Articles By All
It’s tough to glean much from spring practice, but for the 14 teams in the Big Ten, these preseason workouts couldn’t get here fast enough. 2013 was a disappointing year for the conference, as only three teams – Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin – finished in the final Associated Press top 25 poll.
The Spartans finished No. 3 in the final poll, while the Buckeyes closed the season with back-to-back losses after a 12-0 start. Wisconsin finished Gary Andersen’s first year in Madison with a solid 9-4 record.
But the rest of the conference was largely a disappointment. Michigan entered 2013 with hopes of winning the Legends Division title. However, the Wolverines slumped to 7-6 and won just three Big Ten contests. Northwestern was pegged as a potential wildcard to watch in the division title picture, but the Wildcats finished 5-7.
The news wasn’t much better in the Leaders Division, as Indiana missed out on a bowl with a 5-7 mark, and Purdue struggled mightily in Darrell Hazell’s first season with a 1-11 record.
The Big Ten is set to grow by two teams with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers this year, and the divisions have been shuffled once again. The balance of power seems to rest in the East with Ohio State and Michigan State. But the West features some intriguing teams, including Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
|Seniors Lost||Early NFL Departures||Returning Offensive Starters||Returning Defensive Starters|
East Division Spring Outlook
Getting defensive in Bloomington:
One look at the stat sheet clearly shows where Indiana’s focus needs to be this spring. Despite averaging 489.1 yards and 38.4 points per game, Indiana finished 5-7 last year. Clearly, offense isn’t an issue for coach Kevin Wilson. But the defense? Well, that’s another story. The Hoosiers allowed a whopping 7.4 yards per play last season and gave up 41.9 points per contest (conference-only games). Wilson made changes to his staff, hiring well-traveled assistant Brian Knorr to call the defensive signals in 2014. Knorr ran a 3-4 attack last season at Wake Forest and could implement that scheme in Bloomington. The cupboard isn’t bare on defense, as cornerback Tim Bennett, linebacker T.J. Simmons and defensive tackle Darius Latham headline a core of young players poised to make strides with another preseason under their belt. After a dreadful 1-11 mark in 2011, Indiana is 9-15 over the last two years. Wilson is making progress but getting to a bowl largely depends on how far the defense progresses before the season opener.
Putting the pieces together on the offensive line:
The Terrapins were only a team with a 7-6 record last year, but entering spring practice, this squad doesn’t have a ton of glaring concerns. Sure, each side of the ball has room to improve. However, Maryland is in relatively good shape entering its first season in the Big Ten. With Stefon Diggs and Deon Long out this spring due to injuries, Levern Jacobs, Nigel King and Amba Etta-Tawo will get an extended opportunity to work with quarterback C.J. Brown. But perhaps the biggest concern for coach Randy Edsall is an offensive line that allowed 2.4 sacks per game in ACC action. The Terrapins reeled in three potential impact recruits in Derwin Gray, Larry Mazyck and Damian Prince, and even if all three players don’t start, they should help improve the overall depth up front. Three starters return in the trenches for 2014, and the staff moved Evan Mulrooney to guard to bolster the depth there. Considering Prince won’t arrive until the fall, it’s unlikely the line will find stability until then. However, this spring is the first chance for Edsall to start sorting out his options in the trenches as Maryland officially becomes a Big Ten team.
Developing an offensive line:
Yes, Michigan needs more consistency from quarterback Devin Gardner, and the rushing attack has to give Gardner more help, but the biggest question mark for coach Brady Hoke this spring is clearly the offensive line. This unit struggled with consistency last season, and the Wolverines recorded just 2.5 yards per carry in Big Ten action. Making matters worse is the line loses tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield - easily the top two players on the unit in 2013. There is talent returning in the trenches, as Michigan reeled in back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes from 2012-13. The entire starting five is up for grabs. It’s time for players like Graham Glasgow, Kyle Kalis and Kyle Bosch to emerge as the leaders for the offensive line.
New faces on defense:
Despite losing six starters, the Spartans should remain one of the best defenses in the nation in 2014. But there’s no question a transition period is ahead with the departure of cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough, tackles Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover and safety Isaiah Lewis. Coordinator Pat Narduzzi isn’t hurting for talent, as end Shilique Calhoun is one of the top defensive players in the Big Ten, and cornerback Trae Waynes is poised to emerge as an All-Big Ten performer. This spring is all about Narduzzi getting the new faces acclimated into starting roles on the depth chart. Damon Knox and Joel Heath and Brandon Clemons will be tasked with anchoring the interior of the line, while some shuffling is needed at linebacker with the departure of Bullough and Allen. At cornerback, Arjen Colquhoun and Jermaine Edmondson were listed as the backup to Dennard last season. Will one of those players emerge as the starter? Or will Narduzzi take a look at Darian Hicks opposite of Waynes? This defense certainly has its share of question marks, but Narduzzi should find the right answers before the season opener.
Starting over on the offensive line:
Going into the 2013 season, the Buckeyes had one of the best offensive lines in the nation. What a difference a year makes. Ohio State is essentially starting over in the trenches with only one starter returning as the team is set to open spring practice on March 4. The list of departed players is heavy on all-conference performers, with center Corey Linsley, guard Andrew Norwell and tackle Jack Mewhort all taking home first-team honors last year. Guard Marcus Hall didn’t earn a first or second-team mention, but he garnered an honorable mention spot for the all-conference team. Ohio State recruits as well as any team in the nation, so talent won’t be an issue. However, it may take some time for the line to jell and develop consistency. Taylor Decker is the unit’s only returning starter and is expected to shift from right to left tackle this spring. Replacing Decker on the right side could be senior Darryl Baldwin, and guard Pat Elflein should be a starter at one of the guard spots. But who replaces Linsley at center? Will that be Jacoby Boren? Ohio State should have a spot among the top-10 teams in the nation in 2014. However, the Buckeyes won’t finish ahead of Michigan State in their division unless the line quickly emerges as a strength.
Finding a go-to receiver for quarterback Christian Hackenberg:
Spring practice in Happy Valley is all about getting acclimated to the new surroundings and players for new coach James Franklin. The former Vanderbilt coach is inheriting a talented roster from Bill O’Brien, including rising star Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. As a true freshman last season, Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns and completed 58.9 percent of his throws. Of Penn State’s 241 completions in 2013, 97 of those went to Allen Robinson. As expected, Robinson chose to leave early for the NFL in early January, leaving Eugene Lewis (18 receptions) as the team’s top returner at receiver. The Nittany Lions are loaded with talent at tight end, starting with Kyle Carter (18 receptions last year), Adam Breneman and Jesse James. But who will step up at receiver? Is Lewis ready to be the go-to guy? How much of an impact will incoming freshman De’Andre Thompkins make this spring? Answering the question marks at receiver, along with addressing the secondary are two key areas to watch for Penn State over the next few months.
Finding answers on defense:
The Scarlet Knights have question marks on both sides of the ball, but the defense is the bigger area of concern in a division with Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Indiana. Rutgers allowed 412.8 yards per game last season (5.7 yards per play) and gave up 34 points per game in eight American Athletic Conference contests. Youth played a role in the defensive struggles, as the Scarlet Knights lost a handful of key contributors from 2012. New coordinator Joe Rossi will have his hands full in 2014, but there are a few building blocks in place. The linebacking corps is solid with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder returning, while tackle Darius Hamilton could be an all-conference performer on the interior. The secondary took its share of lumps last season, but nearly everyone returns, including Anthony Cioffi who played in 12 games as a true freshman. Rossi coordinated the defense in the Pinstripe Bowl against Notre Dame, and the Scarlet Knights managed to hold the Fighting Irish to 5.5 yards per play. Don’t expect this unit to become a shutdown group by the season opener. But with Rossi calling the plays on a full-time basis and another offseason for the young talent to work with the staff, Rutgers should be able to find some improvement on defense this spring.
West Division Spring Outlook
Developing the defensive line:
We could pick a couple of storylines to watch for Illinois, but considering Bill Cubit’s track record of success, the Fighting Illini should be able to figure out a few answers in the receiving corps for new quarterback Wes Lunt. A bigger issue for third-year coach Tim Beckman is the defense, specifically the line. Opponents pounded Illinois’ defense for 277.6 rushing yards per game in Big Ten action, while this unit also allowed 24 scores on the ground in that span. Tim Kynard is the only significant loss on the line, but there’s also very little in the way of potential all-conference talent. To jumpstart the competition this spring, Beckman is bringing in two early enrollees to compete for time. Junior college recruit Joe Fotu had 2.5 sacks at Laney Community College last year, while incoming freshman Paul James III ranked as the No. 200 recruit in the nation by ESPN in 2013. More help is also on the way from junior college recruit Jihad Ward in the fall. Each unit on the defense has to improve for Illinois to make a bowl in 2014. Can Beckman and coordinator Tim Banks find a few answers this spring?
Finding replacements at linebacker:
Iowa usually finds quality linebackers, so this isn’t likely to be a glaring concern when the season begins. However, the Hawkeyes are losing three impact defenders at this position, so the spotlight will be on the new starters this spring. Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey and James Morris each tallied over 100 stops last season and will be missed. Senior Quinton Alston is the unit’s most-experienced option, recording 24 stops over the last three years. Reggie Spearman is a name to remember after playing in 10 games as a true freshman, while Travis Perry should have the inside track to grab the third starting spot.
Mitch Leidner takes over as the No. 1 quarterback:
Shortly after the regular season ended, Philip Nelson decided to transfer from Minnesota to Rutgers, leaving Leidner as the top quarterback entering spring practice. The Minnesota native performed well in limited action last season, throwing for 619 yards and three touchdowns on 43 completions. Leidner also rushed for 407 yards, including 151 yards against San Jose State. With Nelson moving on, Leidner has a full offseason to work as the No. 1 quarterback. Working with the first-team offense should help the sophomore transition into the starting lineup, but the Golden Gophers also need to work on developing more options in the receiving corps. Drew Wolitarsky is the top returning wide receiver with 15 catches, while tight end Maxx Williams grabbed 25 passes last year. Leidner needs to prove he can consistently beat defenses with his arm, but his development will also hinge on improvement from the receiving corps.
Starting over on the offensive line:
It’s easy to pencil in the development of Tommy Armstrong here, but Nebraska’s biggest concern on offense should be the line. Four key players from last year are gone, including center Cole Pensick, tackles Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale and guard Andrew Rodriguez. Left guard Jake Cotton is the only returning starter. Mark Pelini and Mike Moudy combined for five starts last season and should figure into the mix in 2014. But what happens at the tackle spots? Zach Sterup has the necessary size (6-foot-8, 315 pounds) to anchor the right side of the line, and he will have an opportunity to claim a starting spot this spring. Junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo redshirted last year and was a touted recruit in last year’s class. Will he factor into the rotation in the trenches? Or will junior Matt Finnin claim the left tackle job vacated by Qvale? Coordinator Tim Beck and line coaches Barney Cotton and John Garrison will be busy this spring as they look to find the right combination up front.
Trevor Siemian’s time at quarterback:
Northwestern’s five victories last season were the fewest under coach Pat Fitzgerald since a 4-8 mark in 2006. Injuries played a significant role in the disappointing win total, especially with the loss of standout running back Venric Mark early in the year. But 2014 is a new season, and the Wildcats return 16 starters that should help this team rebound back into bowl contention. Kain Colter departs at quarterback, and after sharing the job the last two years, Trevor Siemian is set to take the No. 1 job this spring. Siemian isn’t the runner that Colter was, but he threw for 3,461 yards over the last two years. But is he ready to be the full-time quarterback? Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Matt Alviti, who is a dual-threat option that could work his way into the mix. This spring is Siemian’s chance to put his stamp on the starting job, as well as develop a rapport with a talented receiving corps.
Finding playmakers on offense:
In eight Big Ten contests last year, Purdue averaged just 4.4 yards per play and 13 points per game. Those numbers are a far cry from the Joe Tiller era in West Lafayette, and second-year coach Darrell Hazell opens spring practice looking for answers. Quarterback play is under the microscope after three players received snaps last year. Danny Etling took the majority of snaps and finished his freshman campaign by throwing 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns. Etling has room to improve, and he will be pushed by Austin Appleby and early enrollee David Blough. The question marks extend to the running backs, where leading rusher Akeem Hunt managed just 464 yards last year. And the Boilermakers need to more consistency from the receiving corps, as well as improved play from the offensive line (39 sacks allowed last season). This spring is Hazell and coordinator John Shoop’s first opportunity to find some answers before 2014.
Improving the passing attack:
The Badgers lose several key pieces from the defense, but the passing offense is expected to receive the most attention from coach Gary Andersen this spring. In eight Big Ten games last year, Wisconsin averaged only 201.9 yards per game and tossed nine picks to just 13 touchdowns. Joel Stave started all 13 games last season, but he will face competition from Tanner McEvoy, who is slated to return under center after spending time at safety in 2013. In addition to McEvoy, Bart Houston and incoming freshman D.J. Gillins are expected to get an extended look under center in the preseason. The Badgers’ passing concerns don’t stop at quarterback. Receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen have expired their eligibility, leaving the cupboard a little thin in proven options in the receiving corps. This spring presents a huge opportunity for players like Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson, Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright to make an impression at receiver.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 26.
• As the NHL skates back into action, enjoy this slideshow of Flyers ice girls.
• MLB photo days are just the best. Ask Astros bullpen coach Craig Bjornson.
• Wichita State is 30-0. Is that something? Yes, it's something.
• A couple wandering around their property found $10 million in old gold coins. I'm headed to the backyard as soon as I finish here.
• A feel-good palate cleanser to start your day: A 4-foot-1 high school basketball player scores a basket.
• In other high school action, a Wisconsin prep hockey player scored the goal of the year.
• The high schoolers are taking over. Watch a high school soccer player score a 67-yard goal off the opening kick.
• A video of Olympic javelin thrower Leryn Franco lifting weights. Just because.
• This Jimmy Fallon-Paul Rudd lip-sync battle is making the rounds this morning.
• Tom Izzo dances on a ladder in a strange new commercial.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at firstname.lastname@example.org
Love or hate football recruiting, it matters. Coaching, support staffs, financial situations and even a little bit of luck goes into winning football games, but having great players always helps too.
So recruiting rankings are just one facet of a deliberate and in-depth equation that helps Athlon Sports project the college football season every year.
When the staff sits down to hash out the Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 each year, recruiting rankings are as much a part of the discussion as returning starters, scheduling differences, coaching changes and historic trends. It all gets incorporated into what eventually becomes the best-selling college football preview magazine on newsstands.
When it comes to the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma stand above the rest — in all senses of football success. These two normally dominate the headlines, the standings and the recruiting trail. And one quick look at the last five years' worth of recruiting rankings indicate this is still very much the case in the Big 12. However, the rise of potential Big 12 powers in other Heartland outposts have flipped the conference standings upside down for the most part — which is why there is a new coach in Austin.
Here is how the Big 12 rosters rank entering the 2014 season. Below is each roster in the Big 12 based on average national recruiting ranking over the last five classes (according to 247Sports), each team's win-loss record over the last four seasons and some analysis of what it all means heading into the '14 season.
What did we learn?
Charlie Strong has no excuses
Mack Brown is one of the nicest guys to ever coach in major college football and that might have been part of the problem. The Longhorns have the best roster in the Big 12 and the seventh-best roster in the nation heading into the 2014 season. Yet, Brown and the Horns are ahead of only Kansas (10) and Iowa State (19) in the Big 12 in overall wins in the last four seasons. The 18 conference wins over that span rank sixth in the Big 12 as well. The bottom line is that Charlie Strong enters a situation where he's taking over a team that has dramatically underachieved despite having the best players in the league, at least according to the recruiting rankings. There are no excuses for Strong, especially if he keeps Texas atop the Big 12 recruiting rankings as expected.
Bill Snyder doesn’t care about any of this
Let’s face it, there is really only one coach in college football who can take the 60th-best roster in America and consistently win 10 games a season and that is Bill Snyder. His roster ranks ahead of only Iowa State’s entering Big 12 play and just behind in-state “rival” Kansas. Yet, the Wildcats have 26 more overall wins and 21 more conference wins than the Jayhawks over the last four years. Snyder won the Big 12 title in 2012 and consistently beats more talented teams on a yearly basis. He lives on the edge with junior college players but he has proven that he is a unique motivator and one-of-a-kind head coach.
Baylor and Oklahoma State have won the past two Big 12 championships, as both Mike Gundy and Art Briles have built powerhouses in Stillwater in Waco. The recruiting rankings bear this out as both the Cowboys and Bears are nipping on the heels of the two big boys from Norman and Austin. Gundy (39 wins) and Briles (36) are second and third in the league in wins and have slowly built rosters that are beginning to be comparable to Texas and Oklahoma. The drop off in overall recruiting talent is still a large one as both the Horns and Sooners reside in the top 10 nationally while both Okie State and Baylor are outside of the top 25. But as fans in the Big 12 have seen, few coaches level the playing field better with schematics than Briles and Gundy. And now, it appears those two programs are elevating their stock on the recruiting trail as well.
Welcome to the big time
Gary Patterson has an impressive 35-16 overall record and 22-12 conference record over the last four years. That, of course, is with two decidedly different seasons each in the Mountain West and two in the Big 12. All 12 of those conference losses have come in the last two seasons in the Big 12 and 14 of those 16 overall losses have come in the last two seasons. TCU has seen a strong surge on the recruiting trail — from 62nd in 2010 to an average of 34th nationally over the last four cycles. This seems to indicate that the Frogs will be able to compete in the Big 12 once they gain their footing. How soon that will happen remains to be seen.
Dana Holgorsen and West Virginia are in the same boat as TCU. After finishing atop the Big East standings nearly every year in recruiting, the Mountaineers now sit sixth in the Big 12 in terms of talent entering the '14 season. Both of these teams are adjusting to a massive step up in competition and it will take time to win at a rate that either experienced in their former leagues. But much like TCU, West Virginia has a comparable roster to teams like Baylor and Texas Tech and should be able to flourish in the Big 12 over the long haul.
