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Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty suffered two cracked transverse processes in his back against SMU and is listed as day-to-day.
Petty played against SMU but was clearly limited after suffering the injury in the first half. The senior finished the opener by completing 13 of 23 passes for 161 yards and two touchdown passes. Petty also rushed for 21 yards and one score on two attempts.
While the injury sounds bad, Petty could play in Saturday’s game against Northwestern State on Sept. 6.
However, with winnable games against Northwestern State and Buffalo before Big 12 play begins versus Iowa State on Sept. 27, Petty’s game snaps could be limited over the next few weeks.
Numbers and statistics are a huge part of college football. Every Sunday, reading updated box scores and stats is like Christmas for fans and media members. Some stats like total offense and total defense are overrated but each help paint a picture for a team or particular game.
Whether the stats are historic, advanced or just an observation from a box score, Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from around the weekend of college football action:
10 Amazing College Football Stats from Week 1
77.8: BYU QB Taysom Hill’s Completion Percentage vs. UConn
Without running back Jamaal Williams and the services of receiver Devon Blackmon, BYU’s offense needed a big effort from quarterback Taysom Hill. And the junior delivered by tying a career-best 77.8 in completion percentage, threw for 308 yards and three scores on 28 completions. Hill also added 97 yards on 12 carries. The junior’s numbers and film suggest he has made significant progress as a passer since the end of 2013. And with a manageable schedule, Hill’s development could equal a special season in Provo.
10-9: Record by New Coaches in 2014
Week 1 was a mixed bag of success for the new coaches. One coach (Todd Monken, Army) did not play, while 10 won their debuts at their new school. Penn State’s James Franklin picked up a big win in Ireland, and Washington’s Chris Petersen survived a trip to Hawaii to start his tenure 1-0. Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason and Bowling Green’s Dino Babers had disappointing debuts, but there’s plenty of time for both coaches to rebound. An under-the-radar debut: UAB’s Bill Clark. The Blazers thrashed in-state rival Troy 48-10.
422: Yards by Virginia Tech Newcomers Against William & Mary
The competition was weak, and we hate to put too much stock in total offense numbers, but it’s noteworthy how much of Virginia Tech’s offensive yardage came from newcomers. Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer threw for 251 yards, while freshmen running backs Shai McKenzie (106 yards) and Marshawn Williams (41) impressed. Freshman receiver Isaiah Ford finished second on the team with 43 receiving yards. The Hokies have plenty of young talent on the roster, and several new faces are stepping into key roles this year.
1: Texas A&M Drive that Went Less than 20 Yards
We are tossing out the one-play drive at the end of the first half for this stat, but Texas A&M’s offense clearly had South Carolina’s number on Thursday night. With the exception of a three-play drive late in the third quarter, the Aggies went at least 20 yards on every drive against the Gamecocks. The first two drives by Kevin Sumlin’s offense went at least 67 yards. Overall, eight drives went for at least 60 yards.
15: Clemson’s Second-Half Yards Against Georgia
Clemson’s offense started Saturday’s matchup against Georgia by going 70 yards on 12 plays for a touchdown. And the Tigers closed the first half strong, recording at least three drives of at least 60 yards or more. However, the second half was a different story. New Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt completely put the clamps on Clemson, holding Chad Morris’ offense to 15 yards in the final two quarters. The Tigers also did not have a drive of more than four plays in the second half.
32: Players Making Debut for Tennessee in Week 1
Of the 71 players that took a snap for Tennessee in its 38-7 victory over Utah State, 32 were making their debut for the Volunteers. And how’s this for a youth movement: 21 were true freshmen. Second-year coach Butch Jones is in the midst of a roster overhaul, so the significant amount of new faces seeing time isn’t a total surprise. With a tough schedule ahead, it’s a good idea for Jones and the Volunteers to get a few snaps under their belt before SEC play starts.
21.1: Notre Dame QB Everett Golson’s Average Yards Per Completion
After a year suspension, Golson showed no rust in Saturday’s 48-17 rout over Rice. Golson didn’t play a full game but completed 14 of 22 throws for 295 yards and two scores. He also added 41 yards and three scores on the ground. Most importantly, Golson averaged 21.1 yards per completion against the Owls. Even with top receiver DaVaris Daniels’ status still in limbo due to academics, Golson showed there was still plenty of big-play ability in this offense.
2: Teams that Ran At Least 100 Plays in Week 1
Northern Illinois and USC both eclipsed the 100-play mark in Week 1, as the Trojans ran 105 against Fresno State for an average of 6.9 yards per play. The Huskies led the nation with 109 plays against Presbyterian and recorded 5.8 yards per play. 11 teams ran at least 90 plays in Week 1, with 10 recording victories. The only team that ran more than 90 plays and lost was Hawaii (97).
2: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon’s Carries in Second Half Against LSU
Until Monday, it was a mystery why Melvin Gordon only received two second-half carries against LSU. According to coach Gary Andersen, Gordon had a hip injury, which explains why one of the nation’s top running backs played sparingly in the second half of a winnable game. The junior recorded a 63-yard run on his first touch of the third quarter and was later stuffed on a first-down run at the end of the third. Gordon ended Saturday night’s game against the Tigers with 140 yards on 16 carries (8.8 ypc).
300: Alabama Allows Back-to-Back 300 Passing Yards for First Time Under Saban
Passing yards and total offense are often misleading, but it’s notable Alabama has allowed 300 passing yards in back-to-back games under coach Nick Saban. West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett threw for 365 on Saturday, which comes on the heels of Trevor Knight throwing for 348 in the Sugar Bowl. The NCAA record book online goes back to 2001, and there’s not another instance of the Crimson Tide allowing 300 yards in back-to-back games. Again, these totals are often misleading, but Alabama appears vulnerable in its secondary once again.
Other Stats of Note:
* Wake Forest recorded only five first downs in its 17-10 loss to ULM. The Demon Deacons also managed only 1.9 yards per play.
* Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas threw for 282 yards in Saturday’s win over Wofford. That’s the most for the Yellow Jackets since throwing for 365 yards against Western Carolina in 2011.
* Arkansas recorded only 51 yards on six drives in the second half. The Razorbacks had four drives of at least 40 yards in the first half, including three that resulted in touchdowns.
* After turning the ball over on downs and punting to open the third quarter, Ole Miss finished its Thursday night win over Boise State by scoring on four consecutive drives. Three of quarterback Bo Wallace’s touchdown passes went for at least 30 yards.
* Four teams – Arizona, Nebraska, Western Kentucky and USC – recorded at least 700 yards in Week 1.
* Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty set a school-record with 569 passing yards against Bowling Green.
* Missouri receiver Darius White caught two passes for 83 yards against South Dakota State. Both passes went for scores (41.5 yards per catch average).
* Two teams – Michigan and Kentucky – averaged at least 10 yards per play in Week 1.
* Rashad Greene caught 11 of quarterback Jameis Winston’s 25 completions against Oklahoma State.
* Texas quarterback David Ash will miss Week 2’s matchup against BYU. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes is slated to replace Ash as the starter, with true freshman Jerrod Heard as the backup. Swoopes is just 5 of 13 for 26 yards in his career with the Longhorns.
* Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw for a school-record 454 yards against UCF on Saturday.
* For the first time in school history, Penn State had two receivers (DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis) eclipse the 150 receiving yard mark. Hamilton recorded 165 yards on 11 receptions, and Lewis accounted for 173 yards on eight catches.
* LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings completed only nine of his 21 passes in the opener against Wisconsin. However, four of his completions accounted for 187 of his 239 yards, including two touchdowns (80 yards, 36 yards).
* USF ran for 294 yards in its 36-31 victory against Western Carolina. The 294 yards are the most in a game during the Willie Taggart era.
* Kentucky running back Braylon Heard recorded only two carries against Tennessee-Martin, but he made the most of his touches. Heard rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns on two attempts.
* Temple defeated Vanderbilt 37-7, but the Owls greatly benefited from seven turnovers. Temple’s offense had only two drives of 50 or more yards. In contrast, the Commodores had only one drive that went more than 40 yards. Vanderbilt’s first three drives accounted for just one yard.
* All four of Baylor’s touchdown drives in the first half went four plays or less. Only two of the Bears’ drives in the first half went longer than 50 yards.
* Georgia recorded 201 of its 459 yards in the fourth quarter against Clemson.
* Rutgers averaged 7.1 yards per play against Washington State. That’s the first time the Scarlet Knights hit the seven-yard per play mark since last year’s opener against Fresno State.
* Arizona had three receivers (at least two receptions) average at least 25 yards per catch against UNLV. Austin Hill led the way with a 36.7 yards per catch average, while Samajie Grant caught four passes for 101 yards (25.3 ypc).
* Three teams finished Week 1 with negative rushing totals. Wake Forest recorded a -3 mark against ULM, SMU finished -24 in rushing offense against Baylor, while Houston was -26 against UTSA.
* Tulsa receiver Keevan Lucas caught 13 passes for 233 yards against Tulane. Lucas’ 233 yards are more than half of his 2013 total (442).
The bar had been set impossibly high for Todd Gurley for his junior season at Georgia.
Maybe not high enough.
Gurley earned Athlon Sports National Player of the Week honors in a 45-21 win over Clemson in perhaps the finest game of his career.
Thanks to a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Gurley not only broke Clemson, as noted by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, he shattered a personal record for all-purpose yards.
