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The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.
So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.
Maybe it’s the elite coaching or Hall of Fame quarterbacks and the electric offensive skill players, but the Pac-12 (Pac-10 until 2012) hasn’t had a long list of decorated defensive backs. There have been plenty of great players but this league boasts just seven consensus All-Americans, only one Thorpe Award winner during the BCS Era and only two defensive backs were named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Here are the best DBs the West Coast has to offer.
Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Troy Polamalu, USC (1999-2002)
The big-play machine was a three-year starter for the West Coast powerhouse. He was a two-time All-Pac-10 selection, a consensus All-American and stuffed the stat sheet his entire career. The big hitter finished with 278 tackles, 29.0 for loss, six interceptions and four blocked punts in 36 career starts for the Men of Troy. Polamalu led USC back to prominence with a league title and trip to the Orange Bowl before being taken in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft.
2. Antoine Cason, Arizona (2004-07)
The California native was a four-year contributor for Arizona, playing in 46 career games in Tucson. He burst onto the scene in his first collegiate game by winning Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week. He went on to win Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year. He was named first-team all-league twice as an upperclassman and is the only player form the Pac-12 to win the Thorpe Award during the BCS Era (2007). He scored four times (two INTs, two punt returns), intercepted five passes and made 71 tackles as a senior. He finished with 253 tackles, 14.0 for loss, 15 interceptions and five total touchdowns. Cason was the 27th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.
3. Deltha O’Neal, Cal (1996-99)
The Golden Bear great is one of the most decorated defensive backs from the Pac-12 during the BCS Era. He is one of just two players to win conference Defensive Player of the Year when he set an NCAA record by returning four interceptions for touchdowns in his senior year. He also won the Mosi Tatupu Award as the nation’s top special teamer and the Pop Warner Award as the most valuable player on the West Coast — one of only six Pac-12 players to do so and one of only two Pac-12 defensive players. He was a consensus All-American and first-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.
4. Daymeion Hughes, Cal (2003-06)
The shutdown corner started at least one game in each of his four years, capping his Cal tenure with the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which recognizes a college defender for his achievements and success both on and off of the field. He also landed Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year honors, being just one of only two defensive backs to win this award during the BCS Era. Hughes was a two-time, first-team All-Pac-10 honoree and a consensus All-American in 2006 with 72 tackles, eight interceptions and 19 passes broken up. He was a third-round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.
5. Chris McAlister, Arizona (1996-98)
He only played three seasons in Tucson after attending Mt. San Antonio College yet still made a major impact at Arizona. He was a first-team All-Pac-10 selection in all three seasons and a consensus All-American in his final season. He became the first player in school history to return a kick, punt and interception for a touchdown and his 18 career interceptions rank third in school history. McAlister won the Mosi Tatupu Award as the nation’s top special teams player. He was the 10th overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
6. Taylor Mays, USC (2006-09)
A five-star recruit coming into college, Mays helped lead USC to three consecutive conference championships and a 34-5 record in his first three seasons. He was a rare three-time All-American from 2007-09 and was a freshman All-American in '06. Mays finished his career with 276 tackles, 21 pass breakups and five interceptions. He was a second-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
7. Marcus Trufant, Washington State (1999-2002)
He started all four seasons for the Cougars and helped lead Washington State back to the Rose Bowl in 2002 as a senior. Trufant is one of the best pure cover corners to ever play the game, as he didn’t allow a single touchdown in his last two seasons. He was a freshman All-American in his first year, twice earned All-Pac-10 honors and was a second team All-American in 2002. Trufant was taken with the 11th overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.
8. Jordan Poyer, Oregon State (2009-12)
He played in all 13 games as true freshman. He had 34 tackles and 1,109 all-purpose yards on 44 returns as a sophomore. As a junior, Poyer led the Pac-12 in interceptions. In his final season, he earned consensus All-American honors and was arguably the top cover corner in the nation. He finished his career with 153 tackles, 23 pass breakups, 13 interceptions, four return touchdowns and over 2,000 yards in punt (316) and kick returns (1,711).
9. Ricky Manning, UCLA (1999-2002)
The Fresno native was a stalwart in the defensive backfield for the Bruins. He started 45 consecutive games, the second longest streak in UCLA history. He also was a rare three-time, first-team all-conference selection from 2000-02. His finished his career with 13 interceptions and was a third-round pick of the Panthers in the 2003 NFL Draft.
10. Ed Reynolds, Stanford (2011-13)
As just a sophomore, Reynolds made his presence felt on what many considered the best defense in the nation. He posted 47 tackles, six interceptions and scored three touchdowns on defense en route to All-Pac-12 honors and the Jack Tatum Trophy as the nation’s top defensive back. He led Stanford to back-to-back Pac-12 championships and was a two-time, first-team All-Pac-12 pick and two-time All-American. Had he stayed for his senior season, Reynolds could have become one of the league’s all-time greats.
Just missed the cut:
11. Lamont Thompson, Washington State (1998-2001)
When it comes to making big plays on opposing quarterbacks, Thompson is statistically the best the Pac-12 has ever seen. He tied a Pac-12 record with four interceptions in one game against UCLA in 2001 and is the league’s all-time leader with 24 interceptions during his career.
12. Rahim Moore, UCLA (2008-10)
A heralded big-time recruit, Moore stepped right into the starting lineup and started all 37 games of his career. He led the nation with 10 interceptions as a sophomore and was a two-time, first-team All-Pac-10 selection before leaving early for the NFL. Moore finished with 186 tackles and 14 interceptions.
13. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon (2011-present)
In just three seasons on the field, Ekpre-Olomu has established himself as one of the Ducks' greatest defensive backs. He is already a two-time, first-team All-Pac-12 pick and received some All-American consideration. Oregon is 35-5 with IEO on the field and position coach John Neal has stated he is the best player he’s ever coached. In just three years, he already has 181 tackles, 30 PBUs and seven interceptions.
14. Syd’Quan Thompson, Cal (2006-09)
He played in 52 games during his excellent college career, making plays all over the field. Thompson was simply a playmaker. He had 258 tackles, 20.0 for loss, 36 PBUs, seven interceptions and scored on both a fumble and punt return during his career. He was s two-time, first-team All-Pac-10 pick.
15. Patrick Chung, Oregon (2005-08)
Chung started at “rover” as a true freshman and posted 91 total tackles, earning freshman All-American honors in the process. He registered 384 career tackles, 19.0 for loss, nine interceptions and two return touchdowns. Chung was a two-time, first-team all-league pick and was taken in the second round of the NFL Draft.
Best of the rest:
16. Kevin Ellison, USC (2005-08)
17. T.J. Ward, Oregon (2007-09)
18. Tank Williams, Stanford (1998-2001)
19. Darnell Bing, USC (2003-05)
20. Desmond Trufant, Washington (2009-12)
21. Sabby Piscitelli, Oregon State (2003-06)
22. Jairus Byrd, Oregon (2006-08)
23. Alterraun Verner, UCLA (2006-09)
24. Dennis Weathersby, Oregon State (1999-2002)
25. T.J. McDonald, USC (2010-13)
26. Nnamdi Asomugha, Cal (1999-2002)
27. O.J. Atogwe, Stanford (2001-04)
28. Terrell Thomas, USC (2004-07)
29. Matt Giordano, Cal (2001-04)
30. Dashon Goldson, Washington (2003-06)
Every college football program is unique and has its own set of challenges. But some programs are clearly better than others.
So what exactly determines the best job in a conference or in college football? Each person’s criteria will be different, but some programs already have inherit advantages in terms of location, money and tradition. Texas, USC, Florida and Alabama are some of the nation’s best jobs, largely due to some of the factors mentioned previously. Do they have their drawbacks? Absolutely. But it’s easier to win a national title at Texas than it is at Oklahoma State.
Debating the best job in the nation or any conference is always an ongoing discussion. The debate doesn’t start with a small sample size but should take into account more of a long-term (both past and future) in order to get a better snapshot of the program.
With all of this in mind, we have tried to rank the jobs in the Big Ten based on the attractiveness from a coaching perspective. As we mentioned above, many factors were considered. Tradition, facilities, location, budget and recruiting ability are just a few things we considered. But in the end, we simply asked ourselves the following question: Where would we want to coach if we had a blank slate and all of the jobs were open?
(Note: Current or impending NCAA sanctions were not a factor in these rankings.)
Ranking the Coaching Jobs in the Big Ten for 2014
1. Ohio State
Pros: There are eight FBS schools in Ohio, but there is only one school named The Ohio State University. The Buckeyes have been a consistent force on the field and in recruiting since Woody Hayes took over in the early 1950s.
Cons: Expectations are extremely high in Columbus. Consider the case of John Cooper: In 13 seasons, Cooper went 111–43–4, winning 10 games or more five times. But he went 2–10–1 against Michigan and lost his job after the 2000 season.
Final Verdict: Everything is in place to win a national championship at Ohio State. The facilities are top-notch, the fans are passionate, and the recruiting base is outstanding. Just don’t lose to Michigan.
Pros: Michigan has as much tradition as any school in the country. The Wolverines have been a national power since the 1890s and they play in one of the largest venues in the country, 109,901-seat Michigan Stadium. The program’s success and the school’s academic reputation have allowed Michigan to be a major player in recruiting both in the Midwest and nationally.
Cons: Michigan is an old-school program that is very set in its ways. A coach who comes in with a new philosophy — for example, Rich Rodriguez — will have a tough time being accepted.
Final Verdict: Michigan is no doubt an elite job, but as we saw in the Rodriguez era — he won a total of 15 games in three years — you have to be the right fit to win big in Ann Arbor.
3. Penn State (Note: These rankings do not take NCAA sanctions into consideration.)
Pros: Penn State is an enormous state university in an extremely fertile recruiting area. The Nittany Lions play in the second-largest facility in the country (Beaver Stadium, capacity 107,282), and they have won two national championships in the past 30 years
Cons: Penn State recovered nicely in the latter half of the 2000s, but it’s a bit disconcerting that a program with so much going for it was capable of having four losing seasons in a five-year span like Penn State did from 2000-04. Truly elite programs should not suffer through prolonged droughts.
Final Verdict: Penn State is difficult to evaluate at this point. Sanctions are not supposed to affect these rankings, but Penn State is a unique case. This is a great job, but the program will not compete at a high level until the sanctions are over.
Pros: Strong tradition. Amazing facilities. Passionate fans. Those three things don’t guarantee success, but they are a nice place to start. The Big Ten West Division has some good programs — Iowa and Wisconsin — but Nebraska should be in position to compete for a division title on an annual basis.
Cons: The Huskers won three national titles in the 1990s, but the program slipped a bit over the past decade. The state of Nebraska does not produce many high-end BCS conference players each year, and the program no longer has the sex-appeal to steal elite players from the East Coast like it did in the 1970s and 80s.
Final Verdict: Nebraska is a unique coaching position. You have everything in place to win big — except a local recruiting base. How big is that hurdle? Significant but not insurmountable. The Huskers are no longer a top-10 job but still very desirable.
Pros: Wisconsin has been transformed into a football school over the past two decades. Badger faithful pack 80,321-seat Camp Randall Stadium each week and create one the best environments in the nation. Madison also is a great place to live.
Cons: The school’s local recruiting base isn’t strong; the state has not produced a national top-100 player since 2007. Also, the Badgers have only been relevant on the national scene since the early 1990s. Wisconsin lacks the tradition of many of its Big Ten rivals.
Final Verdict: Barry Alvarez turned Wisconsin from a Big Ten afterthought to a significant player in college football. But the Badgers’ place as a top program is far from secure. Wisconsin, more than most of the other schools in the Big Ten on this list, needs the right coach in place to remain successful.
6. Michigan State
Pros: Michigan State seemingly has everything in place to be a major player in the Big Ten — great fan support (averaged 72,328 per game in ’13), good facilities, strong recruiting base and decent tradition.
Cons: Despite all of the positives listed above, Michigan State has only won two Big Ten titles — in 2009 and 2013 — in two decades and has only averaged 6.1 wins in the 47 seasons since claiming a share of the 1966 national championship. Also, there’s the Michigan thing: No matter how much success the Spartans enjoy, they will always be the second school in the state behind Michigan.
Final Verdict: Michigan State has been an underachiever and will never be the No. 1 program in its own state. Still, it’s a good job. If you can change the culture in East Lansing —which Mark Dantonio has apparently done — there is no reason Michigan State can’t contend for Big Ten titles on a semi-regular basis.
Pros: Three key elements make Iowa an attractive job — it’s the top school in the state (sorry, Iowa State), it has a strong tradition of excellence (five Big Ten titles since 1981, two BCS bowls since ‘03) and it has great fan support (67,125 per game in ’13).
Cons: Iowa might be the top dog in the state, but the hunting grounds aren’t very fertile. To remain competitive, the Hawkeyes’ staff will always have to go into other teams’ home states to recruit.
Final Verdict: It’s difficult for a school that doesn’t have a strong local recruiting base to compete for national title. It can be done — Nebraska won three titles in the 1990s — but that is a very big hurdle to climb.
Pros: Maryland has enjoyed pockets of success over the last three decades. Bobby Ross won three straight ACC titles from 1983-85 and Ralph Friedgen went a combined 31–8 from 2001-03, and won eight-plus games in 2008 and 2010. And while it isn’t to the Oregon/Nike level, the school’s close ties with Under Armour is a positive.
Cons: The move to the Big Ten will help the school in many ways, but it might have a negative impact on the football program’s recruiting. Maryland isn’t going to beat out many Big Ten schools for prospects from the Midwest, and the school won’t have the same appeal for many players in the Mid-Atlantic Region and Southeast now that the Terps won’t be playing an ACC schedule.
Final Verdict: Maryland was a lower-tier job in the ACC. And it will be a lower-tier job in the Big Ten. You can win games, but it will be very difficult for any coach to compete for championships in the current landscape, especially in a division that features Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.
Pros: Rutgers’ location affords the coaching staff the opportunity to stock its entire roster with local talent. The facilities have been upgraded in recent years, most notably the $102 million expansion to High Point Solutions Stadium. Also, being just over 30 miles from New York City — the media capital of the world — can’t hurt. Moving from the Big East/American to the Big Ten is a huge opportunity for Rutgers and certainly helps the overall appeal of this job.
Cons: The school has almost no tradition; prior to the mid-2000s, the program was irrelevant. And while support for Rutgers football has grown in recent years, pro sports will always be No. 1 in the metropolitan area.
Final Verdict: Long considered the sleeping giant on the East Coast, Rutgers emerged as a consistent winner in the Big East/American. Whether or not this is a true destination job is up for debate, but it’s clear that you can win a bunch of games and go to bowl games at Rutgers. In a division that features Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State, the Scarlet Knights have an uphill battle to compete for a division title on a yearly basis. But with the right coach, Rutgers can consistently compete for winning seasons.
Pros: Illinois’ local recruiting base — from Chicago down into St. Louis — is among the best in the Big Ten. The facilities (weight room, practice facility, locker rooms, etc.) are strong, and the stadium has received some renovations in recent years.
Cons: Basketball is — and will always be — the top sport at Illinois. Football, for whatever reason, has never been much of a threat to break into the upper echelon of the league. Also, the fan support at Illinois isn’t as strong as the top programs in the Big Ten. Last year, the Illini averaged only 43,787 fans per game.
Final Verdict: Despite being the fifth most populous state, Illinois checks in No. 10 in our list of the Big Ten’s most attractive coaching positions. There is a lot to like about the job, but there are also reasons why the school has only won three Big Ten titles (two outright) since the early 1960s.
Pros: The Gophers have a relatively new stadium that provided a significant upgrade from the outdated Metrodome. As the only Division I (FBS or FCS) program in the state, Minnesota should land its fare share of in-state recruits.
Cons: Minnesota is a tough sell for out-of-state recruits. The weather is bad and the program lacks tradition.
Final Verdict: Minnesota is a program with a ceiling — and Glen Mason hit that ceiling (winning five to eight games in most seasons with an occasional 10-win breakthrough).
Pros: Purdue is a program that has experienced consistent success in the Big Ten during the BCS era. The Boilermakers went 48–32 in league play during the first 10 years of the Joe Tiller era. Support is solid when the program is winning.
Cons: Purdue is one of three BCS programs in a state that does not produce a high volume of elite recruits.
Final Verdict: Coaching is important at every school, but Purdue is the type of school that can win consistently with the right man in place (Joe Tiller) but will struggle with the wrong man (Danny Hope). Is Darrell Hazell the right coach to get this program back on track?
Pros: As the only private school in the Big Ten, Northwestern can be an attractive option for a top-flight recruit from the Midwest who is looking for an elite academic institution. The university approved a $225-250 million facilities overhaul for all of the athletic programs in 2012. Football will no doubt be a huge beneficiary.
Cons: It will always be a struggle to keep up with the elite programs in the Big Ten, from a recruiting and facilities standpoint.
Final Verdict: You can win at Northwestern, but it will always be a challenge.
Pros: The school has increased its commitment to the football program in recent years, most notably an upgrade in facilities that includes a new weight room, a new scoreboard and an academic center, among other things.
Cons: Basketball is king at Indiana University and in the state of Indiana. The school’s recruiting base is weak, and there are two other BCS programs in the state.
Final Verdict: There’s a reason Indiana hasn’t had back-to-back winning seasons 1993 and ’94 and hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 1967. It’s tough to win in Bloomington.
A good rule of thumb for anyone filling out bracket is to ask one simple question: How many consecutive games against good teams can this team win right now?
Nearly every team in the field will have proven at some point in the year, even if it was in the conference tournaments, can win four or five games in a row.
Of course, we know teams like Wichita State and Florida can reel off wins better than any other team in the country. Here, we are highlighting some of the teams that are just now starting to show their true potential.
These are the teams heading into the postseason with the most momentum. Not all won their regular season finales, but these teams have shown since at least February that they can string together wins over quality teams.
10 Teams Surging into March Madness
After starting the season with an impressive performance in the Maui Invitational defeating Gonzaga and taking Baylor to the wire, Dayton slumped to start conference play. Led by Sean Miller’s younger brother Archie, Dayton finished Atlantic 10 play with nine wins in 10 games. Recent wins over UMass and Saint Louis, both in the RPI top 20, likely have pushed the Flyers into the field barring an A-10 Tournament upset.
The Cardinals capped the regular season with an 81-48 rout over Connecticut in one of Louisville’s best defensive performances of the season. Louisville has allowed only one opponent in the last nine games (Memphis on March 1) to average better than a point per possession, including a 0.71 points per possession against UConn. Montrezl Harrell, who had an out-of-nowhere performance in the Big East Tournament last year, has averaged 21.2 points and 9.4 rebounds in the last five games.
The celebration in Lincoln was only the culmination of the Cornhuskers’ turnaround since mid-January. Nebraska started 0-4 in the league, and it looked like the projected last-place finish could come to fruition. Instead, Nebraska finished the season on an 11-3 run. Nebraska has caught teams at the right time, defeating slumping Ohio State and Michigan State for two of the the Huskers’ best wins. But Sunday’s 77-68 win over Wisconsin was as convincing as any.
The Tar Heels might not be as concerned about Saturday’s 93-81 loss at Duke as they should be about three close calls against NC State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. Few teams could have won in Cameron on Saturday. North Carolina, though, should handle the Wolfpack, Hokies and Irish. Still, this is a North Carolina team that reeled off 12 consecutive wins after an inauspicious start to the season.
The Cowboys lost in overtime to Iowa State on Saturday, but it’s clear the Pokes are playing their best basketball since at least January. If anything, the three-game suspension seemed to re-focus Marcus Smart, who started the year as a player of the year candidate. He’s been improved as a facilitator (6.4 assists per game since his return), and at least against Iowa State, his 3-point selection was more reliable.
Back in early February, Oregon lost a pair of heart breakers to the Arizona schools to start 3-8 in the Pac-12. Since then, Oregon regrouped to win the final seven games of the regular season, including relatively comfortable wins over Arizona State (by 7) and Arizona (also by 7). Mike Moser is averaging 17.1 points and 11.1 rebounds during the win streak, but the move to return sophomore Johnathan Loyd to the starting lineup also revitalized the Ducks.
With no room for error late in the season, the Volunteers responded with a near-perfect finish, defeating Vanderbilt, Auburn and Missouri by a combined 93 points. The final game was the most important as Missouri is also fighting for an NCAA bid. The Volunteers still have an iffy resume with losses to Texas A&M (twice), Vanderbilt, NC State and UTEP, but they are in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom.
The Wildcats are in the mix for the final No. 1 seed assuming Arizona, Florida and Wichita State are the other three. Villanova may need to defeat Creighton in the Big East Tournament to pick up a few believers. At least since the last loss to the Bluejays, the Wildcats have won six in a row. Villanova allowed only one team (Providence in double overtime) to score more than 70 since Creighton put up 101 points.
The Cavaliers lost 75-69 in overtime to Maryland to halt a 13-game winning streak, but it might not be a major point of concern. The Cavs, who had already clinched the ACC regular season title, lost in the final Maryland home game of the ACC era for the Terrapins. Better to pay closer attention to the team that led the ACC in adjusted defensive efficiency and finished second in the offensive end.
We’re not making too much of Wisconsin’s loss to finish the season, either. Against a Nebraska team that needed a win Sunday, Wisconsin lost 77-68 in front of a raucous crowd in Lincoln. After a 1-5 skid in Big Ten play, Wisconsin recovered to win eight in a row, including wins over Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa.
As of today, the next two losses will be any team's last losses of the season.
With conference tournaments starting this week, no team can afford any kind of cold streak.
The following teams, though, need to hit the reset button in the worst way. These 10 teams have slumped late in February and into the early part of March.
Teams like Iowa, Michigan State and Kentucky were all considered potential Final Four contenders, but doubt has surfaced in recent weeks. And teams like Missouri and Pittsburgh are perhaps a loss away from going to the NIT.
As the major conference tournaments start this week, these are the 10 teams in most desperate need if immediate answers.
10 Teams Stumbling into March Madness
The Hawkeyes aren’t in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament, but they are in danger of early exits in the postseason. Iowa has lost five of the last six games with losses to Big Ten also-rans Indiana and Illinois. The culprit has been an inept performance in the defensive end of the court. Since Feb. 1, iowa has allowed 78.2 points per game and 1.11 points per possession, both the worst in the Big Ten.
Slumps are all relative. Kansas’ 1-2 finish to the season is evidence of that. The Jayhawks had already clinched the Big 12 title by the time they lost to Oklahoma State and West Virginia. Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins showed he’s in postseason form with 41 points against the Mountaineers. Here’s what has to be a concern, though: Joel Embiid will be out until at least the Sweet 16 with back troubles.
John Calipari wants his team to rediscover the confidence it had a few weeks ago. That must happen between now and the first game in Atlanta. During the 1-3 skid to end the season, which included losses to South Carolina and Arkansas, Kentucky has averaged only 92 points per 100 possession, fourth-worst in the SEC in that span.
Point guard Keith Appling’s wrist may be the determining factor if Michigan State can make a run at the Final Four. Tom Izzo has backed off on his playing time, but even when he’s in the game Appling has struggled to shoot because of the injury. A season full of injuries for the Spartans' roster has contributed to a 5-7 slide since Michigan State started 18-1.
The Tigers may have played themselves out of NCAA at-large contention with three losses in the last five games, including losses to two teams outside of the top 50 (Alabama and Georgia) and a drubbing to fellow bubble team Tennessee.
Perhaps this wasn’t a slump as much as it was an indication that the early record (16-1 on Jan. 14) was the product of an unimpressive stadium. Pittsburgh’s seeding hopes were going to take a hit with only one top 50 win, but the Panthers have landed on the bubble thanks to home losses in the last three weeks to Florida State and NC State.