Captain Skinny Jeans
Kliff Kingsbury’s first season at the helm was an interesting one in Lubbock. He won his first seven games over teams with lesser talent, lost his next five against teams with better talent and then pulled off the huge upset over Arizona State in the postseason. Texas Tech enters this season with the fifth-best roster in the league but is trending in the wrong direction in recruiting. After two classes ranked in the top 25 under Tommy Tuberville, Kingsbury’s first two hauls have ranked outside of the top 40. Does he need elite players to win with his unique offensive system? Probably not. But should he not regain some footing on the recruiting trail in short order, his depth chart could take a hit. This would more than likely translate to fewer Ws and more Ls on the field, especially in Big 12 play.
The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.
So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.
The ACC has been knocked for its overall lack of football talent in recent years. While it is hard to find elite running backs, for example, from the BCS Era, there is no lack of big-time talent along the offensive line. And most of it appears to come from either Florida State — six of the top 20 — or the state of Virginia — six of the top 15. And the overall theme for the best the ACC had to offer up front on offense appears to be longevity. There were more than a few four-year stalwarts along the offensive line from the conference during the BCS Era.
Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Virginia (2002-05)
Ferguson started 49 games in his Virginia career — all at left tackle — helping the Cavaliers to four straight bowl games. He was a two-time, first-team All-ACC selection and earned All-American honors in his final season in Charlottesville. He was the fourth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the New York Jets and has gone to three Pro Bowls.
2. Alex Barron, Florida State (2001-04)
The 6-foot-8, 315-pounder was Florida State’s top lineman of the BCS Era. He was a consensus All-American in 2003 and a unanimous All-American in 2004. Barron was an Outland Trophy finalist in his final season as well. His teams never won fewer than eight games, won two ACC titles and went 26-6 in conference play over that span. Barron was the 19th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft by the Rams.
3. Steve Justice, Wake Forest (2004-07)
Few players have meant more to their school than Justice did to Wake Forest. After enduring two losing seasons as an underclassman, Justice was the first-team All-ACC pivot for arguably the greatest team in school history. He led the way on the 11-win, ACC championship squad of 2006. He came back for his senior year and earned his second first-team All-ACC nod and was a consensus All-American as well. Justice was a Rimington finalist and won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the top lineman in the ACC in ’07.
4. Rodney Hudson, Florida State (2007-10)
The mauler from Mobile was a three-time, first-team All-ACC selection, a two-time, first-team All-American and a two-time winner of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the top lineman in the ACC. He is one of only two guards to ever win the award twice (Elton Brown). He helped return Florida State to the ACC championship game as a senior in 2010 for the first time since '05. Hudson was a second-round pick of the Chiefs in 2011.
5. Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina (2009-12)
The massive Tar Heels blocker was a three-time All-ACC performer and an Outland Trophy finalist in 2012. The unanimous All-American won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the league’s top lineman and eventually was the seventh overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Cardinals. He paved the way for the ACC’s top running back (Gio Bernard).
6. Brett Williams, Florida State (1999-2002)
Williams stepped in midway through his freshman season in 1999 to help lead Florida State to a BCS National Championship in just his first season. He then started every game for a team that returned to the title game the following year (losing to Oklahoma). As an upperclassman, Williams earned back-to-back Jacobs Blocking awards as the ACC’s top lineman — one of three players to do so in the BCS Era. He was a three-time All-ACC pick (twice on the first team).
7. Elton Brown, Virginia (2001-04)
Brown was one of just four players in school history to earn consensus All-American honors at Virginia when he did so as a senior. He was awarded the Jacobs Blocking Trophy twice — one of three to do so during the BCS Era — and was an All-ACC player. Virginia went to three bowl games in his final three seasons, winning 25 games over that span. He was a fourth-round pick in 2005.
8. Branden Albert, Virginia (2005-07)
Albert became just the second true freshman to start for Virginia along the offensive line since 1972 when he entered the lineup in 2005, earning freshman All-American honors along the way. He started all 37 games for the Cavaliers during his three-year career and was named first-team All-ACC. Albert was a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and has been to the Pro Bowl.
9. Craig Page, Georgia Tech (1996-98)
After one season at Louisville, Page transferred to Tech and was a three-year star for the Yellow Jackets. He was the first Outland finalist in school history as a senior and earned consensus All-American honors as well as the Jacobs Trophy in 1998 for a team that won a share of the ACC championship. Page holds numerous weight lifting records at Tech and started 35 straight games at center for the Ramblin’ Wreck.
10. Kyle Young, Clemson (1998-01)
Young was a two-time All-American and two-time Rimington Finalist during his time at Clemson. He was a three-time, first-team All-ACC pick and was a part of three bowl teams for Clemson.
Just missed the cut:
11. Cameron Erving, Florida State (2011-present)
After playing every game in 2011 as a freshman defensive lineman, Erving moved to the O-line where he has started two full seasons on back-to-back ACC title teams. He was the Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner for the BCS National Champions in 2013 as he and linemate Bryan Stork headed up the protection of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Erving was an All-American and All-ACC selection.
12. Bryan Stork, Florida State (2010-13)
Stork worked his way into the starting lineup as a freshman and then started for the final three years of his career. He led the way as the center on back-to-back ACC championship teams and the BCS National Champions as a senior. He was an All-American and Rimington Award winner as the nation’s best center as a senior.
13. Eugene Monroe, Virginia (2005-08)
Learning from Ferguson, Monroe entered the starting lineup midway through his sophomore season. He was an All-ACC pick as a junior and didn’t allow a sack all season. He was first-team All-ACC as a senior and won the Jacobs Trophy as the league’s top offensive lineman. Monroe was the eighth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
14. Duane Brown, Virginia Tech (2004-07)
The Hokies won two ACC championships and played in another conference title game during his four-year run in Blacksburg. He switched from tight end as a freshman to offensive line and started their the rest of his career. He was an all-conference selection (second-team) in both of his upper class seasons and eventually was a first-round pick of the Texans in 2008. He’s been to two Pro Bowls.
15. Blake DeChristopher, Virginia Tech (2008-11)
DeChristopher was a huge part of two ACC championship teams and three division-winning teams at Tech. He was a first-team All-ACC pick and Jacobs Trophy winner — the first in school history — as a senior in 2011. He started every game but one in his final three seasons in Blacksburg.
16. Anthony Castonzo, Boston College (2008-11)
The big fella from Illinois was the first true freshman to start on the offensive line for Boston College since 1998 — and he did it on a team that went to the ACC championship game. He was a freshman All-American and two-time All-ACC pick as an upperclassman. He set the BC record with 54 consecutive starts and was a Rhodes Scholar nominee in 2010.
17. Chris Brown, Georgia Tech (1997-00)
A four-year starter, Brown got the nod in 43 of his 48 career games. He was named a consensus All-American as a senior and was part of a team that won 34 games, a share of an ACC title and went to four bowl games.
18. Eric Winston, Miami (2002-05)
Winston was a tight end on the 2002 team that lost to Ohio State in the BCS title game as a freshman. He then switched to O-line and was one of the team best blockers as just a sophomore before missing most of the ’04 season with a torn ACL. He returned for his final season to earn the Jacobs Blocking Trophy and All-ACC honors before getting selected in the third round of the 2006 NFL Draft.
19. Josh Beekman, Boston College (2003-06)
Beekman started 37 straight games for the Eagles during his time in Chestnut Hill. He was an All-American as a senior and was named the ACC's top offensive lineman as the recipient of the Jacobs Trophy. He just missed playing in two ACC title games but helped build the foundation for those teams.
20. Tarlos Thomas, Florida State (1998-01)
He was a starter in every game on back-to-back ACC championship teams and in back-to-back BCS National Championship Games. He was the Jacobs Blocking Trophy recipient as the top ACC lineman on the the Noles team that won the national title in ’99. He tore his ACL and missed most of his senior season, however, otherwise he could have landed much higher on this list.
With spring practice already underway for some college football teams, the countdown to the 2014 season has officially started. There’s still a long way to go before August and the season opener, but it’s never too early to start thinking about which players are ready for a big jump in production.
Earlier this spring, Athlon Sports examined which quarterbacks are on the rise heading into the start of offseason practices. Now, the focus shifts to the running backs. There always seems to be a couple of running backs who where relatively unknown heading into the year but finish among the nation’s leaders in rushing yards. That trend should continue in 2014, as there are plenty of talented backs on the cusp of a breakout year.
Florida State’s Karlos Williams flashed his big-play potential after moving from safety early in the season. With Devonta Freeman and James Wilder leaving for the NFL, Williams - and touted true freshman Dalvin Cook - should handle the bulk of the carries in the backfield. Another player to keep an eye on is Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. With Carlos Hyde departing, Elliott is due to become the No. 1 back in Columbus. Can he record over 1,000 yards next year?
In addition to Williams and Elliott, here are a few other running backs that could be breakout stars in 2014.
College Football’s Top 10 Running Backs on the Rise for 2014
Tevin Coleman, Indiana
An ankle injury robbed Coleman of three games at the end of the season, and he finished the year just short of 1,000 yards (958). Coleman scored 12 rushing touchdowns in 2013, averaged an impressive 7.3 yards per carry and caught 19 passes for 193 yards. Despite playing in nine games, the Illinois native earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. The Hoosiers should have one of the Big Ten’s top passing attacks with Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson returning at quarterback, but Coleman should expect to see more opportunities in 2014. Prior to his injury, Coleman had back-to-back 100-yard efforts, including 215 yards against Illinois. If he stays healthy, Coleman will surpass 1,000 yards and could push for a spot on the first or second All-Big Ten team.
Ezekiel Elliott/Dontre Wilson, Ohio State
Keeping quarterback Braxton Miller upright and healthy is a huge part of Ohio State’s playoff hopes in 2014. The best way for the Buckeyes to accomplish that goal? Surround their Heisman Trophy candidate with a strong supporting cast. Carlos Hyde led the way on the ground last season, rushing for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns on 208 attempts. Miller was the team second-leading rusher, recording 1,068 yards on 171 carries. Reducing Miller’s workload should be a priority, and Elliott appears to be poised to take over Hyde’s position as the top running back. The Missouri native was impressive in limited action last year, rushing for 262 yards on 30 attempts. Elliott scored twice and averaged an impressive 8.7 yards per carry. It’s unrealistic to expect the sophomore to maintain that average with more attempts, but he possesses a good blend of size and speed to handle at least 200 carries for the Buckeyes’ offense in 2014. And while we mention the Ohio State backfield, don't forget about Wilson. As a true freshman last year, he averaged 8.1 yards per carry on 31 attempts. Elliott and Wilson should be a dynamic combination for the Buckeyes in 2014.
D.J. Foster, Arizona State
With Marion Grice dealing with a leg injury late in the year, Foster moved into the No. 1 spot on the depth chart, and Arizona State’s rushing attack didn’t miss a beat. In a 58-21 win over rival Arizona, Foster rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns, and he posted 132 yards on 20 attempts against Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. Even though Foster and Grice were similar in yards per carry last season, both brought something different to the table. Foster is more of an all-around threat, but he is likely to see his workload increase in 2014 with Grice expiring his eligibility. The Arizona native led the nation in receptions (63) and receiving yards (653) by a running back in 2013 and was an honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection. Foster may not handle 200 carries, but he’s a lock for at least 1,000 yards of total offense.
Leonard Fournette, LSU
High expectations surround Fournette heading into the 2014 season. As the No. 1 recruit in the 247Sports Composite rankings, the New Orleans native is expected to make an immediate impact, With Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue leaving early for the NFL, Fournette should have a clear path to significant carries as a true freshman. Fournette rushed for 7,619 yards and 88 touchdowns during his high school career and earned the 2014 Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year award. With a young quarterback taking over, combined with one of the best offensive lines in the SEC returning to Baton Rouge, LSU should plan its offense around the ground attack. With Fournette and Terrence Magee handling the carries, the Tigers should have no trouble pushing for double-digit wins for the fifth consecutive season.
Russell Hansbrough, RB, Missouri
Missouri’s three-headed monster at running back (Henry Josey, Marcus Murphy and Hansbrough) helped the Tigers finish second in the SEC in rushing offense last year. Josey left for the NFL, but Missouri’s ground game won’t suffer too much with Hansbrough and Murphy returning for 2014. Hansbrough finished second to Josey by rushing for 685 yards and four touchdowns, with his best performance coming against Indiana (104 yards on 13 attempts). The Texas native was picked as the team’s Most Improved Tailback coming out of spring practice and certainly backed up that honor with his play last year. There’s no question Murphy is going to see plenty of opportunities in the backfield. But Hansbrough ranked second among Missouri running backs in carries last season and averaged a healthy six yards per attempt. With potentially 75 more carries on tap this year, Hansbrough should push for 1,000 yards.
Derrick Henry, Alabama
Considering Henry’s production in limited action, it’s probably fair to say the true freshman was underutilized by the coaching staff. 36 attempts isn’t enough of a sample size to determine value, but Henry averaged 10.6 yards per rush and took his only reception of the season (Oklahoma) for a 61-yard score. Even at 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, it’s clear Henry is capable of providing some big-play ability outside of his usual thunder. T.J. Yeldon is set to assume the No. 1 spot in the backfield this year, but Henry is due for a significant bump in carries. And with a new quarterback taking over in Tuscaloosa, expect Alabama to build its offense around Yeldon and Henry’s production in 2014.
Shock Linwood, Baylor
Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin will be missed, but Art Briles isn’t hurting for options in the backfield. All-name teamer Shock Linwood is slated to be the No. 1 back this spring after a strong showing in 2013. With Seastrunk sidelined due to injury, Linwood rushed for 182 yards against Oklahoma and gashed Texas Tech for 187. The Texas native finished the year with 881 yards and eight touchdowns on 128 attempts. Linwood is a big-play threat in the backfield and should be a preseason first-team all-conference selection. Even though Linwood appears to be capable of handling 200-215 carries, Briles and coordinator Philip Montgomery will likely find a running mate for him this season. A potential candidate will be 220-pound sophomore Devin Chafin or 6-foot-3 incoming freshman Terence Williams. Regardless of the backup situation, Linwood is in for a monster year as Baylor’s No. 1 back.
Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State
Roland played sparingly through the first six weeks of the season but provided a spark to Oklahoma State’s rushing attack in the second half of 2013. Roland gashed Iowa State for 219 yards and four touchdowns on 26 attempts and recorded 144 yards and two scores against Oklahoma in the regular season finale. The Cowboys have some turnover on offense to overcome this season, as quarterback Clint Chelf expired his eligibility, and line coach Joe Wickline left for Texas. But the changes should create more opportunities for Roland, as he will handle the bulk of the carries for Oklahoma State’s offense with Jeremy Smith departing. The Cowboys plan to involve junior college recruit Tyreek Hill, freshman Devon Thomas and sophomore Rennie Childs in the rushing attack, but all signs point to Roland emerging as a potential All-Big 12 candidate.
Dwayne Washington, Washington
Change is in the air in Seattle this spring. Steve Sarkisian left for USC, and the Huskies hired Chris Petersen away from Boise State to take the program to the next level. Petersen has a track record of success from his stint in Boise, and he is the right fit for a program that is on the cusp of a spot in the preseason top 25 this year. But Petersen certainly has some work to do this spring. Quarterback Keith Price and running back Bishop Sankey depart, leaving big shoes to fill on offense. Sankey’s 1,870 yards won’t be easy to replace, and Petersen and coordinator Jonathan Smith could use multiple backs in 2014. Washington is a name to remember after he rushed for 332 yards and four touchdowns in a backup role last season. He was a three-star recruit and redshirted in his first year on campus. Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier should factor into the mix, but the guess here is Washington emerges as the Huskies’ No. 1 back this preseason.
Karlos Williams, Florida State
Williams was a five-star talent out of high school and spent the first two years of his career on defense. But shortly after the win over Pittsburgh on Labor Day, the Florida State coaching staff moved Williams to offense, a move some believed should have taken place earlier in his career. As expected, Williams showcased his athleticism and speed in limited duty at running back in 2013, rushing for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns on 91 attempts. The Florida native averaged a whopping 8.0 yards per carry and is expected to open spring practice as the Seminoles’ No. 1 back. Williams won’t have to carry the entire workload for coach Jimbo Fisher, as top recruit Dalvin Cook will contribute right away, and Ryan Green and Mario Pender will be in the mix for snaps. Even if Williams doesn’t top 200 carries, it’s clear his athleticism and speed will be a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. Look for Williams to have a huge breakout season as the top back in Tallahassee.
Other Names to Watch in 2014
Peyton Barber, Auburn
Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne return, but Barber should find a role in Auburn’s offense this season.
Greg Bryant, Notre Dame
Bryant played in three games (three attempts) before redshirting in 2013. The Florida native ranked as the No. 46 recruit in the 2013 signing class and is poised to take on a larger role in the Notre Dame backfield this year.
Devin Campbell/Anthone Taylor, Buffalo
Campbell rushed for 502 yards as a true freshman in 2012 but recorded only 11 attempts in 2013. Taylor was the top backup to Branden Oliver last season, rushing for 399 yards on 82 attempts. With five starters returning on the offensive line, Campbell or Taylor could emerge as an All-MAC performer.
James Conner, Pittsburgh
Conner and Isaac Bennett will share carries once again in 2014, but Conner is due for a bump in opportunities after gashing Bowling Green for 229 yards and one touchdown in the Little Caesars Bowl.
Braylon Heard, Kentucky
Heard averaged 6.7 yards per rush on 52 attempts at Nebraska in 2012. After sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, Heard should team with Jojo Kemp to form a much-improved Kentucky rushing attack.
Elijah Hood, North Carolina
The Tar Heels certainly aren’t hurting for options at running back. Khris Francis, T.J. Logan and Romar Morris combined for 1,065 rushing yards last season, but Larry Fedora and coordinator Seth Littrell will find a way to get Hood involved with the offense. And it may not be long before the true freshman assumes the No. 1 role in the backfield.