Gurley rushed for 198 yards and lost five yards on one catch to give him 293 for the game. His previous career high was 227 yards against Buffalo in his debut.
|Todd Gurley's Top All-Purpose Yards Games|
|Season||Opponent||AP Yards||Rush||Rec.||KO Ret.||Yds per play|
Here’s what else is scary:
• He could have been more of a factor in the passing game. Gurley had 53 career receptions in his first two seasons. In the last six games of 2013, Gurley topped 70 receiving yards four times, including 90-plus against Kentucky and Nebraska. Perhaps checking down to Gurley is a difference between the seasoned Aaron Murray and three-game starter Hutson Mason.
• Georgia may be the new Alabama or LSU in terms of running back depth. Freshmen Nick Chubb (four carries, 70 yards and one touchdown) and Sony Michel (six carries, 33 yards) probably should cut into Gurley’s carries given his injury history. And Keith Marshall, who rushed for 759 yards in 2012, is still lingering around. How many times will Gurley need to carry 20 times in a game during the season?
• Gurley is apparently returning kickoffs again, something he hasn’t done since the third game of his freshman season.
National Defensive Player of the Week: Eric Kendricks, UCLA
UCLA’s offense was a virtual no-show in an early kickoff at Virginia on Saturday. At least the linebacker corps remains one of the best in the nation.
Eric Kendricks led the way with 16 tackles and a forced fumble. Kendricks' 37-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter helped to break open a 28-20 win against the Cavaliers.
National Freshman of the Week: Anu Solomon, Arizona
During the spring and preseason, Arizona had one of the most compelling quarterback battles in the country. The Wildcats had transfers and little separation.
Until Friday. Redshirt freshman Anu Solomon completed 25-of-44 passes for 425 yards with four touchdowns. Solomon also rushed for 50 yards on eight carries in a 58-13 rout of UNLV.
Solomon led an Arizona offense that shattered a 45-year-old school record for total offense. Arizona’s 787 yards of offense Friday was 98 more than the previous record against New Mexico in 1969,
National Coordinator of the Week: Ralph Friedgen, Rutgers
Perhaps we should recalibrate expectations for Rutgers in its first season in the Big Ten. Friedgen, the former Maryland coach, made that kind of an impact in his first game as offensive coordinator for Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights amassed 281 passing yards, 215 rushing yards and 7.1 yards per play in a 41-38 win over Washington State in Seattle.
Most important, Rutgers lost “only” one turnover. The Scarlet Knights lost two turnovers or more in eight games in 2013.
Conference Players of the Week
ACC: Louisville running back Dominique Brown rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries in a 31-13 win over Miami on Monday.
Big Ten: Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg completed 32-of-47 passes for 454 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in 26-24 win over UCF in Dublin.
Big 12: Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman had two sacks, a forced fumble and a tackle for a loss in a 45-0 win over SMU on Sunday.
Pac-12: USC quarterback Cody Kessler completed 25-of-37 passes for 394 yards with four touchdowns in a 52-13 win over Fresno State. He also rushed for a touchdown and 28 yards on eight carries.
American: Tulsa wide receiver Keevan Lucas caught 13 passes for a Week 1-high 233 yards with three touchdowns in a 38-31 win over Tulane in double overtime.
Conference USA: Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty completed 46-of-56 passes for 569 yards with six touchdowns in a 59-31 win over MAC favorite Bowling Green on Friday.
MAC: Ohio quarterback Derrius Vick completed 18-of-24 passes for 262 yards with two touchdowns in a 17-14 win over Kent State.
Mountain West: Colorado State running back Dee Hart rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries in a 31-17 win over Colorado on Friday.
Sun Belt: ULM safety Mitch Lane had six tackles and an interception returned 31 yards for a touchdown in a 17-10 win over Wake Forest.
Independents: Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson completed 14-of-22 passes for 295 yards with two touchdowns in his return to the lineup. He also rushed for 41 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries in a 48-17 win over Rice.
Starting Jan. 7, the task has been to try to figure out how the 2014 season is going to transpire.
It’s only natural after five days of actual, real-live data — sorry, games — to overreact.
After the first week, Alabama’s pass defense looks shaky, Ohio State’s run defense is suspect and Florida State’s run game is unspectacular. All of these and more are legit concerns, but we’re here to tell you how worried you should be for the remaining 11 (or more) games.
So take a deep breath, and figure out if you’re overreacting, underreacting or reacting appropriately.
1. Reaction: Alabama’s pass defense is a problem
Alabama’s performance against the no-huddle has been trending the wrong way the last two seasons. That continued through three quarters against West Virginia, which was able to move the ball with ease against the Tide. Quarterback Clint Trickett was on target all game, and the Mountaineers were within one score until the final 8:07.
Poor communication on defense was at play to some degree here. Alabama was without linebacker Trey DePriest, its quarterback on defense, against the no-huddle. Even then, Alabama allowed only 6-of-10 passing for 57 yards in the final quarter compared to 23-of-35 for 308 in the first three. Alabama has until at least Oct. 4 at Ole Miss to figure out how to sustain the no-huddle defense for four quarters.
2. Reaction: Ohio State can’t stop the run
Navy rushed for 370 yards and 5.9 yards per carry against Ohio State in a 34-17 loss that wasn’t sealed until the fourth quarter.
The option is Navy’s great equalizer, especially when the Midshipmen have an above-average quarterback (Keenan Reynolds) and an experienced line. Perhaps the greatest concern is that Ohio State had, in theory, the entire preseason to prepare for a Week 1 option opponent. Still, even 2011 Alabama gave up 302 rushing yards to an option team (Georgia Southern). That team turned out OK.
3. Reaction: Todd Gurley is the Heisman frontrunner
After rushing for 198 yards and three touchdowns and returning a kickoff 100 yards for a TD against Clemson, Gurley is topping a handful of Heisman watches after Week 1.
Verdict: Reacting appropriately
This has a caveat: This is only an appropriate reaction as far as Week 1 Heisman watches are appropriate. Gurley only had the game of his career with marks for all-purpose yards (298, a school record), rushing (beating his previous high by 44 yards) and yards per carry (13.2). He also tied his career high with four touchdowns.
4. Reaction: South Carolina should panic
South Carolina lost in spectacular fashion, falling 52-28 at home to Texas A&M. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill completed 44-of-60 passes for 511 yards with three touchdowns against the Gamecocks.
Verdict: Reacting appropriately
Even during its rise to SEC contender, South Carolina has been known to lose to opponents it shouldn’t (Tennessee last year, Auburn in 2011, Kentucky in 2010). This, though, was something different from playing down to an opponent as Hill put up the fifth-best passing day in SEC history. Running back Mike Davis continues to be hobbled — he’s doubtful for East Carolina. The Pirates have a standout passing game, so all eyes will be on South Carolina’s D this week. That’s not even taking into account a Sept. 13 date with Georgia.
5. Reaction: Florida State can’t run and Jameis Winston is human
Other than Rashad Greene, Florida State’s offense looked nothing the squad that rolled over opponents to the national title last season. Jameis Winston and the third multi-interception game of his career, and the Seminoles averaged only 3.4 yards per carry.
Verdict: Overreacting ... for now
Until he averaged 2.9 yards Saturday, Karlos Williams was a yards per carry machine. And Jameis Winston is Jameis Winston. Oklahoma State is young on defense, but coordinator Glenn Spencer is a name to watch. His group finished second in the Big 12 in yards per play and was outstanding in the red zone a year ago. Florida State may not play many defenses that good this season, especially if Clemson continues to struggle.
6. Reaction: Texas’ season is in jeopardy
Texas defeated North Texas 38-7 in Charlie Strong’s debut but lost two key players on offense in the process. Center Dominic Espinosa is out for the season with a broken ankle, and quarterback David Ash will be held out against BYU after exhibiting concussion symptoms.
Verdict: Reacting appropriately
Espinosa was the key piece of the offensive line, and Texas has limited quarterback depth behind Ash. The latter has had concussion issues in the past, so his career could be in jeopardy. Given that Oklahoma State and West Virginia look more formidable than expected, Texas could slide into the bottom half of the Big 12. Texas will hand the job to Tyrone Swoopes, but the Longhorns have to wonder what would have happened if Max Wittek was able to complete his transfer to Austin.
7. Reaction: Leonard Fournette was a non-factor
The debut for the superstar freshman was forgettable as he rushed 18 yards on eight carries while Kenny Hilliard took over in the second half at tailback. Fournette was still the primary kick returner at 23.4 yards on five returns.
In a come-from-behind game against a name team from the Big Ten, Les Miles went with experience in Hilliard. That’s one of the luxuries of coaching running backs at LSU. Nothing in Fournette’s background suggests he won’t be a success in his first season. Miles spent the offseason talking up his character and drive. Fournette will get his opportunity; LSU just doesn’t need it to happen right away.
8. Reaction: UCLA’s offense was no-show
UCLA needed three defensive touchdowns to salvage a lackluster effort by the offense in a 28-20 win over Virginia. The Bruins managed only 358 yards and 4.9 yards per play against the Cavs.
Let’s give Brett Hundley a chance to play later than noon Pacific time before indicting the UCLA offense. Strange things have happened in these early kicks at Virginia (BYU lost year in 2013, albeit in a torrential downpour).
9. Reaction: Iowa had trouble with Northern Iowa
Like a few Big Ten teams, Iowa needed all four quarters to put away an FCS opponent — the Hawkeyes at least can say they fared better than their in-state rivals Iowa State. Iowa pulled away with a 31-23 win thanks to a touchdown pass in the final seven minutes.
Here’s the overriding concern: Iowa, finally with a healthy backfield, couldn’t find ways to run the ball consistently. Wide receiver Tevaun Smith led the Hawkeyes in rushing thanks to a 45-yard reverse. Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri combined for 17 carries and 56 yards.
10. Reaction: Washington just barely escaped Hawaii
With projected starter Cyler Miles suspended, Washington beat Hawaii 17-16, amassing merely 336 yards in the process.
