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Path: /nascar/nascar-rookie-report-how-do-they-stack-against-their-predecessors
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Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.

Today, David attempts to isolate each rookie from his team and equipment and properly rank the driving chops of each member of this year’s rookie class.


When seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams elected to tab a rookie to climb aboard their entry for the 2014 season, it meant at least seven drivers — those cars’ previous occupants — were left looking for new jobs.

Though the act of taking on a rookie is a long-term investment that shouldn’t be expected to yield any immediate dividends, a team’s performance will certainly change — more often for the worse — right after the driver switch is made.

Do immediate returns dictate whether a transaction of this manner was “good?” Not necessarily, but it’s still a fun exercise. How do the drivers in this year’s rookie crop compare to the previous drivers of their equipment?

This week’s Athlon Sports Rookie Rankings compares this year’s results to those of each rookie’s predecessor:


1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)  Kyle Larson
Replaced Juan Pablo Montoya.
Larson tops all rookies with a 0.981 Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) through 13 races and his 15th-place average finish with chief wrench Chris Heroy ranks ninth in the series among driver-crew chief combinations (it currently bests what 2012 champion Brad Keselowski has accomplished in 12 races with Paul Wolfe on the box: a 15.1-place average result). Through 13 races in 2013, Montoya averaged a 20.6-place finish and had corralled just one top-5 outing. Larson has earned two thus far. Their time spent running in the top 15 is close to equal; 43.7 percent of Montoya’s laps through the Dover race weekend were in 15th place or better, while Larson’s tally this season comes in around 44.7 percent.


Austin Dillon2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
Replaced Kevin Harvick.
Perhaps the most unfair task asked of all of this year’s rookies, Dillon was/is never going to emulate the production output of a potential Hall of Famer in his first year. Harvick averaged a 14.2-place finish through the first 13 races of 2013 in what was, outside of wins at Richmond and Charlotte, a slow start to the season — he had no other top-5 finishes beyond the wins. Dillon has zero top-5 finishes, but his average result is only off of Harvick’s by 2.3 spots. Consistency, in this case, is killing. Dillon’s 16.5 average finish is the second-most consistent in the series, per a finish deviation of 5.5, trailing only David Ragan’s 3.4 on top of a pitiful 32.1-place average.


3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 3)  Justin Allgaier
Replaced Regan Smith, AJ Allmendinger and Austin Dillon.
Amazingly, previous team owner James Finch earned an average finish of 17.9 through the first 13 races with the Smith-Allmendinger-Dillon amalgamation, which was collectively better than the average finish of would-be Chase participants Kurt Busch (18.5) and Ryan Newman (19.5) through that initial slate. This kind of output was never expected from Allgaier, who is averaging a 26.9-place finish for a new team owner (Harry Scott), crew chief (Steve Addington, who replaced the highly underrated Nick Harrison) and an organization still seeking solid ground in NASCAR’s most competitive series.


Michael Annett4. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 5)
Replaced Dave Blaney.
Blaney averaged a 27.2-place finish — over two spots better than Annett’s 29.5 — but his best two finishes came in the more randomized restrictor plate races, where he brought home results of 16th and 17th at Daytona and Talladega, respectively. Where Annett has produced dutiful results is at the 1.5-mile intermediate tracks, where he is averaging a consistent 27.8-place finish that bests Blaney’s 30.5 mark in the same races last year. Annett has also experienced a bit of the bizarre: He ran as high as 19th at Dover, but encountered front end damage via the track’s crumbling concrete, a flat tire and a broken shock mount, all in 100-lap span. He was registered with a 35th-place finish.


5. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 4)  Cole Whitt
Replaced David Stremme (prior to team change).
Whitt has the potential to be better than what his replacement-level minus-0.019 PEER indicates. Caught in a tumultuous season that already spans two different teams (Swan Racing and BK Racing), he hasn’t had the equipment he needs to showcase what made him a hot commodity in the USAC ranks, but he also isn’t distancing himself from the previous occupants of his equipment. In eight races with Swan, he averaged a 30.9-place finish, while David Stremme also averaged a 30.9 for them in the same races in 2013. In the five-race jaunt from Richmond to Dover with BK, Whitt averaged a 28.8-place finish, which is more than a position off of what David Reutimann was able to do (27.6) at the same facilities.


Alex Bowman6. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 6)
Replaced Travis Kvapil. Bowman sat down with Athlon Sports earlier this year and discussed some of the strange goings-on he experienced in his initial starts. Weirdness aside — the battery pack fell out of his car at Bristol — he has still managed to be an immediate upgrade over Kvapil, both in on-track results (Bowman’s 32nd-place average trumps Kvapil’s 33.8 from last year) and off-track conduct (Kvapil pleaded guilty to domestic assault charges late last year). There is room for improvement, though. He hasn’t cracked the top half of the field (21st or better) for a finish yet, which has been done nine times by six different drivers with similar average running positions.


7. Ryan Truex, No. 83 (previous: 7)  Ryan Truex
Replaced David Reutimann. BK Racing went younger by 21 years when they let Reutimann walk out the door and replaced him with Truex. Though this was a long-haul decision, it hasn’t yet panned out. Reutimann averaged a 29.5-place finish through the first 13 races last season, while Truex has an average of 35.3 through 11 races and has failed to qualify for two. That large gap in results could easily shrink once Truex’s series-worst 0.55-per-race crash frequency dissipates.


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

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Ranking the Sprint Cup Series' Rookie of the Year contenders
Post date: Tuesday, June 3, 2014 - 17:55
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-june-3-2014
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This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for June 3.

Aaron Murray's girlfriend and AJ McCarron's fiancee took a picture together. That's the photo at right.

So here's Gronk going full-on bro, dancing and making boob jokes on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"

• Planning your college football attendance schedule? Here are the most expensive tickets in the college game.

A player was DQ'd from a U.S. Open qualifier for signing an incorrect scorecard. A called himself a "huge idiot." No arguments here.

When will people learn not to gather in large numbers on docks for weddings?

Will California Chrome steal Kentucky's thunder by being the first Cali-bred Triple Crown winner?

• Hakeem, Patrick and the White Bronco: An interesting look back at the Forgotten Finals, 20 years later.

Steve Ballmer has plans for his shiny new toy.

An unfortunate ump took a screaming liner to the nether regions. Fortunately, it was a wiffle ball.

John Elway's son allegedly pushed a woman from a moving car. Hey, we've all been there, right? No?

Sportsmanship can be costly, as one track coach proved.

• Sometimes you just have to stop eating your sandwich and applaud Robinson Cano.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, June 3, 2014 - 11:39
Path: /college-football/college-football-2014-rankings-and-predictions-101-128
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The start of the college football season is less than 100 days away, and Athlon Sports is counting down the top teams for the upcoming year.

Florida State is Athlon’s pick to win the national championship, with Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide projected to finish No. 2 nationally. Of course, there's a new element to college football's regular season with the addition of a four-team playoff, and Athlon Sports is picking Ohio State to finish No. 3 and Oklahoma to finish No. 4. The debate in the preseason is no longer about No. 1 and No. 2 and instead more about the top four teams in the nation.

While there is always plenty of intrigue in filling out the top 25, Nos. 26-40 feature a handful of teams that just missed. The Nos. 41-60 range features teams like Texas Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arizona. The Nos. 61-80 projection features a few bowl teams from last season, including Syracuse, Boston College and Rutgers, along with some top teams from outside the power conferences (Northern Illinois, Ball State, Fresno State and Colorado State). The Nos. 81-100 range includes an improving South Florida team, several of Conference USA's top squads for 2014 (UTSA, RIce and North Texas), along with Wyoming under first-year coach Craig Bohl. The Nos. 101-128 completes the release of the projected 2014 rankings, with teams like New Mexico State, FIU and Idaho looking to build some positive momentum after a rough 2013 campaign.

With the completion of Athlon's college football Top 25 for 2014, it's time to take a look at the rest of the rankings. You can view No. 26-40 hereNo. 41-60 here61-80 here and No. 81-100 here.

Follow the top 25 on Twitter @AthlonSports and join the debate at #Athlon25. Follow Athlon's College Football Writers on Twitter: Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and David Fox (@DavidFox615).

Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2014 season

College Football 2014 Projected Rankings: 101-128

101. UNLV
UNLV learned in the spring that it had failed to meet minimum NCAA Athletic Progress Rate (APR) score requirements of 930 and that the program would be ineligible for postseason competition in 2014, including the Mountain West Championship Game. Talk about bad timing. The Rebels, who ended a 12-year bowl drought with a 36–14 loss to North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year’s Day, hoped to be legitimate contenders in the West Division and stood a strong chance of making it to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. Instead, UNLV will have to settle for trying to put together consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 1983-84.

Read the full 2014 UNLV Rebels Team Preview

102. Tulsa
Tulsa won a conference championship in 2012 and finished with only three victories in 2013, the lowest total since a one-win campaign in 2002. TU will try to regroup in its inaugural season in the American Athletic Conference. The defense should be improved, but there are concerns on offense, especially at quarterback. Tulsa appears headed toward a second straight losing season.

Read the full 2014 Tulsa Golden Hurricane Team Preview

103. San Jose State
The Spartans, who will be trying for their third consecutive .500 or better record for the first time since 1989-92, will enter the season with a big chip on their shoulders after getting bypassed for a bowl game despite a 6–6 record and impressive season-ending upset of then-undefeated Fresno State. Seventeen players with starting experience return, and the schedule, outside of early non-conference road games at Auburn and Minnesota, is favorable. Three of the first four Mountain West games are at home, including two against teams — UNLV and Colorado State — that San Jose State defeated on the road a year ago. If Joe Gray or Blake Jurich emerges as a quality option at quarterback and Robinson can fix a defense that ranked 103rd nationally in points allowed (35.1 ppg), the Spartans have enough returning talent to be a factor in the West Division.

Read the full 2014 San Jose State Spartans Team Preview

104. Buffalo
Plenty of attention has been paid to Buffalo’s heavy losses to graduation, and perhaps deservedly so, but the return of quarterback Joe Licata should be enough to carry the offense. It will be challenging to avoid a projected slide on defense, but a soft schedule in the early season should ease the growing pains. Four of the first five games are at home, including games with two FCS opponents in Duquesne and Norfolk State.

Bowling Green is clearly the team to beat in the MAC East, but the Bulls, if the defense comes through, will have a chance to be a factor once again in the division race.

Read the full 2014 Buffalo Bulls Team Preview

105. Air Force
Troy Calhoun arrived in 2007 to rescue a program that struggled in the final years of Fisher DeBerry’s guidance. He revived the Falcons with players recruited by DeBerry, but the program has gradually regressed with players recruited by Calhoun, who has lost 14 of his last 17 games. Lack of talent and size were the glaring problems last season. The 2014 team is more experienced but still lacks the talent to thrive in the Mountain West. Calhoun needs the running attack to dominate once again. Kale Pearson runs with the speed and elusiveness of a tailback, and he’s capable of leading the Air Force offense — which ranked last in the Mountain West last season in yards per game — back to prominence.

However, for this team to flirt with a winning record, the defense — which gave up an astounding 51 touchdowns in eight Mountain West games — must show significant improvement.

Read the full 2014 Air Force Falcons Team Preview

106. New Mexico
Bob Davie has seen mild progress with seven wins in his first two years after taking over a program that went 3–33 in the previous three years. But he and his coaching staff know that there is a long way to go for the Lobos to compete in the upper half of the Mountain West. The offense should again be above average. The relative success of 2014 will be determined by what type of progress the defense can make.

Read the full 2014 New Mexico Lobos Team Preview

107. Central Michigan
Central Michigan was bowl-eligible in 2013 with a 6–6 record but did not receive a postseason invite. There is considerable pressure on Dan Enos and his staff to get the Chips back among the elite in the MAC West. Enos inherited a program that went 32–7 in the MAC from 2005-09, but is 13–19 in league play in four seasons.

There are reasons for optimism: The Chips return 16 starters from a team that went 5–3 in the league. But there are also reasons for concern: Four of the five victories came against teams that either went 1–7 or 0–8 in the MAC.

Bottom line: This team is competitive but still not ready to contend in the West.

Read the full 2014 Central Michigan Chippewas Team Preview

108. Troy
Troy’s offense kept things close last season — the Trojans lost 41–36 and 41–34 to Sun Belt co-champions UL Lafayette and Arkansas State, respectively — but the defense couldn’t get key stops in a 6–6 season. Troy’s three straight non-winning seasons are a first in revered coach Larry Blakeney’s 24-year career, and the weight of snapping that streak falls on the shoulders of untested quarterbacks. The Trojans loaded up on junior college talent to shore up the defense, but that group’s ability to mesh and finding a leader for a potentially dangerous offense remain huge questions.

Read the full 2014 Troy Trojans Team Preview

109. UAB
Don’t expect miracles from new coach Bill Clark in his first season, but do expect improvement from Garrick McGee’s short tenure as the program’s head coach. Defensive improvement is a must, and someone needs to secure the quarterback job. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see UAB double its win total from last season, which was two, but they are probably a couple of years away from turning things completely in the right direction.

Read the full 2014 UAB Blazers Team Preview

110. ULM
As usual, ULM has a challenging non-conference schedule with games against Wake Forest, LSU, Kentucky and Texas A&M. That makes it even tougher to get one of the Sun Belt Conference’s limited bowl slots, as its 6–6 record last season did not land a bid.

“We have got to schedule like that every year from a financial standpoint, so our players are all acclimated to those type of challenges,” coach Todd Berry says. “It can have an impact with the bowl tie-ins in our conference because of your overall record.”

ULM will have more experience than the majority of its opponents, but a lot rests on the performance of the starting quarterback, especially since Kolton Browning provided the team’s identity for so long. Berry’s teams have often overachieved, but with four new Sun Belt members it’s difficult to figure where the Warhawks should rank in the new lineup.

Read the full 2014 ULM Warhawks Team Preview

111. Army
Jeff Monken knows the triple-option and previously coached at a major military academy, key ingredients when taking over at Army. He is very intense and demands a lot of his team. He showed his frustration during the spring when his team lost focus. “I am not happy with how physical we are playing in every phase of the game,” he said at one point.

Monken inherits a team that won only three games last year and a total of eight in the past three years. But with a soft schedule that includes two FCS opponents, there is room for improvement. Bowl-eligibility isn’t likely, but the Black Knights should be competitive with most of the teams on their schedule.

Read the full 2014 Army Black Knights Team Preview

112. Louisiana Tech
It was a rough first season for Skip Holtz, and Year 2 may be a struggle as well. Four of the first five games are on the road, including trips to Oklahoma and Auburn. For Louisiana Tech to improve, the quarterback situation needs to sort itself out, and the offensive line has to provide more help for the talented running back tandem of Kenneth Dixon and Tevin King. The defense has a chance to be decent if the front four can get stronger against the run. Bowl eligibility would be a significant step forward for Holtz and the Bulldogs.

Read the full 2014 Louisiana Tech Bulldogs Team Preview

113. Texas State
This season will mark the first time in the past four years that the Bobcats will have spent back-to-back campaigns in the same conference after moving from the Southland to the WAC to the Sun Belt. Dennis Franchione has already said that this is the most FBS-ready roster he’s had at Texas State. The team will again have a backloaded schedule with plenty of tough games in the latter half of the season. The good news is that the Bobcats will play both UL Lafayette and Arkansas State — the Sun Belt co-champions in 2013 — at home.

After Texas State went 6–6 in 2013, a winning season and bowl game would be the next logical step for this program. For that to happen, though, the defense — with a rebuilt line and secondary — will have to overachieve while learning a new system. 

Read the full 2014 Texas State Bobcats Team Preview

114. Kent State
No one was quite ready for last year’s fall from grace. The 2012 season was marked by a school-record 11 victories and the first bowl game since 1972. Then coach Darrell Hazell left for Purdue, and Paul Haynes, a former Kent State player, replaced him. With a new quarterback and a new coach, KSU stumbled to a 4–8 record overall and a 3–5 mark in the MAC.

That was a collective shock to the Kent State faithful, and now comes the uncertainty about whether the program just suffered a temporary setback or whether the bad old days of the past are back.

This promises to be an interesting season around the confines of Dix Stadium. Whether it will be a successful one is far from assured.

Read the full 2014 Kent State Golden Flashes Team Preview

115. Southern Miss
Perhaps the nightmare is over for Southern Miss. After setting a standard for success in Conference USA, the Golden Eagles went winless in 2012 and lost their first 11 games in 2013. The Nick Mullens-Chip Lindsey combination seems destined to improve the offense, and the return of several key players from injury should bolster the defense. There’s a rough non-conference slate, but Todd Monken should have a competitive and relatively experienced squad —  as many as 14 freshmen and sophomores starting by season’s end — prepared to compete in league play.

Read the full 2014 Southern Miss Golden Eagles Team Preview

116. Old Dominion
Since the program restarted in 2009, the Monarchs have shown that they can adapt. In their second year in the powerful CAA, they won a league title and reached the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs. In their first season as an FBS program, they knocked off Idaho and hung with bowl teams East Carolina and Pittsburgh. In five seasons, all under Bobby Wilder, the Monarchs are 46–14.

The challenge will be steeper this season as there’s only one FCS school on the schedule as opposed to the seven that the Monarchs played in 2013.

But with quarterback Taylor Heinicke as the face of the program and last season’s young talent maturing, Old Dominion appears to have what it needs to keep that steady upward trajectory in place.

Read the full 2014 Old Dominion Monarchs Team Preview

117. UTEP
As long as the Miners stay healthy at the offensive skill positions, they should score enough points to keep them in most games. That happened for the first part of last season, but they didn’t win many games because the defense was so porous.

A combination of a second year in the system and a host of experience in the back seven should lead to improvement on defense, but it will have to be dramatic for UTEP to win six games and challenge for a bowl.

Read the full 2014 UTEP Miners Team Preview

118. Hawaii
After the worst two-season start (4–20) ever for a Hawaii head coach, the pressure is on for Norm Chow to show major improvement in 2014. That, however, will not be easy. The schedule is difficult — especially early with three Pac-12 opponents in the season’s first month — and there are significant personnel issues on both sides of the ball. The Rainbow Warriors appear headed toward another last-place finish.

Read the full 2014 Hawaii Warriors Team Preview

119. Western Michigan
P.J. Fleck strolled into Kalamazoo with plenty of bravado, ignoring critics of his age and his “Row the Boat” mantra. A humbling season did nothing to slow recruiting — Rivals ranked his 2014 class No. 59 nationally, ahead of Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois — or his optimism for the future.

In the short term, Fleck sounds more realistic than a year ago, and more comfortable in his skin, aware that the odds are stacked against a team with only 29 upperclassmen, not enough of them up front on either side of the ball. “It’s a patient process, which in college football isn’t the friendliest process,” he says.

Read the full 2014 Western Michigan Broncos Team Preview

120. Miami, Ohio
Chuck Martin won two Division II national championships as the head coach at Grand Valley State and helped Notre Dame reach the BCS National Championship Game two years ago. He is used to winning. But this is a major rebuild. The RedHawks went 0–12 in 2013 and were perhaps the worst team in the nation. Quick turnarounds are possible in the MAC — see Ball State under Pete Lembo — but it’s hard to envision the RedHawks climbing too far up the league’s food chain in 2014.

