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Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick had the field covered on-track at the 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night; Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth had it covered on pit road. But at the end of a grueling 335-lap affair, it was Hendrick Motorsports’ Kasey Kahne that walked away with the hardware — and a coveted spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Kahne capitalized on a frantic final 12 laps in the Oral-B USA 500 to notch his first win of the 2014 season, and in the process assured that each of Hendrick Motorsports’ four teams would be represented in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff that begins in two weeks.
“I told a couple friends this week, ‘I have to win. I have to win Sunday night,’” said Kahne, who now owns 17 career Cup wins — 10 of which have come on NASCAR’s 1.5- and 2-mile intermediate tracks. “It was all that I could think about. I knew Atlanta was a better opportunity for myself to win at than Richmond.
“I just knew that tonight we needed it. When I came off Turn 4 and I could see the checkered, right there is the first time I knew I was in the Chase and it's such a relief. I have the best teammates and (team owner Rick Hendrick) gives us everything that we need.”
As with most of the intermediate tracks, being up front and in clean air was the order of the day. Harvick paced the field for 195 laps but was continuously beaten off pit road by JGR rivals Hamlin and Kenseth.
“We lost control every time we came to pit road tonight,” Harvick said. “I thought we had that (problem) better, but we got just absolutely murdered on pit road every time we came down by the 11 (Hamlin) and the 20 (Kenseth).”
Throughout the evening, Harvick was able to drive around his opponents within five laps of a restart, but the spots lost on pit road finally took their toll after a round of yellow-flag stops with 27 laps remaining. It was on the ensuing restart that Kahne took the lead, kept Harvick in his rearview mirror and appeared headed to victory lane. However, a caution with a pair of laps remaining sent the race into the first of two green-white-checker finishes.
In the first, Harvick lined up fourth and found his No. 4 Chevrolet playing bumper cars with Paul Menard and Joey Logano, then into the wall, before the field hit Turn 1. His shot at win No. 3 on the season had taken its conclusive blow.
On the second green-white-checker restart, Kahne, on four fresh tires, once again pounced from his inside-lane, third-place position, blowing by Hamlin and finally disposing of Kenseth at the white flag. He methodically clicked off the final lap, winning by .574 seconds.
Kenseth, Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
“Man, they just go,” Kenseth said of Kahne’s HMS engine. “I just don’t know how to defend that. We did everything we could — it was a great call by Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief), great pit stops that put us in position to win — I just couldn’t hold on.”
Despite not having won a race this season — after a sterling eight-win campaign in 2013 — Kenseth sits third in the Cup standings and locked his team in the playoffs by virtue of points with the Atlanta performance. In NASCAR’s reformatted Chase, the top 16 drivers with wins are slotted into the playoffs. In the absence of 16 winners, the highest ranked teams in the standings complete the card. Kahne was the 13th driver to score a win through 25 of 26 regular-season races.
Ryan Newman, ninth in the standings with a 42-point cushion, will likely claim the 15th spot, leaving a one-race showdown for the final position. Greg Biffle (plus-23 points), Clint Bowyer (-23) and rookie Kyle Larson (-24) are set to stage a three-car battle at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday for the final Chase berth. Paul Menard (-53) and Austin Dillon (-54) most assuredly would have to win the regular-season finale to leapfrog their competitors and sneak into the playoffs.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
NC State got its 2014 season off to a good start with a victory over Georgia Southern. The Wolfpack had to rally to beat the Eagles but getting into the win column was critical for second-year coach Dave Doeren.
NC State is favored to win its second game of the year against Old Dominion, and the Wolfpack plan to play Week 2 with an alternate uniform.
Check out the “Pack in Black” uniforms that NC State will wear against the Monarchs this Saturday:
It’s Week 1 of the college football season, so it’s no surprise each team has a few kinks to work out. Of course, that also extends into the gameday operations workers, as well as cheerleaders, mascots or anyone else around a college football program.
New Mexico State’s mascot Pistol Pete and his horse (Keystone) had an unfortunate incident prior to Thursday’s kickoff versus Cal Poly.
While on Keystone, Pete clipped a New Mexico State student in the endzone, knocking her to the ground.
Luckily, the student (Zaina Atyani) wasn’t injured.
Credit LSU for following the script.
The Tigers fell behind in the first half, rolled the dice successfully on a trick play and then let its plug-and-play run game and secondary take over.
Even down by 17 to Wisconsin, LSU was able to follow the Les Miles template for another non-conference win. By coming back to defeat Wisconsin 28-24, LSU improved two improbable marks: The Tigers are 23-22 when trailing at halftime under Les Miles and 45-0 in regular-season non-conference dating back to 2002.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin found another way to come up short in a major non-conference matchup.
Read and React: LSU 28, Wisconsin 24
Les Miles finds a way
Lucky Les strikes again. It’s one thing to run a fake punt to spark 21 unanswered points to win. It’s another to have the incorrect personnel grouping — as Miles told ESPN’s Todd McShay in a postgame interview — and running the fake anyway. The quick snap to linebacker to Kendell Beckwith. He converted the first down with a three-yard gain on fourth-and-2 from the LSU 45. Tough to find a more signature Les Miles moment than that.
Gary Andersen will have to answer for his backfield
Where Miles thrived by taking risks, the Wisconsin coach will have a long week thanks puzzling personnel groups in his backfield. Tanner McEvoy, named the starting quarterback at the end of camp, went 8-of-24 for 50 yards and two interceptions. Last year’s starter Joel Stave never even warmed up. Given the state of Wisconsin’s receiver group, maybe the quarterback wouldn’t have made a difference. Part of that is because of Melvin Gordon’s no-show. Gordon, who rushed for 138 yards on 17 carries, was held out of a series in the final 10 minutes. The idea that Gordon was hurt was dashed when he was in the game to pass protect on third down.
Depth is the difference
Want to know why LSU continues to be a national player while Wisconsin struggles to get over the hump outside of the Big Ten? The difference in depth couldn’t be more stark. LSU got five catches, 199 yards and two touchdowns from a pair of receivers — Travin Dural and John Diarse — who combined for seven catches and a redshirt last year. The Tigers were able to rotate defensive backs into a secondary that further disrupted the inept Wisconsin passing game. Meanwhile, Kenny Hilliard emerged as the LSU running back of the day. Meanwhile, Wisconsin lost two senior starting defensive linemen in Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski to injury and couldn’t have been more helpless on defense.
Leonard Fournette can wait
No doubt Fournette will have his moment. It just didn’t happen in Game 1 for the freshman. Fournette carried only nine times for 10 yards in his debut while Hilliard rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. He was the only LSU running back with a run longer than seven yards.
ATLANTA — The Lane Kiffin-as-Alabama-offensive-coordinator is one game old, so let’s review it, shall we?
Of course this is way too early for a referendum on the most compelling assistant coaching hire in the SEC, but Week 1 is perfect for overreaction — one way or another.
And, wow, did Kiffin and Alabama coach Nick Saban give us plenty of fodder.
From the cheap seats:
Many offensive coordinators like to work in the press box with the ability to see the whole field.
Kiffin, however, worked from the sideline in his first game with the Tide. Saban wanted his first-year coordinator to be able to talk directly to his first-time starting quarterback rather than talk to him on the phone.
The Alabama head coach can bar his assistants from talking to the media, he can try to control the messaging, but he can’t control the body language of two — let’s say, expressive — coaches on the sideline.
I assume we'll see this often pic.twitter.com/5iLG28OOtr— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) August 30, 2014
From Nick Saban:
Not surprisingly, Saban isn’t thrilled talking about Kiffin in a way he never had to talk about former coordinators Jim McElwain or Doug Nussmeier.
The implication from reporters — at least as Saban sees it — is that Saban hired a dud of an offensive coordinator.
“You know, the guy is a really good coach now, all right,” Saban said. “Y’all need to ‘fess up to that.
“And most places than don’t like him is because he left, and they were mad because he left. They weren’t mad about anything he did while he was there. Just do a little research on that.”
In the interest of research, the Oakland Raiders and USC may disagree on being “mad” about his departure. Saban’s right about Tennessee, though.
From the field:
This is what matters, right? After a quarterback competition that lasted until Friday — that’s when Blake Sims learned he’d start ahead of Florida State transfer Jacob Coker — Alabama put up 538 yards, 6.6 yards per play.
Granted, many coordinators could thrive with running backs like Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon and wide receivers like Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White.
The key moment, though, may have been the second quarter.
Tied at 10, Sims was rattled at the line. Saban said his quarterback called the wrong plays, called incorrect formations in the huddle and took too much time on the play clock. Saban told Coker to warm up.
Instead of making a switch, Saban told Kiffin to switch to a no-huddle look of its own.
“When we did that, he sort of got it back together and then he was fine after that,” Saban said.
True, the decision to go no-huddle may have been Saban’s call, but adding the up-tempo to the arsenal was part of the reason he hired Kiffin in the first place.
Could the no-huddle be a more regular part of Alabama’s plans? If Sims remains the quarterback, that seems possible.
He finished 24-of-33 for 250 yards with an interception and made plays on the move against Alabama in part of the no-huddle.
However, the no-huddle has become so prevalent that Alabama’s base pro-style offense is more of the outlier, even in the SEC.
“We’re one of the few teams in the world that still plays with regular people — a tight end, two backs and two wideouts,” Saban said. “And now we’re like the dinosaur age when it comes to that.”