The Billikens started 25-2 with their only losses to Wisconsin and Wichita State before hitting a three-game skid late in the Atlantic 10 season. A Duquesne win at home was the real shocker as the Dukes hit 8 of 15 3-point shots on Saint Louis’ home court. The Billikens then lost 17 turnovers against VCU and lost a 10-point second half lead against Dayton. A season-ending win against UMass on a late layup by Jordair Jett may be good for the psyche, but Saint Louis still struggles to put up points at times.
The outlook would have been even more bleak had Stanford lost to Utah on Saturday. The Cardinal pulled out the 61-60 to avoid a four-game losing streak to end the season. Stanford nearly blew and 11-point lead in the second half against Utah and gave up a lead earlier in the week to Colorado. Not a good trend for a team fighting for an NCAA berth.
Good for Texas that postseason games aren’t played on the road. The Longhorns lost their final five road games, including Saturday’s 59-53 loss to Texas Tech. The postseason isn’t played in Austin, either, and Texas opens the Big 12 Tournament against a West Virginia team that just defeated Kansas.
In classic “this is why you’re on the bubble fashion,” Xavier followed up a win over Creighton with a loss to Seton Hall and then another loss to Big East leader Villanova. The Musketeers will open the Big East Tournament without starting center Matt Stainbrook (knee) against a capable Marquette team.
Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran 1-2 Sunday in the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But those results are part of a larger, 1-2 knockout punch they’ve been aiming at the rest of their Sprint Cup competition. Earnhardt hasn’t run worse than second in three starts this season, while Keselowski is just a step behind (third, third, first). They’re the only drivers to start this season with three top-5 finishes.
That must mean they’re automatics to make Sprint Cup’s Chase Final Four, right? Earnhardt, in his final year with crew chief Steve Letarte, has never looked more focused behind the wheel of the No. 88. Keselowski, fresh off missing the Chase, has enjoyed a second honeymoon with crew chief Paul Wolfe. Pit calls, which put the No. 2 car towards the front in Vegas, proved the hallmark of their championship season together (2012).
Both teams, on and off the track, act like they’ve got something to prove. Just don’t jump on the bandwagon and crown them before the ceremony, OK? Keselowski himself knows better; this time last year, he also had three straight top-5 results. Two months later, he was staring crew suspensions, an ugly rules violation and ill-handling race cars right in the face.
“Somebody asked me here before the race, last year we started off with (three top 5s),” he said. “But then, in the middle of the year we had every bad racing break.”
As for Earnhardt, while the future looks bright, the No. 88 has never been a serious title contender. It’s a step the team is learning on the fly, one mere dreams and popularity won’t always guarantee. And with Letarte’s impending departure, a high-profile search for his replacement will take center stage at some point, serving as a potential distraction.
In NASCAR, more than any other professional sport, fortunes change quickly. Just five years ago, Matt Kenseth started the year by winning the season’s first two races. Armed with a new crew chief, his No. 17 team appeared a lock to run circles around the competition. Instead? That year was the only Chase the 2003 Cup champ has missed.
Thirty six races make for a long year; a lot can still happen, especially with a new “knockout,” unpredictable format. Both Keselowski and Earnhardt benefit from the changes, locking up a playoff spot with wins inside the first month. But anything more come postseason time is far from a guarantee.
Here’s what else you can take from the Las Vegas weekend as we go “Through the Gears” …
FIRST GEAR: Penske shows two teams can still make it work
While most NASCAR teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing push towards “coopetition” by accounting for 20 percent of the 43-car grid, owner Roger Penske has a different approach. Downsizing from three cars to two prior to the 2011 season, he’s shown you can still compete with the big boys with a smaller, focused approach and half the pooled funding of those around him.
What’s the secret? Perhaps it’s Keselowski himself, whose intensity for being on top of his game drives everyone around him.
“He overthinks everything,” Earnhardt said after coming up just short to the No. 2 car Sunday. “He comes up with 20 ideas; 18 of them are crazy, but two of them are great.”
It was Keselowski who pushed to minimize changes behind the scenes last season when his team appeared to be falling apart. Wolfe and company were consistently supported, allowing them to work through the kinks and come back with strategy designed to get the team up front. This duo never gives up, just like their counterparts at the No. 22 (Vegas polesitter Joey Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon). While that group fought handling on Sunday, when the checkers flew they were fourth while Wolfe’s calls led Keselowski to clean air and a weekend Vegas sweep when Earnhardt ran out of gas. It’s an early accomplishment for a group that came out swinging, ready to write more history together rather than fall another step behind the big boys.
“I love doing things that no one has done before, and that's a lot of fun for me, whether it's sending out a tweet during the middle of the Daytona 500 or trying to move on the racetrack to win a race,” Keselowski said. “Those moments to me are a lot of fun and probably the funnest moments in racing when you've done something no one else has done — they're a significant accomplishment that no one else can really own.”
That drive to be the best, to have an independent voice, is something you can see visibly at Team Penske, a stark contrast from the one-cog-in-the-wheel of Hendrick Motorsports. It keeps them in the game as a perpetual David vs. Goliath story and, so far in 2014, they’re armed with a dangerous slingshot.
SECOND GEAR: New rules, more passing … with a big “but” attached
Vegas, despite a great last-lap ending formed when Earnhardt ran out of gas, was a mixed bag of racing competition. The Good: there were actual lead changes up front other than during a set of green-flag pit stops. Passing was not only possible but seen more than last year on intermediates; at one point, Kyle Busch fell to 41st after being blocked in his pit under yellow only to drive through traffic and lead the race. NASCAR’s new rules package has potential.
It also has a long way to go. Both Phoenix and Vegas, without debris, would have been virtually caution-free races. Drivers armed with so much grip make their jobs look almost too easy. Does the sport need wrecks? Not necessarily. But there’s an element lost for the fan when it appears, through caution-free races, that no one is driving on the ragged edge. Sunday also offered the same old criticisms of “clean” versus “dirty” air. Like magic, Carl Edwards took a 16th-place car to fifth after gaining track position under yellow. Clean air out front left the car a rocket ship, a decided edge over running in traffic and giving the top-5 cars too much of an advantage under green to get away before the tires evened out.
“All those guys continue to really hone in on these cars, find ways to make more downforce, and that’s just — it’s something happening through all of motorsports,” Keselowski said. “Not just NASCAR. You’re seeing the same thing in F1 and beyond.
“It’s making it very difficult to drive the cars in traffic, and it makes the cars very easy to drive by themselves. It’s just part of the evolution of racing; maybe not what we want to see from a fan perspective, but it’s just where the competitors are taking (it).
“We’ll see where it goes from here.”
Not all fans may take that “we’ll see” approach, so chances are NASCAR will keep tweaking the package until they believe it’s right. The sport is heading in the right direction, but it’s a problem when a guy like Earnhardt says his car is a Cadillac out front but junk with two-to-three cars around him.
THIRD GEAR: Hendrick appears a step ahead of the field
Hendrick Motorsports didn’t win on Sunday, as Earnhardt fell short with a strategy he said they used purely because of the new Chase format. But four cars inside the top 9 isn’t bad for an organization that remains, thus far in 2014, the best team in the Sprint Cup field.
Take this simple fact: three of the four HMS cars have yet to finish outside the top 10 this season. Even Jeff Gordon — much-maligned in recent years — has stayed consistent following a fourth in February’s Daytona 500. In 2013, their main opponent was Joe Gibbs Racing, but that three-car team has taken a step back by comparison; none of its cars were higher than 10th Sunday in a race Matt Kenseth took over Hendrick’s Kasey Kahne last March.
Certainly, as we talked at the top of this column, there’s a whole lot of season left. But considering Jimmie Johnson claims his team is still a step off the pace, Earnhardt is running on eight cylinders of confidence and even Kahne has righted the ship (eighth Sunday) it’s a team that has the most resources and the fewest weak links on the circuit. That makes it hard to beat.
FOURTH GEAR: Michael Waltrip Racing’s rocky road to recovery.
It’s been almost six months since the Richmond fiasco that nearly destroyed the fabric inside Michael Waltrip Racing. That scandal cost the organization longtime sponsor NAPA, driver Martin Truex Jr. and, most importantly, respect within the NASCAR industry.
It’s a reputation and competitive level MWR is still trying hard to regain. Jeff Burton, running what’s become a de facto test team, was the best effort on Sunday, running 17th in a third car that will be driven by a potpourri of veterans and/or also-rans this season. The duo of Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer have yet to collect a top-10 finish and sit well outside the top 15 in points, struggling to remain relevant.
What’s the problem? More behind the scenes than in the cockpit. MWR lost two very talented crew chiefs, Rodney Childers and Chad Johnston, to Stewart-Haas Racing in the offseason. They seem to have left a void no one has completely replaced. At least the short tracks of Bristol and Martinsville, where driver skill means more, are soon on the agenda: Vickers nearly won at Bristol driving the No. 55 two years ago, a run which aided to his full-time employment with MWR.
Rushing back for labor worked out well for Paul Menard. With his wife expecting their first child, Menard ran third — his best showing since Oct. 2012 — righting his season before hitching a plane back to North Carolina to be there in time for the birth. … Danica Patrick was a season-best 21st on Sunday. It was a step forward while the rest of SHR took a step back. No one else ran inside the top 25, though Kevin Harvick had a promising day go bad when a left-front hub broke. Worse? Tony Stewart was, at times, the slowest car in the field. Growing pains to a four-car organization continue. … Four debris cautions were the only slowdowns that littered a clean race in Vegas. The 154.633 mph average speed set a new record for a race that’s been around since 1998.
For any fan just getting into college basketball in time for championship week and office pools: What took you so long?
You have some catching up to do. By waiting until the final weeks, you’ve missed a historic season. Certainly, every season is historic for one reason or another, so maybe this season will be among the most memorable even before the NCAA Tournament.
Just think of the seasons 2013-14 resembles. Wichita State is the first 34-0 team since 1991 when Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV team went undefeated before losing in the Final Four to Duke. But perhaps the Shockers’ run has been more reminiscent as the last undefeated run by a Missouri Valley Conference team.
The Shockers, who reached the Final Four last season, don’t have anyone close to a Larry Bird type, but they are the best team out of the Missouri Valley since the Sycamores met Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the 1979 championship game.
Speaking of historic names, Creighton’s Doug McDermott has passed many of them on his march to 3,000 career points. Among them: Danny Manning, Tyler Hansbrough, Larry Bird, Bill Bradley, Stephen Curry, Wayman Tisdale and David Robinson. By the time he’s through, he’ll be only the third player to be a three-time consensus first-team All-American.
Or maybe another touchstone for this season is 2006-07, one of the most intriguing seasons for freshmen during the one-and-done era. That year, Texas’ Kevin Durant and Ohio State’s Greg Oden were the subject of a season-long debate of who should go No. 1 in the Draft while leading two of the nation’s best teams.
This season, it’s Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid playing a part in a similar storyline.
So if you’re just jumping into the season this week, that’s OK. Given what we’ve seen so far, you haven’t seen the endgame to Wichita State’s season, McDermott’s college career or the freshmen’s career trajectory.
You may need to catch up a bit, but that’s what you’ll learn here.
Wichita State is the story of the NCAA Tournament
No matter what happens in the Tournament, Wichita State has done something truly special. The Shockers’ next win for 35-0 will be a record, passing UNLV’s 34-0 start in 1990-91. Most impressive for Gregg Marshall’s team, the Shockers have rarely lost focus. Nearly every team that puts together a lengthy unbeaten stretch to start the season loses focus or buckles under the pressure of challenging 1976 Indiana, the last undefeated team in the sport. Oddly enough, Wichita State has been a divisive team among hardcore fans at large. The schedule, they argue, diminishes the accomplishment. At this point, forget what kind of ranking Wichita State deserved and didn’t deserve and enjoy watching a team making a bid for history.
Doug McDermott is capping a fantastic career
McDermott will leave Creighton with one of the greatest careers in college basketball history. He became the sport’s eighth 3,000-point scorer, passing Oscar Robertson and Danny Manning down the stretch of his senior season. More than just a scorer, he’ll be in an elite group of players with 2,750 points and 1,000 rebounds along with Robertson, Manning, Larry Bird, Tyler Hansbrough and Hank Gathers. More than just an accumulator of statistics, he joins Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale as the only three-time first-team consensus All-Americans. And he’s done all this while stepping up in conference affiliation from the Missouri Valley to the Big East and while playing for his father. All that’s missing is a trip to the Sweet 16.
The Year of the Freshman has played out in fascinating ways
This season promised the best freshman class since 2007, at least considering that not all of them were concentrated on a single John Calipari team at Kentucky (more on that later). Duke’s Jabari Parker delivered as an All-American and a potential No. 1 overall pick. So did Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, even if he had an uneven season overshadowed by another freshman on his own team. That freshman, Joel Embiid, has a ceiling that’s been compared to Hakeem Olajuwon. Arizona’s Aaron Gordon has been a defensive stalwart on a team with national championship aspirations. Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis has been magical in late-game situations.
Kentucky’s one and done may be their NCAA Tournament hopes
See anyone missing from the list of great freshmen this season? How about the majority of the nation’s best signing class, one that included six McDonald’s All-Americans. Julius Randle deserves to have his name listed with Parker, Wiggins, Ennis and others, but the rest of this class in Lexington has been a disappointment. A team loaded with potential draft prospects lost five games in a weak SEC this season. Kentucky is the first preseason No. 1 team to fall to No. 25 in the polls since Indiana went unranked in 1979-80. Suddenly, the Wildcats will be known for the wrong kind of one and done.
Louisville has a chance to repeat
The Cardinals are seeking to become the second program to repeat since 1992, joining Florida in 2006-07. The Cardinals may not be one of the national championship favorites, but they have a better chance to repeat than many of the recent defending champions. Being in the field in the top half of the bracket is more than former champs at Kentucky, Connecticut and North Carolina can say. The Cardinals return Russ Smith and last year’s NCAA Tournament most outstanding player Luke Hancock. This team isn’t perfect, but it is among the national leaders in offensive and defensive efficiency.
North Carolina has gone from the most confusing team to the hottest team
The Tar Heels opened the season with one of the most bizarre resumes of any team in college basketball. They defeated preseason top four teams Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky but lost to Belmont, UAB, Wake Forest and Miami. Now, North Carolina is simply good. The Tar Heels reeled off 12 consecutive ACC wins, their longest conference win streak since 1986-87. If Carolina can win 12 in a row in the ACC, how many can the Heels win in March?
Syracuse started 25-0 but might not make it out of the first weekend
The Orange started 25-0, but they don’t look anything like a team that’s going to reach the Final Four, or even the Sweet 16. Syracuse had a flair for the dramatic near the end of its win streak, defeating Duke in an overtime classic, taking out Pittsburgh with a deep 3 from Tyler Ennis, and beating NC State by 1 thanks to a late steal. Since then, Syracuse lost teams you won’t even find in the NIT — Boston College and Georgia Tech.
Billy Donovan is building a Hall of Fame career
The Gators have their best teams since Joakim Noah and Al Horford led the Florida to back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. Donovan may not be thinking much further than the Elite Eight, where his team has stalled the last three years, but his team is capable of putting the coach in elite company. Only five coaches have won three or more national titles — John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun and Bob Knight. Donovan may already be a Hall of Famer. This Tournament could erase any doubt.
Virginia had its best season since Ralph Sampson
For all the fascinating stories in the ACC this season, none may have been more unlikely than Virginia’s first outright conference title since 1981 when the legendary Ralph Sampson was still on campus. The Cavaliers may have benefitted from an unbalanced schedule, but they enter the postseason on a hot streak fueled by a stifling defense.
The Pac-12 has a real national championship favorite
The Pac-12 might not be back to being a conference on par with the Big Ten or ACC, but the league does have a national champion for the first time since UCLA reached the Final Four three times in a row from 2006-08. Arizona has a veteran core led by Nick Johnson and Duquesne transfer point guard T.J. McConnell to go with one of the major freshmen of the season in Aaron Gordon. Sean Miller has reached the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight in his last four NCAA Tournament trips at Arizona and Xavier. This may be the season he reaches his first Final Four.
NC State isn’t where it wants to be this season, but at least with T.J. Warren, the Wolfpack are appointment viewing.
The sophomore showed why NC State could be considered a sleeper in the ACC Tournament with a pair of 40-point games this week.
Warren scored 41 points in a 74-67 road upset of Pittsburgh on Monday and then added 42 in a 78-68 against Boston College on Sunday to earn Athlon Sports National Player of the Week honors.
Against Boston College, Warren added 13 rebounds, including four in the offensive end.
“Here is the most important thing about T.J. that I’ve learned having coached: He wants to win,” NC State coach Mark Gottfried said. “And you know, in his mind he’s not being selfish when he feels like he’s the best option.”
Warren’s hot streak to finish the season enabled the Wolfpack to pull to 9-9 in the ACC and one victory away from a 20-win season.
Athlon Sports National Weekly Awards
National Player of the Week: T.J. Warren, NC State
Warren joined the legendary David Thompson as the only two players in NC State history to score 40 points in back-to-back games. Warren shot 30 of 45 from the field and 20 of 24 from the free throw line for the week.
National Freshman of the Week: Jabari Parker, Duke
Parker, a virtual lock to earn first-team All-America honors as a freshman, scored a career-high 30 points and added 11 rebounds to help Duke avenge a loss to North Carolina with a 93–81 win over the Tar Heels Saturday night in Durham. Parker became the fourth Duke freshman to score at least 30 points in a game, joining J.J. Redick (34 and 30), Kyrie Irving (31) and Johnny Dawkins (31).
Under-the-radar player of the Week: Corey Walden, Eastern Kentucky
Walden poured in a career-high 29 points — 22 in the second half — to lead Eastern Kentucky to a 79–73 win over No. 1 seed Belmont in the championship game of the OVC Tournament in Nashville. Walden, a junior guard, averaged 23.3 points in the Colonels’ three OVC Tournament wins. EKU will be making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2007.
Other notable performances of the week:
Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
VanVleet scored 22 points and had five rebounds and five assists to lead Wichita State to an 83–69 win over Indiana State in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. The Shockers, 34–0, will be the first team since UNLV in 1991 to enter the NCAA Tournament without a loss.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
His team lost the game — 92–86 at West Virginia — but Wiggins was spectacular in the final regular-season game of his freshman season. The 6-8 forward scored 41 points (the most ever by a KU freshman), grabbed eight rebounds and added five steals and four blocks. Wiggins is expected to be a top pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Juwan Staten, West Virginia
Staten was one of three Mountaineers to top the 20-point mark — joining forward Devin Williams and fellow guard Eron Harris — as West Virginia handed Big 12 champ Kansas a surprising 92–86 loss. Staten, a junior point guard, scored 24 points (14 from the foul line) and handed out nine assists to lead WVU to its ninth Big 12 win of the season.
Kenny Chery, Baylor
Chery scored 29 points to lead Baylor to a résumé-building win at Kansas State on Saturday. The senior point guard hit 8-of-13 from the field and 13-of-14 from the foul line and also contributed six rebounds, six steals and three steals to help the Bears improve to 9–9 in the Big 12.
Russ Smith, Louisville
Smith showed his versatility in the final two games of the regular season. On Wednesday, the senior guard scored 26 points (and hit all six of his 3-point attempts) to lead Louisville to a come-from-behind win at SMU. Then, on Sunday, he only scored three points but handed out a career-high 13 assists as the Cardinals pounded UConn 81–48 on Senior Night at the KFC Yum! Center.
DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
Kane scored 27 points to help Iowa State overcome a 16-point deficit in Ames on Saturday. The senior guard, a transfer from Marshall, also had eight rebounds and eight assists in the Cyclones’ 85–81 overtime win against Oklahoma State.
Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh
Patterson tied his career high with 30 points to help Pittsburgh escape Clemson with an 83–78 win in the school’s final regular-season game of its first year in the ACC. The Panthers trailed by five points in the closing seconds of regulation but rallied to tie the score on a Patterson 3-pointer with thee seconds remaining and a Josh Newkirk jump shot (after a Clemson turnover) at the buzzer.
Eric Moreland, Oregon State
Moreland stuffed the stat sheet with 16 points, 19 rebounds, four steals and three blocks to lead Oregon State to a 78–76 win over NCAA Tournament-bound Arizona State. The Beavers finished the regular season 8–10 and — barring a surprising run to the Pac-12 Tournament title — will miss the NCAA Tournament for the 24th consecutive season.
Doug McDermott, Creighton
Playing the final home game of his record-breaking career, McDermott scored a career-high 45 points to lead Creighton to an 88–73 win over Providence on Senior Night in Omaha. McDermott, the overwhelming favorite to earn National Player of the Year honors, became the eighth player in Division I history to hit the 3,000-point mark.
Deonte Burton, Nevada
Burton was spectacular last week, leading Nevada to wins at Boise State and vs. in-state rival UNLV. The athletic 6-1 guard scored 24 points and had 11 assists and eight rebounds while playing all 50 minutes in a double-overtime win over Boise State and then chipped in 24 points, 11 assists and eight boards in Saturday’s upset over UNLV.
Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
Two days after scoring 34 points in an emotional Senior Night win over Memphis, Kilpatrick led UC with 24 points in a win over Rutgers on the road. The Bearcats finished in a tie with Louisville atop the American Athletic Conference standings and will be the No. 1 seed in the upcoming league tournament.
The Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway came down to a calculated risk between two of the hottest teams early in NASCAR’s 2014 season.
The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports bunch and driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. had finishes of first and second entering the event. Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske crew weren’t far behind, with consecutive third-place runs to open the year.
Fittingly, the strategy that came into play focused on these Chevrolet and Ford flagbearers.
Just don’t call what happened in Vegas a “gamble” or any other clichéd racing term typically reserved for results in the famous gaming town.
No, the call Earnhardt’s crew chief Steve Letarte made in the final 60 laps of the affair was simply the logical one: Use pit strategy to obtain all-important track position and push fuel mileage on the No. 88 Chevy to the limit. It was a call not too different than what propelled Matt Kenseth to the win in the very same race last season.
It worked for Kenseth; in only his third race with Joe Gibbs Racing, he hit paydirt in 2013 on a track-position play. In Earnhardt’s case, the strategy came up a half-lap short.
That’s when the car sputtered — on the backstretch of the final lap — and handed victory to Keselowski, whose gameplan was to have plenty of fuel and two fresh tires to apply pressure to Earnhardt over the final 42 laps.
“I could tell he was saving a little bit (of fuel) based on the lines he was running compared to where I had seen him earlier in the day,” Keselowski said. “Once I saw that, we ran him down (in) 10, 15 laps and forced him to kind of get up into his speed line, and that was just taking fuel from his car.
“It was going to play out one of two ways: He was going to have to get in fuel conservation mode and I think I could have passed him and drove away or he was going to have to burn fuel to keep me behind him. At that point it was just a matter of whether a yellow came out or not because it was just a ticking time bomb, and it worked in our favor today.”
The win all but guarantees Keselowski of a Chase berth in NASCAR’s expanded playoff format. Earnhardt, whose win the Daytona 500 two weeks ago gave the team the freedom to utilize such a strategy, coasted to a runner-up showing.
“I just couldn’t (gain) any ground, and we fought the car all day,” Earnhardt said of battling traffic in the field. “The air is so dirty behind everybody, the further back you get you’ve got less and less grip. Once we got the lead, it was like driving a Cadillac.”
Letarte used pit sequencing slightly off-kilter to get Earnhardt to the point on lap 223 of 267. He led until Keselowski rocketed by on the final lap.
“It did pay off,” Earnhardt said. “Not the ultimate prize, but we did run second. As much as you want to win — and believe me, we were out there trying to win — you do take pride in a good performance, a good finish, and we weren’t going to run in the top 5 if we hadn’t have used that particular strategy. If we’d have run the same strategy as our competitors, we would have probably run just inside the top 10 where we were all day.”