Read the full 2014 Miami, Ohio RedHawks Team Preview

121. UMass
After two tough years under Molnar, who was fired in the offseason, UMass is hoping Mark Whipple can turn the program around for the second time. In his first stint in Amherst (1998-2003), Whipple turned a team that was 2–9 the year before he arrived into the 1998 Division I-AA champions, which made his return popular in Amherst. He coached UMass for six years before working as an assistant in the NFL and at the University of Miami.

The task could be tougher this time as he inherits a team that won only one game in each of the last two seasons.

Read the full 2014 UMass Minutemen Team Preview

122. Georgia Southern
In an otherwise average 2013 season, Georgia Southern received significant attention on Nov. 23 for beating Florida, 26–20, in its first-ever victory over an FBS opponent. Though some at Georgia Southern might have seen that performance as validation for the school’s decision to move up to FBS, there are still significant challenges ahead. It will also be a new experience for Willie Fritz, who has moved up the ladder from junior colleges to Division II Central Missouri, where he went 97–47, to his wildly successful run at Sam Houston State.

Though the Eagles had a solid structure in place before making the move, there are plenty of unknowns. “Instead of slaying one dragon a year,” Fritz says, “we’ve got to do it with great consistency. We’ve got to get a lot better.”

Read the full 2014 Georgia Southern Eagles Team Preview

123. Appalachian State
One of the dominant programs in the Southern Conference and on the FCS level for decades, Appalachian State is on the brink of its first season in the FBS ranks.

The Mountaineers — who matched their lowest win total since 1993 last season — will face several challenges, like depth issues stemming from the push to reach their full complement of scholarships and a lineup of new Sun Belt Conference opponents. So for a team and a fan base that’s used to success, this season could be a big adjustment.

But if things are kept in perspective, there’s reason for optimism.

While on the staff at Florida International, Scott Satterfield did win a Sun Belt title, so he understands what Appalachian State is up against. And with a team that will lean on young talent, there’s reason to believe that the Mountaineers will eventually be a force in their new league. Still, there’s a strong chance their first taste of FBS life — which begins with a trip to Michigan, site of their unforgettable 2007 upset — will have some bumpy moments.

Read the full 2014 Appalachian State Mountaineers Team Preview

124. Eastern Michigan
Eastern is not the type of program that can be fixed overnight by any coach, let alone one with zero experience — as a player, assistant or head coach — at the FBS level, although no experience should be required to improve upon the four wins Eastern has accumulated the past two seasons. Chris Creighton has a solid résumé, with an overall record of 139–46 as a head coach with stops at Ottawa (NAIA), Wabash (Division III) and Drake (FCS). His task at Eastern Michigan is immense. The Eagles have not had a winning season since 1995 and have been one of the worst FBS programs in the nation in recent years.

Read the full 2014 Eastern Michigan Eagles Team Preview

125. Idaho
Things can’t get any worse for Idaho, right? The Vandals are coming off a 1–11 season in which they weren’t very competitive as an independent. The Sun Belt Conference once again is home, which will lower the degree of difficulty on the schedule (Florida is the only major-conference opponent). But the conference affiliation brings additional travel — the Vandals will play half of their games in the Eastern and Central time zones.

If Paul Petrino can overcome the travel and find some consistency in all phases, Idaho has a chance at making some noise in the overhauled conference. But even if the Vandals do surprise and find a way to get to six wins, they will not be spending the holidays at a bowl game. It was announced in late April that low APR scores had made the program ineligible for a postseason game in 2014.

Read the full 2014 Idaho Vandals Team Preview

126. Georgia State
Entering its fifth year of existence overall and second as an FBS program, Georgia State has experienced very little success, winning just once over the past two seasons. As players who were recruited for the FCS level cycle out of the program — including 27 seniors last season — the opportunity exists for Miles to upgrade the roster’s size, speed and depth. Still, the Panthers are probably two recruiting classes away from getting their numbers up to par, and in the meantime will have to rely heavily on underclassmen for production.

The Panthers were competitive at times in 2013, losing three times in conference play by a touchdown or less, but they’re still closer to the beginning than the end of a long rebuilding process.

Read the full 2014 Georgia State Panthers Team Preview

127. FIU
While the natural progression of players and the return of Richard Leonard at cornerback provide hope that FIU can improve, holes in the defensive front seven and the possibility that a true freshman will start at quarterback extinguish those small bits of positivity. Games against Louisville, Pitt, Marshall and even rival FAU are likely to be embarrassingly lopsided. The Panthers have a better chance of going winless than making a bowl game. 

Read the full 2014 FIU Panthers Team Preview

128. New Mexico State
The Aggies are a team in transition, if for no other reason than their youth and inexperience. The program signed 23 freshmen, a number of whom will be counted on this year.

The team does have a much more manageable schedule this season, moving to the Sun Belt Conference after competing as an FBS Independent. After winning only two games in Doug Martin’s first season as head coach, there will be pressure on the Aggies to be competitive with the lower half of the new-look Sun Belt. It will be a troubling sign if New Mexico State struggles with FBS newcomers like Georgia State and Georgia Southern.

Read the full 2014 New Mexico State Aggies Team Preview

Teaser:
College Football 2014 Rankings and Predictions: #101-128
Post date: Tuesday, June 3, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/ranking-nfl-offensive-rookies-year-2014
Body:

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

Lacy, the former Alabama running back, was the 61st overall pick in the NFL Draft and was the NFL AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. He was the first Offensive Rookie of the Year (OROY) not taken in the first round since Anquan Boldin won the award for the Cardinals in 2003 with 101 receptions, 1,377 yards and eight touchdowns. Boldin was the 54th pick in the second round of the ’03 draft.

Otherwise, the modern OROY comes from the first round and is most likely a quarterback. From 1971 to 2003, not one quarterback won Rookie of the Year honors but six of the last 10 winners were signal-callers. In fact, Lacy was the first non-QB to win the award since Percy Harvin in 2009. Additionally, Harvin and Boldin are two of the three wide receivers (Randy Moss) to win OROY honors since Carl Pickens in 1992.

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

Odds as of 4 p.m. ET, Monday, June 2 according to Bovada.

1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland (6/1)
Manziel is one of only three players who is both a first-round pick and a quarterback. He is also the biggest rock star of the ’14 draft class, which could both help or hurt his chances at ROY. He has the most big-play ability of anyone in this class at any position and he should earn his way into the starting lineup fairly quickly. He has a chance to perform very similarly to Robert Griffin III two years ago. Win some games, post huge numbers and get hurt at the end of the year.

2. Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennessee (12/1)
A running back has won 32 of 47 NFL OROY awards and Sankey is the best option in the ’14 draft class. He was a workhorse for Washington, carrying over 600 times in the last two seasons for over 3,300 yards and 36 touchdowns. Most importantly, he was a star against Stanford twice — the toughest defense he faced each year — with 265 yards and three scores on 47 carries (including one win in ‘12). Sankey has the clearest path to extended carries of any rookie back and the Titans are out to prove there was a reason they took him as the first RB off the board in this draft.

3. Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans (10/1)
Only two wideouts since 1999 have won OROY and only eight pass-catchers have ever won the award (since 1967). But if I had to bet on a rookie wide receiver in this class, it would be Cooks. There is a reason the Saints traded up to get the Biletnikoff winner. Cooks caught an absurd 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns last year and is as hard a worker as this class has to offer. He also falls into a great system with a Hall of Fame quarterback under center. Look for big numbers from the rookie out of Oregon State.

4. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota (12/1)
Bizarre Pro Day workout aside, there are many who believe that Bridgewater is the best quarterback in this class. With Matt Cassel the only obstacle standing in his way, the odds are Bridgewater is the starter in the Twin Cities very quickly. He has toughness, great leadership, a grasp of the pro offense and an excellent arm. With a superstar at tailback to take the pressure off, Bridgewater might be the best option for Rookie of the Year — if I was a betting man (which I’m not).

5. Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo (4/1)
Watkins is tied with Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans as the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year in 2014. However, unlike Evans, Watkins has the ability to do everything for his offense, despite potential quarterback issues. The former Clemson star can be lined up in the slot, given the ball in the backfield and could be a star on special teams a la Patterson last year. Watkins has rare playmaking ability and he will be put to good use right away in Buffalo. He is a much better bet to succeed than Evans in Tampa (more on him later).

6. Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia (18/1)
Chip Kelly may be many things but stupid isn’t one of them. Matthews was the most productive wideout in SEC history and now he is playing in an offense known for huge numbers, big plays and lots of scoring. The consummate professional, Matthews is as stable and consistent a draft pick as any in the entire ’14 class. Look for an excellent season, regardless of ROY consideration, for the pass-catcher known as J-Matt.

7. Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit (14/1)
The former Tar Heel standout was clearly the most gifted player at his position in this class. And Ebron couldn’t have asked for a better situation than having Matthew Stafford throwing him passes while defenses focus on Calvin Johnson on the outside. Ebron is an instant impact player at a position not known for instant offense. A tight end has never won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and Ebron might be one of the best bets to snap that trend in quite some time.

8. Jeremy Hill, RB, Cincinnati (33/1)
Giovani Bernard is the starter and will likely command more than 200 touches but there is plenty to go around for Hill — a guy with a totally different skill set at 235 pounds. The former LSU workhorse ran for nearly seven yards per carry in the nation’s toughest league and he has plenty of tread left on the tires (just 345 carries in only two college seasons). Hill might be the best back in this class and he should get his fair share of carries this fall, especially around the goal line. The Bengals' bruiser is the best long-shot bet in this draft class.

9. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina (14/1)
Carolina was in desperate need of playmakers after releasing Steve Smith and it went and got one in Benjamin. He won’t flash Megatron-like speed or burst but he has a massive frame and came up big in big-time spots at Florida State. Benjamin should be the go-to target for Cam Newton right away and that alone should put him into the mix for OROY honors in 2014.

10. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay (4/1)
Evans is a nice talent. He has a huge frame and posted big numbers for the Aggies. He also played in a pass-happy system, ran one of two routes, was completely shut down at times, has maturity issues and is playing for a team with a questionable quarterback situation. Again, Evans is a nice player but I wouldn’t bet a penny on him for Rookie of the Year and certainly won’t own him in any fantasy leagues.

Other names to consider:

Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants (16/1)
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville (20/1)
Cody Latimer, WR, Denver (20/1)
Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Chicago (off)
Marqise Lee, WR, Jacksonville (14/1)
Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay (20/1)

Teaser:
Ranking the NFL Offensive Rookies of the Year for 2014
Post date: Tuesday, June 3, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-football/sec-football-2014-predictions
Body:
2014 SEC Predictions
East DivisionSECOverall
 1. Georgia (No. 8)6-210-3
2. South Carolina (No. 9)6-210-2
 3. Florida (No. 23)4-47-5
4. Missouri (No. 25)4-48-4
5. Tennessee (No. 42)3-56-6
6. Vanderbilt (No. 44)2-66-6
7. Kentucky (No. 70)1-74-8
West DivisionSECOverall
1. Alabama (No. 2)7-112-1
2. Auburn (No. 5)6-210-2
3. Ole Miss (No. 18)5-39-3
4. LSU (No. 19)4-48-4
5. Mississippi State (No. 33)4-48-4
6. Texas A&M (No. 34)3-57-5
7. Arkansas (No. 63)1-74-8
SEC Championship
Alabama over Georgia

The SEC’s dominance for the national championship ended last season, but the conference can still flex its muscles as the best in college football. The gap between the SEC and Pac-12 has narrowed, but the SEC will be tough to unseat as the No. 1 conference anytime soon.
 

As college football shifts to a new four-team playoff in 2014, the SEC is positioned to potentially have two teams in the new format. Alabama ranks as Athlon’s No. 2 team for 2014, with Auburn (No. 5), Georgia (No. 8) and South Carolina (No. 9) all viable options this year.
 

Picking the champion of both divisions will be a tough assignment this preseason. The East has more contenders for the top spot in its division than the West, but both sides of the SEC are strong. The East is headlined by Georgia and South Carolina, with Florida and Missouri also in the mix. The Gators are due to rebound after a disappointing 4-8 record last season, and the Bulldogs should have better injury luck in 2014 after a rash of key losses in 2013.
 

Alabama vs. Auburn for No. 1 in the SEC is one of college football’s top offseason topics, and the debate will continue into August. Athlon projects the Crimson Tide to get revenge on the Tigers this year and to play Florida State in the National Championship in early January. Why Alabama over Auburn? The Crimson Tide get the Tigers at home, and even though quarterback is a huge concern in Tuscaloosa, a strong running game and defense should carry Nick Saban's team until Jacob Coker is ready.
 

While Alabama and Auburn seem to be the clear contenders in the West, sorting No. 3-6 is difficult. Can LSU quickly reload once again? Will Ole Miss or Mississippi State take a step forward? Is Texas A&M’s defense ready to turn a corner? In the No. 3-6 race, keep an eye on quarterback play. Whichever team can settle its concerns under center the fastest will have an edge to challenge Auburn and Alabama.
 

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

 

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

What gave Georgia the edge over South Carolina, especially since the game is in Columbia?

South Carolina has been one of the most consistent teams in the league over the last three or four years, but the 2014 Gamecocks have more key players to replace than any recent Steve Spurrier team. You have to start at the quarterback position. Connor Shaw was one of the most valuable players in the league the last few years, both with his play on the field and his leadership in the locker room. Dylan Thompson is a solid player who has performed well when called upon, but it’s doubtful he will bring the same intangibles to the position. South Carolina also must replace its best wide receiver (Bruce Ellington), two All-America defensive linemen (Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles) and both starting cornerbacks (Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree). Georgia suffered a big loss at the quarterback position with the graduation of Aaron Murray, but the Bulldogs have far fewer personnel issues elsewhere. And the defense, which underachieved in recent years, should be improved with the arrival of new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Georgia also had several key injuries last season and struggled in the turnover department (-7). The Bulldogs have to travel to South Carolina but otherwise has the slight edge with the schedule; both teams play Auburn, but Georgia gets the Tigers at home. In the other game against the SEC West, Georgia travels to Arkansas (winless in the league in 2013), while South Carolina hosts Texas A&M. If the Bulldogs keep running back Todd Gurley healthy, and Mason settles into the starting quarterback job as expected, Georgia will be a wildcard contender in college football’s new playoff format. - David Fox (@DavidFox615)
 

What is a reasonable expectation for Tennessee?

Butch Jones’ second season on Rocky Top isn’t going to be easy. The Volunteers still have talent (No. 6 ranked roster in the SEC), but the schedule is brutal. Tennessee opens non-conference play with a dangerous Utah State team in the opener, followed by a trip to Oklahoma to play the Sooners two weeks later. It doesn’t get any easier in the SEC, as the Volunteers catch Alabama and Ole Miss in crossover play and travel to Vanderbilt to close out the regular season. As if the schedule wasn’t enough, Tennessee needs to replace all five starters on the offensive line, and there’s very little in the way of proven depth on the defensive front. The Volunteers have talent at the skill positions and should be able to get better play from their quarterbacks. Due to the holes on the depth chart and schedule, a good season for Jones is just getting to a bowl game. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
 

LSU has finished ahead of Ole Miss in the SEC West standings in each of the last five years and in 12 of the last 14 (with one tie). Why will it be different this year? 

This was the toughest decision among all of the predictions in the SEC. LSU has been so good for so long, it would be easy to pencil the Tigers in for third behind Alabama and Auburn (or even ahead of one of them) and assume they have the talent to once again win 10 or 11 games. And they still might, but this team has some issues. The quarterback position is a bit of a mystery; Anthony Jennings is No. 1 on the depth chart heading into preseason camp, but don’t be surprised if true freshman Brandon Harris seizes control of the job. The Tigers also lost their top two wide receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham) and have issues at defensive tackle and linebacker. LSU was 5-3 in conference play last year, and considering the personnel concerns, slipping to 4-4 isn't out of the question. Ole Miss probably doesn’t have as much overall roster depth as LSU, but you could argue that the Rebels have fewer weaknesses heading into the 2014 season. The key for Ole Miss is senior quarterback Bo Wallace. If he plays up to his potential on a consistent basis — and of course remains healthy — the Rebels should enjoy their first winning SEC season since 2008, Houston Nutt’s first year in Oxford. - David Fox (@DavidFox615)
 

What is Florida’s ceiling?

Florida could be the most difficult team to forecast in the entire country. It would not be surprising if the Gators won the SEC East or if they finished fifth or six in the division. From a pure talent standpoint, Florida ranks among the top two or three teams in the league. But the majority of that talent is on the defensive side of the ball. The Gators are hoping the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper (from Duke) can solve some of the issues on that side of the ball, but what are realistic expectations for an offense that was so bad last year? Jeff Driskel gives Roper a solid option at quarterback (if he stays healthy), but there are few proven playmakers at the skill positions, and the offensive line has lacked toughness the last two seasons. The schedule is a mixed bag; Florida has to play Alabama and LSU in crossover games, but LSU, which shouldn’t be as formidable this year, visits Gainesville. Also, the Gators host both South Carolina and Missouri, giving them a possible edge against two teams they will be jockeying with for position in the East. There is considerable pressure on Will Muschamp in his fourth season in Gainesville. It’s likely Florida will need to emerge as a legitimate contender in the East for him to keep his job. That’s quite possible, but the guess here is that the Gators are closer to fourth than first or second in the division. - David Fox (@DavidFox615)
 

Is 2014 a rebuilding year at Texas A&M?

Yes, it appears so. Let’s keep this in mind: Texas A&M went 4-4 in the SEC last year with Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. Without those three players on offense, just getting back to .500 in conference action would be a good season for coach Kevin Sumlin. Another huge concern for the Aggies remains on defense. Texas A&M allowed a whopping 6.7 yards per play in SEC games in 2013. With eight starters back and improved depth thanks to an outstanding recruiting class, the Aggies should be better on defense. But how much can this unit improve to take the pressure of off an offense that figures to have a few growing pains as Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen replaces Manziel at quarterback remains to be seen Texas A&M will take a step back in 2014. However, keep an eye on the Aggies throughout the year, as this should be a dangerous team in 2015. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
 

2014 SEC Team Previews
EastWest
FloridaAlabama
GeorgiaArkansas
KentuckyAuburn
MissouriLSU
South CarolinaMississippi State
TennesseeOle Miss
VanderbiltTexas A&M

SEC Notebook
 

by Seth Emerson (@SethEmerson)
 

Big Questions at QB

Never before has the SEC had such a departure of talent at the game’s most important position. That sets up a lot of uncertainty in 2014. There was an inordinate amount of star power among SEC quarterbacks last year, with the numbers to back it up: Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, Connor Shaw and James Franklin.
 

Last year the SEC had five of the of the nation’s top 12 quarterbacks, as measured by pass efficiency rating, and eight of the top 36. Auburn’s Nick Marshall is the only one of those who is back this year.
 

Several new quarterbacks did get some early action, thanks to injuries: Georgia’s Hutson Mason got two starts and LSU’s Anthony Jennings one, though he still had to compete in the spring for the job. Missouri’s Maty Mauk received extensive action last year with Franklin hurt, and put up pretty good numbers (11 TDs, two INTs, 229 rushing yards.)
 

