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Fresno State has announced Duke quarterback Brandon Connette will transfer to the Bulldogs for the 2014 season. Connette is a graduate transfer and is eligible immediately.

Connette’s mother is battling cancer, and the senior quarterback wanted to transfer to Fresno State to be closer to her.

Connette threw for 1,212 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 337 yards and 14 scores last season with the Blue Devils.

With Derek Carr departing Fresno State, Connette will have a chance to win the starting job this fall.

Connette will compete with Brian Burrell and Zack Greenlee this fall for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart and could be one of the top quarterbacks in the Mountain West if he wins the job.

Teaser:
Duke QB Brandon Connette Transfers to Fresno State
Post date: Monday, April 28, 2014 - 07:55
Path: /college-football/nebraska-or-iowa-which-team-finishes-higher-big-tens-west-division-2014
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The Big Ten’s new 14-team and East/West Division alignment should provide for an intriguing 2014 season.

The East Division is loaded with likely top-10 teams in Ohio State and Michigan, followed by Penn State and Michigan – two of college football’s top programs. The depth in the East extends to the bottom tier of the division, as Maryland and Indiana could be bowl teams in 2014.

The West Division isn’t loaded with elite teams, but Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska each have a strong case to be ranked in the preseason top 25.

The Badgers lose a good chunk of talent, including several key members on one of the Big Ten’s top defenses. But even with the personnel losses, Wisconsin could be the favorite to win the West.

If the Badgers are the No. 1 pick in the division, then it’s a close call between Nebraska and Iowa for the No. 2 spots. The Cornhuskers have won at least nine games in each of Bo Pelini’s six seasons, while the Hawkeyes improved to 8-5 last year after a 4-8 mark in 2012.

Iowa has a favorable schedule in 2014, but Nebraska might have an edge in talent, especially with the return of standout running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Iowa or Nebraska: Which Team Finishes Higher in the West Division in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I think these two teams are going to be almost identical in the win column this year, likely right around eight or nine victories. But I give a slight edge to Iowa over Nebraska, largely due to the Hawkeyes’ favorable schedule. Iowa returns 12 starters from last year’s 8-5 squad, which pounded the Cornhuskers 38-17 in Lincoln. Quarterback Jake Rudock was solid in his first year as the starter, and he should improve in 2014 after being pushed by C.J. Beathard in spring practice. The Hawkeyes are deep at running back and have one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines. More big-play threats need to emerge at receiver, but there are options for Rudock. As usual, Iowa’s defense should be solid. The biggest concern on that side of the ball will be replacing three starting linebackers, including second-team All-Big Ten selection James Morris. The Hawkeyes usually quickly reload at this position, so there’s optimism the defense won’t have much of a drop in production at linebacker. I think Nebraska’s offense will improve as Tommy Armstrong has more time to develop at quarterback, but the Cornhuskers have to play at Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin. Iowa hosts Wisconsin and Nebraska in back-to-back weeks in late November and catches Indiana and Maryland in crossover play with the East Division. These two teams are fairly even, but the schedule favors Iowa. The margin between the Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers is small and another 5-3 tie in Big Ten play wouldn’t be a surprise. However, considering Iowa hosts Nebraska late in the season, I like the Hawkeyes to finish ahead of Bo Pelini’s team in 2014.

Brent Yarina, (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com Senior Editor
On paper, Nebraska is the better team. But, as they say, the game isn’t played on paper; more importantly, Iowa has the far easier schedule of the two teams. While the Hawkeyes lost a lot of talent, including their decorated linebacking trio, and don’t boast the star power Nebraska does, it’s impossible not to like this Big Ten draw: at Purdue; vs. Indiana; at Maryland; vs. Northwestern; at Minnesota; at Illinois; vs. Wisconsin; vs. Nebraska. Looking at that, it’s very possible Iowa brings a 6-0 Big Ten clip into the final two weeks, the final week being a home game vs. the Huskers. Nebraska doesn’t just travel to Iowa City, either, as it also visits reigning Big Ten and Rose Bowl champ Michigan State - which the Hawkeyes don’t play - and Wisconsin. Advantage, Iowa.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
This is a facinating debate that we won't know the answer to until the final weekend of the year. That's when Nebraska visits Iowa the day after Thanksgiving. And in all likelihood, that game will decide second place in the Big Ten West. Nebraska returns a deeper roster with more talent across the board, but Iowa has an easier schedule — the Huskers get Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa on the road while the Hawkeyes get Indiana and Maryland in crossover and host both Wisconsin and Nebraska in divisional play. Both coaching staffs are difficult to trust and Iowa traditionally struggles when much is expected of it. It's splitting hairs and both teams should be in that 7-9-win range but, splitting hairs, I will take Bo Pelini and the Huskers to finish higher because they are a lock to win nine games (and lose exactly four) every single season.

Listen to our staff discuss every team in the Big Ten as they start to look to 2014.

Tune in to the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast as our staff talks college football leading up to the 2014 season.
iTunes | Podcast Archive
 

Mark Ross
For all of the criticism and scrutiny that's directed at Bo Pelini, he should at least get credit for what he has done at Nebraska - win at least nine games every year. If you want to make the case that he should have won more, fine, but that's not relevant for this exercise. As far as 2014 goes, if you are asking me to pick between Nebraska and Iowa, I'll take the Cornhuskers. The Pelini implosion factor aside, players keep showing up in Lincoln to play for him and again, the results speak for themselves. On the field, Nebraska entered the post-Taylor Martinez era at quarterback early because of injuries to the dual-threat signal-caller last season and the offense appears to be in pretty good shape with Tommy Armstrong running the show. All-Big Ten running back Ameer Abdullah should be one of the most productive ball-carriers in the conference again, if not all of FBS, and Armstrong also has an all-conference target in wide receiver Kenny Bell. The defense returns a fair amount of talent and experience as well and let's not forget that side of the ball is Pelini's calling card. As far as Iowa goes, the Hawkeyes had a nice bounce-back season in 2013, but they will be without a lot of key pieces from the team that went 8-5. Two honorable mention All-Big Ten offensive linemen and one of the conference's top tight ends are gone. The defense was hit ever harder by graduation, as head coach Kirk Ferentz must replace all three standout linebackers and two starting defensive backs, all of whom earned all-conference honors last season. That's a lot of talent and experience gone from a team that consistently trails behind Nebraska in the recruiting rankings. Don't get me wrong, I think Iowa is a solid team, but I like Nebraska a little bit more in 2014. After all a "typical" season for the Cornhuskers under Pelini is nine wins. Iowa hasn't won that many in a season since 2008.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Nebraska is far more predictable than Iowa, so it would make sense to take the Cornhuskers. Nebraska overcame injuries at quarterback and all the questions surrounding Bo Pelini to win nine games last season. That should bode well, but I wonder if this is the year Nebraska takes a step back. With its schedule, Iowa would be in position to pounce in the standings. The Hawkeyes get Nebraska at home and miss Ohio State, Penn State and the Michigan schools in crossover games. Beyond the schedule, Iowa has a lot of things working in its favor: A returning starting quarterback (Jake Rudock), healthy running backs for a change, an All-America-caliber tackle and a mostly intact defense. Iowa has to replace all three starting linebackers, but that’s a spot where the Hawkeyes usually have success. Of course, the Hawkeyes haven’t always thrived when they’re the team to watch. Will that be the case again in 2014?

Kevin McGuire, (@KevinonCFB), CrystalBallRun.com and CollegeFootballTalk.com
Iowa is going to surprise some people this season. The running game was healthy last year and looks to be in good shape again after this spring. Put that typical brand of Iowa football in front of a favorable schedule and it would not be a surprise at all to see Iowa make a run to the Big Ten Championship Game. The schedule is clearly in favor of Iowa over Nebraska in the new division line-up. Iowa does not have to play any of the top programs from the East (Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State) and they also get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home to wrap up the regular season. There is barely a challenge ahead of them before that that should see Iowa as an underdog. Nebraska, on the other hand, must play at Michigan State and Wisconsin before the regular season finale at Iowa. This feels like advantage, Iowa.

Teaser:
Nebraska or Iowa: Which Team Finishes Higher in the Big Ten's West Division in 2014?
Post date: Monday, April 28, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /nascar/aggressive-confident-logano-locks-down-second-nascar-cup-win-2014-richmond
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“Confidence comes not from always being right … but not fearing to be wrong.” – Peter T. McIntyre  Richmond

I remember one of the first times I interviewed Saturday’s Richmond winner, Joey Logano. It was 2008 and he was 18 years old, slicing up the Nationwide Series just as his nickname — “Sliced Bread” — would imply. With an early track record of teenage success, you’d expect it to come paired with a swagger and confidence that matched Mark Martin’s labeling of him as “the best driver of this generation.” Instead? I found a wide-eyed, Connecticut kid so nervous over national media attention that it took me an extra hour to transcribe with all the stutters, stoppages and stage fright surrounding what for most would be a 10-minute, run-of-the-mill chat about a dreamlike future in the sport.

I say that because early on, as Logano transitioned to the Cup Series in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 — a ride formerly manned by Tony Stewart — that hesitation transitioned onto the track as a sense of weakness rivals sniffed out instantaneously. It seemingly frustrated crew chief Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s former partner in crime, who wasn’t used to passive behavior in his driver; further, teammates at JGR were repelled by the awkwardness. Competitors knocked the kid all over the track — without retribution — leading him to hide in the corner, having Dad fight his battles or, as aggravation mounted, respond a bit over-aggressively (remember the "firesuit in the family" blast?). JGR President J.D. Gibbs made it worse by throwing millions at free agent Carl Edwards when he became available, undermining the “driver of the future” by trying to make him the “driver of the past.” Instead of getting unconditional support, a young talent saw his confidence shattered, his place in the organization hamstrung.

My, how quickly things have changed. A scenery switch combined with a mentor in Brad Keselowski is all Logano needed to let loose. In just 15 months at Team Penske he has more wins (three) than he had during four-plus years with Joe Gibbs Racing (two). Saturday night at Richmond, Logano set a new season high for laps led (359) in his career … and we’re still in April. His second 2014 victory, scored in a thrilling finish, has him all but locked in to the Chase for the Championship.

But it’s the way Logano is now driving that speaks volumes. With less than 10 laps to go at RIR and running fourth, he showed no mercy in picking right through series heavyweights Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Keselowski. There was no hesitation, only pointed aggression to pick off a trio that has a combined six Cup championships between them. It was the cherry on top of a gutsy performance, considering his race included three-abreast moves on restarts, muscling through traffic and nearly cutting off rivals while flashing consistent speed on the racetrack.

It’s the type of behavior you see only from someone who’s got confidence behind the wheel. So amidst the post-race punches and the late-race contact that emerged as the real Richmond story, don’t forget as we go “Through the Gears” that it’s Logano who’s truly armed and dangerous. His competition certainly hasn’t forgotten. At age 23, the sky’s the limit for a man who stopped being the whipping boy and now realizes he can whip the competition.

Since we’re on the subject of fighting …


FIRST GEAR: Guess what’s back? NASCAR rivalries!
For a sport in need of some crossover material, the best possible result happened Saturday night: Richmond made people mad. Like, fighting mad. The most notorious incident involved a punch thrown by Marcos Ambrose and successfully landed on Casey Mears after the two made contact battling for 18th place. Caught on national television, crewmembers quickly intervened after the shoving match got out of hand, leaving Mears a bit swollen and NASCAR reviewing for possible penalties. At the time of this post, Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton refused to commit to anything, claiming officials need to watch more video and that the incident could still rise above NASCAR’s “Boys, Have At It” policy of letting off-track conduct run its course.

That, however, wasn’t the only frayed temper on a night that started with pole sitter Kyle Larson being turned around on Lap 1 (more on that later). In the final 10 laps, the four-car battle for the win led to contact between Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski. While Kenseth’s No. 20 tried to block both lanes, keeping everyone behind him, an eventual slip-up left him drifting into the side of Keselowski’s No. 2 car. As Jeff Gordon and Logano both slid by, Keselowski got miffed, so much so he brake-checked Kenseth after the race causing a chain-reaction bump that also collected AJ Allmendinger and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“The 20 car ran me off the racetrack,” Keselowski said, calling Kenseth’s move “mind-boggling.” “We had a shot to win.” Angrily confronting his rival after exiting the car, he threw gloves in frustration before going to congratulate Logano — a reaction that clearly left Kenseth scratching his head.

“I ran him up to the third groove or so,” Kenseth explained. “But I’ve witnessed (Keselowski) racing that way a lot, like I think he did to Jimmie (Johnson) at Texas a few years ago. I thought once we got to the straightaway, I left him enough room. I guess he’s upset about that and we were all going for the win — that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Earnhardt seemingly agreed when interviewed after the race, joking that Keselowski should “get over it.” But those aren’t the only tempers likely still simmering. Rookie Justin Allgaier was seeking retribution inside the garage after being pushed up into the outside wall, ruining a top-10 run. Kyle Busch wound up punting teammate Denny Hamlin in Turn 3 after a late restart. Ambrose found himself at the mercy of David Gilliland, his car being bounced like a pinball as the No. 38 raced around with ease.

All this anger may stress the grid out, but it’s fascinating, must-watch television in NASCAR. The sport already had increased competition; now, it’s got the emotions and non-robotic responses from the drivers to match. If that can’t get TV ratings back up to par, well, I’m not sure what will.


SECOND GEAR: Men on a mission.
While Logano won Saturday night and gained more momentum, he’s not the only one catching fire after NASCAR’s off week. Jeff Gordon ran a strong second, leading a race-high 173 laps and remained the point leader by five over Matt Kenseth. Since the Richmond debacle last September, which resulted in Gordon getting a “mulligan” 13th entry into the Chase, he’s seemingly out to prove a four-time champion should need no such help ever again.

“We were having fun,” he said, not disappointed in the slightest to lose that four-car battle down the stretch. “Gosh, what great cars we’re bringing to the racetrack. I mean, as good as we’re running I definitely feel like we can win races just about anywhere that we go, and if we continue to perform like this, we are going to win.”

Kyle Busch, after a gutsy call by crew chief Dave Rogers to get four tires late, blistered his way through the field to finish third. For Busch, already a race winner this season, it’s his third straight top-6 result as he seeks the type of consistency needed for a serious Chase run this fall. And Dale Earnhardt Jr., fresh off his second at Darlington, was a contender all night, overcoming brake problems to run a strong seventh. The No. 88 team shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down after the strong start.


THIRD GEAR: Tires and fires.
Goodyear, whose Richmond compound was under fire much of the weekend, “flamed out” in dramatic fashion. Right-front tires, in particular, were lasting no more than 55-60 laps, a multi-zone design creating multiple problems no matter what camber settings teams had. The load proved too much, causing internal separation that left burning rubber catching other parts of the car on fire as it came apart.

The results for some cars were spectacular. Reed Sorenson’s Chevy burned up to the point rescue workers had to help the driver get out on pit road. Others, like Jimmie Johnson, were somewhat luckier in that their cars survived through due diligence but unscheduled green-flag stops knocked them out of contention. It was the race, though, that suffered the most, as drivers turned conservative knowing it was just a matter of time until a Goodyear blew. Brian Vickers even asked at one point if NASCAR would start throwing competition cautions.

“The problem is they put a harder inside edge on the right front and right rear here, and that's eventually where we ride most of the time around the racetrack on that part of the tire,” Kyle Busch claimed. “Why they went harder on that, I'm not sure. It's just too hard of a compound for here. We were all basically on ice. Really tough for all of us to keep the tires under our cars. It's supposed to be more durable, but I think was just not the right way to go obviously for Goodyear.”

Come September, chances are you’ll see a brand new compound after an extensive tire test. NASCAR won’t screw around like this again for its regular season finale.


FOURTH GEAR: Karma for Clint?  Clint Bowyer
Saturday night was a return to the scene of the crime for Clint Bowyer, nearly eight months after a self-induced spin that changed the landscape of NASCAR’s Chase — and potentially team orders — forever. Those who felt Bowyer got off easy last year in keeping his sponsor and postseason bid after the shenanigans likely got a sense of satisfaction Saturday. A heavy favorite to win who flexed his muscles in practice, Bowyer’s day went sour from the first turn of the first lap. That’s when incidental contact with pole sitter Kyle Larson sent his No. 42 spinning and took the driver of the No. 15 completely out of his rhythm.

“I really hate that happened,” Bowyer said. “I really like Kyle (Larson) and I’m a big fan of his. Him and the 2 (Brad Keselowski) kind of spun the tires and I just got such a big run him when he moved up. Then I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’m going to go to the bottom if you’re going to give me the bottom.’ Then, at the last minute he arched it in and I just wasn’t ready for him. I tried to get on the brakes and just got into him.”

Bowyer never seemed to recover, sliding through the field and outside the top 10 due to handling trouble. That’s before the dreaded “corded tires” came apart, melting pieces of rubber and catching the oil lines on fire, turning his night into a nightmare. Now 21st in the standings, Bowyer’s last-place finish took away a prime opportunity to lock in a Chase bid by the end of April. And it left MWR still a step behind where it was before last September’s Richmond controversy.


