
“We’re gonna play through them,” Pastner says. “They have to produce.”
Nick King will be given every opportunity to start at small forward. Is he a natural wing? No. But he’s just too talented to bury on the bench, and the only thing that’ll keep the 6-7 sophomore from playing 20-plus minutes per game is an inability to guard the position. Aware of this, King has been taking yoga classes to improve his flexibility and footwork in an attempt to improve his perimeter defense.
Memphis Tigers Facts & Figures
Last season: 24-10, 64-18 CUSA/AAC
Postseason: NCAA round of 32
Consecutive NCAA appearances: 4
Coach: Josh Pastner (130-44 at Memphis, 64-18 CUSA/AAC)
AAC Projection: Third
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
Before Johnson’s arrival, Memphis lacked any guard with experience on the Division I level. More than that, the Tigers lacked a natural point guard. The Vanderbilt transfer fills both of those gaps. Johnson led the Commodores in scoring 13.5 in 2012-13 before serving a year-long suspension for a “non-academic university policy.”
The rest of the backcourt may be a hodgepodge. Markel Crawford, Pookie Powell, Dominic Magee, Chris Hawkins and Avery Woodson are all talented in their own ways. But, again, none of them is experienced, none of them is a natural point guard, and Crawford and Powell haven’t played competitive basketball in two years. Crawford redshirted last season as he recovered from a torn ACL while Powell missed last season for academic reasons.
“There’s gonna be some mistakes made because they haven’t been in game situations,” Pastner says. “But I also think that we have guys who can do things with the ball and who are talented. So you don’t wanna box them in, either. You wanna allow them to have some creativity and make plays.”
Emmanuel Mudiay’s decision to sign a contract in China rather than play at SMU combined with significant personnel losses at UConn and Cincinnati combined with Louisville’s departure to the ACC gives Memphis a shot to compete at the top of the league again.
But it’s rare for an inexperienced backcourt to lead a team to the NCAA Tournament. So Memphis fans still holding on to the final five years of the John Calipari era would probably be wise to lower expectations, just a little. The future is still bright for the Tigers, undeniably. But this particular season could turn into a learning experience for all.
“We might have one or two plays and that’s it (at the start of the season),” Pastner says. “We just have to be as basic, as fundamental, as defensive-minded as possible, so that we can get things accomplished. We can’t get to step C if we haven’t accomplished step A, and we’ve gotta get to step B before we get to step C.”
Pookie Powell and Markel Crawford both essentially redshirted last season and project as possible starters in the backcourt while junior college transfers Trahson Burrell, Chris Hawkins and Avery Woodson are all capable of cracking the rotation. Dominic Magee is the only true freshman on scholarship. He’s a 6-3 guard who averaged 22.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.0 steals last season in high school.
Oregon took Ole Miss’ spot in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday, but a handful of teams may be gaining on a spot in the semifinals.
No. 4 Ole Miss’ loss to Auburn allowed the next three teams to move up a spot in the second top 25. The top three of Mississippi State followed by Florida State and Auburn stood pat at their spots from last week.
Those moves followed standard operating procedure for the traditional polls in which winning teams continue to move up as long as teams ahead of them lose.
Yet in other spots — most notably Arizona State’s move up the rankings — the committee appeared to follow its promise to start with “a clean sheet” each week.
Here’s how the second top 25 shook out, followed by our observations.
|College Football Playoff Rankings: Nov. 4|
|1. Mississippi State||10. Notre Dame||18. UCLA|
|2. Florida State||11. Ole Miss||19. Arizona|
|3. Auburn||12. Baylor||20. Georgia|
|4. Oregon||13. Nebraska||21. Clemson|
|5. Alabama||14. Ohio State||22. Duke|
|6. TCU||15. Oklahoma||23. West Virginia|
|7. Kansas State||16. LSU||24. Georgia Tech|
|8. Michigan State||17. Utah||25. Wisconsin|
|9. Arizona State|
Oregon moves into the top four
With No. 4 Ole Miss’ loss to Auburn, some team was likely to move into the top four spots. The next three teams from last week’s rankings (Oregon, Alabama and TCU) all moved up a spot. The Ducks’ thrashing of Stanford’s defense for a 45-16 win helped, but selection committee chair Jeff Long noted wins over No. 8 Michigan State and No 18 UCLA helping Oregon’s cause.
Alabama “very close”
No. 5 Alabama may be the impact team for the final weeks of the season. The top three of Mississippi State, Florida State and Auburn were solidly in place, Long said, but the placement of the Tide, Oregon and TCU was a matter of question. Where Oregon’s quality wins gave the Ducks the edge for the No. 4 spot, Long said the selection committee used film study to give Alabama an edge this week over TCU. The Tide have one top 25 win (West Virginia) combined to TCU’s two (Oklahoma, West Virginia).
On a conference call with reporters after ESPN’s rankings show, Long clarified a comment that “misrepresented” that the committee evaluated game film as a group. Long said the committee evaluated film prior to meeting, not during the rankings meeting this week in Dallas.
Who Shouldn’t Worry:
TCU, Kansas State and Baylor
The No. 6 Horned Frogs and No. 7 Wildcats meet this week in a critical game that could vault the winner closer to the playoff mix. Both teams could claim a better signature win than Alabama (Oklahoma for both) but continued to lag behind the Tide. Long reiterated that conference champions would play a role in the final selection. Only one SEC West team can win the division, much less the conference. That leaves the Big 12’s three one-loss teams feeling like they control their own destiny.
Who Should be Pleasantly Surprised
Just before facing Notre Dame this week, the Sun Devils enjoyed a major jump from No. 14 to No. 9, leapfrogging the Irish. That’s good news for Arizona State, but some of Long’s reasoning was puzzling. He noted a common opponent for Arizona State and Notre Dame (Stanford). Arizona State beat Stanford 26-10 and Notre Dame beat the Cardinal 17-14 on its final possession of the game. But both of those games were weeks ago. Arizona State needed overtime to defeat Utah, which stood pat at No. 17.
Who Should Worry:
Group of 5 teams
With East Carolina’s loss to Temple, the two-loss Pirates slipped out of the top 25. That left the American, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt out of the top 25. One of the champions of those leagues is guaranteed a spot in the major New Year’s holiday bowls, but there’s no indication of the leader at this point. The contenders may be undefeated Marshall, Colorado State, Boise State or even a two-loss ECU.
If the Season Ended Today:
Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Mississippi State vs. No. 4 Oregon
Rose Bowl: No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 3 Auburn
Other bowls (projected)
Cotton: No. 6 TCU vs. No. 10 Notre Dame
Fiesta: No. 7 Kansas State vs. No. 9 Arizona State
Orange: No. 21 Clemson^ vs. No. 8 Michigan State
Peach: Marshall* vs. No. 5 Alabama
*automatic Group of 5 bid
^automatic ACC bid to Orange Bowl
In case you had any lingering doubts about whether Jason Kidd’s exit from his post as coach of the Brooklyn Nets was amicable, erase them: It wasn’t. Nets owner and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov made that clear when he shared these words Monday:
The largely mysterious man, recently rumored to be shopping his NBA team around, made a rare appearance before the media before his team’s nice 116-85 home victory against the undermanned Oklahoma City Thunder. Prokhorov also said that his team losing $144 million last season is “no big deal.”
Prokhorov said, despite recent talks, that he’s not giving up majority control of his team. That probably has a lot to do with the league’s new TV $24 billion deal, which ensures that an NBA team is just about the soundest, most lucrative investment a man of Prokhorov’s funds can buy or hold onto these days.
For now, these Nets likely remain a bit hamstrung in the Eastern Conference standings, as some irrational exuberance on Prokhorov’s and general manager Billy King’s part has sunk them into a hole of repeater tax salary cap penalties. Those snags might not make much difference in Prokhorov’s bottom business line, but they do kill the market flexibility required to make the shift into a true contender. The Nets will have to wait a while before making real improvements to their roster.
Quotable as he is, Nets fans better hope their owner is also measured and patient enough to let the long, complex process of team-building take place.
— John Wilmes
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Nov. 4:
• Johnny Football is on the cover of Golf Digest, proving that they've run out of cover options. I preferred Paulina Gretzky.
• Rookie Marcus Smart is already an Oscar-worthy flopper. They learn fast, don't they?
• Touching story of a 7-year-old who reached out to Laquon Treadwell, his favorite player.
• Interesting partisan divide: Football participation is declining in blue states.
• Alaska voters: Do you really want to elect a guy who can't shred on a snow machine?
• Here's an unusual sentence for you: The Tiger Woods of poker is starting a medical marijuana business in Vegas.
• Proof that running long distances is stupid: Marathoners try to walk down some stairs after the race.