Then there’s Florida, which gets back Jeff Driskel after he suffered a season-ending injury early in the year. But marquee teams like Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M enter the year with big questions at quarterback. Then again, that doesn’t mean their seasons are doomed: Last year Marshall wasn’t named Auburn’s starter until just before the season began, and look what happened.
 

On the Other Hand 

Bret Bielema and Nick Saban lost the argument this year on slowing down the up-tempo offenses. But their conference could still end up returning to its reputation for defense and running the football, at least this season.

Yes, Gus Malzahn still has Nick Marshall and his offense. But will Texas A&M be as prolific without Manziel, or Missouri without receiver Dorial Green-Beckham? In fact, not a single member of the AP All-SEC first-team offense is back.
 

But here’s who does return: Tailbacks Todd Gurley (Georgia), T.J. Yeldon (Alabama), Mike Davis (South Carolina) and Alex Collins (Arkansas). All but Gurley rushed for at least 1,000 yards last year, and Gurley was only 11 yards short despite missing three games.
 

The SEC also returns more players on defense — four who were on the AP first team, including the conference’s leaders in interceptions (Ole Miss cornerback Cody Prewitt) and tackles (Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson.)
 

Playoff Positioning

The SEC is one of the few major conferences sticking with an eight-game schedule. (At least for now.) So will that hurt its teams with the playoff selection committee?
 

SEC teams are not using their four open spots to load up on major opponents: This year only one SEC team (Georgia) is playing as many as two teams from one of the other four major conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12).
 

That’s not to say there aren’t marquee non-conference games, especially the opening weekend: Alabama plays West Virginia in Atlanta, LSU plays Wisconsin in Houston, Georgia hosts Clemson, and Ole Miss plays Boise State, also in Atlanta. Later on you have Auburn at Kansas State, Tennessee at Oklahoma, and then the annual rivalry games (Florida at Florida State, Kentucky at Louisville, Georgia Tech at Georgia).
 

Ultimately, the SEC’s reputation should help it by the end of the year. One wonders if selection committee members like Condoleezza Rice and Archie Manning are going to be crunching the Sagarin rankings and schedule strength ratings.
 

But if it’s close, how the SEC does in those marquee games the first few weeks could end up being critical.
 

The Big Debut Arrives 

What do you give the conference that already seems to have it all? A television network to call its own. The SEC Network debuts in August and begins carrying football games this season.
 

The conference has pulled out a lot of stops for the channel, hiring Brent Musberger and Jesse Palmer to call games, Paul Finebaum to stir it up in studio, and filling the roster with other established and rising broadcasting names.
 

In the long run, it should be great for the network, and good for fans of the conference who want their SEC (specifically, SEC football) fix as much as possible. In the short term, however, there will be bumps. The first is getting on cable systems, which creates a delicate balance for the conference: It wants to entice cable systems by putting marquee games on the SEC Network, but it also wants fans to watch the game. (And doesn’t want to alienate CBS.)
 

It will also take some time to figure out what to put on the channel all the time. It won’t be quite like the early days of ESPN, with tractor pulls and Australian Rules Football. But the SEC Network also can’t just put non-revenue sports on all the time, for logistical and financial reasons. So expect plenty of airings of classic SEC games, and a lot of in-studio analysis shows, which will re-air liberally.


SEC Coordinator Carousel
 

by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
 
Alabama: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Doug Nussmeier; New: Lane Kiffin

Nussmeier left Alabama after two seasons to take the same position at Michigan. Kiffin was fired last October after three-plus seasons as the head coach at USC. He previously was the head coach for one season at Tennessee and for one-plus seasons with the Oakland Raiders.
 

Arkansas: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Chris Ash; New: Robb Smith

Ash left Arkansas to take a position as the defensive co-coordinator and safeties coach at Ohio State. Smith last season was the linebackers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Prior to that, he was the defensive coordinator at Rutgers.
 

Florida: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Brent Pease; New: Kurt Roper

Pease was fired after two years at Florida and is now the wide receivers coach at Washington, working for his old boss at Boise State, Chris Petersen. Roper previously was the offensive coordinator at Duke, and he also spent time at Tennessee, Kentucky and Ole Miss.
 

Georgia: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Todd Grantham; New: Jeremy Pruitt

Grantham left after four years at Georgia for the same job at Louisville. Pruitt was hired away from Florida State, where he was the defensive coordinator for the 2013 national champions. Pruitt was the 247Sports Recruiter of the Year in ’12 while on the Alabama staff.
 

Mississippi State: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Les Koenning; New: Billy Gonzales, John Hevesy

Koenning is now the wide receivers coach at Texas. Gonzales coached wide receivers at Mississippi State in 2013. He will continue to do so while adding passing game coordinator to his title. Hevesy has been the offensive line coach and running game coordinator at Mississippi State since 2009. Head coach Dan Mullen will call the plays.
 

Texas A&M: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Clarence McKinney, Jake Spavital; New: Jake Spavital

Spavital takes over play-calling duties from McKinney, who is still on staff but will serve only as the running backs coach.
 

Vanderbilt: Offensive Coordinator

Old: John Donovan; New: Karl Dorrell

Donovan, who came to Vanderbilt from Maryland with James Franklin in 2011, followed his boss to Penn State, where he will coach tight ends and serve as the offensive coordinator. Dorrell, a former head coach at UCLA, most recently was the quarterbacks coach with the Houston Texans. He was the offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona in the early 1990s while new Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason was a defensive back for the Lumberjacks. 
 

Vanderbilt: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Bob Shoop; New: David Kotulski

Shoop joined James Franklin at Penn State. Kotulski was the inside linebackers coach at Stanford the past two seasons, working for new Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason. He has been a defensive coordinator at Lehigh, Holy Cross, Utah State, Bucknell and Saint Mary’s.

Teaser:
SEC Football 2014 Predictions
Post date: Tuesday, June 3, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /nascar/johnson-knaus-heating-win-second-straight-authority-dover
Body:

Two and a half weeks ago, a NASCAR storyline was growing: Jimmie Johnson was doomed. The No. 48 was winless, crew chief Chad Knaus and his driver were fighting with one another and a Chase bid, let alone a bid for a seventh championship, could be in jeopardy.

Now? Johnson’s won two straight, jumped atop the charts in laps led (963) and is tied with Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano for the Cup lead in victories. Fourth in points, he’d be tops there too without a couple of inconvenient flat tires at Bristol and Fontana. Turns out the demise of the No. 48 team, as always, was greatly exaggerated.

Oh, almost forgot the best part for all the Jimmie haters out there (of which there are many who show their dislike through the cruelest form of unflattery: indifference): turns out this group still thinks it’s running at about a B to B-minus pace.

“I think we’re behind on just a little bit of everything,” said crew chief Chad Knaus after Sunday’s win. “As we pursued the 2013 season championship, we lost focus on 2014. But that’s just inherent. That’s what happens because you have to focus on one goal that’s directly in front of you.

“I feel like we’ve got a long ways to go yet to understand exactly what we need. With the new ride height changes and rules that they’ve got out there, it’s a different animal, and I know it’s difficult to understand and it’s not easy for everybody. The advantages we had last year were minimized … the last couple weeks have shown great strides, but we’re not where we need to be.”

Oh, how quickly things can change. Perhaps it is wishful thinking when there’s a dynasty dominating the way in which Johnson and Co. has imposed their will on the sport. But there are a whole lot of us feeling very, very stupid right now. There’s no question who’s still the heavy favorite to end Homestead on top, no matter how much we try and write around it.

The question is whether the fans feel the same way, strongly enough, that they’re just not going to bother watching the coronation all over again.

“Through the Gears” we go, following the FedEx 400 in Dover …


FIRST GEAR: Dover domination  Jimmie Johnson
Johnson laid waste to the field Sunday, recording his record ninth win on the one-mile oval he’s taken to task since debuting as a rookie in the Cup Series in 2002. It’s one of his most impressive accomplishments, turning a track into the type of personal playground rarely achieved by anyone in NASCAR history. For comparison’s sake, you think of Darrell Waltrip’s 12 career victories at Bristol — against lesser competition — along with Richard Petty’s 15 wins apiece at North Wilkesboro and Martinsville. There’s David Pearson’s 10 Darlington trophies, taming the Lady in Black in a way no one else has.

And then? Well, that’s about it. Johnson’s record-breaking performance includes 2,976 laps led, more than any other driver in the history of Dover. He’s won six of the last 11 events there, led at least 143 laps in 10 of the last 11 and completed all but two laps during that stretch. The only misses include fuel mileage (second, 2011); a restart penalty (17th, 2013) and a handful of flat tires. Without them, a record like 10-for-11 would easily be within reach.

Walking around Dover this weekend, I got a sense the rest of the field was in a bit of a daze. Drivers hate talking about Johnson’s dominance to the point where I’m honestly starting to feel it’s getting inside people’s heads. How could it not? You can only get beaten into submission so many times.

“I think for sure when you come to Dover, it's always the 48,” said third-place runner Matt Kenseth with a hint of sarcasm. “I mean, they are just unbelievable here. If you're going to have a shot to win, that's the car you're going to have to beat every time unless they break.

“It’s not unexpected when they come here, and I don’t know if you guys notice, but (Johnson’s) pretty good at all the racetracks.”

Latent frustration, laid out for all to see. Also telling, because it’s when the mental wear and tear gets into their competitors that the Johnson/Knaus combo truly jumps out and pounces. In the month of June, I see a giant Lowe’s Chevrolet coming at you. Watch out.


SECOND GEAR: A giant hole in the proceedings  Dover pothole
The Dover race, already a bit of a rout up front between Johnson and Kevin Harvick, was grinded to a halt on Lap 159 once Jamie McMurray hit a piece of concrete that came loose from the track. The resulting hit sent the No. 1 Chevy into the wall, sprayed pieces up into the glass on one of Dover’s pedestrian bridges and resulted in a 22-minute red-flag repair that left some drivers complaining about the track surface.

For most, though, it was a non-issue, as praise was given to the speediness of a repair that held up for the rest of the 400-lap race distance. “It is an epoxy type filler that we use,” explained NASCAR’s Robin Pemberton. “And it's basically the same filler that's used any time we make a repair at the track, whether it be asphalt or concrete.”

Race-winner Johnson was among several drivers who noticed the breakage during driver intros before the race but no one apparently informed NASCAR of the problem. The biggest losers from it were McMurray, whose repairs could not be performed under red flag conditions, and perhaps Harvick, who insinuated a piece of concrete broke the valve stem on his tire after returning to green-flag conditions. The resulting pit stop left him two laps down and unable to mount a charge against Johnson, perhaps one of two drivers that could have done so.

Should the track be repaved? Dover’s surface is 19 years old at this point. But as we’ve seen throughout the sport’s history, these things happen and can never be completely prevented. I also have a sinking feeling that if the racing here is struggling now, new asphalt won’t exactly make it better. See: Michigan, Phoenix, Kansas, Charlotte … need I say more?


THIRD GEAR: Game-changing debris cautions
Dover’s finish was altered by a debris caution with about 40 laps left in the midst of teams saving fuel for what they expected to be a finish based on mileage. Johnson seemed capable of going the distance, not changing the outcome several others were hoping to stretch it in hopes of a better result.

Yet FOX, like it has too often done this season, never showed the piece of whatever that changed race strategy for the entire field. Could you imagine if a penalty was thrown in the NFL that put a team in field goal range and it was never shown? How about a home run negated with no replay and no chance to challenge the call? You can see why it’s not just NASCAR fans, but drivers and teams in the garage, who get increasingly frustrated.

“I tell you, if it wasn’t for debris cautions and stuff like that that keep coming out I think we can be in contention to win one of these things,” insinuated Clint Bowyer. “We certainly had the fuel mileage and everything else. (We) did our homework with the facts that were given, and unfortunately, those facts changed.”

Johnson later added that you “expect” cautions to come out late in the going — a passive-aggressive way of tilting their opinions on how NASCAR might be injecting too much of its own officiating into the outcome. The last caution for debris clearly shown on the backstretch was also controversial, as it bunched up the field one last time with less than 10 laps to go. Many drivers thought they could have raced around it, but this scenario is exactly how the sanctioning body paints itself in a box. How could you avoid calling a late debris caution for pieces you clearly see on the racetrack when you do it for something that might not exist?

The philosophy, much better early in the season, is creeping back to “overreaching” on these cautions and there’s plenty within the sport who hope it changes back ASAP, as the meat of the summer schedule to determine the Chase looms dead ahead.


FOURTH GEAR: Kyle Busch’s triple torn apart  Kyle Busch
Another great weekend for Kyle Busch had a tough ending, courtesy of Clint Bowyer midway through the Dover event. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who had already won Truck and Nationwide Series races at the Monster Mile in the two previous days, got clipped when Bowyer’s spotter said he was clear of the No. 18. That left Busch, who led 81 of the first 124 laps before Johnson’s car got going, sitting dormant in the garage, wondering what might have been after unsuccessfully trying to enact revenge on the racetrack.

“I hated to be in that situation with the 18,” said Bowyer. “It’s one of those deals where I thought I was clear, obviously, and wasn’t. Ruined his day and certainly didn’t help mine.”

Busch, who left the track without comment, is now unofficially one-for-nine on these “triple” opportunities. Typically, it’s the Cup race where he whiffs, a pattern which doesn’t help a reputation some say is built on consistently beating up lesser opponents. If Busch reaches 201 victories in NASCAR’s top three series, beating Petty’s mythical 200, but only earns about 35 of those on the Cup level, what does that say about his career? Do you really want to be known as the minor leaguer who outgrew your competition but never left, needing a continual injection of confidence to keep going?

These are questions Busch will eventually need to answer, rather uncomfortably. “No comment” never works when it comes to making that type of history.


OVERDRIVE
Let’s give a “Barney Hall call” to Brett Moffitt. Driving the underfunded No. 66, a test ride of sorts that, at times, is a joint venture with Michael Waltrip Racing. The rookie driver ran 22nd in his Cup debut. Only Jeff Burton (17th) has had a better finish with the car all season and the team just has one other top 25, courtesy of Michael Waltrip himself, at Talladega. Not bad for a 21-year-old TRD test driver with three combined starts in Nationwide and Trucks. … Could Tony Stewart be on the verge of turning things around? The Cup driver ran seventh at Dover after secretly testing and nearly running a Sprint car in a race last week. It’s a labor of love the busy driver/owner needs after injuring his leg pursuing his “hobby competition” last August. Without it, his mental game suffers on and off the track and it makes him even lesser than 100 percent while recovering from that serious injury. … Martin Truex Jr. also hit the Dover jackpot, running sixth for his best result all year. It’s the best the No. 78 team has looked since the New Jersey native, who considers this his home track, took over for Kurt Busch. … The Dover crowd wasn’t as bad as made out to be. Keep in mind the track has 135,000 seats. You put Fontana’s “sold out” crowd of 70,000 in there from a few months ago and the buzz would be that California should lose its day. Visual perception means everything; that said, interest has fallen fast in the one-mile facility and as one of NASCAR’s last independent tracks, a 2015 schedule revamp could put a second date in jeopardy. … NASCAR On FOX director Artie Kempner waved the green flag while spreading the cause for Autism Awareness. His latest campaign has already raised nearly $20,000 as the generosity of NASCAR fans shine through.


Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Post-race reaction from Jimmie Johnson's win in NASCAR's FedEx 400 at Dover international Speedway.
Post date: Monday, June 2, 2014 - 14:49
Path: /golf/5-key-stats-memorial
Body:

It was an eventful finish for Hideki Matsuyama at Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club. First, the 22-year-old Japanese phenom went double bogey-bogey at 16-17 to lose his lead to Kevin Na, who had finished off a 64 a couple hours earlier. Then he snapped the head off his driver on the 18th tee with a seemingly gentle club slam. Undaunted, he proceeded to post birdie on the toughest hole on the course for the fourth straight day to force a playoff with Na before finally finishing off his day with a driver-less, scrambling par to earn his first career PGA Tour win in his Memorial debut.
All in all, not a bad way to spend a Sunday. "I’m really, really happy,” Matsuyama said through his interpreter. “It’s a dream come true to win at Mr. Nicklaus’ course."
Matsuyama credited his experience of playing on the International Presidents Cup team last year with partner Adam Scott for his comfort level with the tricky Muirfield layout. "It had a great effect on how I played this week,” Matsuyama said. “I owe a lot to him."
The tournament host was suitably impressed. "I just think you've just seen the start of what's going to be truly one of your world's great players over the next 10 to 15 years," Nicklaus said.

Here are some key numbers from a wild weekend:

1 Matsuyama's ball-striking was beyond reproach this weekend. He ranked first in the field in proximity to the hole on his approach shots, averaging 25 feet, the fourth-best mark by a field leader in an event this season

7 Bubba Watson's double bogey 7 at 15, the easiest hole on the course, came courtesy of a drive that he launched into an adjoining subdivision. "I made one bad decision," he said. "If I hit 4-wood off the tee instead of driver on the par 5, we make 5 and we win by one. But I made double, so we lost by one."

+4 World No. 1 Adam Scott was tied for the lead before playing the final seven holes in 4-over par. "The whole thing is frustrating as I stand here right now," Scott said after a 71. "But everyone is going to feel like that. We all could have done something different. If we all did, who knows what the result would be?"

40 Kevin Na moved to 40th in the Official World Golf Ranking, qualifying him for the U.S. Open. Na had planned to play in a 36-hole qualifier Monday morning.

0 Phil Mickelson, embroiled in an insider trading investigation, finished T-49 and has yet to post a top-10 finish this season as he focuses on the tournament he wants most, the U.S. Open.

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, June 2, 2014 - 11:26
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/greatest-college-football-hype-video-ever
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theSeanGshow is already winning the internet this week.

It is the beginning of June and College Football is still more than 80 days away from getting started. But that hasn't stopped one guy from getting the entire country jacked up for the start of the season. 

The compilation features the famous "Kick Six" and "Prayer at Jordan-Hare" but also remembers the greatest plays of the 2013 season. Johnny Manziel vs. Duke, Nebraska's Hail Mary, Carlos Hyde, Nick O'Leary, Jeremy Gallon, a host of one-handed catches, huge truck-stick hits, turnovers and critical performances make this one of the must-see summer internet videos. 

For pure college football fans, this might be the greatest hype video ever produced. Trust us, kick back and enjoy:

Teaser:
Greatest College Football Hype Video... Ever?
Post date: Monday, June 2, 2014 - 11:23
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-june-2-2014
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for June 2.

May was a particularly bountiful month in sports-related pulchritude. Enjoy.

• Some photos need no commentary. Like this one: Prince at the French Open, holding a scepter.

• A little piece of history: For the first time, both managers challenged on the same play. Both lost.

Sorry, ladies: Bryce Harper's engaged.

A little wild footage of an ultra-marathon being interrupted by a careening out-of-control car.

Video of a fat guy eating pizza while he's working out. I guess he's multi-tasking.

Donald Sterling attended a black church service. Uh, Donald, it's a little late to be doing damage control.

• The dangers of auto-fill: The Blackhawks accidentally tweeted out a Spanish obscenity.

This high school kid's pose and bat-flip were positively Puig-ian. At least the situation called for it.

Serena Williams crashed a beach wedding in a leopard-print bathing suit.

• Got half a minute to kill? Watch Scott Langley's putt hang on the lip for 23 seconds. Spoiler alert: It drops.