OVERDRIVE
Kasey Kahne is mired in a serious slump, raising questions about his long-term future at Hendrick Motorsports, but Saturday night’s mediocre result simply wasn’t his fault. A series of slow pit stops early left him fighting from behind; the final one did him in after a crewman missed a lugnut on a tire. Kahne wound up 14th with what appeared to be a top-5 car. … Danica Patrick’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, said this week he thought Patrick “disliked” Richmond. Ya think? Lapped early, she wound up five laps down in 34th and was at times the slowest car in the field. … Give a call to AJ Allmendinger, whose sixth-place finish was his best since Team Penske dumped him for failing a drug test in mid-2012. It was also the best for his underdog JTG-Daugherty single-car program since Bobby Labonte ran fourth with the No. 47 in the 2011 Daytona 500.


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

Teaser:
Joey Logano scores his second win of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season with a victory in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
Post date: Sunday, April 27, 2014 - 17:05
All taxonomy terms: Kentucky Wildcats, SEC, College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/3-reasons-why-kentucky-wildcats-will-be-no-1-and-why-it-could-go-wrong
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As usual, Kentucky will have talent, and Kentucky will have guards.

Now, Kentucky will have experience.

On Friday, Andrew and Aaron Harrison announced they would return to Kentucky for their sophomore seasons, meaning only Julius Randle and James Young will head to the NBA Draft from a team that reached the national title game.

The return of the Harrisons to a roster that also returns Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee and adds another highly regarded signing class means Kentucky again will be a national title contender, and probably a preseason No. 1.

Before Friday, Kentucky already knew it would have one of the most imposing frontcourts in college basketball, and now it has guards to match. That won’t make this a unique team for Calipari in Lexington. Instead, the experience will.

Calipari will have four players who started at least 18 games, five sophomores and two juniors to go with three freshmen who were McDonald’s All-Americans.

Expectations at Kentucky will be sky-high again. Here’s why Kentucky will be a preseason No. 1 and why the Wildcats might not live up to that ranking.
 

2014-15 Kentucky Roster
BackcourtFrontcourt
PG Andrew Harrison (6-6/215, So.)*
PG Tyler Ulis (5-8/150, Fr.)*
SG Aaron Harrison (6-6/218, So.)*
SG Devin Booker (6-5/180, Fr.)*
SG Dominique Hawkins (6-0/193, So.)
F Alex Poythress (6-8/239, Jr.)*
F Marcus Lee (6-9/215, So.)*
F Trey Lyles (6-10/245, Fr.)*
F Derek Willis (6-9/209, So.)
C Willie Cauley-Stein (7-0/244, Jr.)
C Dakari Johnson (7-0/265, So.)*
C Karl Towns (6-11/240, Fr.)*
*McDonald's All-American 

Three things that will scare opponents

• Talent. Count them: Nine McDonald’s All-Americans on Kentucky’s roster. One more and Kentucky could host its own intrasquad McDonald’s All-American game. Kentucky had six McDonald’s All-Americans last season, and one of them, Marcus Lee, didn’t see much playing time until he was an X-factor in the Elite Eight against Michigan.

• Size. Kentucky likely will have the biggest frontcourt in the country with two seven-footers (Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson) and two freshmen 6-10 or taller. When Kentucky “goes small,” the 6-8 Alex Poythress and 6-9 Marcus Lee may be in the lineup. The Wildcats were second in the country in offensive rebound rate last season, largely thanks to Cauley-Stein.

• Experience. Kentucky needed the entire regular season to round into form in part because of the freshman-laden lineup. The Wildcats in 2014-15 will have plenty of experience to go with all that talent. The Harrisons, Johnson and Lee are sophomores, and Cauley-Stein and Poythress will be juniors. This will be John Calipari’s most experienced team in Lexington since 2011.

Three things to scare Kentucky

• Point guard. It always starts with the point guard for Calipari, and for him, he’ll have rarity in a point guard with experience in the system. Andrew Harrison, though, struggled until the NCAA Tournament. Will he continue that level of play though the course of the season? Calipari will have a McDonald’s All-American as a backup point guard (Tyler Ulis), but he probably entertained the idea of starting until Friday.

• Playing time. Calipari often talked of the issue of his team coming together through the course of the 2013-14 season. Now, he’ll have an even deeper roster of players who could start — and star — for any team in the country. Calipari will have to find a way to keep everyone satisfied, especially his all-star frontcourt.

• Expectations. Kentucky’s dream of 40-0 didn’t last out of November, and the Wildcats couldn’t even make easy work of the SEC. This group would probably have high expectations even if Kentucky returned from a round-of-64 loss in the NCAA Tournament. Making the title game, largely on the improved play of the Harrisons, only raises the bar. This team may be a preseason No. 1 again. How will Kentucky handle potentially unreasonable expectations for the second consecutive year?

Teaser:
3 Reasons Why the Kentucky Wildcats Will be No. 1, and Why it Could Go Wrong
Post date: Saturday, April 26, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /nascar/celebrating-426-mopars-greatest-racing-moments
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April 26th (4.26) is being promoted as HEMI Day by Mopar Parts and Chrysler in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the legendary 426 HEMI engine. 1964 was a watershed year for motorsports as well as the Chrysler Corporation and its engine that would become synonymous with unequaled horsepower and winning in dominant, if not embarrassing, fashion. In honor of the most famous engine of all time (sorry small-block Chevy fans — come back when you find another 100 cubes), we proudly present, in honor of the eight barrels of goodness that sit atop the orange menace, the Top 8 Mopar Moments in NASCAR history.


8. The Elephant Motor Dominates Daytona (Feb. 23, 1964)
Not a bad way to get out of the gate. With engine blocks still warm from being cast after preseason testing revealed trouble spots, Paul Goldsmith set off on a qualifying run of nearly 175 mph — 14mph faster than the previous record. Junior Johnson and Bobby Isaac won the qualifying races in their Dodge Polaras, while Richard Petty put a hurting on the field come Sunday in his Plymouth Belvedere. The only car on the lead lap, the boy who would be King, led a 1-2-3 finish of 426 Hemi-powered cars across the finish line, putting the NASCAR world on notice that the 1964 season would be a painful one.


7. All Hail: The King: Petty’s Season of Unbreakable Records (1967 Season)
After the 1964 performance that saw Richard Petty win nine races (with 14 second-place efforts) and his first of seven championships, NASCAR put the kibosh on the Hemi. For an engine to run in competition, it must be made a regular production option. Chrysler boycotted the ’65 season, but with the Street Hemi released to the general public in 1966 it was go-time once again. Even three years after its introduction, nobody could have predicted what was about to happen: 48 starts, 27 wins, seven second-place runs, 10 wins in a row. Yeah, I know, they raced a lot and some of them were on dirt tracks, but when you win or finish second over 70 percent of the time at the height of the muscle car era, you don’t owe anybody an apology.

 

6. Baker Breaks 200 mph Barrier (March 24, 1970)
When Buddy Baker was in his heyday, he had a reputation of driving one way: WFO, throttle to the stops, checkers or wreckers. The first time he raced at Martinsville for Petty Enterprises, the crew pulled the brakes off the car and said they could be used in another race with no problem. Therefore, Buddy was the natural choice to attempt to break the hallowed 200 mph barrier for an average-lap speed at Talladega.

In what is one of my favorite motorsports related photographs of all time, the chalkboard don’t lie when Baker lit up the clocks with an average speed of 200.447mph.
 

 

5. Isaac Sets Land Speed Record at Bonneville Salt Flats (Jan. 1971)  Bobby Isaac
The Bugatti Veyron required three radiators, four turbo chargers, 16 cylinders and five miles of perfectly flat road to attain 254 mph in April, 2013. In 1971, Bobby Isaac needed just one mile of salt, a two-year-old K&K Insurance Dodge Charger Daytona with its nose cone, rudders, and a 426 Hemi to break an average run record of 210 mph. During practice runs, he ran the same speed with crew chief Harry Hyde riding shotgun, clinging to the roll cage. Twenty eight world land speed records were set over the course of their quest, many of which still stand to this day.


4. Guts. Glory. Keselowski. Dodge Wins First NASCAR Race in 20 Years (Sept. 4, 1997)
While Brad Keselowski has certainly made a name for himself in NASCAR having won Nationwide and Cup Series championships, his father Bob Keselowski was the first in the family to win a NASCAR race. He was also the first to get Dodge back into Victory Lane since Richard Petty last visited some 20 years earlier. Bob Keselowski was a pioneer in helping to get Chrysler back into NASCAR — and circle track racing in general — having campaigned a Chrysler LeBaron in the ARCA Series. In the Truck Series race at Richmond in Sept. 1997, his Ram reigned supreme, putting the Mopar Parts sponsored machine in the winner’s circle after a two-decade absence.


3. McMurray Wins First Career Cup Race in Second Start (Oct., 2002)
When Dodge returned to NASCAR for the 2001 season, it wasn’t some half-hearted effort. Ray Evernham left Hendrick Motorsports to join the fray, as did Indy 500 and championship-winning owner Chip Ganassi. In 2002, Sterling Marlin was leading the points with nine races to go when, as Sterling might say, “Someone stuck uh stick in muh spokes.” A broken neck was the result of a crash at Kansas Speedway, and a replacement driver was needed ASAP. Enter Jamie McMurray, relatively obscure Busch Grand National competitor from Missouri. A 26th-place finish at Talladega didn’t necessarily shout “next big thing,” but the following week at Charlotte, McMurray led 96 laps en route to his first career win after holding off Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace and Jimmie Johnson.


2. Awesome Bill, Dodge Win at Indy (Aug. 4, 2002)
Bill Elliott made a name for himself for winning big races in 1985, when he won the inaugural Winston Million by conquering three of NASCAR’s triple crown of races: the Daytona 500, Talladega 500 and the Southern 500. When the Brickyard 400 was added to the schedule in 1994, it was another crown that needed to be captured. In 2003, Elliott led 93 laps and held off a trio of Fords to the checkered flag. As is the case with most Mopar guys, Elliott had the only Dodge in the top 15 that day, making planting one on oil and rubber covered bricks at the start-finish line that much sweeter.


1. Keselowski Wins 2012 Sprint Cup Championship
As the sun began to set on NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow, so did Dodge’s involvement in the sport. The fallout from the 2009 auto bailout meant a buyer was needed for one of America’s most storied automotive brands — and one that finds itself on the brink of financial ruin and obsolescence every 20 years. Fiat makes Ferraris, Maserattis, and, well, Fiats, but none of those fit a NASCAR template. When the focus shifted from selling muscle cars to throwing everything they had at the Dart, Dodge was all but done in NASCAR. And once Roger Penske decided to rekindle a relationship with Ford to help cover the costs of developing the new Gen-6 car on the horizon, its future was set. In true heroic Mopar fashion though, Bad Brad Keselowski went out and (briefly) prevented Jimmie Johnson from winning his sixth title by winning the 2012 Sprint Cup championship. What followed was the greatest interview in the history of ESPN’s SportsCenter:

 

Follow Vito Pugliese on Twitter: @VitoPugliese

Isaac photo courtesy of George Wallace/AeroWarriors

Teaser:
Dodge's greatest NASCAR moments
Post date: Friday, April 25, 2014 - 19:21
Path: /nascar/nascar-richmond-sprint-cup-series-returns-scene-2013-drama
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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, a return to 2013 "scene of the crime," winless drivers Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne, the downfall of Swan Racing and the return of The King highlight Saturday's Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

 

 

Bowyer back to Richmond after Chase controversy  Clint Bowyer
The last thing Clint Bowyer needs this weekend is another bout with poison ivy.

The last time he suffered from the plant’s itchy aftermath while racing at Richmond last fall, Bowyer became a central figure in a ham-handed in-race plot by Michael Waltrip Racing to ensure his teammate a spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The result? Martin Truex Jr. is no longer Bowyer’s teammate, MWR contracted to two full-time teams and NASCAR, the sport, was battered by loud questions about its very legitimacy.

Bowyer has smartly been hesitant to address the incident directly, knowing full well that direct admissions in the immediate aftermath could have escalated NASCAR’s punishments and that many in NASCAR’s vocal fan base weren’t going to give him the time of day for explanation or apology.

He scratched the surface slightly early Friday at Richmond, though.

“I’m looking forward to having another good run here and shaking that off from last year,” Bowyer said. “It was a bad deal and I get it.”


2013 dominators Kenseth, Johnson each still eye first win
It’s Richmond. NASCAR is edging in on its 10th race of the year. And yet? The two drivers who paced most of last season still aren’t Sprint Cup race winners. What gives?

A year ago after eight races, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson had taken home half of the checkered flags — two apiece. With both currently standing at zero, it’s easy to note the odd turn of events especially in light of NASCAR’s playoff system overhaul that placed more emphasis on regular season wins.

Friday morning at Richmond, Johnson didn’t exactly beam with confidence.

“We suck here. We’re terrible. Hopefully we’re a lot better this weekend,” Johnson said. “The last couple of trips here especially — we’ve been junk.”

A three-time track winner, Johnson’s candid remarks seem a bit of a stretch. But as of late, Johnson’s Richmond sledding hasn’t been easy. He’s landed just one top 10 in the last five races against two finishes of 31st or worse.

Kenseth, meanwhile, is trending toward his second win at the track. He notched two top-10 finishes last season at RIR and led more laps in the spring race than any of his previous Richmond starts.


What to make of Swan Racing’s surprising downfall?
Parker Kligerman doesn’t have a ride this weekend at Richmond and Cole Whitt will be in a No. 26 officially owned by another team. The No. 30 was sold and Swan Racing has technically become dormant — if not dead.

That’s a quick departure from the team’s previously announced plans to race full-time in 2014 with both cars.

But it’s indicative of what can happen to underfunded teams that start a season in a miserable fashion. Swan started 2014 with five DNFs, zero lead lap finishes and a best of 18th (Whitt) in California. The team also lost several race cars at Daytona thanks to both race and practice crashes.

Those results combined with team owner Brandon Davis unsuccessfully locating external funding — his self-owned oil company was footing the majority of the team’s bill — led Swan to its current position. It’s not an indictment of Davis, Kligerman or Whitt. It’s just a fact of life in today’s NASCAR that has little room for startups and small budgets.


Early strength missing again from Kasey Kahne  Kasey Kahne
Last we knew from Kasey Kahne, he was leaving a dark Darlington Raceway garage area without comment. He had just crashed his No. 5 and hit hard enough to prevent repair. Expectedly, Kahne wasn’t pleased.

Kahne’s crash continued a season marked by both the ho-hum and the disappointing. He finished eight laps off the pace at Daytona and has averaged a finish of 21st since. He’s 22nd in points.

It’s a trend Kahne has become all too familiar with — but one he seemed to break last year.

From 2009 to 2012, Kahne was a slow starter averaging a points standing rank of 19th after eight races. Last year, though, Kahne broke the cycle with a win and four top-5 finishes in the first eight races to sit second in points.


The King returns after wife’s passing
Seven-time NASCAR champion and team owner Richard Petty can’t remember the last time he was gone from racing for so long now that he’s back at the track following his wife’s passing.

“I have never been gone that long. Never,” Petty, 76, said in a team release Friday. “I have never missed two or three races in a row. Maybe one from time to time but never more than that.”

Petty’s wife Lynda passed away March 25 after a lengthy cancer battle. She was 72. Understandably, Petty needed time to his wife of 55 years.

“I just felt like I needed to sort of have a little time on (my) own so I have been gone for two or three weeks but I am back in the saddle again now,” Petty said. “I am just learning to live all over again.”

Lynda Petty, like her husband, was a fixture around the sport for decades.

“I am surviving. It is going to be different I guess,” Petty said. “After 55 years I have to start all over again. I was fortunate that all the kids came home for Easter. We had all the kids and grandkids home and that really made things work good.”


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
 

Teaser:
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, a return to 2013 "scene of the crime," winless drivers Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne, the downfall of Swan Racing and the return of The King highlight Saturday's Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
Post date: Friday, April 25, 2014 - 18:28
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-april-25-2014
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for April 25.

The hottest celebrity Instagram photos of the week, including Anastasia Ashley (pictured).

• I run hot and cold on Frank Caliendo, but his Gruden's pretty good.

Brandon Phillips channels his inner Easter Bunny and terrorizes an infant.

Pat Forde on the Harrison Twins' savior-bum-savior life cycle at UK.

• Lolo Jones uses Twitter for good, and for ill. This dis of Michael Pineda is an example of the former. Another Olympian, hockey player Meghan Duggan, also trolled Pineda while on the mound at Fenway.

• Even Tommy John himself is alarmed at the number of Tommy John surgeries this season.

Some dude is trying to collect every VHS copy of the Keanu-Sandy Bullock classic "Speed." It's good to have a hobby, I guess.

• The headline says this is the best softball catch you'll see all week. It's the only softball catch I've seen this week, so the headline's correct.

Larry Bird's head-in-hands moment has led to some fun memes

• Need something to fire you up? How about another grown man grabbing a ball away from a kid?

• Ah, the old hidden ball trick. Pay close attention.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, April 25, 2014 - 17:37
Path: /college-football/byu-football-2014-schedule-analysis
Body:

Bronco Mendenhall enters his 10th season as the BYU head coach and his fourth as the head coach of an independent program. Scheduling has been more difficult for the Cougars since leaving the Mountain West both in terms of ironing out opponents and the play on the field.

It has led to 10 losses in the last two seasons after five years with at least 10 wins between 2006-11. The 2014 slate isn’t nearly as daunting as the last few seasons for BYU and, with a star returning under center, there are lots of reasons for optimism in Provo.