Translation: This was no crew chief gamble gone wrong — it was solid race strategy that a team confident in its playoff standing has the ability to employ.
“It gives us freedom, and it’s nice to have that freedom to do the things that we did today even though we knew our odds weren't good. We really shouldn’t have made it (on fuel), and we didn’t, but we got to try.”
Paul Menard, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
For his part, Keselowski, who failed to make the Chase last year after winning the title in 2012, relishes having the same freedom Earnhardt’s team exhibited Sunday.
“I think that shows some of the opportunities that come up and how they can be stress-free days, “Keselowski said. “I’m looking forward to being able to take those same opportunities, because believe me, I’m not scared to take them, and I know Paul’s not, so look out. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2014 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 26: Graham DeLaet
Born: Jan. 22, 1982, Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Canada | Career PGA Tour Wins: 0 | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $2,834,900 (21st) | World Ranking: 30
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Graham DeLaet is a Canadian golfer who has not won on the PGA Tour, which makes it an oddity to find him on this list, but what he did in 2013 is just too hard to ignore. Graham, having never had a full swing lesson in his life, led the PGA Tour in Total Driving and Ball Striking, and at times strung shots together that made the game look laughably easy. A gym rat with tremendous speed and a homemade swing, he had struggled with his short game but enlisted the help of former Tour player and short-game wizard Gabriel Herjstedt, and the coaching paid off, as he finished second at the Barclays and third at the Deutsche Bank late in the year before posting back-to-back runner-up finishes at the Farmers and Waste Management Phoenix Open in 2014. Expect to see DeLaet on the leaderboard a lot this year.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - DNP
U.S. Open - DNP
British Open - 83
PGA Championship - Cut
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - n/a
U.S. Open - n/a
British Open - 83 (2013)
PGA Championship - Cut (2013)
Top-10 Finishes: 0
Top-25 Finishes: 0
Missed Cuts: 1
Athlon's 2014 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Dustin Johnson, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
The Red Sox were in the process of building a bridge when they decided to make it a launch pad. The shocking World Series title that followed brought the joy back to Boston baseball after two years of relentless negativity. What it didn’t do was change “The Plan.” General manager Ben Cherington intends to construct a homegrown powerhouse, which is why the Red Sox likely will take a step back in 2014 in service of a better tomorrow. Rather than bob blindly for apples in free agency — previous attempts left them soaked and sputtering — they watched their starting center fielder, catcher and shortstop hit the market. Within a month, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were gone, while Stephen Drew remains adrift in draft-compensation limbo. No matter. The Red Sox view turnover as a necessary step in the process of great teams staying that way, and rookies Xander Bogaerts and, perhaps Jackie Bradley Jr., will step right into the lineup as the roster makeover begins. If they deliver, that bridge may just lead into orbit once again.
If there’s a hangover from the title, this is where you’ll find it. Red Sox pitchers tossed an extra 142.1 high-stress innings in the playoffs, and most of those innings fell on the shoulders of their stout starters. Ace Jon Lester, for instance, saw his season total jump from 213 innings to 248, while John Lackey climbed from 189.1 to 215.1. Prior World Series winners have watched their starters suffer in ensuing seasons, and with a shortened winter of rest, the Red Sox will be jumping right back into the fire. The most fascinating hurler to watch will be Lester, whose regular season was workmanlike (15–8, 3.75) but whose postseason was otherworldly (4–1, 1.56). In the second half, he regained a 97 mph fastball and 93 mph cutter pretty much out of nowhere, and he looked like a Cy Young contender. If he maintains that form while seeking a contract extension, watch out. The rest of the rotation could go either way. Righthander Clay Buchholz led the Cy Young race until a June shoulder injury shelved him for three months. He survived on guts thereafter, but the Sox want to see more than 16 starts. Lackey, meanwhile, will need to be monitored after throwing so many innings in his return from Tommy John. Veterans Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster are vying with lefthanders Felix Doubront and Chris Capuano for the final two spots, with Dempster and Capuano likely the odd men out.
Koji Uehara: Greatest closer of all time? For half a season, anyway, it’s hard to argue anyone’s ever been better. The trick for the 39-year-old (on April 3) will be even roughly approximating his 2013 season for the ages, when he went 4–1 with a 1.09 ERA and 21 saves before allowing just one run and no walks in 13 lockdown postseason appearances. He’s far from alone. The Red Sox boast one of the deepest bullpens in the game, and there’s no secret to its success — throwing strikes. Uehara, righthander Junichi Tazawa and free-agent acquisition Edward Mujica combined to whiff 219 and walk only 26 last year. The return from a broken foot of lefthander Andrew Miller (14.1 K/9) should bolster a solid group that also includes lefty Craig Breslow and rookie righty Brandon Workman. There’s plenty of depth, too, with offseason acquisition Burke Badenhop — who’s tough on righthanders — and Dempster and Capuano also in the mix.
Rookie of the Year and MVP of the past, meet Rookie of the Year and MVP of the future. In second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Bogaerts, a shortstop, the Red Sox boast a pair of homegrown talents who could turn double plays for the next eight years. Pedroia is anxious to retake the field after playing all of last season with a torn thumb ligament that required November surgery. Bogaerts, meanwhile, proved wise beyond his years at age 21 in the playoffs and is a franchise-caliber talent. The Red Sox can only hope this pair is magic.
As the Red Sox watched free agents depart over the winter, they steadfastly maintained that they wanted Mike Napoli back, and the feeling was mutual. The slugging first baseman turned down at least one three-year offer to re-sign for two years and $32 million, bringing the beard back to Boston. Napoli set a franchise record for strikeouts (187) but more than compensated with homers (23), RBIs (a career-high 92), and a penchant for drama, living up to his reputation as a star on the brightest stage. The other side is murky, thanks to a sophomore slump out of third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who looked like a lineup anchor before becoming unmoored. If Middlebrooks struggles, prospect Garin Cecchini could get the call.
With Ellsbury gone, this group will have a new look. Bradley is a ball-hawking center fielder who struggled in his introduction to big-league pitching, batting just .189. However, his minor-league numbers track very closely to Ellsbury’s at a similar age, and the Red Sox believe in his on-base ability. But just as the Red Sox were prepared to hand him the job in center, along came the long lost Grady Sizemore. That's right. The once promising megastar for the Cleveland Indians, Sizemore is in camp with Boston and making believers everyday that he can be the center fielder. Right fielder Shane Victorino will be looking to defend his Gold Glove and once again come up clutch. The left field tandem of Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava, meanwhile, brings tough at-bats and the ability to win a game with one swing. Gomes, in particular, is an underrated defender, while Nava merely finished fifth in the American League in on-base percentage.
And here’s where the Red Sox rolled the dice. Once they benched Saltalamacchia in the World Series, it became clear they’d be in the market for a new backstop this winter. The only question was whether they’d open the purse strings for free agent Brian McCann. They didn’t, and then they missed out on Philadelphia’s Carlos Ruiz, too. That left them in scramble mode, and they settled on veteran A.J. Pierzynski, a 37-year-old who doesn’t exactly embody their ideals as a hitter (.297 OBP in 2013), but who was willing to sign for one year while prospects Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart develop.
No designated hitter has earned enshrinement in the Hall of Fame, but with all due respect to Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz is making the strongest case yet. When last we spied Big Papi, he was rampaging through the Cardinals to the tune of a .688 average and World Series MVP. Even at age 38, Ortiz remains by far the best designated hitter in baseball, which gives the Red Sox a huge advantage at a position that has strangely become a state of flux elsewhere. As for the bench, Jonathan Herrera comes aboard from Colorado to man second, third and short, while Mike Carp has the flexibility to play first or the outfield. Also returning is David Ross, widely considered the best backup catcher in baseball.
The Red Sox could not be in better hands. Cherington just won the Executive of the Year Award — a piece of hardware that somehow eluded predecessors Theo Epstein and Dan Duquette — and John Farrell finished second to good friend Terry Francona in the AL Manager of the Year race. Cherington and Farrell work in perfect harmony, with similar views on franchise building and lineup construction that reflect Farrell’s wealth of experience as a farm director and pitching coach. Also deserving credit is John Henry’s ownership group, which not only recognized the flaws in their over-reliance on free agency but also empowered Cherington to make the changes that resulted in a title.
The Red Sox need to be realistic about teams that come out of nowhere — they often return there. While the Sox could certainly contend for another World Series and will be right in the thick of the AL East race, they’re more likely to cede the stage. Last year they avoided major injuries (besides Buchholz) and got bounce-back years from virtually all of their 30-something free agents. Those players are now a year older, and an injury to Ortiz or Pedroia or even Victorino could be devastating. On the flip side, they’re beginning the process of getting younger with Bogaerts and Bradley, but entrusting two vital defensive positions to rookies generally isn’t a World Series-winning strategy, at least in Year 1. It’s Years 2 and beyond that have the Red Sox so excited.
LF Daniel Nava (S)
He may not be the leadoff prototype — he’s slow, and will platoon with Jonny Gomes — but he gets on base.
RF Shane Victorino (S)
The key for the Flyin’ Hawaiian will be staying healthy — back and hamstring troubles slowed him last year.
2B Dustin Pedroia (R)
The hope is that offseason thumb surgery allows Pedroia to regain the pop that made him an MVP.
DH David Ortiz (L)
The best DH in baseball history has shown no signs of slowing down but will be hard-pressed to top 2013.
1B Mike Napoli (R)
Strikeouts are just part of a package that thankfully includes homers and clutch hits.
SS Xander Bogaerts (R)
The rookie gets his first crack at a full-time job, and the expectation is that he’ll one day be a superstar.
C A.J. Pierzynski (L)
Free swinger doesn’t really fit the Sox mold offensively, but he was best one-year solution.
3B Will Middlebrooks (R)
The pressure will be on the youngster, who could lose his job to farmhand Garin Cecchini if he struggles again.
CF Jackie Bradley Jr. (L)
The plan all along had been to replace Jacoby Ellsbury with Bradley, who must prove he’s ready.
OF Jonny Gomes (R)
The spiritual and emotional leader of the team can also play a little, especially against lefthanders.
UT Mike Carp (L)
Carp knows his role — produce as a pinch-hitter and spot starter, even if it means sporadic at-bats.
INF Jonathan Herrera (S)
The Red Sox wanted protection around the infield, and Herrera provides it at three positions.
C David Ross (R)
Baseball’s best backup catcher is recovered from two concussions and will probably start around 60 games.
LH Jon Lester
Lester was a postseason monster (4–1, 1.56), and the Red Sox hope it carries over.
RH Clay Buchholz
Buchholz must prove he can stay healthy, because there’s no questioning his ability when he’s on the field.
RH John Lackey
Fans were chanting Lackey’s name by the end of 2013, when he looked like the ace he was with the Angels.
RH Jake Peavy
Peavy is trade bait and may not make it through the season, but as far as No. 4 starters go, he’s rock solid.
LH Felix Doubront
Veteran Chris Capuano will also be in the running for this spot, but Doubront has far more dynamic stuff.
RH Koji Uehara (Closer)
Attempting to duplicate one of the best seasons by any reliever, ever. He pounds the strike zone relentlessly.
LH Andrew Miller
Assuming his broken foot is healed, Miller is a weapon as a power arm who can dominate lefties and righties.
RH Junichi Tazawa
Had moments last year when it appeared he’d fall out of favor, but he rallied in the playoffs (1–0, 1.23).
LH Craig Breslow
Emerged as one of the team’s most dependable setup men and is a legitimate eighth-inning option.
RH Edward Mujica
Under-the-radar signing of the Cardinals’ deposed All-Star closer provides insurance if Uehara falters.
RH Burke Badenhop
Acquired from the Brewers because of his right-on-right ability (.574 OPS against in 2013).
LH Chris Capuano
The veteran lefty can get tough lefthanders as well as take sporadic spot starts.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Trey Ball, LHP
For all the excitement over arms like Henry Owens, Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, and Anthony Ranaudo, the highest ceiling may just belong to this former two-way standout. Scouted as a pitcher and center fielder, the 6'6" Ball went No. 7 overall to the Red Sox, who loved his mix of low-90s fastball, plus changeup and improving curveball. They signed him away from a scholarship to the University of Texas with a $2.75 million bonus. As is often the case with first-year pitchers, the Red Sox took things slowly with Ball, who made just five starts in the Gulf Coast League totaling seven innings (0–1, 6.43). He projects to open the season at Class A Greenville, and the Red Sox are in no rush to get him to the big leagues. Rival executives believe the 19-year-old could be posting numbers as eye-opening as Owens’ once he gets a couple of years under his belt.
RHP Matt Barnes (23)
Power pitcher with some command issues could join back of rotation in 2015 or maybe become a closer.
LHP Henry Owens (21)
The 6'6" southpaw is one of the best prospects in the game. Led minors in opponents’ average (.177), second in Ks (169).
RHP Allen Webster (24)
Has tremendous pure stuff, with a sinker that has approached 100 mph, but confidence is a major issue.
3B Garin Cecchini (22)
The minor-league leader in OBP (.443) could be here quickly if Will Middlebrooks struggles.
C Blake Swihart (21)
The athletic switch-hitter has a Buster Posey-like build (6'1", 175) and 20-homer potential.
2B Mookie Betts (21)
He may be a man without a position, thanks to Dustin Pedroia, but he’s got surprising power and speed.
Beyond the Box Score
Rich enough Think Dustin Pedroia is upset about Robinson Cano getting $240 million from the Mariners just months after Pedroia signed an extension that will earn him $109 million in that time? Guess again. Pedroia has a pet response when told he’s underpaid: “Are you kidding? I’m as rich as (expletive).”
Souvenir The Red Sox had one goal from the start of spring training — to ride Boston’s famous duck boats, which is how the city fetes its champions. Jake Peavy took that desire one step further, cutting a check for $75,000 and transporting one of the amphibious World War II era vehicles to his ranch in Alabama, where he intends to paint it Red Sox colors.
Magic Mike Mike Napoli put his money where his mouth is. The slugging first baseman — last seen wandering the streets of Boston shirtless following the World Series title — maintained all along he didn’t want to leave, and he proved it by leaving a three-year offer on the table from another club to re-sign for two years and $32 million. “This is where I want to be,” Napoli says.
Switching back Leg injuries forced postseason hero Shane Victorino to bat only right-handed from August on, and he excelled. This season, however, he plans to resume switch-hitting. “I worked so hard to be a switch-hitter,” he says. “I don’t want to stop.”
Shagadelic Rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. is considered a potential Gold Glover in center, and it traces back to a unique practice he calls “power shagging.” Rather than just catch lazy fly balls during batting practice, Bradley turns every swing into a game situation, sprinting from gap to gap and watching the hitter in the box intently. “I’m always trying to work on something,” he says. “You might see the same ball in a game.”
Closing strong Closer Koji Uehara’s teammates have grown to love him not just because of his indomitable stuff, but his sense of humor. The 38-year-old constantly complained about his age and would jokingly answer calls to warm up with, “No thank you.” After one comeback against the Yankees paced by the offense, Uehara burst into the clubhouse screaming, “Save for Koji!” Notes outfielder Daniel Nava: “If you can’t embrace Koji, you can’t embrace anybody.”
As is always the case it seems, there is no shortage of big stories in the Big Apple. Long-time shortstop and captain Derek Jeter is retiring after the season. Alex Rodriguez became a one-man bizarre reality show before reluctantly taking his 162-game medicine. And, oh yeah, the Yankees lost their best player to free agency when Robinson Cano signed with the Seattle Mariners in December. On the field, the way the Yankees’ roster is constructed, with aging, big-name players prone to injury and little help from the farm system, seasons like 2013 are bound to happen. The roster folded in on itself under an avalanche of injuries, and it took lots of front-office scrambling simply to field a team. The miracle is that the Yankees stayed in contention until the final week, and found a way to win 85 games. The departure of Cano does not help matters, but the influx of several dynamic free agents will make the Yankees dangerous again, as long as they have better health than they had last season — which, of course, is no sure thing.
The Yankees’ rotation posted a 4.08 earned run average last season, ranking 18th in the majors. And that included Andy Pettitte, who gave the team a mostly solid 30-start performance in his farewell campaign. Of course, it also included Phil Hughes, who struggled on his way out of the Bronx. So the club wasted little time over the winter in bolstering the group with the addition of one of the best pitchers in Japan in recent years, Masahiro Tanaka. After posting a 24-0 record last season, Tanaka was eager to show off his talents in the U.S. In addition to Tanaka, the front end of the 2013 rotation returns to the Yankees in CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova. Sabathia had the most wins on the staff, but Kuroda was the better pitcher until his late-season fade. Sabathia went 14–13 with a career-high 4.78 ERA and allowed the most earned runs in MLB. His average fastball velocity, 91.3 mph, was the lowest of his career. The Yankees must hope that, with a full season since his elbow clean-out in 2012, Sabathia can find more high-level consistency, like Kuroda showed for much of the season. Kuroda was 0–6 with a 6.56 ERA in his last eight starts, but his ERA was 2.33 through mid-August. He is 39, but if the Yankees manage his innings better, they could prevent another late-season collapse. Nova’s wicked curveball, which he uses more and more, helped him shake a wobbly start to the season and finish strong. For the back end, the Yankees are counting on Michael Pineda to be back after two years of shoulder problems and minor-league ineffectiveness. That’s a risky bet. Pineda’s career is on the line as he tries to prove he is healthy and can be effective once again. They have David Phelps, Adam Warren and David Huff around to compete with Pineda for the last spot.
The scene on the Yankee Stadium mound in late September, when Pettitte and Derek Jeter removed Mariano Rivera from his final appearance in the major leagues, was an emotional highlight that will resonate for many years. Now, the team must move forward with David Robertson in the role. There are worse fallback scenarios; Robertson has a strong strikeout rate, a track record of success in pressure situations, and the lessons absorbed from pitching alongside Rivera for six years. The bridge to him is a much bigger issue. In a free-agent market that yielded three-year contracts worth $5 million or more per season for Joe Smith and Boone Logan, the Yankees, perhaps, were wise to pass. But that leaves them with a bullpen riddled with questions beyond Shawn Kelley, Preston Claiborne and lefty Matt Thornton, 37, who signed for two years to replace Logan. Youngsters Cesar Cabral, a lefty, and righthander Dellin Betances will be given opportunities to impress during the spring.
The Yankees took exception to Cano’s assertion that they disrespected him during free agency, pointing out that they did offer to pay him $25 million per year for seven years. But even the Yankees have limits, and they were not as desperate as Seattle to hand over a 10-year deal to a player already past his 31st birthday. So Brian Roberts takes over at second base, after signing with the Yankees over the winter. The two-time All-Star spent 13 seasons in Baltimore and three times hit as many as 50 doubles in a season. But injuries have limited him to 192 games over the past four seasons, hitting just .246. Across the bag is Jeter, or so the Yankees hope. Jeter turns 40 this June and was limited to 17 games last season with continuing problems caused by his broken ankle. It’s unwise to ever doubt an all-time great, but it is natural to expect a regression, perhaps a significant one, for a player at Jeter’s age who essentially missed a full season and faced questions about his range on defense, even when healthy. But it’s highly doubtful Jeter won’t exit this game with style and success.
Mark Teixeira missed almost all of last season after tearing the tendon sheath in his wrist while swinging a weighted bat preparing for the World Baseball Classic last spring. Teixeira finally succumbed to surgery, and at 34 in April, he should be able to resume his career as one of the most productive switch-hitters in the game. The Yankees should be realistic, though; since posting a .963 OPS in 2007, Teixeira has experienced a decline in OPS every year since. He remains a well above-average defender at first base, with five Gold Gloves in his career. Kelly Johnson takes over for Rodriguez at third. He is prone to striking out, but as a lefty with power, he’s a safe bet to hit 20 or more home runs. He has made just 16 appearances at the hot corner — all of them last season with Tampa Bay — but showed decent range.
The Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract, taking away a sparkplug from the rival Red Sox and teaming him with Brett Gardner in the outfield. As left-handed hitters with exceptional speed, Ellsbury and Gardner are very similar players and add a different dynamic to an order that should have thunder in the middle. Ellsbury may slow down near the end of the deal, but for now, he and Gardner give the Yankees a tandem that should rattle plenty of pitchers and restore the Yankees’ position as a high-powered offense. In right field is Carlos Beltran, whom the Yankees snapped up within hours of losing Cano to Seattle. The Yankees wanted Beltran for only two years but committed to him for three and $45 million. Beltran, who turns 37 in April, showed with the Cardinals that he has plenty of high-quality baseball left in a possible Hall of Fame career. He will require regular time off and should see some time at DH.
The Yankees badly miscalculated after the 2012 season, letting Russell Martin sign with Pittsburgh for the relatively affordable price of two years and $17 million. Rather than wait for reinforcements from the farm system, the Yankees splurged on Brian McCann for five years and $85 million. They made McCann their top priority, valuing his lefty power bat, his success with young pitchers and his no-nonsense demeanor, which fits well with the Yankees’ serious self-image. Expect McCann, a seven-time All-Star in his 20s, to have a strong start to his 30s as an anchor in the middle of the lineup.
The Yankees never could have expected 17 homers and 50 RBIs in 58 games last season from Alfonso Soriano. But that’s what they got after re-acquiring Soriano in a trade with the Chicago Cubs, and the acquisition of two prominent outfielders in the offseason means that the Yankees can stash Soriano at DH now and then. Most likely, Soriano will continue to strike out a lot with a low on-base percentage, but he seemed invigorated by returning to New York and still has difference-making power. The Yankees’ fourth outfielder will be Ichiro Suzuki, but he could be dangled as trade bait. Manager Joe Girardi will sort out playing time at second and third among Johnson, Roberts, Eduardo Nunez and Brendan Ryan, giving the Yankees better depth, on paper, than they had for most of last season.
Hal Steinbrenner showed considerable restraint in sticking with his scouting and player development team despite its lack of results in recent years. He also retained Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman after the team failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Team executives find Steinbrenner harder to read than his bombastic father, George, but he has grown into the role atop the Yankees’ hierarchy and clearly understands the importance to the brand of spending big on marquee names. Cashman’s pro scouting department is highly regarded and generally finds one or two low-cost impact players every year.
The Yankees have enough players in the latter stages of their primes to form a relentless lineup. If they stay reasonably healthy, they will contend in the AL East.
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (L)
Hopes to join Ruth, Lyle, Boggs, Clemens and Damon as ex-Red Sox to win a ring with the Yanks.
SS Derek Jeter (R)
Turns 40 in June, but led league in hits just two years ago before his ankle betrayed him.
RF Carlos Beltran (S)
Has postseason OPS of 1.128 in 51 games. Now on his sixth team in the major leagues.
1B Mark Teixeira (S)
Dropped the weighted bat from his workouts after a wrist injury wiped out almost all of his 2013.
C Brian McCann (L)
Seven-time All-Star fills catching void and could see spike in power numbers in the Bronx.
DH Alfonso Soriano (R)
Averaged just 12.9 at-bats per homer for Yankees, a pace that seems unrealistic to sustain.
LF Brett Gardner (L)
Skill at working deep counts leads to strikeouts, but excels on defense and on the bases.
2B Brian Roberts (S)
Fun fact: He was the last batter at the original Yankee Stadium (grounded out to first).
3B Kelly Johnson (L)
Should hit at least 20 homers for Yankees, but strikes out a lot.
C Francisco Cervelli (R)
Handles staff well, but missed time with injury and drug suspension in 2013.
INF Brendan Ryan (R)
Defensive whiz should replace Jeter late in games; will that be awkward for the Captain?