• Florida pulled off a hidden ball trick. Didn't prevent their elimination from the NCAA Regionals.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Monday, June 2, 2014 - 10:45
Path: /college-football/acc-football-2014-predictions
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2014 ACC Predictions
Atlantic DivisionACCOverall
1. Florida State (No. 1)8-013-0
2. Clemson (No. 21)7-19-3
3. Louisville (No. 28)5-38-4
4. Syracuse (No. 61)3-56-6
5. Boston College (No. 64)3-56-6
6. NC State (No. 65)2-66-6
7. Wake Forest (No. 85)0-83-9
Coastal DivisionACCOverall
1. Virginia Tech (No. 27)6-29-4
2. Miami (No. 30)5-38-4
3. North Carolina (No. 31)5-38-4
4. Pittsburgh (No. 36)4-48-4
5. Duke (No. 38)4-48-4
6. Georgia Tech (No. 47)3-56-6
7. Virginia (No. 72)1-73-9
ACC Championship 
Florida State over Va. Tech 

The ACC heads into 2014 on stable ground and with plenty of forward momentum surrounding the conference.

Maryland is set to depart for the Big Ten on July 1, and the ACC welcomes Louisville into its 14-team setup. The Cardinals were one of the top programs in the American Athletic/Big East and should be a solid addition to the conference.
 

Not only is the ACC adding a program with the ability to be a top-25 team each season, the conference is home to college football’s defending national champion – Florida State. The Seminoles own arguably the No. 1 roster in college football for 2014, one of the nation’s top coaches in Jimbo Fisher, and the defending Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Jameis Winston. With a favorable schedule and a loaded roster, Florida State is positioned to repeat as college football’s national champions. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Only one team during the BCS era (Alabama) was able to go back-to-back.
 

After Florida State in the Atlantic, Clemson ranks as the No. 2 team. The Tigers lose quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins, but there’s still a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. With end Vic Beasley deciding to stay at Clemson for his senior year, the defensive line is among the best in the nation. Despite the departures of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and coach Charlie Strong, Louisville is projected to finish No. 3 in the Atlantic. The Cardinals should remain explosive on offense with quarterback Will Gardner, running back Michael Dyer and receiver DeVante Parker, but the defense has some holes to fill, especially in the secondary with the loss of standout safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor.
 

The second tier of the Atlantic Division starts with Syracuse, projected to finish No. 61 nationally. The Orange finished 2013 by winning four of their last six games and return an improving quarterback in Terrel Hunt, along with one of the ACC’s top offensive tackles in Sean Hickey.

Syracuse is projected to finish No. 4 in the Atlantic, but Boston College and NC State aren’t far behind. The Wolfpack could be the most-improved teams in the ACC behind transfer quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
 

While the Atlantic Division has a clear pecking order, the Coastal is up for grabs. Six teams appear to have a shot at the division title, with Virginia projected to finish a distant seventh.
 

Virginia Tech is Athlon’s projected Coastal Division champion, but there’s very little separation between Frank Beamer’s team and Miami or North Carolina. The Hurricanes have concerns at quarterback and on defense, but in terms of overall talent, Miami owns the No. 2 roster in the ACC. The Tar Heels have an explosive offense, which will be needed with a defense that has concerns on each level.
 

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

 

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

What gave Virginia Tech the edge in the Coastal?

The 2014 Coastal Division is as wide open as any division in any league that we can remember. Six of the seven teams — all but Virginia — were in the discussion for No. 1. Eventually, we boiled it down to Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina. The biggest issues for North Carolina are a suspect offensive line and concerns on the defensive line and in the secondary. Miami’s schedule is very difficult — Louisville and Florida State are the crossover opponents — and the Canes’ defense has struggled in recent years. Also, there is now a concern at quarterback with Ryan Williams out with a torn ACL.

That leaves us with Virginia Tech. The Hokies have their problems on offense, but the defense will be outstanding. The schedule is also very favorable. They play Miami at home and do not play the top three teams in the Atlantic Division — Florida State, Clemson and Louisville. We’re not sure Virginia Tech will be the best team in the ACC Coastal in 2014, but it looks as though it is the team most likely to win the division. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
 

With so many key players back, how can Duke go from division champs to fifth place?

Duke was one of the nation’s biggest surprises in 2013, but it took some fortunate bounces for the Blue Devils to win the Coastal Division crown. They managed a 6–2 league record despite being outgained by an average of 41.4 yards in their eight regular-season ACC games. They actually won a game on the road in which they did not convert a third-down attempt, beating Virginia Tech 13–10 in Blacksburg. This is in no way meant to discredit Duke’s accomplishments in 2013. It was an amazing season for a program that for years had been among the worst in the nation. But the numbers don’t lie; Duke was a good, but hardly great, team that could just as easily gone .500 in the league. Going forward, Duke should remain competitive, but it’s hard to envision this team posing a serious challenge in the Coastal. The offense should once again be potent, but the defense will remain a problem. The Devils ranked 13th in the league (in ACC games) in total defense last year, allowing 451.0 yards per game. That has to improve significantly. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
 

Is there a sleeper team to watch in the ACC in 2014?

Pittsburgh. Aaron Donald is a huge loss for the defense, but the offense has a chance to improve in the third year under coach Paul Chryst. New quarterback Chad Voytik is promising and had a good showing in the bowl win over Bowling Green. The Panthers also have a solid backfield with James Conner and Isaac Bennett returning after each rushed for over 700 yards last season. Receiver Tyler Boyd is one of the best in the nation, and the offensive line – a source of concern in recent years – appears to be taking a step forward. Also, Pittsburgh’s schedule is favorable. The Panthers won’t play Florida State, Louisville or Clemson in crossover play with the Atlantic. Instead, Pittsburgh plays a manageable slate of Syracuse and Boston College. And key games against Coastal foes Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are at home. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
 

Which prediction scares us the most?

Georgia Tech seems a little low at No. 6 in the Coastal Division. The Yellow Jackets went 5–3 in the league last year — highlighted by a 24-point win over Coastal Division champ Duke — and have a remarkable streak of 19 straight seasons without a losing record in league play. So why so low this year? Well, as we mentioned earlier, the Coastal is wide open, and not much separates the top six teams in the division. But we had to pick someone sixth, and Georgia Tech was the choice to finish behind Pittsburgh and Duke. The Jackets have some concerns at the skill positions, most notably at quarterback after the surprising transfer of quarterback Vad Lee. Some Georgia Tech fans might consider Justin Thomas an upgrade, but he has yet to prove he can operate Paul Johnson’s option attack with consistency. Also, Tech’s top two rushers (David Sims and Robert Godhigh) are gone, and the defense must replace six starters. The schedule presents some challenges as well; the Jackets — unlike Miami, Pitt and Duke — have to play Clemson from the Atlantic Division and two of their key swing games are on the road — at Pittsburgh and North Carolina. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
 

What is Florida State’s biggest obstacle to repeat?

Good question. Take a look at Florida State’s roster and schedule. See many holes or concerns? Didn’t think so. The receiving corps needs to be revamped with the departure of Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin, but there’s also a lot of talent. Five-star recruits Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph add depth and could make an instant impact if Christian Green or Jesus Wilson fails to secure a starting spot. The secondary is among the best in the nation, but the front seven has a few pieces to replace. Tackle Timmy Jernigan is the biggest loss from the 2013 unit, as there’s not a ton of proven depth on the interior. How the defense responds to new coordinator Charles Kelly will also be interesting to watch. Punting is also concern as Cason Beatty struggled in 2013. None of the mentioned obstacles could impact Florida State during the regular season but could be a bigger issue in the playoffs. Barring a complete meltdown with turnovers or sluggish play, the Seminoles should finish the regular season unbeaten and own the top spot in college football’s four-team playoff. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
 

Is there any hope for Virginia to finish anywhere but last in the Coastal?

Obviously, anything can happen, but the Cavaliers have a huge hill to climb in 2014. Virginia went 0–8 in the league last year — with all but one loss coming by 10 points or more — and doesn’t appear much better (on paper) this season. Plus, the schedule is very difficult, with crossover games against Florida State and Louisville from the Atlantic Division. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)

 

2014 ACC Team Previews

 

ACC Bowl Tie-Ins for 2014

ACC Champ: Orange* vs. SEC/Big Ten/N. Dame

Capital One: Big Ten or ACC vs. SEC

Russell Athletic: ACC vs. Big 12

Gator/Music City: ACC or Big Ten vs. SEC

Belk: ACC vs. SEC

Sun: ACC vs. Pac-12

Pinstripe: ACC vs. Big Ten

Military: ACC vs. American

Independence: ACC vs. SEC

Detroit: ACC vs. Big Ten

St. Petersburg: ACC vs. American

* If conference champ is not in CFB Playoff

AtlanticCoastal
Boston
College
Duke
ClemsonGeorgia
Tech
Florida
State
Miami
LouisvilleNorth
Carolina
NC StatePittsburgh
SyracuseVirginia
Wake ForestVirginia
Tech
                    Notre Dame








ACC Notebook

 

by Nolan Hayes (@tnolanhayes)

 

QB Or Not QB?

Jameis Winston made the most of his first opportunity to be Florida State’s starting quarterback, winning the Heisman Trophy and guiding the Seminoles to the national championship last season. He returns for his sophomore season with only 14 career starts to his credit, but he is a grizzled veteran when it comes to ACC quarterbacks in 2014.
 

Amazingly, Winston has more career starts than any other signal-caller in the league.
 

Just five of the conference’s 14 teams — Duke, Florida State, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Virginia — return their starting quarterback from last season. UNC is included in that group only because an injury to Bryn Renner allowed Marquise Williams to start five games that he would not have started otherwise.
 

Six of the teams in the conference do not have a quarterback who has started a major-college game. The number almost could be seven, with Miami’s Ryan Williams (who started 10 games for Memphis in 2010) suffering a torn ACL during the spring.
 

Clemson must move on without Tajh Boyd, the ACC’s career leader in passing efficiency. Louisville kicks off its first season in the league after saying goodbye to Teddy Bridgewater. Virginia Tech needs a replacement for Logan Thomas, the school record-holder for career total offense. Georgia Tech’s Vad Lee decided to transfer.
 

The list goes on and on, creating a sharp contrast to the experience the conference had at quarterback entering 2013. Last year, the ACC had a league-record five quarterbacks returning who had at least 6,000 career passing yards.
 

What are the consequences of the ACC’s inexperience at football’s most important position? It’s reasonable to expect more mistakes and less efficiency from ACC quarterbacks as a whole this season. While that’s less than ideal for a conference that is trying to build on the momentum created by a national championship and two consecutive Orange Bowl victories, some hope remains.
 

Maybe there’s another Jameis Winston ready to shine.
 

Prestigious Addition 

The ACC welcomes Notre Dame to the league this season … sort of. The Fighting Irish are not members of the conference in football, but they will play four ACC teams this season as part of an agreement with the league that granted Notre Dame’s other athletic teams membership in the ACC. Notre Dame plays Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J. (Sept. 27), home against North Carolina (Oct. 11), at Florida State (Oct. 18), and home against Louisville (Nov. 22).
 

Notre Dame will play six games against ACC teams in 2015 and then five games against ACC foes in 2016. As part of the agreement with the conference, the Fighting Irish will play every ACC team at least once every three seasons.
 

A New ‘Big Game’ 

Speaking of the Coastal Division and its 2013 champion, Duke’s rise has been nothing short of amazing under coach David Cutcliffe. Opposing teams used to worry about playing at Duke because the atmosphere and opponent were so bad that it was hard to get excited about the game. These days, Duke’s opponents worry about playing against a team that can beat them.
 

How much progress have the Blue Devils made? They won six conference games last season — exactly twice the amount they won in eight years combined before Cutcliffe’s arrival in 2008. After back-to-back bowl appearances and back-to-back wins over rival North Carolina, this much is clear: The nation needs a new punchline, and the ACC needs a new doormat. Duke no longer fits the bill on either account.
 

“As far as I’m concerned, Duke is one of the top-tier programs right now,” UNC wide receiver Ryan Switzer says. “Coach Cutcliffe has got them on a roll. They came into Kenan last year and whipped us. They’ve beaten us the past two years, so you can’t not put Duke as a big game. You can’t do it anymore. You can’t look past them.”
 

A League Divided

The critics of the ACC’s two-division format got louder after Louisville replaced Maryland, which bounced to the Big Ten, in the Atlantic Division. The Cardinals went 23–3 over the past two seasons, including a 3–1 mark against schools now in the ACC, and they have Bobby Petrino back as their head coach. So it’s safe to assume that Louisville will make life tougher for the other teams in the Atlantic than Maryland would have.
 

The reality for fans of Atlantic Division members Boston College, NC State, Syracuse and Wake Forest is sobering. They already had it tough with Florida State and Clemson, the top two programs in the league in recent years, in their division. But now they must find a way to hurdle another strong program just to earn a trip to the ACC Championship Game.
 

On the other side in the Coastal Division, the story is different. Miami and Virginia Tech have been perennially great in the past, and they might be perennially great again. But they aren’t special programs right now, and that has left the door open for other teams (hello, Duke) to walk through on the way to the league championship game.
 

ACC Coordinator Carousel

 

by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)

 

Duke: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Scottie Montgomery, Kurt Roper; New: Scottie Montgomery

Roper, a longtime David Cutcliffe assistant, is now the offensive coordinator at Florida. Montgomery, who was an All-SEC wide receiver at Duke in the late 1990s, is now the lone offensive coordinator.
 

Florida State: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Jeremy Pruitt; New: Charles Kelly

Pruitt bolted after only one season at Florida State and is now the defensive coordinator at Georgia. Kelly was promoted from linebackers to coach to defensive coordinator. His duties will shift from coaching linebackers to defensive backs. He has been a coordinator at Jacksonville State, Nicholls State and Henderson State.
 

Louisville: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Shawn Watson; New: Garrick McGee

Watson followed Charlie Strong from Louisville to Texas. McGee resigned as the head coach at UAB to become the offensive coordinator at Louisville. McGee worked for Petrino at Arkansas from 2008-11 and had a previous stint as the offensive coordinator at Northwestern. He began his playing career at Arizona State but played his final two seasons at Oklahoma.
 

Louisville: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Vance Bedford; New: Todd Grantham

Bedford is now the defensive coordinator at Texas, working for his old boss at Louisville, Charlie Strong. Grantham spent the past four seasons as the defensive coordinator at Georgia. He also has experience as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, with the Browns from 2005-07.
 

North Carolina: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Blake Anderson; New: Seth Littrell

Anderson is now the head coach at Arkansas State — the fourth in the last four seasons for the Red Wolves. Littrell spent the last two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Indiana, where his offenses ranked near the top of the Big Ten. 
 

Wake Forest: Offensive Coordinator

Old: Steed Lobotzke; New: Warren Ruggiero

Lobotzke was not retained by the new staff and landed as the offensive coordinator at Division II Winston-Salem State. Ruggiero followed new Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson from Bowling Green.
 

Wake Forest: Defensive Coordinator

Old: Brian Knorr; New: Mike Elko

Knorr accepted a position as the defensive coordinator at Air Force but left 10 days later for the same position at Indiana. Elko made the move from Bowling Green with Dave Clawson. He was the Falcons’ defensive coordinator for five seasons.

Teaser:
ACC Football 2014 Predictions
Post date: Monday, June 2, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/college-football-2014-rankings-and-predictions-81-100
Body:

The start of the college football season is less than 100 days away, and Athlon Sports is counting down the top teams for the upcoming year.

Florida State is Athlon’s pick to win the national championship, with Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide projected to finish No. 2 nationally. Of course, there's a new element to college football's regular season with the addition of a four-team playoff, and Athlon Sports is picking Ohio State to finish No. 3 and Oklahoma to finish No. 4. The debate in the preseason is no longer about No. 1 and No. 2 and instead more about the top four teams in the nation.

While there is always plenty of intrigue in filling out the top 25, Nos. 26-40 feature a handful of teams that just missed. The Nos. 41-60 range features teams like Texas Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arizona. The Nos. 61-80 projection features a few bowl teams from last season, including Syracuse, Boston College and Rutgers, along with some top teams from outside the power conferences (Northern Illinois, Ball State, Fresno State and Colorado State). The Nos. 81-100 range includes an improving South Florida team, several of Conference USA's top squads for 2014 (UTSA, RIce and North Texas), along with Wyoming under first-year coach Craig Bohl.

With the completion of Athlon's college football Top 25 for 2014, it's time to take a look at the rest of the rankings. You can view No. 26-40 hereNo. 41-60 here and 61-80 here.

Follow the top 25 on Twitter @AthlonSports and join the debate at #Athlon25. Follow Athlon's College Football Writers on Twitter: Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and David Fox (@DavidFox615).

Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2014 season

College Football 2014 Projected Rankings: 81-100

81. South Florida
Give coach Willie Taggart credit for this: Even after a horrendous 53–21 home loss against McNeese State to open the season, even after watching his offense struggle mightily just to move the chains, he remained undaunted. He insists his approach will work. It just needs patience and hard work.

The up-and-coming program that once upset the likes of Notre Dame, Auburn, Clemson and West Virginia? That’s now ancient history. USF must rebuild from the ground up. The intermediate goal is obvious. If Taggart can coax USF’s first bowl trip since 2010, then the Bulls are definitely on their way back.

Read the full 2014 South Florida Bulls Team Preview

82. Nevada
With 16 returning starters, including quarterback Cody Fajardo, Nevada should improve over last season. The Wolf Pack’s 2014 slate lightens up from a brutal 2013. Mountain West heavyweights Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State and San Diego State all come to Reno. If the Wolf Pack improve substantially on defense and solve their second-half woes, they should make a bowl game and contend for the West Division title.

Read the full 2014 Nevada Wolf Pack Team Preview

83. San Diego State
San Diego State is in a bit of a transition after losing 12 starters, but there is enough remaining talent to finish in the top half of the conference’s West Division. The Aztecs have gone to four consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history and have proven to be a gritty squad under Long’s leadership. San Diego State didn’t collapse after an 0–3 start last season and ended up playing in four overtime games while rebounding to record at least eight victories for the fourth straight year.

That type of consistency — along with defeating conference power Boise State in back-to-back seasons — provides hope that the Aztecs will again win eight or more games and contend for the division crown.

Read the full 2014 San Diego State Aztecs Team Preview

84. South Alabama
USA finished its first full-fledged season of FBS play with bowl eligibility (6–6 record) and one win shy of the Sun Belt title. Now the bar is raised, and the Jaguars are no longer the ever-changing conference’s newcomer.

“We are not a veteran in this conference by any means, but things have changed quickly,” coach Joey Jones says. “We were about a play or two away from winning a conference championship and going to a bowl. There is some pep in our step.”

Taking another step forward is plausible but carries conditions. Last year’s team won by committing very few turnovers on offense and causing disruption on the defensive front. The 2014 squad must do the same with a new quarterback and new starters on the defensive line. After a tough home opener against Mississippi State, the Jaguars face five consecutive winnable conference games before difficult road trips to UL Lafayette and Arkansas State. If the Jaguars are riding a winning streak at midseason, title contention could be a possibility.

Read the full 2014 South Alabama Jaguars Team Preview

85. Wake Forest
Jim Grobe led Wake Forest to five bowl games, but after five straight losing seasons, Grobe knew that the program needed new energy. Enter Dave Clawson, fresh off a successful stint at Bowling Green.