This offense went from 60th nationally in 2012 to 14th a year ago with Taysom Hill running the show. He gradually improved his efficiency as a passer over the course of the season and enters his junior season with Heisman potential and a schedule that should allow for big numbers offensively.

A return to double-digit wins isn’t unreasonable should things fall right for Mendenhall, Hill and the Cougars.

WkDateOpp.
1.Aug. 29at 
2.Sept. 6at 
3.Sept. 11
4.Sept. 20
5.Sept. 27Bye
6.Oct. 3
7.Oct. 9at 
8.Oct. 18
9.Oct. 24at 
10.Nov. 1at 
11.Nov. 8Bye
12.Nov. 15
13.Nov. 22Savannah State
14.Nov. 29at 

2014 BYU Schedule Analysis

Revenge on the mind
Opening the season with UConn  should be a celebration but the following two weeks could feature games rich with revenge. First, BYU heads down to Austin to battle new head coach Charlie Strong and the Longhorns. Mendenhall’s team can bet that the Horns remember the 550 yards rushing and 40 points it allowed in a loss in Provo a year ago. Two weeks later, BYU returns home to take on a scuffling Virginia team that somehow beat the Cougars a year ago in Charlottesville in the season-opener. A reverse of last year’s outcome might be the safest bet.

Primetime schedule
In the first nine weeks of the season, BYU will play just three games on Saturday. Games at UConn (Week 1), at home against Utah State (Week 6) and at Boise State (Week 9) will take place on Friday evening in primetime while games against Houston at home (Week 3) and at UCF (Week 7) are scheduled for Thursday evening. The schedule normalizes later in the year with four straight games on Saturday but the first two months of the season will be an unusual run of primetime, weeknight games for BYU.

The month of October
After playing two of the three “Big 5” teams on their schedule in the first month, BYU will spend most of October battling all of the best “mid-major” programs from West of the Mississippi. Boise State has long been a powerhouse out West and is breaking in a new coach. Nevada and Utah State have experienced excellent success over the last decade and, they too, are under relatively new leadership on the sidelines. Mix in a long trip to Orlando to face the defending Fiesta Bowl champions and the Cougars have a very testy month of action despite not facing any teams from power leagues.

Off Weekends
The first bye falls in Week 4 and comes at a good time before the aforementioned long run of quality mid-major opponents. After facing UConn, Texas, Houston and Virginia, the rest should be a welcomed sight. The second off weekend (Week 11) also comes at an opportune time after the tough five-game stretch in the heart of October. It gives the Cougars plenty of time to prepare for the final leg of the season — one that shouldn’t be too daunting.

The Final Leg
Should BYU be (gasp) undefeated by its second off weekend, there is a good chance it will finish that way as the final month features three extremely winnable games to end the year. The final three weeks of the season are made up of home dates with UNLV and Savannah State as well as a trip to Berkeley to face Cal in the season finale. All three should feature large point spreads in favor of the Cougars, although, the Golden Bears should be vastly improved from a year ago when they went 1-11 overall and 0-9 in the Pac-12.

Final Verdict
The schedule isn’t all that daunting for BYU. Will Texas be clicking on all cylinders with a chance at revenge at home? Likely. But other than the trip to Austin, every other game is extremely winnable. Should Hill continue to develop as a passer, his dual-threat ability could be virtually impossible to stop by most of the Cougars' opponents. Mendenhall’s squad should be in every game it plays this year and may have an outside shot at earning a College Football Playoff berth.

Teaser:
BYU Football 2014 Schedule Analysis
Post date: Friday, April 25, 2014 - 09:15
Path: /nfl/2014-nfl-draft-consensus-qb-rankings
Body:

To win a Super Bowl, a team must play defense, must be able to run the ball in short yardage situations but, above all else, must have a good quarterback.

It’s why 13 of the last 16 NFL drafts have begun with a team selecting a signal-caller with the No. 1 overall pick. Some of those have been home runs (Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Eli Manning), some have been total busts (JaMarcus Russell, David Carr) and others have yet to determine their legacy (Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford). But it’s clear what position is the most important.

NFL general managers know that the game begins and ends with a great quarterback. If your favorite team has a solid signal-caller then it has a chance to win big. If it doesn’t have a capable leader under center, well, then, it will be a long winter.

Of the 12 teams in the NFL playoffs a year ago, seven were QB-ed by a first-round pick. However, of the final four quarterbacks left standing, only one (Peyton Manning) was a first-rounder. Colin Kaepernick was a second-round pick, Russell Wilson was a third-rounder and Tom Brady was a sixth-round selection. And it was a third-round pick who is currently the defending Super Bowl champion.

Many believed that the 2014 quarterback class was going to be one of the best collections of prospects to enter the NFL Draft since the 2004 group that included the younger Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger (as well as J.P. Losman) all being selected in the first round. However, with more than a few big-time prospects — Brett Hundley, Braxton Miller, Marcus Mariota and Bryce Petty — all returning to college, the state of the 2014 QB draft class was thrown into chaos.

So when the 79th annual NFL Draft begins on May 8, there will be something for everyone when it comes to the quarterback position. There’s the short playmaker (Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray), the massive jumbo passer (Blake Bortles, Tom Savage, Logan Thomas) and the consummate game-manager (Teddy Bridgewater, AJ McCarron, Tajh Boyd).

Opinions vary greatly on who is the best of this group and when they should be selected on draft weekend. So Athlon Sports has culled the world wide web for the best and most trusted NFL Draft opinions in an effort to sort out the 2014 quarterback class.

Here are the 12 rankings used to compile Athlon Sports' consensus QB rankings:

AS: Athlon Sports
CBS: CBS Sports
NFL: NFL.com
MK: Mel Kiper
TM: Todd McShay
OL: OurLads.com
SI: SportsIllustrated
BR: Bleacher Report
SB: SBNation
SN: Sporting News
WF: WalterFootball.com
PS: Phil Savage

Consensus 2014 NFL Draft QB rankings:

 NameTeamASCBSNFLMKTMOLSIBRSBSNWFPS
1.Teddy BridgewaterLouisville132121111145
2.Blake BortlesUCF411213332212
3.Johnny ManzielTexas A&M224332243591
4.Derek CarrFresno State643474424433
5.Jimmy GaroppolloE. Illinois 65555737354
6.AJ McCarronAlabama38666766 778
7.Zach MettenbergerLSU97810106555666
8.Tom SavagePitt 51074 8 10 89
9.Aaron MurrayGeorgia59 99997910107
10.Logan ThomasVirginia Tech  788    8910
11.David FalesSan Jose State 10   101096   
12.Tajh BoydClemson7 9  8      
13.Brett SmithWyoming       1089  
14.Connor ShawSouth Carolina8           
15.Bryn RennerNorth Carolina10           

Inside Athlon’s Rankings

Collegiate success matters
The funny thing about great college players is that they are great players. There is a distinct trend with the AS rankings and that is college success. Names like Tajh Boyd, Aaron Murray and AJ McCarron are higher on our ranking than most because of success against the best competition this country has to offer. McCarron is arguably the most decorated and successful QB in SEC history while Murray is the most productive in SEC history. Both were elite recruits and played as such in the college ranks. Boyd falls into a similar category while competing against a slightly lower level of competition. That said, his height (6-1) and overall performance against Florida State and the SEC is why Murray and McCarron rank higher.

Leadership is "it"
Russell Wilson has it. Drew Brees has it. So, too, does Murray, McCarron, Boyd and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw. And none of those names were/will be first-round picks. Murray has been compared to Brees since leading his team to a state championship in Florida after breaking his leg in the same season. Shaw won’t ever be mistaken for a truly great NFL quarterback prospect due to his overall lack of size and arm polish, but most of the quarterbacks drafted this year will fizzle out of the league in short order. The key is to avoid taking one of the busts early. Shaw may not have much upside, but he has zero downside, is tough as nails and is a born leader. He is the winningest QB in the history of South Carolina football and he rarely turned the ball over. Those are two things coaches crave in a backup signal-caller.

Don’t fall for the measurables
The scouts who love Logan Thomas and Tom Savage clearly haven’t watched any college football. It’s not that these two prospects aren’t great athletes but they simply didn’t prove in college that they are pro passers. Thomas was a walking turnover and is responsible for the downturn of a program known for churning out 10 wins a season like clock work. Savage didn’t have much in the way of a supporting cast but he had plenty of chances at two schools to shine and never really developed. Don’t let their massive frames and huge arms hide the awful game tape both bring to the table. LSU’s Zach Mettenberger falls into this category somewhat as well.

The curious case of Zach Mettenberger
He’s huge, has a big arm, played against high-level competition, was an elite recruit and showed improvement in his final season. He also was consistently inaccurate, kicked out of school for multiple off-the-field incidents, never came close to winning a championship and had arguably the top WR tandem in the nation at his disposal in 2013. The risk doesn't match the reward.

Level of competition
David Fales, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppollo didn’t face anything resembling an NFL defense. These three QBs rarely faced quality defenses and when they did, it didn’t turn out well. Carr’s worst three games over the last two years came against USC, Boise State (2012) and Oregon — arguably the best three defenses he faced and Fresno went 0-3. Fales had a nice season under offensive whiz Mike MacIntyre in 2012 and then took significant steps back once his head coach moved to Colorado and San Jose State moved up in competition (WAC to MWC). Garoppollo posted huge numbers, but was in a pass-happy offense that most quarterbacks would excel within — especially, against that type of competition. Carr is easily the most talented of the lower-tiered trio but none appear worthy of a first-round grade.

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, April 25, 2014 - 08:00
Path: /college-football/should-sec-stay-eight-conference-games-or-expand-nine
Body:

Future schedules are a hot topic in the SEC. With the creation of college football’s four-team playoff postseason format, most BCS teams have beefed up the non-conference schedule in order to improve the resume.

While improved non-conference scheduling seems to be directly tied to the new playoff format, that’s not the only discussion involving scheduling in most conferences.

The Big 12 and Pac-12 already play nine conference games, and the Big Ten is set to expand to nine league contests in 2016.

The ACC is considering a switch from eight games in the future, and the SEC is in discussions its schedules for upcoming seasons.

As college football’s No. 1 conference, is it worth it for the SEC to expand to nine league contests every year?

With the creation of the SEC Network, more inventory for television is needed. However, could a tougher schedule hurt the SEC when the playoff teams are announced?

To help answer this question, Athlon Sports has enlisted two editors to discuss the SEC schedule. Braden Gall breaks down why the SEC should expand to nine conference games, while Steven Lassan makes the case for staying at eight games.

The SEC Needs to Expand to Nine Conference Games:

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Don’t listen to my esteemed and respected colleague Steven Lassan. There is no rational, financial or strategic reason why the SEC should play eight conference games. There are only coaches acting in the interest of self-preservation. They've voted against nine-game SEC schedules because they want to go to bowl games and keep their jobs. That’s it. Otherwise, there is no other rational argument that can be made against a nine-game slate.

First, always follow the money. The money is really all that matters in this situation. Mike Slive and the SEC could play — and subsequently sell — 57 total SEC games to its TV partners. Or it can produce and sell 64 games to its TV partners. Which one do you think the TV partners are going to vote for? And when it comes time to renegotiate the deal? Slive and the SEC are in an even better position to drive the broadcasting price higher. The desire for more SEC football is only getting stronger and adding a game to the schedule enhances the conference’s situation financially.

That’s not all, however, as there's more than one money angle. A home SEC game is worth in excess of $10 million in revenue to the local economy. A fifth home SEC game for half of the league would be a huge coup to local businesses and the community in general. Additionally, the sport as a whole has seen its attendance numbers stagnate and even decline. The best way to curtail that trend is to put a better product on the field. Texas A&M and South Carolina is obviously a bigger draw than a game between the Citadel and South Carolina.

Lastly, and most importantly for the fans, is strength of schedule. From a strategic standpoint, strength of schedule is going to play a larger and larger role in determining playoff spots — no matter how big the College Football Playoff bracket gets. Every other major league plays nine conference games and adding a marquee SEC win to your favorite team’s resume will give it a much better shot at landing in the playoffs. Nick Saban knows this is the direction college football, the SEC and the selection committee is heading and he is simply the first one to jump on board the moving train. He’s not scared of anyone, not from the SEC or any other league. And as the college basketball selection committee has shown in recent years, the strength of one’s schedule is paramount to evaluation process. A ninth quality conference game and likely 10th opponent from another “Big 5” league will almost be a necessity rather than an obstacle.

To top it all off, I am a selfish college football fan and I want to see more good games and no more of these garbage, sacrificial showdowns between college football’s greatest teams and rosters that don’t belong anywhere near an SEC campus. Top that, Lasso.

The SEC Should Stay at Eight Conference Games:

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I can’t deny that Braden makes a lot of good points in his writeup. And I’m probably fighting an uphill battle here since it seems inevitable that the conference will go to nine games.

However, is it possible there is too much of a good thing here?

The SEC is the SEC, and as long as elite talent on the recruiting trail continues to flow into the conference, this league will always be No. 1 nationally. However, adding a ninth game could eat into the bottom of the league, and there's no need to make the path to a conference championship more difficult.

If I am Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Mississippi State, I do not want a ninth conference game. If a ninth conference game is added, could it widen the gap between the top and bottom of the league? Also, I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist, so I do not want to see rivalries like Auburn-Georgia and Tennessee-Alabama move away from their annual format. Sure, new ones will be created, but the SEC thrives on its old rivalries between crossover division rivals. 

Eliminating a non-conference game (likely a guaranteed win) would put a huge dent in the bowl hopes of the bottom of the league. Sure, you can argue there are too many bowl games, but let’s also not forget the postseason has expanded because bowls benefit television networks in December/January. The Pac-12 plays nine conference games and nine teams were eligible for the postseason last year. The Big 12 had six bowl-eligible teams and failed to fill two of their spots (Pinstripe, Texas). Heading into 2014, the SEC has at least 11 bowl tie-ins. I’m not defending the bowl system, but do we really want a postseason where 5-7 or 4-8 teams are reaching the postseason? I didn’t think so.

While the playoff has encouraged tougher scheduling, are we really sure that is going to last? I could be wrong, but the beefy non-conference schedules programs are touting may be a short-term gain of the playoff. In 10-15 years, it could go back to a weak non-conference schedule, especially as teams get a better grasp of how the committee will handle the rankings.

If the SEC expands to nine conference games, one would think a two-loss team from this league would still have a good shot at being ranked among the top four teams in the final committee poll. However, we can’t say for sure. What if the league ends up with a handful of two loss teams every year in the top 10? Would a one-loss team from the ACC, Big Ten or Big 12 rank ahead of the SEC? This is all hypothetical, but the SEC already has enough strength to stand on its own with eight conference games. Not to mention, check out the list of non-conference opponents SEC teams played during the 2013 regular season: Florida State, Miami, Washington State, Virginia Tech, Rutgers, Clemson, TCU, Oklahoma State, Texas, North Carolina and Oregon.

If I were in charge of the SEC tomorrow, I’d encourage my teams to schedule one marquee non-conference game (similar to the opponents above) and try to use only FBS opponents for all of the out of league matchups.

If something works, even if it may not be perfect, why change it? In this case, the SEC already has the No. 1 ranking among conferences, schedules plenty of good non-conference games and would seem to have the inside track on getting at least two teams in the playoff every year. Perhaps one way of improving the SEC schedule is to eliminate some of the crossover games every year (South Carolina-Texas A&M, Mississippi State-Kentucky) to allow teams to play every other program in the league more often.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the lure of nine conference games. But the SEC doesn’t need nine conference games to improve its national standing. As the No. 1 conference in college football, the SEC can afford to sit back and see how the new playoff works before changing its scheduling principles.

Teaser:
Should the SEC Stay at Eight Conference Games or Expand to Nine?
Post date: Friday, April 25, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/athlon-sports-cover-2-podcast-reporting-alabama-auburn-spring-games
Body:

Athlon’s Braden Gall and David Fox split up A-Day duties, spending time at Auburn and Alabama through each school’s spring game.

At Auburn, the fan base (and athletic director) is enjoying the rebound, but Gus Malzahn is busy at work trying to ramp up the tempo of the offense while plugging holes on defense.

At Alabama, the fans have moved on from the 0-2 finish to last season, but the losing streak exposed some cracks in leadership and culture in the Alabama locker room. Nick Saban spent the spring trying to reinforce those things.

In the spring games, both teams learned a bit about their quarterbacks. Nick Marshall may be on his way to being a standout passer while Blake Sims might not be the top guy for much longer.

The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com, iTunes and our podcast RSS feed.

Please send any comments, questions and podcast topics to @AthlonSports, @BradenGall, @DavidFox615 and @AthlonSteven on Twitter or email podcast@athlonsports.com.

Teaser:
Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast: Reporting from Alabama, Auburn Spring Games
Post date: Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 18:28
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/ranking-nfls-toughest-schedules-2014
Body:

 


The NFL has little control over the schedule.

The rotation of crossover divisional opponents is set in stone years in advance and the six divisional games won’t change unless the league expands. Really, the NFL can control two games per team in an effort to make the best team’s schedules more difficult and to give the perceived weaker teams an easier path.