• Mad Bum made a visit to Fallon last night.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at email@example.com
Mississippi State will wear alternate uniforms for its Nov. 29 showdown against rival Ole Miss.
The alternate Egg Bowl uniforms feature gold numbers, and the helmets feature gold trim around the Mississippi State logo.
Considering the success of Mississippi State and Ole Miss this year, the 2014 Egg Bowl should be an intriguing matchup.
Check out Mississippi State's alternate uniforms for the Egg Bowl:
Mississippi State helmet for Egg Bowl pic.twitter.com/veCDJMgVoR— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) November 4, 2014
Hearing Carmelo Anthony fess up to "bad energy” during the New York Knicks 2013-14 season is like hearing the devil tell you he's not looking out for your best interests. In other words: Duh.
"I think just overall, not pointing anything out, but just overall from day one last year the energy was just not right," Anthony told reporters after a Knicks practice on Monday. "This year, you could just feel the total difference stepping into this gym, talking to guys, talking to the staff, talking to the players. Everybody has a newfound energy so it's just a lot different now.”
Watching New York last year felt a lot more like social work than entertainment. Their brand of sloppy, misdirected basketball, and total lack of effective communication, became a comedy of errors that was hard to watch. This Andrea Bargnani clip just about summed things up:
But with Phil Jackson taking over and bringing in coach Derek Fisher, the new-look Knicks are a different story. Despite having some obvious deficiencies on their roster, they’re a well-organized outfit with some definite strengths. Between Anthony, J.R. Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tim Hardaway, Jr., they aren’t lacking for shotmakers. Even if they can’t guard a broom without Tyson Chandler, who’s now back with the Dallas Mavericks.
Off a 2-1 start, the Knicks have playoff potential. They’re certainly a few major pieces away from championship contention, but the rehabilitated ethos of the franchise — in addition to the zen master’s nearly unparalleled record of success — suggests Jackson is the man to develop, sign, or trade for those additions. And Knicks fans should feel doubly encouraged by his proactive transparency, documented in the recent scouting report he released on his own team.
Up next for the Knicks are John Wall, Paul Pierce and the nasty Washington Wizards, who roll into Madison Square Garden at 7:30 PM ET tonight.
(h/t to ESPN's Ian Begley for the Anthony quote)
— John Wilmes
Road wins never come easy, but TCU found a way past West Virginia last weekend and moved back into the Legends Poll Top 8. Kicker Jaden Oberkrom booted one through the uprights as time expired, helping the seventh-ranked Horned Frogs knock off West Virginia, 31-30. TCU became the only Big 12 team in the top 8. The top 6 in the rankings remained unchanged.
No. 1 Mississippi State held off an upset bid from Arkansas, 17-10, as the Hogs search for their first SEC win under Bret Bielema.
Second-ranked Florida State overcame a 21-point deficit — the largest comeback in school history — to beat Louisville, 42-31.
And No. 4 Auburn pulled off another stunning victory against Ole Miss, forcing two fumbles inside the five-yard line in the fourth quarter.
No. 3 Alabama was idle but faces a tough test at LSU this coming weekend.
No. 5 Oregon exorcised its demons against Stanford in an impressive 45-16 rout.
And idle Michigan State remained at No. 6.
No. 8 Notre Dame moved down a spot after a tough victory in Washington DC over Navy. Ole Miss dropped from the rankings.
|1||Mississippi State (10)||8-0||100||1|
|2||Florida State (1)||8-0||84||2|
College football’s playoff committee released its first set of rankings last Tuesday. While the top 25 rankings are expected to change each week and will look drastically different from the release of the first poll to the last one, the playoff committee's poll provided some insight into the process.
Each week, Athlon Sports hopes to replicate the playoff committee’s work by asking some of college football’s top media members to vote on their top eight teams. This poll will attempt to project how the playoff picture stacks up after each week until the end of the year.
Bobby Bowden (@TheBobbyBowden), Legends Poll
Gene Stallings, (@LegendsPoll), Legends Poll
Don Nehlen (@LegendsPoll), Legends Poll
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Athlon Sports
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), Athlon Sports
Zac Ellis (@ZacEllis), Sports Illustrated
David Fox (@DavidFox615), Athlon Sports
Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com
Teddy Mitrosilis (@TMitrosilis), Fox Sports
Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey), SBNation.com
Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB), SportsonEarth.com
Rich Cirminiello (@RichCirminiello), Campus Insiders
Brad Crawford (@BCrawfordSDS), SaturdayDownSouth.com
Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism), BlatantHomerism.com
Chris Anderson (@CMAnderson247), Eersports.com
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45), CFBHuddle.com
Adam Powell (@ACCSports), ACCSports.com
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch) Athlon Sports
Josh Ward (@Josh_Ward), MrSEC.com
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR), Athlon Sports
Post-Week 10 Playoff Projection
Takeaways From Expert Poll Results
* For the third week in a row, Mississippi State and Florida State rank as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the playoff projection.
* However, the Bulldogs’ grip on the No. 1 spot slipped after a close win over Arkansas. The Bulldogs edged Florida State 163 to 149 after Week 9, and the gap closed to 153 to 149 following Week 10.
* Auburn was a big winner in this week’s playoff projection. The Tigers moved from No. 5 to No. 3 after a victory over Ole Miss and rank just 28 points behind Florida State for the No. 2 spot.
* Oregon and Alabama tied for the No. 4 spot in this week’s vote. The Crimson Tide received a first and second-place vote, while the Ducks did not receive a vote higher than third.
* The committee has identified a clear top five: Mississippi State, Florida State, Auburn, Alabama and Oregon. After the top five is where things get interesting. TCU ranks No. 6 with 50 points, while Michigan State is No. 7 at 42 points. Those two teams will have a chance to climb in the rankings with key conference matchups in Week 11.
* Arizona State received a vote in a playoff projection poll for the first time in 2014.
* The SEC has four teams in the top 12. The Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 are tied for second in conference hierarchy with two teams making an appearance in the committee’s rankings.
Group of 5 Rankings
The Thundering Herd was the biggest beneficiary of East Carolina’s loss to Temple. Marshall moves to the No. 1 spot in the Group of 5 rankings and will be a heavy favorite in each of its four remaining regular season games. The Thundering Herd travels to Southern Miss this Saturday and hosts defending C-USA champion Rice on Nov. 15. Marshall’s strength of schedule won’t do it any favors, but it has won all eight games by at least 15 points.
2. Boise State
There’s very little separation among the Group of 5 teams, and Boise State seems to have the best opportunity to pass Marshall for the No. 1 spot over the next few weeks. The Broncos play at New Mexico this Saturday, followed by a home date against San Diego State on Nov. 15. Strength of schedule is on Boise State’s side. However, can the two-loss Broncos pass an unbeaten Marshall?
3. Colorado State
The nation has started to take notice of coach Jim McElwain’s team, but the Rams need help to claim the Group of 5 bowl spot. With a head-to-head loss to Boise State, Colorado State is on the outside – for now. Conference champions are only eligible for the Group of 5 bowl spot, so the Rams need a loss by the Broncos in one of their four remaining conference games to have a shot at the Mountain West title.
4. East Carolina
The Pirates dropped from No. 1 to No. 4 on this list after their Week 10 loss to Temple. East Carolina is now one of five teams tied at 3-1 in American Athletic Conference play and needs a lot of help to get back into the conversation for a spot in a New Year’s Bowl.
Houston, Cincinnati, Memphis, UCF, Temple or Nevada each deserves consideration for the No. 5 ranking on this list. The Bearcats get a slight edge over the other five teams mentioned, largely due to the upcoming schedule. Cincinnati still has to play East Carolina, Temple and Houston. It’s a longshot, but Tommy Tuberville’s team still has a chance – with a lot of help – to claim the Group of 5 bowl spot.
Key Games With Playoff/Bowl Implications in Week 11
Georgia at Kentucky
Noon ET, ESPN
Bulldogs no longer in control of East Division, but coach Mark Richt’s team needs to win in order to keep the pressure on Missouri.
Baylor at Oklahoma
Noon ET, Fox Sports 1
This game was slated to be the must-see matchup in the Big 12 this preseason but has lost a little luster with a combined three losses between these two teams.
Notre Dame at Arizona State
3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
An intriguing (and rare) non-conference game in November. Fighting Irish need to an impressive win to move up in the playoff committee rankings, while the Sun Devils have emerged as the favorite in the Pac-12 South.
Virginia at Florida State
6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Seminoles lost their last meeting (2011) against Virginia, but barring a huge letdown by Florida State, this one shouldn’t be close. Coach Jimbo Fisher’s team has one more tune-up before a showdown against in-state rival Miami.
UCLA at Washington
7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
Myles Jack (UCLA) and Shaq Thompson (Washington) are two of the nation’s most-versatile players and will garner plenty of attention on Saturday night. This one is critical to UCLA’s South Division title hopes, as the Bruins need to win to keep the pressure on Arizona State.