Clawson won’t have an easy time turning the program around. The offense was the ACC’s worst, and gone are the top passer, rusher and receiver. The defense should be the stronger unit, and he may have to rely on creating turnovers to help the offense. His biggest task so far has been to wipe away the losing culture:

“It’s definitely a higher standard that they are setting for us, and we couldn’t be happier,” safety Ryan Janvion says.

Read the full 2014 Wake Forest Demon Deacons Team Preview

86. North Texas
A new starting quarterback and a rebuilt defensive front seven usually point to a rebuilding year, and that still may be the case for the Mean Green. But there are enough concerns elsewhere in the C-USA West Division to keep North Texas right in the mix for contention. Plus, the program has a different feel after posting nine wins and the Mean Green’s first bowl victory in 11 years last season.

“(Rebuilding) is fair for people to say, but great programs reload,” coach Dan McCarney says. “Not many people knew about us when I got here. We need to keep it going and not go back into the woods.”

A home opener against SMU should be telling about the team’s potential. And if the Mean Green are still in the hunt, an Oct. 25 trip to Rice could provide a title shot. North Texas handed C-USA champion Rice its lone league loss last season.

Read the full 2014 North Texas Mean Green Team Preview

87. Rice
The Owls won 10 games last year and took the C-USA title by whipping Marshall in the championship game. Two years ago, Rice fans wondered whether David Bailiff was the man to run the program. Now, they are convinced of his ability to lead. The Owls are in a position where they can redshirt just about all their freshmen. That’s huge.

But Rice will be tested this year. The schedule features seven road games with four of the first five away from home. If quarterback Driphus Jackson can return to the form he flashed at the end of the 2012 season, Rice will be dangerous on offense, thanks to a strong supporting cast around him. The defense is deep and experienced. Another C-USA title may be asking too much, but the Owls should be bowling, for sure.

Read the full 2014 Rice Owls Team Preview

88. UConn
Bob Diaco is working tirelessly to change the culture of UConn football, which has won a total of 13 games in the last three seasons — down from 24 in the previous three. He inherits a team that likely will reside in the bottom half of the American Athletic Conference. Diaco hopes to build off the brand created by the men’s and women’s national championship basketball teams, but this is not a one-year job. That’s why Diaco was given a five-year contract worth $8 million.

Read the full 2014 UConn Huskies Team Preview

89. UTSA
UTSA’s rise in its first three seasons as a football program has been remarkable. The Roadrunners have gone from not having a team to being a legitimate threat to reach the Conference USA Championship Game in just four years. This is a senior-laden squad with experience at every position except quarterback, and this group has been building toward the 2014 season, since it’s the first year that the program is eligible to participate in a bowl game.

Coach Larry Coker has built his team primarily from the Texas high schools, especially the San Antonio area, which is home to almost 30 players on the current roster. The transitional phase to the FBS has been smoother than expected, and now comes a new hurdle for this very new program — expectations.

Read the full 2014 UTSA Roadrunners Team Preview

90. MTSU
Almost always a contender but rarely a champion, MTSU has been bowl-eligible five times in Rick Stockstill’s eight seasons but has earned only a share of one conference title. Back-to-back eight-win seasons in two different conferences (Sun Belt, C-USA) provide a good springboard for another bowl bid this year.

With East Carolina out of the league, MTSU likely must beat out Marshall, Florida Atlantic and old Sun Belt rival Western Kentucky for the C-USA East title. Finding a dependable quarterback and duplicating last season’s terrific turnover margin will be key if the Blue Raiders want to make a run at a conference title rather than just hang around .500.

“Each year your team changes, but you know we’re close,” Stockstill says. “We were a game out of winning it in our last year in the Sun Belt. And we were basically a game out from winning it this past year in Conference USA. Marshall will obviously be the favorite, but we’re close.”

Read the full 2014 MTSU Blue Raiders Team Preview

91. FAU
If the offensive line can find cohesion, FAU has the weapons to put up a lot of points in 2014. The defense lacks depth but boasts an outstanding secondary and a defensive tackle rotation that should limit big gains by opponents via the ground game. FAU should make a bowl for the first time in six years and could gain some national notoriety with an upset in Week 1 at Nebraska. But the season will be defined in back-to-back weeks in October, when FAU hosts Western Kentucky and then travels to C-USA favorite Marshall.

Read the full 2014 FAU Owls Team Preview

92. Western Kentucky
After seven seasons as an NFL backup quarterback with six teams, Jeff Brohm quickly transitioned to college coaching. A dozen years later, he is getting his first opportunity as a head coach. And of the 20 new coaches in the FBS ranks, Brohm is the only one promoted to the top job from the previous staff. Six assistants also stayed instead of following Bobby Petrino or jumping elsewhere. That rare continuity after a coaching change should bode well for a team that was snubbed for a bowl berth despite winning eight games. The Hilltoppers figure to have a tough time matching last year’s win total — the schedule is more difficult — but this is a program that can compete for C-USA titles in the near future.

Read the full 2014 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers Team Preview

93. Arkansas State
Coaching changes followed conference championships in each of the last three seasons at ASU. With a $3 million buyout in the first two years of his contract, Blake Anderson figures to have a longer stay than immediate predecessors Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin. The former North Carolina offensive coordinator inherits more than expectations, too. The Red Wolves figure to experience some of the typical transition issues, and there are key players to replace on both sides of the ball, but they have enough talent to contend for another Sun Belt title and bowl bid.

Read the full 2014 Arkansas State Red Wolves Team Preview

94. Wyoming
Wyoming hired a proven winner in Craig Bohl, who led North Dakota State to three consecutive FCS national titles. But the transition in all phases of the game will take time. The Cowboys lost to five teams that finished above them in the conference standings by nearly 30 points per contest last season. This season’s schedule does them no favors, with road games at Oregon and Michigan State in September. Anything close to a .500 record should be considered a success.

“We made good progress during the course of the spring, but we are not anything to where we are a finished product,” Bohl says.

Read the full 2014 Wyoming Cowboys Team Preview

95. Ohio
Ohio has developed into a consistent winner under coach Frank Solich, and with a veteran defense and solid special teams, the Bobcats should again be a contender for a winning season and possible bowl bid. But with a complete rebuild in store for the offense, Ohio will have a tough time contending for a league title in 2014.

Read the full 2014 Ohio Bobcats Team Preview

96. SMU
The Mustangs came close to playing in their fifth straight bowl game despite a porous defense and virtually no running game in 2013. But they face even tougher obstacles with a new quarterback, a patchwork line and no proven running back. Best-case scenario, the defense plays over its head, buying some time for Neal Burcham to develop, and the incoming class is better than advertised. A tough non-conference schedule complicates matters. The Mustangs open at Baylor’s new stadium and then face other former Southwest Conference rivals Texas A&M and TCU.

Read the full 2014 SMU Mustangs Team Preview

97. Akron
Akron made major strides last season with a 5–7 record after winning only six games total in the previous four seasons. A winning season is possible if enough players turn potential into productivity. It helps that the league schedule seems more forgiving than in the recent past.

The offense needs quarterback Kyle Pohl to make better decisions and be more consistent than he was in 2013. The receiving corps may have put up some decent numbers, but there were far too many drops. A senior-style performance from Jawon Chisholm would take some pressure off the passing game.

Defensively, veteran coordinator Chuck Amato believes that question marks can be turned into exclamation points.

The feeling around the conference is that the Zips are finally going to have a team befitting the beautiful InfoCision Stadium. The university must feel the same way, because Terry Bowden was awarded a new two-year contract extension through 2018.

Bowden has built from the bottom, filled pieces slowly but surely and has a team that might be a surprise.

Read the full 2014 Akron Zips Team Preview

98. Memphis
It appears all the elements are in place for the Tigers to make a move in the American Athletic Conference. Coach Justin Fuente has increased the tempo of his offense and has a quarterback who he believes can lead the charge. Defensively, the Tigers likely will improve further under the direction of Barry Odom and make a run at bowl-eligibility for the first time since 2008.

Read the full 2014 Memphis Tigers Team Preview

99. Tulane
Was the 2013 success a legitimate breakthrough or the product of a weak schedule? Tulane’s move to the more competitive American Athletic Conference will provide that answer. On paper, the Green Wave could be an underdog to eight or nine of their 2014 opponents. Of course, the Wave were favored only three times last year, so coach Curtis Johnson is used to that role. Recruiting heavily in South Louisiana, he and his staff have upgraded the talent level significantly. The program is on the upswing, but the record may not reflect that growth as Tulane moves to an on-campus stadium (Yulman Stadium) for the first time in 40 years.

Read the full 2014 Tulane Green Wave Team Preview

100. Temple
The Owls made the switch from Steve Addazio’s run-first philosophy to Matt Rhule’s more wide-open approach, and the transition was far from smooth. Temple slumped to 2–10, the program’s worst record since 2006. But it wasn’t a complete disaster: Seven of the losses were by 10 points or fewer and four by three or fewer, including three on long, late passes. The Owls led by 21 in two losses. A few defensive plays at the right time could have led to another win or two.

Rhule was on the staff when Temple won 26 games while in the MAC from 2009-11. He’s confident that it can happen again, perhaps even soon. A lot depends on P.J. Walker’s continued progress. And the defense, which ranked last — by a wide margin — in the league, must improve considerably for Temple to take a step forward in the American Athletic Conference.

Read the full 2014 Temple Owls Team Preview

Teaser:
College Football 2014 Rankings and Predictions: #81-100
Post date: Monday, June 2, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /nascar/nascars-hall-fame-part-1-next-five
Body:

NASCAR’s 2015 Hall of Fame class was announced last week. An all-driver quintet of Bill Elliott, Fred Lorenzen, Wendell Scott, Joe Weatherly and Rex White made for a fine induction group with a natural mix of contemporary and pioneer.

In this first of two posts, Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese highlights the people he believes should occupy the next two classes of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.


1. Curtis Turner
One of the most storied names in NASCAR, Curtis “Pops” Turner was one of the pioneers of a sport that, at the time, many had heard of but few truly knew.

Turner wasn’t cut from the mold of others of his time (think Junior Johnson and Lee Petty) and he didn’t race because he needed to — Turner was a millionaire lumber baron (in 1950s millions) who raced because he liked it and partied because he loved it. He was also the driving force behind getting Charlotte Motor Speedway built, investing over $2 million of his own money — including $70,000 to blow up a giant piece of granite — and wielded a pistol to get guys back to work once the money ran out.

That reverse bootlegger turn made famous in Thunder Road? It was perfected by Turner, who once did it with a trunk full of moonshine — and without spilling a drop. When asked how he was able to do that, he replied with the classic, “I couldn’t let all that good whiskey go to waste.”

Working against Turner at the time — and maybe to this day — was his efforts, along with Tim Flock and Fireball Roberts, form a Driver’s Union. Banned from the sport for it in 1961, he was allowed back for the 1965 season, when he won the final race of the season at Rockingham.

Turner’s life was cut short when was killed in a 1970 plane crash in Punxsutawney, Penn. Benny Parson once said of the legend: “Ask any race fan under the age of 50 who the greatest driver is and they’ll say ‘Dale Earnhardt.’ Ask anyone over 50, and they’ll say ‘Curtis Turner.’”


2. Bobby Isaac
While NASCAR historians are keen to focus on the 1970 Plymouth Superbird as one of the greatest race cars ever built, it was actually its cousin, the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona, that won a title for Bobby Isaac in 1970.

Born during the Great Depression in Catawba, N.C., Isaac quit school after the sixth grade to work in a sawmill — so he could buy himself new shoes. When his mother died he became the family provider at the age of 13. Isaac was forced to become a scrapper out of necessity, having the words “Love and Hate” tattooed across each hand.

When he joined with Nord Krauskopf’s No.71 K&K Insurance team, his fortunes changed. In 1969, he posted 17 wins in 50 starts and a record 20 pole positions on the Grand National circuit. In 1970, the team won 11 races in 47 starts, posting 32 top-5 and 37 top-10 finishes. That year he also set a closed-course record of 201.104 mph in a legit stock car with 1970’s rubber. A year later, Isaac and the “winged wonder” set 28 world speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, many of which still stand.

Isaac’s career ended in 1976 with 37 wins and 170 top 10s — and the 1970 title — earned over 308 starts.


3. Alan Kulwicki
Alan Kulwicki was a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma with a briefcase in one hand and a comb in the other. He was also years ahead of his time as a college graduate gone racin’ with an engineering degree.

Kulwicki headed south to race stock cars and make a name for himself on his terms. He began running Fords in 1985 at a time when the only guys running and winning with the Blue Oval were Bill Elliott and Cale Yarborough. By 1987 he set out with his self-owned team and captured his first Cup triumph in 1988 at Phoenix — where upon he whipped it around and did his self-described Polish Victory Lap.

His car wore the colors of the U.S. Army as Operation Desert Storm prepared to launch at Daytona in 1991, but when sponsor Hooters joined two races later, it all came together for his rag-tag outfit. Kulwicki won the championship the following season over Bill Elliott by way of leading the most laps in the season finale in Atlanta — fittingly, in the Hooters 500 — in what is lauded as one of the most notable races of NASCAR’s modern era.

A true independent, he was the last owner-driver to win the title until Tony Stewart in 2011 (although it should be noted that Stewart’s team receives engines and engineering from the most powerful organization in the sport). Hall of Famer Junior Johnson maintains there are only two drivers that never had the chance to race for him that he regrets missing out on: Dale Earnhardt and Alan Kulwicki.


4. Robert Yates
When you think of big-time horsepower, Robert Yates is the name that most recognize. His NASCAR career started with the Holman-Moody team and moved on to Junior Johnson & Associates to oversee engine development. Joining DiGard Racing in 1976, he built the engines that powered Bobby Allison to the 1983 championship. A year later he built the engine that Richard Petty used to power past Cale Yarborough coming to the line to win race No. 200 at Daytona.

He started Robert Yates Racing in 1988 from what was Harry Rainer’s operation, with Bobby Allison’s son Davey at the wheel. They finished second to Bobby in their first outing at the Daytona 500. The two would pair to form one of the most potent and, sadly, short-lived combinations in the sport’s history. The duo would win the Daytona 500, the Winston All-Star Race, came within a Swervin’ Irvan of winning the 1992 championship, and would become a Ford firebrand in the early 1990s.

When Dale Jarrett joined the team following Allison’s passing and Ernie Irvan’s injury, Yates was rewarded with two more Daytona 500 wins, two Brickyard 400s and the 1999 Winston Cup. In 2004, he joined forces with another Ford legend, Jack Roush, to establish Yates-Roush Engines, the sole engine supplier for Ford’s NASCAR efforts.


5. Buddy Baker
During the 1970s when NASCAR began migrating from the bullrings to the superspeedways, there was one name that was synonymous with standing on the gas: Buddy Baker.

Nicknamed “Leadfoot,” the son of two-time champion Buck Baker, at 6’6” and nearly 300 lbs, also went by the monker “Gentle Giant.”

Seventeen of Baker’s 19 Cup Series wins came on superspeedways, and he was the first driver to win at NASCAR’s four biggest tracks — Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte and Darlington. On March 24th, 1970, Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph barrier in a stock car, running 200.447 mph at Talladega in the No. 88 Cotton Owens Dodge Charger Daytona. 

Speaking of Daytona, Baker still holds the record for the fastest Daytona 500, winning the race that averaged 177.602 mph in 1980 — the final year of the land barges of the era. His final win, in 1983, also came at Daytona while driving for The Wood Brothers in the Firecracker 400.

Following his career behind the wheel, Baker was equally stout behind the microphone, joining former drivers Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons as the voice of NASCAR through the 1990s. He acted as a driver coach for Ryan Newman when he took Rookie of the Year Honors in 2002 over Jimmie Johnson. Still active in NASCAR, Baker continues his career today on Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90, hosting the popular program “The Late Shift.”


Follow Vito Pugliese on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
 

Teaser:
NASCAR’s 2015 Hall of Fame class was announced last week. An all-driver quintet of Bill Elliott, Fred Lorenzen, Wendell Scott, Joe Weatherly and Rex White made for a fine induction group with a natural mix of contemporary and pioneer. In this first of two posts, Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese highlights the people he believes should occupy the next two classes of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Post date: Friday, May 30, 2014 - 17:21
Path: /nascar/jimmie-johnsons-summer-reign-beginning
Body:

Jimmie Johnson’s summer reign may be just beginning  Jimmie Johnson
It was a bad, horrible and no-good storyline in the run up to last week’s Coca-Cola 600: a “struggling” Jimmie Johnson was winless and looked more average than a six-time champion really should in the season’s opening stint.

As Johnson tamped the conversation forcefully with his Sunday night win, he also may have initiated the story that will dominate NASCAR’s June stretch: the No. 48 taking the rest of the sport out behind the shed for a classic whooping.

The next two races — Dover this weekend and Pocono next — have routinely played host to Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus putting on flag-to-flag clinics. At Dover, Johnson has eight career wins after taking checkered flags in five of his last 10 starts on the one-mile track. More impressive? Johnson has failed to lead fewer than 143 laps in one of those 10 starts.

At Pocono, Johnson has three career wins — it really should be four or five, save for flat tires that cost him races in 2012 and 2013 — and had the most dominant car there at both races a year ago.

For all of the hand wringing in recent weeks, Johnson may just be embarking on a complete flip of the narrative.


Tony Stewart back at site of last Sprint Cup win  
A lot around Tony Stewart has changed since his last trip to Sprint Cup Victory Lane. He’s got two new teammates, new metal pins in his leg, an active Twitter account and the beginnings of a Formula 1 team rising just beyond the front door of his co-owned Sprint Cup team.  Tony Stewart

And after all that, he’s just eight races away from matching his career-long winless streak in the Sprint Cup Series. During some lean times at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2007 and ’08, Stewart waited 44 races between wins at NASCAR’s top level. With his most recent coming at Dover last June, Sunday marks his 37th start since that triumph.

It was a race that Stewart somewhat lucked in to. After a restart penalty dropped Jimmie Johnson out of a contention, Stewart passed Juan Pablo Montoya with three laps remaining to snare the win.

With the performance of Stewart-Haas Racing and his No. 14 season-to-date, a win doesn’t seem imminent. But it didn’t seem that way a year ago, either.


Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards enter interesting stretch
The rumors will only continue to perpetuate as Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards remain mum on their plans for 2015. Both Roush Fenway drivers are in the final years of their respective contracts at the Ford team, and both seem to be smartly fielding any and all options going forward.

A big reason for that, of course, has been a slow downward slide of RFR performance.

That uncertainty makes the new few weeks an interesting period for both drivers with typically Roush-friendly tracks on the docket. Between Dover and Michigan (the race that follows next week’s turn in Pocono), Roush-owned teams have scored 22 of the organization’s 134 total Cup series wins. A full 15 percent of RFR top-5 finishes in the team’s history have come at the two tracks.

The period could go a long way in helping Biffle and Edwards decide if a long-term future at RFR is the best case scenario, or if jumping ship — like former teammate Matt Kenseth did to Joe Gibbs Racing last season — is the better alternative.