Kiffin comes from the same background, but he’s incorporated elements of the hurry-up. If Alabama can change tempos on a dime — and as effectively as it did against West Virginia — the Kiffin hire may be a stroke of genius for a program that already has one of the top rosters in the country.
“People really have a tough time defending what we do because nobody does it, and it does allow us to to be more physical and it does allow us to play more players,” Saban said. "But we’ll certainly consider (the no-huddle). We have the capabilities of doing it.”
ATLANTA — Let the overreaction in Tuscaloosa continue.
The final product from Alabama’s opener against West Virginia will look great, especially given the circumstances.
An offense with a first-year starting quarterback and new coordinator rolled up 538 yards and 6.6 yards per play. The running back duo of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry was as imposing as advertised, especially in the fourth quarter.
The defense played without senior preseason all-conference linebacker Trey DePriest yet allowed one only offensive touchdown. Even the first-time kicker went 4-for-4 on field goals.
But this is Alabama, where a two-game losing streak is cause for soul searching. A 33-23 win over West Virginia in a neutral site opener isn’t a reason to panic, but the path to the double-digit win did leave some questions.
The Crimson Tide spent much of the offseason talking about improving culture. Alabama could have just as easily talked about improving cornerbacks.
Against the up-tempo, against West Virginia’s variety of formations and without DePriest to lead adjustments on the field, Alabama’s defense looked ... ordinary.
“I know that we made a lot of mental errors,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “At times, the coordination between what the secondary was doing and what the linebackers were doing and what they were all supposed to do was not exactly what it should have been.”
The communications issues were pronounced enough that West Virginia could walk away from a 10-point loss to Alabama believing it could have won.
The Mountaineers moved the ball at will in the passing game, and the best defense against West Virginia receivers turned out to be drops, not any great play from the Alabama secondary.
Take one of the major plays of the game: A thundering hit from safety Landon Collins on West Virginia receiver Jordan Thompson in the middle of the field on third down. The hit brought oohs and aahs, but it was unnecessary. By the time Collins made contact, Clint Trickett’s pass had bounced off Thompson’s hands. As a result of the incomplete pass, West Virginia failed to capitalize on an interception in a one-score game — not because of a defensive stand, but because of one of a handful of drops.
For three quarters, West Virginia — a 4-8 team from a year ago that closed the season with losses to Kansas and Iowa State — had a chance to knock off a College Football Playoff contender.
West Virginia twice had first-and-goal at Alabama’s 6 or closer and came up with two field goals. One of the last chances came early in the fourth quarter but a fullback dropped a wide open pass short of the goal line on a bootleg on first down; Trickett and junior college sensation Kevin White failed to connect on a fade to the end zone on second down; and finally a bad snap on third down set up a 41-yard field goal.
West Virginia was able to march down the field at will early in the game. Trickett completed 13-of-22 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
“They came in with a lot of formations and things we hadn’t seen before,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “We had to recognize it, make the adjustment, communicate and see what we have to make changes.”
Perhaps this could be seen as a one-time issue. Indeed, Alabama didn’t have a full deck on defense, and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen is one of the game’s top offensive coaches despite his team's struggles last season.
Yet we can't ignore that Alabama had trouble with another no-huddle offense in the passing game. West Virginia averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt against Alabama, becoming the 11th team since 2012 to top seven yards per attempt against the Tide. By comparison, only 10 teams topped that mark from 2008-11.
The good news for the potentially overreacting faction in Tuscaloosa is that Alabama has time to work it out.
If Ole Miss continues to struggle at did for stretches on Thursday, Alabama may not face a formidable hurry-up spread until Oct. 18 against Texas A&M.
“What you find out in your first game is where you are,” Saban said. “This is where we are.”
Illinois’ 28-17 victory over Youngstown State certainly wasn’t a thing of beauty, but neither was this punt executed by the Penguins.
Youngstown State’s punter rolled to his right to punt, and instead of bombing the ball downfield, the punt hit one of his blockers right in the butt. Yes, that’s right – directly in the backside.
Nebraska receiver Jordan Westerkamp made one of the best plays of Week 1 by making an acrobatic, behind-the-back catch.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s pass was on target to be intercepted, but deflected off the FAU defensive back and into the hands of Westerkamp – behind his back.
Check out Westerkamp’s crazy catch:
Penn State and UCF kicked off the first Saturday of action in the 2014 season with a thriller in Ireland. The Nittany Lions won 26-24 on a last-second field goal, but the game got off to an interesting start.
A skydiver was slated to land inside of the stadium with a UCF flag. Instead, the skydiver completely missed the stadium and landed outside of Croke Park.
Check out the video of the skydiver landing outside of the stadium:
Jet lag will be much easier to bear for James Franklin, Christian Hackenberg and Sam Ficken when Penn State returns from Dublin.
The Nittany Lions won Franklin’s debut in dramatic fashion, getting the first college football Saturday to a thrilling start with a 26-23 win over UCF.
As many openers, the game wasn’t always pretty as UCF staged a second-half comeback with a backup quarterback, but Penn State had two familiar heroes in the final minutes.
Read and React: Penn State 26, UCF 23
Penn State’s season will come down to Hackenberg
Christian Hackenberg attempted 47 passes and threw for 453 yards for Penn State for a two-point win over UCF. Such efforts might need to be common during the season. The Nittany Lions may have know this from the start, but it was clear Saturday that James Franklin’s debut season rests on the shoulder of his sophomore quarterback. That’s not a bad thing. Hackenberg may be the best quarterback in the Big Ten with Braxton Miller out. But the offensive line and run game (two yards per carry) gave Penn State little. Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak are a fine running back duo, but the woefully thin line is going to be a season-long liability.
Sam Ficken gets some well-deserved hero time
Few kickers have been through the ups and downs more than Penn State’s Sam Ficken. The game in Dublin wasn’t his first victory lap, but may have been the most satisfying. He finished 4-for-4 on field goals, including the 36-yard game-winner as time expired. Remember, Ficken’s career got off to an inauspicious start when he missed four field goals and an extra point in a 17-16 loss at Virginia in his second career game in 2012.
Penn State may be on upset alert
Way too much happened in this game to make many definitive statements — the travel, the headset mishap that forced Penn State offensive coordinator to the sidelines, a better-than-advertised UCF. But still, Penn State’s early performance against Akron next week will be worth watching. The Nittany Lions did themselves little favors by scheduling a game against a MAC upstart seven days after playing in Ireland. The Terry Bowden-led Zips won four of their final five games and played one-score games against Michigan, Sun Belt champion UL Lafayette and MAC West champ Northern Illinois.
UCF found the replacement for Blake Bortles (for now)
This has to be maddening for any coach: Spend all spring and offseason trying to find a replacement for a first-round quarterback only to replace him after two quarters in the opener. George O’Leary never declared the competition over when he opted for Pete DiNovo, but the outcome may have been different if Justin Holman played the whole way. The sophomore from Snellville, Ga., completed 9-of-14 passes for 204 yards with three total touchdowns as UCF came back from a touchdown deficit at halftime to a lead with 1:47 to go.
In what we hope will become a regular segment on ESPN’s College GameDay, four coaches read (and responded to) mean Tweets.
Alabama’s Nick Saban assures us he’s quite happy, Florida’s Will Muschamp talks about about a Gator fan he’d like to meet, and Michigan’s Brady Hoke doesn’t necessarily deny his choice in cologne.
The response from Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was a real nice surprise.
It’s a classic Big Ten versus the SEC matchup on Saturday night, as Wisconsin and LSU meet in Houston for a neutral site kickoff for the 2014 season. The Badgers return just eight starters from last year’s 9-4 squad, but coach Gary Andersen should have this team in the thick of the Big Ten West Division race. LSU also had a significant amount of roster turnover from last year and several freshmen are expected to see time on Saturday night.
LSU owns a 2-0 series edge against Wisconsin. This is the first matchup between these two schools sine 1972. The Tigers and Badgers are slated to meet again in 2016 in Green Bay.
Wisconsin vs. LSU (Houston)
Kickoff: 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: LSU -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Leonard Fournette
As mentioned above, LSU could play a handful of freshmen on Saturday night. And while several garnered national acclaim through recruiting, the one receiving the most hype is running back Leonard Fournette. The true freshman has everything coaches want in an every-down back. Fournette isn’t guaranteed to handle the full workload, as seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard are slated for a big role in the offense. Fournette ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the 247Sports Composite and is running behind an offensive line that is considered among the best in the SEC. With Wisconsin replacing its entire front seven (in terms of starters), the Tigers should be able to use their offensive line to clear the way for Fournette to a big performance on Saturday night.
2. The Quarterbacks
Both teams enter Saturday night with question marks surrounding the quarterback position. LSU plans on using both sophomore Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris, while Wisconsin is slated to start Tanner McEvoy. Jennings played sparingly last year and completed 13 of 29 passes for 181 yards and one score. Harris ranked as the No. 3 dual-threat passer in the 247Sports Composite and enrolled in time to compete with Jennings in spring practice. The gap between Jennings and Harris does not appear to be wide (if any at all), so expect to see both quarterbacks play a couple of drives. McEvoy beat out last year’s starter (Joel Stave) for the starting job this fall, and the former South Carolina passer is back under center after playing safety in 2013. McEvoy did not attempt a pass for Wisconsin last season, but he fits what coach Gary Andersen and coordinate Andy Ludwig want under center. McEvoy gives the Badgers’ offense more mobility, which could be an asset against a fast and athletic defense on the other side.