Boise State at New Mexico
7 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
With East Carolina’s loss, the door is open for Marshall, Boise State and Colorado State for the Group of 5 spot in a New Year’s Bowl. The Broncos nearly lost (32-29) in their last trip to Albuquerque.
Hawaii at Colorado State
7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Rams are dealing with injuries to quarterback Garrett Grayson and receiver Rashard Higgins, but even if both players are limited, it probably won’t matter against a struggling Hawaii team.
Louisville at Boston College
7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Cardinals gave Florida State all it could handle last week but fell short after a second-half rally by the Seminoles. Louisville needs a win in Chestnut Hill to keep its Orange Bowl hopes alive.
Kansas State at TCU
7:30 p.m. ET, FOX
This game marks the first of three tough road trips for Kansas State for the remainder of the regular season: at TCU, at West Virginia and at Baylor. And this game should go a long ways to determining the Big 12 champion, especially since the Horned Frogs will be heavy favorites to win each of their final three games: at Kansas, at Texas and Iowa State.
Alabama at LSU
8 p.m. ET, CBS
The annual matchup between the Tigers and Crimson Tide is usually one of the SEC’s marquee games each year. There’s no shortage of talent on either roster, and three out of the last five matchups were decided by four points or less. Alabama is on the playoff bubble in our committee rankings, but Nick Saban’s team has the schedule to make a move in November: at LSU and home games against Auburn and Mississippi State.
Ohio State at Michigan State
8 p.m. ET, ABC
This matchup is easily the biggest game of the year in the Big Ten and has major playoff implications. The last four meetings are split at two victories apiece, while two of the last three games were decided by three points or less.
Oregon at Utah
10 p.m. ET, ESPN
A letdown concern for Oregon? The Ducks put a lot into last week’s game against Stanford and now travel to take on a dangerous Utah team. The Utes’ defense will be a good test for Oregon quarterback (and Heisman favorite) Marcus Mariota.
With 10 weeks in the books, college football’s bowl and national title picture is starting to clear. The playoff committee will release its second set of rankings on Tuesday this week, which should give fans, coaches and players a better idea of what the committee values heading into the last few weeks of the season.
The new playoff format has added a new layer of intrigue, as four teams – instead of two – will have a shot at the national championship once the bowl pairings are announced in early December.
With 10 weeks are in the books, it’s never too early to start looking at what the bowl picture might hold for each conference and team this year. The post-Week 10 bowl projections are a mixture between picks for the next few weeks, how things would look if the season ended today, and the results from the first nine weeks of action. Expect several changes over the next few weeks.
Teams on the projection bubble: Oregon State, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Wyoming, Texas State, Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas, San Jose State and Northwestern. Remember: It’s only Week 10. Several changes are coming, and it’s impossible to project all of the wins and losses the rest of the way considering how much changes week-to-week in college football.
College Football's Post-Week 10 Bowl Projections
|New Orleans||Dec. 20||Sun Belt vs.|
| UL Lafayette vs. |
|New Mexico||Dec. 20||C-USA vs. |
| UTEP vs.|
|Las Vegas||Dec. 20||Mountain West vs.|
| Boise State vs.|
|Famous Idaho Potato||Dec. 20||MAC vs.|
| Bowling Green vs.|
|Camellia||Dec. 20||MAC vs. |
| Akron vs.|
|Miami Beach||Dec. 22||American vs. |
| East Carolina vs.|
|Boca Raton||Dec. 23||C-USA vs.|
| UAB vs.|
|Poinsettia||Dec. 23||Mountain West vs.|
|Colorado State vs.|
|Bahamas||Dec. 24||C-USA vs. |
| MTSU vs.|
|Hawaii||Dec. 24||C-USA vs.|
| Western Kentucky vs.|
San Diego State
|Heart of Dallas||Dec. 26||Big Ten vs.|
| Rutgers vs.|
|Quick Lane||Dec. 26||ACC vs.|
| Virginia Tech vs.|
|St. Petersburg||Dec. 26||ACC vs.|
| California* vs.|
| Pittsburgh vs.|
|Sun||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| Louisville vs.|
|Independence||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| NC State vs.|
|Pinstripe||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| Boston College vs. |
|Holiday||Dec. 27||Big Ten vs.|
| Wisconsin vs.|
|Liberty||Dec. 29||SEC vs. |
| Tennessee vs.|
|Russell Athletic||Dec. 29||ACC vs.|
| Duke vs.|
|Texas||Dec. 29||Big 12 vs.|
| Oklahoma State vs.|
|Music City||Dec. 30||ACC/Big Ten vs.|
| Iowa vs.|
|Belk||Dec. 30||ACC vs. |
| Georgia Tech vs.|
|San Francisco||Dec. 30||Big Ten vs.|
| Maryland vs.|
|Outback||Jan. 1||Big Ten vs.|
| Nebraska vs.|
|Citrus||Jan. 1||Big Ten/ACC vs.|
| Ohio State vs.|
|Armed Forces||Jan. 2||American vs.|
| Houston vs.|
|Taxslayer||Jan. 2||ACC/Big Ten vs.|
| Miami vs.|
|Alamo||Jan. 2||Big 12 vs.|
| Baylor vs.|
|Cactus||Jan. 2||Big 12 vs.|
| Memphis* vs.|
|Birmingham||Jan. 3||American vs.|
|GoDaddy||Jan. 4||MAC vs.|
| Toledo vs.|
|New Year's Bowls|
|Peach||Dec. 31||At-large vs.|
| Marshall vs.|
|Fiesta||Dec. 31||At-large vs.|
| Kansas State vs.|
|Orange||Dec. 31||ACC vs. |
| Clemson vs.|
|Cotton||Jan. 1||At-large vs.|
| TCU vs. |
|Related: Projecting the Playoff Teams After Week 10|
| Florida State vs.|
| Mississippi State vs.|
|National Title||Jan. 12||Semifinal Winner vs.|
Mississippi State vs.
* Indicates an at-large selection. Conference not projected to have enough bowl-eligible teams to fulfill the conference alignment.
Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from around the weekend of Pac-12 football action:
68: Brett Hundley career TD passes
Up by just three points late in the third quarter, Brett Hundley found Jordan Payton streaking down the sideline for a 70-yard touchdown that put the game on ice for UCLA. It was Hundley’s 68th career touchdown pass, tying Cade McNown’s all-time school record. More impressively (or concerning), other than that throw, Hundley was 18-of-25 for 119 yards against Arizona.
Nov. 3, 2012: Last time UCLA allowed less than 300 yards or 4.0 yards per play
Maybe Jim Mora just has Rich Rodriguez’s number? Hundley was solid but it was the Bruins' defense that deserves the headlines after the win over Arizona. It allowed just 255 yards and 3.2 yards per play to the usually productive Wildcats. It marks the first time UCLA has allowed fewer than 300 yards of offense or less than 4.0 yards per play since a 66-10 win over the same Wildcats on Nov. 3, 2012 (257 and 3.7). Both the 255 and 3.2 were low-water marks for RichRod since coming to Tucson.
30: Anu Solomon incompletions
Coming into the UCLA game, Anu Solomon was likely leading the National Freshman of the Year race by averaging 347.1 yards per game. A big part of how UCLA took Arizona down was confusing the young Wildcats quarterback. Solomon had been completing more than 63 percent of his passes this year until facing the Bruins. He completed just 18 of his 48 passes — or just 37.5 percent — in the loss to UCLA.
205: Oregon yards rushing improvement from last year
In the 26-20 upset in Palo Alto last season, Stanford held Oregon to just 62 yards rushing. In the easy and impressive 45-16 win over the Cardinal in Week 10, the Ducks rushed for 267 yards — or 205 more than they did last year. The 525 yards of total offense and 45 points allowed are the most allowed by Stanford since Arizona rolled up 617 and 48 on Oct. 6, 2012. It sets up Oregon for a Pac-12 North Division crown and a potential College Football Playoff berth.
123.23: Taylor Kelly’s passer rating since returning
Arizona State is in control of the Pac-12 South and 2-0 since Kelly returned. However, Kelly is still clearly knocking the dust off after missing three games. He’s completed 32-of-57 passes (56 percent) for 385 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in two wins for a passer rating of 123.23. For the record, the 123.23 rating would be 13th in the Pac-12 this season.
Listen to the Week 10 recap podcast:
273: Arizona St yards per game allowed in last three
After allowing 62 points, 580 yards and 10.0 yards per play in a home loss to UCLA, Arizona State has put the clamps down. Over the last three games — all wins over Stanford, Washington and Utah — Arizona State has allowed just 273 yards per game and just 3.9 yards per play. A defense that was totally rebuilt to start the year has blossomed into one of the more improved units from Week 1 until today. The Sun Devils held Utah to 241 yards on 74 offensive snaps (3.3 ypp).