Maybe it was the late kickoff on a Saturday that started at 8 a.m. Eastern in Dublin, but Washington’s putrid offensive performance seemed to fly under the radar. Miles had better be the answer because there were none in Honolulu. Washington punted on eight consecutive possessions, including five three-and-outs, against one of the worst teams in the FBS. Outside of a 91-yard-touchdown, backup quarterback Jeff Lindquist didn’t complete a pass of longer than 20 yards.
Just when you think you've got it all figured out… the season starts.
Texas A&M, Rutgers and Temple got things started on Thursday evening in shocking fashion by pulling off huge upsets.
The madness continued on Saturday with a thriller in Dublin between Penn State and UCF before the top two teams in the nation struggled mightily with West Virginia (Alabama) and Oklahoma State (Florida State). Needless to say, it was an outstanding first weekend of action. What could Week 2 do for an encore presentation?
The Week Ahead: Sept. 4-Sept. 6
Michigan State at Oregon
When and where: 6:30 p.m., FOX
We’re watching because... we don't really know anything about either team after lopsided victories in Week 1. Sparty crushed poor Jacksonville State 45-7, while the Ducks routed lowly South Dakota 62-13. This is the ultimate contrast in schemes with Marcus Mariota leading one of the nation's most powerful spread attacks and Pat Narduzzi directing one the gnarliest defensive units in the land. Who wins at college football: Powerful up-tempo offense or physical, hard-hitting defense? And there is that small matter that the loser might be knocked out of the College Football Playoff two weeks into the season. This could be the biggest non-conference game of the entire 2014 season.
Vegas says: Oregon by 11
USC at Stanford
When and where: 3:30 p.m., ABC
We’re watching because... these two rivals always put on a show out West. Stanford got its Pac-12 title defense underway in workmanlike and boring fashion by defeating lowly UC Davis with ease to open the year. USC, a team with just 62 scholarship players, handled Fresno State with equally impressive ease behind elite play from Cody Kessler in Steve Sarkisian's debut. In Week 2, they get conference play started in style with an old-school California bout in Palo Alto. Look for quarterbacks Kevin Hogan (204 yds, 4 total TD) and Kessler (394 yds, 4 TD) to build on excellent Week 1 performances. Stanford is looking for revenge after a late-season upset at the hands of the Trojans in Los Angeles a year ago and the loser will fall a game behind higher ranked division contenders.
Vegas says: Stanford by 4
Virginia Tech at Ohio State
When and where: 8 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... we can't wait to see Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett thrust back into the fire against an always excellent Virginia Tech defense. Barrett had a slow start against Navy but finished with a solid line (12-15, 222 yards, 2 TD, INT) in a harder-than-the-score-looked win over the Midshipmen. Facing Bud Foster's Hokies is a bird of a totally different feather all together. If the Buckeyes offense can be modestly effective against Virginia Tech, then Ohio State should be able to get the win. Despite 488 yards in the opener, the Tech offense doesn't figure to have much room to work with in Columbus against one of the nation's best defensive lines.
Vegas says: Ohio State by 12
Michigan at Notre Dame
When and where: 7:30 p.m., NBC
We’re watching because... we may not see this game for a while. Doug Nussmeier's debut for Michigan couldn't have gone any better. Both Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess agree as the duo connected seven times for 95 yards and three first-half touchdowns. Gardner looked more comfortable under center than he did at any time last season. Some of that, of course, has to do with one of the best rushing outputs of Brady Hoke's tenure. Michigan ran for 350 yards at almost 10 yards per carry (9.7) in the easy revenge win over Appalachian State. Notre Dame, meanwhile, welcomed back Everett Golson with five total touchdowns in a resounding victory over Rice in the Irish's opener. Look for quarterback play to be the deciding factor when these two rivals meet for the last time (for now).
Vegas says: Notre Dame by 6
BYU at Texas
When and where: 7:30 p.m., ESPN
We’re watching because... of what happened last year between these two. Taysom Hill got his 2014 season started in style with over 400 yards of offense (308 pass, 97 rush) and five total touchdowns in a blowout win on the road over UConn. Meanwhile, Charlie Strong debuted in impressive fashion for the Longhorns with an easy win over North Texas — Texas held the Mean Green to just 94 yards of total offense. This was a record-setting meeting for both programs last year when BYU rolled up 550 yards and 40 points in a win over the Horns in Provo. With a new sheriff in town, however, how different will things be for Texas' defense down on The 40 Acres? Charlie Strong, though, may be in trouble due to his offense down a starting quarterback (David Ash, concussion) and center (Dominic Espinosa, ankle) perhaps for the remainder of the season.
Vegas says: Texas by 4.5
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick had the field covered on-track at the 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night; Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth had it covered on pit road. But at the end of a grueling 335-lap affair, it was Hendrick Motorsports’ Kasey Kahne that walked away with the hardware — and a coveted spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Kahne capitalized on a frantic final 12 laps in the Oral-B USA 500 to notch his first win of the 2014 season, and in the process assured that each of Hendrick Motorsports’ four teams would be represented in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff that begins in two weeks.
“I told a couple friends this week, ‘I have to win. I have to win Sunday night,’” said Kahne, who now owns 17 career Cup wins — 10 of which have come on NASCAR’s 1.5- and 2-mile intermediate tracks. “It was all that I could think about. I knew Atlanta was a better opportunity for myself to win at than Richmond.
“I just knew that tonight we needed it. When I came off Turn 4 and I could see the checkered, right there is the first time I knew I was in the Chase and it's such a relief. I have the best teammates and (team owner Rick Hendrick) gives us everything that we need.”
As with most of the intermediate tracks, being up front and in clean air was the order of the day. Harvick paced the field for 195 laps but was continuously beaten off pit road by JGR rivals Hamlin and Kenseth.
“We lost control every time we came to pit road tonight,” Harvick said. “I thought we had that (problem) better, but we got just absolutely murdered on pit road every time we came down by the 11 (Hamlin) and the 20 (Kenseth).”
Throughout the evening, Harvick was able to drive around his opponents within five laps of a restart, but the spots lost on pit road finally took their toll after a round of yellow-flag stops with 27 laps remaining. It was on the ensuing restart that Kahne took the lead, kept Harvick in his rearview mirror and appeared headed to victory lane. However, a caution with a pair of laps remaining sent the race into the first of two green-white-checker finishes.
In the first, Harvick lined up fourth and found his No. 4 Chevrolet playing bumper cars with Paul Menard and Joey Logano, then into the wall, before the field hit Turn 1. His shot at win No. 3 on the season had taken its conclusive blow.
On the second green-white-checker restart, Kahne, on four fresh tires, once again pounced from his inside-lane, third-place position, blowing by Hamlin and finally disposing of Kenseth at the white flag. He methodically clicked off the final lap, winning by .574 seconds.
Kenseth, Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
“Man, they just go,” Kenseth said of Kahne’s HMS engine. “I just don’t know how to defend that. We did everything we could — it was a great call by Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief), great pit stops that put us in position to win — I just couldn’t hold on.”
Despite not having won a race this season — after a sterling eight-win campaign in 2013 — Kenseth sits third in the Cup standings and locked his team in the playoffs by virtue of points with the Atlanta performance. In NASCAR’s reformatted Chase, the top 16 drivers with wins are slotted into the playoffs. In the absence of 16 winners, the highest ranked teams in the standings complete the card. Kahne was the 13th driver to score a win through 25 of 26 regular-season races.
Ryan Newman, ninth in the standings with a 42-point cushion, will likely claim the 15th spot, leaving a one-race showdown for the final position. Greg Biffle (plus-23 points), Clint Bowyer (-23) and rookie Kyle Larson (-24) are set to stage a three-car battle at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday for the final Chase berth. Paul Menard (-53) and Austin Dillon (-54) most assuredly would have to win the regular-season finale to leapfrog their competitors and sneak into the playoffs.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
NC State got its 2014 season off to a good start with a victory over Georgia Southern. The Wolfpack had to rally to beat the Eagles but getting into the win column was critical for second-year coach Dave Doeren.
NC State is favored to win its second game of the year against Old Dominion, and the Wolfpack plan to play Week 2 with an alternate uniform.
Check out the “Pack in Black” uniforms that NC State will wear against the Monarchs this Saturday:
It’s Week 1 of the college football season, so it’s no surprise each team has a few kinks to work out. Of course, that also extends into the gameday operations workers, as well as cheerleaders, mascots or anyone else around a college football program.
New Mexico State’s mascot Pistol Pete and his horse (Keystone) had an unfortunate incident prior to Thursday’s kickoff versus Cal Poly.
While on Keystone, Pete clipped a New Mexico State student in the endzone, knocking her to the ground.
Luckily, the student (Zaina Atyani) wasn’t injured.
Credit LSU for following the script.
The Tigers fell behind in the first half, rolled the dice successfully on a trick play and then let its plug-and-play run game and secondary take over.
Even down by 17 to Wisconsin, LSU was able to follow the Les Miles template for another non-conference win. By coming back to defeat Wisconsin 28-24, LSU improved two improbable marks: The Tigers are 23-22 when trailing at halftime under Les Miles and 45-0 in regular-season non-conference dating back to 2002.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin found another way to come up short in a major non-conference matchup.
Read and React: LSU 28, Wisconsin 24
Les Miles finds a way
Lucky Les strikes again. It’s one thing to run a fake punt to spark 21 unanswered points to win. It’s another to have the incorrect personnel grouping — as Miles told ESPN’s Todd McShay in a postgame interview — and running the fake anyway. The quick snap to linebacker to Kendell Beckwith. He converted the first down with a three-yard gain on fourth-and-2 from the LSU 45. Tough to find a more signature Les Miles moment than that.