The big news that comes from the annual schedule release is times, dates, locations, bye weekends and days of the week. The NFL can backload, shorten the work week, send a team to London or frontload a team’s schedule. The goal for the NFL is, with most things, to create balance among all 32 franchises.

But the fans know better and last year was a perfect example. I ranked San Diego, Indianapolis and Kansas City as the three easiest schedules in the NFL. And all three teams took major steps forward to earn a postseason berth.

The important thing to remember is ranking NFL schedules based on last year’s winning percentages is short-sighted and inaccurate. Oakland is ranked No. 1 because they played in a division with three playoff teams and there is no certainty that Kansas City or San Diego will repeat. Conversely, the AFC South appears to give the Colts and Titans the two easiest schedules in the league but no one believes the Texans will go 2-14 again (which counts as 4-28 for Indianapolis and Tennessee when it comes to opponents' record) — which obviously impacts their opponents' winning percentage from a year ago.

There will be teams that improve and teams that take steps back, so projecting the shifts in the landscape are much more important than last year’s winning percentage.

So who has the toughest NFL schedule heading into 2014?

1. St. Louis Rams
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC East

Swing Games: Minnesota, at Tampa Bay
Opponents ’13 Record: 56.4% (3rd)

Having to play Seattle and San Francisco four times as well as two dates with a Cardinals team that won 10 games a year ago gives St. Louis the toughest six-game divisional stretch in the NFL — by a wide margin. Having to face three playoff teams from the AFC West and a balanced NFC East makes rotational play difficult as well. Swing games against Minnesota and Tampa Bay are a welcome sight but those could be the two easiest NFC games the Rams play and they happen in the first two weeks of the season. Even the bye week is poorly positioned in Week 4 with an eight-week stretch where St. Louis may not win a game against seven playoff teams and the Cardinals.

2. Oakland Raiders
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC West
Swing Games: Houston, at Cleveland
Opponents ’13 Record: 57.8% (1st)

According to the records, Oakland has the toughest path in the NFL next year. While the slate is packed with elite teams — including six divisional games against playoff teams from last year — there are still chances for wins. Playing the AFC East gives the Raiders one nasty game (New England) and three against teams at .500 or below a year ago, while swing games with the Browns and Texans are “supposed” to be easier. That said, playing in the toughest division in its conference and having to face all four teams from the NFC West makes Oakland's slate one of the toughest in the AFC this fall.

3. Arizona Cardinals
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC East

Swing Games: Detroit, at Atlanta
Opponents ’13 Record: 54.7% (8th)

Oddly, the Cardinals will visit San Diego in the final preseason game before hosting San Diego in Week 1 in one of the more bizarre starts to a season in ’14. The bye week is extremely early (Week 4) but is positioned between games with the 49ers and Broncos. After Denver, the slate lightens up for Arizona with only one game against a playoff team between Week 6 and Week 11 and that is the Eagles at home. The Cards better get some work done early, however, as the final six weeks will be nasty with two games against Seattle as well as dates with Atlanta, Kansas City, at St. Louis and the season finale in San Francisco.

4. Seattle Seahawks
AFC/NFC Crossover:  AFC West, NFC East

Swing Games: Green Bay, at Carolina
Opponents ’13 Record: 56.1% (6th)

First and foremost, playing the NFC West makes for the toughest divisional slate in the league, however, Seattle doesn’t have to play… Seattle twice either. The AFC West had three playoff teams last year and should once again be one of the toughest divisions in the AFC. And swing games with potential division champs Green Bay and Carolina makes for a nasty path to a repeat. Three road games from Week 13 to Week 16 — at San Francisco, Philadelphia and Arizona — with a home test against the 49ers might be the toughest stretch any team in the NFL will face all season. And the year begins with three playoff teams: Green Bay, at San Diego and a Super Bowl rematch at home against Denver.

5. Denver Broncos
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC West
Swing Games: Indianapolis, at Cincinnati
Opponents ’13 Record: 57.0% (2nd)

Not having to face themselves twice in divisional play gives the Broncos the easiest divisional schedule in the AFC West. And facing New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati in AFC play means that Denver will play nine games against AFC playoff teams from a year ago as well as the two teams who met in the NFC Championship Game. Sure-fire wins over Oakland and the rest of the AFC East provide breathers in what should be one of the tougher AFC slates of ’14.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC North,
Swing Games: St. Louis, at Washington
Opponents ’13 Record: 48.4% (19th)

It’s hard to see the Bucs, under a first-year head coach, getting a single win in the first six weeks of the season before mercifully getting a week off in Week 7. A home game against the Rams might be the only game Tampa could be competitive in early in the year. The good news is the slate lightens up significantly following the bye with games against the Vikings, Browns, Falcons, Redskins and Bears in order from Weeks 8-12. Finishing with games at Carolina, Green Bay and New Orleans at home is daunting as well. There are not too many guaranteed wins on this schedule for Lovie Smith.

7. Cincinnati Bengals
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: Denver, at New England
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.9% (23rd)

The Bengals' first seven games will be a challenge as Marvin Lewis’ squad gets road games with Baltimore, New England and Indianapolis to go with home tilts against Atlanta, Tennessee, Carolina and a rematch with the Ravens. The home games are winnable and an upset or two is needed if Cincinnati wants to take control of the AFC North early in the year. Otherwise, the pressure will be on Cincy to win key swings games late in the year (at New Orleans, at Houston, Denver and two with the Steelers). This is a nasty schedule that features the best two teams in the AFC as swing opponents and at least four very difficult divisional games. The only comfort is a bye week positioned in the middle of the early seven-game gauntlet and a soft(er) middle portion of the slate.

8. San Diego Chargers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC West
Swing Games: Jacksonville, at Baltimore
Opponents ’13 Record: 56.3% (4th)

Four games with the Broncos and Chiefs will be brutal but two with the Raiders are equally as easy. Crossover play also features one extremely winnable game against the Jags and one very tough game at Baltimore. Package that with four against the NFC West and the Bolts can boast one of the AFC’s toughest slates. Few teams will finish with as difficult a stretch as San Diego will with that road trip to Baltimore leading into New England and Denver at home before road trips to San Francisco and Kansas City in the final five games. Getting work done early will be key for Philip Rivers and company out on the West Coast. 

9. Kansas City Chiefs
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC West
Swing Games: Tennessee, at Pittsburgh
Opponents ’13 Record: 55.9% (7th)

The Chiefs showed marked improvement last year based on schedule and things should swing back to the norm this fall. Crossover play with the Titans and Steelers won’t be easy but neither team made the playoffs last year. Facing the Chargers and Broncos four combined times is balanced out by two with Oakland. And all four games against the NFC West will be battles. Following the bye in Week 6 and a nasty start to the year that features games at Denver, at San Francisco and New England at home, Kansas City’s slate will lighten up. Other than Seattle and Denver (Week 11 and 13), the Chiefs could be favored in every game. Key road trips to beatable but solid opponents San Diego and Arizona could decide the Chiefs' playoff fate.

10. Washington Redskins
AFC/NFC Crossover:  AFC South, NFC West

Swing Games: Tampa Bay, at Minnesota
Opponents ’13 Record: 49.0% (17th)

Two swing games with Tampa Bay and Minnesota as well as four games with the AFC South should allow for the Skins to improve in ’14. Getting three of the last four games, including two with Philadelphia and Dallas, at home in the final four weeks should as well. That said, facing the NFC West will be nasty and a road trip to Indianapolis comes on the heels of visiting the 49ers (Week 12-13). There are plenty of chances for wins for Washington but this isn’t as easy a schedule as should be expected for a team that lost 13 games last season.

11. San Francisco 49ers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC East
Swing Games: Chicago, at New Orleans
Opponents ’13 Record: 56.3% (4th)

The 49ers start with some tricky games but won’t face a playoff team from a year ago until Week 4. Getting the Super Bowl champs and archrival Seahawks twice in three weeks is brutal but it’s late in the year and is sandwiched around a “road game” against Oakland. The bye week is nicely situated midway through the season in Week 8 and should help ease the Niners into a manageable month of November (STL, at NO, at NYG, WAS). This schedule could have been much harder when compared to the other teams in the NFC West.

12. Carolina Panthers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC North,
Swing Games: Seattle, at Philadelphia
Opponents ’13 Record: 47.3% (22nd)

Not having to face Carolina twice helps the divisional slate for the Panthers but getting Seattle and a road trip to Philadelphia in NFC swing contests will be difficult. The early part of the schedule is highlighted by a nasty three-game road swing in four weeks against the Ravens (Week 4), Bengals (Week 6) and Packers (Week 7) before welcoming the Super Bowl champs to town (Week 8). The bye week is extremely late in Week 12 but the final five games should be manageable. Road trips to division rivals New Orleans and Atlanta will be tough but the Vikings, Bucs and Browns provide some time to breathe late in the year for a team trying to repeat as division champs.

13. New Orleans Saints
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC North,
Swing Games: San Francisco, at Dallas
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.9% (23rd)

Three road trips in the first four weeks makes for an interesting start for New Orleans as the Saints, more than most teams, love playing at home. That said, the first five weeks of the year before the off weekend should provide plenty of wins against the likes of the Browns, Vikings and Buccaneers. It’s a good thing, because following a road game against Detroit in Week 7, the Saints will face a nasty stretch of likely playoff opponents for seven straight weeks. The only good news is a three-game homestand against the 49ers, Bengals and Ravens from Nov. 9-24. The final three weeks do offer some hope with three teams that all missed the playoffs a year ago (at Chicago, Atlanta, at Tampa Bay).

14. Chicago Bears
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC South

Swing Games: Dallas, at San Francisco
Opponents ’13 Record: 49.6% (15th)

There are a lot of winnable games on the Bears’ schedule before the Week 9 off weekend (Buffalo, at NY Jets, Miami). But there are a lot of games they may not be competitive in as well (at San Francisco, Green Bay, at Carolina, at New England). All four AFC East opponents will come before the break with five NFC North games, including all three divisional road trips, coming in the final eight weeks. This is a hit or miss schedule for the Bears with games that look like certain wins and certain losses and not too many swing games. Chicago might be “who we thought they were” — a middle-of-the-pack team who likely won’t make the playoffs.

15. New York Giants
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC West
Swing Games: Atlanta, at Detroit
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.5% (26th)

Getting Atlanta at home and Detroit on the road in crossover play isn’t terribly scary and visiting Tennessee and Jacksonville in crossover play isn’t either. And the divisional slate is relatively spaced out with back-to-back NFC East games only once (Weeks 6-7). The Giants will play one playoff team before the off weekend in Week 8 and will need the extra time to prepare for one of the nastiest four-week stretches in the NFL. New York will come off of the bye and play Indianapolis, at Seattle, San Francisco and Dallas in four straight. The great news is games with the Jaguars, Titans, Redskins and Rams leading into the season finale at home against the Eagles. The Giants should be able to match or improve on their seven wins.

16. Philadelphia Eagles
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC West
Swing Games: Carolina, at Green Bay
Opponents ’13 Record: 47.9% (20th)

Chip Kelly and the Eagles will face two playoff teams from a year ago in the first nine weeks of the season so winning games early is a must for Philadelphia. And getting road trips to Indianapolis and San Francisco out of the way in the first four weeks helps as well. A mid-season stretch against the Panthers (Week 10), Packers (Week 11), Cowboys (Week 13) and the defending champion Seahawks (Week 14) is a brutal five-week run as the calendar flips to December. NFC East games are always tough but the final three weeks of the season feature three straight divisional games against teams who were at .500 or below last year. This slate has some major speed bumps but plenty of winnable games as well.

17. New York Jets
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC North
Swing Games: Pittsburgh, at Tennessee
Opponents ’13 Record: 52.0% (9th)

In the first seven weeks, the Jets' defense will face Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady before the slate lightens up. The brutal beginning gives way to a much more manageable second half with four games with Buffalo and Miami along with games against Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Tennessee. Facing New England twice along with the AFC West won’t be easy and the Jets could be out of playoff contention early on. Wins over the Raiders, Lions and Bears at home in the first month of the season will be paramount for this team if it wants to contend for a playoff spot.

18. Cleveland Browns
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: Oakland, at Buffalo
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.5% (26th)

The Browns always have a tough draw in the AFC North as most teams would struggle with six games against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Swing games with Oakland and Buffalo are two excellent chances at wins and will be critical to evaluating the Browns' overall trajectory within the AFC. Road trips to Carolina and Atlanta as well as a home game with New Orleans — sandwiched between the Steelers and Ravens in Week 2 — doesn’t give the Browns a cold-weather advantage over the warm-weather Saints.  The middle of the schedule does provide opportunity as the Browns will face the Titans, Jaguars, Raiders and Bucs over a five-week stretch entering November. After that, there is one game (at Buffalo) where Cleveland even has a chance to be favored.

19. Atlanta Falcons
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC North
Swing Games: Arizona, at NY Giants
Opponents ’13 Record: 51.2% (11th)

The year starts with two tough games against the Saints and Bengals but then lightens up until a road trip to Carolina in Week 10. The Falcons could win a bunch of games in the first half as only a road trip to Baltimore feels like a guaranteed loss between Week 2 and the Panthers. Two road trips to Green Bay and New Orleans as well as home games with Pittsburgh and Carolina make the final four weeks extremely difficult. However, the schedule as a whole sets up nicely for the Falcons to bounce back. The NFC North could be the worst division in the NFC and that should help all four teams from the NFC South.

20. Baltimore Ravens
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: San Diego, at Miami
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.1% (28th)

The Ravens will start with three straight AFC North games before hosting Carolina and visiting Indianapolis. If the Ravens can survive the first month of play and pick up a few wins in the middle portion — at Tampa Bay, Atlanta, at Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, Tennessee — then they should finish strong over the final month. Baltimore will face the Dolphins, Jaguars, Texans and Browns in the final four weeks of the season. It means the Ravens will play five of their six divisional games by Week 9.

21. Buffalo Bills
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC North
Swing Games: Cleveland, at Houston
Opponents ’13 Record: 50.0% (14th)

Four games with the Jets and Dolphins offer plenty of chances for wins but two with New England balance that out in short order. Getting to face the NFC North is also a small blessing as only the Packers at home appear to be a certain loss. Crossover play with the AFC West will prove very difficult and swing games with Cleveland and Houston could be tricky. The first two months of the season aren’t all that daunting but the final four weeks will be nasty with road trips to Denver and New England sandwiched around a home game with Green Bay and a long journey to Oakland. If the Browns and Texans show improvement, this could be one of the more difficult AFC slates.

22. Miami Dolphins
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC North
Swing Games: Baltimore, at Jacksonville
Opponents ’13 Record: 50.8% (12th)

Balance is the first word that comes to mind when analyzing the Dolphins' schedule in ’14. The really tough games (New England twice, Denver, Green Bay, Kansas City, Baltimore, San Diego) are spaced out and packaged around easier games with teams like Buffalo (twice), the Jets (twice), Minnesota, Detroit and Jacksonville. In fact, playing in the AFC East and rotating against the NFC North should be very appealing for anyone in the NFL. The bye week is very early but there is no “brutal stretch” for the Fish to deal with in any month of the season.

23. Dallas Cowboys
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC West
Swing Games: New Orleans, at Chicago
Opponents ’13 Record: 48.8% (18th)

Getting the easiest division in football (AFC South) in crossover play is a big plus but having to face the toughest division (NFC West) is a huge concern. All four games against the West will take place in the first nine weeks of the year, meaning Dallas will have to make waves in the second half of the season. This includes two games with each archrival from within the division — including four of the last six games of the season. In fact, the final six weeks will be perilous for the Cowboys as a trip to Chicago and a home game with the Colts are mixed in with four divisional games following the Week 11 off week. There are a lot of chances for wins for the boys in Big D in ’14.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: Kansas City, at NY Jets
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.9% (23rd)

The AFC North gets a nice draw with the AFC South as its crossover competition within the conference and both Houston and Indianapolis come to the Steel City. Games against Kansas City (home) and the Jets (road) are winnable swing games for a team expecting to be above .500 and in the playoff hunt as well. Having to battle Carolina and Atlanta on the road as well as New Orleans at home will prove difficult in NFC competition. And as is the case every year, games within the division against Cincinnati and Baltimore will decide the outcome of the North race. Pittsburgh will have played the Browns and Ravens twice each by Week 9 and have to play the Bengals twice in the final four weeks, including the season finale at home. In fact, the bye week falls perfectly in line with a nasty five-game stretch to end the season featuring the Saints, Bengals (twice), Falcons and Chiefs.

25. Minnesota Vikings
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC South
Swing Games: Washington, at St. Louis
Opponents ’13 Record: 47.7% (21st)

The good news is the Vikings play in the easiest division in the NFC, will play one of the two easiest divisions in the NFL (AFC East) and get two “winnable” swing games with the Redskins and Rams. That said, the Vikings have to play Green Bay twice and don’t get the added bonus of playing themselves twice like the other three teams in the NFC North. The first five weeks of the year are brutal and the Vikes could be winless heading into what should be a much easier last 10 weeks. The Vikings will play two teams in the final 11 games (Green Bay and Carolina at home) that made the playoffs a year ago. It’s a schedule befitting a team that could be the worst in the NFC in ’14.