Kurt Busch in danger of exiting top 30? Hardly.
With Kurt Busch’s expired engine in last Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 came the fifth DNF in 12 races for the 2004 champion. It was a continuation, really, of a largely disappointing season on the stock car front for the newest Stewart-Haas Racing driver. Aside from his Martinsville win — and isn’t that win looking quite important now? — Busch has just one finish better than 21st in 2014.

A season ago with Furniture Row Racing, Busch had seven finishes better than 23rd after 12 races.

The strange start to 2014 has landed Busch way back in the points – 28th to be exact – heading to Dover. Numerically, that puts him awful close to the 30th-place cutoff drivers must be above in order for regular season wins to count toward Chase eligibility. So Kurt is teetering on a dangerous edge, right?

Not exactly. To fall to 31st, Busch would have to cede 61 points Cole Whitt, or even more to David Gilliland, Alex Bowman, David Ragan or Reed Sorenson. Frankly, that’s just not happening.

The biggest issue with Busch’s miserable start is that he now has a very, very small cushion should something keep him from starting a few races. The possibility of that, however, diminished greatly when he emerged from his Indianapolis 500 experience without injury.


When do we get concerned about Ricky Stenhouse Jr.?
A two-time Nationwide Series champion, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. always seemed an obvious fit and strong candidate to take over a Sprint Cup seat for Roush Fenway Racing. But now he’s nearly one and a half seasons in to a full-time Cup career and the choice isn’t looking so strong based on mediocre results.

What should be made of it?

There are two roads to walk. First, Stenhouse could be the classic case of “too much, too soon” — not unlike the now front-running Joey Logano. In that theory, Stenhouse should be afforded more time — three to four seasons at Cup level — to get his bearings and show his worth.

The second thought is that Stenhouse’s credentials were overhyped based on internal and external competition. Externally, he was twice a champion in a Nationwide Series that featured regular winners who weren’t eligible for points. The second of those title-winning seasons did include an impressive six wins — but also came in a year where Kyle Busch raced his own equipment and could never win. Internally, his strongest opposition for the Cup ride in 2013 came from Trevor Bayne. Bayne’s talented, sure, but hasn’t proven to have the ability to consistently beat top Cup-level drivers.

Yes, it’s still early in Stenhouse’s career. He’s had just 53 total starts and only 48 as a full-time driver. But a slight regression in average finish year-to-year (Stenhouse finished 2013 at 18.9 and is at 22.5 after 12 races in 2014) plus a lead-lap finish pace nine marks under last year isn’t positive evidence of improved performance.


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

 

Teaser:
Five things to watch in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Dover international Speedway
Post date: Friday, May 30, 2014 - 16:13
Path: /college-football/american-athletic-conference-announces-division-alignment-2015
Body:

The American Athletic Conference has announced its new divisional alignment for the 2015 season. With Navy set to join the league in 2015, the American Athletic Conference will have 12 teams and will play a championship game on a campus site at the end of the year.

Here are the divisional breakdowns for 2015 and beyond:

EastWest
CincinnatiHouston
East CarolinaMemphis
TempleNavy
UCFSMU
UConnTulane
South FloridaTulsa

On paper, the balance of power seems to be tilted to the East Division. UCF is the defending league champion, and Cincinnati has been one of the league’s top programs over the last five years.

However, the West Division features a solid program in Houston, along with an annual bowl team in Navy. Tulsa struggled in 2013 but is a program capable of winning the league title. And teams like Memphis, SMU and Tulane have made improvement in recent years.

And with the American Athletic Conference going with a friendly geographic alignment, this should be easy for the fans to remember.

Teaser:
American Athletic Conference Announces Division Alignment for 2015
Post date: Friday, May 30, 2014 - 12:56
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-may-30-2014
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for May 30.

• Remember Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner? The one who wore her displeasure with the judges on her face? She went to the beach and dressed accordingly.

Looks like jilted Caroline Wozniacki is planning something sinister for Rory McIlroy. Seems to be working, last I checked his score today.

• So, 50 Cent's first pitch really was the worst in history (and Dubya's after 9/11 was the best).

John Harbaugh's not backing away from the Ravens' difficult offseason.

Jadeveon Clowney beclowned some TMZ reporter. Well played.

An Oklahoma State recruit was arrested for armed robbery after threatening to "bust a cap." He apparently arrived in Stillwater from the year 1996.

Bryan Cranston teases us by refusing to rule out more "Breaking Bad."

Fun with screencaps.

The week's funniest tweets. A sneak preview: My coworker used to joke "I'm allergic to most nuts, but not donuts!". Until Bill brought in peanut butter donuts. He died in the ambulance.

• Say what you will about Yasiel Puig: He never fails to entertain.

A fun gallery of Lance Stephenson memes.

• Pop's exchanges with reporters are money, every time.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, May 30, 2014 - 11:21
Path: /college-football/college-football-2014-rankings-and-predictions-61-80
Body:

The start of the college football season is less than 100 days away, and Athlon Sports is counting down the top teams for the upcoming year.

Florida State is Athlon’s pick to win the national championship, with Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide projected to finish No. 2 nationally. Of course, there's a new element to college football's regular season with the addition of a four-team playoff, and Athlon Sports is picking Ohio State to finish No. 3 and Oklahoma to finish No. 4. The debate in the preseason is no longer about No. 1 and No. 2 and instead more about the top four teams in the nation.

While there is always plenty of intrigue in filling out the top 25, Nos. 26-40 feature a handful of teams that just missed. The No. 41-60 range features teams like Texas Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arizona. The No. 61-80 projection features a few bowl teams from last season, including Syracuse, Boston College and Rutgers, along with some top teams from outside the power conferences (Northern Illinois, Ball State, Fresno State and Colorado State).

With the completion of Athlon's college football Top 25 for 2014, it's time to take a look at the rest of the rankings. You can view No. 26-40 here and No. 41-60 here.

Follow the top 25 on Twitter @AthlonSports and join the debate at #Athlon25. Follow Athlon's College Football Writers on Twitter: Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and David Fox (@DavidFox615).

Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2014 season

College Football 2014 Projected Rankings: 61-80
 

61. Syracuse
With numerous returners on each side of the ball and the momentum from the Texas Bowl win over Minnesota, Syracuse is poised to take another step in 2014. Yet the talent gap between the Orange and ACC Atlantic Division members Florida State and Clemson remains huge. Every other game will be a crapshoot, and another upper-division finish and bowl are attainable.

Read the full 2014 Syracuse Orange Team Preview

62. Fresno State
Tim DeRuyter has enjoyed a pretty good run: two seasons and two MWC titles. But the job’s about to get a lot tougher, breaking in a new quarterback against a brutal early schedule.

After tangling with USC, Utah and Nebraska, it’s possible Fresno State will be 1–3 for the conference opener. Yet there’s enough talent to hang another championship banner. It may depend on whether the Bulldogs are steeled by those early games — or battered by them.

Read the full 2014 Fresno State Bulldogs Team Preview

63. Arkansas
Arkansas should be improved on both sides of the ball, but that doesn’t mean another winless SEC season is out of the question for the Razorbacks, who are still trying to stabilize and upgrade their roster after the disruption of the Bobby Petrino affair. Qualifying for a bowl berth would be a significant step in Year 2 under Bret Bielema, as Arkansas chugs forward with a difficult rebuild.

Read the full 2014 Arkansas Razorbacks Team Preview

64. Boston College
Steve Addazio was responsible for one of the more underrated coaching jobs last year, boosting Boston College from two to seven wins in his debut season by packaging a power-run attack around Andre Williams. Addazio’s creativity could be tested even more in 2014 since nearly all of the Eagles’ all-conference performers from a year ago are gone. Boston College is counting on the young players left over from the Frank Spaziani era and Addazio’s first two recruiting classes to form the Eagles’ identity.

The running game and solid line play will always be Boston College staples, but how will the Eagles stretch the field? They’ll need at least one or two young wide receivers to grow up in a hurry. The defense has a chance to improve after last year’s unit under coordinator Don Brown was opportunistic but not overwhelming in any one area.

A return to a bowl game is a realistic expectation, but the Eagles aren’t likely to pose much of a threat to the top teams in the ACC Atlantic Division.

Read the full 2014 Boston College Eagles Team Preview

65. NC State
Little went right for Dave Doeren in his first season. The Wolfpack lost their final eight games and went winless in ACC play for the first time since 1959. But with Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett at quarterback and a staggering 51 new true or redshirt freshmen on the roster, Doeren’s hoping the only way to go is up. With a manageable schedule, especially out of the league, there might be a way to speed up the rebuilding process and get back to a bowl game.

After such a poor finish in 2013, the Wolfpack do have motivation on their side.

“We want to make people forget last year," Bryan Underwood says. “This is us now, we’re a new team.”

Read the full 2014 NC State Wolfpack Team Preview

66. Iowa State
Iowa State must improve significantly on both sides of the ball if it hopes to bounce back from last season’s disappointing three-win season. With Mark Mangino on the staff, there is legitimate hope for better production on offense. There are some nice pieces at the skill positions for the former Kansas head coach to work with. Defensively, however, there are major issues. The staff will be relying on several junior college transfers — always a dangerous proposition. If the Cyclones want to reach a bowl game in 2014, they will have to do it by simply outscoring the opposition.

Read the full 2014 Iowa State Cyclones Team Preview 

67. West Virginia
It may be summer in Morgantown, but the heat has been on Dana Holgorsen for a couple of seasons. In 2012, the Mountaineers went 2–6 after a 5–0 start that included a win at Texas. Last year, WVU finished 4–8 and out of the bowl picture. Athletic director Oliver Luck felt compelled to issue a statement after the latter “difficult and trying” season and backed the coach, if seemingly only for this season, adding he has “high expectations” for 2014. The problem for Holgorsen is that the Mountaineers might be better, but that might not translate into a sterling record. WVU opens with Alabama, visits Maryland and plays a full Big 12 schedule.

Read the full 2014 West Virginia Mountaineers Team Preview

68. Illinois
The third year has usually been the charm for Illinois head coaches. Mike White, John Mackovic, Lou Tepper, Ron Turner and Ron Zook all reached bowls in their third seasons. Now, it’s Tim Beckman’s turn to try to keep the streak going. While the school hasn’t issued an ultimatum, a bowl bid would help secure Beckman’s future. The non-conference schedule is set up for success, with winnable home games against Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State. Take those three, and the Illini are halfway to a postseason berth.

The offense should continue to pile up yards and points, and the defense can’t be much worse. If Tim Banks’ guys climb 20 spots or so in national defensive rankings, it will translate to more wins. Beckman’s short-term goal is to solidify his position as head coach. Competing for a division title is down the road.

Read the full 2014 Illinois Fighting Illini Team Preview

69. Houston
There’s a lot to like about Houston, which has acquitted itself well in the call-up from C-USA to the American. This year’s schedule is manageable, and at least eight wins should be the expectation. Houston is a proud place — two of the country’s most established coaches, Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin, were roaming UH sidelines not too long ago. This team always seems to thrive off quarterback play, so the question is whether O’Korn has peaked or is just lifting off. The latter appears to be the case. Playmaking is there on both sides of the ball. Houston should be in the conversation as preseason American favorites along with Cincinnati, East Carolina and UCF.

Read the full 2014 Houston Cougars Team Preview

70. Kentucky
Mark Stoops has done the impossible — keep fans and recruits excited after a 2–10 debut season. He signed a top-25 class and had 35,000 people show up for this year’s spring game, second-most in program history. Now he just needs to win. Although he posted exactly the same record that got Joker Phillips fired a year earlier, the Cats were more competitive in 2013, losing five games by two touchdowns or less and three by single digits. The big payoff is probably still a year away, but a four- or five-win season this fall would probably keep everyone happy.

Read the full 2014 Kentucky Wildcats Team Preview

71. Colorado
The depth and talent are improving in Boulder under Mike MacIntyre. But the program is still in rebuilding mode. The Buffaloes have won a combined four Pac-12 games in their three seasons in the league, including one win in each of the past two years. Last season, the Buffs’ average margin of defeat in their eight conference losses was 29 points. More wins would be nice, but simply being competitive on a consistent basis would show progress in the short term.

Read the full 2014 Colorado Buffaloes Team Preview

72. Virginia
For these keeping track, and everyone is, Virginia’s 2–10 finish last year represented its fewest wins since 1982. The Cavaliers were winless in the ACC for the first time since 1981.

Mike London won’t survive another campaign like that. He might not even make it to midseason. With a maturing roster and the continuity that comes with a second season in offensive and defensive systems installed last year, Virginia should be better. The question, given a challenging schedule and a culture of coming up short, is how much that improvement will be reflected in the bottom line.

Read the full 2014 Virginia Cavaliers Team Preview

73. Rutgers
Rutgers welcomes back a solid group of returning starters, but there is uncertainty at the all-important quarterback position, and the schedule is the most difficult in school history. The defense, torched by teams from the American Athletic Conference in 2013, must show significant improvement. There is a chance Rutgers will be better in 2014 but fail to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2010 and only the second time since ’04.

Read the full 2014 Rutgers Scarlet Knights Team Preview

74. Colorado State
The Rams lost some significant star power with running back Kapri Bibbs’ decision to forego his final two seasons to turn pro and the graduations of Weston Richburg, Shaquil Barrett and All-MW tight end Crockett Gillmore. But they’ve still got a lot to work with in Garrett Grayson and a talented corps of receivers, including three who redshirted last fall. They’ll have to develop enough of a running threat to keep defenses honest but should be able to move the ball effectively through the air. The secondary has to improve for the Rams to be a factor in the pass-happy MW.

A favorable schedule that does not include MW West Division powers Fresno State and San Diego State gives the Rams a legitimate chance to make back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 2002-03, when Sonny Lubick was the coach.

Read the full 2014 Colorado State Rams Team Preview

75. Toledo
Toledo has 17 starters back to work on purging the sour taste left from last season, when the Rockets went 7–5 overall and missed playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2009. The schedule is not easy; the Rockets play Missouri, Cincinnati and Iowa State in non-conference action and host Bowling Green, the defending league champs, from the MAC East.

Toledo has a wealth of experience and talent along its offensive front and at linebacker, but the Rockets will be featuring a new starter at quarterback — always a dangerous proposition. If Logan Woodside emerges as viable playmaker and the defense improves, the Rockets should be right back in the MAC East title picture.

Read the full 2014 Toledo Rockets Team Preview

76. California
The Golden Bears are starting from an unfamiliar place — the bottom. Sonny Dykes’ debut season in Berkeley was a disaster in every way, and the new regime still is looking for its first victory over an FBS team. The Bears should be deeper and more experienced, and Dykes saw a new resolve during spring ball.

“That’s been the most impressive thing, their mentality,” Dykes says. “They’ve moved on.” Adds running back Khalfani Muhammad: “A season like that, it hurts. It hurt every game. It’s a new year. We all come in here with a lot of confidence.”

Still, there are more questions than answers, and victories are hard to find on a schedule featuring the steadily improving Pac-12 and non-conference games against Northwestern and BYU. How much improvement shows in the standings remains to be seen.

Acknowledged Dykes: “We’re a work in progress.”

Read the full 2014 California Golden Bears Team Preview

77. Northern Illinois
After the best two-year run in school history, Northern Illinois faces a daunting task trying to maintain its level of excellence. There should be some early-season growing pains without Jordan Lynch’s leadership and big-time production spearheading the offense. Following the season opener, the Huskies hit the road to play at Northwestern, UNLV and Arkansas.

Although NIU is loaded at several offensive positions, most notably at tailback, offensive line and wide receiver, Lynch is tough to replace. Rod Carey is emphasizing the importance of finishing strong, with the Huskies losing their last two games last season and not winning a bowl game in the last two years. Even without Lynch, the Huskies return enough talent to contend in the tough MAC West.

Read the full 2014 Northern Illinois Huskies Team Preview

78. Kansas
During his first two years at KU, Weis was careful to not set specific win total goals for his rebuilding football team. That’s changed this season, as he enters Year 3 with the most talent he’s had and a solid base of upperclassmen.

“Before you can be a perennial winning program, the first thing you’ve got to do is get to .500,” Charlie Weis says.

Though this probably isn’t a “bowl or bust” season for the Jayhawks, Weis likely will need to improve his win total to avoid the hot seat in the third year of a five-year contract.

Read the full 2014 Kansas Jayhawks Team Preview

79. Ball State
Northern Illinois is the standard-bearer in the MAC West, but nobody in the division has played the Huskies tougher than Ball State. While the Cardinals might not improve their win total for the fourth time in Pete Lembo’s four years at the helm, they appear positioned to stay in the MAC’s elite for years to come.

Read the full 2014 Ball State Cardinals Team Preview

80. Purdue
Most Purdue fans realized Darrell Hazell was inheriting a rebuilding situation, but last season still ended up being a nightmare. The lone victory was over FCS foe Indiana State, and the season ended with the Boilermakers getting thumped by archrival Indiana.

The non-conference schedule is more forgiving this year, and Purdue gets a break in conference play. It doesn’t play Michigan or Ohio State. Wisconsin and defending Big Ten champion Michigan State visit Ross-Ade Stadium. Still, it’s hard to envision this team making a move in the Big Ten in 2014. The talent level simply isn’t good enough at this point.

Read the full 2014 Purdue Boilermakers Team Preview

Teaser:
College Football 2014 Rankings and Predictions: #61-80
Post date: Friday, May 30, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-football/what-we-learned-sec-meetings-destin
Body:

The SEC Meetings in Destin, Fla., every year normally bring very little in the way of news.

But with the NCAA and the SEC on the verge of sweeping reform as well as a new era of postseason football, the 2014 version was anything but boring.

Every topic from autonomy to NFL agents to spread offenses to beer sales to recruiting calendars to basketball schedules to the new playoff system was addressed and discussed at length.

In attendance were College Football Playoff czar Bill Hancock, SEC commissioner Mike Slive, athletic directors and 14 head coaches from around the game’s most powerful conference. So there was no shortage of interesting topics to seep out of the panhandle this week.

Here is what you need to know about the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin:

Autonomy leads the way

This is easily the biggest issue for commissioner Slive. The SEC boss is always calculating in his speech and the resounding theme of his visit in Destin this week was autonomy. He danced around other issues like an early signing period and scheduling, but his thoughts on self-governance for the Big 5 and Notre Dame is pretty clear.

“Today, we began the conversation about NCAA governance and restructuring, which I’ve said before, is the primary issue.”

In fact, he called it the “cornerstone of their discussions” this week. When Slive normally speaks, he does so very directly and there is no doubting his stance on the issue.

“The NCAA committee put forth a model and we are in the comment period. We will respond to it sometime after this meeting in preparation of the NCAA Board of Directors voting on a revised governance process in August,” Slive told the media in Destin.

Let’s be clear. This is going to happen. And it will impact things like the size of the coaching staff — there was a push for a 10th member of the staff this week — cost of attendance stipends, academic policies and player health coverage. This will be a sweeping change in the college football landscape and it’s going to happen. Be prepared.

Let’s control the agents

One of the biggest and most unifying concepts in college football today is the reformation of NFL agent policies. Nearly everyone agrees that something needs to be changed. Prospective employees (aka, the athletes) have a right to seek advice, build relationships and, for lack of a better term, interview prospective employers (aka, the NFL).

Slive agrees, "The NCAA's current rules are really part of the problem, not part of the solution." The SEC commish wants to provide “quality and timely advice” to his student athletes in all sports.