Kareem Hunt, Toledo
The Rockets have produced a 1,000-yard rusher for four consecutive years. Hunt should continue that streak in 2014 after rushing for 866 yards and six touchdowns on 137 attempts last year. He could be one of the top statistical backs outside of the BCS in 2014, especially with a solid offensive line leading the way in Toledo.
Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
Hurd ranked as the No. 40 recruit in the 2014 signing class by the 247Sports Composite rankings. At 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds, Hurd is a physical specimen at running back with an intriguing blend of speed and power. The Tennessee native will have a chance to earn playing time this spring with the departure of Rajion Neal.
Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
The Sooners have a trio of talented options in the backfield. Keith Ford and Alex Ross played sparingly last season, but both players were big-time recruits. Mixon will join the competition this summer, and the California native was the No. 1 all-purpose back according to 247Sports. Ford and Ross will factor into the mix, but it will be tough to keep Mixon off the field in 2014.
Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State
Adam Muema made a surprising decision to leave San Diego State for the NFL, but the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Rocky Long. Pumphrey rushed for 752 yards and eight scores, while catching 22 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013. At 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, Pumphrey seems to be suited as part of a tandem approach in the backfield. However, he should approach at least 200 overall touches as a sophomore.
Josh Robinson, Mississippi State
We mentioned Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott in the quarterbacks on the rise article, and his backfield mate deserves a mention here. Robinson has averaged 5.9 yards per carry over the last two years and rushed for 101 yards on 17 carries against Arkansas last season.
Barry Sanders, Stanford
Son of NFL great Barry Sanders was a top-100 recruit in the 2012 signing class and rushed for 52 yards on five attempts in his first taste of game action in 2013. With Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson departing, Sanders is due for an increased workload in what appears to be a backfield-by-committee approach for Stanford in 2014.
Jerron Seymour, Vanderbilt
New coach Derek Mason is no stranger to a run-first mentality on offense after spending the last four years at Stanford. The Commodores may not copy that exact gameplan with former UCLA coach Karl Dorrell calling the plays, but the offensive line should be solid with four starters back, and the offense should lean to the run with two young quarterbacks (Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary) battling for time. Seymour is only 5-foot-7, but the Florida native led the team in attempts (164), yards (716) and touchdowns last year (14). With a few more attempts and a solid offensive line leading the way, Seymour should eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in 2014.
Rushel Shell, West Virginia
Dana Holgorsen is known for his offenses, especially of the passing variety. But with a loaded backfield returning to Morgantown, the Mountaineers should lean on the ground in 2014. Dreamius Smith, Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison are in the mix, with Shell joining the action after sitting out 2013 as a transfer from Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania native ranked as the No. 5 running back by Athlon Sports in the 2012 signing class. He may not win the job outright, but Shell will make a difference for the Mountaineers.
William Stanback, UCF
Storm Johnson bolted early for the NFL, but UCF’s backfield is set with Stanback returning after a solid freshman season. In 13 games, Stanback rushed for 443 yards and six touchdowns on 105 attempts. His best performance came against Houston (74 yards), while also rushing for 65 yards against Louisville.
Kelvin Taylor, Florida
Taylor’s performance was one of the few bright spots in Florida’s dreadful offense last year. He rushed for 508 yards and four scores in his true freshman campaign, including 96 in a 19-14 loss to South Carolina. If the Gators can find some answers in the trenches, Taylor could approach 1,000 yards with the right opportunities.
Thomas Tyner, Oregon
Oregon certainly isn’t hurting for options in the backfield. Byron Marshall returns after rushing for 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, while true freshman Royce Freeman is another weapon for coordinator Scott Frost. Tyner rushed for 711 yards and nine scores as a true freshman in 2013, and the Oregon native is the team’s top big-play threat in the backfield. Even though Marshall has earned his carries, and Freeman is due for a role, Tyner needs more carries this season.
Myles Willis, Boston College
The Eagles probably won’t replace Andre Williams with one player, but Willis proved to be a capable option in limited action last year. The Georgia native rushed for 346 yards on 60 attempts (5.8 ypc), including 70 on 17 attempts against Syracuse. With a solid offensive line returning to Chestnut Hill next year, Willis should find plenty of room to run in 2014.
Aaron Wimberly, Iowa State
New coordinator Mark Mangino is tasked with improving an Iowa State offense that finished eighth in the Big 12 last season. Getting the ball to Wimberly should be a priority after he rushed for 567 yards on 141 attempts in 2013, including an 117-yard performance against Texas.
With a little more than two weeks to Selection Sunday, the college basketball season almost certainly has a few more surprises even before the NCAA Tournament.
Some of those, though, won’t be many of the best coaching jobs in each league. By now, we know the teams that have overachieved, teams that have faced some of the most adversity and teams that have thrived despite of limitations.
For the most part, we know who is in contention for coach of the year in every major conference even before the invitations to the NCAA Tournament.
Maybe other programs not listed here will catch a hot streak in the postseason. Maybe others will falter. But for many of these, we need little more information to declare the following coaches frontrunners for their league’s coach of the year honors.
Tony Bennett, Virginia
Saturday seemed to be the day the light bulb went off everywhere but Charlottesville: Virginia can win the ACC regular season title. The Cavaliers took up first place with Syracuse’s loss to Duke. Despite Syracuse’s undefeated start to the season, Jim Boeheim’s costly outburst against Duke may cost him coach of the year hardware. Bennett’s doing this on his own merits, though. The build, like Virginia’s playing style, has been methodical. The Cavs have increased their ACC win total each season under Bennett. The difference this season has been the emergence of Malcolm Brogdon as a scorer to complement Joe Harris. While the traditional metrics indicate a modest improvement in the offensive end to 65.9 points per game, Virginia is a top-50 team in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating for the first time under Bennett.
Other challengers? North Carolina’s Roy Williams
Larry Brown, SMU
The hire of Brown at SMU was questionable two seasons ago as the then-72-year-old coach ventured back into college basketball for the first time since 1988. And beyond that, SMU was more than a decade removed from its last season with a winning record in conference play. To put that in further perspective, that was three coaches and two conferences ago. This didn't seem to be a job for a veteran coach nearing retirement. But after overhauling the roster in his first season, Brown has SMU on the brink of its first NCAA Tournament since 1993. The Mustangs aren’t totally feasting on the bottom half of the American, either. SMU has swept the season series against Connecticut and defeated Cincinnati and Memphis at home.
Other challengers? UConn’s Kevin Ollie
Jim Crews, Saint Louis
The tempting pick is Mark Lonergan of George Washington. Athlon picked the Colonials 10th in the conference, but they’re pushing for an NCAA bid. Sometimes, though, it helps not to overthink these selections. Crews, who was not named the permanent head coach until April, has Saint Louis undefeated in a surprisingly deep league. The Billikens are one of the top defensive teams in the country and count only two losses by single digits to Wisconsin and Wichita State.
Other challengers? George Washington’s Mark Lonergan, UMass’ Derek Kellogg, St. Joseph’s Phil Martelli
Bill Self, Kansas
It seems too easy to pick the team that has already clinched at least a share of the conference title, but there’s more to this season for Self. The Jayhawks lost their entire starting five from last year, and although they added the best freshman class in the country, they played the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation. Andrew Wiggins started his career inconsistently, and point guard play was suspect early as well. Kansas indeed has the best roster in the league, but give Self credit for winning his 10th consecutive league title with more than week to go.
Other challengers? Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger, Texas’ Rick Barnes, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg
Jay Wright, Villanova
It would be a disservice to Villanova to boil its season down to the two lopsided losses to Creighton, the Wildcats’ only two losses in Big East play. This is still a team that defeated Kansas and Iowa early in the year. After an uneven 2012-13 and a losing season in 2011-12, Villanova is on its way to its best win total in four seasons.
Other contenders? Creighton’s Greg McDermott
John Beilein, Michigan
Just think of the adjustments Michigan has made this season: Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. left school early. Mitch McGary has played eight games all season. And then go-to scoring threat Nik Stauskas went into a midseason slump. The Wolverines have developed Caris LeVert into an impact player and freshman Derrick Walton into a Big Ten-caliber point guard. Michigan leads for the Big Ten title with arguably a better offensive team than a year ago.
Other contenders? Nebraska’s Tim Miles
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
The Shockers are making a bid to be the first team to enter the conference tournaments undefeated since St. Joseph’s in 2004 and first to be undefeated on Selection Sunday since UNLV in 1991. Case closed.
Steve Fisher, San Diego State
By the time New Mexico defeated San Diego State on Saturday, it was easy to forget that the Lobos were a near-unanimous pick to win the Mountain West. Meanwhile, San Diego State was picked fourth by Athlon and by the media in the preseason poll. The Aztecs had to replace Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, but the development of Xavier Thames enabled San Diego State to climb as high as No. 5 in the AP poll.
Other contenders? New Mexico’s Craig Neal
Tad Boyle, Colorado
Colorado has managed to keep its head above water despite the season-ending injury for Spencer Dinwiddie on Jan. 12. The Buffaloes are 5-5 since then, but haven’t lost to a team outside of the RPI top 50 without Dinwiddie starting. If Colorado can navigate these last three road games against Utah, Stanford and Cal, Boyle should have his team in the NCAA Tournament, a remarkable feat.
Other contenders? Arizona’s Sean Miller, Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak
Billy Donovan, Florida
For the most part, the SEC has been lackluster this season. Not Florida, though. The Gators are doing things they haven’t done since winning back-to-back national titles, including reaching the No. 1 spot in the polls and defeating Kentucky and Tennessee on the road in the same season. Now, Donovan has his eyes set on Florida’s first perfect SEC record in school history.
Other contenders? Georgia’s Mark Fox
The NFL Scouting Combine (Feb. 22-25) is crossing the finish line on another so-called “Underwear Olympics.” The Combine is just one step in the job interview process leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft (May 8-10). But make no mistake, millions of dollars are on the line during the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical leap, broad jump, cone drills, Wonderlic test and BOD Pod tests.
With all 32 teams bringing a who’s who of owners, general managers, head coaches, coordinators and scouts to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, some players shrink in the spotlight. But these 15 prospects were workout warriors who aced their tests at the NFL Scouting Combine.
1. Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn – 1985
The two-sport tall tale weighed in at a chiseled 6’1”, 230 pounds before running an unofficial hand-timed 4.12 in the 40-yard dash — a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring effort that is still a part of Combine folklore.
2. Tony Mandarich, OT, Michigan State – 1989
In hindsight, the most impressive thing the “Incredible Bulk” did was pass his steroid drug screening during the Combine. At 304 pounds, Mandarich ran a 4.65 in the 40, exploded for a 30” vertical and 10’3” broad jump, and ripped off 39 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
3. Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland – 2006
Davis looked like a body builder or, at the very least, an actor from an Under Armour commercial en route to running a 4.38 in the 40, skying for a 42” vertical, 10’8” broad, and slamming 33 reps on the bench press.
4. Mike Mamula, LB, Boston College – 1995
After all these years, Mamula remains the go-to cautionary tale of the Combine. The BC beast vaulted up draft boards after a 4.58 in the 40, 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench, a 38” vertical and a 49-of-50 on the Wonderlic Test. Mamula never looked as good in pads as he did in shorts.
5. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor – 2012
The fastest quarterback in Combine history — faster than uber athlete Cam Newton and draft classmate Andrew Luck — RG3 was a track star on the fast track to NFL and commercial superstardom, with a blistering 4.41 in the 40-yard dash to go along with a dunk contest-worthy 39” vertical.
6. Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis – 2012
While the Heisman Trophy-winning RG3 was a high-profile, pretty boy quarterback looking like a million bucks in Indy, Poe was a relative unknown fat boy nose tackle making himself who knows how many millions with his effort at the Combine. The 6’4”, 346-pound heavyweight ran a 4.98 in the 40 and powered through 44 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
7. Chris Johnson, RB, East Carolina – 2008
Before he became CJ2K, the gold-grilled CJ4.24 was the gold standard official record-holder in laser-timed 40-yard sprints, posting a 4.24 and hitting the first-round finish line in-stride. CJ has not, however, been able to set up a race against Usain Bolt.
8. Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State – 1989
The ultimate showman (and show-boater), Deion showed up fashionably late (and probably fashionably loud) to the Combine, then ran his 40-yard dash only once — in a time between 4.19 and 4.29, depending on whose hand-timed stop watch you trust. But Prime Time didn’t stop running once he hit the finish line; Sanders ran out of the building to a limousine waiting to take him to the airport.
9. Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech –2007
With his draft stock holding strong near the top of the class, Johnson planned on kicking back and watching the festivities. But once the fireworks started, Megatron’s competitive juices started flowing and he decided he wanted to run after all. The only problem? He didn’t bring any track shoes. So Johnson borrowed a pair of spikes from East Carolina’s James Pinkney — then proceeded to run a blistering 4.32 in the 40.
10. Julio Jones, WR, Alabama – 2011
With everyone in the building looking for the “next Megatron,” Julio gave scouts a sneak peak at the new model of NFL wideout — weighing in at 6’3”, 220 pounds before flying for a 4.39 in the 40, skying for a 38.5” vertical and exploding for an 11’3” broad jump.
11. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin – 2011
In hindsight, the numbers that Watt put up at the Combine were a window into his dominant Defensive Player of the Year future. At 6’5”, 290 pounds with 11 1/8” hands and 34” arms, Watt ran a 4.84 in the 40, soared for a 37” vertical and 10’ broad jump, and threw up a long-armed 34 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press.
12. Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma – 2013
A high school quarterback turned college tight end turned NFL top-5 pick offensive tackle, Johnson took an unorthodox route to the league. But the 6’6”, 303-pounder put on an incredible display of athleticism, with a tight end-style 4.72 in the 40, a 34” vertical and 28 reps of 225 pounds on the bench.
13. Matt Jones, QB/WR, Arkansas – 2008
Another change-of-position guy (albeit with far less success), Jones was a 6’6”, 237-pound quarterback with questionable mental makeup but 4.37 speed in the 40. The Jaguars thought he could play wide receiver. As usual, Jacksonville was wrong.
14. Vernon Gholston, DE, Ohio State – 2008
One of the main reasons teams remain skeptical of off-the-charts Combine stats, Gholston was the classic “look like Tarzan, play like Jane.” In shorts and a muscle shirt, Gholston ran a 4.67 in the 40, had 37 reps on the bench and lifted off for a 35.5” vertical and 10’5” broad jump.
15. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina – 2014
The ghost of Gholston haunts every team leery of every physical freak at the Combine. Clowney has a Julius Peppers meets Zeus frame of 6’5” and 266 pounds. After essentially taking off his junior season, Clowney came down from on high long enough to run a brilliant 4.53 — faster even than Johnny Football — and post a 37.5” vertical and 10’4” broad jump. His 21 reps of 225 pounds were a potential red flag, if only because the lower-than-expected number woke the trolls who question Clowney’s motor. No one questions his athletic ability.
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 driver in this year’s rookie class.
America loves rankings, right? Ranking the drivers in this tantalizing crop can be maddening, especially considering we have just one week’s worth of a sample size to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, that sample was collected at Daytona. Although it’s The World Center of Racing, its restrictor plate racing style rears its head just four times over the course of the annual Cup Series calendar and isn’t indicative of everything a driver does in a single season.
Way too soon to rank the competitors? Perhaps. That’s why, to fill the many gaps, I have incorporated what we know of each driver dating back to their previous limited showings in the Cup Series in 2013 and their performance in NASCAR’s lower divisions.
For the top-ranked driver, consideration of his past performance does wonders because his Daytona 500 debut was one he’d be inclined to forget.
1. Kyle Larson, No. 42 – In 2013, everything Larson touched turned to gold (except at Daytona, which we’ll get to in a second). He led NASCAR Nationwide Series regulars in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) and passing efficiency, though neither showed in Turner Scott Motorsports equipment. Though he failed to win a race, he did manage four runner-up finishes last season.
A last-lap accident in the Nationwide opener at Daytona last year resulted in him nearly going to the stands as part of a hellacious flip. This year’s effort at Daytona was less violent, but just as eventful. In total, he crashed three times during the 500. Though not all the incidents were of his doing, it didn’t do much to quell the notion that the rim-riding rookie is prone to crashing; his 0.36 crash frequency in 2013 was the highest among Nationwide Series regulars.
2. Parker Kligerman, No. 30 – Kligerman’s practice session on the Wednesday prior to the Duel races resulted in him flipping onto his roof. A backup car from a shallow Swan Racing stable didn’t appear to have sufficient enough speed; he didn’t crack the top 10 in the running order once in the Daytona 500, a relatively random race from lap to lap. His reputation precedes him, though, considering his 2.114 PEER ranked 10th overall and fourth among series regulars last year in the Nationwide Series. As he did for much of last season with Kyle Busch Motorsports’s hapless Nationwide arm, he’ll have to make lemonade out of lemons this year with the small Swan operation.
3. Austin Dillon, No. 3 – Thank goodness for team support. Dillon’s Richard Childress Racing team built a car strong enough to put the No. 3 on the pole for the Daytona 500 in the famous number’s return to Cup Series racing. After avoiding the competition in his Duel race — thus, conserving his car and starting spot — Dillon struggled in the 500, securing a minus-15 pass differential (48.12 percent efficiency). Crew chief Gil Martin aptly short-pitted the car well enough on the evening’s first green-flag pit cycle to jump Dillon from 39th to 24th.
Triggering two accidents and missing his pit stall en route to a rookie-best eighth-place finish, Dillon admitted in his post-race interview that, “The yellow stripes on the bumper (signifying rookie status) showed a little bit tonight.”