26. Detroit Lions
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC South
Swing Games: NY Giants, Arizona
Opponents ’13 Record: 49.2% (16th)

Games at Carolina and with Green Bay at home in the first three weeks almost guarantee a slow start for the Lions. However, there are plenty of chances for wins against the Jets, Bills, Vikings, Falcons and Dolphins between Week 4 and Week 10 (as well as a bye week). Things pick up on the road following the off weekend as trips to Arizona, New England, Chicago and Green Bay dot the final seven weeks. There are some tough games but overall, this slate could allow for Detroit to challenge for a Wild Card position. The Lions will play four teams that made the playoffs a year ago all season long.

27. Green Bay Packers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC South
Swing Games: Philadelphia, at Seattle
Opponents ’13 Record: 50.4% (13th)

Returning to the scene of the crime in Week 1 against the Super Bowl champs will be fascinating and difficult. However, after that, the Packers could be favored to win at least five straight games before Carolina comes to town in Week 7 and they visit the Superdome in Week 8. The second half of the schedule, following an off weekend in Week 9, appears tame at best with home games with New England and Philadelphia as the toughest tasks for the Pack in the final eight weeks. Getting six games with the Vikings, Bears and Lions makes this one of the easier NFC schedules.

28. Jacksonville Jaguars
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC East
Swing Games: Miami, at San Diego
Opponents ’13 Record: 45.3% (29th)

The Jags got no favors in crossover play as they will face a developing Miami team and San Diego on the road. Not to mention playing the toughest divisional slate in the AFC South (they don’t get two automatic wins over themselves). Mix in road trips to Baltimore, Cincinnati and Philadelphia in crossover play and it seems difficult to find much improvement from this team. There are plenty of winnable home games (Tennessee, Houston, Cleveland, Miami, Pittsburgh, NY Giants) but this team will most likely be an underdog in every game it plays this fall.

29. New England Patriots
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC North
Swing Games: Cincinnati, at Indianapolis
Opponents ’13 Record: 51.6% (10th)

As usual, not having to face New England twice makes this arguably the easiest divisional schedule of any team in the NFL. Six winnable games in the AFC East are matched by at least three games against the NFC North in which the Pats will be heavily favored. A trip to Green Bay late in the year before having to travel to San Diego could pose some problems. However, the Patriots end with three straight within the division — two of which are at home. Denver, Indianapolis and Cincinnati dot the schedule with some marquee showdowns but, overall, this isn’t an overly taxing slate for a team of New England’s caliber.

30. Tennessee Titans
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC East
Swing Games: NY Jets, at Kansas City
Opponents ’13 Record: 43.8% (31st)

There are four really tough road trips on the Titans' schedule as they break in a new coaching staff but otherwise, there is a lot to like about Tennessee’s 2014 draw. Early trips to Cincinnati and Indianapolis might be the two toughest games of the year while mid-to-late season trips to Baltimore and Philadelphia loom large as does the season-opener in Kansas City. However, every other game is winnable for the Titans. The home slate could feature plenty of wins as Dallas, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Houston, Pittsburgh and both New York teams will visit Nashville. Couple that with visits to Washington, Jacksonville and Houston and the Titans could be looking at a playoff berth.

31. Indianapolis Colts
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC East
Swing Games: New England, at Denver
Opponents ’13 Record: 43.0% (32nd)

Based on numbers, the Colts get the easiest schedule in 2014. Two swing games are as tough as any in the league as Indianapolis faces Peyton Manning on the road in Week 1 and Tom Brady at home in Week 11 following a bye week. A round-robin with the AFC North will be tough, as Indy faces Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in a four-week stretch early in the year. Getting six games against the Jags, Titans and Texans helps make this one of the easiest looking paths in the AFC. The key will be swing games against the NFC East. Wins over the Eagles and Redskins at home and road trips to the Giants and Cowboys could decide if this team gets a first-round bye or not.

32. Houston Texans
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC East
Swing Games: Buffalo, at Oakland
Opponents ’13 Record: 44.1% (30th)

The Texans will face three playoff teams (four games) all season long in 2014 and three of them will take place at home. Swing games with Buffalo and Oakland are early in the year and should be wins for Houston. Four games with Tennessee and Jacksonville offer opportunity as well. Package that with the AFC North and NFC East and Houston doesn’t have a guaranteed loss on the entire schedule. Is a road trip to Dallas the toughest game of the year? At Indianapolis? At Pittsburgh?

Teaser:
Ranking the NFL's Toughest Schedules of 2014
Post date: Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 15:30
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-april-24-2014
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for April 24.

Today is Hall of Fame football WAG Katherine Webb's 25th birthday. Mazel tov.

Jon Heyman dubs Michael Pineda the "pine tar pinhead" after Pineda got busted with it on his neck last night. Of course, the tabloids had some fun with it, too.

This is interesting: a color-coded map of baseball fandom. I apparently live in some vague Cardinals-Braves nether region.

• This is helpful, cause it seems important: a simple guide to Northwestern football team's union fight. Of course, the school itself has done what it can to end it before it starts.

• Kinda cool: Chris Colabello hit a homer on his mom's birthday — while she was being interviewed.

Paul McCartney will close down Candlestick Park, where he performed as a member of the Beatles on Aug. 29, 1966. The Beatles liked it so much they promptly stopped touring forever.

Remembering Lacey, who captured the hearts of college basketball fans.

Bernie Kosar can't catch a break.

• And now for something completely different: President Obama playing soccer with a robot.

• The Colbert Report welcomed UK coach John Calipari last night.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 13:30
All taxonomy terms: 2014 schedule, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/10-must-see-nfl-games-2014
Body:

As the most popular and profitable American sport, the NFL would love for you to believe that every game on its 2014 schedule is “must see.” But as any knowledgeable fan knows, that’s just not true. To help you cut through the clutter, we dug through the 2014 season’s slate of action to find the marquee matchups. Here are 10 games this football fan is definitely looking forward to.

 

Related: 10 Things Every Fan Should Know About the 2014 NFL Schedule

 

1. Seattle at San Francisco (Week 13, Thursday)

Yes, the defending champs open up their title defense against Green Bay at home, but how can you not pick this game? The first meeting of the season between division rivals who absolutely hate each other and figure to battle once again for a spot in the Super Bowl? And it’s on Thanksgiving Day? The fourth Thursday in November can’t come soon enough.

 

2. Denver at Seattle (Week 3)

Not only is this a Super Bowl rematch, but it’s possible it could be a precursor to the 49th edition as well. More importantly, this early-season offering should show if the Broncos have been able to narrow the gap between them and the current owners of the Lombardi Trophy, or if the reigning champions are still vastly superior to one of the best the AFC has to offer.

 

3. Denver at New England (Week 9)

Call it what you want, Manning vs. Brady XVI, an AFC Championship Game rematch, etc., but there’s no denying this game won’t lack for storylines. Besides the history between the quarterbacks, there’s also the added element of this representing new Bronco Aqib Talib’s first game back in New England, just as was the case last season with Wes Welker. You don’t think Tom Brady won’t be keeping an eye out for his former teammate when he drops back to pass?

 

4. Indianapolis at Denver (Week 1)

Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning go head-to-head for the second time, but this one’s on No. 18’s home turf. Even though it’s the season opener for both teams, this meeting won’t feature the same emotions as Manning’s homecoming to Indianapolis last season, while Luck and the young Colts have a chance to show they are ready to take the next step in their maturation process by knocking off the defending AFC champions on the road.

 

5. Washington at Philadelphia (Week 3)

These NFC East rivals will get together twice, but the game that everyone will be watching is when DeSean Jackson returns to the City of Brotherly Love. And it just so happens, we won’t have to wait long with said meeting dialed up for Week 3. I have little doubt that Eagle fans will greet Jackson accordingly, but the real question is how will head coach Chip Kelly and his former teammates treat the mercurial wide receiver – before, during and after the game?

 

6. San Francisco at Denver (Week 7)

The two West divisions face each other in crossover play this season, which means Denver gets to pit its prolific offense against four of the NFL’s top 15 defenses last season, including fifth-ranked San Francisco. Jim Harbaugh’s unit should be a tough test for Peyton Manning and company, but will the home elements (altitude) come into play at all for this Sunday night clash?

 

7. Washington at Indianapolis (Week 13)

The first and second overall picks of the 2012 NFL Draft will meet on the field for the first time when Andrew Luck and the Colts host Robert Griffin III and the Redskins. Both have already led their teams to the playoffs, but Luck has gone two-for-two and put up bigger numbers, as RGIII has struggled to stay healthy.

 

8. New England at Green Bay (Week 13)

Outside of Brady vs. Manning, this is arguably the second-best quarterback matchup possible in the NFL when it comes to resumes (with apologies to Aaron Rodgers vs. Drew Brees in Week 7). This will be just the second time Brady has paid a visit to Lambeau Field in his career. The previous one was back in 2006, when he outplayed Aaron Rodgers’ predecessor, Brett Favre. Will the tundra be frozen for this late November, primetime contest? We can only hope.

 

9. New England at Indianapolis (Week 11) 

Andrew Luck’s first two encounters with the Patriots have not gone well. Bill Belichick’s team has handed Luck and the Colts two losses, including January’s Divisional Round  beatdown, to the tune of a combined score of 102-46. This time Luck gets Tom Brady and company on his home turf, where he’s gone 14-3 (including playoffs) in his first two seasons.

 

10. New England at New York Jets (Week 7, Thursday)

As if this AFC East rivalry needed any more spice. Yet you know Darrelle Revis already has this game circled on his calendar. Are Jets fans (and new wide receiver Eric Decker for that matter) ready for a Thursday night visit to Revis Island?

Teaser:
10 Must-See NFL Games in 2014
Post date: Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/10-things-every-fan-should-know-about-2014-nfl-schedule
Body:

When the 2014 NFL season kicks off on Sept. 4, Seattle will open at home against Green Bay. Fortunately there will be no replacement referees in sight at CenturyLink Field that Thursday night, as the Seahawks begin their journey toward becoming the first team to repeat as world champions since New England in 2003-04.

The road to Super Bowl XLIX will not be easy for Seattle, but the defending champion’s upcoming slate is just one of the things that caught our attention as the NFL released the 2014 schedule.

Related: 10 Must-See NFL Games in 2014

1. The Defending Champs’ Tough Path to a Possible Repeat
If Seattle does end up back in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks will have earned that right. Russell Wilson and the reigning world champions open at home against Green Bay and then head south to face San Diego before hosting the Super Bowl rematch with Denver in Week 3. That’s three 2013 playoff teams in the first three games. After the early bye, it’s back-to-back games against the NFC East (at Washington, Dallas) before consecutive road games at NFC West foe St. Louis and defending NFC South champion Carolina.

Once the middle of November rolls around, things really start to ratchet up, as the Seahawks play the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 11, then host Arizona the following week before making the quick turnaround to play the 49ers in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day. After a small breather, Seattle ends with a finishing stretch of Philadelphia (away), San Francisco (home), Arizona (away) and St. Louis (home). That’s four divisional games among the final six and four matchups with playoff teams (two with the 49ers) in the final month and a half.

2. Denver’s Rocky Road Back to the Super Bowl
The Broncos are clearly “all in” once again this season, adding Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward to their defense and replacing the departed Eric Decker with Emmanuel Sanders in hopes of getting Peyton Manning back to the Super Bowl. Denver’s road to Glendale, Ariz., however, is anything but easy and I emphasize “road.” The AFC West meets the NFC West in crossover play this season, which means the Broncos not only get a rematch with Seattle, but also will face San Francisco and Arizona at home and take a trip to St. Louis. All four of these defenses finished among the top 15 in the NFL in yards allowed last season.

The Broncos were unstoppable at home last season, but this team’s mettle will truly be tested on the road. Besides Seattle and St. Louis, Denver’s road slate includes New England, Cincinnati, Kansas City, San Diego and the New York Jets. Of course Oakland is on the schedule too, but otherwise you are looking at the world champions, two other division winners and a total of five playoff teams from last season on Denver’s road itinerary. Is this any way to treat one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game?

3. Andrew’s Luck-y QB Draw
In in two short seasons since being selected No. 1 overall by Indianapolis in the 2012 NFL Draft, Luck has led the Colts to consecutive AFC South division titles and already written his name into the record books. Arguably the cream of the current young quarterback crop, Luck will get more than one opportunity to see how he matches up with some of his more seasoned and accomplished peers this season.

For starters, there’s the season opener in Denver against Peyton Manning and the Broncos and a Week 11 matchup with Tom Brady and Patriots, this one coming in Indianapolis. Luck and the Colts also are slated to face off against three other Super Bowl MVPs. Indianapolis hosts Baltimore (Joe Flacco) in Week 5 and will visit Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger) and the Giants (Eli Manning) in back-to-back weeks, with the latter taking place on “Monday Night Football” to finish off Week 9.

There’s also a Week 16 trip to Big D to play Tony Romo and the Cowboys, and the must-see Week 13 matchup against Robert Griffin III and the Redskins at Lucas Oil Stadium. In fact, additional home dates with fellow 2012 draft class member Nick Foles and Philadelphia (Week 2, Monday night) and ’11 first-rounder Andy Dalton and Cincinnati (Week 7) shouldn’t be overlooked either. After all both Dalton (33) and Foles (27) finished last season with more touchdown passes than Luck (23).

4. Pac-12 Reunion, NFL Style
We already get a little USC vs. Stanford action with the two divisional tilts between Pete Carroll’s Seahawks and Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers, but this season the NFL has upped the ante. The NFC East draws the West in crossover play, which means that Chip Kelly will get to match wits with his former conference peers once again with the Eagles set to visit San Francisco in Week 4 and host Seattle in Week 14. While at Oregon, Kelly got the better of Carroll in their only head-to-head meeting in 2009, while he and Harbaugh split their two matchups. Bragging rights on the collegiate level are certainly important, but they simply don’t compare with success in the NFL. Just ask Carroll, who has the Lombardi Trophy to prove it.

5. Player “Payback” Games?
Thanks to free agency, the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude prevalent through the league and other factors, we can always count on plenty of roster and coaching turnover every season. This turnover, more often than not, also produces some intriguing matchups on the schedule and 2014 is no different.

Some of this season’s marquee matchups feature this element, such as Denver’s Aqib Talb vs. New England, Washington’s DeSean Jackson vs. Philadelphia and the Patriots’ Darrelle Revis vs. New York Jets. In addition, there’s Steve Smith in a Baltimore Ravens uniform matching up against Carolina’s secondary in Week 4, while new Jet Eric Decker and Talib figure to see plenty of each other when the Broncos come to the Big Apple in Week 6.

Speaking of the Jets, running back Chris Johnson will no doubt be looking for plenty of yards when he makes his return to Nashville, Tenn., to face the Titans in Week 15. Knowshon Moreno will do the same when he and the Dolphins face off with the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Week 12. On the defensive side, Michael Johnson will probably not roll out the welcome mat for Andy Dalton and the rest of the Bengals when they come to Tampa Bay in Week 13, while Jared Allen can’t wait for his shots at whomever Minnesota has at quarterback when he leads Chicago’s new-look defense against its NFC North rival in Weeks 11 (home) and 17 (away).

6. Fired Head Coaches Looking for Revenge?
Players aren’t the only ones who get a shot at payback, at least when it comes to matchups. Such as when new head Buccaneer Lovie Smith (and quarterback Josh McCown) return to the Windy City to play the Bears in Week 12, while his defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, will try and shut down the team that fired him this offseason when Minnesota comes to Tampa Bay in Week 8. 

Another former NFC North head coach, Jim Schwartz, not only gets a crack at his former employer (Lions), but the entire division, as his new team, the Bills, draws all four in crossover play. The headliner, of course, is when Buffalo’s defensive coordinator returns to the Motor City to try and shut down Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Bush and company in Week 5.

And let’s not forget about new Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak who will be back at NRG (former Reliant) Stadium in Week 16 when Baltimore meets up with Houston.

7. Rookie Head Coaches’ Indoctrination
Seven different NFL teams hired a new head coach this offseason with four guys getting their first opportunity to be the top dog. Houston turned to Penn State’s Bill O’Brien to turn the Texans around, while Minnesota and Washington raided Marvin Lewis’ staff in Cincinnati by hiring defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, respectively. Former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine filled the last vacancy when he was hired by Cleveland in late January.

In looking at their opening month schedules, the NFL didn’t do the two former defensive bosses any favors. Pettine’s Browns open things at Pittsburgh, followed by consecutive home games against New Orleans and Baltimore. Although the bye in Week 4 is the earliest possible, it couldn’t come at a better time for a team that’s pretty much starting over.

Zimmer and the Vikings don’t get the same respite, as they open up on the road in St. Louis before coming back to their temporary home (TCF Bank Stadium) to host New England. After that it’s down to the Big Easy to play the Saints and then back north to face Atlanta. That’s three of the NFL’s most potent offenses (when fully healthy) matching up with the 31st-ranked defense last season.

Interestingly enough, either O’Brien or Gruden will get to enjoy their first career victory right out of the gates, as Houston hosts Washington in Week 1. Victory also could be possible for both the following week with the Texans traveling to Oakland while the Redskins welcome Jacksonville to FedEx Field. After that things get a little tougher with Houston in the Big Apple to face the Giants and Washington hooking up with the Eagles in Philadelphia.

Gruden’s first month as Skins’ head coach will end with a home date against the Giants while O’Brien and the Texans host the Bills. On paper, it looks like it will be a smoother and more enjoyable indoctrination for O’Brien and/or Gruden rather than Pettine and/or Zimmer, but we won’t really know until we see them and their teams on the field.