INF Eduardo Nunez (R)
Supersub should get lots of starts at third base and plenty of time elsewhere.
OF Ichiro Suzuki (L)
Glut of left-handed-hitting outfielders could prompt Yanks to trade him.
LH CC Sabathia
Accepts his responsibility to return to ace status after subpar year.
RH Masahiro Tanaka
The 25-year-old Japanese import features a nasty splitter.
RH Hiroki Kuroda
Yanks must find ways to rest him during season to keep him fresh in September.
RH Ivan Nova
Re-established his status as a mid-rotation anchor with strong second half.
RH David Phelps
First order of business for the former 14th-round pick: reducing walk rate (3.6 per nine innings).
RH David Robertson (Closer)
Moved locker last year to be next to Mariano Rivera and learn from the game’s greatest closer.
RH Shawn Kelley
Strikeout specialist (71 in 53.1 innings) comes in handy with men on base.
RH Adam Warren
Former fourth-round pick is in the mix for a starting role; could be ready for next step.
RH Preston Claiborne
Slumped at the end of the 2013 season, but was rare farm-system find.
LH Matt Thornton
Held lefties to a .235 average last season for the White Sox and Red Sox.
RH Michael Pineda
After losing two full seasons to shoulder woes, Pineda’s once-promising career is on the line.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Eric Jagielo, 3B
The Yankees, who have looked to Alex Rodriguez (for better or worse) at third base for a decade, might have gotten his long-term successor in Jagielo, who hit .266/.376/.451 over 51 games for Staten Island in the New York-Penn League. Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ scouting director, told MLB.com that Jagielo was a “physical left-handed hitter with plus power” — in other words, precisely the kind of hitter who can thrive at Yankee Stadium. Jagielo turns 22 in May, and he needs more time in the minors. But Jagielo, the Big East Player of the Year in 2013 at Notre Dame, has experience with the wood bat, hitting 13 homers in the Cape Cod League in 2012. Jagielo was the first college position player taken in the first round by the Yankees since John-Ford Griffin in 2001. Incredibly, the last college position player drafted by the Yankees in the first round to actually play for the team was Thurman Munson, chosen fourth overall in 1968.
RHP Ty Hensley (20)
Missed all of last season after surgery to repair labrum in his hip. Big righthander has a high ceiling but needs to stay healthy.
OF Slade Heathcott (23)
Steadily climbing the ladder; .349 career OBP is good, but has shown little power.
C Gary Sanchez (21)
Posted .364 on-base percentage in 23 games at Class AA after hitting 13 homers in 362 at-bats for High-A Tampa.
OF Tyler Austin (22)
Hit .322/.400/.559 in 2012, but wrist injury hampered him last season and again in Arizona Fall League.
OF Mason Williams (22)
Progress stalled after promising ’12; hit just .153 in 17 games at Class AA.
C J.R. Murphy (22)
Mariano Rivera’s final catcher is now blocked by Brian McCann (and probably Sanchez, too).
RHP Rafael De Paula (23)
Yanks’ only Futures Game representative had a 6.06 ERA in 11 games for High-A Tampa.
Beyond the Box Score
Wasting no time The Yankees had their busiest offseason day in years on Dec. 6. In the morning, they learned they had lost Robinson Cano to the Mariners for 10 years and $240 million. In the afternoon, they re-signed Hiroki Kuroda for one year and $16 million, and at night, they signed Carlos Beltran for three years and $45 million. Also during the day, they lost outfielder Curtis Granderson — whom they were not trying to retain — to the Mets for four years and $60 million, while officially announcing Kelly Johnson’s one-year, $3 million agreement. And how did general manager Brian Cashman start that action-packed day? By rappelling down a 22-story building in Stamford, Conn., with Bobby Valentine, of course.
Dwindling viewers The Yankees launched the YES Network in 2002, and it instantly became an overwhelming success. But ratings plunged last season, with the Yankees’ aging, injury-ravaged roster failing to reach the playoffs. The Yankees lost 31.2 percent of their viewers on YES compared to 2012, losing about 111,000 viewers per game and leaving an average of about 244,000. Even in 2008, when they previously missed the playoffs, the Yankees’ games still attracted an average of 405,000 viewers. Now we know why the Yankees were so aggressive this offseason.
Human vacuum Shortstop Brendan Ryan spent less than three weeks with the Yankees last September, but they fell so hard for his glove that they signed him for two more years. Reliever Shawn Kelley, his teammate in Seattle and New York, described Ryan’s slick fielding: “I was telling everybody when we got him, you’ll see balls that, normally your whole career, you just assume are hits, and it’s like: ‘Oh wait, he got to it. Oh wait, he threw it. Oh wait, he got the guy out!’ Think about him doing that for six months, and the runs he saves over a season. If something gets by him, you know: ‘O.K., they earned that hit. If he couldn’t make the play, that’s my fault.’”
Player/publisher Derek Jeter doesn’t like to look beyond his playing career just yet, but in November he made an exception. Jeter announced that he was starting his own publishing imprint, Jeter Publishing, a partnership with Simon & Schuster. Jeter told the New York Times that the venture would combine his interests in business and in books, film and TV. “I think this sort of sets the blueprint for post-career,” he said.
An uber-confident, uber-talented guy in a red shirt and black pants cruised to a Sunday victory in the WGC-Cadillac Championship against the most talented field that golf could muster. And it wasn't Tiger Woods, who was wearing the uniform but couldn't produce the results. Patrick Reed, a chubby-cheeked, baby-faced 23-year-old, appropriated Tiger's Sunday sartorial preference and posted Tiger-esque results, cruising to a fairly relaxed one-shot win and then expressing an utter lack of surprise at his success.
At Donald Trump's toughened, tricked-up Doral, Reed earned his third PGA Tour win and then matched the tournament host in hubris and blustery self-belief, putting himself among the game's elite in his post-round comments. "I’ve worked so hard,” said Reed, who proceeded to give a brief resume recital. “I’ve won a lot in my junior career, did great things in my amateur career, was 6-0 in match play at NCAAs, won NCAAs two years in a row, was third individually one year. Now I have three wins out here on the PGA Tour.
"I just don’t see a lot of guys that have (won three times before age 24), besides Tiger Woods of course, and all of the other legends of the game,” he said. “I believe in myself — especially after how hard I’ve worked — that I’m one of the top five players in the world. To come out of a field like this and to hold on wire to wire like that, I feel like I’ve proven myself."
Gotta love the kid's confidence. Let's see how he holds up next month when he tees it up at Augusta in the first major championship of his career. Something tells us he'll be ready for the moment.
Meanwhile, Woods couldn't capitalize on a third-round 66, fighting through more back pain on his way to a Sunday 78, his worst-ever score on a Sunday. A swing from an awkward stance set off the back spasms that forced his withdrawal from the Honda last week. "If it flares up, it flares up," he said. "It's just a matter of keeping it calm, and we had a quick turnaround here from last week. It would be nice to have a week off where I can shut it down and get some treatment." Woods will return to action March 20 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where he's won seven times.
Here's a quick statistical summary of a weekend at Doral:
5 Reed becomes the fifth active player to earn his third PGA Tour win before his 24th birthday, joining Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson.
25 Reed also becomes the youngest winner of a World Golf Championship event, eclipsing Tiger Woods' record by 25 days.
8 On Sunday, Woods had only the eighth birdie-free round out of 1,128 rounds in his professional career.
564 Reed has vaulted up 564 spots in the World Golf Ranking since the start of 2013. He began last season 584th; as of this morning, he's No. 20.
318 A tournament-record 318 balls found the water hazards sprinkled throughout the Doral layout during the four days of the Cadillac, crushing the old tournament record of 220 in 2004. A windy Friday produced a field scoring average of 76.
The Blue Jays went all-in on 2013, trading several top prospects, boosting the payroll, attracting more fans — but winning only one more game and finishing last in the American League East. Most of the same cast returns for another try, with a lot less optimism but also much less hype. Don’t count them out, but don’t start planning that parade route, either.
Almost everything that could have gone wrong for the rotation did go wrong last season, as the Blue Jays’ starters often dug too deep of a hole for the offense to make up. We say almost because of Mark Buehrle, who proved again that he is the living example of the timeless baseball cliché: Never get too high or too low. Wherever he has pitched in the last five years — the White Sox, the Marlins or the Blue Jays — Buehrle has had 12 or 13 wins in each season, with nine to 13 losses, an ERA between 3.59 and 4.28, and at least 200 innings. He turns 35 in spring training, and until he shows otherwise, the Jays can expect the same for 2014. The rest of the rotation is harder to predict. R.A. Dickey had a respectable first season in Toronto but was unable to remain at the Cy Young level he displayed with the Mets in 2012. The knuckleballer was 4–7 with a 5.18 ERA through the end of May and gave up 23 homers in 18 home starts (with a 4.80 ERA), compared to 12 homers in 16 road starts, with a 3.57 ERA. Brandon Morrow has been a full-time starter for four seasons with the Jays but has yet to throw 180 innings in a season. He has more strikeouts than innings for Toronto but missed most of last season with an entrapped radial nerve in his right forearm. Morrow was throwing simulated games in Arizona in December. The Jays admit that they need him but also that he is a major question mark. The back of the rotation should be filled by J.A. Happ, who lost two months after a line drive to the head last season, and someone from the group of Todd Redmond, Esmil Rogers, Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek — most likely Drabek.
As bad as the Blue Jays’ rotation was, the season could have been a lot worse if not for one of the league’s better bullpens. The Jays ranked ninth in the majors in bullpen ERA, at 3.37. Righty Steve Delabar and lefty Brett Cecil both made the All-Star team before injuries and ineffectiveness spoiled their second halves. Even so, both are assets for this season in a bullpen that could have interchangeable closers in Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos, who showed that he was over his elbow problems. “They both could be very valuable for us,” manager John Gibbons said at the winter meetings. “The night that Janssen is not doing it, we've got Santos to do it.”
The Blue Jays liked what they saw late in the season from second baseman Ryan Goins, who hit only .252 but showed enough to make him the incumbent, according to Gibbons, going into spring training. Goins, 26, is a .273/.330/.376 hitter in the minors, without much speed, so he seems to have limited upside. Shortstop Jose Reyes is all about upside; the question is always whether or not he will be on the field to display it. Reyes has played in more than 133 games only once in the last five seasons, missing two months last season with an ankle injury suffered in April. He hit well enough (.296/.353/.427) but finished with only 15 stolen bases in 21 attempts and has four years left on his six-year, $106 million contract.
The Blue Jays alternated between Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind at first base, with each starting more than 70 games at the position and providing good pop. Encarnacion, 31, quietly had another remarkable season. In an era of ever-increasing strikeout totals, he fanned only 62 times, compared to 82 walks, and still managed 36 home runs. He’s that rare contact hitter who also has exceptional power. Third baseman Brett Lawrie started the season with a rib strain and also missed time with a sprained ankle. His production has gone steadily down since his impressive rookie showing in 2011, but in fairness, he has battled health problems and is only 24. He still has time for the breakout season many have predicted.
The Blue Jays see Melky Cabrera as an everyday left fielder. But Cabrera, who cashed in off an artificially inflated 2012 season that included a drug suspension, was nothing special last season, hitting .279 with three homers and a .322 on-base percentage in 372 plate appearances. Center fielder Colby Rasmus strikes out a lot, and while he has never really grown as a player over five years, he showed good range in the outfield and is a power threat who mashes righthanders (.284/.359/.534). Right fielder Jose Bautista is one of baseball’s premier power hitters and has made the All-Star team in each of the last four seasons, but he has played only 210 games the last two years, missing time with a wrist injury in 2012 and a hip problem late last year.
The Blue Jays parted ways with J.P. Arencibia, whose occasional power was not enough to make up for an astonishingly poor on-base percentage. In his place, they signed Dioner Navarro, a switch-hitter who has improved his OBP in each of the last four seasons. The Jays gave Navarro a two-year, $8 million deal, even though he made only 53 starts for the Cubs last year and has not been his team’s regular catcher since 2009 with Tampa Bay. At 30, he should be able to handle the increased workload, with Erik Kratz and Josh Thole on hand to back up. Kratz, a 29th-round draft pick by the Blue Jays in 2002, is a .220 career hitter with 18 homers in 378 major league at-bats, mostly with the Phillies.
Like Rasmus, Lind crushes righthanders but really struggles against lefties. Only three of his 23 homers came against lefthanders, who held him to a meager .208 average. Lind did chase fewer pitches out of the strike zone, and the overall patience at the plate resulted in a strong .357 overall OBP, his best mark since 2009. The Blue Jays picked up his $7 million option for 2014, but he faces free agency after this season with one last chance to show teams the potential he flashed five years ago. Off the bench, Anthony Gose has excellent speed and worked on his skills in winter ball; he could challenge Cabrera for playing time. Another spare outfielder, Moises Sierra, is out of options and has value as a right-handed bat, especially given how poorly Lind and Rasmus hit lefties. Infielder Maicer Izturis had his worst offensive season but offers versatility as an option at third, short and second.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos, a Montreal native, understands the potential of the Blue Jays, who are the only team in Canada and are backed by a communications giant. He traded top prospects on a bet that 2013 could be the year the Jays broke a two-decade postseason drought — and lost badly. But even last April, Anthopoulos was looking beyond one season. “This team’s not built only for ’13,” he told the New York Times. “No matter what happens, this team has a chance to be together for a while.” True to his word, Anthopoulos kept the core largely intact and retained Gibbons, the feisty, folksy manager who understands the marketplace, manages his bullpen effectively and works well with the front office.
It would be fitting, in a can’t-predict-baseball kind of way, if the Blue Jays made their move just when the rest of the league stopped paying attention. It could happen, because there’s undeniable talent on this roster. But last season showed that relying on injury-prone hitters and a rotation full of questions was no guarantee to produce a winner. The Jays need to improve their defense, generate runs consistently in ways other than the homer and, above all, get more from a rotation whose 4.81 ERA last season ranked 29th in the majors, ahead of only the Twins. That’s asking an awful lot in a division with the World Series champion Red Sox, the strong-armed Rays, the free-spending Yankees and an Orioles team that has averaged 89 wins the last two years. Toronto could surprise, but will more likely stay in the cellar.
SS Jose Reyes (S)
Incredible stat of the year: Reyes had 382 at-bats and zero triples.
LF Melky Cabrera (S)
One more year to prove the Blue Jays weren’t suckered by his PED-fueled success.
RF Jose Bautista (R)
Powerful anchor of lineup must stay healthy for a full season. Has 152 HRs since 2010.
1B Edwin Encarnacion (R)
Stolen from Reds in ’09 deal for now-retired Scott Rolen. Has 214 RBIs in last two seasons.
3B Brett Lawrie (R)
At 24, he still has potential to live up to promise he showed as a rookie in 2011.
DH Adam Lind (L)
Free-agent-to-be has never repeated ’09 peak, but had solid .854 OPS last year.
CF Colby Rasmus (L)
This may be what he is: good power, lots of strikeouts. Productive, but not a star.
C Dioner Navarro (S)
Learned plate discipline (.365 OBP) while playing for the Reds with Joey Votto.
2B Ryan Goins (L)
Tied franchise record by hitting safely in first eight career games.
INF Maicer Izturis (S)
His sickly .597 OPS knocked him from a possible starting role.
C Josh Thole (L)
Light hitter but has good rapport with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
OF Anthony Gose (L)
Former second-round pick of the Phillies has 250 steals in parts of six minor-league seasons.
OF Moises Sierra (R)
His name, if not his stats, conjures up two notable sluggers of the ’90s.
C Erik Kratz (R)
Power bat gives Jays a threat in lineup when Navarro gets a day off.
RH R.A. Dickey
Battled inconsistency and nagging injuries to pile up innings and go 14–13.
LH Mark Buehrle
At least 10 wins and 200 innings for 13 consecutive seasons.
RH Brandon Morrow
Oblique muscle injury cut short 2012 season; last year, it was forearm trouble.
LH J.A. Happ
Starts fresh after season marred by three-month recovery from liner off head.
RH Kyle Drabek
Former first-round pick is returning from major surgery.
RH Casey Janssen (Closer)
Named Jays Pitcher of the Year after recording 34 saves and 0.987 WHIP.
RH Sergio Santos
Jays hope third Toronto season’s a charm after he had a 1.75 ERA in 29 games.
RH Steve Delabar
All-Star in the first half, injured and ineffective in the second half.
LH Brett Cecil
Former starter found success in relief, where his fastball plays up.
LH Aaron Loup
Doesn’t have Cecil’s stuff, but had better ERA than his fellow lefty.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Clinton Hollon, RHP
After failing to sign their top draft choice in 2011 — right-handed pitcher Tyler Beede, who chose Vanderbilt over the Jays — Toronto did not sign Phillip Bickford, whom they chose 10th overall but who enrolled at Cal State-Fullerton instead. The Jays did not make another pick until the 47th selection, when they nabbed Hollon, a high school righthander from Kentucky. In 17.1 innings spread between the Gulf Coast and Appalachian leagues, Hollon had 15 strikeouts and a 3.12 ERA. He has a mid-90s fastball and an exceptional slider, and a March 2012 report on ESPN.com called him the best pitcher among all high school juniors. Scouts did not share that opinion when Hollon was a senior — there was a reported issue with his ulnar collateral ligament — but only seven high school pitchers were drafted ahead of him, and the Blue Jays had reason to be pleased by his brief pro debut.
OF D.J. Davis (19)
Faded after a hot start for rookie-level Bluefield, hitting .240 with 76 strikeouts in 225 at-bats. He does, however, have 38 steals in 118 career games.
RHP Aaron Sanchez (21)
Followed up a solid season for Class A Dunedin by posting a 1.16 ERA in 23.1 innings in Arizona Fall League.
RHP Marcus Stroman (22)
Duke product transitioned from bullpen to rotation and went 9–5, 3.30 in 20 starts at Class AA New Hampshire.
RHP Roberto Osuna (19)
Held his own in Midwest League at age 18 and has more strikeouts than innings over three pro seasons.
LHP Sean Nolin (24)
Lost his MLB debut last year, but is 23–10, 2.95 across four seasons in minors.
LHP Daniel Norris (20)
Second-rounder from 2011 has 143 strikeouts in 133.1 pro innings, but a 5.40 ERA.
Beyond the Box Score
One and done Chad Mottola got just one season to try to spark the Blue Jays’ offense as hitting coach. When Toronto’s run total decreased for the fourth year in a row, the Jays let Mottola go and replaced him with Kevin Seitzer, the former All-Star third baseman who previously coached for the Royals and preaches using the whole field.
Feelin’ the love The Blue Jays improved their record by just one win last season while dropping in the standings from fourth place to last. But they were big winners at the box office. Their makeover after the 2012 season boosted ticket sales significantly, and the club exceeded 2.5 million fans for the first time since 1997.
Head games J.A. Happ missed three months last season after suffering a fractured skull when a line drive by the Rays’ Desmond Jennings struck him just below his left ear. Happ, who also sprained knee ligaments when he fell, said he first worried that the blood he felt around the ear was brain fluid. But he insisted after returning that he would not — and could not — be afraid. “I think it’s just knowing that hesitation is going to cripple your ability to perform,” Happ told the New York Times in August. “If you pitch a little scared, you’re not going to be finishing pitches.”
Good as Gold At 14–13, R.A. Dickey did not come close to repeating as a Cy Young Award winner in 2013. But in his debut season in Toronto, Dickey did become the first Blue Jays pitcher ever to win a Gold Glove Award. The Jays had gone seven years without a Gold Glove winner, since Vernon Wells won in 2006.
On the move The Blue Jays’ spring training home in Dunedin, Fla., sits next to a library, fitting snugly into a residential area with limited parking options and tight workout facilities for the players. But while other teams have fled their complexes for plush new surroundings, the Jays have been loyal to Dunedin since their first spring as a franchise in 1977. That appears to be changing now, with the Jays and the Houston Astros close to finalizing an agreement to move across the state to a shared complex to be built in Palm Beach Gardens. Tentatively, the new facility would open in 2016, with help from $100 million in taxpayer funds.
New Year’s Day passed without the intensely rumored trade of David Price. As one of the most desirable players to hit the market in recent years — a Cy Young winner in his prime with two years remaining before free agency — he is certain to command an enormous return. Tampa Bay, however, has the luxury of patience. The club can use him to patch roster holes for this season, wait and assess its pennant prospects at the trade deadline, or defer the decision for a year. As it stands, the team is equipped to return to the postseason with largely the same cast as in 2013. Once again, the pitching and defense will be asked to run interference for an unexceptional batting order. The bullpen roles need to be sorted out, but the starting rotation looks solid with or without its ace. It’s a familiar formula for the Rays — one that positions them for annual AL East contention, but not necessarily for a deep run in October. “There hasn’t been an offseason with minimal turnover,” GM Andrew Friedman said over the winter. “It’s who we are.” But who they are in 2014 may not be discernible until he pulls the trigger on Price. Or not.
Price was a different pitcher, for better or worse, last season. His average fastball declined 2.0 mph from 2012, when he won 20 games. He also used it far less frequently, and became more control-oriented following a scare with triceps pain, walking only three of 258 batters in one stretch. He’s had elite success with either approach, and he’s the Rays’ most influential “clubhouse guy.” Similarly, Matt Moore’s heater has cooled off — from 95.3 as a rookie to 92.3 last year, when he lost confidence in it. After starting 8–0 with a 2.18 ERA, he scuffled through a long series of tedious starts, leaning on his changeup due to a baffling lack of fastball command. Though tarnished a bit, he can be a star if he figures it out. Alex Cobb passed Moore in the pecking order thanks to the emergence of a dynamic two-seamer to go with his deluxe changeup. He’s an extreme groundball pitcher who allowed three or fewer earned runs in 19 of his 22 starts. Chris Archer, whose .226 opponents average led AL rookies (min. 100 innings), features crackling stuff and a high ceiling. “He’s got such a strong mental game,” manager Joe Maddon says. “(He) really understands routine and process.” Throwing quality strikes to left-handed hitters has been anything but routine for him. Jeremy Hellickson, the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year, regressed shockingly. Like Moore, his fastball location evaporated, making his bread-and-butter changeup far less effective. He underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery in January, so he won’t be available until May at the earliest. Rookie Jake Odorizzi is more than ready to step in, and affords the Rays the luxury of easing Hellickson back in slowly, probably out of the bullpen initially.
The Rays have made a science of cobbling together harmonious bullpens, but the back end of this one could be a game of musical chairs. Its composition starts, as usual, with reclamation projects. They need either Heath Bell or Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) to turn back the clock two years. From 2009-11, the duo combined to save 224 games. Since then, the former has been nothing but hittable and the latter has undergone Tommy John surgery. After the Orioles backed off of an agreement with former Oakland closer Grant Balfour citing physical concerns, the Rays swooped in and brought Balfour back to Tampa Bay where he pitched from 2007-10. Balfour, who saved 38 games for the A’s last season, is the favorite to close. If he can, the rest should fall into place. Bell, who still throws hard but has a tendency to hang his curve, could be an effective setup man. Elastic-armed Joel Peralta has been effective in the eighth inning, while a pair of live-armed lefties indulge Maddon’s matchup mania. One-pitch pony Jake McGee threw 84.7 percent of his offerings at 95 mph or higher, and Cesar Ramos, who was actually more effective against righties last season, held opponents to a .138 average with two outs and runners in scoring position.
All four infielders were Gold Glove finalists in 2013, including second baseman Ben Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar, whose 11 combined errors tied for the third-fewest ever by a keystone combo. Both led the league and set team records for fielding percentage at their posts. Zobrist’s versatility extends to numerous positions. The team’s all-time walks leader, he has driven in more than 70 runs in five straight seasons. Escobar drips with mustard, but the Rays relished his game enough to pick up his option, confident he has more bat than he showed last year.