4. Cole Whitt, No. 26 – Whitt was involved in a crash during practice on Wednesday, but a Swan crew led by Whitt’s long-time wrench Randy Cox buffed out a lot of the cosmetic damage prior to his Duel race. Amazingly, he spent all but three laps of it running 15th (the final transfer position) or better. In the 500, he found himself close to the top 5 near the ends of pit cycles, which could have translated into a higher-than-expected finish had the race gone green for the duration. He ended up being one of the casualties of the same accident that bit fellow Swan driver Parker Kligerman.
5. Alex Bowman, No. 23 – Outside of a pit road speeding penalty on lap 85, Bowman’s Cup Series race was relatively and pleasantly uneventful. He was one of two rookies to actually finish the race (his final spot was 23rd), carrying the flag for a BK Racing organization that failed to put one of its two machines in the show. A serviceable producer last season in the Nationwide Series, it might take Bowman emulating his isolated ability of 2013 in order to go far press on with a team still in search of speed.
6. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 – Allgaier’s 50 percent pass efficiency — meaning he passed the same number of times (in his case, 339) he got passed — was tops among rookies in last Sunday’s 500, but his inclusion in the lap 194 accident that set up the race’s final restart shattered his chances at a more desired finishing result. The 27th-place finish was three spots above the average result (30.2) he earned last season in four late-year starts for HScott Motorsports.
7. Michael Annett, No. 7 – In his Duel race, Annett was stymied by the side draft and eventually lost the lead pack altogether, relying on his qualifying time to make the Daytona 500. Once the feature race rolled around, Annett’s issue with the side draft was corrected. He was running ninth with less than 50 laps to go, before being caught up in an accident. If his ability to correct a foible was any indication, anticipate Annett’s second half of the season looking significantly stronger than his first.
8. Ryan Truex, No. 83 – The biggest knock on Truex coming into this season was his lack of repetitions in smaller NASCAR divisions over the last few years. Missing the biggest race of the season does nothing to assuage that concern. If it can be considered a silver lining, he did manage to acquit himself well in a rare NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start, finishing fourth in last Friday’s season opener.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
All this talk about the Mt. Rushmore of this and the Mt. Rushmore of that reminded me that the concept works better for golf than any other sport, since golfers naturally organize themselves in groups of four. So who comprises golf's ultimate foursome?
In completing my list, I used two primary criteria: achievement and impact. Who won important golf tournaments, and who transcended the game while doing so?
Here, then, is my ultimate foursome — the four men who have had the greatest, most lasting impact on the game of golf. Feel free to tell me where I’m wrong.
Rather than recite Tiger’s resume, I’d rather revisit the one moment that made Woods’ spot on golf’s Mount Rushmore an inevitability. In April 1997, Woods so dominated the most storied and tradition-steeped tournament in golf that the sport was changed forever.
We all remember the Masters-record 18-under par total that Woods shot in his first Masters as a pro. We remember his incredible 12-shot margin of victory. (Runner-up Tom Kite’s 282 total would have been good enough to win 17 previous Masters, but it only got him within 12 shots of Tiger.) We remember the way his mammoth drives turned the par-5s into pitch-and-putts. What many people don’t remember about the 1997 Masters is how badly Tiger started the tournament. On the front nine on Thursday, Woods went out in 40, leaving him 4-over par. That, apparently, is when the stars aligned and the golf gods smiled. Over the next 63 holes, Woods swept through Augusta National like a tornado, toying with the course and demoralizing the greatest players in the world.
Tiger’s runaway, far from putting a crimp into the television ratings, instead gave golf its greatest ratings winner to date. In 1996, before Woods turned pro, the rating was 9.2 on Sunday. In 1997, when Woods won, the number jumped to 14.1.
The rest, as they say, is history — 14 major championships, 79 PGA Tour wins, the lowest career scoring average in PGA Tour history, and, yes, scandal and disgrace. But the impact and the level of achievement are undeniable and unprecedented.
Nicklaus brought out greatness in his opponents — Palmer, Player, Watson, Trevino. But more importantly, he made golf a greater game through his physical skill and strength, his mental toughness, his sustained level of excellence and his genius for strategically dismantling golf courses around the world.
You know the litany of accomplishments. 18 major championships, more than Hogan and Palmer combined. A mind-boggling 37 top twos in majors.
And lest we think the Tour of the 21st Century outshines the Tour in Jack’s prime, consider this: Nicklaus fought many of the game’s greatest at their very peak and beat them all. And when he didn’t beat them, he coaxed their very best out of them.
As if to prove the point, at age 46, Nicklaus was able to muster enough of his old-time wizardry to outduel names like Ballesteros, Kite, Norman — all of them at the peak of their powers — to win his sixth Masters in 1986 in one of the greatest sports moments of all time.
In his golden years, the Golden Bear has continued to shape the game with his prolific golf course design company.
There have been better players with prettier swings. But there has never been a more important golfer than the King, Arnold Palmer. He quadrupled purses, brought golf away from the country clubs and into our living rooms, and assembled an Army of devoted followers. He won — and lost — with more flair than any other athlete.
From 1958 to 1968, Palmer reigned amid the azaleas and pines of Augusta National, where Arnie’s Army first mustered. With the lone exception of 1963, he was in contention at every Masters during that epic stretch, winning four times, finishing second twice, third once and fourth twice.
Although he made his reputation at The Masters — and made the tournament what it is today — it was the 1960 U.S. Open that truly captured the King at the peak of his powers. The leaderboard on that final day included a chubby 20-year-old amateur named Jack Nicklaus. It included a legend — the Hawk, Ben Hogan. The third member of this historic trio lit a cigarette, stalked to the tee of the 318-yard, par-4 first hole at Cherry Hills and drove the green on his way to a historic final-round 65, erasing a seven-stroke deficit for the greatest comeback in Open history.
If winning is the standard for determining excellence, there is no greater player in golf history than Sam Snead.
Using a smooth, syrupy swing that looked as natural and effortless as breathing, Slammin’ Sammy won more golf tournaments than any other player — a staggering total of 81 PGA Tour titles, and anywhere from 135 to 165 victories worldwide, depending on whom you ask. He posted wins in four different decades, from the 1936 West Virginia Closed Pro to the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open (his eighth title in that event), when he was 52 years old.
Snead won three Masters, including a 1954 playoff triumph over friend and rival Ben Hogan. He won three PGA Championships and a British Open.
There is one hole in the Slammer’s résumé that prevents him from staking a legitimate claim to being the greatest player in history. Somehow, Snead never won the one tournament that seemingly should have been his by birthright. He never won a U.S. Open. But his near-tragic failures at the Open do not diminish his accomplishments.
His swing was such an efficient device that it served him well into his golden years and remains the gold standard for golf swings. In 1979, he offered golf fans one final glimpse of his greatness, as he became the first player to score below his age, shooting 67 and 66 in the Quad Cities Open at the age of 67. By then, and for the rest of his life, Snead was a beloved ambassador and advocate for the game.
Ben Hogan is widely considered the greatest ball-striker in the game’s history, and he changed golf instruction forever with his Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. Along with Nicklaus, Woods, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen, he’s one of five players to own a career Grand Slam. His courage in coming back from a near-fatal car crash added to his legend. His tough-to-love, prickly personality kept him distant from fans and keeps him off Mount Rushmore. Barely.
Gary Player was golf’s first global ambassador, winning tournaments all over the world, including nine major championships.
Seve Ballesteros was Europe’s version of Arnold Palmer, putting a sport on his back and selling it to an entire continent. Almost singlehandedly, he transformed the Ryder Cup into one of the greatest spectacles in sports.
Bobby Jones was the game’s breakthrough superstar who pulled off one of golf’s signature achievements with his 1930 Grand Slam — winning the U.S. and British Opens and U.S. and British Amateurs in one season. Oh, and he founded The Masters.
Byron Nelson was golf’s greatest gentleman and the author of its greatest individual achievement — 11 wins in a row in 1945, a season in which he won 18 tournaments in all.
Tom Watson won eight majors and dominated golf’s oldest tournament, the British Open, like no one else, winning five times in a nine-year span and coming close to a historic sixth win in 2009 at age 59.
Minnesota won an NCAA Tournament game last season, and Tubby Smith was shown the door.
The Gophers are flirting with the NCAA bubble, and first-year coach Richard Pitino has the Minnesota fanbase energized.
Pitino has a chance to be the first first-year coach to reach the Tournament since Bill Muselman in 1972, but the Gophers have to make a major statement this week. The Gophers picked up two major wins in January against Wisconsin and Minnesota, but Pitino’s team has been quiet since then.
As they enter a critical week, Minnesota will look to rediscover the magic from earlier this season. Here’s a look at the Gophers as they enter tonight’s key game against Iowa:
|Remaining schedule||By the numbers|
|Feb. 24: Iowa|
March 1: at Michigan
March 9: Penn State
|Record: 17-11, 6-9 Big Ten|
Strength of schedule: 42
Best win: Wisconsin at home
Worst loss: Purdue on the road
Why Minnesota could be in the Tournament
The Gophers were the taste of the Big Ten for a week or so in January just as Wisconsin and Ohio State started to slump. Minnesota played a major role in that, defeating the Buckeyes and Badgers in Minneapolis. With Andre Hollins and Dre Mathieu, Minnesota has two quick guards able to pick apart opposing defenses.
Why Minnesota could be left out
The Gophers’ best days were in January. Since the upset of Wisconsin, Minnesota is 2-6. That stretch has included losses to Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois — teams that are Big Ten Tournament or bust at this point. Minnesota doesn’t have the non-conference resume to force the selection committee to overlook a potential losing record in Big Ten play.
Minnesota needs to: Beat Iowa and/or Michigan this week
Unless Minnesota can defeat Iowa at home today or Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday, the Gophers’ pair of top-20 wins back in January will look like the exception not the rule. Minnesota’s best win away from home is Richmond on the road, so the Gophers could split the week and still need to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament.
Minnesota can’t afford: A loss to Penn State
Losing to Iowa and Michigan would almost certainly banish Minnesota to the NIT. Minnesota finishes the season with Penn State at home on March 9. A loss there may be NCAA Tournament Kryptonite no matter what happens this week.
Hovering around .500 in the SEC is not great for an NCAA Tournament resume. Missouri could learn how damaging that could be as the Tigers sit on the bubble.
As the Tigers head into tonight’s game against Georgia, Missouri is entering the must-win territory of its schedule, especially after a loss to Alabama on Saturday. Georgia is not a threat to go to the NCAA Tournament, but the Bulldogs are comfortable with the spoiler role, defeating bubble teams like Ole Miss and LSU in Athens in February.
Athlon Sports is breaking down some of the most vulnerable bubble teams as the regular season draws to a close, starting today with Missouri as the Tigers head into a key game against Georgia.
|Remaining schedule||By the numbers|
|Feb. 25: at Georgia|
March 1: Mississippi State
March 5: Texas A&M
March 8: at Tennessee
|Record: 19-8, 7-7 SEC|
Strength of schedule: 62
Best win: UCLA at home
Worst loss: Alabama on the road
Why Missouri could be in the Tournament:
The Tigers have one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league in transfers Jordan Clarkson (Tulsa), Jabari Brown (Oregon) and Earnest Ross (Auburn). The Tigers swept the season series against fellow bubble team Arkansas. Mizzou also is 10 days removed from a win over Tennessee. It’s tough to see the SEC garnering fewer than three NCAA Tournament bids, and Missouri has as much of a chance as any.
Why Missouri could be be left out:
Missouri’s team defense is dreadful. The Tigers rank last in defensive efficiency in SEC play on KenPom, a deficiency that led to Missouri’s worst losses of the season to Alabama, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Georgia. Beyond a win over RPI no. 15 UCLA, Missouri does not have another win over a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team. Facing Florida and Kentucky once apiece this season — Mizzou lost both — deprives the Tigers of a chance for a signature win.
Missouri needs: To beat Tennessee
A season sweep to Georgia wouldn’t be a great look, but the road trip to Knoxville could be the key game if the Tigers win the next three. A win over Tennessee on the road combined with one win in the SEC Tournament might be enough to keep the Tigers in the field.
Missouri can’t afford: Losses to Mississippi State or Texas A&M
The Tigers are three days removed from their worst loss of the season to RPI No. 117 Alabama. Another loss to a bad team this close to the NCAA Tournament would be a trend rather than an aberration.
Insight from the beat: Steve Walentik, Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune
“Missouri missed opportunities to separate itself from all the middling teams in the SEC while too often coming up a little short on the road in league play. ... Missouri needs junior guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson at peak form down the stretch with only one other player (Earnest Ross) averaging more than 5.1 points in SEC play. The Tigers are also going to have to stop surrendering so many open looks from beyond the 3-point arc. They're giving up an average of 7.9 made 3-pointers during SEC play and have allowed five different opponents to make at least 10 against them.”
No one said that running the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine was easy. And from the labored looks on the faces of the athletes running it, it's true. Enjoy this image gallery of the football players trying to grunt one out at the combine.
Thirteen years after tragedy and 10 years after triumph, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled into Daytona 500 Victory Lane a second time. Emotions ran high in a race where a car with the slanted, stylized “3” made famous by his late father led the field to green hours earlier. No one would have blamed the driver if, soaking in the breadth of history, he simply broke down in tears.
Instead? He got up and cheered.
“WOOOO!!!!” That was Earnhardt’s scream in the media center, giddier than a five-year-old kid on Christmas after earning his first restrictor plate victory in over a decade. It was the big-stage moment that NASCAR’s most popular driver had been missing since his move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. The sport’s Super Bowl had signified falling short of expectations for Earnhardt, who notched three second-place finishes in the 500 over the last four years. Two victories in six seasons at HMS (both at Michigan) made it seem like he, the team’s highest-profile personality on a team full of high profile personalities, was the forgotten man. Perhaps, through that process of skidding downward, Earnhardt also forgot the confidence he once had in himself.
Steve Letarte was brought in as crew chief in 2011 to change all that, and the process has been spectacular to watch; for Earnhardt, it’s been growing up all over again. The chemistry between the two is a connection built on brotherly trust and support. While the results didn’t come right away, what had been missing for the driver the most — the fun factor — returned.
“We really all are best friends,” Earnhardt said of his No. 88 team. “(We) enjoy working with each other. We pull for each other. When you got great people around you, it just makes that whole experience so much more special.”
That’s why this win left fans and competitors alike so excited about its impact: With a Chase bid all but a certainty, this team has the freedom to run wild and loose, gambling for wins and pushing Earnhardt’s profile back towards lofty heights, attracting millions more to a sport that had drifted apart from them. In a sense, the Earnhardt bandwagon never truly left; but with no one believing Junior could eclipse his own teammates, it was hard to stay on board the ship.
Now, that ship has sails, as does NASCAR’s 2014 season. It would be hard to script an ending to Speedweeks any better.
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Hendrick teamwork proves key
It was a battle of heavy hitters down the stretch in this 500. Joe Gibbs Racing, with Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth made a bid for the lead. Roush Fenway Racing was impressive; both Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards took turns at the front. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano for Penske Racing were right up there. But none of the duos were able to stay together like the three-man Hendrick Motorsports effort of Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in crunch time.
“Jeff pushing us on the last restart was key,” Earnhardt said of the green-white-checker restart that made the difference. “We timed that perfectly.” But it wasn’t just the final few moments. There was a time when, with 10 laps to go, Earnhardt pushed out in front while Johnson and Gordon, each leading separate lanes, blocked in much the same way Dale Earnhardt Sr. did when Michael Waltrip darted out ahead of the pack in 2001. It was clear HMS was pushing teamwork, aiming for that 1-2-3 finish and it was fine with the other two should Earnhardt win.
“Dale Jr. just won the Daytona 500 to kick off 2014,” Gordon said. “That is a sign that the NASCAR season is going to be a good one.
“The world is right, right now.”
Johnson, a man Earnhardt called “one of my biggest fans” in a marathon post-race presser, echoed the sentiment. “He has been knocking on the door here at the 500 for a lot of years,” said the six-time champ, who just beat the No. 88 to Victory Lane in the 2013 Daytona 500. “He got it done tonight. He did an awesome job.”’
It’s that genuine care for one another that separate the HMS teammates from those of other organizations. Love it or hate it, the team works together as one, and now with one of their own in the Chase after just one week, it gives them a head start on gathering info for the fall. Watch out.
SECOND GEAR: SHR flops in its first four-team effort
On a night where Hendrick shined, its sidekicks at Stewart-Haas Racing crashed and burned … literally. Three of the four drivers wrecked, most notably Danica Patrick, whose car took a vicious hit to the outside wall after being slammed into by Aric Almirola. A 40th-place run was tough to swallow, considering this GoDaddy car might have been better than last year’s — a car show drove to a career-best eighth.
“It seemed like we could move forward,” she said. “But you know, that is the excitement of speedway racing. Anything can happen, and it was unfortunate that I was on the short end of the accident.”
Kurt Busch, meanwhile, was on the short end of NASCAR officiating after a wild spin with 10 laps left. Keeping it off the wall in Turn 4, Busch made a highlight reel save only to watch helplessly as the field kept going, still under green. Losing a lap after flat-spotting the tires, Busch got no caution but threw caution to the wind anyway en route to 21st. A five-minute rowdy radio rant best summarized as “#$(%($*%*$*##*@@*@!” would have left Howard Stern storming off in disgust.
Kevin Harvick, at ground zero of two wrecks that wiped out well over a dozen cars, didn’t have a much better night. His 13th place finish was actually the four-car highlight of the night, considering boss Tony Stewart never got much going. Running in the back of the pack by design, then necessity, due to fuel pickup problems, resulted in a 35th-place finish. His 0-for Daytona drought runs itself up to 16.
Could it have gone worse? Probably not. You’re dealing with the emotional walking wounded heading to Phoenix, short fuses that won’t take much to light up. Already, Harvick’s wife lost it on Twitter Sunday night:
THIRD GEAR: The ups and downs of rookie racersNASCAR’s large rookie class was a big story to start Speedweeks for all the right reasons. On Sunday night, it was for all the wrong ones. Austin Dillon struggled, causing two wrecks and getting involved in a third while leading just one lap from the pole. In the end, he ran ninth but it was hardly the debut he expected. In one of those incidents, he even flat spun main rookie rival Kyle Larson.