8. Bear-ing Down on the Road
Chicago enjoyed a fair amount of success in head coach Marc Trestman’s debut season. The Bears went 8-8, finishing a half game behind NFC North champion Green Bay and already boasts one of the more explosive offenses in the league. A defensive overhaul has taken place during the offseason, but even with likely improvement on that side of the ball, the results may not be evident in the win-loss column thanks in large part to scheduling.

The NFC North gets the NFC South and AFC East in crossover play this season. So not only does Chicago have to play Carolina, New Orleans, Atlanta, New England and the rest of those two divisions, its road games from this group are against the Panthers, Falcons and Patriots, as well as the Jets. What’s more, the Bears’ away swing game takes them out west to San Francisco for a Week 2 primetime matchup against the 49ers. The rest of the road slate is made up of divisional foes Green Bay, Detroit and Minnesota.

All told that’s three division winners and a fourth playoff team from last season, another game against a team just a season removed from playing for a spot in the Super Bowl and two other NFC North clashes. Any analysts who were bearish on Chicago’s chances this season better hope Trestman’s team doesn’t hibernate when it hits the road.

9. NFC Hosts Thanksgiving Day Feast
Even though it has a distinct NFC flavor, there’s little doubt in my mind that fans will devour the three course meal the NFL is serving up this Thanksgiving. The Turkey Day menu features not one, not two, but three tasty divisional matchups starting with Chicago in Detroit. The other traditional Thanksgiving Day host, Dallas, goes next when the Cowboys welcome the Eagles to AT&T Stadium. And just like last year’s Pittsburgh-Baltimore pairing, Commissioner Roger Goodell has saved the best for last with Seattle in San Francisco, as this heated NFC West rivalry takes center stage in primetime and serves as the perfect ending for a terrific Thanksgiving Day tripleheader. 

10. Primetime Pairings
When it comes to the NFL’s broadcast schedule, there are two prime pieces of real estate – a spot on NBC’s Sunday night slate and an appearance on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The market may have just gotten a little more crowded, however, as 2014 marks the beginning of the new Thursday night partnership with CBS and the NFL Network. From Weeks 2 to 8, CBS will air one Thursday night matchup with NFL Network simulcasting on their channel. From there, NFL Network will pick things up through Week 16, during which CBS also will broadcast two games that Saturday (Dec. 20).

So with even more NFL games on tap during primetime on Thursday, Sunday, Monday and one Saturday in December, which teams get the spotlight more? To the surprise of no one, Peyton Manning’s Broncos are scheduled for six such appearances, with half of those coming on NBC. Right behind them are Chicago, Indianapolis, New England, New Orleans, the New York Giants and Pittsburgh who each have five primetime dates.

Seattle, the defending Super Bowl champions, is currently slated for just four appearances, although the Seahawks also get the privilege of opening the regular season on NBC on Thursday, Sept. 4. This means their opponent, the Packers, actually have a total of six primetime dates.

Every team has at least one primetime appearance scheduled, which means even Jacksonville, Oakland, Buffalo and Minnesota will get their chance in the spotlight. How many will exactly tune in when these teams do appear on national TV is an entirely different question. At least there are plenty of other games to look forward to, right?

Teaser:
10 Things Every Fan Should Know About the 2014 NFL Schedule
Post date: Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/ucla-usc-or-arizona-state-who-wins-pac-12-south-2014
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With six teams expected to be ranked in the preseason polls, the Pac-12 should provide plenty of must-see games during 2014.

On paper, the South Division appears to be a three-team race between Arizona State, UCLA and USC. Arizona is slightly behind the top three teams, but if Rich Rodriguez can find a few answers on offense, the Wildcats will be a sleeper team. Utah and Colorado will likely be picked in the bottom two spots in predictions. However, both teams are capable of pulling an upset or two in 2014. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Buffaloes and Utes both found a way to get bowl eligible.

UCLA played for the conference title from the South Division in 2011-12, while Arizona State claimed the title last season. The South is 0-3 in Pac-12 Championship appearances, but the Bruins, Sun Devils and Trojans are all capable of ending that streak in 2014.

It’s tough to pinpoint a favorite, as all three teams have plenty of concerns and strengths going into the season.

UCLA continues to trend upward under coach Jim Mora, while USC finished 10-4 under an interim coach. Arizona State is the defending South Division champs, but the Sun Devils must replace most of their core on defense.

Arizona State, UCLA or USC: Which Team Wins the Pac-12 South?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
While I think Arizona State is a top 15-20 team nationally, I would choose between USC and UCLA for the top spot in the South Division this year. And it’s a close call between the crosstown rivals, but I give a slight nod to the Bruins. UCLA coach Jim Mora has the Bruins on the rise, winning 19 games over the last two years, which is the most for the program since Bob Toledo won 20 games from 1997-98. Sure, there are some personnel losses to overcome, but quarterback Brett Hundley should continue to develop as a passer after an offseason to work under coordinator Noel Mazzone, and the Bruins have a plethora of talented skill players. The offensive line will miss guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, but Miami transfer Malcolm Bunche, along with the development of several young players should help this unit progress in 2014. Despite the departure of linebackers Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr and defensive end Cassius Marsh, new coordinator Jeff Ulbrich has no shortage of talent to mold. The Bruins could have the top secondary, linebacking corps and defensive line in the conference – and three top-20 recruiting classes certainly helps to improve the overall talent of the roster. The schedule isn’t easy, but UCLA hosts USC, Stanford, Oregon and Arizona. Road tests at Washington and Arizona State will be tough, but a 7-2 mark would probably be enough to win the division. There’s no question the Pac-12 is one of college football’s toughest conferences, and USC’s improvement under Steve Sarkisian will add another element to the South Division. However, not only does UCLA have all of the pieces to win the South, there’s more than enough talent here to win the Pac-12 in 2014.

Kyle Kensing, (@Kensing45), CFBHuddle.com and BleacherReport.com
UCLA is the Pac-12 South favorite--and really, it's not close. Each South contender has its glaring concerns heading into the season: USC is talented but the depth issues brought on by NCAA sanctions reach their peak in 2014. Arizona State is completely overhauling its defense. Arizona is left replacing a two-time All-America running back, its starting quarterback and still has strides to make defensively.

But UCLA is no favorite-by-default. The South has plenty of good teams; UCLA is a great team. Jim Mora's first two seasons at the helm were building to 2014. He's working with the most veteran starting lineup in the conference. Quarterback Brett Hundley's decision to return for his redshirt junior season should pay dividends, as he has the Pac-12's deepest and most diverse wide receiving corps.

The indecisiveness that sometimes vexed him in the pocket last season should be improved with an offseason of work, but he will also be playing behind a considerably more experienced offensive line.

Mora and his staff loaded up on defensive talent in each of their three recruiting classes. Obviously Myles Jack was a revelation as a freshman, and Zach Whitley can have similar impact this season. If Whitley can make a similar transition to the college game as Jack, UCLA will again have one of the better linebackers corps in the nation, with Eric Kendricks as its anchor. The secondary was young last year and should be improved in 2014. Ishmael Adams was coming along nicely at season's end in 2013 and could be on the cusp of a star turn.

The sky's the limit for the Bruins if they can put it all together. Nevermind a divisional title, UCLA just may be the favorite to win the whole conference.
 

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
UCLA has been building to a breakthrough season for several years, and 2014 might be the one where the Bruins start to join the Pac-12 elite. Last season was UCLA’s first 10-win season and first top-20 finish since 2005. Don’t forget that a year ago UCLA had the unfortunate schedule that included back-to-back road games against Stanford and Oregon. I doubt UCLA could have defeated either of them anywhere, but imagine if UCLA had an easier draw from the Pac-12 North. The Bruins get both this season at home and a road trip to Washington. That’s not easy, but UCLA should be ready for the challenge. With three consecutive top-20 signing classes and the return of Brett Hundley, UCLA will rival USC as the top roster in the South. There’s a lot to like here with young talent, not least of which Myles Jack, the linebacker/running back combo. Four offensive linemen return among 15 total returning starters from a team that beat USC by 21 last season and only lost to division champ Arizona State by five.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
This is a fascinating debate that has many different angles making it virtually impossible to decide. The best starting 22 goes to USC, but the Trojans have the smallest margin for error with little depth on the sanctioned roster. The best starting quarterback goes to UCLA, but the Bruins will play the toughest schedule of the three. And the best head coach of the bunch is in Tempe, but Todd Graham has the most to replace. All three schedules are nasty as the Pac-12 could be the best league in the nation and all three teams will play each other — one at home and one on the road. Both USC and Arizona State miss Oregon in crossover play while the Bruins welcome the Ducks to town on Oct. 11 (as well as Stanford, USC and Arizona). All three will likely have to play on the road in the Pac-12 Championship game considering how difficult the division slate could be in the South. Arizona State might have the most question marks but it has the best combination of coaching, quarterback play, scheduling and depth chart. In a three way tie, Arizona State gets the nod because it will get two weeks to prepare for a potential division championship game on Thursday, Sept. 25 against the Bruins.

Mark Ross
Arizona State is the defending division champions, but I think the Sun Devils will have a hard time replacing some key pieces, most notably two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton. I think it will come down to the two Los Angeles schools and while I feel that USC is in position to make some noise in Steve Sarkisian's first year at the helm, I'll give the edge to its crosstown rivals this season. Jim Mora has clearly put his stamp on this program in just two seasons, going 19-8 overall and 12-6 in conference play. This year's team could take the next step with quarterback Brett Hundley, a potential Heisman Trophy contender, running the offense and stud linebacker Myles Jack wreaking havoc on the other side of the ball, as well as making an impact as a running back. UCLA has some holes of its own to fill, but it has the edge over USC and Arizona State when it comes to quarterback and returning starters. The Bruins have to go to Tempe to play the Sun Devils and Seattle to face Washington, but they get to host the Trojans, as well as Oregon and Stanford. The schedule's not easy, but the pieces seem to be in piece for Mora to lead UCLA to a pretty special season.

Teaser:
UCLA, USC or Arizona State: Who Wins the Pac-12 South in 2014?
Post date: Thursday, April 24, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-april-23-2014
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This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for April 23.

• We like to support our friends across the pond, so here are the 50 most popular English glamour models on the Internet.

Fallon did an amusing NHL playoffs superlatives bit.

Nine facts about the newest member of the 500-homer club.

Does Nene deserve a little credit for Kirk Hinrich's key free-throw miss?

A fun assortment of bench reactions from this NBA season. Prompting some of those reactions, no doubt: The top 10 poster dunks of the season.

• From ski jumping to military drills to rodeos: Baseball's only part of Wrigley Field's storied history.

Bar Rafaeli's bikini instagram pic is almost too hot for 11 Links.

Some rogue cop didn't like a bunch of high school kids celebrating a state championship.

A Bolivian soccer game featured a fast-moving ghost.

David Price took a hard liner to the spheroids.

• Image-conscious rapper Drake used a lint roller courtside. I think he probably regrets that decision.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 14:05
Path: /college-football/ranking-big-tens-college-football-schedules-2014
Body:

Scheduling in college football is all that matters. Sure, coaching, rosters and even a little bit of luck play bigger roles in determining championships in the NCAA ranks.

But scheduling in college football plays as big a role as any of those other factors. Non-conference play varies greatly from team to team. So, too, does crossover play within the divisions of any conference. Home and road slates are important  — especially for the championship-deciding, rivalry-bragging, marquee showdowns. And the important bye weekends also play a large role in ironing out win-loss records in any given season.

So taking all of the above into account, which team has the toughest schedule in the Big Ten in 2014?

1. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Crossover: at Nebraska, Wisconsin
Non-Conference: at Washington St, Howard, at Navy, Tulane
Opponents ’13 Record: 97-58 (62.6%, 9th)

In its first year in the Big Ten, Rutgers has been handed the toughest schedule of any team in the league based on how teams fared last year (9th nationally with 97-58 opponents record). Talk about your rude welcomes. Rutgers will play two of the best teams from the West and will likely be picked to finish last in the East. A long road trip to Washington State and the short trek to Annapolis, Md., to face Navy in non-conference action means a 2-2 record could be expected before facing a Big Ten slate that has one winnable game (Indiana at home, Nov. 15). The off weekend comes between facing Michigan and Ohio State but there isn’t a lot to like about what could be a horrible first season in a new league.

2. Maryland Terrapins
Crossover: Iowa, at Wisconsin
Non-Conference: James Madison, at USF, West Virginia, at Syracuse
Opponents ’13 Record: 86-67 (56.2%, 40th)

The non-conference schedule doesn’t have a marquee game but three tough bouts with regional rivals (Cuse, WVU) along with a long road trip to USF. But the conference slate is what makes this such a touch schedule. Maryland will likely play the best six teams in the league over a six-game stretch with Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State at home coupled with road dates at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan. The only good news is that both bye weeks fall in the middle of that nasty six-game stretch. This doesn’t include a trek to Indiana and home game with Rutgers. And all of this while playing in the Big Ten for the first time.

3. Indiana Hoosiers
Crossover: at Iowa, Purdue
Non-Conference: Indiana St, at Bowling Green, at Missouri, N. Texas
Opponents ’13 Record: 93-64 (59.2%, 24th)

Last year’s schedule was one of the toughest (93-64) of any team in the Big Ten and, now in a tougher division, Indiana hasn’t gotten any favors for ’14 either. Road trips to Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and Missouri are brutal and home tests with Penn State and Maryland make it very difficult to see Indiana getting to a bowl game. In particular, the non-conference slate could be one of the tougher in the league with trips to Bowling Green, Mizzou and hosting a developing North Texas squad.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini
Crossover: at Ohio State, Penn State
Non-Conference: Youngstown St, W. Kentucky, at Washington, Texas St
Opponents ’13 Record: 90-61 (59.6%, 21st)

The Illini have a nasty road trip to Seattle to face Washington and also will face two quality mid-major teams, so starting out 3-1 isn’t a lock. Then things get nasty for Illinois. Road trips to Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern are all tough and the home slate includes Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa. There is one, maybe two, winnable Big Ten games this year for Illinois — even with an improved offense. Crossover play might be the worst of any team in the league. Lastly, Illinois doesn’t get to play… Illinois.

5. Purdue Boilermakers
Crossover: Michigan State, at Indiana
Non-Conference: W. Michigan, C. Michigan, at Notre Dame, S. Illinois
Opponents ’13 Record: 84-67 (55.6%, 43rd)

Simply because Purdue doesn’t get to play Purdue, it makes the Boilermakers' schedule the toughest within the division. And with Michigan State (home) and Indiana (road) in crossover play, Purdue has one of the tougher slates in the league. A four-game stretch in the middle of the year — Michigan State, at Minnesota, at Nebraska and Wisconsin —with a bye week in the middle is one of the toughest months any team has to deal with. Iowa and Notre Dame in the first month make this schedule tough from beginning to end.

6. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Crossover: at Michigan, Ohio State
Non-Conference: E. Illinois, Middle Tennessee, at TCU, San Jose St
Opponents ’13 Record: 85-68 (55.6%, 46th)

A visit to TCU is the toughest non-conference game on the slate and that will be a challenge but what makes the Gophers' schedule so tough is its Big Ten slate. Crossover is brutal with a trip to Michigan and home date with Ohio State. And the final month of the season is ridiculously hard with a four-game stretch that includes Iowa at home, Ohio State and back-to-back visits to Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road to end things. The only good news for Jerry Kill’s bunch is at least the team gets a bye week Nov. 1 before these final four games. A repeat of eight wins would be an excellent season for Minnesota.

7. Northwestern Wildcats
Crossover: at Penn State, Michigan
Non-Conference: Cal, No. Illinois, W. Illinois, at Notre Dame
Opponents ’13 Record: 76-76 (50%, 78th)

The non-conference schedule isn’t all that easy with a Pac-12 opponent, the best program in the MAC and a road trip to Notre Dame late in the year. Toss in a nasty crossover slate with Penn State (road) and Michigan (home) and Northwestern has one of the toughest schedules in the West Division. Both Wisconsin and Nebraska have to come to Evanston, but don't overlook road trips to Minnesota and Iowa either. For a team trying to bounce back from a disappointing season due in large part to a nasty schedule, this isn’t an easy slate for the Wildcats.

8. Michigan State Spartans
Crossover: Nebraska, at Purdue
Non-Conference: Jacksonville St, at Oregon, E. Michigan, Wyoming
Opponents ’13 Record: 83-71 (53.9%, 55th)

The highlight of the first month is easily the toughest non-conference game in the league when the Spartans visit Oregon in Week 2. Then Big Ten play starts in primetime against Nebraska followed up by a trip to Purdue. It means Sparty will play six straight straight division games to end the year. The best news about the tough final six weeks is an off weekend falls directly between a home game with rival Michigan (Oct. 25) and conference frontrunner Ohio State (Nov. 8). Road trips to Maryland and Penn State in the final three weeks could be very difficult as well.