Evan Longoria remains the nexus of the offense. Lacking protection, he gets pitched around and is forced to expand the zone, resulting in so-so batting averages and soaring strikeout sums, but only Miguel Cabrera hit more home runs among AL third sackers. His next will match Carlos Peña for the franchise record. The re-signing of James Loney to play first base was a mixed blessing. Having never gone deep more than 15 times in eight seasons, he’s not the positional prototype. On the other hand, there are no prospects in the offing; he was the best available option; he raked .299 against both righties and lefties; and, like Longoria, he has few peers as a defender.
For a team that struggles to score, the offensive sequencing must work with precision — meaning the Rays will need big years from leadoff man Desmond Jennings and potential mid-order masher Wil Myers. Jennings has yet to develop into “that guy.” Although he’s shown flashes of being an all-around center fielder in the Jacoby Ellsbury mold, he gets himself out too much and can be misplay-prone. Maddon calls Myers “the proverbial five-tool guy. Maybe the six-tool with the makeup.” The 23-year-old reigning Rookie of the Year projected to .293-24-98 over 162 games but will have to amend his three strikeouts-per-walk ratio and shake off a horrid postseason. Steady David DeJesus was re-upped to man left field in a platoon with Sean Rodriguez. Both are rangy and athletic with borderline bats.
The Rays look to their catchers for defense first. Good thing. Their .636 OPS from the position during the last five seasons is the majors’ lowest. New starter Ryan Hanigan did an injury-impacted .567 last year for the Reds, but he is, as per Friedman, “tremendously talented” behind the dish. A future manager-type who is worshipped by his pitchers, Hanigan threw out runners at twice the rate of Rays receivers in 2013.
Unless a much-needed left-handed stick is added, the plan is to rotate the outfield starters and Matt Joyce at DH. He walks into some home runs against righthanders but hasn’t come close to fulfilling his promise. The sparse bench talent as a whole is offset by the endless versatility of players such as Zobrist and Rodriguez, as well as rookie Vince Belnome. Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, the organization’s 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, has a chance to stick. Baseball Prospectus once called Jose Molina’s pitch-framing skills “so superlative that it made him the best pitch-for-pitch defensive catcher of the past 60 years.” So there’s that.
The only thing smaller than this team’s payroll is its margin for error. With four postseason appearances in six years — an achievement 10 franchises have never equaled in their histories — owner Stu Sternberg, president Matt Silverman and executive VP Friedman have dexterously stayed within it. To their model of scouting, advanced data analysis and sleight-of-hand money management, Maddon adds a meld of baseball sophistication, motivational sloganeering and everybody-have-fun-tonight zaniness. The total package is the best in the game.
If and when the Rays move Price, they undoubtedly will help secure future viability with a package of premier prospects. To secure present viability as a possible contender, they must also get some near-term help coming back. There is a dire need for pop from the left side, another base-stealer, and a bench bat or two. Puttying up every fissure may be unrealistic, but this team has never had the luxury of covering all the bases; it just keeps the pressure on the opposition in hopes of one day getting all the way home if someone else drops the ball.
CF Desmond Jennings (R)
Hit AL-best .492 (30 for 61) with three HRs when he made contact on the first pitch.
LF David DeJesus (L)
Attempting to play a full season for a winning team for the first time in his 12-year career.
2B Ben Zobrist (S)
Staffed multiple positions in the same game an MLB-leading 36 times.
3B Evan Longoria (R)
No. 3 all time in extra-base hits (373) for a third baseman through six seasons.
RF Wil Myers (R)
First player to lead AL rookies in RBIs in fewer than 90 games since Hoot Evers in 1946.
1B James Loney (L)
Set Rays franchise record with .351 batting average on the road.
DH Matt Joyce (L)
Rays were 35–13 when he hit in either the 2-, 6- or 7-hole in the batting order.
C Ryan Hanigan (R)
Gunned down the highest percentage of base-stealers in the NL each of last two seasons.
SS Yunel Escobar (R)
Fifth among shortstops in fielding percentage (.982) over the past three campaigns.
C Jose Molina (R)
Second to his brother Yadier among active catchers with 25 career pickoffs.
UT Vince Belnome (L)
Triple-A Durham MVP ranked second in International League with .408 OBP.
OF Kevin Kiermaier (L)
Batted .307 in Double-A — .001 away from Southern League batting crown.
UT Sean Rodriguez (R)
Committed only one error in 90 total games at five different positions.
LH David Price
Went 9–4 with 2.53 ERA in 18 starts following return from 47-day DL stint.
RH Alex Cobb
Went 2–2 with 3.06 ERA against AL teams that made the postseason in 2013.
LH Matt Moore
Was youngest lefthander since Babe Ruth in 1917 to open a season 8–0.
RH Chris Archer
Only pitcher ever to defeat the Yankees each of the first three times he started against them.
RH Jake Odorizzi
Twice has been removed after pitching at least seven innings of a combo no-hitter in the minors.
RH Grant Balfour (Closer)
In three years in Oakland as a setup man and closer, Balfour held opponents to a .187 average and registered a hold or save in 105 of 116 save situations.
RH Heath Bell
Tied Huston Street for most home runs allowed (12) by an NL reliever.
RH Joel Peralta
Set major-league record (calculated since 1952) with 41 holds in 2013.
RH Juan Carlos Oviedo
Saved 92 games for Marlins from 2009-11, when he was known as Leo Nunez.
LH Jake McGee
Was saddled with third-highest inherited runners scoring percentage (46.2) in majors.
RH Brandon Gomes
Has held right-handed hitters to .195 average in career, but .318 vs. lefties.
RH Jeremy Hellickson
Opponents’ average with runners in scoring position rose from .194 in 2011-12 to .333 last season.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Nick Ciuffo, C
The Rays have drafted only one catcher who’s ever had as many as 150 hits in their uniform (Toby Hall, in 1997). If Ciuffo becomes the second, it won’t be for quite awhile. The 19-year-old South Carolina High School Player of the Year batted .258 without a homer in rookie ball, but threw out 14-of-37 base-stealers, after being picked 21st. His left-handed swing might produce average power eventually, but he’s not really dialed in to the strike zone right now. He’s been compared by some scouts to A.J. Pierzynski for his bat and intensity, but with more defensive tools. GM Andrew Friedman describes Ciuffo as “very animated” and “extremely driven.” The club signed him for slot away from South Carolina, which had offered him a scholarship when he was 14.
RHP Taylor Guerrieri, (21)
Last June, Guerrieri was one of the top pitching prospects in the game. By October, he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery while serving a suspension for recreational drug use. Boom or bust.
RHP Jake Odorizzi (24)
Took a step forward in the second half and may ultimately outperform the No. 4 starter tag pinned on him.
LHP Enny Romero (23)
Has command issues to conquer, but showed off his live arm in a key spot start late last year. Groomed for the 2015 rotation.
SS Hak-Ju Lee (23)
Speedy, slick defender who was off to .422-hitting start in Triple-A before blowing out his knee on April 20.
CF Andrew Toles (21)
Rocket led Midwest League with .326 average and 16 triples, and stole a team-record 62 bases. Awful SO-to-BB ratios, though.
RHP Alex Colome (25)
Explosive stuff, but inability to physically handle a starter’s workload will probably relegate him to relief duties.
Beyond the Box Score
Faithful Fans A Tampa Bay Times story alerted the Rays front office to a group of their most “devoted” fans — elderly Benedictine Sisters who donned team jerseys to watch every game on their tiny, archaic tube television, cheering good plays and grousing about losses. So last August, the club invited them to make the 90-minute trip to The Trop, where they were assigned VIP seating and presented with a modern TV to rock at the monastery.
Scouting Slump Joe Maddon calls the draft “our version of free agency,” but lately it’s been a poor substitute. As of Opening Day last year, none of the 253 players the Rays drafted from 2008-13 were on an MLB roster. They were the only team in baseball that did not have a draft pick during that span in the majors. By September, four had made debuts, albeit two (Derek Dietrich and Zac Rosscup) with other teams.
Techno Joe It comes as no surprise that Maddon is looking forward to this season’s instant replay innovations. “Of course I like it,” says the progressive poobah. “I like flat-screen TVs with high definition. I like air conditioning in my 1956 Bel Air. I like computers. That group that argues against technology and advancement, I challenge them to throw away all this stuff. Their microwaves, throw them away. To just bury your head in the sand and just reference old-school all the time is really a poor argument.”
Relocation Reset The 2013 Rays were the first team with the lowest turnout in the majors ever to reach the postseason. The last two editions were the first 90-win teams in history to finish at the bottom of a league in patronage. Negotiating a way out of their lengthy Tropicana Field lease with the city — ostensibly to build a new ballpark — has become more of a possibility with the mayoral defeat of polarizing hard-liner Bill Foster by Rick Kriseman. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has lost patience: “You look at a club that’s competitive that’s averaging 18,000 people a game. That may have been OK in 1956. It’s not OK today.”
Wins at All Costs The Yankees are the only team to win more regular-season games than the Rays since 2008 — 564 to 550. For that privilege, they’ve shelled out approximately $905 million more dollars in salary — or $64.7 million per victory.
Two years after posting a winning record and making the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, the Baltimore Orioles look like a team that’s destined to finish closer to the bottom of the AL East than the top. The rotation lacks innings-eaters, the back end of the bullpen lacks a proven closer, and it’s anybody’s guess who will bat leadoff or play second base. The Orioles have a nice core group of players, one of the best in baseball, but that’s probably not enough to put them ahead of the big spenders in their own division. Or even ahead of the Rays.
Chris Tillman is the undisputed ace of this staff after winning 16 games with a 3.71 ERA last year and being chosen to the All-Star team. But he may have more help this season. Ubaldo Jimenez, signed just before spring training, won 13 games for Cleveland last season after putting together a terrific second half. Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris are pretty much assured spots in the rotation. Chen, who missed two months with an oblique injury, is the likely No. 3 starter behind Tillman and Jimenez. He just needs to maintain his effectiveness past the sixth inning. Gonzalez seems to benefit from extra rest, which isn’t always available to him. Norris was bothered by elbow stiffness in September. The fifth spot could go to lefthander Zach Britton, who’s out of options, but he’ll need to earn it, as well as have one of the others slip. Former first-round pick Kevin Gausman has an outside shot at making the rotation, but he’s probably still a year away. The club would like him to have another solid season at Triple-A.
The Orioles backed out of their two-year, $15 million agreement with Grant Balfour following his physical, leaving Tommy Hunter as the likely replacement for closer Jim Johnson, who posted 101 saves the past two seasons. Hunter has four career saves, all of them in 2013. It’s a gamble. There are quality setup men in Darren O’Day and Ryan Webb, who signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal after the Marlins non-tendered him. The club believes in Suk-Min Yoon from Korea enough to sign him to a three-year deal. He has enjoyed success in Korea and in international competition. He could be a huge boost by providing quality innings for starters who last only five innings. Two other righthanders acquired during the offseason, Brad Brach and Edgmer Escalona, might be competing for one spot. Brian Matusz dominates lefthanders and struggles mightily with righthanders, earning him the designation of lefty specialist. Troy Patton is the other lefty in the pen, but he’ll sit out the first 25 games while serving a suspension for a second positive test for amphetamines. The Orioles have lots of candidates for the long relief spot, including Josh Stinson and Britton, both out of options.
J.J. Hardy is a certainty at shortstop despite all the trade rumors swirling around him over the winter. He’s in the final year of his contract, and the Orioles want to talk about an extension for him. He’s topped 20 home runs in three consecutive seasons and gives the team Gold Glove defense. He’s the infield leader. Second base is a riddle after Brian Roberts left via free agency. Former Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty is the leading candidate to replace him, but he’ll have to beat out Jemile Weeks, who was acquired from the A’s for Johnson. Jonathan Schoop might be the long-term solution, but he’s expected to begin the year at Triple-A Norfolk.
Manny Machado won a Gold Glove in his first full season in the majors, and his first full season at third base. He pretty much dazzled on a nightly basis, and any talk of moving him to shortstop, his natural position, has been tabled for now. After suffering a serious knee injury last in the year, he’s spent the winter trying to make himself ready by Opening Day. If he’s still a bit gimpy in April, Flaherty will likely hold down the fort at third. But Machado will be sorely missed both offensively and defensively. Chris Davis finished third in AL MVP voting after belting 53 home runs and driving in 138 runs. He also was a finalist for a Gold Glove at first base after looking so bad at the position in 2012. The Orioles are set at the corners, but Rule 5 pick Michael Almanzar will try to stay on the roster as a backup at both positions.
Center fielder Adam Jones won his third Gold Glove and his first Silver Slugger Award after totaling 35 doubles, 33 homers and 108 RBIs. He’s played in 162 and 160 games the past two seasons, respectively, so he can add durability to his impressive résumé. Nick Markakis is in the final year of a contract that will pay him $15 million this year. The Orioles hold a $17.5 million option for 2015, but it’s not likely to be exercised. Markakis remains a plus-defender, but he posted a career-low 24 doubles, 10 homers and .685 OPS. He must rediscover his power. Nate McLouth is gone, having signed a free-agent deal with the Nationals, and David Lough is expected to replace him in left field. Lough, acquired from the Royals for infielder Danny Valencia, finished eighth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. He’s a plus-defender who hits lefties much better than McLouth. Nolan Reimold, recovering from a second surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his neck, could platoon with Lough. Henry Urrutia is raw defensively and better suited to DH. The Orioles also signed former Giants outfielder Francisco Peguero and will give him a shot to win a job.
The Orioles haven’t made any progress in signing Matt Wieters to an extension. He’s two years away from free agency and a Scott Boras client. This may not end well. In the meantime, Wieters continues to provide stellar defense behind the plate, and he’s got 20-plus homer power. However, his average slipped to .235 and his OBP to .287. That’s a concern. Baltimore native Steve Clevenger, acquired from the Cubs last July, is the frontrunner to back up Wieters. Johnny Monell, acquired from the Giants, is on the 40-man roster and will try to unseat Clevenger.
Baltimore waited until the final hour in the offseason to jump into the free agency fray. The club signed former Ranger Nelson Cruz in addition to Jimenez as teams were assembling in Florida and Arizona. Cruz provides a huge boost at DH. Last season. the Orioles were among the worst in the league in production from the extra hitter. The Orioles lack a backup middle infielder if Flaherty is starting at second base. He could slide over to shortstop if the Orioles keep Weeks and put him at second. Almanzar will be given every chance to stick on the 25-man roster, but he’s limited defensively. He’d have to serve as a backup at the infield corners. Lough and Reimold may end up sharing left field and the fourth outfield spot. With the signing of Cruz, Urrutia may be the odd man out. He’s limited defensively and Cruz won’t leave him many at-bats at DH. Outfielder Steve Pearce is out of options, and the Orioles will try to find a spot for him. They like his bat, though his skill set is too similar to Reimold’s. Can they both exist on the same roster?
The Orioles have posted a winning record in Dan Duquette’s two seasons as executive vice president of baseball operations. They made the playoffs in 2012 for the first time since 1997. His specialty is depth moves, which prove valuable at times but don’t appease a frustrated fan base that’s still waiting for a big signing or trade. The Johnson deal with the A’s was extremely unpopular with players, and manager Buck Showalter couldn’t have been celebrating it. Showalter is one of the best managers in the game — few if any operate a bullpen any better — but he can only do so much. Will he grow frustrated with the Orioles’ refusal to spend money and regret signing that extension? The club’s reputation took another serious hit with the Balfour fiasco, raising questions over how much owner Peter Angelos is calling the shots.
The Orioles made big strides over the past two seasons, even without qualifying for the playoffs last season, but they appear to have taken a step backward, even considering the late flurry of roster upgrades heading into spring training. The Orioles have an outstanding nucleus of players in Jones, Markakis, Machado, Hardy, Davis and Wieters. Most clubs envy the Orioles for rolling out that group each night. But the rotation has too many guys who can’t regularly work into the late innings; Hunter is no sure thing at closer; and making Flaherty the starting second baseman weakens the bench. At some point, the only way to keep pace in baseball’s toughest division is to make a big acquisition.
RF Nick Markakis (L)
Could bat in leadoff spot by default and is a career .329/.375/.441 hitter atop the order.
3B Manny Machado (R)
Orioles still confident Machado will be ready by mid-April, if not Opening Day, after undergoing knee surgery.
1B Chris Davis (L)
Team MVO led majors with 53 home runs, 96 extra-base hits and 370 total bases.
CF Adam Jones (R)
Had 30 home runs, 100 runs and 100 RBIs in same season for first time.
DH Nelson Cruz (R)
After serving a 50-game suspension for his connection with Biogenesis, Cruz rejected Texas’ $14.1 million qualifying offer and settled for eight million from the O’s.
C Matt Wieters (S)
Coming off career-low .235 batting average and .287 OBP, but his defense remains superb.
SS J.J. Hardy (R)
Exceeded 20 homers for a third straight season and won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
LF David Lough (L)
Placed eighth in AL Rookie of the Year voting with Royals after hitting .286.
2B Ryan Flaherty (L)
More valuable in a utility role but might be forced to start as Brian Roberts’ replacement.
OF Nolan Reimold (R)
Limited to 56 games past two seasons with injuries and two surgeries to fuse vertebrae in neck.
INF Jemile Weeks (S)
Will compete for second base job after arriving in Jim Johnson trade with A’s.
C Steve Clevenger (L)
Local product acquired from Cubs with Scott Feldman in Jake Arrieta/Pedro Strop trade.
OF Henry Urrutia (L)
Cuban import may be caught in numbers game and begin the season at Triple-A while working to improve outfield skills.
INF Michael Almanzar (R)
Rule 5 pick from Red Sox replaces Danny Valancia as right-handed corner infielder/DH.
RH Chris Tillman
Emerged as staff ace after winning career-high 16 games and logging 206.1 innings.
RH Ubaldo Jimenez
The free agent from Cleveland posted a 1.82 ERA in 13 second-half starts.
LH Wei-Yin Chen
Tends to lose effectiveness after sixth inning, as evidenced by 10.57 ERA in seventh last year.
RH Miguel Gonzalez
Was 7–3 with a 3.48 ERA in first half and 4–5 with a 4.22 ERA in second half.
RH Bud Norris
Was 4–3 with a 4.80 ERA in 11 games (nine starts) after trade with Astros.
RH Tommy Hunter (Closer)
Leading in-house candidate to be closer despite only four career saves, all coming in 2013.
RH Darren O’Day
Righthanders batted .154 against club’s top setup man, but lefties hit .309.
RH Ryan Webb
Orioles signed former Marlins sinkerballer to two-year, $4.50 million deal.
RH Suk-Min Yoon
The Orioles singed the native of Korea to a three-year deal that guarantees him $5,575,000 and could be worth more than $13 million.
RH Brad Brach
Spot opens up for former Padre if Hunter is needed to close; struck out 31 in 31 innings pitched in ’13.
LH Brian Matusz
Lefty specialist prefers to start but is hurt by righthanders’ career .305 average.
LH Troy Patton
Will miss first 25 games while serving suspension for second positive test for amphetamines.
RH Josh Stinson
Possible swingman is out of options; allowed one earned run in 11.1 relief innings.
LH Zach Britton
Former top pitching prospect (third-round pick in ’06) is out of options and fighting for roster spot.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Hunter Harvey, RHP
The son of former major league closer Bryan Harvey was the third consecutive righthander taken by the Orioles in the first round, joining Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Harvey was an easy sign out of Bandys High School in North Carolina, making it known before the draft that he had little interest in going to college (he didn’t even commit to a school). Harvey’s youthful face and slender build make him appear as though he’s in middle school, but he pitched like a pro, allowing five earned runs in 25.1 innings, with six walks and 33 strikeouts. The Orioles split his time between the Gulf Coast League and New York-Penn League, and he could advance to Low-A Delmarva in 2014. He’s still got a few years to go before joining any rotation conversations in Baltimore.
RHP Kevin Gausman (23)
Will compete for a rotation spot after 2013 debut (3–5, 5.66 ERA) but could start at Triple-A and wait his turn.
RHP Dylan Bundy (21)
Didn’t pitch last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery but could return to the staff in the second half of the 2014 season.
LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (20)
Went 10–7, 3.41 ERA in 25 starts at Class A Frederick and Class A Bowie.
INF Jonathan Schoop (22)
Played five games with Orioles in 2013 but likely everyday second baseman at Class AAA Norfolk in April. Could get call-up if Ryan Flaherty and Jemile Weeks struggle.
LHP Tim Berry (23)
From 50th-round pick to spot on the 40-man roster after posting 3.85 ERA in 27 starts at Class A Frederick in 2013.
C Michael Ohlman (23)
Put on 40-man roster after hitting .313/.410/.524 with 29 doubles and 13 homers at Frederick.
C Chance Sisco (19)
Second-round pick in 2013 draft batted .371/.475/.464 with 11 RBIs in 31 games in Gulf Coast League.
Beyond the Box Score
Simple formula The Orioles drew 2,357,561 fans to Camden Yards last season. Why is this important? It’s the first time since 2005 (2,624,740) that their attendance rose above 2.3 million. All it took was two straight winning seasons.
Glove love The Orioles had six finalists for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award: Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters. That’s the most of any club in baseball. Hardy, Jones and Machado won, pushing the Orioles (67) past the Yankees (65) for most by any AL team.
Silver rush The Orioles led the majors with three Silver Slugger winners — Davis, Hardy and Jones, who each received their first award. The three winners were the most in a single season in Orioles history, and the first since DH Aubrey Huff in 2008.
Doubling up Jones and Hardy were two of four players in the majors to win Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger Awards in 2013. They joined Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt and St. Louis’ Yadier Molina.
Going Yards The Orioles hit 115 home runs at Camden Yards, the third-most in club history behind 127 in 2012 and 121 in 1996. The 115 homers at home led the majors by 13 over the Cubs. The 232 total home runs hit at Camden Yards set a record, passing the 229 hit in 1996.
Mistake-free The Orioles’ 119 errorless games set a major-league record, surpassing the 2008 Astros (113 in 161 games) for most since 1900. They committed 54 errors to set a major league record for fewest in a 162-game season, surpassing the 2003 Mariners (65). The Orioles also led the majors with a .991 fielding percentage to break the 2007 Rockies record of .989.
Hit parade The Orioles were the third team in baseball history to have four players with at least 105 hits at the All-Star break, joining the 1954 Cardinals and the 1969 Reds. For the Orioles, Machado had 128 hits, Jones 117, Markakis 108 and Chris Davis 108.
All hands The Orioles hit into a triple play in the eighth inning of an April 12 game at Yankee Stadium. The scoring went 4-6-5-6-5-3-4, the first time that every infielder got a putout or assist in a triple play since the Cubs on Aug. 8, 1985. It was the 18th time in Orioles history that they hit into a triple play.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 10.
• Lost another one, fellas. Former Clooney squeeze Stacy Keibler is off the market.
• The Cavs think they have a shot to re-acquire LeBron James. That's adorable.
• Normally not a fan of arena marriage proposals, but this Nebraska player, who used his Senior Night spotlight to propose to his girlfriend, gets a pass.
• Former NBA and Maryland star Steve Francis participated in a court-storming, wearing a Len Bias Celtics jersey. That's a lot of old references crammed into one post.
• The craziest fan tattoos in sports. Someday they'll make a great story at the nursing home.
• Serge Ibaka's dunk got rejected. By the rim.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at email@example.com
Randy Edsall won just two games in his first year in College Park. He won four games in his second season at Maryland — with his fifth-string quarterback. So a seven-win, bowl season in his third year was a clear sign of continued growth and development a year ago.