Gary Andersen will have to answer for his backfield
Where Miles thrived by taking risks, the Wisconsin coach will have a long week thanks puzzling personnel groups in his backfield. Tanner McEvoy, named the starting quarterback at the end of camp, went 8-of-24 for 50 yards and two interceptions. Last year’s starter Joel Stave never even warmed up. Given the state of Wisconsin’s receiver group, maybe the quarterback wouldn’t have made a difference. Part of that is because of Melvin Gordon’s no-show. Gordon, who rushed for 138 yards on 17 carries, was held out of a series in the final 10 minutes. The idea that Gordon was hurt was dashed when he was in the game to pass protect on third down.
Depth is the difference
Want to know why LSU continues to be a national player while Wisconsin struggles to get over the hump outside of the Big Ten? The difference in depth couldn’t be more stark. LSU got five catches, 199 yards and two touchdowns from a pair of receivers — Travin Dural and John Diarse — who combined for seven catches and a redshirt last year. The Tigers were able to rotate defensive backs into a secondary that further disrupted the inept Wisconsin passing game. Meanwhile, Kenny Hilliard emerged as the LSU running back of the day. Meanwhile, Wisconsin lost two senior starting defensive linemen in Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski to injury and couldn’t have been more helpless on defense.
Leonard Fournette can wait
No doubt Fournette will have his moment. It just didn’t happen in Game 1 for the freshman. Fournette carried only nine times for 10 yards in his debut while Hilliard rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. He was the only LSU running back with a run longer than seven yards.
ATLANTA — The Lane Kiffin-as-Alabama-offensive-coordinator is one game old, so let’s review it, shall we?
Of course this is way too early for a referendum on the most compelling assistant coaching hire in the SEC, but Week 1 is perfect for overreaction — one way or another.
And, wow, did Kiffin and Alabama coach Nick Saban give us plenty of fodder.
From the cheap seats:
Many offensive coordinators like to work in the press box with the ability to see the whole field.
Kiffin, however, worked from the sideline in his first game with the Tide. Saban wanted his first-year coordinator to be able to talk directly to his first-time starting quarterback rather than talk to him on the phone.
The Alabama head coach can bar his assistants from talking to the media, he can try to control the messaging, but he can’t control the body language of two — let’s say, expressive — coaches on the sideline.
I assume we'll see this often pic.twitter.com/5iLG28OOtr— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) August 30, 2014
From Nick Saban:
Not surprisingly, Saban isn’t thrilled talking about Kiffin in a way he never had to talk about former coordinators Jim McElwain or Doug Nussmeier.
The implication from reporters — at least as Saban sees it — is that Saban hired a dud of an offensive coordinator.
“You know, the guy is a really good coach now, all right,” Saban said. “Y’all need to ‘fess up to that.
“And most places than don’t like him is because he left, and they were mad because he left. They weren’t mad about anything he did while he was there. Just do a little research on that.”
In the interest of research, the Oakland Raiders and USC may disagree on being “mad” about his departure. Saban’s right about Tennessee, though.
From the field:
This is what matters, right? After a quarterback competition that lasted until Friday — that’s when Blake Sims learned he’d start ahead of Florida State transfer Jacob Coker — Alabama put up 538 yards, 6.6 yards per play.
Granted, many coordinators could thrive with running backs like Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon and wide receivers like Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White.
The key moment, though, may have been the second quarter.
Tied at 10, Sims was rattled at the line. Saban said his quarterback called the wrong plays, called incorrect formations in the huddle and took too much time on the play clock. Saban told Coker to warm up.
Instead of making a switch, Saban told Kiffin to switch to a no-huddle look of its own.
“When we did that, he sort of got it back together and then he was fine after that,” Saban said.
True, the decision to go no-huddle may have been Saban’s call, but adding the up-tempo to the arsenal was part of the reason he hired Kiffin in the first place.
Could the no-huddle be a more regular part of Alabama’s plans? If Sims remains the quarterback, that seems possible.
He finished 24-of-33 for 250 yards with an interception and made plays on the move against Alabama in part of the no-huddle.
However, the no-huddle has become so prevalent that Alabama’s base pro-style offense is more of the outlier, even in the SEC.
“We’re one of the few teams in the world that still plays with regular people — a tight end, two backs and two wideouts,” Saban said. “And now we’re like the dinosaur age when it comes to that.”
Kiffin comes from the same background, but he’s incorporated elements of the hurry-up. If Alabama can change tempos on a dime — and as effectively as it did against West Virginia — the Kiffin hire may be a stroke of genius for a program that already has one of the top rosters in the country.
“People really have a tough time defending what we do because nobody does it, and it does allow us to to be more physical and it does allow us to play more players,” Saban said. "But we’ll certainly consider (the no-huddle). We have the capabilities of doing it.”
ATLANTA — Let the overreaction in Tuscaloosa continue.
The final product from Alabama’s opener against West Virginia will look great, especially given the circumstances.
An offense with a first-year starting quarterback and new coordinator rolled up 538 yards and 6.6 yards per play. The running back duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry was as imposing as advertised, especially in the fourth quarter.
The defense played without senior preseason all-conference linebacker Trey DePriest yet allowed one only offensive touchdown. Even the first-time kicker went 4-for-4 on field goals.
But this is Alabama, where a two-game losing streak is cause for soul searching. A 33-23 win over West Virginia in a neutral site opener isn’t a reason to panic, but the path to the double-digit win did leave some questions.
The Crimson Tide spent much of the offseason talking about improving culture. Alabama could have just as easily talked about improving cornerbacks.
Against the up-tempo, against West Virginia’s variety of formations and without DePriest to lead adjustments on the field, Alabama’s defense looked ... ordinary.
“I know that we made a lot of mental errors,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “At times, the coordination between what the secondary was doing and what the linebackers were doing and what they were all supposed to do was not exactly what it should have been.”
The communications issues were pronounced enough that West Virginia could walk away from a 10-point loss to Alabama believing it could have won.
The Mountaineers moved the ball at will in the passing game, and the best defense against West Virginia receivers turned out to be drops, not any great play from the Alabama secondary.
Take one of the major plays of the game: A thundering hit from safety Landon Collins on West Virginia receiver Jordan Thompson in the middle of the field on third down. The hit brought oohs and aahs, but it was unnecessary. By the time Collins made contact, Clint Trickett’s pass had bounced off Thompson’s hands. As a result of the incomplete pass, West Virginia failed to capitalize on an interception in a one-score game — not because of a defensive stand, but because of one of a handful of drops.
For three quarters, West Virginia — a 4-8 team from a year ago that closed the season with losses to Kansas and Iowa State — had a chance to knock off a College Football Playoff contender.
West Virginia twice had first-and-goal at Alabama’s 6 or closer and came up with two field goals. One of the last chances came early in the fourth quarter but a fullback dropped a wide open pass short of the goal line on a bootleg on first down; Trickett and junior college sensation Kevin White failed to connect on a fade to the end zone on second down; and finally a bad snap on third down set up a 41-yard field goal.
West Virginia was able to march down the field at will early in the game. Trickett completed 13-of-22 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
“They came in with a lot of formations and things we hadn’t seen before,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “We had to recognize it, make the adjustment, communicate and see what we have to make changes.”
Perhaps this could be seen as a one-time issue. Indeed, Alabama didn’t have a full deck on defense, and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen is one of the game’s top offensive coaches despite his team's struggles last season.
Yet we can't ignore that Alabama had trouble with another no-huddle offense in the passing game. West Virginia averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt against Alabama, becoming the 11th team since 2012 to top seven yards per attempt against the Tide. By comparison, only 10 teams topped that mark from 2008-11.
The good news for the potentially overreacting faction in Tuscaloosa is that Alabama has time to work it out.
If Ole Miss continues to struggle at did for stretches on Thursday, Alabama may not face a formidable hurry-up spread until Oct. 18 against Texas A&M.
“What you find out in your first game is where you are,” Saban said. “This is where we are.”
Illinois’ 28-17 victory over Youngstown State certainly wasn’t a thing of beauty, but neither was this punt executed by the Penguins.
Youngstown State’s punter rolled to his right to punt, and instead of bombing the ball downfield, the punt hit one of his blockers right in the butt. Yes, that’s right – directly in the backside.
Nebraska receiver Jordan Westerkamp made one of the best plays of Week 1 by making an acrobatic, behind-the-back catch.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s pass was on target to be intercepted, but deflected off the FAU defensive back and into the hands of Westerkamp – behind his back.
Check out Westerkamp’s crazy catch:
Penn State and UCF kicked off the first Saturday of action in the 2014 season with a thriller in Ireland. The Nittany Lions won 26-24 on a last-second field goal, but the game got off to an interesting start.
A skydiver was slated to land inside of the stadium with a UCF flag. Instead, the skydiver completely missed the stadium and landed outside of Croke Park.
Check out the video of the skydiver landing outside of the stadium:
Jet lag will be much easier to bear for James Franklin, Christian Hackenberg and Sam Ficken when Penn State returns from Dublin.
The Nittany Lions won Franklin’s debut in dramatic fashion, getting the first college football Saturday to a thrilling start with a 26-23 win over UCF.
As many openers, the game wasn’t always pretty as UCF staged a second-half comeback with a backup quarterback, but Penn State had two familiar heroes in the final minutes.