9. Ohio State Buckeyes
Crossover: Illinois, at Minnesota
Non-Conference: at Navy, Virginia Tech, Kent St, Cincinnati
Opponents ’13 Record: 87-66 (56.9%, 35th)

The Buckeyes boast one of the league’s toughest non-conference slates but have one of the easier crossover slates with the Illini and Gophers on tap. Both bye weeks take place early in the year and won’t break up any of the tough division games that seem to be backloaded in Columbus. Over the final six weeks, Ohio State will visit Penn State, Michigan State and Minnesota while hosting Indiana and Michigan. This is a tougher slate than most league favorites can boast nationally.

10. Michigan Wolverines
Crossover: Minnesota, at Northwestern
Non-Conference: App. State, at Notre Dame, Miami (Ohio), Utah
Opponents ’13 Record: 81-71 (53.3%, 59th)

The Wolverines boast some intriguing non-conference tilts with Notre Dame, a rising FBS program in AP-State and Pac-12 foe Utah, so the start to the year could be very testy for the embattled Maize and Blue coaching staff. The good news for Michigan is the bye weekends set up nicely before and after critical games. The first of which will come between two huge games with Penn State at home (Oct. 11) and a trip to defending champs Michigan State (Oct. 25). Then the second off weekend comes before the final two games with Maryland (home) and archrival Ohio State (road). Like the Buckeyes, Michigan will miss Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa in crossover play.

11. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Crossover: at Michigan State, Rutgers
Non-Conference: FAU, McNeese St, at Fresno St, Miami
Opponents ’13 Record: 90-63 (58.8%, 25th)

A tricky non-conference slate is highlighted by a long trip to Fresno and a visit from Miami. All four could be wins but at least two will be tough games. Additionally, crossover play is more difficult for Nebraska than the other contenders in the West Division (Wisconsin, Iowa). The bye weeks come at perfect times after the first five games and just before the tough final three-game stretch.

12. Penn State Nittany Lions
Crossover: Northwestern, at Illinois
Non-Conference: UCF, Akron, UMass, Temple
Opponents ’13 Record: 79-73 (51.9%, 68th)

The non-conference slate is going to be very tame for Penn State now that Blake Bortles is gone from UCF, so a 4-0 start should be expected. Then the Lions get a bye week before two of their toughest three games of the year before visiting Michigan (Oct. 11) and hosting Ohio State (Oct. 25). Then Penn State gets a November loaded with gimmies, including a bizarre late-season semi-rivalry with Temple, before hosting Michigan State at home. A win over the Spartans not only could change the complexion of the division title but could give Penn State a double-digit win season.

13. Iowa Hawkeyes
Crossover: Indiana, at Maryland
Non-Conference: No. Iowa, Ball St, Iowa St, at Pitt
Opponents ’13 Record: 68-70 (49.3%, 85th)

Iowa has an interesting non-conference slate with two in-state rivals who have played the Hawkeyes tough (Northern Iowa, Iowa State) consistently and a road trip to Pitt isn’t an easy game either. Crossover play sets up well with Indiana and Maryland posing as two winnable but tricky games. The key is missing Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State and getting both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home to end the season. A road trip to Minnesota might actually be the toughest situation the Hawkeyes face all season.

14. Wisconsin Badgers
Crossover: Maryland, at Rutgers
Non-Conference: LSU, W. Illinois, Bowling Green, USF
Opponents ’13 Record: 74-78 (48.7%, 87th)

LSU in Houston to start the year might be the toughest game Wisconsin plays all season long. Otherwise, the opening Big Ten slate is almost comically easy for the Badgers. At Northwestern, Illinois, bye week, Maryland, at Rutgers and at Purdue will all feature large point spreads in Wisconsin’s favor. Over the final three weeks, however, things get interesting with road trips to Nebraska, Iowa and a home tilt with rival Minnesota. There is no Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State on the slate for UW. Double-digit wins doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation by any stretch of the imagination.

Teaser:
Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Schedules in 2014
Post date: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/duke-or-north-carolina-which-team-finishes-higher-coastal-2014
Body:

The ACC Coastal should be one of the toughest divisions to predict in 2014. After all, Duke won the league with a 6-2 conference record last season and three teams finished tied at 5-3 just behind the Blue Devils.

Considering how close the top six teams in the division are, another 5-3 record might be enough to finish second and 6-2 will probably win the division.

Duke and North Carolina are both in the discussion for the Coastal Division title in 2014, but both teams will be pushed by Virginia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech.

The Tar Heels finished two games behind the Blue Devils last year and barely lost to Duke 27-25 in Chapel Hill in the regular season finale. Larry Fedora’s team is expected to take another step forward in the win column in 2014, especially with an offense that should be among the best in the ACC. North Carolina’s schedule certainly isn’t easy, but home games against Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech will help in a tight division battle.

David Cutcliffe has raised the bar at Duke, guiding the Blue Devils to the most wins in school history last year. And even with a few concerns about the defense, Cutcliffe should have Duke back in the discussion for the Coastal Division title.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
 

Duke or North Carolina: Which Team Finishes Higher in the Coastal in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I don’t expect much separation in the win column among the top six teams in the Coastal this year, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if North Carolina and Duke tied with a 5-3 or 4-4 conference record. However, even with little room to maneuver in the win column, I think the Tar Heels will finish ahead of the Blue Devils. North Carolina finished last season on a tear, averaging 40.6 points per game (slightly skewed by the 80 points scored on ODU) over its final seven contests. Most of the offense returns intact, as coach Larry Fedora has assembled one of the ACC’s deepest collection of skill players, and quarterback Marquise Williams is a contender for All-ACC honors. The biggest concern is a line that loses standout tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine. And it’s a good thing North Carolina should have one of the best offenses in the ACC, as the defense is still searching for the right pieces. However, improvement should be noticeable on that side of the ball in 2014. Duke won’t take a huge step back in the standings, but this team is a good candidate to regress after being outgained by 73.4 yards per game in ACC contests last year. Also, the Blue Devils no longer have Brandon Connette to help with short-yardage and goal-line situations, the defensive line must be rebuilt, and standout cornerback Ross Cockrell has expired his eligibility. Duke also has four potential swing games on the road, including a crossover date against Syracuse and a Sept. 27 matchup at Miami. North Carolina and Duke should both go bowling in 2014, but I’ll take the Tar Heels to finish ahead in the standings.

Mark Ross
I realize the Blue Devils are the reigning Coastal Division champions and I am not expecting David Cutcliffe's team to take a gigantic step backwards this season. However, I also think it's perfectly fair to say that Duke got quite a few breaks to go its way last season. After all, this is a team that while it won 10 games, it was out-gained by more than 73 yards per contest in ACC play. The blowout loss to Florida State in the conference championship game has a lot to do with this deficit, if you will, but Duke beat Virginia Tech on the road by three points in a game in which the Blue Devils didn't convert a single third down and threw four interceptions. What's more, most of the starting defensive line and all-conference cornerback Ross Cockrell are gone, leaving some pretty big holes to fill. Cutcliffe's team doesn't have a particularly (ahem) devilish schedule to contend with this season, but I don't expect him to orchestrate anything that closely resembles a repeat of 2013's success either.

To that point, North Carolina was a late defensive stop away from ruining Duke's title chances last fall. The Tar Heels fell to the Blue Devils 27-25 in Chapel Hill, a victory that put Duke in the ACC Championship Game. But with UNC welcoming 14 starters back and the pieces in place to produce one of the nation's most prolific offenses, there's a chance that the roles between these two basketball-centric schools could be flipped for 2014. Yards and points shouldn't be an issue for Larry Fedora's team this fall, at least not from an offensive standpoint. With dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams leading the way, the Tar Heels should improve on their production from last season, when it ranked 49th in the country in total offense and 43rd in scoring. The key will be the improved play of the defense, which struggled mightily to start but got better as the season progressed. An early road trip to Clemson will serve as an ideal barometer for how far the defense has come and if the Tar Heels can be considered a legitimate contender in the Coastal. But regardless of the outcome in Death Valley, I expect North Carolina to finish higher in the division standings than Duke this fall. Who would have ever thought that a Duke-UNC matchup in late November would generate as much attention as one in February or March?


Listen to our staff discuss every team in the ACC as Athlon starts to look to 2014.

 

Tune in to the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast as our staff talks college football leading up to the 2014 season.
iTunes | Podcast Archive
 


John Cassillo, (@JohnCassillo), NunesMagician.com
Both teams have their issues -- Duke's running game, North Carolina's defense -- but for the last few seasons (and this year, too), they're pretty evenly matched. So in what should be a wide-open division yet again, it may end up coming down to schedule construction. Both squads visit Miami, while Duke's other conference road games include Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Syracuse; a slightly easier group of teams than the Heels' respective ACC road opponents, Clemson, Virginia and Duke. The winner of that mid-November Duke-UNC matchup may not only finish higher in the division of these two teams, but also end up representing the Coastal in the ACC Championship Game. And for right now, I'm going with the Blue Devils there, who should look even more consistent on offense now that Anthony Boone has more experience under his belt. With Miami already dealing with a key injury (QB Ryan Williams), and Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech breaking in new quarterbacks themselves, this division may find itself ruled over by its North Carolina squads in 2014.

Matt McClusky, (@MatthewMcClusky), NunesMagician.com
Really, when you're talking Duke and North Carolina, you're talking Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Wil...oh, right, this is football! And isn't it nice that the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are both relevant enough on the gridiron to be worth discussing? David Cutcliffe and Larry Fedora seem to have their respective teams heading in the right direction and the beauty of that is the two rivals are in the same division.

Actually, he two are flying high after Duke took the Coastal last season and North Carolina ending the year with a bowl win over Cincinnati. Good times behind with good times seemingly ahead. So which one will finish higher in 2014? Well, that answer will likely come November 20, when the Tar Heels head to Durham for a game that could rival their basketball counterparts in terms of hype.

Still, with the Blue Devils hitting the road for four of their first five ACC games, Cutcliffe's boys may be destined for something of a letdown. Plus, quarterback Brandon Connette, who accounted for 27 touchdowns in 2013 alone, is transferring to be closer to home to be with his is ailing mother. Of course, Anthony Boone, who split time at QB with Connette, looks ready for prime time but Cutcliffe also has to replace the likes of Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx on the defensive front line. The foundation is certainly set in Durham for success, so the seasons of two or three wins are gone, but it will be tough to replicate the meteoric rise last season brought.

That's not to say UNC doesn't have issues of its own -- the offensive line being a major concern. But quarterback Marquise Williams looks like the real deal with a ton of skilled talent for him to get the ball to on offense. Plus, the final month of the season gives the Tar Heels a bye week and two home games sandwiched around the trip to Durham. Ultimately, it will be close, but I'm going with UNC to finish higher than Duke in the Coastal and to likely contend for the division championship -- only fitting the year after the Blue Devils take the Coastal, the Tar Heels get their answer. It's what makes a rivalry fun to talk about.

Ryan Tice, (@RyanTice), TheWolfpacker.com
This is a pretty tough question with how wide-open the Coastal Division is. The first thing to keep in mind is that North Carolina’s game at Notre Dame is a non-conference one this year, so that might tip the scales their way. 

When I look at the two teams’ conference schedules in late April, I would give them the same number of games I expect each to win, lose and what I’d deem toss-ups games. With everything still pretty equal, it’s time to look at what each squad lost and returns.

UNC won six of its last seven games, but lost its best two offensive linemen, its stud tight end and several key pieces on defense. Meanwhile, Duke returns 17 starters off of their 10-win squad, including eight on offense and six on defense. The transfer of quarterback Brandon Connette, who was an automatic seven inside of the red zone, is underrated, but I’m putting my faith in David Cutcliffe to keep the Blue Devils from taking too far of a step back and stay ahead of the Tar Heels in 2014.

Teaser:
Duke or North Carolina: Which team finishes higher in the Coastal in 2014?
Post date: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /nascar/nascar-rookie-report-strengths-and-weaknesses-2014-calss
Body:

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

Today, David 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.


The second quarter of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series begins next weekend at Talladega, and since this will be the last ranking of the first quarter I’m focusing this batch of evaluations on the biggest strength and weakness for each driver in this year’s rookie crop.

Strengths are easy. Every person enjoys hearing what others feel are their strengths. Weaknesses? Not so much. Since there are three whole quarters of the season to go (and, you know, the remaining races of an entire career) for this band of first-year drivers, there is plenty of time to correct the things that hinder their progress the most. So don’t panic, fanatics. It is still possible for your favorite rookie to develop into a well-rounded racer.

There was no movement in the rankings since the post-Texas report, but there is quite a bit to evaluate after each rookie’s first dip in Darlington’s waters:


1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 (previous ranking: 1)  Kyle arson
Biggest strength: The passing. My God, the passing. His 53.07 percent adjusted pass efficiency (passing totals adjusted to omit positions gained during green-flag stops and pass-thru penalties) ranks fifth in the Cup Series. There isn’t another rookie that ranks in the top 20. He is also passing for value; his adjusted efficiency is 1.76 percent better, on average, than what is expected from a driver with an 18.4-place average running position.

Biggest weakness: Crashing, which should subside. He crashed three times in eight races, three of which came at Daytona. That once-in-seven races mark doesn’t mean he is impervious to crashes, though. Per his closing numbers, he is one of the most aggressive drivers in the waning laps of races, averaging a 2.7-position gain after each race’s 10 percent-to-go mark (dubbed by Team Penske’s Greg Erwin as “the red zone”). Aggressive drivers tend to crash more often. Case in point: Kurt Busch, who joins Larson in a five-way tie for the worst crash frequency in the series.


2. Austin Dillon, No. 3 (previous: 2)
Biggest strength: Closing out races. He and crew chief Gil Martin are simply having a field day right now picking up spots late in a race. They’re retaining the position at the beginning of the red zone 100 percent of the time, and advancing their position by 20.8 percent, the second-best position retention difference in the series. Those efforts amount to a 1.8-position increase per race.

Biggest weakness: Dillon struggled with passing last season, both in 11 Cup Series starts and in a title-winning NASCAR Nationwide Series campaign. He’s still having some difficulty, currently sporting a 49.27 percent adjusted efficiency (anything below 50 percent means a driver is passed more than he/she passes) and a minus-0.87 percent surplus value, indicating he is passing below his average running position’s expected output.


3. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 (previous: 3)  Justin Allgaier
Biggest strength: His passing numbers aren’t as pleasing to the eye as Larson’s, but they do the job. He is in the black in both adjusted efficiency (50.28 percent) and surplus value (plus-2.87 percent, which ranks fifth in the series). He discussed his penchant for passing with Athlon earlier this season, insisting he thought sub-par qualifying efforts was skewing his team’s perception. He is right about that if his last five races are any indication; after finishes of 30th and 31st at Phoenix and Las Vegas, he has finished 24th or better in four of his last five outings.

Biggest weakness: Allgaier and team have only finished in the top half of the field 12.5 percent of the time. It isn’t because they can’t do it. They have finished on the lead lap just once this season, which has limited their position progression late in races. They hold an 85 percent position retention rate in the red zone, advancing position in five of the eight races so far. If they could close races on the lead lap, their ability to gain spots — there are more cars on the lead lap than cars one or two laps down, on average — would reward them with significantly better results.


4. Michael Annett, No. 7 (previous: 4)
Biggest strength: Up until a rough outing at Darlington, Annett was passing above his positional value, featuring a race-best surplus passing value of plus-16.7 percent at Phoenix. He gained five positions in the closing laps at Fontana to score a season-best 19th-place finish.

Biggest weakness: A few of the smaller tracks (Phoenix, Martinsville and Darlington) wreaked havoc, doling out three of his four worst finishes. Though the Martinsville race represented his first start at the facility, it’s clear he needs some elbow room to race. Following this weekend at Richmond, he’ll get a chance to tackle Kansas, Talladega and Charlotte.


5. Cole Whitt, No. 26 (previous: 5)  Cole Whitt
Biggest strength: Whitt is passing above value, averaging a plus-2.69 percent surplus that ranks sixth in the Cup Series, something that helped give a Swan Racing car that ranked 36th in average green-flag speed a more fighting chance at decent finishes. He finished better than 36th five times in the first eight races.

Biggest weakness: He isn’t getting a lot of help from his team. Even the steadfast closing he and Randy Cox have had — 85.71 percent base retention — doesn’t amount to much when the position they’re retaining is 30th place. His reported move to BK Racing would at least offer a chance for something different than what he has now.

 

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6. Parker Kligerman, No. 30 (previous: 6)
Biggest strength: It has been a trying year for Kligerman, but there have been glimpses. He holds a positive pass differential in the four races he finished, he is a positive value passer (plus-1.88 percent) through all eight races and he managed to make his highest running position of a race his finishing position at both Bristol and Darlington.

Biggest weakness: The whole not finishing races thing is the clear issue. He is one of five drivers that are tied for the worst crash frequency and he is one of just four drivers to have crashed out of at least two races. Additionally, he has suffered two race-ending equipment failures.


7. Alex Bowman, No. 23 (previous: 7)   Alex Bowman
Biggest strength: A byproduct of running off of the lead lap is the ease of position protection. Bowman and crew chief Dave Winston have held their red zone position 100 percent of the time, but they’ve also managed to advance by 6.3 percent, which ranks as the 12th-best mark in the series.

Biggest weakness: A sheer lack of speed. Bowman and team rank 35th in average green-flag speed and hold the fourth-worst average running position among Cup Series regulars. They’re essentially non-factors in the series, with their two best finishes coming at Fontana (22nd) and Daytona (23rd), the two races that provided the most random results of the first eight events.