“I think the yellow stripes on the bumper showed a little bit tonight,” he said. “But we made it through.”
The rest of the first-years weren’t so lucky. Larson wrecked just two laps in, fought all day to get back on the lead lap and found himself turned by Dillon before he did so. Parker Kligerman, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and Cole Whitt were innocent victims of wrecks not of their making. Alex Bowman got caught for speeding, losing two laps and was never a factor. Even Brian Scott, in his second Cup start but not officially running for the award, stubbed his toe. A questionable side-draft of Harvick, which led to the two rubbing, quickly turned into the night’s first multi-car wreck.
Does it mean this first-year class is all hype and no substance? Far from it. On the contrary, Speedweeks showed us there’s more talent in these up-and-comers than we’ve had in years. But as the series moves to Phoenix, Las Vegas and beyond, expect more cautions and more torn-up sheet metal than 2013, across the board. Rookies have that name because they’re working on a learning curve; mistakes will be inevitable. It just so happened Sunday they were all at once.
FOURTH GEAR: The hard-fought 500, on track and on pit road Following his third-place showing, Brad Keselowski remarked that Sunday was one of the “hardest-raced 500s,” as far as he was concerned, as well as one of the best. He’s right. Once the monstrous six hour, 21-minute rain delay was over, every one of the 42 drivers remaining (Martin Truex Jr. lost an engine prior) ran like a bat out of hell. Thirty seven of the race’s 42 lead changes happened after that break, but it was the intensity of the competition that made the difference.
Lap after lap, three-wide drafting lanes snaked around the track that can’t often handle it (unlike Talladega). Cars were darting up and down, racing like it was the last lap even though there were 100 to go. Maybe it was the threat of weather. Maybe it was two weeks of perfecting the drafting package. Maybe it was drivers getting antsy after sitting through the equivalent of Noah’s flood (there were tornado warnings over Daytona at one point).
Who cares what the reason was. If NASCAR had races like that every week there would be zero competition-related complaints. That’s how you could tell the intensity was getting to the drivers: there were more pit road snafus than we often see. Favorites like Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch ruined their chances by spinning and running over pit equipment, respectively. Several others got caught for speeding, missteps that automatically meant losing the draft and, especially during the race’s long green-flag run, losing a lap. The difference between winning and losing in this sport has turned razor-thin; Sunday night was an example of why that could make this year the most exciting one yet on all fronts.
Rutherford: Will Daytona success make or break a season?
Richard Childress took a close second to SHR in Speedweeks’ “Biggest Loser” category. Paul Menard led early, seemingly with a top-5 car until the Scott-Harvick wreck took him out. Then, a mistimed bump by Austin Dillon took out teammate Ryan Newman in their first race together. Add in affiliate Martin Truex Jr.’s blown engine, an ECR product handed to Furniture Row Racing, and there’s suddenly a lot of catch-up work to do. … Props go to Landon Cassill for a quiet, 12th-place finish at Daytona with underfunded Hillman Racing. It’s a nice recovery for a team that didn’t have a sponsor until the last minute, nor a driver who was fully healthy; a bike accident with a motorist left Cassill with several bruises on his face and road rash on his arms and legs. … A small group of NASCAR fans didn’t do themselves any favors on dropping the “redneck” moniker when they got confused during the rain delay. Despite a crawl making clear FOX was replaying the 2013 version of the Daytona 500, many took to Twitter thinking they were watching a live telecast. At least they weren’t alone; FOX News and KTXS were among several news stations that congratulated Jimmie Johnson on his second straight victory at the conclusion of the time-filler 500.
By Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 25.
• Paula Patton is apparently splitting from Robin Thicke. I don't really know who Paula Patton is, but she seems to have good judgment.
• A kid tried for an Air Jordan logo haircut. It didn't quite work.
• This is pretty scary: A female broadcaster almost fell victim to a human trafficking con in Sochi.
• Dirk's dagger in the Mavs' win over the Knicks yielded a quintessential Knicks GIF. At least J.R. Smith is still attempting to provide entertaining moments.
• I don't normally do politics in the Essential 11. But this photo is amazing in a multi-layered way.
• Tim Lincecum is trying something with his facial hair. It's not working.
• Ali-Liston I was 50 years ago yesterday. The FBI believed the fight was fixed by the mob.
• This Klay Thompson slam ended with Kyle Singler back-pedaling into the photogs.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at email@example.com
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson’s playing career was in doubt after a pre-existing condition was discovered after concussion tests in November.
However, Wilson recently received good news, as he was cleared to participate in spring practice.
Wilson still has more tests in his future to determine his playing status for 2014, but this is clearly a step in the right direction.
In nine games last year, Wilson threw for 1,827 yards and 16 touchdowns and rushed for 386 yards and five scores on 81 attempts.
More will be known about Wilson’s status for 2014, but there are encouraging signs that he can return to the field. Assuming he is able to play, Utah’s offense will have plenty of intrigue, especially with new coordinator Dave Christensen calling the plays.
Utah fans: Good news today about QB Travis Wilson but we are months from full-go confirmation on him bring ready to play again.— ESPN Pac-12 (@ESPN_Pac12blog) February 25, 2014
Love or hate football recruiting, it matters. Coaching, support staffs, financial situations and even a little bit of luck goes into winning football games, but having great players always helps too.
So recruiting rankings are just one facet of a deliberate and in-depth equation that helps Athlon Sports project the college football season every year.
When the staff sits down to hash out the Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 each year, recruiting rankings are as much a part of the discussion as returning starters, scheduling differences, coaching changes and historic trends. It all gets incorporated into what eventually becomes the best-selling college football preview magazine on newsstands.
When it comes to recruiting, the SEC is king. The best players hail from the SEC footprint and, frankly, the SEC cares more about recruiting rankings than any other league — from the head coaches to the boosters to the message board junkies. In the consensus 2014 team recruiting rankings, the SEC bragged seven of the top nine classes in the nation and 10 of the top 22. For more perspective, Vanderbilt has landed an average class of 45.6 nationally — which ranks dead last in the SEC.
When it comes to recruiting, the SEC is the most cutthroat league in the nation and one man stands above the rest on the trail.
Here is how the SEC rosters rank entering the 2014 season. Below is each roster in the SEC based on average national recruiting ranking over the last five classes (according to 247Sports), each team's win-loss record over the last four seasons and some analysis of what it all means heading into the '14 season.
What did we learn?
Pied piper of the recruiting trail
Nick Saban stands above the rest of college football when it comes to recruiting. He landed his fourth consecutive No. 1-ranked class nationally according to 247Sports a few weeks ago on National Signing Day. He brings in better players than anyone else in the SEC or the nation for that matter. His 2014 signing class had more five-star prospects (6) than any other program — and every one of these players were considered among the top 16 in the country. Additionally, Bama signed 13 top-100 players this cycle while the Big 12 as a conference signed just seven combined. Frankly, Saban’s dominance on the recruiting trail is starting to get absurd and NSD no longer stands for National Signing Day, it stands for Nick Saban Day.
Will Muschamp can’t blame his roster
The Gators had a historically bad 2013 campaign and, while injuries were a major factor, a lack of talent was not. According to the rankings over the last five classes, Florida boasts the second-most talented roster in the nation — tied with Florida State (5.6). However, that talent doesn’t appear to be translating into wins and this is the primary reason Will Muschamp enters his critical fourth season on the hot seat. Florida ranks ninth in the league with 30 overall wins over the last four years and eighth in the league with 17 conference wins. Health was a huge factor last fall, especially on offense, but Muschamp has no excuses in 2014 as he goes to battle with what the rankings indicate is the No. 2 depth chart in the nation.
Steve Spurrier is actually underrated
He is a Hall of Famer, a Heisman winner and national champion, so it’s virtually impossible to be underrated as one of the best the game has ever seen. But he might be. Only Alabama (46) and LSU (44) have won more games than South Carolina in the last four years (42) and both the Crimson Tide (No. 1) and Tigers (No. 4) are ranked in the top four nationally in terms of talent. Yet, Spurrier has done it with the eighth-best roster in the league. Carolina sits fourth in the SEC East entering ’14 in terms of overall talent behind Florida, Georgia and Tennessee but only one of those squads has a chance to post a fourth consecutive 11-win season. Expect more of the same from the Ol’ Ball Coach.
Positive trajectory in Knoxville, Oxford
In short order, both Hugh Freeze and Butch Jones have proven to be extremely effective recruiters. Jones finished seventh nationally according to 247 in his first full season and Freeze worked minor miracles in his first full class in 2013. Neither roster ranks in the top five in the SEC but both rank in the top nine and both are recruiting on the same level with teams like Texas A&M, South Carolina and Auburn. The two programs have struggled mightily on the field as the Rebels and Vols are tied at 7-25 in SEC play over the four years — ahead of only Kentucky (4-28). This is, of course, is why Houston Nutt and Derek Dooley are no longer employed. Under new leadership, both programs have improved on the field and on the trail while setting themselves up for more upward movement. Expectations are growing in both Knoxville and Oxford.
Nick Saban Jr.
Gary Pinkel was a college teammate of Saban’s at Kent State under the late great Don James. And now that he is coaching in the SEC, he’s doing his best Saban impersonation. The Mizzou head coach is arguably the most important and successful coach in school history and he is clearly doing it with coaching acumen. Pinkel doesn’t come close to competing with the big boys on the recruiting trail (unlike Saban), ranking ahead of only Vanderbilt in terms of overall talent. But his teams have won 35 games overall and 20 games in conference play over the last four seasons, including a 12-win SEC East title campaign in 2013. The Tigers may be the SEC East frontrunner this fall despite coming in as the 13th-best roster in the 14-team league.
Sleeping giant waking up?
Texas A&M donations are way up, as new renovations will make Kyle Field one of the nation’s top destinations and a certain redshirt freshman quarterback won a Heisman Trophy. A lot has happened in Kevin Sumlin’s first two years in College Station. But most importantly, he appears to have staying power due to his success on the recruiting trail. The three years prior to Sumlin’s arrival, Texas A&M averaged a national recruiting ranking of 23. Since his arrival, they’ve posted the ninth- and fifth-rated classes in the nation. So while Texas A&M likely won’t compete for an SEC title in 2014 with the seventh-best roster in the league, the Aggies appear poised for huge things in 2015 and beyond should Sumlin maintain his torrid pace on the recruiting trail.
Status quo in Baton Rouge, Athens and on The Plains
Les Miles and LSU boast the third-best roster in the SEC and the fourth-best roster in the nation entering 2014. Mark Richt and Georgia rank fourth in the SEC in terms of talent and eighth nationally. The Auburn Tigers are tied for the fourth-best roster in the conference and the eighth-best depth chart in the country. Miles has 44 wins over the last four years, second in the SEC while Auburn and Georgia are fourth and fifth in the league with 37 and 36 overall wins in the last four years. Certainly, LSU and the Dawgs have been much more consistent than War Eagle over that span but how many fans in the Bayou or Between the Hedges would trade an 0-8 SEC season for two national championship game berths? (Hint: All of them). These three will be three of the top five most talented teams in the SEC entering ’14.
Be careful what you wish for
SEC fans, in Starkville or otherwise, are quick to criticize Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. And his 13-19 record in the SEC over the last four years does leave Bulldogs faithful wanting for more. But this is the toughest job in the SEC West and Mullen has more overall wins in the last four years than Florida, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Mullen is also the only coach in school history to take MSU to four consecutive bowl games. So while some may call for his head, others point to his impressive overall win-loss record in the toughest division in football with what will be the 11th-best roster in the league in 2014.
Uphill battle on West End
New coach Derek Mason has to know how difficult a job winning at Vanderbilt will be. James Franklin made it look easy and that has raised the level of expectations in Nashville. And while Mason, like Franklin, closed strongly on the recruiting trail in his first few weeks on the job, Vanderbilt is still clearly the least talented team in the league. Based on the recruiting rankings, the Dores are 45th in the nation overall in terms of talent but are dead last in the SEC.
The ACC has experienced a few changes through realignment over the last couple of years, and the final piece of the puzzle appears to be the addition of Louisville as the No. 14 team in the league. Maryland is off to the Big Ten, and the Cardinals will slide into the Atlantic Division in 2014. Stability is crucial for the ACC, as the conference seems to have momentum after what transpired on the gridiron last season.
Florida State ended the SEC’s national title streak with a last-minute victory over Auburn in Pasadena in the BCS Championship. The Seminoles are loaded for another national championship run, and coach Jimbo Fisher continues to bring in elite talent on the recruiting trail. Florida State is clearly the class of the conference heading into 2014, but Clemson should be a top 15-20 team. The Tigers return 11 starters, and three options will battle to replace Tajh Boyd under center this spring.
The pecking order in the Atlantic Division is clear, but things are murky in the Coastal. Miami is likely to open 2014 as the favorite, and it’s time for Al Golden to take this team to the conference championship game. If the Hurricanes aren’t the favorite, North Carolina or Duke can make a compelling case for the top spot. The Tar Heels are loaded on offense, and the Blue Devils return most of the core from last year’s team. Virginia Tech is a wildcard heading into spring practice. As usual, the Hokies should be strong on defense. However, the offense remains a work in progress and may struggle to top last season's totals.
|Lost Early to the NFL||Returning Offensive Starters||Returning Defensive Starters|
Atlantic Division Spring Outlook
Starting over on offense:
With quarterback Chase Rettig, running back Andre Williams and receiver Alex Amidon expiring their eligibility, Boston College’s offense is essentially starting over in 2014. Williams and Rettig combined for 4,243 of the Eagles’ 4,774 yards last season, while Amidon caught 77 of the team’s 164 receptions. Needless to say, coach Steve Addazio and coordinator Ryan Day will be busy this spring. The news isn’t all bad for Addazio and Day, as Myles Willis and Tyler Rouse are a good foundation at running back. At quarterback, Florida transfer Tyler Murphy has experience, and the staff was able to redshirt James Walsh last year. Spiffy Evans and Harrison Jackson are back at receiver, and the offense can build around a solid line that returns three starters. This spring is Addazio’s first look at the replacements, and the offense can begin to develop some clarity at quarterback, running back and receiver.
Life without Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd begins this spring:
The offseason was a mixed bag of news for Clemson. There was good news: Offensive coordinator Chad Morris didn’t leave Death Valley. But there was also plenty of bad news, as quarterback Tajh Boyd and running back Roderick McDowell expired their eligibility, and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant left early for the NFL Draft. Morris and coach Dabo Swinney have a rebuilding effort ahead on offense, but there shouldn’t be too big of a drop-off in production. Cole Stoudt, Chad Kelly and incoming freshman Deshaun Watson will compete for the starting quarterback job. Stoudt has the edge in experience, but Watson is a star in the making. The receiving corps also has talent, headlined by Adam Humphries, Mike Williams and Gerome Hopper. Charone Peake also returns to the lineup after missing most of last season with an injury. The first priority for Clemson is the quarterback battle. Is this Stoudt’s job to lose? Or do all three candidates have a shot to open the year as the No. 1 quarterback? This spring will be the first opportunity for Swinney and Morris to sort out their options on offense.
Restocking at defensive tackle:
With 13 starters returning, the Seminoles are in good shape to defend their national championship. Repeating as college football’s national champion won’t be easy, but Florida State has no shortage of talent waiting to step onto the field. New coordinator Charles Kelly should ensure there’s little drop in production on defense, but there’s a big concern at defensive tackle. Timmy Jernigan was one of the nation’s best last season, and he bolted early for the NFL. Additionally, Jacobbi McDaniel and Demonte McAllister expired their eligibility. With Jernigan, McDaniel and McAllister gone, the depth is thin at tackle. Nile Lawrence-Stample is the top returner on the interior, with Desmond Hollin, Justin Shanks, Eddie Goldman and Keith Bryant battling for snaps this spring. The Seminoles will add more talent to the mix in the fall when Adam Torres, Arthur Williams, Derrick Nnadi, Fredrick Jones and Demarcus Christmas arrive for their freshman season. Not all of the incoming freshmen will compete for time, but some could be needed for depth in 2014. Finding answers at defensive tackle is even more critical when you consider the losses at linebacker (Telvin Smith and Christian Jones), along with active defensive backs Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks.
Adjusting to the new 3-4 defense:
Replacing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is no easy task, but Will Gardner has potential and played well in limited action last year. While the quarterback situation is something to watch, Bobby Petrino should push the right buttons on offense. With Petrino back on the sidelines in Louisville, the focus of spring practice should shift to the defense. The Cardinals led the nation against the run last season and finished second in points allowed. However, only four starters return from last year’s unit, and there’s a transition period as new coordinator Todd Grantham shifts the personnel to a 3-4 scheme. Lorenzo Mauldin is expected to be an All-ACC performer, and the senior will move from end to linebacker this spring. Other personnel moves are anticipated, especially as Louisville looks for replacements at safety with the departure of Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor. Charlie Strong isn’t leaving the cupboard bare on defense, but it may take some time for the players to adjust to a new 3-4 approach.
Jacoby Brissett’s time to shine:
The Wolfpack had a revolving door at under center last season, with five quarterbacks attempting passes. But 2014 is expected to be a different story in Raleigh. Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett is clearly NC State’s No. 1 quarterback and is an upgrade over last year’s options. Brissett has talent (No. 75 player by Rivals in 2011 signing class) but has thrown only 74 passes in two seasons at Florida and completed 4 of 10 passes for 59 yards and one touchdown in NC State’s 2013 spring game. The Wolfpack have a solid supporting cast in place to help Brissett, including running back Shadrach Thornton and receivers Bryan Underwood and Jumichael Ramos. As a first-year starter, Brissett is going to have his share of ups and downs. However, he should be an upgrade over last year’s options. This spring is all about getting him ready to take the first snap of 2014.