3. Melvin Gordon vs. LSU’s defense
LSU did not have a vintage shutdown defense last year, allowing 170.3 rushing yards per game in SEC contests. The Tigers allowed only 22 points per game, but there was room to improve in the yardage allowed. Coordinator John Chavis had personnel concerns to address in the offseason, starting up front at tackle. Last year’s starters (Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson) departed, leaving Frank Herron, Quentin Thomas, Christian LaCouture and Maquedius Bain as the top options in the middle. All four are talented, but there’s not a ton of experience returning from this group. Considering this is McEvoy’s first start, expect to see Wisconsin’s gameplan based on getting running back Melvin Gordon 25-30 carries. The Badgers own one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines, and with the uncertainty up front for LSU, Gordon should be able to find running room. And when Gordon needs a break, expect to see talented sophomore Corey Clement in the backfield.
This matchup is perhaps the most intriguing game of Week 1. Both teams usually replace departed talent with few problems. Expect much of the same in 2014, as LSU and Wisconsin will both push for 10 wins. Both teams should have success running the ball, which is critical due to the inexperience at quarterback. The Tigers may not have a prolific day through the air, but a big offensive line and trio of backs – led by Fournette – eventually wears down the Wisconsin defense.
Prediction: LSU 30, Wisconsin 20
Week 1 isn’t full of outstanding matchups, but the Georgia-Clemson meeting on Saturday afternoon could be the best of the opening weekend. These two teams met last year, with the Tigers edging the Bulldogs 38-35. Both programs return a chunk of their core from last season’s squads, but there are new faces stepping into key roles. Clemson is breaking in a new quarterback to replace Tajh Boyd, while Georgia hands the keys to the offense to senior Hutson Mason. There’s plenty of intrigue in this matchup, and this is an early barometer test to see where Clemson and Georgia stack up after Week 1.
Clemson vs. Georgia
Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. New Quarterbacks
Despite new quarterbacks taking over for both teams, there’s not much concern at Clemson or Georgia. Senior Cole Stoudt is slated to start for the Tigers, and talented true freshman Deshaun Watson will also factor into the mix for coordinator Chad Morris. On the Bulldogs’ sideline, senior Hutson Mason will get his third start. Mason gained valuable experience by starting the last two games of 2013 due to an injury to Aaron Murray and threw for 320 yards in the bowl loss to Nebraska and 299 in an overtime win over Georgia Tech. Although both Mason and Stoudt are expected to thrive in their starting roles, both quarterbacks will be under the spotlight on Saturday night. Georgia’s front seven is among the best in the SEC, while Clemson’s defensive line features four senior starters. Neither quarterback needs to throw for 300 yards for a win, but it’s critical for both to limit mistakes with a close game expected.
2. Clemson’s DL vs. Georgia’s OL
As we mentioned in the previous section, Clemson’s defensive line features four senior starters. End Vic Beasley – an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American – highlights the front group. On paper, an experienced defensive front for the Tigers should have an advantage on Georgia’s offensive line, which returns only two starters. But will that play out on the field? Can the Bulldogs’ revamped line hold its own and keep Mason upright in the pocket? How about clearing rushing lanes for running back Todd Gurley? Winning the battle in the trenches is critical to winning on Saturday afternoon, and the battle between Georgia’s offensive line and Clemson’s defensive line is a matchup to watch.
3. Georgia’s Defense
New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt played a key role in Florida State’s national championship last season, and coach Mark Richt hopes the former Seminoles’ play-caller is able to replicate that success for the Bulldogs in 2014. Talent in the front seven certainly isn’t an issue for Pruitt. Linebackers Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Ramik Wilson each garnered some preseason All-SEC mention, and the defensive line should be solid once again. Despite the strength in the front seven, the secondary needs some work. Pruitt mixed and matched the personnel in the offseason, and this unit could be in flux early in the year. Can the pass defense hold up against a Clemson offense that averaged 332.9 passing yards per game last season? Even without Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, the Tigers aren't hurting for talent in the receiving corps.
New is the key word to remember in this matchup. Both teams have new quarterbacks and experienced and talented front sevens on defense. But Clemson and Georgia both have concerns in the secondary, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this one go well into the 30s for the final results. Of course, with all of the new faces and roster turnover on both sides, this could be a low-scoring affair as both teams acclimate starters to new roles. Much of this game’s outcome resides on the quarterbacks. Will it be Mason delivering with a quality performance? Or is it going to be Clemson’s Cole Stoudt (first career start)? With new faces stepping into big roles, it could be a lackluster defensive struggle, before UGA or Clemson takes control late.
Prediction: Georgia 27, Clemson 24
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, as the circuit hits Atlanta Motor Speedway, Tony Stewart’s return, a shift in the 2015 schedule and the two remaining opportunities to earn a “win and you’re in” Chase draw highlight the storylines of the weekend.
More questions than answers as Tony Stewart returns
Tony Stewart slid through the window opening of his No. 14 Chevrolet Friday afternoon for the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway, climbing into the one place that may, even briefly, take him away from it all.
Behind the steering wheel, restrained in a multi-point harness and wrapped in Nomex and carbon fiber, Stewart has but one objective: find unbridled speed.
But even that cocoon of familiarity that demands undistracted attention probably wasn't enough for Stewart to mentally separate himself from the horror of three weeks ago Saturday. It's hard to think anything will ever be enough, judging by his somber, cracking tone in a Friday press conference.
"This is something that will definitely affect my life forever," Stewart said. "This is a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life."
Stewart hadn't been seen publicly since the Saturday of the Watkins Glen weekend. Just hours after qualifying 13th for the NASCAR road course race, and a little more than an hour north of Watkins Glen on the state highways of upstate New York, Stewart was involved in the horrific on-track and fatal collision with fellow sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. at the small Canandaigua Motorsports Park.
He's missed all three Sprint Cup races since.
"I've taken the last couple weeks off out of respect for Kevin and his family, and also to cope with the accident in my own way," Stewart said, as every bit of that moment and the weeks of grief and devastation that have followed it showed on Stewart's stubbly face and in his mussed hair. "It's given me the time to think about life and how easy it is to take it for granted."
Stewart didn't take any questions Friday, saying he needed to "respect the ongoing investigation process" and that he wasn't "emotionally sure" if he could answer them anyway. Those lines came near the end of Stewart's statement, and when it was complete Stewart excused himself from the podium as more emotion began to stretch across his face. Stewart-Haas Racing executive vice president Brett Frood stayed and accepted a small round of questions.
It's that investigation — one still underway for up to two more weeks by the Ontario County, N.Y. Sheriff — that Frood said prevented him from elaborating in a detailed form as many questions remained unanswered. The sheriff stated at the outset of the investigation that nothing it had reviewed in the immediate aftermath of Stewart's collision with Ward, who had exited his car to angrily gesture at Stewart, had signs of criminal intent.
But questions beyond the investigation, beyond Stewart's version of the events at Canandaigua, still remain. Frood was asked about NASCAR's statement on Thursday that indicated Stewart had received appropriate clearances to rejoin competition, and eluded vaguely to the process requiring some sort of medical clearance.
NASCAR President Mike Helton was later asked about that clearance process — one previously not detailed — and also left it vague.
"We've cleared Tony to return as part of the normal process when a driver has been absent," Helton said.
Helton also made a noteworthy announcement that Stewart would be eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup should he win at least once in the next two races. Sunday night's race at Atlanta and next week at Richmond International Raceway are the final races of the regular season. Prior to this season, NASCAR changed its postseason rules and required drivers to attempt each race if they wanted to be eligible for the championship. Only a NASCAR waiver could substitute for a driver missing starts — and that's exactly what Stewart got.
What also wasn't clear was why Stewart decided Atlanta was the time to return, what the incident has done to relationships with Stewart's sponsors and if Stewart expects to get clearance from the sheriff investigation. Some, by their very nature, aren't appropriate to answer at this time, and some more personal questions — like what Stewart has been doing in the last three weeks — have a better time and place.
But they are still answers worth seeking as Stewart tries to push past this life-altering event.
No rule is sacred in NASCAR
Tony Stewart fan or not, NASCAR's decision Friday continued to prove a point that was crystallized a year ago when NASCAR added a 13th car to the 12-team Chase: if the sport stands to see a marketing gain from making questionable discretionary rule decisions, it will always rule in favor of the marketing gain.
There is absolutely no reason NASCAR had to make Stewart eligible for the Chase with a win via its waiver system. It's just simply not fair to any other driver who did at least attempt every race weekend this year, and it illustrates perfectly that decisions pertaining to competition are too often made by prevailing winds and not set-in-stone rules.
What if the driver involved in Stewart's situation wasn't of his same stature? Would NASCAR rule the same for the likes of Casey Mears or AJ Allmendinger? We don't know, and that's the problem.
Atlanta's Labor Day finale
They won't need the lights when the Cup Series next races at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2015, unless the bulbs get replaced with something similar to those that keep french fries warm at your favorite fast food joint. That's because the next Cup appearance at Atlanta will be six months from Sunday on March 1, 2015.
Atlanta got the shortest end of the stick in this week's announcement of next year's schedule when it was shifted to the second race of the year. In its Labor Day place is Darlington Raceway and the Southern 500's return to its rightful spot on the NASCAR calendar. Atlanta's sister track, Bristol Motor Speedway, also benefited from the shuffle by moving its spring race one month closer to summer.