Now, the Terrapins move to a new league for the first time since 1953 as they prepare to enter the Big Ten this fall. And in the same division with Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State, Edsall knows his team will have a steep learning curve in the new league.
The good news is Maryland returns largely intact on both sides of the ball. Only two starters depart the defense and only four leave on offense while both specialists return to campus. Edsall has slowly rebuilt the overall roster talent and depth in his three years but the first season of the College Football Playoffs era could be a tricky one to navigate for the Big Ten newbie.
Especially, if this team deals with major injury issues again.
|Aug. 30||James Madison|
|Oct. 11||Bye Week|
|Nov. 8||Bye Week|
Maryland Terrapins 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 7-6 (3-5 ACC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 1
Spring Game: April 11
Three Things to Watch in Maryland's 2014 Spring Practice
Keep the stars on the field
It may sound cliché but on a roster loaded with returning experience, Edsall has to keep his star players healthy. Quarterback C.J. Brown had a breakout season a year ago but has dealt with injuries his entire career. Elite wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long are future NFL players but both are already out this spring due to injuries — which could be misconstrued as a good thing. Additionally, former star tailback Wes Brown returns from his semester-long suspension stemming from an off the field run-in with the police. Brown returns to compete with a mix of very capable backs vying for carries this spring. This team could have lots of weapons on offense but Edsall and coordinator Mike Locksley need to make sure that they’re all on the field together come August.
Plug the holes up front on offense
Two starters depart the offensive line along with tight end Dave Stinebaugh. Filling the gaps along the offensive front might be the only area of concern for this side of the ball other than health. The tight end position might be the least experienced on the entire roster and Edsall needs to find a new left side of the line. Ryan Doyle, Michael Dunn and Moise Larose return with some experience at tackle and Sal Conaboy and Andrew Zeller return with some experience up the middle. There is a host of talented incoming freshmen who will show up on campus this summer so this month is the time for the incumbents to prove they belong in the starting lineup. Locksley’s top priority in his third spring with Maryland will be to settle the O-line depth chart and find some capable bodies at tight end.
Find depth on defense
Only linebacker Marcus Whitfield and cornerback Isaac Goins depart the starting 11 on defense. Finding depth at every position is the key this spring, as Edsall and new defensive line coach Chad Wilt look to continue to develop the ever-evolving Terps roster. This includes finding a pass rusher to fill the void left by Whitfield and a coverman who can play opposite William Likely. There are plenty of bodies returning at safety and linebacker but not all of them will be on the field this spring and this group struggled on the field a year ago. Injuries to linebackers Alex Twine and Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil make developing depth even more imperative this spring. Finding depth at all three levels of the defense will be a focus for the Terrapins this offseason.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 7-9
Maryland has gone from two to four to seven wins in Edsall’s tenure in College Park and there is no reason to think this overall trend won’t continue. Does it mean that the Terps can win more than seven games in their first romp through a new and more difficult division? Maybe not but a bowl bid in year one with a schedule that includes road trips to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan and has both Ohio State and Michigan State coming to town, would be a sign that Maryland won’t have too much difficulty making the transition to the Big Ten. Getting used to road trips from College Park to Minneapolis is, however, an entirely different discussion.
Gary Andersen stepped into a well-oiled machine in Madison as the Badgers were a three-time defending conference champion when he got to town last year.
There was nowhere to go but down for Andersen in his first season, and, other than one glaringly bad performance against Penn State to end the year, it was an excellent debut from the new coaching staff.
He will have his work cut out for himself in year two, however. Wisconsin loses 26 seniors to graduation as the roster is going through major turnover. The defense, built around an elite front seven, has major holes to fill up front while the offense is lacking in the playmaker department. And now the Big Ten is two teams bigger and the Badgers are in a totally new division.
With only eight total returning starters (but lots of upside) and a tough schedule, Andersen knows this spring might be the most important spring camp of his seven-year head coaching career.
|Sept. 6||Western Illinois|
|Sept. 13||Bye Week|
|Oct. 18||Bye Week|
Wisconsin Badgers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)
Spring Practice Opens: March 5
Spring Game: April 12
Three Things to Watch in Wisconsin's 2014 Spring Practice
Find playmakers on offense
The Badgers' offensive line returns largely intact with the exception of All-Big Ten left guard Ryan Groy and should be one of the best in the nation once again. But senior leader James White and his 4,685 yards from scrimmage are gone. Star wideout Jared Abbrederis and his 4,818 all-purpose yards are gone as well. So too is All-Big Ten tight end Jacob Pedersen. While Melvin Gordon returns as a Heisman candidate at running back (who isn’t allowed to be tackled this spring), quarterback Joel Stave needs to find playmakers or defenses will completely stack the box to stop the running game. Kenzel Doe, Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright caught a total of 28 passes last year and one of them will have to step into a much bigger role. And, frankly, Stave needs to be more productive at getting the ball down the field in his own right. Rob Havenstein should have a chance to become the next in a long line of great UW tight ends and Sam Arneson will also see plenty of playing time. With an elite O-line and stud tailback coming back, finding some weapons to make plays in open space will be the focus of Andersen’s offense in his second spring camp.
Fill glaring holes in the front seven
Wisconsin is losing three All-Big Ten players in end Pat Muldoon, nose guard Beau Allen and all-world linebacker and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland. On top of that, linebackers Ethan Armstrong (51 tackles), Conor O’Neill (41) and Brendan Kelly (35) are gone as well as D-line contributors Ethan Hemer and Tyler Dippel. Obviously, replacing a player like Borland is virtually impossible but talented backups Vince Biegel, Derek Landisch, Marcus Trotter and Joe Schobert will give it their best shot. As will Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring along the line. The linebacking corps appears to be in better shape than the D-line but both positions have quality backups returning. Developing these players into every-week starters will be the focus of the defensive coaching staff in Madison this spring.
Stabilize the safety position
All-Big Ten safety Dezmen Southward has expired his eligibility and Tanner McEvoy is playing quarterback. This leaves only Nate Hammon with any starting experience at the safety position this spring. This pass defense was outstanding a year ago thanks to a great front seven and the emergence of Sojourn Shelton at cornerback. But if this unit wants to be anywhere near the No. 17-rated pass defense in the nation again, Andersen and his staff will have to find capable bodies to plug in at safety. With holes in the middle of the defensive line and at middle linebacker, Wisconsin can ill afford to have any glaring weaknesses at safety.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 8-10
The 2014 season was business as usual for the Badgers. They ran the ball with vengeance, played physical defense and won nine games. Like clockwork. But in his second season at the helm, Andersen will be faced with a much bigger challenge. Finding offensive weapons and rebuilding the front seven aren't the only issues for this team. For example, it’s no secret that Andersen wants more production from his quarterback and passing game in ’14. That said, fans in MadTown shouldn’t be worried. Andersen has a tremendous track record of developing talent and implementing his system. As the Big Ten adds two teams and moves into the playoff era, Wisconsin finds itself yet again as a conference contender — albeit in a new division.
Whether the achievements were fully expected, almost routine, or a true surprise, college basketball gave us some of the best of the sport during the weekend.
Even though Doug McDermott hit a career milestone, Wichita State continued its unbeaten streak or Florida joined an elite class, there was cause for celebration on the final day of the regular season.
The milestone in Lincoln wasn’t quite as expected as the others, but just as momentous as Nebraska all but clinched an NCAA Tournament bid with a win over Wisconsin.
All this, with a week left before Selection Sunday
College Basketball Weekend Recap: 15 Things to Know
1. Doug McDermott scored his 3,000th point
Milestone performances don’t come in many more perfect packages than what Doug McDermott delivered Saturday night. The Creighton forward became the eighth member the 3,000-point club with a 3-point shot in the second half of a win over Providence, but that was only part of the career night by McDermott. In his final home game in Omaha, McDermott scored a career-high 45 points. In a game Warren Buffett would love — the Oracle of Omaha himself was in attendance — McDermott was economical in his career day, finishing 17 of 25 from the field and 5 of 7 from 3-point range. He’s the first 3,000-point scorer since 2006 and one of the rare players to put up these kinds of numbers while playing for a nationally prominent program.
The 3,000-point club includes:
|Top Scorers in College Basketball History|
|Player||Last Year||Total Points|
|1. Pete Maravich, LSU||1970||3,667|
|2. Freeman Williams, Portland State||1978||3,249|
|3. Lionel Simmons, La Salle||1990||3,217|
|4. Alphonso Ford, Mississippi Valley||1993||3,165|
|5. Harry Kelly, Texas Southern||1983||3,066|
|6. Keydren Clark, Saint Peter’s||2006||3,058|
|7. Doug McDermott, Creighton||2014||3,011|
|8. Hersey Hawkins, Bradley||1988||3,008|
2. Wichita State matched UNLV’s 34-0
History continued for Wichita State, and again it looked routine. Indiana State threatened at times, but the Sycamores led a minute into the game and never again. Wichita State won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament with an 83-69 win over Indiana State to seal a 34-0 record and likely a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The 34-0 start ties 1990-91 UNLV for the best start in college basketball history. Wichita State will likely break the record with its 35th win in the NCAA Tournament unless the Shockers become the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16. A notable number of the MVC final, Wichita State beat Indiana State — the No. 2 team in the league — three times by a combined margin of 41 points.
3. Florida made history
No matter how weak the SEC is this season, Florida’s accomplishment of reaching 18-0 stands as a historic feat. The Gators trounced Kentucky 84-65 to become the first 18-0 team in league history. The schedule expanded to 18 games when SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri, but no team accomplished the feat when the league slate featured 18 games from 1967-91. Running the table in a classic power conference is a rare feat, accomplished only seven times since the 1985. In that span, no Big Ten team has gone undefeated in league play. Ditto for the Big East or Pac-12. Naturally, the achievement is a precursor to NCAA Tournament success.
|Undefeated in a power conference since 1985|
|2014 Florida (18-0 SEC)||--||Billy Donovan|
|2012 Kentucky (16-0 SEC)||National champion||John Calipari|
|2003 Kentucky (16-0 SEC)||Elite Eight||Tubby Smith|
|2002 Kansas (16-0 Big 12)||National runner up||Roy Williams|
|1999 Duke (16-0 ACC)||National runner up||Mike Krzyzewski|
|1996 Kentucky (16-0 SEC)||National champion||Rick Pitino|
|1987 North Carolina (14-0 ACC)||Elite Eight||Dean Smith|
4. Jabari Parker is going to be a force in the postseason
Duke avenged its collapse against North Carolina earlier in the season with a 93-81 win over the Tar Heels. The story, though, may be Jabari Parker. The freshman is playing perhaps his best basketball of the season with 30 points (10 of 17 shooting) and 11 rebounds against the Tar Heels. Parker has had a double-double in six consecutive games, averaging 18.7 points and 11.3 rebounds in that span.
5a. Oregon has snapped out of its funk
The Ducks have been clawing their way out of a 3-8 start in the Pac-12 for some time, but this week signaled Oregon will be a dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament. Oregon defeated Arizona State in a key game to get off the bubble before a major statement in a 64-57 win over Arizona. Dana Altman returned Johnathan Loyd to the starting lineup on Feb. 16, and the Ducks haven’t lost since. Loyd had 16 points against Arizona.
5b. Arizona’s offensive deficiencies will be worth watching
Arizona may be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament because of its stifling defense. It certainly won’t be because of its offense. Arizona shot 2 of 11 from 3-point range against one of the weakest defensive teams in the conference, and the Wildcats continued to struggle from the free throw line (11 of 19). That’s going to be a concern as the Wildcats enter the NCAA Tournament.
6. Andrew Wiggins’ career day means there’s little reason to worry about Kansas
On paper, maybe Kansas fans should be worried about the Jayhawks. They lost two out of their last three including Saturday’s 95-86 win over West Virginia. Perhaps they shouldn’t. Kansas had already locked up the No. 1 seed in the Big 12 Tournament and played again without Joel Embiid, whose ailing back is being saved for the postseason. Most encouraging for KU was the performance of Andrew Wiggins. The freshman scored more in a game than any other rookie this season with 41 points against the Mountaineers. More than just prolific, Wiggins was sharp as he shot 12 of 18 from the field and 15 of 19 from the free throw line. He added eight rebounds, five steals and four blocks.
7. Nebraska’s going to the NCAA Tournament
The Cornhuskers still have to wait to Selection Sunday to be certain, but the Lincoln crowd celebrated as if they won the Big Ten Tournament. Closing the regular season on an 11-3 run after starting 0-4, Nebraska picked up its third RPI top 30 win by defeating Wisconsin 77-68. Second-year coach Tim Miles led one of the true surprises of the season as the Huskers were picked 12th in the league, including by Athlon. Nebraska will open the Big Ten Tournament on a bye as the No. 4 seed.
8a. Louisville was ridiculous Saturday
Few performances were more dominant than Louisville’s 81-45 win over Connecticut on Saturday. The Huskies helped with some ill-advised shots from Shabazz Napier, but they still finished shooting 29.4 percent from the field and 3 of 22 from 3-point range. The Cardinals were just as dominant as the defensive end as they had 20 assists — led by Russ Smith’s 13 on Senior Day — on 26 field goals. Montrezl Harrell has been on a hot streak with 21.2 points and 9.4 rebounds in the last five games.
8b. The top seed in the American was decided on a coin flip
Seriously. The series of tiebreakers between Cincinnati and Louisville, tied in the league standings and 1-1 against each other, ended up in a coin flip conducted after Louisville’s win over UConn. Cincinnati won.
9. Baylor is one of the nation’s hottest teams
The end-of-game dramatics, thanks to a poor out-of-bounds play again, made Baylor’s 76-74 win more interesting than it should have been. Even so, tip your cap to the way Baylor recovered this season. Not long ago, the Bears were 2-8 in the Big 12 and in danger of slipping into the NIT for the second consecutive season. Now, the Bears go into the Big 12 Tournament at 9-9 in the league. Baylor punctuated the win over Kansas State, the Wildcats’ first loss in Manhattan since the opener, with 17 consecutive free throws.
10. Oklahoma State showed why a team should foul while leading by 3
The Cowboys missed a chance to close out the season with another impressive win when they lost 85-81 at Iowa State. Oklahoma State led 71-68 in the final seconds when Naz Long pulled up for a long 3-pointer with one second remaining. Oklahoma State didn’t foul and went into overtime. The odds in the extra frame were somewhat evened with Marcus Smart fouled out for Oklahoma State and Melvin Ejim fouled out for Iowa State (Georges Niang followed later). The loss spoiled an otherwise impressive performance for an Oklahoma State team that will be the most dangerous team at whatever seed the Pokes get.
11. Tennessee tried to erase any doubt
The Volunteers have been a bubble team all season, helped by an early season win over Virginia but harmed by a season sweep to Texas A&M. If Tennessee played like it did in the last three games, the Volunteers wouldn’t be on the bubble at all. The Volunteers defeated Missouri 72-45 to defeat the Tigers, Vanderbilt and Auburn by a combined 95 points. Tennessee might need to win its SEC Tournament opener for an NCAA bid, but it’s tough to pick against a Volunteers team on this kind of hot streak.
12. Three teams suddenly have work to do in the conference tournaments
Tennessee’s rout of Missouri puts the Tigers into a deeper hole, but Frank Haith’s team wasn’t alone in falling apart in its final regular season game. Arkansas, which looked like a lock by virtue of a sweep of Kentucky, lost 83-58 to an Alabama team with a losing record. Elsewhere, Pittsburgh lost 83-78 in overtime to Clemson to fall to 11-7 in the SEC. An early loss in the league tournament for any of those teams could cost them a bid.
13. San Diego State goes to 1-3-1, beats New Mexico
Few things are more intriguing as when a major coaching adjustment pays off. Steve Fisher showed why he’s a national coach of the year contender by switching to a 1-3-1 defense to take Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk out of the game. San Diego State trailed by 16 as New Mexico’s big men took control before the Aztecs adjusted. San Diego State won 51-48 to clinch the Mountain West regular season title.
14. Syracuse and Saint Louis showed signs of life
Syracuse defeated Florida State 74-58 on the road to end a 1-4 streak which included losses to also-rans Boston College and Georgia Tech. Elsewhere, Jordair Jett’s layup in the final 3 seconds gave Saint Louis a 64-62 win over UMass, ending a three-game losing streak.
15. Five teams clinched automatic bids
The first five automatic bids were clinched over the weekend with Wichita State, Coastal Carolina, Eastern Kentucky and Mercer all winning conference tournaments. Harvard won the Ivy League regular season title.
From the NCAA conference touranments to Selection Sunday to the Championship game, here are the key dates for 2014 March Madness:
Conference championship games
Saturday, March 8: Ohio Valley
Sunday, March 9: Atlantic Sun, Big South, Missouri Valley
Monday, March 10: Colonial, MAAC, Southern
Tuesday, March 11: Horizon, Northeast, Summit, West Coast
Wednesday, March 12: Patriot
Saturday, March 15: America East, American, Big 12, Big East, Big Sky, Big West, Conference USA, MAC, MEAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, Southland, SWAC
Sunday, March 16: Atlantic 10, ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Sun Belt, WAC
Tuesday, March 18 and Wednesday, 19
Round of 64 and 32
Thursday, March 20 and Saturday, March 22:
Friday, March 21 and Sunday, March 23:
Sweet 16 and Elite Eight
Thursday, March 27 and Saturday, March 29
West Regional: Anaheim
South Regional: Memphis
Friday, March 28 and Sunday, March 30
Midwest Regional: Indianapolis
South Regional: New York City
Final Four and National Championship Game
Saturday, April 5 and Monday, April 7
Spring practice is underway, and all 128 college football teams have started to sort through the solutions for the question marks surrounding the roster.
Quarterback battles are the most intriguing element to watch in spring practice, even if there is little clarity on the depth chart until the fall.
This spring is full of quarterback battles that have national title implications. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama is searching for a replacement for AJ McCarron. Blake Sims has the edge in experience, but Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is the early favorite. Coker won’t arrive in Tuscaloosa until the summer, which means Sims and the other Alabama quarterbacks have a chance to stake their claim for the starting job this spring.
Outside of Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Clemson, Miami and Texas are just a handful of teams looking for a No. 1 quarterback.
Texas is another intriguing battle, as David Ash returns after missing nearly all of last season due to a concussion. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes is intriguing, and the coaching staff is pursuing USC transfer Max Wittek as another option.
In College Station, the race to replace Johnny Manziel is already underway. Can true freshman Kyle Allen beat Kenny Hill or Matt Joeckel for the top spot?
College Football’s Top 15 Spring Quarterback Battles for 2014
The Candidates: David Cornwell (FR), Cooper Bateman (RS-FR), Blake Sims (SR), Parker McLeod (RS-FR), Alec Morris (SO), Jacob Coker (JR-TR)
What to Watch: There’s plenty of intrigue around the quarterback battle in Tuscaloosa this spring. Not only are there five candidates pushing for time, new coordinator Lane Kiffin is easily one of the most polarizing hires of the offseason. But don’t expect anything to be settled in spring practice for Alabama. Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is considered the frontrunner and is not slated to arrive until this summer. Sims has the most experience of any quarterback on the roster, completing 18 of 29 throws for 167 yards and two touchdowns. Cornwell enrolled early and is likely Alabama’s quarterback of the future. However, he is recovering from a knee injury, and it’s uncertain how much the coaching staff will push him this spring.
Projected Winner: Coker. Alabama doesn’t bring in transfers to sit on the bench. Sims may have the most experience in a Crimson Tide uniform, but Coker has more talent. Although he has yet to make a start in college, Coker has all of the attributes you want in a quarterback. Of course, he has yet to take a snap in the SEC, which is why Sims, Cornwell and Morris need to take advantage of the opportunities this spring.
The Candidates: Connor Brewer (SO-TR), Nick Isham (JR), Jerrard Randall (JR), Jesse Scroggins (SR), Anu Solomon (RS-FR)
What to Watch: Rich Rodriguez knows how to develop quarterbacks, so the winner of this job should have a big statistical season. But as spring practice opens, it’s anyone’s guess who takes the first snap for Arizona in 2014. There’s an interesting cast of candidates vying for time, starting with Texas transfer Connor Brewer and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon. Brewer did not play in his only season with the Longhorns, while Solomon spent last season learning behind B.J. Denker. Jerrard Randall started his career at LSU before transferring into the junior college ranks. Jesse Scroggins also started at a FBS school (USC) before a stop in junior college.
Projected Winner: Solomon. Projecting a winner here is nearly impossible. And this could be a situation where a couple of quarterbacks see time this year. Solomon has the most upside, and it’s only a matter of time before he claims the No. 1 spot.
The Candidates: Cole Stoudt (SR), Deshaun Watson (FR), Chad Kelly (SO)
What to Watch: Tajh Boyd will be missed, but Clemson’s offense will continue to perform at a high level with Chad Morris calling the plays. Morris has three talented quarterbacks to work with this spring, starting with incoming freshman Deshaun Watson. The Georgia native was the No. 41 national recruit in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled early to compete in spring practice. Stoudt has served as Boyd’s backup for the last three seasons and threw for 742 yards and eight touchdowns in that span. Kelly redshirted in 2012 and finished last season with 58 passing yards on 10 completions.
Projected Winner: Watson. Whether it’s Stoudt, Kelly or Watson at the top of the depth chart, Clemson is going to be explosive on offense. Watson is too talented to sit, but it wouldn’t be a total shock if Stoudt starts the opener against Georgia before giving way to the freshman later in the year.
The Candidates: Anthony Jennings (SO), Brandon Harris (FR), Hayden Rettig (RS-FR)
What to Watch: Breaking in a quarterback in the brutal SEC West is no easy assignment. But the good news for Les Miles and coordinator Cam Cameron is the new quarterback has a solid supporting cast at his disposal. Running backs Leonard Fournette and Terrence Magee will push for All-SEC honors, while the offensive line should be among the best in the nation. Sure, the receiving corps needs work, but LSU can push for 10 wins just on its rushing attack and defense. Cameron proved to be the right hire for the Tigers’ offense, as he developed Zach Mettenberger and brought improvement to the passing game. LSU may shift more to a run philosophy in 2014, especially if Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris wins the job. Jennings guided the Tigers to a comeback win over Arkansas in the regular season finale but didn’t play particularly well in the bowl (7 of 19 for 82 yards and one interception). Harris ranked as the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports in the 2014 recruiting class, and he enrolled early to compete this spring. Rettig is a pro-style passer and ranked as the No. 10 quarterback by Athlon Sports in the 2013 signing class.
Projected Winner: Jennings. The bowl game performance is concerning, but let’s not overrate one outing. Harris has the most upside of any quarterback on the roster. How quickly he gets acclimated to the offense will determine how long Jennings stays as the starter.
The Candidates: Ryan Williams (SR), Brad Kaaya (QB), Kevin Olsen (RS-FR), Gray Crow (SO)
What to Watch: Is this the year Miami finally wins the Coastal Division? If a quarterback emerges, the Hurricanes should be picked as the favorite in the division. Ryan Williams has the edge in experience, starting 10 games at Memphis in 2010 and throwing for 2,075 yards and 13 touchdowns. He transferred at the end of his freshman season and has played in nine games over the last two years with the Hurricanes. Redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen (No. 6 quarterback by Athlon Sports in the 2013 signing class) and true freshman Brad Kaaya (four-star prospect by 247Sports) will get every opportunity to push Williams for the starting job this offseason. Even though Williams might not be the most-talented quarterback on the roster, he has a good grasp on the offense and already has a year of experience starting at a FBS school.
Projected Winner: Williams. Again, this isn’t the flashiest choice, but Williams is capable of leading this offense. The battle between Olsen and Kaaya for the No. 2 spot will be intriguing, especially if Williams struggles or as both players position themselves for 2015.