12.6: Shaq Thompson's yards per touch against Colorado
Chris Petersen needs some offense and Thompson has been the answer. The star linebacker rushed 15 times for 174 yards and a touchdown while catching two passes for 41 yards in the road win over Colorado. For the game, Thompson touched the ball 17 times for 215 yards for a per touch average of 12.6 yards. For the year, he has 412 yards from scrimmage on 49 touches for 8.4 yards per touch.
323.1: Connor Halliday's career yards per game
In one of the sadder stories in college football this weekend, Washington State lost quarterback Connor Halliday for the season and his career with a broken leg. He was averaging 479.1 yards per game entering Week 10 and, had he kept that up, he would have surpassed B.J. Symons for the NCAA single-season passing record. For his career, Halliday will finish with 11,308 yards passing and 90 touchdowns in just 35 games for a per game career average of 323.1 yards passing per game.
12,454: Sean Mannion's Pac-12-best career passing yards
Move over Matt Barkley, there is a new all-time leading passer in Pac-12 history and his team lost to Cal by two touchdowns on Saturday. Sean Mannion has had a difficult season but his 320 yards against the Golden Bears gives him 12,454 yards passing for his career. That number is the best in Pac-12 history, edging Barkley’s record of 12,327.
23-12: Pac-12 road record in league games
This stat might just sit at the bottom of this column for the rest of the season, as the number is starting to become more and more impressive with each passing week. Road teams in the league went 3-3 in Week 10, as Washington (Colorado), Cal (Oregon State) and USC (Washington State) all won as the visiting team. It’s going to be a fascinating metric to track until the end of the year.
CNN. ESPN. Good Morning America. Everywhere you turn this month, NASCAR has jumped to the front page of the news cycle as emotional outbursts have produced two-minute YouTube clips that cause millions of potential fans to pay attention. Don’t confuse it with the Jerry Springer Show; these men were clearly meant to drive, not box, as evidenced by 42-year-old Matt Kenseth’s recent headlock that looked more like playground roughhousing than grown men attempting Friday Night Fights. However, the way in which drivers have gone busy pulling their hair out has been enough to make waves, with catfights crawling NASCAR to at least a temporary share of the sports news cycle with that elephant otherwise known as the NFL.
Up to now those incidents, like the Charlotte pushing-and-shoving between Brad Keselowski and Kenseth, have had limited impact. But Sunday night’s post-race brawl at Texas, where 43-year-old Jeff Gordon left with a bruised upper lip and Keselowski can be seen taking punches, have resulted in high-end visuals posted everywhere from Instagram to some random dude’s Twitter account is causing a whole lot of water cooler talk. A lot of people are busy shaking their heads, gathering information while wondering, “What’s going on? Why is everyone in this sport going crazy … and should I turn on the television to watch the madness?”
Gordon and Keselowski will tell you it’s idiotic emotion runneth over in no uncertain terms, with each driver blaming the other, Judge Judy style. Calling Keselowski a “dipshit” on national television is out of character for Gordon, a four-time champ, but after all it was his car sitting 29th after contact on the penultimate restart that sent him tumbling from the front row into a Texas tailspin. In contrast, Keselowski kept his cool after the race, playing the role of punching bag before calmly explaining his style of racing is derived from role models Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Ayrton Senna, each one of the world’s best. Both, he claimed, did whatever it took to win — and to take this Chase title, you’ve got to make the most of any opening, even if it means bumping fenders and grinding sheet metal, which in this case turned Gordon’s tire into junk.
“A little bit of rubbing is how this sport was created,” he said, using a third-place finish to climb his way back into the title conversation. “And probably how it should move forward. The sport, specifically the driving corps, is stuck in the year 1999, 2000. They race differently than that. That’s their right. But what they want me to be is a loser, and I’m not here to lose.
“I am doing everything I can to win this championship, racing at 100 percent, and that is something I am not going to be ashamed for.”
Quick summary from Keselowski: I need to be aggressive, Gordon wants everyone to play nice, that’s not what the fans want (read: it’s driving them away) nor is it a method where I wind up in Victory Lane. So I’m going to bump the living daylights out of you. Understood? Great. Now let me rough you up on track and hope your own “play nice” moral code keeps you from wrecking me back. Hey, it worked for Earnhardt …
So is Keselowski’s philosophy right? Is slamming sheet metal — regardless of outcome — what’s needed to bring NASCAR a brand new fan base? Depends on who you ask; 43 teams are quickly developing 43 versions of how to treat each other during this Chase. With how you cross the line a moving target, drivers and crewmembers can only agree on just one running theme: NASCAR’s new playoff format has driven the title contenders crazy.
“It’s being played rough,” said Sunday’s runner-up finisher, Kevin Harvick, who also earned the title of “riot instigator” after a simple shove to get Keselowski’s attention after the race. “It’s one of those deals where everybody is trying to get everything they can.”
“There wasn’t a lot of respect out there,” added Chaser Ryan Newman, who survived his own four-wide contact with Kenseth, a tire rub and near-wrecking in traffic to come home 15th. “We saw that before, during, and after the race.”
Clearly, no one’s playing nice anymore, a philosophy that will invoke some sort of emotion from the fans after far too many races this decade have left them falling asleep. How that’ll impact ratings — whether it will cause more hysteria then hatred — is a bit of a mystery. All you can say for certain is with more emotion during this Chase than any other and the final outcome in doubt every lap, it tells me NASCAR will keep this format, clinging to it stubbornly no matter how much the actual ratings decline.
Honestly, with an explosive ending on tap in Homestead, Fla., I think things are poised to get better, not worse. Sports are entertainment after all, and the drama of “good vs. evil” is a much better storyline to hook people than “nice vs. politically correct.” Just ask the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, one of sport’s most righteous yet least popular champions; the NFL, whose sport is derived from people knocking the crap out of one another; or Jimmie Johnson, whose clean-cut image has been synonymous with stock car racing’s decline. It’s a pattern sports fans struggle to admit to but whose cycle clearly repeats itself. Isn’t the NFL doing just fine despite ignorance regarding both domestic violence and on-field head trauma?
NASCAR, whose product and politics have combined to put the sport in peril, is simply saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” To earn the loyalty of the ADD generation, the sanctioning body don’t care about professional respect inside the garage, it just needs to grab peoples’ attention. A four-hour, mostly awful 500-mile race at Texas looks awesome if you see the final 50 laps, two minutes of madness post-race, and the perfect mix of sound bites.
It’s enough to make anyone stop and look. Will the final two weeks of competition, (hopefully) leading to a deserving champion, be enough to have them taking a seat? The future of the sport, gambled heavily on this latest iteration of the Chase, likely depends on it. For better or worse, Brian France’s legacy stands before us: frantic double-file restarts, engineered “Game 7” moments and a ripoff of the Jerry Springer Show.
Wonder what Earnhardt and Senna would think of that?
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: What happens now?
Take a deep breath and let the dust settle from NASCAR’s biggest brawl in ages. Here’s what we have on paper now heading to Phoenix: the difference between first and eighth in the Cup Series standings is just 18 points. Harvick and Keselowski, once thought to be in “must-win” situations could easily make the final cut, leaping from eighth to fourth with solid, top-5 performances. Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, tied for the top spot, could slip out with one bad pit stop. It’s a jumbled mess, with no guarantees and a lot of drivers breathing new life.
“A lot happened at the end of this race,” said Harvick, “And we were able to put ourselves back in the hunt.”
A lot? That would be the understatement of the year. Consider that at Texas’ halfway point, Gordon, Kenseth, Logano, Ryan Newman and Harvick were sitting pretty in second through sixth on the pylon. Had the race ended that way — without a record 13 caution flags — there would be a clear separation between top and bottom four. Gordon, Kenseth, Newman and Logano would be on cruise control this week while Hamlin, Harvick, Keselowski and Carl Edwards could have been forced into “win-at-all-costs” mode.
Now, a jumbled series of results leaves everyone with a potential path into the Chase. Add in some ugly emotions from Sunday night’s fight and Phoenix just got more unpredictable than ever.
“We are just going to take this fire that’s inside of us and this momentum,” claimed Gordon. “And we are going to take to Phoenix and win that race.”