It's tough to see how Atlanta, a track that used to host two Cup races each year, will now fit in the sport's long-term future. Ticket sales have been tough at the track for years, even without the prospect of cold temperatures and bad weather that a March date can bring.
Two Chase spots left
With Richmond and Atlanta remaining in the NASCAR regular season, time is running thin for many drivers still to qualify for NASCAR's postseason. It's currently Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle that are holding down the final two slots in the 16-team field, but they could be bumped by another winless driver getting a victory before the Richmond cutoff.
That leaves drivers like Stewart, Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Brian Vickers and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the outside looking in.
Should Atlanta produce a winner that has previously won in 2014, the top three winless drivers in the standings that are 45 points ahead of the fourth winless driver would get locked in. A new series winner with at least a 49-point gap on 31st in the standings drops the number of locked winless to two should they hold the same 45-point cushion the third.
Kyle Busch reeling but fortunate after career-worst streak
Crew chief Dave Rogers had to publicly mend fences last week after Kyle Busch, so frustrated with his crashed car at Bristol, disregarded Rogers' request that Busch drive the car to the hauler and instead left it sitting on pit road. Rogers later claimed all was well in the group after he and Busch talked about the incident in the hauler before Busch left the track.
That DNF was Busch's second in four races and continued his descent from sixth in points to 17th. Only an early season win at Fontana has left the No. 18 eligible for the Chase.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 29:
• I must admit to being unfamiliar with Charlotte McKinney. Consider that oversight remedied.
• Bill Murray took up tickets at the St. Paul Saints game last night, because Bill Murray is awesome.
• Johnny who? Last night belonged to Kenny Hill and the Texas A&M Aggies.
• Les Miles is a teacher above all else. His monologues are now being used in the classroom.
• Vanderbilt got destroyed by Temple, but on the upside, the Dores won the first email challenge in college football history.
• Tim Tebow might have a future in this broadcasting thing. If nothing else, he does a nice Spurrier impression.
• Anthony Brown quit the team and called USC coach Steve Sarkisian a racist on Instagram. Welcome to LA, Sark.
• Jesus Montero threw an ice cream sandwich at a scout. That's just wasteful.
• The last superfight might happen in 2015. Mayweather-Pacquiao.
• Watch Nick Foles go undercover as a waiter to surprise fantasy football drafters.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
It wasn’t just a bad day at the office. For the Broncos, Super Bowl XLVIII was a painful reality check, one that convinced them that all the offense in the world doesn’t necessarily translate to being the best team on the planet. Seattle was better that day, and San Francisco, the other big bully from the NFC, probably would have been, too. So, general manager John Elway and his lieutenants spent the offseason overhauling their defense, signing three big-ticket free agents — Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware — before using their No. 1 draft pick on Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby.
For all the changes the Broncos have made, their bottom line remains the same: Vince Lombardi Trophy or bust. There may be a tomorrow with Peyton Manning under center; even if the Broncos win Super Bowl XLIX, Manning could return for an encore season. But Elway, who knows a little about playing quarterback on the back side of 30, isn’t counting on it. He wants to win, and right now.
It’s official. Manning called the right career audible when he decided to join the Broncos after being jettisoned by the Colts. Two years after sitting out the entire 2011 season, Manning threw a record 55 touchdown passes and won his fifth MVP award as the Broncos became the first-ever NFL team to eclipse the 600-point mark.
Manning will have several new weapons this year, including Montee Ball, who’ll replace Knowshon Moreno as the starting tailback, and wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer. Moreno had more than his share of moments in a Denver uniform, including a 224-yard game vs. the Patriots, but Ball gives them a more durable back and a better bet to score near the goal line, where the short field can create issues in the passing game. Not that Ball is only a threat between the tackles. He’s flying under the radar after being a backup as a rookie, but he has big-play potential that could land him in multiple Pro Bowls. Ball underwent an emergency appendectomy in early August, but was back at practice two weeks later and is expected to be ready for Week 1.
Sanders, a free-agent signee from Pittsburgh, replaces Eric Decker, who signed with the Jets. The big news in the passing game, though, came on Day 2 of the draft, when the Broncos traded up in the second round to grab Latimer. With Sanders already on board with emerging superstar Demaryius Thomas, the addition of Latimer sends a clear message that Wes Welker’s days in Denver are numbered. Welker was his usual productive self in 2013, but concussions are becoming more of an issue, such as the one he sustained in the third preseason game. At this point, Welker is probably too high a risk to be counted on week in and week out.
With or without Welker, the Broncos possess a devastating crew of receivers who can move the chains and stretch the field. The rest of the crew includes tight end Julius Thomas, a college basketball player who has become arguably Elway’s best-ever draft pick.
Almost lost in the shuffle of the Broncos’ season: They did it with left tackle Ryan Clady sidelined for most of the year. Clady’s return this season has created a domino effect on the offensive line. Chris Clark, who replaced Clady, will move to right tackle, while incumbent Orlando Franklin will move to left guard in place of Zane Beadles, who left via free agency. Franklin isn’t happy about the move, what with tackles much more appreciated on payday than guards, but it makes all the sense in the world. Clark is the better pass-blocker, and Franklin’s forte is run-blocking — all the more reason to project big numbers for Ball in his second season.
The Broncos hoped to energize their pass rush, but they were shocked to find Ware available. With Ware on the edge, the Broncos may be able to match the kind of pressure the Seahawks and 49ers put on opposing quarterbacks. Ware had 19.5 sacks as recently as 2011, and at 32, he seemingly has a lot left in his tank.
But Ware’s production figures to be linked to the other main pass-rusher, Von Miller. Three years into his career, Miller already is at the crossroads. Will he return to being one of the most feared pass-rushers in the league, or will injuries and off-field issues overshadow his enormous talents? One more drug-related issue, and Miller will be suspended long-term. Not only that, but he’ll also be trying to bounce back from a knee reconstruction. So, in the end, the Broncos won’t know how formidable their pass rush will be until they see how healthy Miller is. Ware and a healthy Miller coming off the corner would be a devastating tandem.
Linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips departed via free agency, but Denver was in good shape with Danny Trevathan, the team’s leading tackler last season, ready to take over. That was until Trevathan fractured his knee during training camp, sidelining him until the middle of October, at minimum. Nate Irving is expected to start in the middle with Brandon Marshall (not the former Bronco wide receiver who's now in Chicago) and fifth-round pick Lamin Barrow among the candidates to fill in for Trevathan.
The defensive line has some depth issues, what with 2012 second-rounder Derek Wolfe experiencing career-threatening health issues last season, but tackles Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams, last year’s first-rounder, could be a terrific tandem in the middle. Williams started slowly, but after an offseason in the weight room, he could take a giant career leap.
The Broncos had hoped to re-sign cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but when he asked for serious money, they shifted gears and came away from free agency with Talib. The Broncos were also looking for a physical presence at safety and they got it with Ward, a Pro Bowler with the Browns in 2013. With Talib pounding on receivers in bump coverage, and with Ward providing a linebacker-like presence in the middle of the field, the Broncos figure to be much more physical than they were last season.
With Trindon Holliday gone via free agency, the coaches will use training camp to figure out how to divvy up the kickoff and punt return duties. Veteran Andre Caldwell figures to return kickoffs, and Sanders, Welker and Roby will get a look as punt returners, though Welker’s concussion issues make him a long shot.
The kicking game is in great shape with Matt Prater and Britton Colquitt. Altitude or no altitude, Prater is as good as they come, having made 14-of-15 attempts from 40 yards and beyond last season, including 6-of-7 from 50-plus. Translation: All Manning has to do is rack up two or three first downs on a typical drive and the Broncos are all but a lock to score. Colquitt? His steady production usually tilts the field-position battle the Broncos’ way. Not that he’s as busy as he once was: Colquitt punted 65 times in 2013 compared to 101 in 2011, the year before Manning’s arrival.
Prater will have to sit out the first four games of the season for a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse program. Rookie Mitch Ewald was in training camp, but the Broncos also traded a conditional seventh-round draft choice next year to the Giants for fellow rookie Brandon McManus. The waiver wire is another option if the team decides to sign a veteran kicker to fill in during Prater's absence.
The Broncos are in a unique position among NFL teams. They aren’t trying to keep pace with the rest of the league. As long as Manning is under center, their competition will come from only a handful of teams, most notably the Seahawks, 49ers and Patriots. While Denver’s offense is in a class by itself, the Broncos haven’t been as physical as the elite teams in the NFC. They could be this season, but, in the end, they’re relying on Miller to regain his status as one of the league’s best players. If he does, they could be throwing a parade in downtown Denver. If not, they may still have enough to get back to the Super Bowl. The question remains: Can they win it?
PREDICTION: 1st in AFC West
Richard Sherman will tell you that he’s the best cornerback in the NFL, and he has a new four-year $57 million contract to confirm it. Earl Thomas, with his four-year, $40 million extension, acknowledges he has no apparent equal at safety. Russell Wilson says he wants to be the league’s greatest quarterback of all time. With all of this confidence bubbling over, it’s hard to deny the Seahawks anything these days.
Collectively, these guys are coming off one of the most dominant seasons in recent times — including a 35-point Super Bowl victory over Denver after losing three games by a combined 15 points — thinking they can do this all again.
Just eight of 47 previous teams have repeated as Super Bowl champions, none during the past decade — all unable to cope with winner’s complacency, personnel changes or major injuries. Yet Seattle, after boasting the second-youngest Super Bowl roster (26.4 years), building a star-studded defense (led by its secondary) and retaining all of its major contributors (six Pro Bowl players), has no shortage of swagger when addressing this challenge.