The Candidates: Tommy Armstrong (SO), Johnny Stanton (RS-FR), Jamal Turner (SR), Zack Darlington (FR)
What to Watch: Armstrong was pressed into duty when Taylor Martinez suffered a foot injury last season. He started eight games and finished with 966 yards and nine touchdowns, while adding 202 yards and two scores on the ground. Considering it was first taste of action, Armstrong acquitted himself well for a redshirt freshman. He opens spring practice as the No. 1 option, but the job won’t be handed to him. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton is an intriguing option, while the coaching staff wants to get a look at receiver Jamal Turner under center. Turner is a wildcard to watch, and he may play just as a change-of-pace option.
Projected Winner: Armstrong. There’s no question Armstrong needs to play better, but with a full offseason to work as the No. 1 option, he should show significant improvement. If he doesn’t, Nebraska has capable options in Stanton and Darlington, while Turner’s progress will be interesting to watch.
The Candidates: Mason Rudolph (FR), J.W. Walsh (JR)
What to Watch: Developing quarterbacks has always been a strength for Oklahoma State under Mike Gundy, so it's possible the winner of this battle could be in the mix for all-conference honors in 2014. Walsh played extensively in 2013, throwing for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns. He also added 294 yards and three scores on the ground. Walsh has room to grow as a passer, but the edge in experience is clearly in his favor. Rudolph ranked as the No. 16 pro-style quarterback in the 2014 signing class by 247Sports and enrolled to compete this spring.
Projected Winner: Walsh. Take a look at the schedule for Oklahoma State. With Florida State in the opener, would the Cowboys let Rudolph start against one of the top defenses in college football? It’s certainly not out of the question for Rudolph to earn the starting job, but Walsh’s experience should allow him to at least open the year as the No. 1 option.
The Candidates: Trevone Boykin (JR), Foster Sawyer (FR), Grayson Muehlstein (FR), Zach Allen (RS-FR), Tyler Matthews (SO)
What to Watch: After finishing ninth in the Big 12 in total offense last season, TCU coach Gary Patterson made significant changes to his offensive staff. Doug Meacham was hired from Houston to call the plays, while former Texas Tech quarterback and assistant Sonny Cumbie also joined the staff as co-coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Boykin is TCU’s most experienced option, throwing for 3,252 yards and 22 touchdowns over the last two years. But will he stay at quarterback? Boykin is an excellent athlete, and if another quarterback emerges, Meacham could move him to receiver. Muehlstein and Sawyer won’t arrive until the summer but will be a factor in this quarterback derby.
Projected Winner: Boykin. This job won’t be settled in the spring, as the coaching staff needs to get an extended look at Sawyer and Muehlstein. For now, we will guess Boykin’s experience will pay off, and he wins the starting job this preseason.
The Candidates: Justin Worley (JR), Riley Ferguson (RS-FR), Joshua Dobbs (SO), Nathan Peterman (SO)
What to Watch: Butch Jones seems to have Tennessee back on track, but the Volunteers have a handful of glaring needs heading into 2014. Quarterback is one of those areas of concern, as four candidates will battle for the No. 1 spot. Worley has the most experience, but he completed only 55.6 percent of his throws in eight games last year. Joshua Dobbs played in five contests as a true freshman last season and threw for 695 yards and two touchdowns. He also recorded 189 yards and one score on the ground. Ferguson was dealing with a stress fracture in his leg and used a redshirt season in 2013.
Projected Winner: Dobbs. Keep a close eye on Ferguson this spring. The North Carolina native is healthy and ready to compete with Dobbs, Worley and Peterman for the starting spot. Dobbs didn’t play particularly well last season, but he was thrown into a difficult situation as a true freshman in the SEC. The winner of this job will be playing behind a line that has to replace all five starters.
The Candidates: David Ash (SR), Tyrone Swoopes (SO), Jerrod Heard (FR)
What to Watch: Charlie Strong is one of the top defensive minds in the nation, but he might spend a little extra time with the offense this spring. The Longhorns have an unsettled quarterback situation, and there could be an additional name in the mix if Max Wittek transfers from USC to Austin. Ash played in only three games last season, throwing for 760 yards and seven touchdowns. He was sidelined due to a concussion for 10 games, but he will participate in spring practice. Swoopes was the No. 12 quarterback in the 2013 signing class and played in six contests last year. Heard ranked as the No. 2 quarterback by 247Sports Composite in the 2014 signing class and is the future for Texas’ offense.
Projected Winner: Ash. This is a tough one to call. Are Swoopes and Heard ready to be a Big 12 quarterback? If Wittek lands in Austin, can he factor into the mix? Considering Ash has the most experience of anyone on the roster, he’s the safest pick to win the job.
The Candidates: Kyle Allen (FR), Kenny Hill (SO), Matt Joeckel (SR)
What to Watch: Johnny Manziel’s two-year playing career in College Station easily ranks among the best by a quarterback in the SEC during the BCS era. How will Texas A&M replace him? Well, you can’t exactly replicate Manziel’s production and leadership, but there are three intriguing candidates vying for time. Joeckel has the edge in experience, throwing 48 passes over the last two years in relief duty. Hill completed 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards in limited action last season. Allen – the No. 10 prospect in the 247Sports Composite – enrolled early to compete this spring.
Projected Winner: Hill. Flip a coin between Hill and Joeckel. Allen will eventually take the starting job, but it seems unlikely Texas A&M will start him on the road at South Carolina for his first start. Regardless of the winner, the Aggies have three solid options to run their high-powered offense.
The Candidates: Justin Holman (SO), Pete DiNovo (RS-FR), Tyler Harris (FR)
What to Watch: Blake Bortles could be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Needless to say, the trio of candidates vying to be UCF’s starting quarterback will have big shoes to fill. Tyler Harris enrolled early to compete this spring with sophomore Justin Holman and redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo. Holman played in three games last year and completed 9 of 14 passes for 75 yards and one score. Although the winner of this battle won’t equal Bortles’ production, UCF’s offense should still be among the best in the American Athletic Conference in 2014.
Projected Winner: Holman. This one is a coin flip. A slight edge should go to Holman since he has an edge in experience, but DiNovo will be tough to keep off the field.
The Candidates: Mark Leal (SR), Bucky Hodges (RS-FR), Chris Durkin (FR), Andrew Ford (FR), Michael Brewer (JR)
What to Watch: Logan Thomas is gone, and second-year coordinator Scot Loeffler enters spring looking for answers for an offense that averaged just 5.3 yards per play in ACC contests last season. Mark Leal is the frontrunner to replace Thomas, and he has played sparingly in his career. Leal completed 12 of 25 passes for 130 yards against UCLA in the Sun Bowl, which was his first extended chance at snaps for the Hokies. Hodges is another name to watch after he ranked as the No. 20 quarterback by Athlon Sports in the 2013 signing class. But perhaps the name with the most intrigue is Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer. He won’t arrive until the summer, but Brewer was solid in limited action with the Red Raiders (440 yards, five touchdowns).
Projected Winner: Leal. Brewer is intriguing, but he is at a disadvantage since he won’t arrive until this summer. With a solid defense in place, the Hokies can contend for a Coastal Division title if a quarterback emerges this preseason.
The Candidates: Jeff Lindquist (SO), Cyler Miles (SO), Troy Williams (RS-FR), K.J. Carta-Samuels (FR)
What to Watch: At the end of the 2013 season, Cyler Miles appeared to be locked-in as Washington’s starting quarterback. However, he was indefinitely suspended after an off-the-field incident in early February. Considering Miles’ return is uncertain, it’s unlikely the Huskies will have much clarity at quarterback this spring. Lindquist and Williams will battle for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart with Miles out, while Carta-Samuels will arrive in the summer.
Projected Winner: Miles. Assuming he returns, Miles should be Washington’s starting quarterback. He was impressive in limited action last season, completing 37 of 61 passes for 418 yards and four touchdowns. Miles ranked as the No. 5 quarterback in the 2012 signing class by Athlon Sports, so there’s no question about his talent. However, if he misses all of spring practice, how quickly can he catch Lindquist and Williams for the No. 1 spot in a new offense?
The Candidates: Skyler Howard (SO), Clint Trickett (SR), Paul Millard (SR), William Crest (FR)
What to Watch: Although coach Dana Holgorsen would like to see some clarity at this position, it’s unlikely the Mountaineers will find many answers in spring practice. Clint Trickett is out due to shoulder surgery, Howard is still learning the offense after one year in the junior college ranks, and Crest won’t arrive on campus until this summer. Considering the uncertainty surrounding the other three candidates, Millard will have a chance to stake his claim for the starting job in spring practice. Howard threw for 3,151 yards and 33 touchdowns in his one season as Riverside City College’s starting quarterback.
Projected Winner: Millard. Junior college recruits are hit or miss, so it’s tough to know what to expect from Howard in his first season in Morgantown. However, if Millard or Trickett struggles early in the year, Howard or Crest should get an extended look this season. For now, the edge here should go to Millard, especially with a full spring to work with the No. 1 offense.
Is there a battle?
Jeff Driskel returns after missing nine games due to a leg injury. Will new coordinator Kurt Roper help Driskel live up to his lofty recruiting hype? Or will the Gators turn to incoming freshman Will Grier (No. 2 pro-style quarterback by 247Sports)?
Devin Gardner failed to have the breakout year most expected in 2013, but his supporting cast didn’t give him much help. Shane Morris started the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and ended 2013 by throwing for 261 yards on 29 completions. Can Gardner pickup where he left off against Ohio State? Or will Morris push Gardner for the job?
Despite Marquise Williams finishing 2013 on a high note, coach Larry Fedora insists the quarterback job is open. Redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky is a talented option, but it would be a surprise if he beats Williams for the starting spot.
Gary Nova started the first 10 games for the Scarlet Knights last season but was benched in favor of Chas Dodd for the final three. Dodd has expired his eligibility, and Nova hopes to use an offseason under new coordinator Ralph Friedgen to hold onto the starting job. Redshirt freshman Chris Laviano, sophomore Blake Rankin and junior Mike Bimonte will push Nova for time this spring.
Cody Kessler seemed to get better with each snap last year, and he finished 2013 on a high note by throwing for 345 yards and four touchdowns against Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Although Kessler is a solid option for new coach Steve Sarkisian, redshirt freshman Max Browne will get a chance to unseat him this spring. Browne ranked as the No. 11 prospect in the 2013 Athlon Consensus 100.
Joel Stave started all 13 games for the Badgers last season and finished with 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns. But he isn’t guaranteed the starting job this year. Wisconsin needs more from its passing attack, and the coaching staff will take an extended look at Bart Houston, true freshman D.J. Gillins and Tanner McEvoy, who will shift back to quarterback after spending last year at safety. Will Stave hold on once again? Or has McEvoy made enough progress to make a push for the top spot?
Others to Watch
Steve Addazio and coordinator Ryan Day are essentially starting from scratch on offense. Quarterback Chase Rettig, running back Andre Williams and receiver Alex Amidon have expired their eligibility. The coaching staff moved Josh Bordner to receiver, and Florida transfer Tyler Murphy arrived to compete in spring practice. Competing with Murphy will be redshirt freshman James Walsh and true freshman Darius Wade. Although the Eagles are replacing a lot of talent on offense, the line returns a solid foundation, and running back Myles Willis played well in a limited role last year.
Derek Carr guided Fresno State to a Mountain West title last season and finished his career with 12,842 passing yards. Needless to say, the next quarterback has big shoes to fill. Brian Burrell, Myles Carr, Zack Greenlee, Colin Kearon and incoming freshman Kilton Anderson are the options to replace Carr, with Greenlee and Burrell having an edge over the rest of the competition.
Bill Cubit was one of the top assistant hires last season, providing a spark for an Illinois’ offense that averaged just 16.7 points a game in 2012. Nathan Scheelhaase has expired his eligibility, but the cupboard isn’t bare for Cubit. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt is considered the favorite, while Aaron Bailey and Reilly O’Toole will compete for time. Although the coaching staff has hinted the job is open, it would be a surprise if Lunt does not take the first snap for the Fighting Illini.
Remember that old cliché about quarterbacks? If you have two you don’t have a starter? Well, forget about that when looking at the Hoosiers’ offense. Coach Kevin Wilson should have no trouble using both of his quarterbacks in 2014, as Nate Sudfeld threw for 2,523 yards last year, and Tre Roberson combined for 1,551 total yards. Although a two-quarterback system is never ideal, Sudfeld and Roberson each bring something different to the table. Will one end up with the full-time job? Or will Wilson continue to rotate Sudfeld and Roberson?
The Jayhawks have struggled to find answers under center in Charlie Weis’ two years in Lawrence. Jake Heaps ranked as one of the top high school quarterbacks in the 2010 signing class, but he has yet to reach his potential and finished 2013 by completing just 49 percent of his passes and tossing 10 picks on 261 passes. Montell Cozart’s dual-threat ability is intriguing, but his completion percentage also needs some work (36.5). UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard was the No. 19 pro-style quarterback by 247Sports in the 2012 signing class. He has yet to take a snap in a FBS game.
The Wildcats certainly aren’t short on options. Maxwell Smith (1,276 passing yards in 2013) and Jalen Whitlow (1,490 total yards) are the top returning passers, but all eyes in Lexington are on true freshman Drew Barker. The Kentucky native ranked as the No. 6 pro-style quarterback by 247Sports and enrolled in time to compete in spring practice. Whitlow and Smith have the edge in experience, but Barker’s upside may win out in the fall.
Teddy Bridgewater is gone. However, Bobby Petrino certainly knows how to coordinate an offense and develop quarterback, so there’s not a ton of concern about the options under center for Louisville. Will Gardner is the favorite to replace Bridgewater after completing 8 of 12 passes for 112 yards and two scores. If he struggles, redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin appears to be the next option.
Derek Mason’s first assignment as the Commodores’ head coach is to sort out the battle between sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. Robinette started three games last season and finished 2013 with 642 passing yards and four touchdowns. McCrary was the No. 16 dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports in the 2013 signing class and spent last season as a redshirt behind Robinette and Austyn Carta-Samuels.
Improving upon last year’s dismal 2-10 record will largely depend on how much improvement Virginia gets out of its quarterbacks. David Watford finished 2013 with 2,202 yards, eight touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He enters spring on the hot seat, but backup Greyson Lambert also struggled last season (33 of 75, 340 yards, 2 INTs). Sophomore Matt Johns and incoming freshman Corwin Cutler will push Lambert and Watford for snaps.
Every college football program is unique and has its own set of challenges. But some programs are clearly better than others.
So what exactly determines the best job in a conference or in college football? Each person’s criteria will be different, but some programs already have inherent advantages in terms of location, money and tradition. Texas, USC, Florida and Alabama are some of the nation’s best jobs, largely due to some of the factors mentioned previously. Do they have their drawbacks? Absolutely. But it’s easier to win a national title at Texas than it is at Oklahoma State.
Debating the best job in the nation or any conference is always an ongoing discussion. The debate doesn’t start with a small sample size but should take into account more of a long-term (both past and future) in order to get a better snapshot of the program.
With all of this in mind, we have tried to rank the jobs in the ACC based on the attractiveness from a coaching perspective. As we mentioned above, many factors were considered. Tradition, facilities, location, budget and recruiting ability are just a few things we took into account. But in the end, we simply asked ourselves the following question: Where would we want to coach if we had a blank slate and all of the jobs were open?
(Note: Current or impending NCAA sanctions were not a factor in these rankings.)
Ranking the Coaching Jobs in the ACC for 2014
1. Florida State
Pros: You can make the argument that Florida State offers all of the positives of Florida without the brutal competition of the SEC East. Would you rather battle Clemson, NC State and Boston College or Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina every year? A new indoor practice facility was a needed addition for the Seminoles to keep up in college football's arms race.
Cons: Florida State has a nice following, but its fans can be on the fickle side. Last season, when the Seminoles were chasing a national championship, Doak Campbell was “only” filled to 92 percent capacity. Not bad, but not quite up to standards of most programs of similar stature. Also, the ACC has been relatively weak in recent seasons. Could that hurt Florida State in the new playoff format? Probably not, but we have to be nitpicky when talking about one of the top 10-15 jobs in the nation.
Final Verdict: Florida State enjoyed an unbelievable run of success from the late 1980s through the early 2000s. But the Noles lost five games or more three times from 2006-10. Winning isn't automatic, but the Seminoles are coming off a national championship, and Jimbo Fisher clearly has steered this program back on track.
Pros: Clemson is an SEC-like school that has the luxury of playing an ACC schedule. The fans are rabid, the stadium is huge (capacity 81,500), and unlike many of its ACC brethren, Clemson is a football school.
Cons: Clemson seemingly has so much going for it, yet the program has only won two ACC titles since 1990. If you are a coach interested in the job, you’d have ask yourself the following question: Why has this program frequently underachieved?
Final Analysis: Clemson presents a great opportunity. The program is a major player in the recruiting game, is willing to pay big for a coaching staff and it has so many built-in advantages compared to almost every school in the league. The Tigers have the ability to compete for the ACC title on an annual basis.
Pros: With the possible exception of USC and UCLA, no school in the country has a better local recruiting base. And while the Canes have struggled in recent years, the program won a national championship as recently as 2001 and played for a title in ’02.
Cons: Miami has a small fan base and has struggled to fill its stadium. Last season, the Canes ranked 36th in the nation in attendance, averaging 53,837 per game (according to the NCAA at least) at Sun Life Stadium. The facility is 20 miles from campus and lacks the big-time college football atmosphere.
Final Verdict: Miami is an intriguing job. The recruiting base is outstanding — which gives you a great opportunity to win — but the position lacks many of the other qualities that make coaching at a big-time school so attractive.
4. Virginia Tech
Pros: Virginia Tech has a very strong (and underrated) recruiting base, most notably the Hampton Roads-Tidewater area — better known as the ‘757’ by recruiting gurus. The Hokies also have a passionate fan base that creates a tremendous environment at Lane Stadium.
Cons: The school has only been relevant on the national scene under Frank Beamer’s watch. Can another coach recreate the magic when Beamer steps aside?
Final Verdict: Virginia Tech isn’t quite college football royalty, but it’s not far off. Prior to a 7-6 mark in 2012, the Hokies had won at least 10 games in the previous eight straight seasons. You can win a national title in Blacksburg.
5. North Carolina
Pros: The school is an easy sell for a recruiter: It’s is one of the premier public institutions in the nation, and its location, in picturesque Chapel Hill, is ideal. UNC has also made a huge financial commitment to football in the past decade.
Cons: North Carolina is — and always will be — a basketball school. That is something that every football coach must accept. And while the school has enjoyed pockets of success, it’s been difficult to win consistently at UNC. Since Mack Brown bolted for Texas after the 1997 season, the Tar Heels have averaged 3.4 ACC wins.
Final Verdict: North Carolina’s lack of success over the years might surprise even a knowledgeable college football fan. The Tar Heels have not won an ACC championship since 1980 and have not strung together back-to-back winning ACC seasons since the mid-90s. Still, this is a desirable position for a coach. It’s a great school that has made a strong commitment to the football program.
Pros: Louisville has solid facilities and is in a good spot geographically to consistently attract top recruits. Kentucky is not a great talent producer, but Louisville can recruit Ohio and Illinois due to its proximity to those states and has always done a good job recruiting Florida. Also, the school “survived” the realignment wars, finding a home in the ACC. This article is more of a long-term reflection of the job, but it's hard to ignore Louisville's athletic department, which could be the best in the nation.
Cons: The school lacks football tradition and doesn’t have the fan base that most top 25 programs possess. When the Cards are good, they draw well. But in 2009, in the final season of the Steve Kragthrope era, they ranked 71st in the nation in attendance, averaging 32,540 per game. Moving to the ACC is a huge plus for the program, but Louisville also is moving into a harder league in a division featuring Clemson and Florida State. The Cardinals went from the No. 1 program in the American to the No. 6 job in the ACC.
Final Verdict: Like many of the schools in the ACC, Louisville is only as good as its coach. Bobby Petrino won big in his four years. Kragthorpe flopped in his three seasons. Charlie Strong won 37 games in four years. With the right fit, Louisville competes for league titles. The move to the ACC helps with stability and the long-term outlook for this program, making the Cardinals a fringe top 25-30 job in the nation.
Pros: Pittsburgh is located in the heart of Western Pennsylvania, which gives the Panthers a solid recruiting base. The school also shares its football facility with the Pittsburgh Steelers — which can be a positive (NFL influence) or negative (no on-campus stadium).
Cons: It’s been tough to win consistently at Pitt over the past three decades. The Panthers have only had a winning record in 15 of the 32 seasons since Jackie Sherrill bolted.
Final Verdict: Former coach Dave Wannstedt proved that you can attract talent to play at Pittsburgh. But it’s a school with a ceiling. The Panthers should consistently win seven or eight games per season, but can you win a national title? Not likely.
8. North Carolina State
Pros: The facilities at NC State are among the finest in the ACC. The spectacular Murphy Center, a football-only building, houses coaches’ offices, the weight room and dining area for the players, among other things. The school’s recruiting base, the Carolinas and Virginia, is strong.
Cons: The school doesn’t have a strong record of success. NC State hasn’t won an ACC title since 1979 and has had only six winning league seasons since 1990.
Final Verdict: This program has underachieved over the past decade. Everything is in place — facilities, fan support, recruiting base — to be a consistent winner in the ACC.
9. Georgia Tech
Pros: Georgia is annually one of the top talent-producing states in the nation, giving the Yellow Jackets’ staff an opportunity to land quality recruiting classes despite the fact that the University of Georgia is the top Dawg in the state. Tech has also proven over time that it can win consistently in the ACC; the Jackets have been .500 or better in league play in 19 straight seasons.
Cons: Georgia Tech will always be the second-most popular program in its own city, which is probably more of a problem for the school’s fans than its players and coaches. The male-to-female ratio (about 2-to-1) at the school can’t help recruiting, either.
Final Verdict: Georgia Tech might not come to mind when you think about some of the top programs in the nation, but this is a solid football school with underrated tradition. It’s been proven that you can win titles — both ACC (2009, 1998, '90) and national (1990).
Pros: Virginia is a great school in a great college town, and the state consistently produces a high number of BCS-level recruits.
Cons: The school has a surprisingly bad track record in football. George Welsh had a nice run in the 1980s and '90s, but other than that, the Cavaliers have had a tough time fielding a consistently competitive program. UVa has won a total of two championships (both shared) in its 56 years in the ACC. Recruiting can also be tough at Virginia, based on the school’s relatively stringent academic standards.
Final Verdict: This school should be able to be consistently competitive in the ACC. Other than its lack of tradition, everything is seemingly in place to elevate the profile of this program.
Pros: As recently as the early 2000s, Syracuse was a top-25 program. The Orangemen, as they were called then, won nine games or more eight times in a 15-year span from 1987-2001. Doug Marrone had the program headed in the right direction before bolting to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. Scott Shafer did a nice job in his first season, continuing to provide traction for a program that seems to be taking steps in the right direction. There's also discussion about a new stadium for the Orange.
Cons: The program has been an afterthought in the past decade, with only four winning seasons since 2001. Support has not been great, either. In the first year of ACC play, Syracuse averaged just 38,277 fans per game.
Final Verdict: Syracuse is a tough job. It’s tough to lure elite recruits from the South, specifically Florida, to upstate New York, and there simply aren’t a lot of top-flight prospects in the Northeast. Much like Louisville and Pittsburgh, moving to the ACC provides long-term stability for this program.
12. Boston College
Pros: Boston College was one of the most consistent programs in the nation from the late 1990s through the late 2000s. The Eagles averaged 8.7 wins from 1999-2009 and won one Big East title (2004) and two ACC Atlantic Division titles (2007, ’08). The school’s strong academic reputation will allow it to recruit top students from the Northeast who want to remain close to home.