Read and React: Penn State 26, UCF 23
Penn State’s season will come down to Hackenberg
Christian Hackenberg attempted 47 passes and threw for 453 yards for Penn State for a two-point win over UCF. Such efforts might need to be common during the season. The Nittany Lions may have know this from the start, but it was clear Saturday that James Franklin’s debut season rests on the shoulder of his sophomore quarterback. That’s not a bad thing. Hackenberg may be the best quarterback in the Big Ten with Braxton Miller out. But the offensive line and run game (two yards per carry) gave Penn State little. Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak are a fine running back duo, but the woefully thin line is going to be a season-long liability.
Sam Ficken gets some well-deserved hero time
Few kickers have been through the ups and downs more than Penn State’s Sam Ficken. The game in Dublin wasn’t his first victory lap, but may have been the most satisfying. He finished 4-for-4 on field goals, including the 36-yard game-winner as time expired. Remember, Ficken’s career got off to an inauspicious start when he missed four field goals and an extra point in a 17-16 loss at Virginia in his second career game in 2012.
Penn State may be on upset alert
Way too much happened in this game to make many definitive statements — the travel, the headset mishap that forced Penn State offensive coordinator to the sidelines, a better-than-advertised UCF. But still, Penn State’s early performance against Akron next week will be worth watching. The Nittany Lions did themselves little favors by scheduling a game against a MAC upstart seven days after playing in Ireland. The Terry Bowden-led Zips won four of their final five games and played one-score games against Michigan, Sun Belt champion UL Lafayette and MAC West champ Northern Illinois.
UCF found the replacement for Blake Bortles (for now)
This has to be maddening for any coach: Spend all spring and offseason trying to find a replacement for a first-round quarterback only to replace him after two quarters in the opener. George O’Leary never declared the competition over when he opted for Pete DiNovo, but the outcome may have been different if Justin Holman played the whole way. The sophomore from Snellville, Ga., completed 9-of-14 passes for 204 yards with three total touchdowns as UCF came back from a touchdown deficit at halftime to a lead with 1:47 to go.
In what we hope will become a regular segment on ESPN’s College GameDay, four coaches read (and responded to) mean Tweets.
Alabama’s Nick Saban assures us he’s quite happy, Florida’s Will Muschamp talks about about a Gator fan he’d like to meet, and Michigan’s Brady Hoke doesn’t necessarily deny his choice in cologne.
The response from Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was a real nice surprise.
Week 1 isn’t full of outstanding matchups, but the Georgia-Clemson meeting on Saturday afternoon could be the best of the opening weekend. These two teams met last year, with the Tigers edging the Bulldogs 38-35. Both programs return a chunk of their core from last season’s squads, but there are new faces stepping into key roles. Clemson is breaking in a new quarterback to replace Tajh Boyd, while Georgia hands the keys to the offense to senior Hutson Mason. There’s plenty of intrigue in this matchup, and this is an early barometer test to see where Clemson and Georgia stack up after Week 1.
Clemson vs. Georgia
Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. New Quarterbacks
Despite new quarterbacks taking over for both teams, there’s not much concern at Clemson or Georgia. Senior Cole Stoudt is slated to start for the Tigers, and talented true freshman Deshaun Watson will also factor into the mix for coordinator Chad Morris. On the Bulldogs’ sideline, senior Hutson Mason will get his third start. Mason gained valuable experience by starting the last two games of 2013 due to an injury to Aaron Murray and threw for 320 yards in the bowl loss to Nebraska and 299 in an overtime win over Georgia Tech. Although both Mason and Stoudt are expected to thrive in their starting roles, both quarterbacks will be under the spotlight on Saturday night. Georgia’s front seven is among the best in the SEC, while Clemson’s defensive line features four senior starters. Neither quarterback needs to throw for 300 yards for a win, but it’s critical for both to limit mistakes with a close game expected.
2. Clemson’s DL vs. Georgia’s OL
As we mentioned in the previous section, Clemson’s defensive line features four senior starters. End Vic Beasley – an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American – highlights the front group. On paper, an experienced defensive front for the Tigers should have an advantage on Georgia’s offensive line, which returns only two starters. But will that play out on the field? Can the Bulldogs’ revamped line hold its own and keep Mason upright in the pocket? How about clearing rushing lanes for running back Todd Gurley? Winning the battle in the trenches is critical to winning on Saturday afternoon, and the battle between Georgia’s offensive line and Clemson’s defensive line is a matchup to watch.
3. Georgia’s Defense
New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt played a key role in Florida State’s national championship last season, and coach Mark Richt hopes the former Seminoles’ play-caller is able to replicate that success for the Bulldogs in 2014. Talent in the front seven certainly isn’t an issue for Pruitt. Linebackers Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Ramik Wilson each garnered some preseason All-SEC mention, and the defensive line should be solid once again. Despite the strength in the front seven, the secondary needs some work. Pruitt mixed and matched the personnel in the offseason, and this unit could be in flux early in the year. Can the pass defense hold up against a Clemson offense that averaged 332.9 passing yards per game last season? Even without Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, the Tigers aren't hurting for talent in the receiving corps.
New is the key word to remember in this matchup. Both teams have new quarterbacks and experienced and talented front sevens on defense. But Clemson and Georgia both have concerns in the secondary, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this one go well into the 30s for the final results. Of course, with all of the new faces and roster turnover on both sides, this could be a low-scoring affair as both teams acclimate starters to new roles. Much of this game’s outcome resides on the quarterbacks. Will it be Mason delivering with a quality performance? Or is it going to be Clemson’s Cole Stoudt (first career start)? With new faces stepping into big roles, it could be a lackluster defensive struggle, before UGA or Clemson takes control late.
Prediction: Georgia 27, Clemson 24
It’s a classic Big Ten versus the SEC matchup on Saturday night, as Wisconsin and LSU meet in Houston for a neutral site kickoff for the 2014 season. The Badgers return just eight starters from last year’s 9-4 squad, but coach Gary Andersen should have this team in the thick of the Big Ten West Division race. LSU also had a significant amount of roster turnover from last year and several freshmen are expected to see time on Saturday night.
LSU owns a 2-0 series edge against Wisconsin. This is the first matchup between these two schools sine 1972. The Tigers and Badgers are slated to meet again in 2016 in Green Bay.
Wisconsin vs. LSU (Houston)
Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: LSU -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Leonard Fournette
As mentioned above, LSU could play a handful of freshmen on Saturday night. And while several garnered national acclaim through recruiting, the one receiving the most hype is running back Leonard Fournette. The true freshman has everything coaches want in an every-down back. Fournette isn’t guaranteed to handle the full workload, as seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard are slated for a big role in the offense. Fournette ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the 247Sports Composite and is running behind an offensive line that is considered among the best in the SEC. With Wisconsin replacing its entire front seven (in terms of starters), the Tigers should be able to use their offensive line to clear the way for Fournette to a big performance on Saturday night.
2. The Quarterbacks
Both teams enter Saturday night with question marks surrounding the quarterback position. LSU plans on using both sophomore Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris, while Wisconsin is slated to start Tanner McEvoy. Jennings played sparingly last year and completed 13 of 29 passes for 181 yards and one score. Harris ranked as the No. 3 dual-threat passer in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete with Jennings in spring practice. The gap between Jennings and Harris does not appear to be wide (if any at all), so expect to see both quarterbacks play a couple of drives. McEvoy beat out last year’s starter (Joel Stave) for the starting job this fall, and the former South Carolina passer is back under center after playing safety in 2013. McEvoy did not attempt a pass for Wisconsin last season, but he fits what coach Gary Andersen and coordinate Andy Ludwig want under center. McEvoy gives the Badgers’ offense more mobility, which could be an asset against a fast and athletic defense on the other side.
3. Melvin Gordon vs. LSU’s defense
LSU did not have a vintage shutdown defense last year, allowing 170.3 rushing yards per game in SEC contests. The Tigers allowed only 22 points per game, but there was room to improve in the yardage allowed. Coordinator John Chavis had personnel concerns to address in the offseason, starting up front at tackle. Last year’s starters (Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson) departed, leaving Frank Herron, Quentin Thomas, Christian LaCouture and Maquedius Bain as the top options in the middle. All four are talented, but there’s not a ton of experience returning from this group. Considering this is McEvoy’s first start, expect to see Wisconsin’s gameplan based on getting running back Melvin Gordon 25-30 carries. The Badgers own one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines, and with the uncertainty up front for LSU, Gordon should be able to find running room. And when Gordon needs a break, expect to see talented sophomore Corey Clement in the backfield.
This matchup is perhaps the most intriguing game of Week 1. Both teams usually replace departed talent with few problems. Expect much of the same in 2014, as LSU and Wisconsin will both push for 10 wins. Both teams should have success running the ball, which is critical due to the inexperience at quarterback. The Tigers may not have a prolific day through the air, but a big offensive line and trio of backs – led by Fournette – eventually wears down the Wisconsin defense.
Prediction: LSU 30, Wisconsin 20
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, as the circuit hits Atlanta Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart’s return, a shift in the 2015 schedule and the two remaining opportunities to earn a “win and you’re in” Chase draw highlight the storylines of the weekend.
More questions than answers as Tony Stewart returns
Tony Stewart slid through the window opening of his No. 14 Chevrolet Friday afternoon for the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway, climbing into the one place that may, even briefly, take him away from it all.
Behind the steering wheel, restrained in a multi-point harness and wrapped in Nomex and carbon fiber, Stewart has but one objective: find unbridled speed.
But even that cocoon of familiarity that demands undistracted attention probably wasn't enough for Stewart to mentally separate himself from the horror of three weeks ago Saturday. It's hard to think anything will ever be enough, judging by his somber, cracking tone in a Friday press conference.
"This is something that will definitely affect my life forever," Stewart said. "This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life."