“One of the things that happens every so often is teams have a big fallout after they win the Super Bowl,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says. “We’re not in that situation.”
Any major adjustments for this team will come on offense, where the Seahawks must replace two starting linemen and their leading receiver. This doesn’t raise any red flags for a couple of reasons: 1) These positions regularly have been in a state of flux, and 2) Wilson.
Returning for his third season, Wilson has defied every obstacle presented to him at quarterback: Too short, sophomore slump, too young to win a Super Bowl. He makes everyone around him better with his decision-making, elusiveness and deceptively strong arm while running the Seahawks’ zone-read offense in a masterful manner. He’s a proven winner, capturing 28 of 37 games as the starter, including four of five in the postseason.
With 52 TD passes in his brief career, Wilson has done this without a marquee receiver at his disposal. He may finally have one, provided Percy Harvin can stay healthy after sitting out most of his first season in Seattle with a hip injury. Limited to three games, two in the playoffs, Harvin offered a glimpse of what he could do in the Super Bowl with an 87-yard kickoff return for a score and 30-yard run. He brings a huge boost of speed to the offense. Harvin will share receiving duties with the highly efficient Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, plus top draft pick Paul Richardson, who possesses Harvin-like speed.
Marshawn Lynch has been a rushing fiend for three consecutive seasons, piling up more than 4,500 rushing yards and 39 total touchdowns in that time, postseason included. But there is good reason to be wary of him now. The hard-nosed runner affectionately known as Beast Mode has more than 1,800 career carries under his belt, leaving him susceptible to sudden performance falloff that comes with being an overused NFL running back. Seattle will ride Lynch as long as it can, likely spelling him more and more with Robert Turbin.
Considerable patchwork needs to be done on the line, which is anchored by two-time Pro Bowl center Max Unger and one-time Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung, both mobile players who open a lot of holes. Vacancies must be filled at left guard and right tackle, where part-time starters James Carpenter and second-round pick Justin Britt are the leading candidates. Carpenter, a former No. 1 pick, hasn’t been the dominant player envisioned by the Seahawks because he can’t stay healthy and lacks speed. Draftee Garrett Scott might be an option for each opening with his size and athleticism. Oddly enough, left guard has resembled an open tryout every year.
No position area across the NFL is as star-studded as the Seahawks’ sensational secondary, nicknamed “The Legion of Boom.” Safety Kam Chancellor, Thomas and Sherman each enjoyed Pro Bowl seasons and huge postseason moments, and there’s no reason to expect anything less in 2014. Byron Maxwell proved to be an able cover corner and became the fourth wheel for this group after original “Boom” member Brandon Browner was suspended for drug-related offenses. Browner signed with New England in the offseason.
The Seattle linebacking corps, more functional than flashy, returns intact with Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright as starters. Irvin, a converted defensive end, is a superb pass-rusher, while Wagner and Wright are solid against the run. The secondary allows them to take chances. An added bonus is having Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith back them up.
Unfortunately, the Seahawks were forced to sacrifice a chunk of their defensive depth, particularly across the front wall, in order to pay for the headliners. Aging starters Red Bryant and Chris Clemons and reserve Clinton McDonald were deemed expendable and signed on with other teams. Seattle still puts a fierce front four on the field with rising star Michael Bennett, plus Cliff Avril, Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel, but it no longer has a proven second wave.
The Seahawks defense was an absolute monster in 2013, ranking No. 1 in the NFL in total defense (273.6 ypg), passing defense (172.0 ypg), points allowed (14.4 ppg), takeaways (39), interceptions (28), turnover differential (plus-20) and opposing QB passer rating (63.4). It will be hard to duplicate that dominance.
Automatic readily sums up the Seahawks’ special teams. Placekicker Steven Hauschka was rewarded with a big contract extension after he connected on 33-of-35 field goals, hitting all three of his attempts over 50 yards. Jon Ryan, a career 44.8-yard punter, downed 28 kicks inside the 20. Harvin, counting his Super Bowl score, has run six kickoffs back for touchdowns in his NFL career. Kearse will move from kickoffs to punt returns.
The Seahawks spent much of the offseason taking bows and renegotiating contracts. Unlike the year before, they didn’t engage much in the free-agent market or instigate any big trades. Once the roster churn was over, they had 10 notable contributors to the title run depart for other teams and often bigger paydays. Which raises a pertinent question: Did the franchise give up too much manpower and break up its uncanny chemistry? The answer likely is no — as long as mainstays such as Wilson, Sherman and Thomas are interspersed throughout the lineup, with a healthy Harvin complementing them. Seattle will attempt to become just the eighth different franchise (Pittsburgh has done it twice) to repeat as Super Bowl champs. Only the Patriots have won consecutive NFL titles in the new millennium. The Seahawks, with so much talent still on their side, appear fully capable of joining the elite repeat club.
PREDICTION: 1st in NFC West
ATLANTA — Believe it or not, Ole Miss walked out of the Georgia Dome with a trophy, or two pieces of one.
This is not the newly minted College Football Playoff trophy, by any means. It’s not even the Floyd of Rosedale.
The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game awards an old-style leather helmet on a stand The trophy indeed comes in two pieces, so when linebacker Ryan Lewis walked into the locker room with the stand and receiver Laquon Treadwell followed with the leather helmet on his head, they did not break said trophy.
That was Ole Miss in its opener: Not quite together and looking a little ridiculous, but with a trophy and a win nonetheless.
The final score looked the way should have — Ole Miss 35, Boise State 13 — but the first game showed Ole Miss isn’t quite ready to hoist any other trophies.
Two bowl victories, a climb from two wins to seven to eight and a stud signing class maturing into sophomores seemed to have the Rebels on the move in the SEC. But the forward progress of Ole Miss’ program sputtered for three quarters in Atlanta.
The weight of expectations was apparent. Treadwell said he was more relaxed before last year’s opener, his debut as a freshman in an SEC road opener against Vanderbilt, than he was Thursday.
“I had jitters, too,” Ole Miss senior quarterback Bo Wallace said. “I got a little nervous, so I don’t know. Usually I’m cool. I don’t know what that was.”
Good thing Wallace eventually found his cool. Good thing Boise State was the uglier team Thursday. And the Broncos needed an effort to out-ugly Ole Miss in a game that featured seven total interceptions, 23 total penalties and an early ejection for targeting.
After Thursday night’s events, the team playing the role of SEC West usurper seems to be coming from College Station, not Oxford.
Ole Miss didn’t produce more scores (four) than turnovers (three) until the 7:45 mark of the four quarter. By that time, Boise State had thrown four picks of its own.
Now this is all before the first Saturday of the season, plenty of time for Ole Miss to find its stride, which it did after the final Grant Hedrick pick broke the will of Boise State in a 28-7 Ole Miss fourth quarter.
Certainly, Ole Miss showed flashes of brilliance. The No. 1 prospect from 2013, Robert Nkemdiche, is becoming the next great SEC mega-lineman, the back end of the defense played with an edge, and the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Treadwell proved to be a mismatch.
At the same time, Ole Miss made clear Thursday that one big-time recruiting class, a preseason ranking and two-years of buzz does not make a powerhouse program.
The most experienced quarterback in the SEC at times had coach Hugh Freeze grimacing on the sideline with three first-half interceptions.
“Two of the three interceptions just were a bit unbelievable because they weren’t even in his progression on the route,” Freeze said. “He’ll be the first to tell you that, and he knows that. It was a bit amazing.”
At one point late in the first half, Wallace overthrew Boise State’s safeties by five yards. The intended receiver — a term that generously appeared in the play-by-play — was Treadwell, who was at least 10 yards underneath the safeties.
Wallace was only a symptom of an Ole Miss offense barely ready for a Boise State game in its first game under Bryan Harsin.
The Rebels picked up seven false starts in the first half, exacerbated by Boise State shifting before Wallace went to a silent count at the line. The run game was a no-show as Ole Miss rushed for 30 yards on 23 carries in three quarters. The Rebels didn’t have a run longer than five yards until the final two carries of the third quarter.
The score sat at 7-6 for the Rebels until Wallace started to find Treadwell in man-to-man coverage on a critical drive capped by a 14-yard touchdown.
“We’ve got to be on the level where it’s understood where if they’re good, they can beat us,” Treadwell said. “That’s the difference in this team. The defense played well and didn’t underestimate them. The offense came out and tried to do too much.”
Mike McCarthy not only issued the proclamation: He told everyone how they should write it, too.
“We’re going to be a better defense this year,” the Green Bay Packers coach announced after the draft in May. “You can write that in big letters.”
Well, if you insist. THE PACKERS ARE GOING TO BE A BETTER DEFENSE THIS YEAR.
This was more than just bluster by the head coach. If the Packers are going to return to the Super Bowl after winning three straight division titles — but managing just one playoff victory — in the three years since they won Super Bowl XLV, McCarthy knows it’s imperative that their defense, which ranked tied for 24th in scoring (26.8 ppg) and 25th in yards allowed (372.3 ypg), must improve. While he kept veteran coordinator Dom Capers, McCarthy has been more involved in the defense, scaling back the playbook, trying to use more personnel groupings but fewer schemes.