What’s unknown is whether Gordon will be fined or docked points for his post-race cuss word on national television along with his role in sparking Sunday’s brouhaha. Penalties won’t be announced until Tuesday at the earliest and could involve anyone from Keselowski to Harvick to even a crewman from Kasey Kahne’s team who was not involved yet inexplicably jumped in the fracas to throw some sucker punches. The last few weeks, NASCAR has been letting most of the post-race fireworks slide, refusing to take away points and resorting to nothing more than fines and probations. My gut says that’s what it’ll do this time, siding with national attention rather than regulating emotions that are bordering on out of control. The sport’s VP on rules, Robin Pemberton, said they’ll look over everything and that “throwing a punch” is what’s over the line. But there’s ways around that definition and it’s unlikely they’ll let a title spot be decided over fisticuffs and/or swearing, like the 25-point deduction for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Victory Lane interview at Talladega a decade ago.
SECOND GEAR: The other side of NASCAR gone crazy: Debris.
Lost in the madness of Sunday’s finish was an inexplicable seven straight cautions for nothing more than debris on the racetrack. While a few of those could be condoned — with drivers like Josh Wise and Kyle Busch smacking the wall shortly before each yellow was thrown — it seemed to be a whole lot of bunching up the field for, well, nothing. Texas had high speeds but a high amount of single-file racing, tires not falling off enough to the point NASCAR officials were seeking any excuse to bunch up the field. The double-file restarts in the end caused their intended chaos but also wreaked of a little manipulation, while teams ran out of tires because of so many yellow-flag stoppages. The endgame scramble resulted in mistakes, like Logano’s team missing lugnuts during a pit stop and several teams switching to scuffs (i.e., used tires) with disastrous results.
“It’s kind of a sad situation when you run out of tires like that,” explained Newman after the race. “I wish NASCAR had given us more tires. When they keep throwing cautions like that that were totally unnecessary, and there’s not debris on the racetrack and no reason to throw it … we need to keep racing. It’s sad to see but that’s the way they’ve been playing it.”
Such outward criticism of NASCAR officials is rare these days and could result in a fine for Newman. But a lot of drivers and fans feel the same way which makes you wonder how Homestead will be handled in two weeks. Could a late, unnecessary “judgment caution” be called for a hot dog wrapper sitting in the middle of the backstretch? Will 36 races and nine months come down to which lane you choose on a green-white-checker finish on a restart? That doesn’t sound like the right way to decide a title, but it’s entirely possible the way things are heading under this format.
THIRD GEAR: Oh, and Jimmie won the race
In the midst of all the chaos, a familiar face straightened out a Chase gone wrong. Jimmie Johnson simply dominated, leading 191 of 341 laps in earning his third straight Texas victory in the fall race. The No. 48 was simply unstoppable, credited to a Homestead test this week where the duo of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus finally found the speed they’d been lacking.
“We really got our car under me like I look for and what I need,” said Johnson. “We brought all those things here, qualified third and won the race. We are back on track. Unfortunately, we didn’t find this stuff a month or two ago but that is the way racing goes.”
Johnson, with a stellar track record at Phoenix could now be counted on to play spoiler down the stretch. If anything, their sudden burst of speed could be helpful to the lone Hendrick Motorsports driver remaining in the Chase, Gordon, who’s earned an average finish of 25.3 in the last three Phoenix fall events.
FOURTH GEAR: A future force to be reckoned with?
Sunday marked the debut of Tony Gibson on top of the pit box for Kurt Busch. After serving as Danica Patrick’s mastermind, for the better part of two years in Cup the head wrench, who has years of valuable experience, immediately brought a spark to the No. 41. Busch qualified fourth, was competitive all day (leading 15 laps) and finished a strong eighth.
“A great first day,” said Busch. “I love the team; I love the guys. We are going to be good. We just have to work out the details.”
Compare that to Danica Patrick who is now paired with Busch’s former crew chief Daniel Knost. The No. 10 team suffered through a Texas nightmare. Outside the top 30 for much of the event, she eventually wrecked the car, losing nine laps and struggled to 36th. It’s the third straight crash for a driver who’s suddenly forced to take a step back while Stewart-Haas Racing refocuses on Busch, sponsored by co-owner Gene Haas’ company Haas Automation. Looks like it pays to get backed by the right people.
Kyle Busch, who was fourth Sunday, nearly pulled off a Texas trifecta after winning both the Truck and Nationwide series races over the course of the weekend. Busch now has a NASCAR record 70 Nationwide Series victories and earned the 100th for parent company Joe Gibbs Racing. … Elliott Sadler’s move to Roush Fenway Racing in the Nationwide Series beginning in 2015 has some Sprint Cup implications. RFR would eventually like to expand back to four cars at the premier level and sponsor OneMain Financial has the cash reserves to move up over time. It was the right move for Sadler, whose tenure at JGR never resulted in a promotion to its new Cup ride. That goes to Carl Edwards beginning in 2015. … Qualifying speeds of over 200 mph at Texas are a clear indicator that these cars are simply running too fast. NASCAR is looking to slow them down with a new rules package, hoping slower speeds might lead to sustained side-by-side competition.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
“We love the guys we have in the program,” Kruger says. “They’re a group that is easy to watch and fun to cheer for from a Sooner fan perspective.”
And it’s a group that’s contributed to steady progress, with four starters returning, including leading scorer Buddy Hield, from last season’s 23–10 squad that finished second in the Big 12.
Still, true progress is measured in NCAA Tournament wins. And while OU has earned its way into the bracket the past two years, they’ve exited quickly, sticking around for just one game each time.
“I like where we’re at,” Kruger says. “Always like to be further along and further ahead. We’ve got to keep working at it. We’ve got to keep making progress. I think we’ve got young guys in the program now that understand that.”
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Ryan Spangler needs help. And whether or not he gets it could swing the Sooners ahead — or hold them back. At 6-8, Spangler is best suited for a power forward role, as a face-up shooter with versatile skills. Forced to play center a year ago, he faced a grind that took a physical toll and frequently landed him in foul trouble. Still, he averaged 9.6 points and a team-high 9.3 rebounds, shooting 58.4 percent from the floor — numbers that could easily expand under less stress.
The ideal hope for help lies with the NCAA’s ruling on transfer TaShawn Thomas, who is seeking a waiver in the wake of a coaching change at his former school, Houston. Thomas, a 6-8, 240-pounder with the body to play the post, led the Cougars with 15.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game and ranked No. 14 nationally with a 59.1 field goal percentage. A tandem of Spangler and Thomas would be formidable.
If Thomas fails in his appeal, the Sooners could be scrambling. Veteran D.J. Bennett is a solid defender and shot-blocker, but is limited offensively. C.J. Cole is a sophomore who has been slow to assert himself. Dante Buford is the most advanced of a promising group of freshmen, yet packs just 208 pounds on his 6-7 frame.
Oklahoma Sooners Facts & Figures
Last season: 23-10, 12-6 Big 12
Postseason: NCAA round of 64
Consecutive NCAA appearances: 2
Coach: Lon Kruger (58-38 at Oklahoma, 28-26 Big 12)
Big 12 Projection: Fourth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 32
The Sooners are loaded at the guard spots, despite Je’lon Hornbeak’s exit in search of more playing time at Monmouth.
Hield emerged as one of the Big 12’s best, averaging 16.5 points and leading the team with 90 3-pointers in his sophomore season. And Kruger believes Hield can do even more by meshing the attacking style he displayed as a freshman with the catch-and-shoot skills seen in his second season.
“That combination of the two years, where he’s attacking more, although we want him to keep shooting it well,” Kruger says. “We’d want him to get back to attacking the paint and finishing at the free throw line, if not the rim.”
Jordan Woodard seized the point guard spot as a freshman a year ago, starting every game and leading the team in assists (4.6 apg) while scoring at a 10.3 clip. He also proved fearless, taking and making several big shots late in games.
Isaiah Cousins also returns as a starter, having survived a scary situation after an errant gunshot lodged in the back of his shoulder. A full recovery is expected.
Junior college transfer Dinjiyl Walker can play either guard spot and is being counted on to backup Woodard at the point after Hornbeak’s departure. Frank Booker gave the Sooners a boost off the bench a year ago, when he hit 36.8 percent from 3-point range. He could see his role increase.
After consecutive seasons of going one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament, last season as a favorite, the Sooners are yearning for more — much more. The reality of taking the next step is tied to beefing up production in the paint.
The guards are good, among the league’s best as a group. Yet if the Sooners can’t find balance, and Spangler remains out of position, their postseason potential will be limited again.
“We’ve been to the tournament now a couple of years,” Kruger says. “Now we want to go farther in the tournament and win games in the tournament. That’s the challenge that lies ahead.”
TaShawn Thomas started 96 career games at Houston, averaging 14.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots over three seasons. He’ll be a major addition to the frontcourt if he’s granted immediate eligibility. Dante Buford could be asked to contribute immediately up front. A home school star in Houston, Khadeem Lattin is a skilled big man who could be a future star. Jamuni McNeace is a bit of a project who needs to bulk up.
For a coach who promotes daily competition, the end of last season was difficult on Bruce Weber. Though Kansas State made it back to the NCAA Tournament, its roster wasn’t healthy enough to properly prepare for the postseason.