Stewart hadn't been seen publicly since the Saturday of the Watkins Glen weekend. Just hours after qualifying 13th for the NASCAR road course race, and a little more than an hour north of Watkins Glen on the state highways of upstate New York, Stewart was involved in the horrific on-track and fatal collision with fellow sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. at the small Canandaigua Motorsports Park.
He's missed all three Sprint Cup races since.
"I've taken the last couple weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family, and also to cope with the accident in my own way," Stewart said, as every bit of that moment and the weeks of grief and devastation that have followed it showed on Stewart's stubbly face and in his mussed hair. "It's given me the time to think about life and how easy it is to take it for granted."
Stewart didn't take any questions Friday, saying he needed to "respect the ongoing investigation process" and that he wasn't "emotionally sure" if he could answer them anyway. Those lines came near the end of Stewart's statement, and when it was complete Stewart excused himself from the podium as more emotion began to stretch across his face. Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood stayed and accepted a small round of questions.
It's that investigation — one still underway for up to two more weeks by the Ontario County, N.Y. Sheriff — that Frood said prevented him from elaborating in a detailed form as many questions remained unanswered. The sheriff stated at the outset of the investigation that nothing it had reviewed in the immediate aftermath of Stewart's collision with Ward, who had exited his car to angrily gesture at Stewart, had signs of criminal intent.
But questions beyond the investigation, beyond Stewart's version of the events at Canandaigua, still remain. Frood was asked about NASCAR's statement on Thursday that indicated Stewart had received appropriate clearances to rejoin competition, and eluded vaguely to the process requiring some sort of medical clearance.
NASCAR President Mike Helton was later asked about that clearance process — one previously not detailed — and also left it vague.
"We've cleared Tony to return as part of the normal process when a driver has been absent," Helton said.
Helton also made a noteworthy announcement that Stewart would be eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup should he win at least once in the next two races. Sunday night's race at Atlanta and next week at Richmond International Raceway are the final races of the regular season. Prior to this season, NASCAR changed its postseason rules and required drivers to attempt each race if they wanted to be eligible for the championship. Only a NASCAR waiver could substitute for a driver missing starts — and that's exactly what Stewart got.
What also wasn't clear was why Stewart decided Atlanta was the time to return, what the incident has done to relationships with Stewart's sponsors and if Stewart expects to get clearance from the sheriff investigation. Some, by their very nature, aren't appropriate to answer at this time, and some more personal questions — like what Stewart has been doing in the last three weeks — have a better time and place.
But they are still answers worth seeking as Stewart tries to push past this life-altering event.
No rule is sacred in NASCAR
Tony Stewart fan or not, NASCAR's decision Friday continued to prove a point that was crystallized a year ago when NASCAR added a 13th car to the 12-team Chase: if the sport stands to see a marketing gain from making questionable discretionary rule decisions, it will always rule in favor of the marketing gain.
There is absolutely no reason NASCAR had to make Stewart eligible for the Chase with a win via its waiver system. It's just simply not fair to any other driver who did at least attempt every race weekend this year, and it illustrates perfectly that decisions pertaining to competition are too often made by prevailing winds and not set-in-stone rules.
What if the driver involved in Stewart's situation wasn't of his same stature? Would NASCAR rule the same for the likes of Casey Mears or AJ Allmendinger? We don't know, and that's the problem.
Atlanta's Labor Day finale
They won't need the lights when the Cup Series next races at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2015, unless the bulbs get replaced with something similar to those that keep french fries warm at your favorite fast food joint. That's because the next Cup appearance at Atlanta will be six months from Sunday on March 1, 2015.
Atlanta got the shortest end of the stick in this week's announcement of next year's schedule when it was shifted to the second race of the year. In its Labor Day place is Darlington Raceway and the Southern 500's return to its rightful spot on the NASCAR calendar. Atlanta's sister track, Bristol Motor Speedway, also benefited from the shuffle by moving its spring race one month closer to summer.
It's tough to see how Atlanta, a track that used to host two Cup races each year, will now fit in the sport's long-term future. Ticket sales have been tough at the track for years, even without the prospect of cold temperatures and bad weather that a March date can bring.
Two Chase spots left
With Richmond and Atlanta remaining in the NASCAR regular season, time is running thin for many drivers still to qualify for NASCAR's postseason. It's currently Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle that are holding down the final two slots in the 16-team field, but they could be bumped by another winless driver getting a victory before the Richmond cutoff.
That leaves drivers like Stewart, Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Brian Vickers and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the outside looking in.
Should Atlanta produce a winner that has previously won in 2014, the top three winless drivers in the standings that are 45 points ahead of the fourth winless driver would get locked in. A new series winner with at least a 49-point gap on 31st in the standings drops the number of locked winless to two should they hold the same 45-point cushion the third.
Kyle Busch reeling but fortunate after career-worst streak
Crew chief Dave Rogers had to publicly mend fences last week after Kyle Busch, so frustrated with his crashed car at Bristol, disregarded Rogers' request that Busch drive the car to the hauler and instead left it sitting on pit road. Rogers later claimed all was well in the group after he and Busch talked about the incident in the hauler before Busch left the track.
That DNF was Busch's second in four races and continued his descent from sixth in points to 17th. Only an early season win at Fontana has left the No. 18 eligible for the Chase.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 29:
• I must admit to being unfamiliar with Charlotte McKinney. Consider that oversight remedied.
• Bill Murray took up tickets at the St. Paul Saints game last night, because Bill Murray is awesome.
• Johnny who? Last night belonged to Kenny Hill and the Texas A&M Aggies.
• Les Miles is a teacher above all else. His monologues are now being used in the classroom.
• Vanderbilt got destroyed by Temple, but on the upside, the Dores won the first email challenge in college football history.
• Tim Tebow might have a future in this broadcasting thing. If nothing else, he does a nice Spurrier impression.
• Anthony Brown quit the team and called USC coach Steve Sarkisian a racist on Instagram. Welcome to LA, Sark.
• Jesus Montero threw an ice cream sandwich at a scout. That's just wasteful.
• The last superfight might happen in 2015. Mayweather-Pacquiao.
• Watch Nick Foles go undercover as a waiter to surprise fantasy football drafters.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at email@example.com
Richard Sherman will tell you that he’s the best cornerback in the NFL, and he has a new four-year $57 million contract to confirm it. Earl Thomas, with his four-year, $40 million extension, acknowledges he has no apparent equal at safety. Russell Wilson says he wants to be the league’s greatest quarterback of all time. With all of this confidence bubbling over, it’s hard to deny the Seahawks anything these days.
Collectively, these guys are coming off one of the most dominant seasons in recent times — including a 35-point Super Bowl victory over Denver after losing three games by a combined 15 points — thinking they can do this all again.
Just eight of 47 previous teams have repeated as Super Bowl champions, none during the past decade — all unable to cope with winner’s complacency, personnel changes or major injuries. Yet Seattle, after boasting the second-youngest Super Bowl roster (26.4 years), building a star-studded defense (led by its secondary) and retaining all of its major contributors (six Pro Bowl players), has no shortage of swagger when addressing this challenge.
“One of the things that happens every so often is teams have a big fallout after they win the Super Bowl,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says. “We’re not in that situation.”
Any major adjustments for this team will come on offense, where the Seahawks must replace two starting linemen and their leading receiver. This doesn’t raise any red flags for a couple of reasons: 1) These positions regularly have been in a state of flux, and 2) Wilson.
Returning for his third season, Wilson has defied every obstacle presented to him at quarterback: Too short, sophomore slump, too young to win a Super Bowl. He makes everyone around him better with his decision-making, elusiveness and deceptively strong arm while running the Seahawks’ zone-read offense in a masterful manner. He’s a proven winner, capturing 28 of 37 games as the starter, including four of five in the postseason.
With 52 TD passes in his brief career, Wilson has done this without a marquee receiver at his disposal. He may finally have one, provided Percy Harvin can stay healthy after sitting out most of his first season in Seattle with a hip injury. Limited to three games, two in the playoffs, Harvin offered a glimpse of what he could do in the Super Bowl with an 87-yard kickoff return for a score and 30-yard run. He brings a huge boost of speed to the offense. Harvin will share receiving duties with the highly efficient Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, plus top draft pick Paul Richardson, who possesses Harvin-like speed.
Marshawn Lynch has been a rushing fiend for three consecutive seasons, piling up more than 4,500 rushing yards and 39 total touchdowns in that time, postseason included. But there is good reason to be wary of him now. The hard-nosed runner affectionately known as Beast Mode has more than 1,800 career carries under his belt, leaving him susceptible to sudden performance falloff that comes with being an overused NFL running back. Seattle will ride Lynch as long as it can, likely spelling him more and more with Robert Turbin.
Considerable patchwork needs to be done on the line, which is anchored by two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and one-time Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung, both mobile players who open a lot of holes. Vacancies must be filled at left guard and right tackle, where part-time starters James Carpenter and second-round pick Justin Britt are the leading candidates. Carpenter, a former No. 1 pick, hasn’t been the dominant player envisioned by the Seahawks because he can’t stay healthy and lacks speed. Draftee Garrett Scott might be an option for each opening with his size and athleticism. Oddly enough, left guard has resembled an open tryout every year.
No position area across the NFL is as star-studded as the Seahawks’ sensational secondary, nicknamed “The Legion of Boom.” Safety Kam Chancellor, Thomas and Sherman each enjoyed Pro Bowl seasons and huge postseason moments, and there’s no reason to expect anything less in 2014. Byron Maxwell proved to be an able cover corner and became the fourth wheel for this group after original “Boom” member Brandon Browner was suspended for drug-related offenses. Browner signed with New England in the offseason.
The Seattle linebacking corps, more functional than flashy, returns intact with Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright as starters. Irvin, a converted defensive end, is a superb pass-rusher, while Wagner and Wright are solid against the run. The secondary allows them to take chances. An added bonus is having Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith back them up.