To improve the personnel, GM Ted Thompson signed veteran defensive end Julius Peppers. Released by Chicago in a cost-cutting move, the 34-year-old Peppers will play a hybrid end/outside linebacker position. The club also re-signed three key defensive free agents (No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields, pass-rusher Mike Neal and nose tackle B.J. Raji) and picked four defensive players in the draft, led by first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a safety from Alabama, at No. 21.
Whether the changes in approach and personnel allow McCarthy to deliver on his promise could very well decide the Packers’ 2014 fate.
It’s hard to imagine the Packers, who’ve done so much right in building a perennial contender, bungling a position worse than they did the backup quarterback spot last year. And wouldn’t you know it, for the first time in two decades, they lost their starting quarterback for an extended period of time when Aaron Rodgers suffered a fractured left collarbone. The team wound up starting four quarterbacks, and only the re-signing of Matt Flynn, Rodgers’ backup from 2008-11, saved the season. Rodgers’ history of durability — he’d missed only one start due to injury before last season — should mean a return to form as one of the league’s top quarterbacks, and with Flynn and Scott Tolzien in the fold from Day 1 of the offseason program, the Packers should be better prepared if disaster strikes again.
If Rodgers does stay healthy, the offense could reach unprecedented heights because the Packers finally have a potent run game to pair with their aerial attack, thanks to running back Eddie Lacy, who ran for 1,178 yards. Because Lacy suffered a concussion one carry into a Week 2 game vs. Washington and missed the following week, and Rodgers broke his collarbone on the opening series against Chicago on Nov. 4, the pair played only six full regular-season games together. If both stay healthy, defenses won’t be able to play constant two-shell coverages to prevent Rodgers’ big-play passes as they did in 2012, and they won’t be able to load the box with eight or nine defenders as they did last year against Lacy when Rodgers was out. If Lacy does get nicked, the Packers have depth. They re-signed James Starks and get DuJuan Harris back from injury. Johnathan Franklin, last year's fourth-round pick was released in June when it was determined the neck injury he suffered in 2013 would prevent from continuing his football careeer.
Two years ago, the Packers were so deep at receiver that the franchise’s all-time leader in catches and receiving yards, an aging Donald Driver, was relegated to sixth on the depth chart. Now, it’s Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and some youngsters. Nelson is coming off career highs in receptions (85) and yards (1,314), while Cobb missed 10 games with a leg injury. Nelson signed a four-year, $39 million contract extension in July and Cobb has said he's ready to prove he's worthy of his own lucrative deal. After them, it’s third-year man Jarrett Boykin, who stepped up with Cobb out (49 catches, 681 yards), as the No. 3, then a mix of unproven returnees and draft picks, led by second-rounder Davante Adams.
Jermichael Finley’s career-threatening neck injury and spinal fusion surgery put his future in doubt and left the Packers vulnerable at tight end. While Andrew Quarless, who took over after Finley’s injury, was re-signed, McCarthy’s offense is optimized when it has a big, athletic pass-catching tight end. If the Packers don’t have Finley, McCarthy will have to get creative.
For the fourth time in four years, the Packers will have a different opening-day starter at center. Rookie Corey Linsley appears to be the guy, largely due to a knee fracture suffered by JC Tretter in the third preseason game. Tretter is expected to miss several weeks. Linsley will be sandwiched by proven veteran guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. McCarthy has always stressed the importance of the center position in adjustments at the line of scrimmage, so there could be some growing pains or the coaching staff may have to shuffle positions. Second-year left tackle David Bakhtiari figures to only get better, while Bryan Bulaga moves back to right tackle after finishing each of the past two seasons on injured reserve. Besides Tretter's injury, the line must also function with out key reserve Don Barclay, who tore his ACL early in training camp.
The team has selected five defensive linemen in the past three drafts. After a ho-hum rookie year, 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones must make a big jump in Year 2, as Mike Daniels (a line-leading 6.5 sacks) did last season. B.J. Raji was brought back on a one-year, $4 million prove-it deal and slated to start at nose tackle, but he is likely out for the season after tearing his biceps in the third preseason game.
Star outside linebacker Clay Matthews broke his right thumb twice and had two surgeries to correct it — the second being more invasive. The Packers’ defense simply isn’t the same without Matthews. If healthy, he and Peppers might have a field day. Inside, steady A.J. Hawk remains the unit’s leader after showing a much-needed spike in big plays (five sacks, one interception, one forced fumble) last season.
The addition of Clinton-Dix should not only solidify a position where departed M.D. Jennings started 17 games, but he should also help Morgan Burnett, whose first season after signing a four-year, $24.75 million extension was a disappointment. Clinton-Dix figures to be the center fielder more often than Burnett. At cornerback, re-signing Shields (four years, $39 million) was offseason priority No. 1. Tramon Williams’ second-half renaissance last year re-solidified the position.
Veteran kicker Mason Crosby followed his worst NFL season with his best, making 33-of-37 field-goal attempts (89.2 percent), while Tim Masthay has become one of the league’s top cold-weather punters. The return game remains up in the air, though Micah Hyde was a godsend after return specialist Jeremy Ross was prematurely cut.
The Pack won’t be a chic Super Bowl pick, and that’s how Rodgers likes it. “They’re going to be talking about Seattle and Denver and New England and some of these teams that rebuild and reload,” Rodgers says. “We kind of like it when we’re a little bit of an afterthought. That makes us dangerous.” Look for the Packers to win their fourth straight North crown, and if they can lick their annual injury epidemic, they’ll be in the title conversation.
PREDICTION: 1st in NFC North
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for August 28:
• Swimsuit model Genevieve Morton and her friends danced around to "Happy." This does, in fact, make us happy.
• I don't know about you, but Navy's new helmets make me want to suit up and run through a brick wall.
• Georgia State kicked off college football last night by earning its first FBS win. I believe that moves them ahead of Florida State in the computers.
• Why we love college football, part 1,563: South Carolina and Texas A&M fans gathered outside the South Carolina state capitol just to yell at each other.
• Playing the blame game in the Josh Shaw debacle. Plenty to go around.
• Andrelton Simmons made another insane play. Oh, and it was a game-saver.
• John Daly's country song "Hit It Hard" is getting airplay on Sirius. If you're morbidly curious, click here. It's actually not that bad.
• Francisco Cervelli took a foul ball to the giblets. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to play catcher.
• Twitter and Instagram temporarily blew up with NBA-themed cartoons. Some are clever, some are weird and creepy.
• Johnny Football is an aerobics instructor in a new Snickers spot.
--Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
With 128 teams in the FBS and around 100 players on a roster, there are certainly some interesting names that pop-up throughout the course of production for Athlon's 2014 college football magazine.
We took a look through the rosters for the 128 teams and pulled out some of the funniest and more interesting names in college football for the 2014 season.
And yes, some reminded us of the famous Key & Peele college football skit.