“We couldn’t go five-on-five that last month because we didn’t have any of our big guys,” Weber says. “They played in games, but they didn’t practice. Our scout squad got a lot of action.”
The result: A 20-win season that exceeded most expectations ended with a whimper. The Wildcats lost their final four games, including a 56–49 setback to Kentucky in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament.
A better fate is expected this season. Marcus Foster, Wesley Iwundu, Thomas Gipson and Nino Williams form a talented nucleus. And a group of promising newcomers, led by Maine transfer Justin Edwards and freshman Malek Harris, appears poised to replace the loss of only one full-time starter.
“The best thing is the competitiveness of it all,” Weber says. “They have to come every day and earn minutes. If they aren’t working in practice, there is somebody else there. We didn’t have that last year.”
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K-State will have a new — and bigger — look inside. Instead of spreading the floor with four guards with Gipson down on the block all by himself, the Wildcats will use multiple big men this season. Gipson, who averaged 11.7 points and led the team in both rebounding (6.5 rpg) and field goal shooting (.562), will remain the leader of the group, but he will have much more support and the freedom to play both power forward and center.
Stephen Hurt, a highly regarded junior college transfer, and Georgetown transfer Brandon Bolden will add much-needed size. Hurt had a promising start to his college career at Lipscomb, and the 6-11, 260-pounder is eager to return to Division I action after a stop at Northwestern Florida State College. Bolden hasn’t scored in a live game since high school, but the 6-11 shot-blocker will bring both athleticism and defense to the floor.
Williams, an undersized power forward, had some big moments last year, including 15 points in a win over Oklahoma State and 20 points in an overtime loss to Baylor. Reserve forward/center D.J. Johnson will also try to build on his promising finish to his sophomore season.
Kansas State Facts & Figures
Last season: 20-13, 10-8 Big 12
Postseason: NCAA round of 64
Consecutive NCAA appearances: 5
Coach: Bruce Weber (47-21 at Kansas State, 10-8 Big 12)
Big 12 Projection: Fifth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 32
Foster was one of the biggest surprises in college basketball last season. A lightly regarded recruit, the Texas native emerged as Kansas State’s No. 1 option on offense as a freshman and led the team with a 15.5-point average.
Don’t be surprised, however, if Edwards becomes the Wildcats’ leading scorer this season. The 6-4 Canadian, regarded as an outstanding athlete and a prodigious dunker, averaged 16.7 points as a sophomore at Maine two years ago. On the flip side, he only shot 27.3 percent from 3-point range and averaged 4.0 turnovers.
Foster and Edwards are natural shooting guards, which could make it tough to play them both at the same time for long stretches without a true point guard on the court. Foster has worked hard on his ball-handling in the offseason in an effort to help Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas at the point.
Iwundu and Harris, both 6-7, will both play significant minutes. Iwundu started in 32 games as a freshman and scored in double figures on eight occasions. Harris was a top-100 national recruit who might also see time at the 4.
Kansas State hasn’t advanced past the NCAA Tournament’s round of 64 since 2012 and hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2010. Both those streaks could come to an end this season if things fall into place. The Wildcats have talent, depth and versatility. That combination doesn’t always add up to success. Team chemistry is never a given, and adjusting to new lineups can be difficult.
Still, K-State has a roster ready to compete for a Big 12 championship and to win in March.
“It’s going to be about coming together,” Foster says. “Everybody is so good. All of these guys have already played college basketball before. We won’t be going through a learning experience like we did last year. It will just be about meshing as a team.”
Justin Edwards, a Maine transfer, was a star in practice last year. Brandon Bolden, a 6-11 Georgetown transfer, is already ready to contribute after a year off. Junior college transfer Stephen Hurt will provide much-needed size, while freshman guard Tre Harris should help as a shooter. Malek Harris, a late addition, is the highest-rated recruit Bruce Weber has signed since coming to K-State.
Kansas has won at least a share of 10 consecutive Big 12 titles, but the league is anything but dull even if the Jayhawks manage to win the conference title every season.
The 10-team league produced seven NCAA Tournament teams last season, and every team in the league besides TCU was a threat on a nightly basis.
Asking the Big 12 to replicate that kind of balance and consistent entertainment will be tough, but this league will try.
At the top, Kansas reloads as usual with freshmen Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre stepping in for Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. The Jayhawks should have a bona fide challenger in Texas, which adds five-star freshman Myles Turner to a core that saved Rick Barnes’ job a year ago.
Iowa State brings in a handful of impact transfers as again, and Oklahoma and Kansas State figure to be factors under veteran coaches Lon Kruger and Bruce Weber.
The league’s depth from last season will be tested, though, as Baylor and Oklahoma State figure to take steps back after losing key personnel.
Previews of every Big 12 team and more are available in the 2014-15 Athlon Sports College Basketball Preview.
2014-15 Big 12 Predictions
1. Kansas (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA Elite Eight
Even without Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, the Jayhawks are Big 12 favorites … again. It’s Perry Ellis’ time to shine.
2. Texas (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA Sweet 16
Only a year removed from the hot seat, Rick Barnes has a contender in Austin. Isaiah Taylor is a star.
3. Iowa State (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA Sweet 16
The Cyclones lost two of the Big 12’s top five players in DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim but welcome back Georges Niang.
4. Oklahoma (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 32
Buddy Hield emerged as a star during his sophomore season and should be even better this year.
5. Kansas State (team preview)
Postseason projection: NCAA round of 32
When Marcus Foster is on, the Wildcats are good enough to beat anyone in the league.
Postseason projection: NIT
Redshirt freshman Johnathan Motley has to come up big for the Bears down low.
7. Oklahoma State
Postseason projection: NIT
Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte are studs, but will that be enough to make the NCAA Tournament?
8. West Virginia
Postseason projection: NIT
A rash of offseason defections will hurt the Mountaineers, but Bob Huggins did a nice job reloading.
The Horned Frogs were winless in the Big 12 last season; they won’t be in 2014-15.
10. Texas Tech
Getting players to Lubbock — and keeping them there — has been tough for Tubby Smith.
2014-15 Big 12 Superlatives
2014-15 Big 12 Superlatives
Player of the Year: Perry Ellis, Kansas
Lost in the talk of two of the top three NBA draft picks (Wiggins and Embiid) was the play of Ellis, who delivered on a breakout season. Ellis averaged 13.5 points and 6.7 rebounds last season and should be in position to pace the Jayhawks again.
Best Defensive Player: Cameron Ridley, Texas
The 6-9, 285-pound Ridley enjoyed a breakout season as a sophomore, averaging 11.2 points and 8.2 rebounds. He’s been a force around the rim with 2.2 blocks per game.
Most Underrated Player: Monté Morris, Iowa State
Morris finished last season with 134 assists to only 28 turnovers. Not bad for a freshman.
Newcomer of the Year: Cliff Alexander, Kansas
Ellis has offensive versatility. Alexander will team with him in the Kansas frontcourt with a physical presence in the paint.
Top Coach: Bill Self, Kansas (full Big 12 coach rankings)
First-team All-Big 12
G Juwan Staten, West Virginia
G Marcus Foster, Kansas State
G Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
F Georges Niang, Iowa State
F Perry Ellis, Kansas
Second-team All-Big 12
G Isaiah Taylor, Texas
G Kenny Chery, Baylor
G/F Le’Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State
F Cliff Alexander, Kansas
F Jonathan Holmes, Texas
Third-team All-Big 12
G Kelly Oubre, Kansas
G Phil Forte, Oklahoma State
G Wayne Selden, Kansas
F Thomas Gipson, Kansas State
C Cameron Ridley, Texas
Tuesday marks the beginning of the MLB Free Agency signing period. Here is a list of the most interesting available free agents that are on the baseball market and where they might end up for the 2015 season.
Ever since Lester was traded to the A’s in July, the talk of him being on the North side of Chicago immediately began to gain traction — and it makes sense. Lester is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and he’s never shown signs of fatigue or had a significant injury, which makes him all but guaranteed to get a well-deserved big pay day this winter. The Cubs definitely make sense. Theo Epstein has been very forthcoming acknowledging that the Cubs are in the market for a number one pitcher after dealing away 40 percent of their rotation the past couple of seasons for top prospects. The Cubs are in a position to make a splash, and Lester is a heck of a good fit in Cubby blue. Long shots could include the Red Sox and maybe the Mets and Tigers. Boston has already acknowledged they plan to meet with Lester, while the Mets are looking to build upon the return of Matt Harvey, and the Tigers could be bracing themselves for the loss of Max Scherzer.