Unfortunately, the Seahawks were forced to sacrifice a chunk of their defensive depth, particularly across the front wall, in order to pay for the headliners. Aging starters Red Bryant and Chris Clemons and reserve Clinton McDonald were deemed expendable and signed on with other teams. Seattle still puts a fierce front four on the field with rising star Michael Bennett, plus Cliff Avril, Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel, but it no longer has a proven second wave.
The Seahawks defense was an absolute monster in 2013, ranking No. 1 in the NFL in total defense (273.6 ypg), passing defense (172.0 ypg), points allowed (14.4 ppg), takeaways (39), interceptions (28), turnover differential (plus-20) and opposing QB passer rating (63.4). It will be hard to duplicate that dominance.
Automatic readily sums up the Seahawks’ special teams. Placekicker Steven Hauschka was rewarded with a big contract extension after he connected on 33-of-35 field goals, hitting all three of his attempts over 50 yards. Jon Ryan, a career 44.8-yard punter, downed 28 kicks inside the 20. Harvin, counting his Super Bowl score, has run six kickoffs back for touchdowns in his NFL career. Kearse will move from kickoffs to punt returns.
The Seahawks spent much of the offseason taking bows and renegotiating contracts. Unlike the year before, they didn’t engage much in the free-agent market or instigate any big trades. Once the roster churn was over, they had 10 notable contributors to the title run depart for other teams and often bigger paydays. Which raises a pertinent question: Did the franchise give up too much manpower and break up its uncanny chemistry? The answer likely is no — as long as mainstays such as Wilson, Sherman and Thomas are interspersed throughout the lineup, with a healthy Harvin complementing them. Seattle will attempt to become just the eighth different franchise (Pittsburgh has done it twice) to repeat as Super Bowl champs. Only the Patriots have won consecutive NFL titles in the new millennium. The Seahawks, with so much talent still on their side, appear fully capable of joining the elite repeat club.
PREDICTION: 1st in NFC West
It wasn’t just a bad day at the office. For the Broncos, Super Bowl XLVIII was a painful reality check, one that convinced them that all the offense in the world doesn’t necessarily translate to being the best team on the planet. Seattle was better that day, and San Francisco, the other big bully from the NFC, probably would have been, too. So, general manager John Elway and his lieutenants spent the offseason overhauling their defense, signing three big-ticket free agents — Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware — before using their No. 1 draft pick on Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby.
For all the changes the Broncos have made, their bottom line remains the same: Vince Lombardi Trophy or bust. There may be a tomorrow with Peyton Manning under center; even if the Broncos win Super Bowl XLIX, Manning could return for an encore season. But Elway, who knows a little about playing quarterback on the back side of 30, isn’t counting on it. He wants to win, and right now.
It’s official. Manning called the right career audible when he decided to join the Broncos after being jettisoned by the Colts. Two years after sitting out the entire 2011 season, Manning threw a record 55 touchdown passes and won his fifth MVP award as the Broncos became the first-ever NFL team to eclipse the 600-point mark.
Manning will have several new weapons this year, including Montee Ball, who’ll replace Knowshon Moreno as the starting tailback, and wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer. Moreno had more than his share of moments in a Denver uniform, including a 224-yard game vs. the Patriots, but Ball gives them a more durable back and a better bet to score near the goal line, where the short field can create issues in the passing game. Not that Ball is only a threat between the tackles. He’s flying under the radar after being a backup as a rookie, but he has big-play potential that could land him in multiple Pro Bowls. Ball underwent an emergency appendectomy in early August, but was back at practice two weeks later and is expected to be ready for Week 1.
Sanders, a free-agent signee from Pittsburgh, replaces Eric Decker, who signed with the Jets. The big news in the passing game, though, came on Day 2 of the draft, when the Broncos traded up in the second round to grab Latimer. With Sanders already on board with emerging superstar Demaryius Thomas, the addition of Latimer sends a clear message that Wes Welker’s days in Denver are numbered. Welker was his usual productive self in 2013, but concussions are becoming more of an issue, such as the one he sustained in the third preseason game. At this point, Welker is probably too high a risk to be counted on week in and week out.
With or without Welker, the Broncos possess a devastating crew of receivers who can move the chains and stretch the field. The rest of the crew includes tight end Julius Thomas, a college basketball player who has become arguably Elway’s best-ever draft pick.
Almost lost in the shuffle of the Broncos’ season: They did it with left tackle Ryan Clady sidelined for most of the year. Clady’s return this season has created a domino effect on the offensive line. Chris Clark, who replaced Clady, will move to right tackle, while incumbent Orlando Franklin will move to left guard in place of Zane Beadles, who left via free agency. Franklin isn’t happy about the move, what with tackles much more appreciated on payday than guards, but it makes all the sense in the world. Clark is the better pass-blocker, and Franklin’s forte is run-blocking — all the more reason to project big numbers for Ball in his second season.
The Broncos hoped to energize their pass rush, but they were shocked to find Ware available. With Ware on the edge, the Broncos may be able to match the kind of pressure the Seahawks and 49ers put on opposing quarterbacks. Ware had 19.5 sacks as recently as 2011, and at 32, he seemingly has a lot left in his tank.
But Ware’s production figures to be linked to the other main pass-rusher, Von Miller. Three years into his career, Miller already is at the crossroads. Will he return to being one of the most feared pass-rushers in the league, or will injuries and off-field issues overshadow his enormous talents? One more drug-related issue, and Miller will be suspended long-term. Not only that, but he’ll also be trying to bounce back from a knee reconstruction. So, in the end, the Broncos won’t know how formidable their pass rush will be until they see how healthy Miller is. Ware and a healthy Miller coming off the corner would be a devastating tandem.
Linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips departed via free agency, but Denver was in good shape with Danny Trevathan, the team’s leading tackler last season, ready to take over. That was until Trevathan fractured his knee during training camp, sidelining him until the middle of October, at minimum. Nate Irving is expected to start in the middle with Brandon Marshall (not the former Bronco wide receiver who's now in Chicago) and fifth-round pick Lamin Barrow among the candidates to fill in for Trevathan.
The defensive line has some depth issues, what with 2012 second-rounder Derek Wolfe experiencing career-threatening health issues last season, but tackles Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams, last year’s first-rounder, could be a terrific tandem in the middle. Williams started slowly, but after an offseason in the weight room, he could take a giant career leap.
The Broncos had hoped to re-sign cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but when he asked for serious money, they shifted gears and came away from free agency with Talib. The Broncos were also looking for a physical presence at safety and they got it with Ward, a Pro Bowler with the Browns in 2013. With Talib pounding on receivers in bump coverage, and with Ward providing a linebacker-like presence in the middle of the field, the Broncos figure to be much more physical than they were last season.
With Trindon Holliday gone via free agency, the coaches will use training camp to figure out how to divvy up the kickoff and punt return duties. Veteran Andre Caldwell figures to return kickoffs, and Sanders, Welker and Roby will get a look as punt returners, though Welker’s concussion issues make him a long shot.
The kicking game is in great shape with Matt Prater and Britton Colquitt. Altitude or no altitude, Prater is as good as they come, having made 14-of-15 attempts from 40 yards and beyond last season, including 6-of-7 from 50-plus. Translation: All Manning has to do is rack up two or three first downs on a typical drive and the Broncos are all but a lock to score. Colquitt? His steady production usually tilts the field-position battle the Broncos’ way. Not that he’s as busy as he once was: Colquitt punted 65 times in 2013 compared to 101 in 2011, the year before Manning’s arrival.
Prater will have to sit out the first four games of the season for a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse program. Rookie Mitch Ewald was in training camp, but the Broncos also traded a conditional seventh-round draft choice next year to the Giants for fellow rookie Brandon McManus. The waiver wire is another option if the team decides to sign a veteran kicker to fill in during Prater's absence.
The Broncos are in a unique position among NFL teams. They aren’t trying to keep pace with the rest of the league. As long as Manning is under center, their competition will come from only a handful of teams, most notably the Seahawks, 49ers and Patriots. While Denver’s offense is in a class by itself, the Broncos haven’t been as physical as the elite teams in the NFC. They could be this season, but, in the end, they’re relying on Miller to regain his status as one of the league’s best players. If he does, they could be throwing a parade in downtown Denver. If not, they may still have enough to get back to the Super Bowl. The question remains: Can they win it?
PREDICTION: 1st in AFC West
ATLANTA — Believe it or not, Ole Miss walked out of the Georgia Dome with a trophy, or two pieces of one.
This is not the newly minted College Football Playoff trophy, by any means. It’s not even the Floyd of Rosedale.
The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game awards an old-style leather helmet on a stand The trophy indeed comes in two pieces, so when linebacker Ryan Lewis walked into the locker room with the stand and receiver Laquon Treadwell followed with the leather helmet on his head, they did not break said trophy.
That was Ole Miss in its opener: Not quite together and looking a little ridiculous, but with a trophy and a win nonetheless.
The final score looked the way should have — Ole Miss 35, Boise State 13 — but the first game showed Ole Miss isn’t quite ready to hoist any other trophies.
Two bowl victories, a climb from two wins to seven to eight and a stud signing class maturing into sophomores seemed to have the Rebels on the move in the SEC. But the forward progress of Ole Miss’ program sputtered for three quarters in Atlanta.
The weight of expectations was apparent. Treadwell said he was more relaxed before last year’s opener, his debut as a freshman in an SEC road opener against Vanderbilt, than he was Thursday.
“I had jitters, too,” Ole Miss senior quarterback Bo Wallace said. “I got a little nervous, so I don’t know. Usually I’m cool. I don’t know what that was.”