Freedom Akinmoladun, TE, Nebraska
Geronimo Allison, WR, Illinois
Bozidar Antunovic, OL, SMU
Gage Batten, FB, Auburn
Faton Bauta, QB, Georgia
Bobo Beathard, WR, Appalachian State
Detric Bing-Dukes, FB, Georgia
Baylor Black, TE, Baylor
Jeb Blazevich, TE, Georgia
Cole Boozer, TE, Temple
Johnathan Boring, OL, Troy
Brandon Bourbon, RB, Kansas
Brandon Bridge, QB, South Alabama
Jake Butt, TE, Michigan
Evan Butts, TE, Virginia
Squally Canada, RB, Washington State
KD Cannon, WR, Baylor
Freddy Canteen, WR, Michigan
B.J. Chitty, WR, Troy
Jazzmar Clax, FB, UConn
River Cracraft, WR, Washington State
Uneik Crumbley, OL, UAB
Tank Davis, OL, Texas A&M
Mak Djulbegovic, OL, USF
Centarius Donald, RB, ULM
Teven Eatmon-Nared, OL, Kentucky
Quinterrius Eatmon, OL, USF
Hoko Fanaika, OL, LSU
Tanner Farmer, OL, Nebraska
Bear Fenimore, QB, Houston
Daxx Garman, QB, Oklahoma State
Crusoe Gongbay, RB, New Mexico
John Gruenschlaeger, OG, Kentucky
Thor Jozwiak, OL, USF
Brynjar Gudmundsson, OL, USF
Justice Hansen, QB, Oklahoma
Nyiakki Height, WR, UAB
Rush Hendricks, TE, South Alabama
Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M
Gunnar Holcombe, QB, Marshall
Driphus Jackson, QB, Rice
Gunner Kiel, QB, Cincinnati
Munchie Legaux, QB, Cincinnati
Quantavius Leslie, WR, LSU
Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor
Kolby Listenbee, WR, TCU
Mikingson Marsaille, OL, FAU
I’Tavius Mathers, RB, Ole Miss
Storm McPherson, QB, West Virginia
Tommy Mister, RB, Indiana
Grayson Muehlstein, QB, TCU
Shug Oyegunle, WR, FIU
Rafe Peavey, QB, Arkansas
Ross Pierschbacher, OL, Alabama
Dalvin Populist, QB, ULL
Rich Queen, OL, UMass
Michiah Quick, WR, Oklahoma
Devine Redding, RB, Indiana
Deuce Robinson, DL, Appalachian State
Blaze Ryder, OL, Navy
Manrey Saint-Amour, OL, Georgia Southern
Harley Scioneaux, TE, ULM
Dreamius Smith, RB, West Virginia
Thaddeus Snodgrass, WR, Kentucky
Jack Snowball, RB, Miami (Ohio)
Shawn Stankavage, QB, Vanderbilt
Tyrin Stone-Davis, WR, Illinois
Tennessee Su’esu’e, OL, Boise State
Altee Tenpenny, RB, Alabama
Poet Thomas, OL, Texas Tech
Valerian Ume-Ezeoke, OL, New Mexico State
Stone Underwood, OL, WVU
Cody Whitehair, OL, Kansas State
Lucky Whitehead, WR, FAU
Hosey Williams, RB, Cincinnati
T.V. Williams, WR, Kentucky
Ucambre Williams, OL, South Alabama
Storm Woods, RB, Oregon State
Bearooz Yacoobi, OL, Purdue
Gussie Busch, LB, Alabama
Imarjaye Albury, DL, FIU
Thurston Armbrister, LB, Miami
Micah Awe, LB, Texas Tech
Maquedius Bain, DT, LSU
Budda Baker, S, Washington
Will Barrow, CB, Tulsa
Zeek Bigger, LB, East Carolina
Jay-nard Bostick, DT, Florida
Bam Bradley, LB, Pittsburgh
Mookie Carlile, DB, UTEP
Destin Challenger, LB, UAB
Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan
Wayland Coleman-Dancer, LB, Troy
Pudge Cotton, DB, Eastern Michigan
Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
Skyler Cracraft, DB, Washington State
Armonze Daniel, DL, Marshall
Prince Charles Iworah, DB, Western Kentucky
Step Durham, DB, Georgia Tech
Kingsley Ejike, DL/LB, UAB
Corn Elder, DB, Miami
Shattle Fenteng, DB, Georgia
Poona Ford, DT, Texas
Maxx Forde, DE, Idaho
Jack Gangwish, DL, Nebraska
Houston Glass, S, Buffalo
Sharrod Golightly, LB/S, South Carolina
Alanmichael Harkness, DL, Appalachian State
Vegas Harley, S, Georgia Southern
Brixx Hawthorne, S, Texas Tech
Zaycoven Henderson, DT, Texas Tech
K’Hadree Hooker, DL, East Carolina
Money Hunter, DB, Arkansas State
Great Ibe, LB, Eastern Michigan
Tank Jakes, LB, Memphis
Lion King, DL, Eastern Michigan
Abu Lamin, DL, South Carolina
Trey Lealaimatafao, DT, LSU
Nifae Lealao, DL, Vanderbilt
Dee Liner, DL, Alabama
Chaiziere Malbrue, LB, ULL
Marcus Mallet, LB, TCU
Praise Martin-Oguike, DL, Temple
Mercy Maston, CB, Boise State
Hercules Mata’afa, DL, Washington State
Cassanova McKinzy, LB, Auburn
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
SteveO Michel, LB, Colorado State
Finesse Middleton, DE, Louisville
Zelt Minor, DL, SMU
Wonderful Monds II, DE, FIU
Charmeachealle Moore, LB, Kansas State
Silverberry Mouhon, DL, Cincinnati
Chuka Ndulue, DL, Oklahoma
Picasso Nelson Jr., DB, Southern Miss
Noble Nwachukwu, DL, West Virginia
Tito Odenigbo, DL, Illinois
Leviticus Payne, DB, Cincinnati
Jock Petree, DL, UCF
Cody Poock, LB, Minnesota
Dad Poquie, DB, Penn State
Gimel President, DL, Auburn
Johnny Ragin III, LB, Oregon
Bruno Reagan, OL, Vanderbilt
Trevarris Saulsberry, DL, Tennessee
Gusty Schwartzmeier, DL, Buffalo
Patrick Sermersheim, DB, Kentucky
Aziz Shittu, DL, Stanford
Fish Smithson, S, Kansas
Breeland Speaks, DL, Ole Miss
Weston Steelhammer, DB, Air Force
Finis Stribling, DB, Missouri
Dwellie Striggles, DB, Buffalo
Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma
Wonderful Terry, DB, Western Kentucky
Toronto Thomas, LB, Appalachian State
Fudge Van Hooser, CB, Tulane
Sir Calvin Wallace, DT, North Texas
Jihad Ward, DL, Illinois
Freedom Whitfield, LB, FAU
Tito Windham, CB, Oklahoma
Psalm Wooching, LB, Washington
DeJazz Woods, DL, Illinois
Carlutorbantu Zaramo, DL, Ball State
Moose Bingham, K, BYU
Chris Blewitt, K, Pittsburgh
Colby Delahoussaye, K, LSU
Younghoe Koo, K, Georgia Southern
Logan McElfresh, P, Minnesota
While the Patriots were among the NFL’s elite in 2013 with a 12–4 record and No. 2 seed in the AFC, they were clearly a notch below the Seahawks, Broncos and 49ers. Have they done enough in the offseason to get back into the Super Bowl title discussion that they were clearly in the middle of from 2010-12?
Adding Darrelle Revis after Aqib Talib departed qualifies as an upgrade at the all-important cornerback position. The other major “additions” are really just Pro Bowl-quality players getting healthy. The Pats did not have Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork or Rob Gronkowski for their playoff run. Should all three be 100 percent, and if Tom Brady continues to win his battle with Father Time (he will be 37 on opening day), the Super Bowl will once again be a realistic goal.
The Patriots have plenty of certainties on offense — Brady at quarterback, five starters returning on the offensive line, Julian Edelman heading the wide receiver corps — but there is one rather large unknown: the health of Gronkowski. The tight end tore his ACL against Cleveland in Week 14 and underwent surgery on Jan. 9. Gronkowski could be active by the time the Patriots open the season at Miami, but given the $53 million investment the team made in the former second-round pick, look for him and the team to be extra cautious. After playing in every game his first two years, Gronkowski has played in just 18 due to wrist, back and knee issues since signing his big deal in 2012. When he plays, the Patriots’ offense thrives, with No. 87 racking up 42 TDs in 50 regular-season games. When he is out, Brady loses a major weapon. New England added Tampa Bay tight end Tim Wright on Aug. 26 in a trade that sent long-time starting left guard and six-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers. The Patriots also received the Bucs' fourth-round pick next year for Mankins, who was New England's first-round choice back in 2005.
Not that Brady isn’t used to making do with what’s available. Gronkowski, pass-catching running back Shane Vereen and wide receiver Danny Amendola all missed chunks of time due to injury last season. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez also departed in the offseason (for very different reasons). So how did the Pats do? Brady had his lowest passer rating (87.3) since 2003 and fewest touchdowns (25) since 2006. However, the Pats still managed to finish third in the NFL in scoring at 27.8 points per game.
The Patriots enjoyed unexpected production out of LeGarrette Blount, who led the team in rushing nine times, including an electrifying 166-yard, four-touchdown effort in a playoff win over the Colts. Blount signed with Pittsburgh in the offseason, leaving the Pats with familiar faces Steven Ridley and Vereen as the main running backs. Ridley’s fumble troubles sent him to the sidelines for portions of last season, but many believe he is the most talented back on the roster and should be able to ring up over 1,000 yards like he did in 2012. Vereen racked up 54 catches (including postseason) despite missing eight games with a broken wrist.
Is Brady losing a step? Perhaps, but he has proven time and again that he can produce when given suitable weapons at the skill positions. If his prime targets remain healthy in 2014, don’t be surprised if he is in the discussion for a third MVP trophy.
The biggest storyline in the offseason was the acquisition of Revis days after Talib signed with Denver. Talib was a critical piece of the Patriots’ defense for one-and-a-half seasons, but it can be argued that the Pats upgraded at the position with Revis. Despite still recovering from a torn ACL early in 2013, Revis started all 16 games with the Bucs and reached his fifth Pro Bowl. Revis, only 29, is one of the best corners in the game and should give coach Bill Belichick the same options Talib did in terms of taking away an opponent’s top receiver.
The Patriots also signed Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner, who will miss the first four games due to a drug suspension. Browner is a physical corner who will be a candidate to start opposite Revis or even possibly slide over to play some safety. The added depth will only help a back line that ranked ninth in opposing QB rating in 2013.
The front seven will welcome back two cornerstones in Mayo (linebacker) and Wilfork (defensive tackle). Mayo missed the final 12 games (including playoffs) with a torn pectoral muscle, while Wilfork missed the final 14 after tearing his Achilles. Both should be 100 percent, though at age 32, there is concern whether Wilfork will be able to regain the form that earned him Pro Bowl invites from 2009-12. The Pats spent their first-round draft pick on interior lineman Dominique Easley, who missed most of his final year at Florida with a torn ACL.
Up front, the Patriots traded for former Packer Jerel Worthy during training camp. Green Bay's second-round pick in 2012, the hope is that Worthy can serve as a third rusher to spell Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich.
Two second-year players will be taking on critical roles on the Patriots defense. Jamie Collins could potentially be a three-down linebacker after coming on strong toward the end of his rookie season. Collins was brought along slowly last year, but his athleticism really showed in the playoff win over the Colts when he had six tackles, a sack and an interception. Collins, Mayo and Dont’a Hightower will form a top-flight linebacking corps.
At strong safety, Duron Harmon is slated to replace Steve Gregory. Harmon backed up Gregory in 2013 and saw starter’s minutes during a three-game stretch in which there was no noticeable drop-off. With Devin McCourty at the other safety and Revis and Alfonzo Dennard or Browner at the corners, Harmon’s contributions could mean the difference between an elite secondary and an above-average secondary.