And there is no reason why there cannot be dead periods, signing periods and interview periods for current athletes and professional agents just like on the recruiting calendar. Instead of trying to fight a part of the process that will never go away and only gets all three parties into NCAA trouble, why not embrace it, monitor it and legislate it. It helps the agent, the school and the athlete. What could possibly go wrong?

“Unanimous” support for an early signing period

Or so said LSU head coach Les Miles. The reports from individual coaches don’t seem to be as “unanimous” as Miles has reported, however, most coaches in the SEC (and around the nation) are in favor of some sort of early signing period. The proposal from the SEC involves the Monday following Thanksgiving and only if a recruit hasn’t taken an official visit in the fall. Otherwise, said recruit will have to wait to sign two months later on National Signing Day. Garnering support from athletic directors and presidents is a totally different issue all together.

"I think we need to vet that out and see if the conference wants to change its position,” commissioner Slive said to reporters, “but up until now the SEC has been opposed to it."

The only time an early signing period works is after the regular season sometime. Coaches change jobs and players develop during their senior year, so a summer signing date would be nearly impossible to implement effectively and intelligently. This is likely still a few years away but could be coming quickly once autonomy is established for the bigger programs.

Florida really, really hates Georgia Southern

“We’re probably going to move forward without playing FCS opponents,” Florida coach Will Muschamp told reporters. While his athletic director Jeremy Foley may not fully agree with him, many people believe this is the overall direction of scheduling. And, no, it actually has nothing to do with the Gators' loss to an FCS opponent in 2013. It has everything to do with delivering a better quality product to the fans in the stands as well as the TV partners who pay billions to broadcast the games and eventually gaining value among the College Football Playoff selection committee.

Strength of schedule is going to continue to gain more importance as the Playoff moves forward and beating significantly inferior teams by 60 points will no longer garner favor with the postseason decision-makers. By nearly all empirical measures — with the exception of coaches trying to keep their jobs — scheduling tougher, better games is good for the sport. It’s good for the fans, good for the local businesses and economies, better for TV negotiations and makes your favorite team’s case for a playoff berth more substantial.

“I’m in favor of our strength of schedule being as good as it can be," Slive said.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban agrees, “No, we do not want to play those types of teams.”

Getting rid of FCS opponents — particularly from November, when the SEC seems to backload its schedule with horrible games — is the first step towards extensive schedule modification. The next step will be to eliminate “low-major” games before adding a ninth conference game and scheduling only Big 5 opponents.

Who doesn’t want to see the best face the best every single week?

No playoff expansion looming

Bill Hancock is the Executive Director of the College Football Playoff and he was in Destin this week to speak with coaches and ADs about how the Playoff Selection Committee will work, what the parameters will be moving forward in deciding the newly minted four-team postseason tournament and the future growth of the postseason. It’s great that decision makers, both on the sidelines and in the “front offices,” get to hear firsthand from Hancock what exactly the committee will be looking for when it comes to deciding the four teams who will earn postseason berths.

While those meetings were behind closed doors, Hancock did address publicly the potential for expansion — or the lack thereof.

“It is going to be four [teams] for 12 years,” Hancock said, according to ESPN’s Brett McMurphy. “There is no talk in our group about [expanding the playoff].”

While Hancock has been very firm with his statements about playoff expansion during the current 12-year contract with ESPN, there are many — like Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson — who believe that expansion is eminent.

There are two overriding reasons to believe expansion will happen before 2026. (A) The money will be astronomical and too great to pass up with expansion and (B) Those who get left out, be it a blue blood snuff or small school playoff-buster, are going to fight tooth and nail for the playoff to include more teams.

I lean towards expansion taking place well before ’26 rolls around.

Listen to a complete Playoff breakdown on this week's Cover 2 podcast:

Quarterback movement

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones announced this week that redshirt freshman quarterback Riley Ferguson will not be back with his program in fall. Rumors have swirled about why Ferguson is back home in North Carolina this week and why he won’t be back. The timing is certainly interesting and something tells me there is more to this story coming soon.

Ferguson was considered by many to be the best pure passer on the Vols' roster and his departure has cleared things up a bit in the Tennessee backfield. Now, Justin Worley and Joshua Dobbs appear to be in a two-horse race for the reins of Mike Bajakian’s offense.

Alabama also lost a signal-caller this week as redshirt freshman Parker McLeod is set to transfer as well, according to Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports. This one is much less surprising as the Bama backfield is very crowded and someone had to decide to try their luck elsewhere. McLeod, who hails from Marietta, Ga., was a three-star recruit and the 37th-ranked pro-style quarterback prospect in the nation by 247Sports' composite rankings (2013).

ShowMe what you got

The SEC basketball tournament schedule has been set through 2025 and there was one interesting twist in the announcement this week. The state of Missouri will play host to the tourney in 2018 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. This is a prime basketball area of the country and getting his tournament in front of a new audience was key for Slive and company in the SEC offices.

Additionally, the 2022 tournament will be headed to the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Florida. It will be the second such event in Tampa as the 2009 championship was held there for the first time. Every other tournament between 2015 and 2025 will be held in Nashville.

Hoops scheduling gets a makeover

It’s not a huge change but fans should applaud the new basketball conference schedule that was announced this week. The SEC has done away with the 1-4-8 conference scheduling structure for a rivalry-supportive 3-2-8 format. So instead of one permanent home-and-home rivalry each year, schools will now get three such guaranteed home-and-homes. Instead of four rotating home-and-homes within the league, there will now be two. The eight home-OR-road games will still exist and will still rotate in the same manner as they have in the past. This is good news for programs that have more than one rival with in the league — say, like, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU, Alabama and Kentucky.

Teaser:
What We Learned From the SEC Meetings in Destin
Post date: Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 12:20
Path: /college-football/vanderbilts-derek-mason-has-most-awesome-business-card-college-football
Body:

Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason has a tough assignment in Nashville, as the first-year coach has to follow James Franklin after back-to-back nine-win seasons for the Commodores.

But Mason appears to be up to the task, especially after coordinating one of the nation’s top defenses at Stanford over the last few years.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt Mason’s profile that he has one of the best business cards in the nation. This photo tweeted out by Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples showcases Mason’s gold business card for 2014:

Teaser:
Vanderbilt's Derek Mason has the Most Awesome Business Card in College Football
Post date: Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 12:07
All taxonomy terms: Overtime
Path: /overtime/lance-stephenson-blowing-lebrons-ear-gives-us-great-memes
Body:

The Pacers' Lance Stephenson blew into LeBron James' ear last night in Indiana's 93-96 win in Game Six of the Eastern Conference finals.

That's right. Playoffs. Stephenson. LeBron. Blowing into his ear.

 

Of course, we've got jokes, everybody. Lance Stephenson, king of memes in this year's playoffs.

 

 

 

 

 

 






Teaser:
Lance Stephenson blowing on LeBron's Gives Us Great Memes
Post date: Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 11:07
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-may-29-2014
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for May 29.

• Tom Brady's lady has still got it. Gisele did a rather naughty shoot for a French magazine. Not exactly safe for work.

King James has found a kindred spirit in Johnny Football.

• Speaking of LeBron, he didn't exactly get the star treatment from the refs last night.

Lance Stephenson's evening included blowing in Bron-Bron's ear, which yielded a delightful GIF.

• Providing the best commentary on the evening's activity: this random granny. Replace Mark Jackson with this lady.

Titans backup QB Charlie Whitehurst lost an arm-wrestling match over a jersey number to the punter. Apparently holding a clipboard doesn't do much for arm strength. I also read that this didn't actually happen, but I'm running with it. Sorry, Charlie.

What's the deal with Peyton Manning's green football?

So which sports network has the most obtrusive, annoying ticker?

• Luis Sardinas did a sweet bat flip and trot to first. Trouble was, it was ball three.

Some fan caught a home run ball in mid-cell phone conversation.

• 50 Cent isn't the only celeb to throw an abysmal first pitch. Here's a rundown of first-pitch fails.

• Enjoy this routine game-ending walk-off triple play.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 10:41
Path: /college-football/only-12-college-football-playoff-contenders-2014
Body:

Just reading the words “playoff contender” warms the soul, doesn’t it?

Or “playoff berth,” “playoff contention” or “postseason bid.”

No one really knows what to expect from the College Football Playoff or Playoff Selection Committee — not the fans, not the media and not the coaches. But we all can agree that it’s going to be exciting no matter how many teams are left unbeaten at season’s end.

The 2014 Athlon Sports Top 25 has been released and Florida State (1), Alabama (2), Ohio State (3) and Oklahoma (4) are our picks to make the inaugural CFP. But getting to those four teams, the editorial staff — much like the selection committee — had to sift through copious amounts of data on all 128 teams.

What we learned is that there seems to be a clear line of demarcation between the top 12 teams and the rest of the nation. The first dozen teams in the Top 25 appear to be true playoff contenders and the rest feel like they are operating on a lower tier of expectation. Could someone outside of the top 12 make a playoff run? Of course, but history shows us that champions rarely come from outside the top dozen or so teams.

During the 16-year BCS Era, only twice did the national champion begin the season ranked outside of the top 15 in the preseason and never lower than 22nd (Auburn, 2010, No. 22; Oklahoma, 2000, No. 19). Only four times did the champion come from outside of the top 11 and nine of the last 10 champs were ranked 11th or better in the preseason AP Poll. Even further, eight of the last 10 crystal football winners were ranked seventh or better in the first ranking of the season.

Here is a breakdown of the only 12 teams we deem to be playoff contenders, why we like them and what could be their potential downfall.

Florida State Seminoles
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Projected Record: 13-0, 8-0
Key Games: Clemson, Notre Dame, at Louisville, Florida

Why we like them: The list is long. This roster is one of the top two in the nation along with Alabama. The Seminoles boast the best player in the nation under center, six first-team All-American selections and 11 total All-Americans. One shouldn’t need to explain oneself when talking highly of the defending national champions.

Potential downfall: Complacency and all that comes along with it. That means lack of focus on and off the field. It can mean playing not to lose rather than playing to win. The Noles should be a solid favorite in every game they play so they need to be on guard against a possible letdown.

Alabama Crimson Tide
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 3 defense
Projected Record: 12-1, 7-1
Key Games: Florida, at Ole Miss, at LSU, Auburn

Why we like them: The Crimson Tide still have the best coach in the nation, arguably the best roster in the nation and will be playing a fairly manageable SEC schedule in 2014. Fans can bet Nick Saban will use the way his team ended last year (0-2) to motivate them this offseason. Anyone remember what happened the last time Alabama missed the national title game by losing the last two games of the year? Yup, it won the ’09 national title the following year — the only perfect record of Saban’s SEC tenure.

Potential downfall: Quarterback play and the secondary. Jacob Coker is largely an unknown but won’t be asked to do too much for Saban’s offense so if he can simply not turn the ball over, Bama should be fine under center. The cornerback position also was an issue last year and doesn’t appear to be back to 2009 or '11 strength. Covering big wideouts has been an issue for Bama the last two seasons.

Ohio State Buckeyes
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 6 defense
Projected Record: 12-1, 7-1
Key Games: at Penn State, at Michigan State, Michigan

Why we like them: Braxton Miller, Urban Meyer and the best defensive line in the nation. The schedule also sets up very nicely with two quality (but very beatable) non-conference games and only three tough conference games with a possible letdown alert coming at Minnesota after the rematch with the Spartans. Few teams in the nation boast a head coach-quarterback duo like the Buckeyes.

Potential downfall: The offensive line is returning just one starter and the secondary is replacing first-round talents at both linebacker (Ryan Shazier) and cornerback (Bradley Roby). And the schedule might actually hurt Ohio State should it slip up somewhere along the way. A one-loss OSU team would likely be left out for a one-loss SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12 team due to lack of schedule strength.

Oklahoma Sooners
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 9 defense
Projected Record: 11-1, 8-1
Key Games: Texas, Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma State

Why we like them: The defensive front is as good as Bob Stoops has had in a decade and Trevor Knight flashed brilliance against Alabama to end the year. If Knight can stay healthy, the schedule sets up very well for Oklahoma to win the league. All of the key challengers in the league apart from Texas will come to Norman.

Potential downfall: The road schedule includes trips to distant Big 12 outposts in Morgantown, Lubbock, Ames and not-so-distant Fort Worth. Strange things happen to a lot of good teams in those towns. Additionally, many feel that this team could simply be overrated due to one great bowl performance against a less-than-motivated Alabama team.

Listen to a complete playoff breakdown on this week's Cover 2 Podcast:

Oregon Ducks
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 5 defense
Projected Record: 11-2, 7-2
Key Games: Michigan State, at UCLA, Washington, Stanford

Why we like them: Marcus Mariota might be the best player in the nation and, if he stays healthy, could smash Oregon record books this fall. The Ducks also get three of their four biggest games at home, including critical Pac-12 North Division games against the Cardinal and Huskies. From a talent standpoint, there are few teams on offense that can match the Ducks' prowess, speed and athleticism.

Potential downfall: Leadership from the sidelines and a dependency on one player could prove to be just enough to keep Oregon from the postseason. Mark Helfrich is still very much an unknown and when Mariota wasn’t healthy last year, Oregon lost both games with the division crown hanging in the balance. Toss in a nasty overall schedule and the Ducks will need to play near perfect football to reach the playoff. Also, much like Oklahoma, Oregon faces trap games on the road in tough places likes Pullman, Salt Lake City and Corvallis this season.

UCLA Bruins
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Projected Record: 10-3, 7-2
Key Games: at Arizona State, Oregon, at Washington, USC, Stanford

Why we like them: Getting critical swing games with Oregon, Stanford and USC at home is a huge positive for the Bruins, especially with the Trojans and Cardinal visiting in the last two weeks of the season. Brett Hundley is an elite player and the both lines of scrimmage appear to be developing around him.

Potential downfall: There is an overall lack of playmakers on offense and a lot of young faces dotting the starting lineup on defense. This is an extremely talented team but names in the secondary, along the defensive line and at wide receiver need to take big steps forward. Especially, against a schedule that features six games against preseason Top 25 teams.

Auburn Tigers
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Projected Record: 10-2, 6-2
Key Games: Too many to list

Why we like them: Gus Malzahn is a genius and Nick Marshall runs his unstoppable option offense to perfection. In fact, this offense could be even better this year with a deeper receiving corps and four starters back along the offensive line. Marshall should only continue to add balance with his arm as well.

Potential downfall: The defense allowed 420 yards per game last year, gave up over 35 points per game in the final month and the schedule is as tough as any in the nation. Getting through road trips to Kansas State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama unscathed will be virtually impossible while LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M all come to The Plains. Lastly, after one full year of game tape to study, Auburn won’t sneak up on anyone this year and won’t be nearly as fortunate as it was a year ago.

Michigan State Spartans
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 5 defense
Projected Record: 10-2, 7-1
Key Games: at Oregon, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State, at Penn State

Why we like them: Mark Dantonio has built a tradition of defensive prowess that should be able to withstand a lot of key departures. The offense is more stable than a year ago with star power returning in the backfield (Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford). And the schedule sets up nicely with critical conference home tests coming against Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska.

Potential downfall: While the roster is in great shape, there are some heavy losses it must withstand on defense to be the nation’s best unit again in 2014. The offensive line also needs some work with just two returning starters. If nothing else, it will take some time for these units to return to form and an early road trip to nasty Autzen Stadium leaves Sparty’s margin for error razor thin within the Big Ten.

Georgia Bulldogs
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 9 defense
Projected Record: 10-3, 6-2
Key Games: at South Carolina, at Missouri, Florida, Auburn

Why we like them: Jeremy Pruitt steps into run a defense with nine returning starters after having a hand in three of the last four national titles. The offense, although filled with plenty of unknowns, should also be much healthier with Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and Malcolm Mitchell clicking on all cylinders this year.

Potential downfall: Georgia has to break in a new quarterback after four full seasons of Aaron Murray. Hutson Mason should have some nice talent to work with at the skill positions but three starters are gone from the O-line as is star tight end Arthur Lynch. The defense tends to underachieve and it’s unknown if Pruitt can simply flip the switch. Clemson and Georgia Tech are tough non-conference games and hosting Auburn in crossover is brutal. Throw in a normally difficult SEC East slate, including road trips to both Columbias, and UGA has one of the harder paths to a playoff berth.

South Carolina Gamecocks
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Projected Record: 10-2, 6-2
Key Games: Georgia, Missouri, at Auburn, at Florida

Why we like them: The offensive line returns entirely intact with Mike Davis fully healthy and ready to churn out yards. The linebackers are now a strength of the defense after being a liability last year. And the Ol’ Ball Coach is still running the show. On the whole, Steve Spurrier has built his program to a new level where it can finally withstand key departures at key positions. Important SEC East games against Tennessee, Georgia and Missouri all come at home as well.

Potential downfall: Key departures at key positions. Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney, Bruce Ellington, Kelcy Quarles and both cornerbacks are all gone and filling those holes will be very difficult. Dylan Thompson has some experience at quarterback but took a small step back last year while the D-line is easily the biggest concern entering the summer against a nasty schedule that features half-a-dozen excellent running attacks.

Baylor Bears
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 4 defense
Projected Record: 10-2, 7-2
Key Games: at Texas, at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State

Why we like them: Art Briles and Bryce Petty are as good a duo in the nation and the offense should once again be the Big 12’s best. The overall talent on the roster has been elevated to unprecedented levels and the new stadium will bring with it serious energy and expectations in Waco, including key swing home games against TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. This team did pound Oklahoma 41-12 last year.

Potential downfall: Heart and soul leaders are gone from the first Big 12 title team in school history and they will be difficult to replace, especially on defense. The schedule is also much more difficult this year with five tricky Big 12 road trips, including to conference front-runner Oklahoma — a place Baylor has never won (0-11). Fans across the nation will learn about Baylor’s staying power this fall.

Stanford Cardinal
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 7 defense
Projected Record: 9-3, 7-2
Key Games: USC, everyone else on the road

Why we like them: The overall depth of this roster is excellent and the physical attitude of this program is unlike any other in the conference. Stanford is the two-time defending champ for a reason. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is back for what should be his best season and the skill players around him are better than they have been in years as the tight end might be back in the playbook this year.

Potential downfall: The Cardinal road schedule is probably the toughest in the nation. Key divisional games against Washington and Oregon as well as important crossovers with UCLA and Arizona State and a non-conference tilt with Notre Dame all take place on the road (read that again). The offensive line and front seven on defense have major holes to plug even if those gaps are being filled with very talented prospects. And defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has big shoes to fill now that Derek Mason is in Nashville.

Next best options: USC Trojans, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Wisconsin Badgers, Ole Miss Rebels, LSU Tigers

Teaser:
The Only 12 College Football Playoff Contenders in 2014
Post date: Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/college-football-2014-rankings-and-predictions-41-60
Body:

The start of the college football season is less than 100 days away, and Athlon Sports is counting down the top teams for the upcoming year.

Florida State is Athlon’s pick to win the national championship, with Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide projected to finish No. 2 nationally. Of course, there's a new element to college football's regular season with the addition of a four-team playoff, and Athlon Sports is picking Ohio State to finish No. 3 and Oklahoma to finish No. 4. The debate in the preseason is no longer about No. 1 and No. 2 and instead more about the top four teams in the nation.