The front seven on defense:
The Orange have a few question marks on both sides of the ball, but this team is positioned to make another bowl in Scott Shafer’s second season. Quarterback Terrel Hunt grew more comfortable as the starter late in the year, and there are promising receivers with Ashton Broyld and Brisly Estime. With the offense expected to take another step forward in 2014, the focus of spring practice should on defense. Seven starters are back, but this unit loses tackle Jay Bromley and linebacker Marquis Spruill. Bromley was one of the ACC’s underrated defenders last season and recorded 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for a loss. Without Bromley, who steps up to be the difference maker in the trenches? Senior Eric Crume is an option, and massive junior college recruit Wayne Williams (335 pounds) could be a name to watch on the interior. In addition to securing the interior of the line, Spruill’s production at middle linebacker must be replaced. Luke Arciniega was listed as his backup last season, but the defense also needs more from Dyshawn Davis and Cameron Lynch.
Rebuilding from scratch:
New coach Dave Clawson has plenty of experience in rebuilding. After going 3-19 in his first two years at Fordham, Clawson guided the program to a 26-10 mark over the final three seasons. Clawson used the same blueprint at Richmond, taking the Spiders from 3-8 in 2004 to 9-4 in 2005. At Bowling Green, Clawson went 14-23 in his first three seasons but finished with an 18-8 mark over the final two years with a MAC Championship in 2013. Clawson has his work cut out for him this season, as Wake Forest returns just eight starters and loses quarterback Tanner Price and standout receiver Michael Campanaro. This spring is all about finding playmakers on offense, along with developing Tyler Cameron at quarterback. The defense returns five starters but nose guard Nikita Whitlock must be replaced. The Demon Deacons have a handful of question marks and concerns, but this spring is the first step in Clawson’s rebuilding plan to get the program back on track.
Coastal Division Spring Outlook
Starting over on the defensive line:
After going 10-4 and playing in the ACC Championship last year, Duke is coming off one of the best seasons in program history. The Blue Devils return 14 starters in 2014, but there are a few concerns heading into spring practice. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper left for Florida, and Cutcliffe promoted from within, giving the play-calling duties to Scottie Montgomery. Considering Cutcliffe’s track record on offense, this unit shouldn’t suffer too much on the stat sheet. But a concern for Duke is the departure of three key players on the line, including standout end Kenny Anunike. In addition to Anunike, end Justin Foxx and tackle Sydney Sarmiento depart after starting up front in 2013. Cutcliffe and co-coordinators Jim Knowles and Jim Collins shifted Kyler Brown from linebacker to end to help alleviate the losses there. The Blue Devils are also counting on Dezmond Johnson, Jonathan Jones and Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo to step up their production this season. The spring will be the first look at a rebuilt defensive line, which will be a critical unit to watch as Duke hopes to repeat as the Coastal Division champion.
New faces in the backfield:
Despite having winning ACC records in five out of his six seasons at Georgia Tech, coach Paul Johnson is starting to feel a little heat from the fanbase. The Yellow Jackets are 14-13 over the last two years and will be picked near the bottom of the Coastal in 2014. In order for Georgia Tech to contend for a division crown, Johnson has to find new playmakers in the backfield. Quarterback Vad Lee left for James Madison at the end of the year, leaving Justin Thomas as the team’s No. 1 option under center. Thomas is a good athlete and should be a good fit in Georgia Tech’s offense. At running back, David Sims and Robert Godhigh depart after each player rushed for over 700 yards last year. Zach Laskey is the team’s leading returning rusher (485 yards), but the Yellow Jackets need to find more playmakers on the ground.
Looking for improvement on defense:
Sure, there’s a quarterback battle set to take place in Coral Gables this spring, but most of the attention for the coaching staff should be on the defense. The Hurricanes ranked 13th in the ACC in total defense last season, which came one year after finishing last in the conference. The numbers weren’t pretty for Al Golden’s defense, which allowed 6.2 yards per play in ACC-only games and gave up 32.8 points per game in eight conference contests. For a team that has the No. 2 ranked roster in the ACC, the ongoing defensive struggles are a mystery. While the numbers from last year are ugly, there’s hope for improvement with seven starters returning, while another solid recruiting class will help with overall depth. Each level of the defense has a potential impact player, starting with Anthony Chickillo at defensive end, Denzel Perryman at linebacker and Tracy Howard at cornerback. But can coordinator Mark D’Onofrio develop or find more difference makers on defense this spring?
Replacements on the offensive line:
The top spot in the Coastal Division is expected to be up for grabs once again next year. The Tar Heels finished 2013 by winning six out of their final seven games, and with seven starters back on both sides of the ball, Larry Fedora’s team is positioned for a run at the division title. Marquise Williams will have to compete with Mitch Trubisky for the starting quarterback job, but the promising junior is expected to win the No. 1 spot. The Tar Heels are loaded with talent at the skill positions, including receiver Quinshad Davis and running back T.J. Logan. If there’s a concern on offense, it’s a line that loses two standout players in left tackle James Hurst and center Russell Bodine. Guards Caleb Peterson and Landon Turner and tackle Jon Heck provide a solid foundation, but left tackle and center are arguably the two most-important positions on the line. Can Fedora and new coordinator Seth Littrell find answers in the spring? One name to watch is incoming freshman Bentley Spain – the No. 115 prospect in the 247Sports Composite – who enrolled early to compete this spring.
Filling the voids on defense:
With a favorable schedule and promising young talent on offense, the Panthers are a team on the rise in the Coastal Division. But in order for Paul Chryst’s team to jump into division title contention, the defense has to fill a few holes to fill. Tackle Aaron Donald will be difficult to replace after earning ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors last season, and the Panthers also lose fellow tackle Tyrone Ezell, linebacker Shane Gordon, cornerback K’Waun Williams and safety Jason Hendricks. Pittsburgh’s defense ranked a respectable fifth in conference-only games in fewest yards allowed. However, the Panthers gave up 27.2 points per game and struggled on defense inside the red zone and on third downs. With Matt House calling the plays for the second season, will this defense show improvement despite losing its best player? This spring is a big opportunity for players like tackle Darryl Render and end Shakir Soto as Pittsburgh looks to replace Donald’s production and improve off last year’s totals.
Quarterback play under the spotlight:
Talent certainly isn’t an issue at Virginia (No. 6 roster in the ACC), but the Cavaliers have won just six games over the last two years. Coach Mike London enters 2014 on the hot seat, and a tough schedule is on tap for his team once again. For Virginia to surpass last year’s two victories, it needs more from quarterback David Watford. In eight ACC contests, Watford threw only five touchdowns and tossed eight interceptions on 203 attempts. Backup Greyson Lambert didn’t fare much better, completing only 44 percent of his throws and tossing two picks on 75 attempts last year. Watford should enter spring with an edge on Lambert to start, but this battle could extend into the fall once freshman Corwin Cutler arrives on campus. With Kevin Parks returning at running back and an experience at receiver and tight end, there’s potential with this offense. However, Virginia’s passing game won’t improve unless the quarterback play is better in 2014.
Finding a spark on offense:
The final numbers for Virginia Tech’s offense weren’t pretty last season. The Hokies finished 13th in the ACC in total offense and averaged just five yards per play. Under first-year coordinator Scot Loeffler, Virginia Tech managed just 28 points in its final two games and scored under 20 points seven times in 2013. This unit enters spring practice with a myriad of question marks, starting under center where Logan Thomas expired his eligibility after the Sun Bowl loss to UCLA. Mark Leal is the favorite to replace Thomas, but he has just 48 pass attempts in his career. Leal needs to prove he has control of the No. 1 spot this spring, while Loeffler has to provide the senior with more help in the supporting cast. The Hokies averaged just 3.2 yards per carry last season, while inconsistency was a concern in the receiving corps and on the offensive line. Virginia Tech will be fine on defense, but it’s hard to see improvement off last year’s 8-5 mark without significant growth on offense.
The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.
So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.
The Pac-12 may not have the elite names along the line like Alabama, Wisconsin, Michigan or Miami have boasted during the BCS Era but the diversity in this league is remarkable. Oregon has quicker, more versatile players who were wildly successful under Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly. Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw raised road graders at Stanford and won big with them. And Pete Carroll churned out pro-style left tackles and centers nearly every year at USC. Toss in a few Jeff Tedford products at Cal and it feels like four programs have dominated this position in the Pac-12 over the last 16 years.
Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Sam Baker, USC (2004-07)
The stud left tackle charged with protecting Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush was a three-time, first-team All-American and three-time, first-team All-Pac-10 selection. Baker helped lead the way on teams that played in back-to-back national championship games and won four straight Pac-10 titles. USC was 47-5 during his time and he went on to be a first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in the 2008 NFL Draft.
2. Alex Mack, Cal (2005-08)
The star center started 39 consecutive games for the Golden Bears. He won the “Academic Heisman” when was named the recipient of the Draddy Trophy in 2008 and was a two-time Rimington Finalist. Mack was the only Pac-12 player to win the Morris Trophy (Offensive) as the league’s top lineman twice during the BCS Era and was a three-time, first-team All-Pac-10 selection. He also was a rare first-round pick as a center by the Browns in 2009 and has been sent to three Pro Bowls in his career.
3. Ryan Kalil, USC (2003-06)
The Rimington Finalist was one of the stars of the USC offensive line during its national championship run in the early 2000s. He played a big role on both the 2004 and '05 BCS title game teams and was voted the Morris Trophy winner in 2006. He also earned All-American honors and was drafted in the second round of the 2007 Draft by the Panthers. He is a three-time Pro Bowler.
4. David Yankey, Stanford (2011-13)
In three short years, Yankey is likely the school’s most decorated offensive lineman. He earned consensus All-American honors as a sophomore for the Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champs while also claiming the Morris Trophy as the league’s top OL. He returned as a junior and earned unanimous All-American honors en route to a second consecutive Pac-12 championship. He led Stanford to three straight BCS bowls and a 34-7 overall record over that span. He declared early for the NFL Draft after his 2013 junior season.
5. Kris Farris, UCLA (1995-98)
The 1998 Outland Trophy winner was a consensus All-American for the Bruins in 1998. In fact, Farris was one of only two players from the Pac-12 to win the Outland (Rien Long) and was the only offensive lineman to do so during the BCS Era. He helped lead UCLA to back-to-back 10-2 seasons and a Rose Bowl berth in his final season before being selected in the third round by the Bills in 1999.
6. David DeCastro, Stanford (2009-11)
As a freshman in 2009, he started all 13 games for the 8-5 Cardinal and was a freshman All-American. He started all 13 games as a sophomore for the 12-1 Cardinal, helping to win the program’s first BCS bowl game (Orange Bowl). He capped his career with a consensus All-American season for the 11-2 Cardinal. He left school early and was the 24th overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Steelers.
7. Matt Kalil, USC (2009-11)
The Trojans' left tackle protected Matt Barkley during two seasons marred by NCAA sanctions. Still, Kalil was an All-American and Morris Trophy winner as the league’s best offensive lineman and became the No. 4 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Kalil, who was a Pro Bowler as a rookie, may have never gotten the acclaim he deserved as the Trojans were playing under heavy sanctions during his time in Los Angeles.
8. Max Unger, Oregon (2005-08)
The Ducks' four-year starter at center earned some sort of all-conference honor in all four seasons. He was honorable mention as a freshman, second-team as a sophomore and first-team All-Pac-10 as both a junior and senior. Unger earned All-American honors as a senior as well on a 10-win team (his second 10-win season in Eugene). He was a second-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
9. Jonathan Martin, Stanford (2009-11)
Despite his NFL notoriety of late, Martin first made his name as a two-time All-American for Stanford. He started all three seasons for the Cardinal, leading his school to a 31-8 record and back-to-back BCS bowl berths — including the school’s first-ever BCS win in 2010 (Orange Bowl). Martin was an All-Pac-12 selection all three years and blocked for the Heisman runner-up, record-setting backfield of Andrew Luck and Toby Gerhart. He was a second-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
10. Jacob Rogers, USC (2000-03)
Rogers was a three-year starter for the Trojans as they rose from middle-of-the-pack Pac-10 team to national champion. He earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors for back-to-back conference championship teams and helped USC win a share of the national title in 2003. That year, Rogers was a consensus All-American and won the Morris Trophy as the best offensive lineman in the league. He was a second-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.
Just missed the cut:
11. Ryan O’Callahgan, Cal (2002-05)
A star blocker during the Golden Bears' best years under Jeff Tedford, O’Callahgan led Cal to 33 wins in four years, including a 10-win 2004 campaign. He was the Morris Trophy winner as the league’s top blocker as a senior and earned All-Pac-10 recognition twice. Tedford has been quoted as saying O’Callahgan was the best offensive lineman he’d ever seen.
12. Adam Snyder, Oregon (2001-04)
Synder is one of the most decorated and versatile blockers in Oregon program history. He started 35 of his career 49 games and did so at three different positions. He was named a first-team all-conference performer twice during his career and won the Morris Trophy as the league’s top blocker as a senior. He was a third-round pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.
13. Winston Justice, USC (2002-05)
Had Justice played during the unblemished 2004 BCS title season, he would likely be a top-10 blocker. However, a student conduct violation made him ineligible during that historic season. Otherwise, he was a starter on the 2002 Orange Bowl champions, the 2003 national champs and returned to the national title game and blocked for the Heisman winner in 2005.
14. Chase Beeler, C, Stanford (2008-10)
Beeler was the consensus All-American pivot alongside Martin and DeCastro during Stanford’s rise to conference supremacy. He was a two-year starter and capped his career by leading the Cardinal to their first BCS bowl win over Virginia Tech in 2010.
15. Xavier Su’a-Filo, UCLA (2009-13)
His career was interrupted by his Mormon mission for two years but Su’a-Filo proved in short order to be one of the best in the league. He started all 13 games as a true freshman before leaving campus for two years. He returned and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors as a sophomore and junior in 2012-13. The Bruins' blocker helped UCLA win the South Division and won the Morris Trophy in his final season.
16. Chad Ward, Washington (1997-00)
A four-years starter for the Huskies, Ward's career culminated in a 2000 Rose Bowl win as a senior. He was named the Morris Trophy winner that same year and earned All-American honors as well. He also set multiple weight-lifting records while at U of W.
17. Travis Claridge, USC (1996-99)
Playing for the Trojans before Pete Carroll’s run of greatness began, Claridge proved to be one of the most consistent players to ever suit up. He started 48 games for USC, was a second-round pick in 2000 and won the Morris Trophy as the league’s top blocker in 1999.
18. Deuce Lutui, USC (2005)
He only played one season for the Trojans but he was excellent. Lutui was a consensus All-American, blocked for a Heisman Trophy winner and played for the national title against Texas in 2005. He was a second-round pick in 2006.
19. Charles Brown, USC (2006-09)
Brown sat behind Sam Baker for two years before taking over for the star left tackle. He earned All-Pac-10 honors in both seasons that he started and helped lead USC to 43 wins and three conference titles during his time. He won the Morris Trophy as the league’s top blocker in 2009.
20. Kwame Harris, Stanford (2000-02)
A first-round pick in 2003, Harris earned two-time all-conference honors during his time at Stanford. He won the Morris Trophy as the best lineman in the league as a junior in his final season before leaving early for the NFL.
Best of the rest:
21. Tyron Smith, USC (2008-10)
22. Andy Levitre, Oregon State (2005-08)
23. Levi Jones, Arizona State (1998-01)
24. Yusuf Scott, Arizona (1996-99)
25. Eben Britton, Arizona (2006-08)
March is three days away and a handful of teams are down to their final three and four games before the conference tournaments.
No doubt, it’s crunch time around the nation.
Somehow, the NCAA selection committee is going to have to find a way to fill 68 spots, which is as tough as ever on the bubble.
Here’s a look at the key games this week involving bubble teams and how the field could shake out on Selection Sunday:
Key Games with NCAA Implications This Week
Xavier at St. John’s (Tuesday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
The Musketeers are sliding with a 3-5 record in the last eight games with two of those wins coming against Butler and DePaul. St. John’s missed a golden opportunity to improve its case when it lost a close one to Villanova on Saturday.
Iowa at Minnesota (Tuesday, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Minnesota has lost six of its last eight since defeating Wisconsin on Jan. 22. The stretch has included losses to Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois, so the Gophers are at a point where they probably need to beat Iowa on Tuesday or Michigan on Saturday.
Dayton at St. Joseph’s (Tuesday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
The Flyers have reeled off six consecutive wins to go with non-conference wins over Gonzaga, Cal and Ole Miss. This will be the make-or-break stretch against St. Joe’s, UMass, Saint Louis and Richmond. St. Joe’s isn’t an NCAA lock by any means, either.
Missouri at Georgia (Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU)
No bubble team in the SEC wants any part of Georgia. Despite their overall record, Georgia has been the spoiler in the SEC with wins over Missouri earlier in the season, plus LSU and Ole Miss. Missouri is coming off a loss to Alabama and could slide onto the bubble with a second consecutive loss and a season sweep to the Bulldogs.
West Virginia at Iowa State (Wednesday, 8 p.m., Big 12 Network)
The Mountaineers have cooled off since defeating Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma in consecutive games. Lopsided losses to Texas and Baylor in the last two games probably signal West Virginia is an NIT team.
Cal at Arizona (Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2)
Arizona is in the conversation for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament especially if the Wildcats can avenge their only loss in regulation this season.
Baylor at Texas (Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU)
The unpredictable Bears have won four in a row since a 2-8 start in the Big 12. None of those games is as tough as road trip to Austin.
Nebraska at Illinois (Wednesday, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network)
The Cornhuskers won’t have an opportunity to pick up a top 50 win until the last day of the regular season against Wisconsin. For now, they can’t afford any bad losses to teams like Illinois.
Stanford at Arizona State (Wednesday, 11 p.m., ESPNU)
This game will be more pressing for Arizona State than for Stanford, which defeated UCLA over the weekend. After defeating Arizona on Valentine’s Day, the Sun Devils dropped road games to Colorado and Utah.