8. Ryan Truex, No. 83 (previous: 8)
Biggest strength: Unfortunately, there isn’t a statistical strength for Truex, but the fact that he is getting repetitions behind the wheel of a Cup car might suffice as a win, especially considering he has raced sparingly since 2011. The rust shows in his crash frequency — he has crashed three times in six races.

Biggest weakness: Truex failed to qualify for two races, the second of which was the straw that broke the camel’s back on the crew chief tenure of Dale Ferguson, who was replaced by Doug Richert prior to Darlington. Truex might be on the chopping block next if he doesn't offer more help to his team by way of passing. His 42.31 percent adjusted pass efficiency ranks as the second-worst in the series among regulars.


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 eight-driver crop of rookies in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Post date: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 01:45
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-april-22-2014
Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 13:09
All taxonomy terms: Arkansas Razorbacks, College Football, SEC, News
Path: /college-football/arkansas-updates-uniforms-2014
Body:

After a disappointing 3-9 record in Bret Bielema’s first season at Arkansas, the Razorbacks are hoping for bigger and better things in 2014.

And what better way to build momentum for 2014 than the release of new uniforms and logos?

It seems every BCS school is releasing uniforms recently, and the Razorbacks unveiled an updated look for 2014 on Monday night.

Here are some photos of Arkansas’ new uniforms, as well as updated logos:
 

Teaser:
Arkansas Updates Uniforms for 2014
Post date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 08:30
Path: /college-football/who-leads-sec-rushing-2014
Body:

2013 was the year of the quarterback in the SEC. The league featured standouts in AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, James Franklin and Connor Shaw.

But heading into 2014, the SEC is a league searching for answers at quarterback. Auburn’s Nick Marshall ranks as the No. 1 signal-caller, with Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Missouri’s Maty Mauk in the next tier.

With the SEC losing several quarterbacks, expect the league to feature its rushing attacks and defenses more in 2014.

The SEC is loaded at running back in 2014, as Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon, South Carolina’s Mike Davis, Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Arkansas’ Alex Collins could all be All-Americans this year.

Gurley missed action last year due to a foot injury, but the junior is expected to be at full strength in 2014. Collins and Yeldon should have plenty of opportunities, but both players will have competition from a talented backfield. Davis should have no trouble matching last year’s numbers, especially with an offensive line that could be the best in the SEC.

Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.

Who will lead the SEC in rushing in 2014?

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The SEC is loaded at running back this year. Just how loaded? One of these backs: Mike Davis (South Carolina), T.J. Yeldon (Alabama) or Todd Gurley (Georgia) will have to be placed on the second-team All-SEC squad this preseason. And the depth extends deep in the conference, as Derrick Henry is ready for a breakout year at Alabama, Jerron Seymour could shine at Vanderbilt under new coordinator Karl Dorrell, and Texas A&M has a talented trio of running backs waiting for more opportunities. With the losses at quarterback this offseason, expect to see a return by the offenses in the SEC on the ground attack. While I expect this will be a close race for the top spot, I’ll take Georgia’s Todd Gurley. Despite a nagging ankle injury last season, Gurley finished fourth among SEC running backs by averaging 98.9 yards per game. Gurley also averaged six yards per carry and opened the year with back-to-back 100-yard games (Clemson, South Carolina). The Bulldogs’ offensive line is a work in progress, but I suspect a motivated (and healthy) Gurley will finish atop the SEC leaderboard in rushing yards in 2014.

Josh Ward, MrSEC.com, (@Josh_Ward)
I’ll take Todd Gurley. He averaged six yards a carry last year despite playing at less than 100 percent for much of the season. Gurley has the perfect combination of size and running ability and should enter his third season at Georgia in the best shape of his career. There are other strong choices for this question – Mike Davis at South Carolina and Alex Collins at Arkansas come to mind – but I’ll stick with Gurley. Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason called Gurley the “best back in the country” when he’s healthy. Sure, Mason is biased. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Kevin Causey (@CFBZ), CrystalBallRun.com
Last year, the SEC was a QB driven league that was deep at that position. This year, those QBs have exited but a bunch of great RBs remain. Todd Gurley, TJ Yeldon, Mike Davis, Alex Collins and Derrick Henry just to name a few. In looking at this question, I looked back at the last four years in the SEC and noted that the player that led the SEC in rushing was either the best RB in the league (Tre Mason, Trent Richardson) or a QB (Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton).

So the way I figure, it's either going to be Todd Gurley, Mike Davis, Derrick Henry, Nick Marshall or Dak Prescott. Alabama and Georgia are deep at RB and I think that will take some carries away from Gurley and Henry (and you also have to factor in Gurley's past durability). South Carolina will rely more on Davis this year but I still wonder how much the Ol' Ball Coach wants to pound the rock play after play. I might be going outside the box a bit but my pick is Nick Marshall.

He finished 7th in the league last season in rushing, but he also had to learn Gus Malzahn's offensive system and he had a feature back in Tre Mason to hand the rock to. He had at least 89 yards rushing in six games last season and he got better at making decisions as the season went on. Auburn will still have some good RBs in the backfield but I foresee more of an onus being put on Marshall to carry the load in 2014 and it will result in more carries and more yards and maybe, just maybe, for the third time in five years a QB will lead the SEC in rushing yards.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
History says the SEC’s rushing leader will be something of a surprise. I doubt anyone would have predicted Tre Mason to win the rushing title by more than 400 yards last year. Or that a quarterback would do it in 2012 and 2010. The off-the-wall pick would be Arkansas sophomore Alex Collins, but the Razorbacks might not give him enough leads to protect late in the game. My guess, then, is Georgia’s Todd Gurley. Think about what he did last season before he got hurt: 154 yards against Clemson, 132 against South Carolina. Going back to his freshman season, Gurley topped 100 yards in five of the final seven games. With a new quarterback and the possibility that Keith Marshall will redshirt, Georgia will need to rely on Gurley. We know he’s up to the task.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
With the recent departure of elite quarterbacks from the SEC, fans should expect a return to normalcy in the nation's toughest league in 2014. That means running the ball with a deep and talented collection of running backs. Georgia's Todd Gurley is the most gifted back, but he has dealt with injuries and may lose touches with the return of Keith Marshall. Alabama's T.J. Yeldon is an All-American back but should also lose touches to the very talented Derrick Henry in Nick Saban's traditional two-back system. Alex Collins at Arkansas is in the same boat with Jonathan Williams expecting at least 150 carries for the Hogs. So I will go off the board with South Carolina's Mike Davis. He is as talented as any of the aforementioned runners and will be playing behind five returning starters for the Gamecocks. The schedule isn't all that daunting as Steve Spurrier's bunch will miss all of the toughest defenses from the West: Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Davis dealt with his own small injuries a year ago and still managed to finish fourth in the SEC with nearly 1,200 yards. Should he play in every game, my money is on the rising junior star in Columbia to lead the SEC in rushing.

Mark Ross
I'm going to give a slight edge to Todd Gurley over Mike Davis. Gurley, a junior, has been consistent in his first two seasons in a Georgia uniform, averaging 98.9 yards rushing per game. Last season, Gurley missed three-plus games because of an ankle injury. Taking his 98.9 yards per game average into consideration, if Gurley had played all 13 games he would have finished with 1,286 yards rushing. That total would have placed him third in the SEC behind Auburn's Tre Mason (1,816) and LSU's Jeremy Hill (1,401). Both Mason and Hill are gone, so as long as Gurley stays healthy, I think he will get more than enough carries to post some pretty big numbers, especially with unproven Hutson Mason entering his first full season as the Bulldogs' starting quarterback. South Carolina's Davis, a fellow junior, averaged basically the same number of rushing yards per game (98.6) as Gurley last season, and he definitely should be the Gamecocks' workhorse this fall. However, I'm giving Gurley the slight edge over Davis in this matchup of SEC East ground-gainers based on Gurley's more impressive track record and the assumption that he will be able to stay healthy this season.

Teaser:
Who Leads the SEC in Rushing in 2014?
Post date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-football/state-iron-bowl-alabama-fans-move-2014-finish-not-saban
Body:

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For a fan base not always known for its sense of perspective, the Alabama faithful seem to be taking the events of the last four months well.

A-Day at Tuscaloosa was 140 days since Auburn ended Alabama’s bid to win four national titles in five years and 108 days since Oklahoma stunned the Crimson Tide for a 45-31 loss in the Sugar Bowl. For two losses that put a halt to national championship ambitions and temporarily derailed a dynasty, the topic isn't a total conversation-killer in the quad outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

“We don’t think too much about it,” said Luke Kiszla, an Alabama junior from Mobile.

Kiszla’s friend at his tailgate, Jordan Yue, completed the thought.

“Not as much as we used to,” Yue said.

Inside the program, though, the 0-2 finish is inescapable. At the start of spring, Alabama coaches placed motivational posters throughout the locker room indicating the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma.

At the end of January, quarterback AJ McCarron pinpointed the problems that contributed to losses that ended the 2013 season. Complacency, McCarron said, was Alabama’s undoing long before the Auburn game, too many players who didn’t fully appreciate all it took to get to three national championships from 2009-12. No one rushed to dispute the assessment of Alabama's championship quarterback.

For most programs, spending every week of the season until December at No. 1 would be a major success. At Alabama, that wasn’t enough, especially given the stakes.

“From the Alabama fan perspective, they can’t wait until next season," said former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, who led Tide to the 1994 championship and co-hosts the morning show on WJOX in Birmingham. “Everything that built to the three-peat boiled down to that Auburn game. Then you get to Oklahoma. You’ve got to finish stronger than last year. This is a team that had a chance to create history.”

For the optimist, even a disappointing finish in 2013 isn’t a bad development in the long run. The 2008 Alabama team had the national championship in its sights before a loss to Florida in the SEC title game and a flop in the bowl game.

“What the players need to understand is that it’s never-ending. The process is never-ending."
-Alabama coach Nick Saban
“Last year mimicked 2008 exactly,” said Doug Lolley, an Alabama tailgater on A-Day who is an administrator on the RollTideBama.com message board. “We lost the last two games — Florida in the SEC championship game was like the Auburn game. Then we lost the Sugar Bowl.”

The Crimson Tide went 14-0 the next season and won the first national championship of the Saban era.

The veterans from that team, though, remembered going 7-6 in Saban’s first season, including a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe.

If Alabama is going to maintain its dynasty — rather than ending it — the issue won’t be talent as much as culture.

Alabama has finished first in the 247Sports Composite team rankings every signing day from 2009-14 and have the current No. 1 class for 2015. That figure does not include potential 2014 starting quarterback Jacob Coker, who will arrive in fall after a transfer from Florida State. But all that talent can't guarantee another championship.

“I think they got by on talent last season,” Barker said. “When it came to the Auburn game, it all caught up to them. All the things they didn’t do in the summer caught up to them.”

Now is the chance to atone for it. Saban said he’s been encouraged by the change in attitude during the spring, but responding when the coach is on the same practice field is one thing. Doing the same during summer conditioning or passing drills is another.

“What the players need to understand is that it’s never-ending,” Saban said. “The process is never-ending.

“One thing I like about this group, when you talk about it, they respond well. Last year, I felt we talked about some of the issues we had and we acknowledged them, but we didn’t really respond like you’d like.”

Alabama’s focus is two-fold. On the one hand, Saban needs his team to adopt the process-oriented culture. On the other, Saban needs credible leaders to replace McCarron and his counterpart on the other side of the ball, former linebacker C.J. Mosley.

On the defensive side, that may fall on senior linebacker Trey DePriest. The answers on the opposite side of the ball might not be clear until a quarterback is determined. Still, Alabama may have some of the best skill position talent in the country in running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry and wide receiver Amari Cooper.

“We’re getting back to the basics, and when coach says something, we’ve got to be there to back him up,” DePriest said. “We’re there to tell (a young player) that he’s not hollering at you and trying to put you down. He’s trying to make you better.”

In many ways, this is a 11-2 top-10 team that’s in the process of starting over, including the eye-opening hire of controversial former Tennessee and USC coach Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator.

At least for some fans, they’ve responded. A hire that first garnered skepticism is now greeted with cautious optimism.

Alabama, after all, has made it this far with on the coaching approach by Saban.

“I don’t make $7 million a year to make those decisions,” Lolley said. “In Saban we trust.”

Teaser:
State of the Iron Bowl: Alabama fans move on from 2014 finish, not Saban
Post date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: Auburn Tigers, College Football, SEC, News
Path: /college-football/state-iron-bowl-fans-excited-malzahn-not-satisfied
Body:

AUBURN, Ala. — Abby Lemons had no idea what she was getting herself into when she decided to go to Auburn.

She came to Auburn in part because of the football atmosphere two years ago, but morale on campus was at an all-time low when she was a freshman following the first winless SEC season in school history and the tragic poisoning of the historic oak trees at Toomer’s Corner.

“Going into last year, we had lost our coach, lost our trees at Toomer’s Corner and we felt like we had nothing (else) to lose,” Lemons said. “So last season was a bizarre and eerie situation as it seemed like the trees were speaking to us. We got two miracles for each tree — the first for Georgia and the second for Alabama.”

The miracles credited to the Toomer’s oaks were Ricardo Louis’ circus catch against Georgia and Chris Davis’ 100-yard missed field goal returned for a touchdown to beat Alabama. 

The energy that courses through the Plains is now palpable after Gus Malzahn led a team that won just three games the year before on an unlikely run to the BCS National Championship game. The campus is brimming with excitement, the community is smiling again and over 70,000 people — the second time in as many years Auburn has topped 70,000 for A-Day — showed up on a chilly, overcast Saturday in April to watch a glorified practice.

Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs has witnessed those excruciating lows and the remarkable highs first hand.

“It’s been quite a ride,” Jacobs said. “We’ve had some high points, some low points and some curves but it’s been a fun ride. It’s a great time for Auburn University.”

There is no doubt Auburn is a fun place to be right now, but both Jacobs and Malzahn understand the difficulty of winning over the long haul in the SEC. They understand the pressures that come with winning the conference championship and returning a team that was seconds away from winning a second national title in four years.

“The epicenter of college football right now is right here in the state of Alabama,” Jacobs said.

The epicenter, of course, includes Iron Bowl rival Alabama. Auburn has reached the title game twice in four seasons, but along the way, the Tigers fired the coach who won a title and needed those two unlikely finishes to reach the second.

Auburn is on top of the college football world right now, but the Tigers still have work to do in order to become a machine that mirrors the one in Tuscaloosa.

“We got better in the spring, but we still have a long way to go,” Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates said. “We still have to prove a point.”

Jacobs, who has dealt with his share of adversity in his decade-long run as Auburn AD, can’t help but smile when he talks about his athletic department. Who can blame him? He watched his football team win the SEC title and play in the BCS title game with a first-year coach, and he recently hired cult-hero Bruce Pearl to lead the basketball program.

Malzahn, however, is not ready to bask in the accomplishments from last season.

Auburn honored the departing players from last year’s SEC championship team with a ring ceremony and a highlight package culminating with the “Kick Six” against Alabama.

Highlights from one game — the loss to Florida State in the championship game — were conspicuously absent from the montage but not from the mind of Malzahn, though.

“As a coach, I think about the last game a lot,” Malzahn said.

In contrast to his up-tempo offense, the Auburn coach doesn’t have time for enthusiasm or the whispers of oak trees. The deliberate second-year coach knows his team got lucky a year ago, and if it expects to repeat as SEC champs, Auburn will have to address some major concerns this summer.

Those concerns begin and end with the defense. This unit dealt with major injuries all spring camp and had to mix and match pieces during the spring finale. Voids left by Dee Ford, Jake Holland and Chris Davis remain temporarily unfilled. One of the few certainties, however, is that allowing more than 420 yards per game on defense isn’t a way to sustain success in the nation’s toughest league.

It’s why Malzahn’s mind wanders and he fidgets after sitting in the same place for more than five minutes at a time. He likes the young players he has on defense but can’t afford to let anyone know about it.

“You cannot pretend to be something you’re not because this business will eat you up if you do,” Jacobs said. “Gus runs a very tight ship and wants to keep everything very close to the vest. He’s is a dot-the-I, cross-the-T sort of guy.”

Jacobs’ job is to address the entire Auburn picture, deal with the politics of major college football and keep the rabid boosters at bay. Malzahn’s job is to find linebackers who can tackle, defensive backs who can cover and defensive ends who can pressure the quarterback. The heavy pressure to win games falls squarely on the head coach's shoulders and it all happens under the most powerful microscope in college football in the most difficult league in the nation.

Lemons recounts her first A-Day a year ago when a record 83,401 fans showed up the spring game to roll Toomer’s Corner for the last time.

“One of my favorite scenes from my first spring game was all of the older couples walking hand-in-hand, who had met at Auburn, fell in love at Auburn and had returned to Auburn to roll the trees one final time,” Lemons said. “It symbolized how important the community is and how important the trees were to the Auburn atmosphere.”

Jacobs and Lemons can afford to get caught up in the moment and enjoy the wild ride that has been Auburn football over the last 24 months. Malzahn cannot.

“Our success in football last year is because of the environment I created here,” Jacobs said.

“More than anything, however, it was Gus Malzahn and his leadership.”

Teaser:
State of the Iron Bowl: Fans Happy, Malzahn Not Satisfied
Post date: Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 06:00

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