While there is always plenty of intrigue in filling out the top 25, Nos. 26-40 feature a handful of teams that just missed. The 41-60 range features teams like Texas Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arizona. All four teams have potential to finish higher, but each has question marks entering the 2014 season. This range of teams also features Athlon's projected Mountain West (Boise State), MAC (Bowling Green) and American (Cincinnati) champion. 

With the completion of Athlon's college football Top 25 for 2014, it's time to take a look at the rest of the rankings. You can view No. 26-40 here

Follow the top 25 on Twitter @AthlonSports and join the debate at #Athlon25. Follow Athlon's College Football Writers on Twitter: Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and David Fox (@DavidFox615).

Note: Ranking is where team is projected to finish at the end of the 2014 season

College Football 2014 Projected Rankings: 41-60

41. Texas Tech
Overall, the Red Raider offense looks to be a better unit in 2014, as quarterback Davis Webb looks much improved. The offensive line will likely be much better and deeper as well, which likely will result in improved numbers in the ground game. On defense, it’s still a bit of a mystery, as the Red Raider coaching staff will have to wait until fall camp to see the revamped defensive line — heavy with junior college transfers — in action. If these players do live up to their hype, things could be looking up on defense, and overall, for Texas Tech in 2014.

Read the full 2014 Texas Tech Red Raiders Team Preview

42. Tennessee
Even after a 5–7 debut season, coach Butch Jones has retained his relentlessly sunny attitude, and it seems to be infectious in Knoxville. But here’s the downer: While this team will eventually be better than the 2013 version, the roster turnover represented by 32 newcomers offers plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. And this schedule (once again) offers little margin for error. Reaching six wins and a bowl game won’t be easy, but it will be a critical hurdle in keeping the Jones-fueled optimism alive and well in Knoxville.

Read the full 2014 Tennessee Volunteers Team Preview

43. Cincinnati
Much depends on the development of Gunner Kiel at quarterback. Kiel has the physical tools and has been a commanding presence at practice, but the test will be how he handles inevitable on-field adversity. UC started slowly last year (3–2) as the players adjusted to Tommy Tuberville and his staff. The coaches are entrenched now, but the lack of quarterback experience is an issue.

The non-league schedule includes trips to Ohio State and Miami (Fla.), but the Bearcats should contend for another upper-echelon finish in the AAC. With talent at the skill positions and improved speed on defense, a fourth consecutive bowl game seems reasonable.

Read the full 2014 Cincinnati Bearcats 2014 Team Preview

44. Vanderbilt
Derek Mason is in uncharted territory for a first-year football coach at Vanderbilt. Unlike the vast majority of men who have occupied his seat, Mason is not facing a massive rebuild. The former defensive coordinator at Stanford inherits a program that has won 18 games over the last two seasons and been to three straight bowl games. There is enough talent on the roster to extend the postseason streak to four, but some playmakers need to emerge on offense, and the defense must adapt to a very different style of play for this team to finish higher than sixth in the SEC East.

Read the full 2014 Vanderbilt Commodores Team Preview

45. Arizona
Rich Rodriguez has twin 8–5 seasons in two years at Arizona, and he has more Pac-12-ready players on the roster for Year 3. The uncertainty at quarterback hovers over the entire operation, but the strengths at receiver and on the offensive line create an optimistic feeling about another winning season. The Wildcats are faster and deeper on defense. The schedule — four winnable games to open the season — sets up favorably.

Read the full 2014 Arizona Wildcats Team Preview

46. Boise State
Coming off an 8–5 season — the Broncos’ worst since 1998 — there is hope for a quick turnaround with an experienced roster and a new energy created by the coaching change. The schedule sets up well with Fresno State, San Diego State and Utah State set to visit Boise, but the Broncos will count largely on the same players who failed to win the Mountain West Mountain Division last year. They need quarterback Grant Hedrick and the veteran defenders to make noticeable leaps and that young offensive line to jell quickly — particularly if they hope to impress a national audience in the made-for-TV opener against Ole Miss in Atlanta.

Read the full 2014 Boise State Broncos Team Preview

47. Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets seem stuck around the seven-win mark, almost always competitive but usually falling short against top-tier competition. If all the variables fall their way, this could be a nine-win team that contends for the Coastal Division title. But if quarterback Justin Thomas struggles and the defense takes a step back, six or seven wins could be the ceiling.

Read the full 2014 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Team Preview

48. Maryland
There’s some talent in tow as Maryland makes the big move to the Big Ten, but there are also questions. After winning seven games last season, fourth-year coach Randy Edsall is still trying to get some traction while he continues to get players out of traction. The team’s top three receivers all return from injuries, and several defensive stalwarts are coming back from offseason surgery. If everyone’s healthy, Edsall has a team that could be explosive on offense (pending the play of the team’s biggest question mark, a makeshift offensive line). And the defense, with nine starters back, should be solid.

But how will a middlin’ (7–6 overall, 3–5 in conference) ACC team fare in the Big Ten? It’s one of this season’s most intriguing questions and one that Edsall’s most veteran Terrapin team — 87 percent of last year’s late-season two-deep returns — is anxious to answer.

“We’ll be ready,” C.J. Brown says.

Read the full 2014 Maryland Terrapins Team Preview

49. Utah State
Expectations just keep growing for the Aggies. In their first year in the Mountain West, they made it to the inaugural league championship game after capturing the Mountain Division. The largest crowd to attend a spring game turned out in April, and the second-year coach received a contract extension through 2018. USU has been to three straight bowls — something never before accomplished at the school — winning the last two.

Matt Wells lost two assistants on the defensive side, but the transition with the new coaches went smoothly in the spring. There are some challenges with the schedule: The Aggies travel to Tennessee, Arkansas State and BYU in non-conference action and end the season with a trip to Boise State. Another bowl berth and 10 wins are reasonable goals in 2014.

Read the full 2014 Utah State Aggies Team Preview

50. East Carolina
Coach Ruffin McNeill has a good thing going at his alma mater, where the Pirates have had the wind at their backs since he arrived, sailing to three bowl appearances in four years. They capped a meaty 10-win season with a 37–20 victory over Ohio in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, and now they’re off to the American Athletic Conference — home to many of the Pirates’ old C-USA rivals.

East Carolina already got a big offseason win, hanging on to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who was pursued for the same job at some bigger programs. With the swashbuckling Shane Carden at quarterback and the NFL-ready Hardy on the other end of his passes, the Pirates are primed for another big season. That is, if the defense rebounds from heavy losses and a rebuilding offensive line can come together to give Carden time.

Read the full 2014 East Carolina Pirates Team Preview

51. Northwestern
The good vibes accompanying Northwestern for much of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure vanished after the program’s first bowl-less season since 2007, but Northwestern returns a roster strong enough to return to the postseason and play spoiler in a wide-open Big Ten West. The offense finally has a quarterback and an identity, but questions remain up front. The defense is still reliant on takeaways but boasts good depth throughout the unit.

Northwestern plays Notre Dame, Northern Illinois and Cal in non-league play but misses both Ohio State and Michigan State in the Big Ten. The Wildcats should return to the postseason in 2014.

Read the full 2014 Northwestern Wildcats Team Preview

52. Minnesota
Coming off its best season since 2003, Minnesota has the talent to improve again this year, if the Gophers can survive a more difficult schedule. Coach Jerry Kill’s teams have gone 3–9, 6–7 and 8–5 in his first three seasons. He sees parallels to the way his programs progressed at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. “We built it on defense, and now you’ve got to bring the offense (along),” he says. “That’s what we’ve done everywhere we’ve been.”

Kill, who turns 53 in August, faced more questions about his health last season after an in-game seizure against Western Illinois and another that kept him from traveling to Michigan.

He was the lowest-paid coach in the Big Ten last year, at $1.1 million, but the university more than doubled his salary with a new deal that will pay him an average of $2.3 million through 2018.

“I think it shows our commitment to football,” Gophers AD Norwood Teague says. “It shows our commitment to Jerry, and it’s the right thing to do at this time.”

Now, Kill will seek to justify his big payday, as the Gophers move into the Big Ten West. They have a non-conference matchup against TCU and two tough draws from the Big Ten East — Michigan and Ohio State.

Read the full 2014 Minnesota Golden Gophers Team Preview

53. Oregon State
The Beavers return one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Sean Mannion, but he will be operating without receiver Brandin Cooks and must adapt to new offensive coordinator John Garrett, who spent the last seven seasons in the NFL. The defense, with seven returning starters, should be better under veteran coordinator Mark Banker.

The Beavers should get off to a good start with non-conference home games against Portland State and San Diego State along with a trip to Hawaii before opening Pac-12 play with back-to-back road games at USC and Colorado. This looks like another bowl team, but Oregon State doesn’t figure to pose too much of a threat to the top teams in the tough Pac-12 North.

Read the full 2014 Oregon State Beavers Team Preview

54. Utah
Kyle Whittingham believes the Utes are improving their talent level and depth in their fourth season of Pac-12 membership. They were competitive in every conference game in 2013, including an upset of eventual champion Stanford, but the Utes need to double last season’s total of two conference wins for 2014 to be judged as any kind of success.

Read the full 2014 Utah Utes Team Preview

55. UCF
UCF will have a tough task replicating its 2013 success without quarterback Blake Bortles, but they have the talent in place to put together another strong season. The Knights will rely on a stingy defense to keep them in every game and a pro-style offense that takes few risks but has playmakers at running back and wide receiver. If UCF finds an answer at quarterback, it should once again be a strong contender in the American.

Read the full 2014 UCF Knights Team Preview

56. Washington State
Mike Leach has engineered a quick turnaround in Pullman, guiding the Cougars back to a bowl game in his second season. He has eliminated the losing culture and given the program an identity. Leach’s third season figures to be similar to his second. The Cougs, with a senior quarterback and solid corps of receivers, will score a ton of points, but the defense remains an issue. Washington State can be a consistent bowl team as it’s currently constructed but will need to improve on defense to emerge as a contender in the tough Pac-12 North.

Read the full 2014 Washington State Cougars Team Preview

57. Navy
Navy has been one of the most consistent programs in the FBS with a winning record in 10 of the last 11 years. The Midshipmen also have been the dominant service academy during that time, capturing the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy nine times since 2003. In its final season as an Independent before joining the American Athletic Conference in 2015, Navy should sustain its success on both fronts. The Midshipmen have a contract to appear in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl and should have no problem securing the six wins necessary to be eligible.

Read the full 2014 Navy Midshipmen Team Preview

58. Indiana
The Indiana football story needs to break the endless loop of great offense, awful defense. A shift should begin this season. The defense looked faster, stronger and more determined during the spring game. The offense has more questions than usual after losing three of its top four receivers. But Indiana has two quarterbacks who have played winning football, one of the Big Ten’s best runners in Tevin Coleman and IU’s best offensive line in a decade. A shift from eight home games to six will hurt. And the non-conference schedule, which includes trips to MAC-favorite Bowling Green and Missouri, is far from easy. Finding six wins will be a challenge.

Read the full 2014 Indiana Hoosiers Team Preview

59. Bowling Green
Immediately after winning its first conference championship in 21 years, Bowling Green lost coach Dave Clawson to Wake Forest. The Falcons recovered quickly, landing Dino Babers after he led Eastern Illinois to a No. 4 final ranking in the FCS — and did so with the division’s No. 1 total offense (589.5 ypg) and scoring offense (48.2 ppg). Babers and his staff — most of which followed him from EIU — changed some things that weren’t necessarily broken, and Bowling Green will be a different animal this fall as Babers unleashes his dizzying pace on offense. The defense has more holes to fill, but there is enough returning talent to make the Falcons the heavy favorite in the MAC East.

Read the full 2014 Bowling Green Falcons Team Preview

60. UL Lafayette
With a healthy Terrance Broadway at the helm, UL Lafayette won eight straight games and earned a share of the Sun Belt title for the first time since 2005. With him out of the lineup, the Cajuns lost two in a row before Broadway returned — not at a 100 percent — to lead them to a win in the bowl game. His value can’t be overstated as the triggerman of what could be the Sun Belt’s most potent offense.
There are some issues on defense, especially against the pass, but this is still the most talented team in the Sun Belt. As long as Broadway remains healthy, the Cajuns are the overwhelming favorite to win the league.

Read the full 2014 UL Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns Team Preview

Teaser:
College Football 2014 Rankings and Predictions: #41-60
Post date: Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/12-college-basketball-teams-decline-2014-15
Body:

The days and weeks following the end of college basketball season can be an unfriendly time for coaches.

There are draft early entries, regular transfers, graduate transfers, and, of course, the possibility that some coaches will be asked to look for employment elsewhere.

Turnover can happen at a rapid pace, leaving rosters — and benches — full of fresh faces. Those are usually the teams with the most to lose from year to year, and next season will be no exception. Earlier this week, we brought you a dozen teams that could be on the rise in 2014-15. This is the other side of that list.

College Basketball Teams in Decline in 2014-15

Arizona State
The Sun Devils got to the NCAA Tournament, likely saving Herb Sendek’s job, but the final weeks of the season were forgettable. Arizona State lost its last four games and six of its final eight. With Jahii Carson going to the draft after his sophomore season and three seniors gone, Arizona State returns only one player who averaged more than five points per game. The Sendek hot seat watch begins anew.

Baylor
Give Baylor credit for regrouping after a 2-8 start in Big 12 play. The Bears won 12 of their final 15 before losing to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. A few key cogs — big man Isaiah Austin and veterans Cory Jefferson and Brady Heslip — are gone. Baylor still has a point guard, Kenny Chery, to run the show. The rest of Chery’s signing class, sophomores Allerik Freeman, Johnathan Motley and Ish Wainwright, will be under pressure to perform.

Cincinnati
No more Sean Kilpatrick is bad enough, but Mick Cronin is starting over without his top three scorers — Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles. Cincinnati’s top returning scorer, forward Shaquille Thomas, averaged 6.8 points last season.

Creighton
The Bluejays are down to one McDermott for the first time in four seasons. Consensus national player of the year Doug McDermott isn’t the only loss, though. The departures of Ethan Wragge, Grant Gibbs and Jahenns Manigat means Creighton won’t come close to last season’s offensive numbers, even with a senior-laden team.

Memphis
A guard-oriented team loses four guards, Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Michael Dixon Jr. and Chris Crawford. There’s still talent here. Now it’s in the frontcourt, though, with Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols. Memphis will be a top team in the American Athletic Conference, but the Tigers need to find a point guard to contend for bigger prizes.

Michigan
John Beilein will piece something together — he always does. Still, the Wolverines lose Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary to the draft and Jon Horford as a transfer to Florida. Michigan still has a point guard in Derrick Walton and a budding star in Caris LeVert, not to mention the possibility of adding West Virginia transfer Eron Harris. After reaching the title game and the Elite Eight in the last two seasons, Michigan may be due for a down year.

Missouri
Frank Haith picked a good year to get out of Columbia. This year’s team is going to struggle, no matter the coach. Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown left early for the NBA Draft, leaving new coach Kim Anderson with a young roster.

New Mexico
The Lobos have won the Mountain West tournament in each of the last three seasons and at least a share of two of the last three regular season titles. Second-year coach Craig Neal will be starting over after seniors Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams have departed and junior Alex Kirk went to the NBA Draft. The Lobos may have trouble reaching the Tournament unless one or two underclassmen can take the leap Bairstow did a year ago.

Oklahoma State
Maybe Oklahoma State needs a fresh start after all the dramatics of last season. Still, any team without Marcus Smart and Markel Brown will have to rebuild. Le’Bryan Nash is the member of the Cowboys’ big three remaining for 2014-15.  It’s tough to see Oklahoma State improving from last season in the short term, and meanwhile, Travis Ford’s contract, could be a hinderance in the long term.

Oregon
The departures are one thing with Mike Moser and Jason Calliste gone, but they’re of secondary concern in Eugene. Dana Altman is embroiled in a scandal related to a sexual assault investigation involving three of his players. All three, Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis and Brandon Austin, were dismissed in early May. Leading scorer James Young will be surrounded by newcomers.

Syracuse
The 25-0 start to 2013-14 is a distant memory as the Orange finished 3-6, including a round of 32 exit in the NCAA Tournament, a one-and-done in the ACC tournament and home losses to Boston College and Georgia Tech. Syracuse won’t be as good as it was at the start of last season and may not be as bad as it was late. Still, the middle ground between the two would qualify as a down year for the Orange. Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant and Baye Moussa-Keita are gone, and Jim Boeheim will open his third consecutive season with a freshman point guard.

Tennessee
The Volunteers probably won’t be a Sweet 16 team or a top-10 KenPom.com team again. Tennessee may have trouble getting to the NCAA Tournament or NIT in Donnie Tyndall’s first season. While the former Southern Miss coach is a solid hire, he’ll be starting essentially from scratch. He lost all but one starter and all of Cuonzo Martin’s signees. Tyndall filled the gaps with eight newcomers, a haul that includes graduate transfers from Florida Gulf Coast and IUPUI, two junior college transfers and two prep school recruits.
 

Teaser:
12 College Basketball Teams on the Decline in 2014-15
Post date: Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-football/athlon-sports-cover-2-podcast-playoff-picks-and-predictions
Body:

The final four teams in the Athlon Sports top 25 countdown were released this week, meaning we've seeded our projections for the first College Football playoff: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

This week, Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan talk about how we arrived at those matchups, how those games might be settled and other contenders for the the first Playoff.

Our hosts also discuss what changes they'd like to see before the Playoff has even begun and some predictions of what we'll see next.

As always, you can reach us on Twitter at @AthlonSports or by email at podcast@athlonsports.com.

Teaser:
Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast: Playoff Picks and Predictions
Post date: Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - 13:49
All taxonomy terms: Overtime
Path: /overtime/50-cent-throws-comedic-first-pitch-bad-puns-ensue
Body:

Rapper Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson threw one of the all-time bad first pitches in MLB history last night against the Pirates, joining a lowlight reel that includes Carly Rae Jepsen, John Wall, Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory and Carl Lewis.

Unfortunately, writers and bloggers proved they weren't much better at making hip hop-related puns.

First, video of the failed first pitch and the puns that followed:
 



"There's no way 50 Cent gave it his 100%."
-USA Today

"Pitchin' ain't easy."
-New York Daily News

"50 Cent was on the mound, but not on the money."
-Associated Press

"You can find him in the clubhouse ... humiliated on a national level -- because Tuesday night 50 Cent may have thrown out the worst first pitch in MLB history."
-TMZ Sports

"He can throw beats but he can’t throw balls."
-The Sydney Morning Herald

"50 Cent certainly didn’t party like it was his birthday Tuesday night at the Mets-Pirates game."
-Fox 59 Indianapolis

"You can find 50 Cent in da club, but you can find his first pitch at Tuesday night's Mets game way outside the club somewhere."
-The Today Show

"50 Cent may be a P-I-M-P, but a major league pitcher, he is not."
-US Weekly

"If there's one thing we learned Tuesday, it's the 50 Cent should stay "In Da Club" and off the diamond."
-Newark (N.J.). Star-Ledger

"Rapper 50 Cent may have sold tons of records and been shot nine times, but his street cred veered off course Tuesday night in New York."
-Washington Times

"One of 50 Cent's "21 Questions" should have been, 'How do you throw a baseball?'"
-The Week

Teaser:
50 Cent Throws Comedic First Pitch, Bad Puns Ensue
Post date: Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - 12:59

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