Arkansas at Kentucky (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
Arkansas is hanging on to relevance. Perhaps the only way the Razorbacks can get an at-large bid is to finish what LSU could not by winning in Lexington.
Georgetown at Marquette (Thursday, 9 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Defeating Xavier was key for Georgetown to recover from Thursday’s loss to Seton Hall. The Hoyas will have one more chance to defeat an NIT-worthy team before finishing up with Creighton and Villanova.
Oregon at UCLA (Thursday, 11 p.m., ESPN2)
The Ducks started 13-0, but they haven’t defeated a top 50 team since BYU on Dec. 21. At least the Ducks stopped losing to teams like Oregon State and Washington.
NCAA Tournament Projections and Bubble Watch
Feeling good: Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia
Bubble in: Pittsburgh
Bubble out: Clemson
Feeling good: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Memphis
Bubble in: SMU
Bubble out: None
Atlantic 10 (5)
Feeling good: George Washington, Saint Louis, UMass, VCU
Bubble in: St. Joseph’s
Bubble out: Richmond, Dayton
Big 12 (7)
Feeling good: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas
Bubble in: Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State
Bubble out: West Virginia
Big East (5)
Feeling good: Creighton, Villanova
Bubble in: Georgetown, St. John’s, Xavier
Bubble out: Providence
Big Ten (6)
Feeling good: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Bubble in: Nebraska
Bubble out: Minnesota
Mountain West (2)
Feeling good: New Mexico, San Diego State
Bubble in: None
Bubble out: Boise State
Feeling good: Arizona, Stanford, UCLA
Bubble in: Arizona State, Cal, Colorado
Bubble out: Oregon
Feeling good: Florida, Kentucky
Bubble in: Missouri
Bubble out: Arkansas, LSU, Tennessee
West Coast (2)
Feeling good: None
Bubble in: BYU, Gonzaga
Bubble out: None
Favorites in one-bid leagues (22)
America East: Vermont
Atlantic Sun: Mercer
Big Sky: Weber State
Big South: High Point
Big West: UC Santa Barbara
Conference USA: Southern Miss
Horizon: Green Bay
MEAC: North Carolina Central
Missouri Valley: Wichita State*
Northeast: Robert Morris
Ohio Valley: Belmont
Patriot: Boston University
Southland: Stephen F. Austin
Summit: North Dakota State
Sun Belt: Georgia State
WAC: New Mexico State
*Wichita State would be an at-large if the Shockers lose in the MVC tournament
When North Carolina’s season started, P.J. Hariston and Leslie McDonald were in NCAA suspension limbo.
McDonald, though, was the clear No. 2 anytime the two suspensions were mentioned. Now that he’s been in the lineup for weeks, McDonald has proven himself one of the key missing pieces for the Tar Heels’ season.
The senior guard led North Carolina with 21 points in Thursday’s 74-66 win over Duke and added 19 points in Saturday’s rout of Wake Forest to earn Athlon Sports National Player of the Week honors.
"Once you see the ball go in the rim, you see that it starts going for you,” McDonald said after the Duke win. “I had the mentality where if it's going in for me, I'll keep using it to my advantage. I was feeling pretty hot, and I was making sure I was taking good shots."
National player of the week: Leslie McDonald, North Carolina
After recovering from a dismal two games from the field, McDonald combined to shoot 14 of 21 from the floor in Carolina’s wins over Duke and Wake Forest. For a team with suspect outside shooting, McDonald made 5 of 6 3-pointers in the 105-72 win over Wake.
National freshman of the week: Jabari Parker, Duke
Parker scored 19 points — the final two on a huge bucket in the lane with 1:31 remaining — and grabbed 10 rebounds to help Duke beat Syracuse 66–60 at the Carrier Dome. Despite a loss earlier in the week to North Carolina, Parker has double-doubles in three consecutive games.
Under-the-radar players of the week: Johnny Dee and Duda Sanadze, San Diego
Dee had 16 points and Sanadze had 15, including game-clinching free throws, in San Diego’s 69-66 upset of Gonzaga on Saturday. The backcourt duo combined to shoot 9-of-22 from the field, but more important, 9-of-10 from the free throw line in San Diego’s first win over Gonzaga in 11 meetings. The pair of Toreros also combined for 30 points in a 61-59 win over Portland earlier in the week.
Other top performers this week
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Russ Smith hit the game-winning shot, but Harrell, a sophomore forward, was Louisville’s best player as the Cardinals recorded a 58–57 win at Cincinnati in a battle of American Athletic Conference heavyweights. Harrell scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds — his seventh double-double of the season — to help Louisville move into a tie with Cincinnati (in the loss column) in the American.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Smart was sensational in his return from a three-game suspension, scoring 16 points and adding 10 assists, six steals, three rebounds and two blocks in Oklahoma State’s much-needed 84–62 win over Texas Tech. The Cowboys, once ranked in the top 10, had lost seven straight games — the final three with Smart serving a suspension for pushing a fan in the final seconds of a loss at Texas Tech on Feb. 8.
Kenny Gaines, Georgia
Gaines poured in a career-high 27 points (on 9-of-14 shooting) to lead Georgia to a dominating 73–56 win at South Carolina. The Bulldogs have won five of their last six and sit alone in third place in the SEC with a 9–5 record in league play.
DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
Kane continues to make a strong case for Big 12 Player of the Year honors. The senior guard scored 20 points, grabbed six rebounds and handed out five assists in Iowa State’s 71–60 win at TCU. A fifth-year transfer from Marshall, Kane is averaging 16.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists.
Stephen Holt, Saint Mary’s
Holt enjoyed a career day, scoring 35 points — nearly half of his team’s total — to lead Saint Mary’s to a 76–54 win at Santa Clara, The senior guard, who scored only seven points in a loss to San Francisco two days earlier, hit 14-of-17 from the field (including 4-of-6 from 3-point range).
Levi Randolph, Alabama
Randolph scored a total of 24 points as Alabama went 1–6 in a season-killing seven-game stretch from Jan. 30-Feb. 20. The junior guard scored 33 on Saturday night to lead the Crimson Tide to an 80–73 win over Missouri. Randolph connected on 11-of-15 from the field, including 5-of-7 from 3-point range.
Nik Stauskas, Michigan
Stauskas delivered in the clutch to help Michigan complete the season sweep over Michigan State. The sharp-shooting guard scored a game-high 25 points (on 9-of-13 shooting) and also had a team-high five assists to lead Michigan to its 11th Big Ten win of the season. Stauskas, who leads the team in scoring (16.7 ppg), had 19 points in the Wolverines’ win in East Lansing in late January.
Delon Wright, Utah
Utah snapped a two-game losing streak and moved back to one game under .500 in league play (7–8) thanks to a big game from Wright. The junior guard scored 22 points, grabbed nine rebounds and added six assists as the Utes coasted to an easy 86–63 win over Arizona State in Salt Lake City.
T.J. Warren, NC State
Warren, the ACC’s leading scorer, scored 31 points to help NC State post a 71–64 win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. A sophomore forward, Warren connected on 3-pointers on the Wolfpack’s first two possessions and scored 17 of his team’s 35 points in the first half. He is averaging 23.3 points and 7.1 rebounds.
Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
Bairstow was dominant in the Lobos’ biggest win of the season. The senior forward scored 26 points (on 11-of-18 shooting) and grabbed nine rebounds to lead New Mexico to a 58–44 win over San Diego State in a showdown of the top two teams in the Mountain West.
Brandel Chamblee of the Golf Channel shares his thoughts about Tiger Woods' unprecedented approach to the game of golf.
It is a curious fact that, a hundred years from now, when golfers are discussing Tiger Woods the way we discuss Ben Hogan or Jack Nicklaustoday, they will have to talk about Tiger's swing by the year or vintage, the way one talks about great wines. Or perhaps the way we talk of ancient history using the preposition "circa" before the date. Because the Tiger Woods of 1997 was vastly different in form from the Tiger Woods of 2000, and different yet again in 2007, and different still today in 2014. Among his mind-blowing accomplishments, ascending to the number one spot in the world and dominating the world of professional golf with four completely different swings might be the most “in your face" feat ever achieved in sport.
Tiger may have been born to play golf, but it seems he was also born to build and destroy.
Michael Jordan worked harder than his peers to improve his form, but the mechanics he used to score over 3,000 points in the 1986-87 season looked essentially identical to those he used to hit a jumper with 5.2 seconds left to clinch the NBA Championship for the Bulls against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. Gordie Howe played professional hockey in five different decades, and in his 2,421st game, his style was just as recognizable as it was in his rookie season of 1946. Imagine if either of these athletes, after being colossally successful early in their careers, had completely changed the way they played their respective sports — not once, but four times, and after each change became the best again. It would just never happen, not once, let alone four times.
Young athletes, new to their sport, make changes to their form as they learn what works and what doesn't based upon coaching and trial and error, but once they have the mechanics down, their form, with few exceptions, is as recognizable as a fingerprint for the rest of their careers. Don’t get me wrong — athletes, especially golfers, are always tinkering, but once a modicum of success has been achieved, changes for the most part amount to refinements.
Exceptions, of course, are players who failed early in their careers and then went back and dismantled and rebuilt swings, only to come back famously different golfers, like Ben Hogan in the 1940s and, most recently and less famously, Matt Kuchar. None of this happened to Tiger Woods, who exploded onto the scene in 1996 and won The Masters by 12 shots in 1997 only to completely scrap that record-breaking swing. What he came back with two years later was the best swing in the history of golf.
Build and destroy.
In 2000 Tiger started history's most dominant, astonishing stretch of golf with a longer, wider, spot-on plane and more versatile swing. He won four professional majors in a row by as much as 15 shots and made 142 consecutive cuts. What is the purpose of pursuing a method in sport, except in hopes of becoming the best, the most consistent and the most dominating athlete of your era, if not of all time? Tiger did just that, and then, as if he was tired of driving a two-year-old car, he traded it in for a newer model.
Build and destroy.
By 2007, Tiger’s swing, flatter and narrower, looked nothing like his swing that won four majors in a row, but his scoring average of 67.79 was exactly the same as his scoring average of 2000, and so was his dominance, if not his ability to win by blowout margins.
Build and destroy.
Like Shakespeare, who created anew almost 2,000 words when other writers struggled even to use that many, Tiger is the most singular figure golf has ever known.
Still, it has been almost six years since he won a major, and that is the one thing he hasn’t done with his new swing and it is the one thing that matters most. At 38 years old, the man whose record Tiger is chasing, Jack Nicklaus, had won 14 majors, and in his 38th year he added an Open Championship at St. Andrews, a place where he had won before. Tiger is playing at three major venues this year where he has previously won, and there is every reason to think 2014 will be the year in which Tiger starts his major ascendancy again. The swing changes are done, and he’s too old to change again; all that’s left is to compete.
Build and destroy.
Golf Channel Analyst
This article appears in the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports' Golf Annual, on newsstands now. Order your copy today.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Feb. 24.
• The Instagrams of the week include this arresting shot from track athlete Leryn Franco.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. kept his promise to join Twitter if he won the Daytona 500. He already has more than 300,000 followers.
• Fox ran last year's Daytona 500 during the rain delay. Some viewers thought it was the real thing. Hilarity ensued.
• 50 Cent offered to kiss Michael Waltrip if he won the 500. Armed with that motivation, Waltrip finished 41st.
• Athletes who have lost a ridiculous amount of weight, including Barry Bonds, whose melon has shrunk back down to human size.
• And now for something completely different: the world's weirdest bras.
• Watch a short kid dunk at a pep rally. So he had a little help.
• Thomas Robinson blocked Corey Brewer's dunk attempt and stole a piece of his soul in the process.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at firstname.lastname@example.org
Baseball players have often been referred to as the “boys of summer,” and as far as MLB goes, the use of the word “boy” may have never been more appropriate. Look around the majors and there is no lack of young impact players all over the diamond, a group that’s led by arguably the best player in the game.
Take last year’s All-Star Game, for example. The National League’s 38-man roster alone featured 12 players who were 25 years old or younger at the start of the 2013 season. The AL team had eight such players representing them at Citi Field in New York. And while some of these have since graduated from the ranks of the 25-and-under crowd, there are still plenty of candidates remaining when it comes to indentifying the cream of this crop.
Here’s Athlon Sports’ list of the top 25 players who will be 25 years or younger as of Opening Day (March 31).
1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Not only is Trout the best of the 25-and-under crop, he’s arguably the best player in the entire game – and he’s just 22 years old. The 2012 AL Rookie of the Year could already have two MVP awards to his credit if not the for the Triple Crown exploits of one Miguel Cabrera.
As it is, all Trout has done is average a .324-29-90 line along with 41 stolen bases, while making a number of highlight-reel plays in the outfield in his first two full seasons. Trout figures to have a lock on a starting All-Star spot for years to come, and there’s no telling where the ceiling is for this unique, one-of-a-kind talent. No wonder there is already speculation that Trout could up being baseball’s first $30 million (per season) man.
2. Bryce Harper, OF, Washington
Harper (above, right) and Trout will forever be linked, as they were the 2012 Rookies of the Year and are similar in that they are five-tool players. A two-time All-Star in his own right, Harper’s true potential won’t be known until he’s able to stay on the field consistently.
Injuries limited Harper to just 118 games last season, although his numbers were pretty much in line across the board with what he did in 139 games in his 2012 ROY campaign. Still just 21 years old, Harper is probably the closest thing there is to a Trout-like talent in the senior circuit. Now it’s just a matter of the Nationals’ outfielder producing Trout-like numbers.
3. Craig Kimbrel, P, Atlanta
Kimbrel and the Braves made news recently when he signed a four-year, $42 million contract. While that’s a lot of money for a pitcher who rarely goes more than an inning, it could end up being a bargain if the 25-year-old can maintain his level of performance.
Kimbrel leads the majors with 138 saves since 2011, while posting ridiculous numbers across the board. Among pitchers with 200 innings, Kimbrel is No. 1 in ERA (1.48), WHIP (0.87), opponents’ batting average (.158) and strikeouts per nine innings (14.9) over the last three seasons. For his career, Kimbrel has struck out 381 batters in 227 1/3 innings or more than three times as many hits (123) as he’s allowed.
4. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta
The Braves’ future seems incredibly bright as the team is well represented on this list. Prior to Kimbrel’s new contract, Freeman inked his own new deal, an eight-year, $135 million pact that is the richest in franchise history. That’s what happens when you make your first All-Star team and finish fifth in the NL MVP voting after batting .319 with 23 home runs and 109 RBIs.
Whether he’s able to match or even surpass those numbers on a consistent basis remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the 24-year-old will be manning first base for the Braves for many years to come.
5. Madison Bumgarner, P, San Francisco
In a rotation that included two Cy Young winners that helped win two World Series in a four-year span, it would have been easy for Bumgarner to get lost in the shuffle. Instead, all the 24-year-old lefty has done is establish himself as one of the best southpaws in the game.
He has won 13 or more games three seasons in a row and last season posted a career-best 2.77 ERA with 199 strikeouts in 201 1/3 innings while earning his first All-Star game invitation. If the Giants are going to bounce back from last season’s disappointing 76-86 showing, don’t be surprised to see Bumgarner leading the way on the mound.
6. Stephen Strasburg, P, Washington
There’s no denying Strasburg’s immense talent, but this season is a critical one for the 2009 No. 1 overall pick who will turn 26 in late July. After going 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA in his innings-capped 2012 season, his first back after Tommy John surgery, Strasburg slipped to just 8-9 last season. On top of that, he went under the knife yet again to have bone chips removed from his elbow this past October.
The upside with Strasburg comes in the form of his 3.00 ERA in 2013 along with more strikeouts (191) than innings pitched (183). Still, if the Nationals are to take that next step and become a legitimate NL pennant contender, Strasburg needs to develop into that 20-win, 200-innings workhorse ace everyone thought he would be when he made his debut back in 2010.
7. Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
The newest Cuban sensation, Puig made quite the splash last season when he debuted in early June. The epitome of a first-pitch swinger, Puig capitalized on the element of surprise, as he batted .436 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs in his first 26 games. While his plate discipline (36 BB, 97 SO in 382 AB) is a work in progress, there’s no disputing the 23-year-old’s all-around talent or the impact he can have on a team.
Puig was one of the catalysts behind the Dodgers’ turnaround last season, as his .319-19-42 line with 11 stolen bases in just 104 games resulted in a runner-up finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting for the NL West champs. The key for Puig moving forward is to continue to get better at the plate, with his defense and on the base paths and applying this acquired wisdom and maturity to the decisions he makes off of the field as well.
8. Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore
As last season wound down, no one seemed to be primed for a breakout 2014 campaign than Machado. Not only did he make his first All-Star team, he was putting up MVP-caliber numbers at the plate (.284-14-71) and providing Gold Glove-winning defense at third base.
Unfortunately, Machado suffered a serious knee injury running the bases in Tampa Bay in the last week of the season, resulting in reconstructive surgery and plenty of uncertainty regarding when he will able to return to the field this season. The hope is that Machado will fully recover and pick up right where he left off, but either way the future still seems incredibly bright for this 21-year-old.
9. Jose Fernandez, P, Miami
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year, in just one season Fernandez has inserted himself into the conversation of best pitchers in the game, while also replacing slugging teammate Giancarlo Stanton (see below), as the gem of the Martins’ franchise. After finishing third in the NL Cy Young voting with a 12-6 record, 2.19 ERA (2nd in NL) and 0.98 WHIP (3rd), it appears the only things that could hold back this 21-year-old this season are a potential innings cap and the lack of run support from a lackluster Marlins offense.
10. Chris Sale, P, Chicago White Sox
The unorthodox delivery combined with his lanky (6-6, 180) build are reason for concern, but Sale’s results on the mound speak for themselves. Although he went just 11-14 last season, the White Sox’ left-handed ace made his second straight All-Star team as he posted a 3.07 ERA with 226 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings and led the AL with four complete games. And durability questions aside, what hitters should really be concerned about is the fact that Sale, who will turn 25 just prior to Opening Day, cut down on his walks (46) last season even though both his innings and strikeouts went up compared to 2012.
11. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami
Considering Stanton has averaged nearly 30 home runs per season over his first four, the first thought may be why isn’t he higher on this list? The simple answer to that query is that the jury is still very much out on the 24-year-old slugger, who has had a hard time staying on the field over the last two seasons. This also has led to a slip in his production.
The sky was seemingly the limit after Stanton bashed 34 home runs in 150 games as a raw 21-year-old in 2011. And while he has knocked a total of 61 more balls out of the park over the last two seasons, he’s played in just 239 total games during that same span and saw his batting average tumble to just .249 last season with only 62 RBIs. Still any player that hits a home run every 15 at-bats is someone who needs to be feared every time they step up to the plate.
12. Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas
Entering his sixth full season, Andrus finally turned 25 last August. So while this will be his last time mentioned in this vein, it shouldn’t overshadow the All-Star-caliber player he has been since making his debut for the Rangers in 2009. At the plate, Andrus has consistently been a .270 hitter good for more than 80 runs and more than 30 steals each season. He’s also driven in more than 60 in each of his last three campaigns and has become a reliable, and at times slick-fielding, shortstop.
13. Michael Wacha, P, St. Louis
Wacha pitched in just 15 games for the Cardinals during the regular season, but it was his five appearances in the postseason that have Redbird Nation and the rest of baseball buzzing. The 22-year-old went 4-1 in five postseason starts, posting a 2.64 ERA and claimed NLCS MVP honors after beating the Dodgers in two scoreless starts.
Wacha then went on to beat the Red Sox in Boston in Game 2 of the World Series before getting knocked around a little in the decisive Game 6. Still, in less than a span of two months, Wacha went from being just one of the Cardinals’ impressive crop of young pitchers to one of the most-talked about hurlers in the entire game. All eyes will be on this tall (6-6) Texan whenever he takes the mound this season.
14. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City
Believed to be one of the top prospects in the majors a few seasons ago, Hosmer’s star dulled somewhat following a disappointing 2012 campaign in which he batted just .232. After another slow start last season, Hosmer caught fire in June, as he batted .318 with 16 home runs and 63 RBIs over the last four months. Disciplined enough to take a walk (51 compared to 100 SO in 623 AB) and athletic enough to steal a base (11 with 4 CS), while providing Gold Glove defense at first base, the 24-year-old finally appears ready to become the Royals’ next superstar.
15. Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay
Myers was the centerpiece of the December 2012 trade that sent James Shields and others from the Rays to the Royals, and it looks like a deal that Tampa Bay will be glad they ended up making. All Myers did after getting called up on June 18 last season was win AL Rookie of the Year honors even though he played roughly half a season. In just 88 games, Myers posted an impressive .293-13-53 line, so there’s no telling what this 23-year-old will do with a full season’s worth of at-bats.
16. Jean Segura, SS, Milwaukee
A first-time All-Star last season, Segura finished second in the NL in both stolen bases (44) and triples (10), while hitting .294 with 74 runs scored for the Brewers. Fairly reliable at shortstop (15 errors), Segura is the ideal table-setter for Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez. If there’s any weak spot to the soon-to-be 24-year-old’s game, it’s getting on base consistently. His .329 on-base percentage (25 BB in 588 AB) is something the Brewers would like to see improve in 2014, especially with last season’s leadoff hitter (Norichika Aoki) now in Kansas City.
17. Starling Marte, OF, Pittsburgh
The strikeouts (138 in 510 AB) are certainly concerning, but there’s nothing wrong with the 83 runs and 41 stolen bases Marte contributed last season in helping the Pirates break their record streak of 20 consecutive losing campaigns. Add in the assortment of extra-base hits (26 2B, 10 3B, 12 HR) and a good glove in left field and the 25-year-old from the Dominican teams with reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen to give the Pirates a formidable one-two punch in their outfield.
18. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Atlanta
The NL Gold Glove winner at shortstop last season and the league leader in defensive WAR, there’s no debate regarding Simmons’ value in the field. The next step for the 24-year-old is to continue his development at the plate. While his batting averaged dropped from .289 in 2012 (49 games played) to .248 last season, Simmons displayed an increased ability to drive the ball (17 HR, 27 2B) while posting a respectable 40:55 walk-to-strikeout ratio. And just like teammates Kimbrel and Freeman, Simmons signed his own long-term contract (seven years, $58 million) this month, cementing his status as one of the Braves' key building blocks for the future.
19. Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta
The fourth Brave on this list, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Heyward eclipse his teammates when it comes to eventual stardom. The 24-year-old has already displayed his immense all-around talent and potential, as evidenced by a 2012 season in which he batted .269 with 27 home runs, 82 RBIs, 93 runs scored and 21 stolen bases.
Unfortunately, that breakthrough season has been sandwiched by two disappointing, injury-plagued campaigns, including last season’s 104-game showing in which he hit just .254 with 14 home runs, 38 RBIs and only four steals. Heyward did seem to find a home as the Braves’ leadoff hitter late last season, and there’s still plenty of time for the Georgia native to emerge as a legitimate superstar for his hometown team.
20. Trevor Rosenthal, P, St. Louis
Rosenthal saved more games in the postseason (four) than he did in the regular season (three) and did so in dominating fashion. The 23-year-old didn’t allow a run in 11 2/3 October innings last season and has yet to allow one in 20 1/3 career playoff frames.
Rosenthal has expressed a desire to join the starting rotation, but the Adam Wainwright-esque transition will more than likely wait at least one more season as manager Mike Matheny understandably doesn’t want to remove Rosenthal’s ability to miss bats (126 strikeouts in 87 total innings last season) from the closer role.
21. Matt Moore, P, Tampa Bay
Moore led the Rays with 17 wins last season, which is pretty impressive considering Tampa’s rotation also features a former Cy Young (David Price) and AL Rookie of the Year (Jeremy Hellickson) winner. Moore went 17-4 in his second full season in the majors, lowering his ERA from 3.81 to 3.29 in the process.
A power arm, the strikeouts (143 in 150 1/3 innnings) should always be there, but the real key to Moore’s development and maturation on the mound will be harnessing his control (76 BB). If he can figure that out, the Rays may end up with yet another award winner in their rotation.
22. Shelby Miller, P, St. Louis
After winning a spot in the starting rotation out of spring training last season, all Miller did was win 19 games with a 3.06 ERA for the eventual NL champs. The problem for Miller is that this was mostly forgotten come October, as he pitched a grand total of one inning in the postseason and watched his teammate, Michael Wacha, claim the mantle of the Cardinals’ best young pitcher in the process.
However, don’t count out Miller this season as the 23-year-old Texan is no doubt just waiting for the opportunity to not only silence any would-be critics, but show just how well-armed the Cardinals are as they seek to defend their NL Central and league titles.
23. Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston
Altuve didn’t repeat his All-Star selection last season, but he still provided quite a bit of production, especially considering he stands just 5-5. Don’t let his diminutive size fool you, however, as he’s hit more than 30 doubles and stolen more than 30 bases in each of his last two seasons. He’s also managed to bat a combined .286 during the same span. A good glove at second, the 23-year-old Venezuelan still has plenty of room for growth, especially when it comes to drawing a walk (32 in 626 AB in 2013).
24. Wilin Rosario, C, Colorado
No catcher has more home runs in the past two seasons than Rosario, who has slugged 49 in 238 games. While playing his home games in Coors Field probably helps, Rosario’s career home-away splits in the power department (29:23) aren’t that different. A .292 hitter last season, the just-turned 25-year-old backstop needs to improve his plate discipline (career 42:228 BB:SO ratio) if he wants to fully realize his potential.
25. Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs
This could potentially be a make-or-break season for Castro, which is hard to fathom considering he’ll turn 24 years old a week before Opening Day. But that’s where the two-time All-Star finds himself following an all-around disappointing 2013 campaign and with top prospect Javier Baez breathing down his neck.
The good news for Castro is that he gets a clean slate with new manager Rick Renteria now running the club and he also has financial security (signed through 2019). Now it’s just a matter of the talented Dominican rediscovering the form that made him such a productive hitter earlier in his career and continuing his development on the field as it relates to both his glove (22 errors last season) and on the base paths (just 9 SB in 2013).
Matt Harvey, P, New York Mets
Harvey is most likely going to miss the entire 2014 season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but he still deserves to be recognized for this exercise. The NL All-Star Game starter at just 24 years old, Harvey finished tied for fourth in the Cy Young voting even though he made his last appearance on the mound in late August.
A nine-game winner in 2013, Harvey’s value went well beyond the win-loss column, as he posted a 2.27 ERA and struck out 191 batters with just 31 walks in 178 1/3 innings. The Mets will clearly miss Harvey this season, as will baseball in general, but the hope is that he will be able to pick up where he left off when he does finally return to the mound.
Best of the rest (alphabetical order)
Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco
Xander Bogaerts, 3B/SS, Boston
Gerrit Cole, P, Pittsburgh
Patrick Corbin, P, Arizona
Sonny Gray, P, Oakland
Jedd Gyorko, 2B/3B, San Diego
Brett Lawrie, 2B/3B, Toronto
Sal Perez, C, Kansas City
Jurickson Profar, 2B/SS, Texas
Addison Reed, P, Arizona
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs
Julio Teheran, P, Atlanta
Chris Tillman, P, Baltimore
On deck? (alphabetical order)
Chris Archer, P, Tampa Bay
Oswaldo Arcia, OF, Minnesota
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado
Jackie Bradley, Jr., OF, Boston
Nick Castellanos, OF, Detroit
Tony Cingrani, P, Cincinnati
Avisail Garcia, OF, Chicago White Sox
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati
Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Boston
Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B, Washington
Danny Salazar, P, Cleveland
George Springer, OF, Houston
Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis
Taijuan Walker, P, Seattle
Zack Wheeler, P, New York Mets
Christian Yelich, OF, Miami Marlins
Stanford opens spring practice with a few holes to fill and some new faces on the coaching staff, but the program is poised to build off last year’s 11-3 mark. The Cardinal has won at least 11 games in each of the last four seasons and has claimed back-to-back Pac-12 titles. Coach David Shaw is an impressive 25-4 in Pac-12 contests (including conference championship games), while Stanford is looking for its third consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl in 2014.
The Pac-12 is one of the top conferences in college football, and Stanford will be up against a North Division that features Oregon and an improving Washington team. Shaw has been a model of consistency through his first three years on the Farm. And as any college football program has success, new challenges are created. That motto holds true for the Cardinal in 2014, as there’s some key personnel and coaches to replace.
Stanford Cardinal 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 11-3 (7-1 Pac-12)
Spring Practice Opens: February 24
Spring Game: April 12
Five Things to Watch in Stanford's 2014 Spring Practice
|Aug. 31||UC Davis|
1. New faces on the coaching staff. Considering Stanford’s success, it’s no surprise its assistants have been targeted by other programs. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason left to be the head coach at Vanderbilt, Mike Sanford was named the offensive coordinator at Boise State, and David Kotulski followed Mason to Vanderbilt. Shaw promoted Lance Anderson to defensive coordinator, hired Peter Hansen to replace Kotulski and Lance Taylor was brought aboard to coach running backs. Shaw has one more opening to fill, but there’s not expected to be a significant transition period under the new staff. Anderson has worked at Stanford since 2007, and his experience under Mason should ensure the defense remains one of the best in the Pac-12.
2. Who steps up at running back? Stanford has produced a 1,000-yard rusher for six consecutive seasons. Will that streak run to seven? Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson combined for 2,062 yards last season but expired their eligibility after the Rose Bowl. The cupboard isn’t completely bare for coordinator Mike Bloomgren, as Remound Wright, Barry Sanders and Ricky Seale return. Sanders was a four-star recruit in the 2012 signing class and high expectations surround the Oklahoma native. But Sanders won’t have to carry the entire workload, as Wright and Seale have experience, and incoming freshmen Christian McCaffrey and Isaiah Brandt-Sims are capable of playing this season. While running back is a question mark, there’s enough talent returning for Shaw and Bloomgren to feel alright about this position.
3. Restocking the trenches. The Cardinal expect quarterback Kevin Hogan to take another step in his development this spring, and Shaw and Bloomgren want to rely on their ground game to set the tone on offense once again. But there’s a glaring issue on the offense. The line was hit hard by personnel losses, with guards David Yankey and Kevin Danser, tackle Cameron Fleming and center Khalil Wilkes all departing. That’s the bad news. The good news? Talent isn’t an issue. Left tackle Andrus Peat is a future All-American, and Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy are highly-touted prospects waiting for their chance to start. Graham Shuler is the frontrunner to replace Khalil Wilkes at center, while Johnny Caspers is likely to replace Danser at right guard. There’s no question Stanford has talent here. But how quickly can this line jell?
4. Filling the voids in the front seven. Not only must Stanford’s defense adapt to a new coordinator (Lance Anderson), but this unit suffered some key losses in the front seven. The Cardinal must replace standout ends Ben Gardner and Josh Mauro, and linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov also depart. Much like the offense, there’s talent waiting in the wings to step into the starting lineup. Henry Anderson earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors last season and is due to become an even bigger piece of the line in 2014. Blake Lueders and Luke Kaumatule shifted from other positions to the defensive line and join Anderson as key cogs in the trenches. Aziz Shittu is another name to watch at end, but Anderson also needs to develop more depth behind tackle David Parry. While the losses on the line are huge, the departures at linebacker are even bigger. Murphy and Skov’s production and leadership will be difficult to replace, but there’s a solid foundation to build around in A.J. Tarpley and Kevin Anderson. James Vaughters, Joe Hemschoot, Blake Martinez and Noor Davis are other names to watch this spring.
5. Who replaces Ed Reynolds at safety? The losses in the defensive line and linebacking corps were more significant, but Reynolds will be tough to replace. He recorded 87 tackles and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors last season. Of course, having a standout like Jordan Richards back at the other safety spot will help Stanford’s secondary remain one of the best in the Pac-12. The Cardinal has options to replace Reynolds, including converted receiver Kodi Whitfield and converted quarterback Dallas Lloyd. Devon Carrington was listed as the backup to Reynolds last year and expired his eligibility after the Rose Bowl. If Lloyd or Whitfield doesn’t win the job, Zach Hoffpauir or Kyle Olugbode could be the answer.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 9-11
Yes, Stanford has some personnel losses and a few changes on the coaching staff. But David Shaw won’t allow the Cardinal to fall too far in the win column. Assuming the line jells early in the year, quarterback Kevin Hogan should take another step forward in his development. It’s a lot to ask the defense to replicate last year’s numbers without Murphy, Skov, Reynolds, Gardner and Mauro. However, this unit is still one of the best in the Pac-12. Stanford will be in the mix for another BCS bowl and will contend with Oregon for the North Division title.
Just call him Jason "All" Day. Aussie Jason Day outlasted an unbelievably resilient Victor Dubuisson in the finals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, draining one last 4-footer on the 23rd hole of the grueling final match at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz., to earn his second career PGA Tour win. Finally, a player known for appearing on major leaderboards but disappearing for the rest of the year can add a prestigious championship to his resume, a win that will propel him near the top of Masters favorites.
But Day had to earn it. Dubuisson, a 23-year-old Frenchman who was a virtual unknown to American audiences, all but clinched a spot on the European Ryder Cup team with an astonishing display of Houdini-level escape artistry. Two holes down with two to play, Dubuisson rallied, winning the final two holes with a birdie at 17 and a Day 3-putt at 18. On the first playoff hole, Dubuisson pulled off his first Great Escape, getting up and down out of the prickly cactus. On the second extra hole, he did himself one better, playing his ball from a bush and earning another impossible par.
"Vic coming down the stretch was just unbelievable," Day said. "I've never seen someone as young, apart from Jordan Spieth, and in the old days Tiger Woods, how clutch he was, especially out of the cactus. I kept shaking my head because it was so surprising because there was a couple of times there where I thought he was absolutely dead. The tournament was mine."
Ultimately, the tournament was Day's, and those final dramatic holes were the culmination of an impressive week of match play artistry from a litany of players who seemed determined to reward viewers for their loyalty given the absence of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott. Those who did tune in were rewarded with some of the most stomach-churning golf in recent memory.
Here are the key stats from five days in the desert.
89 Jason Day put on a clinic on how to survive in match play. Of the 36 greens he missed, he saved par 32 times, a staggering conversion rate of 89 percent. The PGA Tour leader converted 66 percent of the time in 2013.
26 At 26 years, 3 months, Day became the youngest-ever winner of the Accenture Match Play. Tiger Woods was 27 when he won in 2003.
0 Graeme McDowell, who reached the round of eight in the Match Play, won his first three matches without ever holding a lead until the final putt dropped. McDowell rallied to beat Gary Woodland in 19 holes, caught Hideki Matsuyama and beat him on the 18th hole, and rallied to beat Hunter Mahan in 21 holes. At no point in any of those matches did he stand on a tee with a lead.
72 Day had played 72 PGA Tour events since his previous win, the 2010 Byron Nelson Classic. The 26-year-old Day wasn't panicking that the wins weren't coming. "A career is very long in golf,” he said. “I think the biggest thing for myself is just to understand I’m not Rory. I’m not Tiger. I’m not Adam Scott. I’m not Justin Rose. I’m Jason Day. I need to do the work and it will happen. I’ve just got to be patient."\
2 Victor Dubuisson's second-place finish matches the best-ever finish by a French player in a PGA Tour event, joining Jean Van de Velde, Thomas Levet and Gregory Havret.
Players are fans, too, and they loved what they saw on Sunday. Here's a sample of some of the tweets that were flying across the twittersphere.
Tom Watson — Two of the greatest up-and/downs I have ever seen Victor!!!
Enjoy the video of Dubuisson's two remarkable par saves.