Possible teams: Cubs, Red Sox, Mets, Tigers
Shields is the third-best available starting pitcher on the market following Lester and Max Scherzer, but will still command a large contract for more than three years. If Shields plays his cards right, sees where Lester or Scherzer go first, he could end up in a fantastic spot with a fat amount of cash in his pocket. Shields has the same possible suitors as Lester and Scherzer with maybe a few lesser teams in the mix, assuming his contract will be worth less than the other aces. Shields is 33, two and three years older than Lester and Scherzer, so his contract will be less in terms of years. Look for the Rangers, Dodgers, and Braves to be in the mix for Big Game James.
Possible teams: Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, Braves, Mets, Rangers, Tigers
Cuddyer spent the past three seasons in Colorado, where he put up career numbers in 2013 (.331/.389/.530 20 HR, 84 RBI, .919 OPS). The issue is that Cuddyer will be 36 going into next season, and he has had a history of injuries that limited him to just 49 games this past season in Colorado. He is a very solid bat and can play outfield, third or first base. But since he is creeping up in age, look for him to sign a deal in the two- to three-year range being a DH in the American or playing first, with an outside shot at playing outfield.
Possible teams: Mets, Oakland, Rangers, Mariners
The Tigers have already made a $15.3 million qualifying offer to Martinez, who had a career year in 2014 (.335/.409/.565 32 HR, 103 RBI, 33 2B, 42 SO,.979 OPS). The 35-year-old very well could make more on the open market, but my gut says Detroit will pony up a few extra mil a year to keep the switch-hitting Swiss army knife defender. Martinez will be probably be offered a three-year deal worth almost $18 mil per year.
Possible teams: Tigers
Morse very well could end up staying in San Francisco, but I kind of doubt it. Morse spent most of last season in left field for the Giants but also saw time playing first base. Morse has pop but also is a little strikeout-prone. He is the kind of player the Yankees love to overpay for, but in that tiny ballpark, Morse could be a monster. If he doesn’t re-sign with the Giants or go to the Bronx, Morse would be a welcome fit for other AL East teams like the Red Sox or Orioles, who are both looking for more pop in their lineup. If the O’s aren't able to resign Nelson Cruz, look for them to make a serious run at Morse.
Possible teams: Giants, Yankees, Red Sox, Mariners, Orioles
The Nationals declined their team option on LaRoche after it became pretty clear that Ryan Zimmerman was going to be the club’s first baseman for the foreseeable future. LaRoche is a decent enough bat that he could stay in the NL, maybe with the Pirates or Marlins, who may want to upgrade at first base. I think he would be a great fit for the Mariners as a DH, not too expensive, probably $10 million a year for two or three years, and decent protection for Robinson Cano.
Possible teams: Mariners, Pirates, Marlins
Weeks still hasn't blossomed into the player that many thought he could become, a perennial All-Star. The Brewers declined his $11.3 million club option this past week, making Weeks a free agent. It is safe to say that Weeks will not get anything near the $11 mil he was making in Milwaukee, especially since he saw his role diminish over the course of the season. Weeks needs a new scene with a team that doesn't have the pressure to make the postseason, and where he isn’t a main lineup option.
Possible teams: Rockies, Rays, Diamondbacks
When Hanley is healthy, he is one of the best shortstops in the game. The problem is, Hanley is hardly ever healthy. Hanley is very likely to be overpaid this coming season by a team looking to make a splash, and if he is healthy, he could be absolutely worth it. My best guess is that teams would be willing to offer him a short-term deal north of $12 mil per season with the option of signing him long term if he produces. Hanley has shown in the past that he is capable of hitting well over .300 with some pop, hitting at least 20 homers in six seasons, all while playing fairly solid defense. Hanley very well could stay in LA, but I think it is a long shot. There is a team on the other side of the country looking to replace its long-time shortstop, and it's a team in desperate need of offense. Could Hanley end up in pinstripes?
Possible teams: Yankees, Dodgers, Mets
McGehee, the NL Comeback Player of the Year, is in line for a nice contract after his 2014 career year. The 32-year-old McGehee would be a nice, not-too-expensive fit for the Mariners to knock in the runs they so desperately need to compete in the AL West. McGehee might actually be the third baseman that the Yankees have been longing for, assuming A-Rod and Chase Headley won’t be on the roster come 2015. If the Miami Marlins were smart (they aren’t), they would make McGehee an offer he couldn't refuse, keeping him at the hot corner for the next several years while the team continues to improve.
Possible teams: Mariners, Yankees, Marlins
The Panda has said that he wants to stay in San Francisco where he has made his home and earned three World Series titles in five seasons. But Sandoval is said to be seeking a $100 million contract, something he may find somewhere other than the City by the Bay. Sandoval is a very capable switch-hitting third baseman who always shows up in the postseason. In the past, there have been questions involving his physical conditioning and physique, but there hasn’t been a single negative report about his attitude. His teammates love playing with him. We’ve mentioned how the Yankees love to over pay their free agents, and Panda might just find himself playing in the Bronx next summer. Pablo could also end up playing third for the Yank’s biggest rival, the Boston Red Sox or other AL contenders such as the Tigers or Mariners. The off the wall idea of Sandoval in a Rangers uniform isn't all that crazy, assuming that Prince Fielder will be strictly a DH next season, as long as Sandoval is willing to switch positions to play first. If the Marlins want to make a significant push towards next October, they very well may make a run at Sandoval as well.
Possible teams: Giants, Rangers, Marlins, Yankees, Red Sox
Martin will be one of the most sought-after free agents on the market come Tuesday. Billy Beane and the A’s have hinted that they may be in the market for a more well-rounded bat to add to their sink-or-swim lineup and may go after Martin. The Cubs seem to be the consensus as Martin’s top option as it is very unlikely that the Pirates will re-sign the catcher. Martin would be the veteran bat the Cubs need to guide younger hitters and also be a clubhouse leader under new manager Joe Maddon. Also, the Dodgers, not afraid to write checks, could make a run for their former backstop to bring up the .181 batting average their catchers posted this past season.
Possible teams: Cubs, A’s, Dodgers
The other catcher who will be on teams’ radars in the coming days is former NL Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto. Soto finished up last season with the Oakland As and is likely to go elsewhere. Originally seen as a solid hitter with higher than average power for a catcher, Soto could find himself replacing Russell Martin in Pittsburgh or Miguel Montero in Arizona. Either would be a nice fit for Soto if he can sign a deal north of two years.
Possible teams: Pirates, Diamondbacks
The World Series runners-up, the Kansas City Royals have denied the $12.5 million dollar option on their longest-tenured player, Billy Butler. It is highly improbable that Butler finds a long term deal with a team willing to pay him north of $10 mil a season. He may have to settle for a one- or two-year deal coming in around $8 mil. The other question is whether teams will want Butler to play first or DH? Due to the emergence of Eric Hosmer the past few seasons, Butler saw his play at first diminish, only seeing the field 37 times this past season. Butler could be a cheaper DH option for the A’s, White Sox and Mariners, or a first base option for the Rangers. Butler, only 28 years old, could see himself in the National League, playing in Pittsburgh or Miami as both teams look to improve upon their first base conundrums.
Possible teams: A’s, White Sox, Mariners, Rangers, Pirates, Marlins
Cruz was the steal of free agency last winter as he signed with the Orioles for just $8 million on a one-year deal. This offseason will see the price for Cruz’s services increase after he led all of baseball with 40 home runs. The Orioles are in a position where they can offer Cruz just enough money to be their DH for the long term, especially since teams may be wary of Cruz’s age (34), his inability to stay healthy for long stretches, and the thought of losing a top draft pick because of his potential qualifying offer. On the flip side, teams are desperate for power and will be happy to overpay for 35-plus homers a season for the next three to four years.
Possible teams: Orioles, White Sox, Mariners, Yankees
The Baltimore Orioles declined Markakis’ $17.5 mutual option for 2015, and probably rightfully so. Rumors have been swirling around the past couple of days that the Orioles are working on a deal to retain their long term right fielder, which is a good idea for both parties. The O’s would have trouble finding an outfielder that can play good enough defense while also chipping in offensively, maybe Nori Aoki, but he doesn't fit in with the power-first approach of Buck Showalter’s offense. If Baltimore and Markakis can’t reach a deal for the 30-year-old’s services, he may find himself on a less talented team that is looking for a veteran to help younger players develop.
Possible teams: Orioles, White Sox, Twins, Royals, Mets,
The Texas Rangers declined Rios' $13.5 million option, making the veteran outfielder a free agent. Rios responded by hiring baseball super agent Scott Boras to be his representative. Early rumors have the Mets as the frontrunners to sign Rios, but after last year’s signing of Curtis Granderson, I doubt that they Mets will be willing to sign another veteran outfielder with declining numbers. The Cincinnati Reds may be a nice fit for Rios on a one- or two-year deal. The Reds struggled to put up runs with the long term losses of Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips, and Rios may find another power surge in Great American Ball Park, where everyone is a power threat.