Cons: Similar to Syracuse, Boston College will always have a difficult time recruiting elite players from outside its region. There's talent in the Northeast, but it's not enough to consistently compete with Florida State and Clemson for division titles in the Atlantic Division.
Final Verdict: Once the model of consistency, Boston College slipped to the bottom of the ACC food chain under Frank Spaziani. However, this program is back on track under Steve Addazio. The Eagles made a bowl in 2013, and Addazio reeled in a solid recruiting class to add to the foundation. Again, this ranking isn't about 2014 or '15. However, Addazio seems to be the right guy to get the program back on track, which should help Boston College become a consistent bowl team once again in the ACC.
13. Wake Forest
Pros: Jim Grobe proved it can be done at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons won 11 games and captured the school’s second-ever ACC title in 2006. The school also recently received a $7.5 million donation to build a new sports performance center, which will house the football offices and the strength and conditioning facility.
Cons: No one has been able to sustain success at Wake Forest. The program has enjoyed three straight winning seasons only once (from 2006-08) since the early 1950s.
Final Verdict: The overall strength of the ACC academically doesn’t allow Wake Forest, a small private school, to differentiate itself like programs such as Vanderbilt in the SEC, Northwestern in the Big Ten and Stanford in the Pac-12. If a strong student wants to play football in the ACC, there are several attractive options — North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia Tech — that have better overall football programs.
Pros: Duke has struggled to compete in football for the majority of the past 40 years, but the school, consistently ranked among the top-10 in the country academically, still has a strong national brand. While the Blue Devils have struggled to be competitive in the ACC over the long haul, winning the Coastal last season showed it can be a factor with the right coach and talent.
Cons: The interest in the football program at Duke is not high — and that is being kind. This past season, the Blue Devils won the Coastal Division yet only averaged 26,062 fans per game, ranking 81st in the nation. Much like Wake Forest or even Northwestern from the Big Ten, it's very difficult to attract elite talent.
Final Verdict: David Cutcliffe has made Duke respectable, but it’s hard to envision this program making much of move in the ACC. The lack of tradition and lack of support make Duke football a tough sell to top recruits. This program is making progress, and renovations to Wallace Wade Stadium should help Cutcliffe keep the Blue Devils in the mix for a bowl game each year.
The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.
So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.
The Big Ten is known for power running games, hard-hitting linebackers and big hog mollies along the offensive line. However, the conference also claims five Thorpe Award winners — given to the nation's top defensive back — on four different teams during the 16-year BCS Era.
Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Antoine Winfield, Ohio State (1995-98)
Winfield might be the most underrated defensive back in the history of all levels of football. The consensus All-American helped Ohio State win 43 games in four years and nearly (or should have) played in the first BCS National Championship Game in 1998. He was given the Thorpe and Tatum honors as a senior as the nation’s top defensive back before being selected 23rd overall in the 1999 NFL Draft.
2. Jamar Fletcher, Wisconsin (1998-2000)
The Badgers’ coverman has as complete a resume as any during the BCS Era. He was a two-time, first-team All-American and three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection. He helped Wisconsin to back-to-back Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships and was the only Big Ten defensive back of the BCS Era to be named the outright Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He holds UW’s all-time record with 21 interceptions and was named the nation’s top defensive back with the Thorpe and Tatum Trophies as a senior in 2000. He was a first-round pick in 2001.
3. Mike Doss, Ohio State (1999-2002)
The Buckeyes safety was a rare three-time All-American, three-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick and was named co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2002 for the BCS National Champions. Doss started 40 of 50 possible career games and was named the 2002 Fiesta Bowl MVP. He finished his career with 331 career tackles, eight interceptions, eight fumbles recovered and 6.0 sacks. He was a second-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.
4. Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State (2005-08)
The Ohio State Buckeyes have a long tradition of great defensive backs and Jenkins is one of the most decorated. He was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick, including twice as a starter for two unbeaten regular-season teams that made it to the BCS National Championship Game in both 2006 and ’07. He was a two-time All-American, Jim Thorpe winner and was the 14th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
5. Bob Sanders, Iowa (2000-03)
One of the hardest hitting players to ever suit up, Sanders made big plays all over the field during his time in Iowa City. He helped lead Iowa to the Orange Bowl in 2002 and was an All-American as a senior in '03. He finished his career with 348 tackles, 16.0 for loss, four sacks, seven interceptions and 13 forced fumbles (he led the nation in FF with six as a senior). The Colts took him in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft and he went on to two Pro Bowls and also won a Super Bowl.
6. Tyrone Carter, Minnesota (1996-99)
The Florida native was a tackling machine for the Golden Gophers, finishing his career with an NCAA-record 584 total tackles and 414 solo stops He was a two-time, first-team All-American and won the 1999 Thorpe Award and Tatum Trophy as the nation’s top defensive back. Carter also was a return specialist, totaling over 1,800 combined punt and kick return yards. He was a fourth-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. The Gophers increased their win total every year of his four-year, 46-game career.
7. Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin (2001-04)
A cult hero walk-on in Madison, Leonhard was a two-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick before even earning his first collegiate scholarship before his senior season. He went on to a third first-team All-Big Ten selection and All-American honors in his final season. He led the nation with a Big Ten single-season record 11 interceptions as a sophomore and broke the Big Ten record for punt return yardage with 1,347 yards (since broken). He played every game of his career, starting 39 times and registering 281 tackles and a Wisconsin-record 21 career interceptions (tied with Fletcher) — which is good for fourth all-time in Big Ten history and the most by any B1G player during the BCS Era.
8. Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (2010-13)
Dennard was the nation’s best cover corner on a team that won a school-record 13 games, the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl. Dennard posted 62 tackles and four interceptions en route to winning the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. He was obviously named the Tatum-Woodson B1G DB of the Year and finished his four-year career with 167 tackles, 10.0 for loss, 10 INTs, 26 passes defended and, most importantly, 42 wins.
9. Leon Hall, Michigan (2003-06)
He never missed a game in his four-year, 50-game career and led Michigan to three Rose Bowl appearances. He is Michigan’s all-time leader with 43 passes broken up and also picked off 12 career passes. Hall was honorable mention All-Big Ten as a sophomore, second-team All-Big Ten as a junior and a consensus All-American and Thorpe Award finalist as a senior. The Michigan great was the 18th overall pick in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft.
10. Vontae Davis, Illinois (2006-08)
A three-year player for Illinois, Davis was a freshman All-American in his first season. He started all 12 games, making 56 tackles and earning first-team All-Big Ten honors while leading the Illini back to the Rose Bowl. He made 78 tackles as a junior and earned first-team Big Ten honors a second time. Davis was a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
Just missed the cut:
11. Donte Whitner, Ohio State (2003-05)
Donte “Hitner” was a big hitter before getting to the NFL. He contributed as a true freshman but entered the starting lineup as a sophomore. He posted 143 tackles in two seasons as the starter, including All-American and All-Big Ten honors as a junior. He departed early for the NFL and was the eighth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
12. Marlin Jackson, Michigan (2001-04)
A hybrid safety-cornerback, Jackson was an All-American and senior captain for the Wolverines in 2004. He is second all-time in school history in passes broken up and was a first-round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.
13. Tracy Porter, Indiana (2004-07)
Arguably the best defensive back in school history, Porter is No. 2 in Indiana history with 16 interceptions and No. 1 with 413 return yards (third all-time in B1G history). He is the only player in IU history to return a punt, interception and fumble for a touchdown. He posted 212 tackles, was a first-team All-Big Ten pick and was taken in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft.
14. Chris Gamble, Ohio State (2001-03)
He played three ways for the undefeated BCS champs in 2002, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors in the process. He played in 38 career games, starting 18 on defense and 12 on offense and was one of the most explosive players to play in the Big Ten. He left school early and was a first-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.
15. Nate Clements, Ohio State (1998-2000)
The top flight coverman started 24 of his possible 36 career games at Ohio State, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors as a junior. He posted 177 tackles, seven interceptions and was a first-round pick in the 2001 NFL Draft after leaving school early.
16. Stuart Schweigert, Purdue (2000-03)
He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year for the Big Ten champs in his first season. He set the Purdue interception record with 17 and was a two-time, first-ream All-Big Ten pick as well as a two-time, second-team selection. He posted 360 career tackles and went to four bowl games.
17. Will Allen, Ohio State (2000-03)
Sitting behind Doss most of career, Allen only got one year to showcase his ability. He was a big member of the 2002 BCS title team but played mostly in nickel packages. In his one year as a starter, he earned consensus All-American honors and was a fourth-round pick.
18. Bernard Pollard, Purdue (2003-05)
The Bonecrusher was a great player but didn’t always get along with Joe Tiller. He posted 254 tackles in three years and set a school record with five blocked kicks. Had he played four years and not constantly been at odds with Tiller, he could have been one of the B1G’s greats.
19. Kurt Coleman, Ohio State (2006-09)
He was a three-year starter at safety for two teams that went unbeaten in the regular season and played for the BCS national title. He was an All-American, team MVP and first-team All-Big Ten pick.
20. Micah Hyde, Iowa (2009-12)
Playing both cornerback and safety, Hyde won the Tatum-Woodson Big Ten DB of the Year award as a senior. He was also an excellent return man, being named first-team All-Big Ten in 2012.
Best of the rest:
21. Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska (2008-11)
22. Ernest Shazor, Michigan (2002-04)
23. CJ. Barnett, Ohio State (2009-13)
23. Ahmad Plummer, Ohio State (1997-99)
24. Ricardo Allen, Purdue (2010-13)
25. Mike Echols, Wisconsin (1998-2001)
26. Ashton Youboty, Ohio State (2003-05)
27. Eugene Wilson, Illinois (1999-2002)
28. Calvin Lowry, Penn State (2002-05)
29. Brian Peters, Northwestern (2008-11)
30. Willie Middlebrooks, Minnesota (1998-2001)
NFL free agency officially gets started at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, meaning more than 500 players will be looking for employment. While salary cap, team needs, system fit, and other football-related matters drive this process, that doesn’t mean it’s the only criteria that can be applied.
In the interest of having some fun, here are some free agent marriages we would love to see happen. In some cases these player-team pairings actually make some sense on the field, but in many instances these matches are simply too intriguing and/or entertaining to pass up.
Eric Decker signs with the Tennessee Titans
Why this makes some sense: Decker is coming off of a season in which he posted career bests in catches (87) and yards (1,288) and hauled in 11 touchdown passes for the highest-scoring offense in NFL history. Arguably the most attractive free agent wide receiver on the market, the Titans finished 21st in passing offense last season and could use another reliable target to complement Kendall Wright.
Why it probably won’t happen: The Titans have spent high picks on wide receivers in each of the past two drafts. In 2012, Wright was taken with the 20th overall selection and last April, Tennessee traded up to grab Justin Hunter early in the second round. While another weapon in the passing game would certainly be nice, this team has much more pressing issues at other positions.
Why we really want to see this happen: Decker’s wife, Jessie James, is a country artist on Mercury Records. They already have their own reality show (“Eric & Jessie” on E!) and are expecting their first child, so it only makes sense to have the oh-so-photogenic couple working in the same town, no? Also, they could potentially challenge Music City’s reigning sports-entertainment duo – Carrie Underwood and Nashville Predators center Mike Fisher – for the top spot in this category.
Michael Vick signs with the Minnesota Vikings
Why this makes some sense: Have you forgotten the revolving door that was the Vikings’ quarterback situation last season? Christian Ponder (nine games), Matt Cassel (six) and Josh Freeman (one) all started for Minnesota and collectively went 5-10-1 while throwing more interceptions (19) than touchdown passes (18). The Vikings could take a quarterback early in the upcoming draft, but still go with Vick under center to ease the rookie’s transition to the NFL.
Why it probably won’t happen: Vick will turn 34 years old before training camp starts and besides his age being a factor, he also lost the starting job in Philadelphia last season to Nick Foles. Besides nearing the end of his career, Vick has never been a model of durability and his career completion percentage (56.2) is lower than what the Vikings’ trio combined for (59.5) in 2013. And most of all, it's the fact that Minnesota re-signed Cassel to a two-year deal on Friday. One 30-something-year-old quarterback is probably enough for a team that's rebuilding under first-year head coach Mike Zimmer.
Why we really want to see this happen: Adrian Peterson has already come out and lobbied for the team to sign Vick and who doesn’t want to make their All-Pro running back happy? Also, it’s not like we haven’t seen this script before with the Vikings. Remember Randall Cunningham and Brett Favre? Both came to Minnesota at the end of their respective careers and nearly led the Vikings to the Super Bowl. Heck, even 37-year-old Gus Frerotte got the Vikings to the playoffs in 2008. Why not let Vick have his chance to try and do the same?
Darren McFadden signs with the Dallas Cowboys
Why this makes some sense: Most teams rely on more than one running back to carry the load these days and in Dallas’ case, having someone like McFadden would mean less wear and tear on DeMarco Murray. Murray rushed for a career-high 1,121 yards last season, but also missed two games because of injury.
Why this probably won’t happen: Murray hasn’t exactly been durable, missing 11 of a possible 48 career games so far, but McFadden’s injury track record is much worse. Since being taken 4th overall in the 2008 NFL Draft, McFadden has missed no fewer than three games in any season. In total, he has missed 29 games, including six last year, and also has seen his yards per carry decrease from 5.4 in 2011 to just 3.3 last year. The Cowboys also appear pretty set at running back with Murray and last April’s fifth-round pick, Joseph Randle, among those on the roster currently.
Why we really want to see it happen: Dallas owner/general manager Jerry Jones is a University of Arkansas graduate who was an offensive lineman on the Razorbacks’ 1964 national championship team. He is a proud alumnus and has been known to go with his heart over his head when it comes to personnel decisions. McFadden is the most decorated player to ever play for Jones’ beloved alma mater, as he holds the majority of the rushing records at the school. Jones didn’t have a shot at drafting McFadden back in 2008, so surely he won’t pass on the opportunity now, right?
And besides, how fitting would it be for Jones to overpay to bring McFadden to Big D even though the Cowboys already have a 1,000-yard rusher in Murray? The end result would be just what embattled head coach Jason Garrett doesn’t need – more drama and controversy that he didn’t create in the first place.
Maurice Jones-Drew signs with the San Francisco 49ers
Why this makes some sense: Frank Gore will be 31 years old by the time the 2014 season starts and he has averaged 272 carries over the last three seasons alone. Jones-Drew is two years younger and has carried the ball a total of 320 times the last two seasons combined. The 49ers’ other backfield options are either unproven (LaMichael James) or come with injury risks (Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore).
Why this probably won’t happen: The reason Jones-Drew has so few carries the past two seasons is that he missed 10 games in 2012 because of a Lisfranc injury that eventually required surgery on his foot. And although he is younger (29 on March 23) than Gore, there already are concerns that his productive years may be past him. After leading the NFL in rushing with 1,606 yards in 2011, he’s averaged just four yards per carry over the last two seasons, including a meager 3.4 in 2013. The 49ers also don’t lack for other options with the aforementioned James, Hunter and Lattimore on the roster.
Why we really want to see it happen: Jones-Drew starred at UCLA before being selected by Jacksonville in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft. This will give the California native a chance to come home and play on the West Coast. Also, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis is said to be recruiting him, perhaps because he feels sorry for him. In eight seasons with the Jaguars, Jones-Drew has played in the postseason just once (2007), which also is the only time he’s enjoyed being a part of a winning team. MJD deserves better, no?
Kenny Britt signs with the New York Jets
Why this makes some sense: No team had fewer touchdowns passes than the Jets’ 13 last season and only one team (Tampa Bay) finished with fewer passing yards (2,932). Second-year quarterback Geno Smith needs all the weapons the team is able to surround him with.
Why this probably won’t happen: Tennessee’s first-round draft pick in 2009, Britt’s tenure with the Titans will be remembered more for what he did off of the field than on it. Seemingly on the verge of breaking out in 2011 after posting 14 receptions for 271 yards and three touchdowns in the first two games, Britt injured his knee the next week and things just went downhill from there. He did return to the field in 2012, but his production was never the same and frequent legal issues and other poor decisions became the focus instead. Some team may end up taking a chance on Britt, but it doesn’t need to be the Jets, who have enough other problems to worry about.
Why we really want to see it happen: Come on, these are the Jets we are talking about, do I really need to say anything more? OK, Britt was a former Rutgers star, so maybe a homecoming of sorts will be just what he needs to get his career going again. But the real answer is who better than Britt to help fill the role of the malcontent wideout the Jets always seem to end up with. First it was Keyshawn Johnson than Braylon Edwards and most recently Santonio Holmes. Dare I say this is just meant to be?
Jared Allen signs with the Green Bay Packers
Why this makes some sense: A team can never have too many pass rushers, especially when it finished 24th in that category last season. The Packers had a respectable 44 sacks in 2013, but the most they got from a defensive lineman was Mike Daniels’ 6.5. Allen had 11.5 for Minnesota and he has averaged 14.4 over his last seven seasons.
Why it probably won’t happen: Allen will be 32 years old in April and the Packers’ have plenty of areas to address on a defense that ranked 25th in yards allowed and tied for 24th in points last season. There are probably several other teams that could pay Allen much more than Green Bay could or would be willing to fork out.
Why we really want to see it happen: Chalk this one up to karma. Wide receiver Greg Jennings left Green Bay and signed with Minnesota last season, taking some not-so-veiled shots at teammates, notably quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and the organization on the way out. Should Allen likewise change NFC North allegiances, it would be interesting to see if he would follow Jennings’ playbook or not. Also what sweeter revenge for Allen than to play on a team that has a MVP signal-caller while also guaranteeing him two shots at punishing whomever the Vikings end up with under center.
Golden Tate signs with the San Francisco 49ers
Why this makes some sense: The 49ers’ passing offense was 30th in the NFL last season. Only the Jets and Buccaneers threw for fewer yards while just nine teams finished with fewer than the 21 touchdowns Colin Kaepernick tossed. Meanwhile Tate led Seattle in catches and yards and helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. What better way to hurt the defending champs, not to mention your hated division rival, than to “take” away one of their biggest weapons?
Why this probably won’t happen: San Francisco has already re-signed Anquan Boldin, should have a healthy Michael Crabtree this season and also has an All-Pro tight end in Vernon Davis. Tate figures to be one of the more attractive wide receiver options on the market and will likely cost more than a run-heavy team like the 49ers is willing to spend on the position.
Why we really want to see it happen: Seattle and San Francisco absolutely despise one another, something neither side has had any problems making known. The fact the Seahawks beat the 49ers before going on to win the Super Bowl only adds more spice to this already heated rivalry. Player poaching, if you will, is nothing new to these two teams, but this would be without a doubt the highest-profile instance. I am not the only one who would love to see this happen either, as NFL beat writers, sports talk radio, the blogosphere and social media would devour this whole. And you thought their two NFC West divisional matchups were already intriguing enough? Welcome to the next level.
You can come “home” again?
While their situations may not be as interesting or entertaining as the ones mentioned above, there is something to be said for some other potential “homecomings” that could happen via free agency.
Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks has seen his production steadily decline in each of the past two seasons, so a change of scenery for this New York Giant may be in order. A potential landing spot for Nicks could be in Carolina, where the defending NFC South champions could use another reliable target in the passing game.
This is especially the case considering Steve Smith is seemingly on the downside of his career, if not on his way off of the Panthers’ roster. Nicks was a record-setting, All-ACC wider receiver when he was at North Carolina, so perhaps a return to the Tar Heel State is just what he and the Panthers need.
Just like Nicks, Justin Tuck also may have played his final game for the Giants. An All-Pro defensive end who has been to two Pro Bowls and has 60.5 sacks in nine seasons, Tuck will turn 31 in a few weeks but he is coming off of an 11-sack 2013 campaign.
A Notre Dame graduate who starred for the Fighting Irish, Tuck could help solve Chicago’s defensive line and pass-rush issues should he end up in the Windy City. After all, Tuck is three years younger and finished with four more sacks than Julius Peppers, the Bears’ high-priced pass-rushing end who could wind up being a salary cap casualty.
And then there’s Jairus Byrd, a Pro Bowl safety who is looking to get paid like one of the best defensive backs in the NFL. Prior to Buffalo selecting him in the second round of the 2009 draft, Byrd was an all-conference cornerback at Oregon from 2006-08. And who just happened to be the offensive coordinator for the Ducks Byrd’s last two seasons in Eugene? None other than Chip Kelly, who is now the head coach in Philadelphia and led the Eagles to an NFC East title in his rookie season.
As successful as the Eagles were last season, however, there is still plenty of room for improvement, especially on defense. Philadelphia was dead last in the league in passing defense in 2013, giving up 290 yards through the air per game. Provided the Eagles have the cap space, signing Byrd would be a significant step towards upgrading the secondary while also reuniting a pair of former Ducks. It’s just like I said earlier, sometimes these pairings make sense, both on the field as well as off of it.
Fifteen Senior Nights have come and gone in Lincoln without a group of veterans continuing their seasons in the NCAA Tournament.
That could change Sunday against Wisconsin.
The Cornhuskers have been one of the surprise teams in the country, assured of a winning record in the Big Ten. The next hurdle could be their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1998.
Here’s how Nebraska arrived on the bubble and how the Huskers could further their case Sunday and into the conference tournaments.
By the numbers
Record: 18-11, 10-7 Big Ten
Strength of schedule: 36
Best win: Michigan State on the road
Worst loss: UAB on a neutral court
How Nebraska could be in the Tournament: The Huskers add to their top 50 win total
Nebraska stunned Ohio State 68-62 on Jan. 20, which turned out to the the turning point of the season. The win over the Buckeyes was the first top 50 win of the season for the Cornhuskers, which includes a 60-51 win at Michigan State on Feb. 16. The Huskers are 3-7 overall against the RPI top 50, but a win over Wisconsin would be their first against a team in the top 20
How Nebraska could be left out: The Huskers can't escape three bad losses
The Cornhuskers have three losses from which they’d like to hide from: at Purdue, at Penn State and against UAB in the Charleston Classic. Three losses to teams outside of the top 100 isn’t an eliminator — Kentucky and North Carolina have the same — but it’s not a good look.
Nebraska needs to: Beat Wisconsin
The Cornhuskers could be playing with house money in the Big Ten Tournament if they defeat Wisconsin on Saturday. The Badgers, though, have won eight in a row since a 1-5 stretch in January.
Nebraska can’t afford to: Fall out of the No. 4 seed and lose in the Big Ten Tournament
The No. 4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament brings a first-round bye, but the Cornhuskers could slip to a No. 5 or No. 6 with a loss to Wisconsin combined with wins by Ohio State and/or Iowa. Falling out of the top four seeds would draw either Purdue or Northwestern in the first round. A loss to one of those teams could be devastating.
Insight from the beat: Brian Rosenthal, Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star
“The fact Nebraska is even in consideration for an NCAA Tournament bid is a sign of the incredible coaching job by Tim Miles. In only his second season in Lincoln, Miles has taken a team picked to finish last in the Big Ten Conference and put it on the brink of ending its NCAA Tournament drought, which dates to 1998. Nebraska began the season 0-4 in Big Ten play, including a 31-point loss at Ohio State, but has since gone 10-3 to rise to fourth place in the Big Ten standings. The emergence of sophomore transfer Terran Petteway, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 17.8 points per game, and a defense that’s held eight straight foes to less than 38 percent shooting have been key. The Huskers have also established a decisive home-court advantage at their new home, sold-out Pinnacle Bank Arena, where they’re 14-1. The lone loss came to league champion Michigan by one point.”