Good thing Wallace eventually found his cool. Good thing Boise State was the uglier team Thursday. And the Broncos needed an effort to out-ugly Ole Miss in a game that featured seven total interceptions, 23 total penalties and an early ejection for targeting.
After Thursday night’s events, the team playing the role of SEC West usurper seems to be coming from College Station, not Oxford.
Ole Miss didn’t produce more scores (four) than turnovers (three) until the 7:45 mark of the four quarter. By that time, Boise State had thrown four picks of its own.
Now this is all before the first Saturday of the season, plenty of time for Ole Miss to find its stride, which it did after the final Grant Hedrick pick broke the will of Boise State in a 28-7 Ole Miss fourth quarter.
Certainly, Ole Miss showed flashes of brilliance. The No. 1 prospect from 2013, Robert Nkemdiche, is becoming the next great SEC mega-lineman, the back end of the defense played with an edge, and the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Treadwell proved to be a mismatch.
At the same time, Ole Miss made clear Thursday that one big-time recruiting class, a preseason ranking and two-years of buzz does not make a powerhouse program.
The most experienced quarterback in the SEC at times had coach Hugh Freeze grimacing on the sideline with three first-half interceptions.
“Two of the three interceptions just were a bit unbelievable because they weren’t even in his progression on the route,” Freeze said. “He’ll be the first to tell you that, and he knows that. It was a bit amazing.”
At one point late in the first half, Wallace overthrew Boise State’s safeties by five yards. The intended receiver — a term that generously appeared in the play-by-play — was Treadwell, who was at least 10 yards underneath the safeties.
Wallace was only a symptom of an Ole Miss offense barely ready for a Boise State game in its first game under Bryan Harsin.
The Rebels picked up seven false starts in the first half, exacerbated by Boise State shifting before Wallace went to a silent count at the line. The run game was a no-show as Ole Miss rushed for 30 yards on 23 carries in three quarters. The Rebels didn’t have a run longer than five yards until the final two carries of the third quarter.
The score sat at 7-6 for the Rebels until Wallace started to find Treadwell in man-to-man coverage on a critical drive capped by a 14-yard touchdown.
“We’ve got to be on the level where it’s understood where if they’re good, they can beat us,” Treadwell said. “That’s the difference in this team. The defense played well and didn’t underestimate them. The offense came out and tried to do too much.”
Mike McCarthy not only issued the proclamation: He told everyone how they should write it, too.
“We’re going to be a better defense this year,” the Green Bay Packers coach announced after the draft in May. “You can write that in big letters.”
Well, if you insist. THE PACKERS ARE GOING TO BE A BETTER DEFENSE THIS YEAR.
This was more than just bluster by the head coach. If the Packers are going to return to the Super Bowl after winning three straight division titles — but managing just one playoff victory — in the three years since they won Super Bowl XLV, McCarthy knows it’s imperative that their defense, which ranked tied for 24th in scoring (26.8 ppg) and 25th in yards allowed (372.3 ypg), must improve. While he kept veteran coordinator Dom Capers, McCarthy has been more involved in the defense, scaling back the playbook, trying to use more personnel groupings but fewer schemes.
To improve the personnel, GM Ted Thompson signed veteran defensive end Julius Peppers. Released by Chicago in a cost-cutting move, the 34-year-old Peppers will play a hybrid end/outside linebacker position. The club also re-signed three key defensive free agents (No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields, pass-rusher Mike Neal and nose tackle B.J. Raji) and picked four defensive players in the draft, led by first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a safety from Alabama, at No. 21.
Whether the changes in approach and personnel allow McCarthy to deliver on his promise could very well decide the Packers’ 2014 fate.
It’s hard to imagine the Packers, who’ve done so much right in building a perennial contender, bungling a position worse than they did the backup quarterback spot last year. And wouldn’t you know it, for the first time in two decades, they lost their starting quarterback for an extended period of time when Aaron Rodgers suffered a fractured left collarbone. The team wound up starting four quarterbacks, and only the re-signing of Matt Flynn, Rodgers’ backup from 2008-11, saved the season. Rodgers’ history of durability — he’d missed only one start due to injury before last season — should mean a return to form as one of the league’s top quarterbacks, and with Flynn and Scott Tolzien in the fold from Day 1 of the offseason program, the Packers should be better prepared if disaster strikes again.
If Rodgers does stay healthy, the offense could reach unprecedented heights because the Packers finally have a potent run game to pair with their aerial attack, thanks to running back Eddie Lacy, who ran for 1,178 yards. Because Lacy suffered a concussion one carry into a Week 2 game vs. Washington and missed the following week, and Rodgers broke his collarbone on the opening series against Chicago on Nov. 4, the pair played only six full regular-season games together. If both stay healthy, defenses won’t be able to play constant two-shell coverages to prevent Rodgers’ big-play passes as they did in 2012, and they won’t be able to load the box with eight or nine defenders as they did last year against Lacy when Rodgers was out. If Lacy does get nicked, the Packers have depth. They re-signed James Starks and get DuJuan Harris back from injury. Johnathan Franklin, last year's fourth-round pick was released in June when it was determined the neck injury he suffered in 2013 would prevent from continuing his football careeer.
Two years ago, the Packers were so deep at receiver that the franchise’s all-time leader in catches and receiving yards, an aging Donald Driver, was relegated to sixth on the depth chart. Now, it’s Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and some youngsters. Nelson is coming off career highs in receptions (85) and yards (1,314), while Cobb missed 10 games with a leg injury. Nelson signed a four-year, $39 million contract extension in July and Cobb has said he's ready to prove he's worthy of his own lucrative deal. After them, it’s third-year man Jarrett Boykin, who stepped up with Cobb out (49 catches, 681 yards), as the No. 3, then a mix of unproven returnees and draft picks, led by second-rounder Davante Adams.
Jermichael Finley’s career-threatening neck injury and spinal fusion surgery put his future in doubt and left the Packers vulnerable at tight end. While Andrew Quarless, who took over after Finley’s injury, was re-signed, McCarthy’s offense is optimized when it has a big, athletic pass-catching tight end. If the Packers don’t have Finley, McCarthy will have to get creative.
For the fourth time in four years, the Packers will have a different opening-day starter at center. Rookie Corey Linsley appears to be the guy, largely due to a knee fracture suffered by JC Tretter in the third preseason game. Tretter is expected to miss several weeks. Linsley will be sandwiched by proven veteran guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. McCarthy has always stressed the importance of the center position in adjustments at the line of scrimmage, so there could be some growing pains or the coaching staff may have to shuffle positions. Second-year left tackle David Bakhtiari figures to only get better, while Bryan Bulaga moves back to right tackle after finishing each of the past two seasons on injured reserve. Besides Tretter's injury, the line must also function with out key reserve Don Barclay, who tore his ACL early in training camp.
The team has selected five defensive linemen in the past three drafts. After a ho-hum rookie year, 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones must make a big jump in Year 2, as Mike Daniels (a line-leading 6.5 sacks) did last season. B.J. Raji was brought back on a one-year, $4 million prove-it deal and slated to start at nose tackle, but he is likely out for the season after tearing his biceps in the third preseason game.
Star outside linebacker Clay Matthews broke his right thumb twice and had two surgeries to correct it — the second being more invasive. The Packers’ defense simply isn’t the same without Matthews. If healthy, he and Peppers might have a field day. Inside, steady A.J. Hawk remains the unit’s leader after showing a much-needed spike in big plays (five sacks, one interception, one forced fumble) last season.
The addition of Clinton-Dix should not only solidify a position where departed M.D. Jennings started 17 games, but he should also help Morgan Burnett, whose first season after signing a four-year, $24.75 million extension was a disappointment. Clinton-Dix figures to be the center fielder more often than Burnett. At cornerback, re-signing Shields (four years, $39 million) was offseason priority No. 1. Tramon Williams’ second-half renaissance last year re-solidified the position.
Veteran kicker Mason Crosby followed his worst NFL season with his best, making 33-of-37 field-goal attempts (89.2 percent), while Tim Masthay has become one of the league’s top cold-weather punters. The return game remains up in the air, though Micah Hyde was a godsend after return specialist Jeremy Ross was prematurely cut.
The Pack won’t be a chic Super Bowl pick, and that’s how Rodgers likes it. “They’re going to be talking about Seattle and Denver and New England and some of these teams that rebuild and reload,” Rodgers says. “We kind of like it when we’re a little bit of an afterthought. That makes us dangerous.” Look for the Packers to win their fourth straight North crown, and if they can lick their annual injury epidemic, they’ll be in the title conversation.
PREDICTION: 1st in NFC North
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 28:
• Swimsuit model Genevieve Morton and her friends danced around to "Happy." This does, in fact, make us happy.
• I don't know about you, but Navy's new helmets make me want to suit up and run through a brick wall.
• Georgia State kicked off college football last night by earning its first FBS win. I believe that moves them ahead of Florida State in the computers.
• Why we love college football, part 1,563: South Carolina and Texas A&M fans gathered outside the South Carolina state capitol just to yell at each other.
• Playing the blame game in the Josh Shaw debacle. Plenty to go around.
• Andrelton Simmons made another insane play. Oh, and it was a game-saver.
• John Daly's country song "Hit It Hard" is getting airplay on Sirius. If you're morbidly curious, click here. It's actually not that bad.
• Francisco Cervelli took a foul ball to the giblets. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to play catcher.
• Twitter and Instagram temporarily blew up with NBA-themed cartoons. Some are clever, some are weird and creepy.
• Johnny Football is an aerobics instructor in a new Snickers spot.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at firstname.lastname@example.org