Possible teams: Mets, Reds, Tigers
Max Scherzer could very well end up in right where he is at, in Detroit. Scherzer may have the best chance of winning a World Series in the next couple of seasons if he stays in the Motor City, as long as he gets some help in the bullpen. Mad Max could sign a two-year contract, see how things pan out in Detroit, and be a free agent again in two seasons at the age of 32, or be traded before hand to a contender if things aren't going to plan. Really, the baseball world is Scherzer’s oyster, but he stands to make the most money if he hits the open market.
Possible teams: Tigers, Red Sox, Cubs, Mets, Rangers
No doubt about it, Jake Peavy can still pitch. Peavy didn't have his best stuff in the Giants' last World Series title run, but he was a big reason why the Giants were even in the postseason after he was traded during Ben Cherington’s July housecleaning-slash-rebuilding project in Boston. The 33-year-old hurler will command at least a two-year deal as a top-of-the-rotation-type guy, but it won't be to be anyone’s ace. Much like previous pitchers mentioned on this list, Peavy could be a nice fit for the Cubs or Red Sox pitching staff. Or, Peavy could find himself in Atlanta, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Oakland, Miami, or LA, as a very solid number two pitcher. The Yankees have been pretty adamant that they aren’t going to go after a top-of-the-line ace, but I think Peavy could be a target as a number two or three man in their rotation after Tanaka and Pineda. A wild card team could be the Blue Jays after their starting pitching was so lackluster this past season.
Possible teams: Blue Jays, Giants, Yankees, Cubs, Rangers, Marlins, Braves, Pirates, Reds, Royals, A’s
Justin Masterson, Edinson Volquez, Brandon Morrow
Much like Jake Peavy, Masterson, Volquez, and Morrow should wind up a contending team’s roster as at least a mid-rotation starting pitcher.
If Cleveland was smart, they would lock up Masterson to a multi-year contract. They are just a few pieces away from really putting together a contending team for the next couple of seasons. But potential suitors will be looking to sign Masterson, who is only 29, to a long-term deal to make him a possible number two starter.
Volquez will be looking for big money after resurrecting his career in Pittsburgh. Volquez could sign for more than he is worth to a team looking to make a big move. Volquez’s winter will be one of the more interesting ones in terms of available free agents. I can definitely see a team like the Braves or the Yankees forking over $90 million to Volquez to be a shutdown pitcher, and it completely backfiring. Buyer beware with Edinson Volquez.
Brandon Morrow was supposed to be the Blue Jays ace that never was. After several impressive seasons north of the border, the Jays have decided to pick up the vet’s $10 million option. Morrow’s winter will be another intersting one, as many teams will be timid to offer the 30-year-old a long-term deal after he made just 16 starts in the past two seasons due to injury.
All three of these pitchers will be in contact with many of the same clubs.
Possible teams for all three: Brewers, Cubs, Red Sox, A’s, Braves, Dodgers, Angels, Yankees, Indians, Royals, Rangers, Marlins, Mets
By Jake Rose
Teams on opposite sides of a bye will wrap up Week 9 in the NFL when the Indianapolis Colts take on the New York Giants on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The Colts (5-3) are looking to bounce back from last week’s 51-34 thrashing to the Steelers and head into their Week 10 bye on a winning note. The Giants (3-4) are coming off of their bye in search of a strong start, as they prepare for the toughest stretch of their schedule. After tonight’s game, Tom Coughlin’s team will travel to Seattle followed by home games against San Francisco and NFC East foe Dallas.
Indianapolis Colts at New York Giants
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Indianapolis -3.5
Three Things to Watch
|Indianapolis 2014 Schedule|
|10/5||vs BAL||W 20 - 13||Recap|
|10/9||@ HOU||W 33 - 28||Recap|
|10/19||vs CIN||W 27 - 0||Recap|
|10/26||@ PIT||L 34 - 51||Recap|
|11/3||@ NYG||W 40 - 24||Recap|
|11/16||vs NE||L 20 - 42||Recap|
|11/23||vs JAC||W 23 - 3||Recap|
|11/30||vs WAS||1:00 pm||Buy Tickets|
1. Andrew Luck Takes a Bite Out of the Big Apple?
In his third season as Indianapolis’ starting quarterback, Luck has established himself as not only one of the best signal-callers in the NFL, but also a likely MVP contender for years to come. The No.1 overall pick of the 2012 draft, Luck has taken the mantle of Colts QB from Peyton Manning and run with it. Luck enter this game just two touchdown passes behind his predecessor for the league lead (24) and he’s No. 1 by himself in passing yards (2,731). This will be his first game against the Giants, but his second time playing in New York. In his rookie season, Luck and the Colts lost 35-9 to the Jets in a game in which he completed half of his passes (22-of-44) for 280 yards, no scores and two interceptions. Luck obviously has come a long way since that game, as the Colts went on to make the playoffs that season and won the AFC South in 2013. And even though this will be Luck’s second game on the biggest regular-season stage the NFL has to offer, he will be more focused on helping his team bounce back from last week’s rather than what’s going on around him. Still, it should be a post-Halloween treat of sorts for a national primetime audience get to see one of the game’s brightest stars ply his trade tonight.
|New York (NFC) 2014 Schedule|
|10/5||vs ATL||W 30 - 20||Recap|
|10/12||@ PHI||L 0 - 27||Recap|
|10/19||@ DAL||L 21 - 31||Recap|
|11/3||vs IND||L 24 - 40||Recap|
|11/9||@ SEA||L 17 - 38||Recap|
|11/16||vs SF||L 10 - 16||Recap|
|11/23||vs DAL||L 28 - 31||Recap|
|11/30||@ JAC||1:00 pm||Buy Tickets|
2. Giant-sized Effort from New York’s O-line?
New York opened its season with two straight losses before winning three straight. The Giants then dropped their next two and are now hoping to end that streak coming out of their bye. For that to happen tonight, the offensive line will need do its job, not only in pass protection, but also in opening up holes for the running game. Eli Manning has been sacked 13 times this season, with 10 of those coming in the team’s four losses. What’s more, in the four losses the Giants have averaged just 3.3 yards per carry compared to 4.1 in their three wins. To be fair, it’s not just on the offensive line alone, as it did not give up a single sack to Dallas in New York’s last game after coughing up eight in a 27-0 loss to Philadelphia in Week 6. The ground attack took a big hit when Rashad Jennings injured his knee against Atlanta in Week 5. He won’t play tonight, meaning it will be up to fourth-round pick Andre Williams and Peyton Hillis to carry the load. Combined this duo is averaging 3.4 yards per carry. But it all starts up front, as the offensive line needs to give the backs space to run and Manning time to throw, especially against an Indianapolis defense that gave up 522 yards passing and six touchdowns to Ben Roethlisberger last week.
3. Week 8 Hangover Effect for Colts’ D?
Indianapolis’ defense is coming off of by far its worst showing of the season and then some. The Colts gave up 51 points and 639 yards of offense to Pittsburgh last week. Before then the most points they had allowed were 31 to Denver in the season opener and the most yards were 458 to Philadelphia the following week. What’s more surprising about what took place in Pittsburgh last week was the fact Indianapolis had just shut out Cincinnati and held the Bengals to 135 total yards the previous game. Whether it’s the difference between playing at home or on the road is up for debate, but if the Colts want to be taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender they know they need to tighten up things defensively. The good news is that some help is on the way in the form of starting free safety LaRon Landry, who is set to return after serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Landry’s return means Indianapolis’ secondary should be back to full strength as Vontae Davis, who left last week’s game early with a knee injury, is expected to be out there tonight too. As well as the Colts have played, passing defense (252.9 ypg) has been a bit of an issue. Granted, Big Ben and the Steelers are responsible for quite a bit of the damage, but Indianapolis’ defense can’t dwell on the past and must focus on the task that lies ahead of them tonight. Will Eli Manning and the Giants find similar success through the air or will the Colts’ D rise to the occasion in the “Monday Night Football” spotlight?
Indianapolis is still reeling from last week’s beatdown in Pittsburgh, while New York is rested coming off of its bye. However, the Giants won’t be at full strength with running back Rashad Jennings sidelined with a knee injury, which already puts them at a disadvantage against the NFL’s No. 1 offense. Even in the Colts’ three losses, Andrew Luck has played well and has shown he’s capable of carrying his team on his shoulders. Eli Manning has done that in the past, but he just hasn’t been able to perform that same kind of magic this season, as the Giants’ best games have come when they have run the ball successfully. Jennings’ absence has taken the starch out of this running game and I think it makes New York’s offense too one-dimensional. The Giants put up a fight at home, but the Colts still have Luck on their side and that will be enough to win tonight.