Stephen Gostkowski connected on a career-best 93 percent of his field goals in 2013 and led the league with 38 successful attempts. He is 19-of-21 in playoff games. Second-year punter Ryan Allen had a nondescript rookie season (16th in net punting, 10th in balls inside the 20). Edelman is the NFL’s active leader in yards per punt return (12.3) and has averaged over 10 yards per return in all five seasons in the league. Josh Boyce is the leading candidate to return kickoffs.
Have the Patriots improved enough to pass the Broncos and represent the AFC in the Super Bowl? With the return of Mayo and Wilfork, plus the additions of Revis and Browner, the defense looks much improved. As far as the offense goes, Gronkowski’s health will be a big factor, as well as Ridley’s ability to hold on to the ball. The Patriots will not be as explosive as they were in the Randy Moss/Welker days, but with Brady at the helm, you can count on a top-10 offense. With Brady signed through 2017, the expectation is that the Brady/Belichick era has four years remaining. Pressure is mounting to win that fourth Super Bowl trophy and first since 2004. The regular-season success of the past decade has been remarkable, but disappointing finishes in the playoffs have taken some shine off this run.
PREDICTION: 1st in AFC East
Undefeated should be the Pac-12's goal in Week 1.
Every team in the league is favored to win its season opener with the exception of Cal — an 11-point underdog on the road at Northwestern.
So barring a Golden Bears’ road upset, the league should be hoping to avoid the upset bug in the first weekend of action. All of the league front-runners are huge favorites to win and an early slip up would be crushing.
An 11-1 mark in Week 1 would be considered holding serve for the Pac-12.
1. Fresno St at USC
7:30 p.m., FOX
Part of the reason the Pac-12 should win at least 11 games in Week 1 is that there is no marquee showdown. Fresno State is picked to win the MW West Division and should be one of the better non-Big 5 teams in the nation. Storylines such as Steve Sarkisian's Trojans' debut, USC and Fresno State's Las Vegas Bowl matchup to end last season and the Josh Shaw saga only adds intrigue.
2. UCLA at Virginia
The Cavaliers pulled an improbable upset against a team from the West (BYU) at home in their season opener last fall. A repeat performance is highly unlikely this go around. Still, Virginia's defense is much more talented than its 10-loss record from last year so Brett Hundley will need to be sharp. But the Virginia offense will have a tough time against one of the better Pac-12 defenses. There are no excuses for UCLA in this one.
3. Rutgers at Washington St
Thurs., 10 p.m., FS1
What should be one of the most competitive Week 1 matchups will feature a “traditional” Big Ten-Pac-12 bout. While a Cougars-Scarlet Knights game is anything but traditional the entertainment value should be high. Kyle Flood enters a critical year as head coach of Rutgers while Mike Leach has a productive returning quarterback and bowl aspirations. Stay up late for this one on Thursday evening, it will be worth it.
4. Colorado St at Colorado
Fri., 9 p.m., FS1, Denver
When it comes to intensity, the Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver is arguably the most intriguing game of the weekend out West. This meeting marks the 85th between these two in-state rivals. Rams coach Jim McElwain topped the Buffs in his introduction to this series two years ago and has turned the CSU program into a winner while Mike MacIntyre won his debut against the Rams last fall. The Buffs are a 2.5-point favorite.
5. Cal at Northwestern
3:30 p.m., ESPN2
The only Pac-12 underdog in Week 1 is Cal’s trip to Evanston. Sonny Dykes’ first game as the Bears head coach ended in a 44-30 defeat at home against these Wildcats last fall. His squad allowed 508 yards of offense but his freshman quarterback, Jared Goff, threw the ball 63 times for 445 yards in his first career game. Look for more points and a more competitive game this time around (although, the outcome may be the same).
6. UNLV at Arizona
Fri., 10:30 p.m., ESPN
Arizona breaks in a new star at quarterback when redshirt freshman Anu Solomon makes his first career start in his first career game. The Wildcats are a heavy favorite (-23.5) and defeated the Rebels in Las Vegas — Solomon’s hometown — by a 58-13 margin a year ago. Tuning in to see how Solomon handles himself will be important, so get the coffee ready as this was Arizona’s longest game of the year last fall (3:30) and is the final game to kick off on Friday evening.
7. Washington at Hawaii
10:30 p.m., CBS Sports
Chris Petersen makes his Washington debut on the islands this weekend. He will be without starting quarterback Cyler Miles and is one of just two Pac-12 teams to start the season on the road. That said, there is a reason the Huskies are a 17-point favorite and Hawaii head coach Norm Chow is on the hot seat. Washington’s defense should dominate a team picked to finish dead last in its division.
Listen to the Week 1 Cover 2 podcast:
8. UC Davis at Stanford
4 p.m., Pac-12 Net
A fairly competitive Big Sky team last year (5-3 in league), UC Davis doesn’t figure to challenge mighty Stanford. The Aggies aren’t picked by many to make the FCS playoffs and won’t be able to compete physically with the Cardinal.
9. South Dakota at Oregon
10:30 p.m., Pac-12 Net
Not to be confused with FCS playoff contenders South Dakota State and North Dakota State, the Coyotes of South Dakota (4-8 last year) don’t figure to be competitive longer than a few series. Look for Oregon to churn out yards and points while, most importantly, staying healthy for the visit from Michigan State looming in Week 2.
10. Weber St at Arizona St
Thurs., 10:30 p.m., Pac-12 Net
The Sun Devils — along with the Utes — picked two of the worst Big Sky teams to face in their season openers. The Wildcats of Weber State won just one conference game last year and will be little to no competition for ASU’s totally reworked defense. Look for Todd Graham to get a lot of looks for his new defensive unit.
11. Portland St at Oregon St
4 p.m., Pac-12 Net
There is one reason to tune in: Sean Mannion. Portland State isn’t a contender in the Big Sky this year so don’t expect a repeat of what Eastern Washington did in Corvallis a year ago. This Beavers' offense is worth watching anytime this unit takes the field, even if the score is extremely one-sided.
12. Idaho St at Utah
Thurs., 7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Net
The Bengals of Idaho State won just one Big Sky game last year and that should basically guarantee a win for Kyle Whittingham. And for a head coach with quarterback questions and a seat warming beneath him, every win is critical.
|Braden Gall||Mitch Light||David Fox||Steven Lassan|
|Fresno St (+21.5) at USC||USC, 34-13||USC, 37-17||USC, 42-17||USC, 38-20|
|UCLA (-21) at Virginia||UCLA, 38-13||UCLA, 33-14||UCLA, 42-10||UCLA, 34-13|
|Rutgers (+8) vs. Wazzu||WSU, 42-21||WSU, 41-17||WSU, 52-14||WSU, 45-31|
|Colo. St (+3) vs. Colorado||Colo., 28-24||Colo., 21-17||CSU, 24-17||Colo., 31-27|
|Cal (+11) at N'Western||NW, 31-21||NW, 31-24||NW, 38-17||NW, 34-24|
|UNLV (+23.5) at Arizona||Zona, 45-17||Zona, 48-24||Zona, 35-14||Zona, 40-20|
|Wash. (-17) at Hawaii||Wash., 42-7||Wash., 51-10||Wash., 49-7||Wash., 45-13|
|UC Davis at Stanford||Stan., 38-3||Stan., 41-0||Stan., 35-7||Stan., 45-7|
|S. Dakota at Oregon||Oregon, 51-10||Oregon, 58-7||Oregon, 52-7||Oregon, 60-10|
|Weber St at Ariz. St||ASU, 41-14||ASU, 51-10||ASU, 49-10||ASU, 58-13|
|Portland St at Ore. St||OSU, 41-20||OSU, 44-17||OSU, 52-14||OSU, 45-17|
|Idaho St at Utah||Utah, 31-7||Utah, 41-0||Utah, 49-6||Utah, 44-7|
Bob Stoops has been fighting the good fight all offseason long but the rubber meets the road now that the season is starting.
Both Oklahoma State and West Virginia played in BCS bowls in the last few seasons but both are heavy underdogs to their ACC and SEC foes in Week 1.
So while the league’s non-conference record may look bruised following season openers against Florida State and Alabama, the contenders in this league should begin the year with success.
1. Florida St vs. Oklahoma St
8 p.m., ABC, Arlington
Mike Gundy has an excellent program rolling along in Stillwater. However, losing more than 30 players off your roster and facing a defending national champion that might actually be improved from a year ago isn’t a recipe for success. The Pokes are going to be hard pressed to stop the Noles in either facet of the game and their ongoing quarterback battle raises questions about Oklahoma State’s upside this fall. This was supposed to be a marquee season opener but could turn into a dud quickly.
2. North Texas at Texas
8 p.m., LHN
Charlie Strong makes his debut against an in-state opponent that won nine games a year ago. Does that mean the Mean Green will challenge the Longhorns? Unlikely. But the questions about David Ash’s health, the offensive line’s tenacity and the business culture behind the scenes are still hanging in the air down in Austin. A clean, dominant performance against North Texas would be a great way to begin to answer those questions. Especially, with BYU and UCLA looming.
3. West Virginia vs. Alabama
3:30 p.m., ABC, Atlanta
Much like Oklahoma State-Florida State, this game looked like a great season opener a few years ago. But like the Cowboys, the Mountaineers aren’t in a position to challenge one of the top two teams in the nation. Dana Holgorsen’s group could be improved and the secondary is good enough to challenge whichever signal-caller starts for Bama. That said, WVU's overall roster situation isn’t good enough to put Nick Saban’s squad into any danger whatsoever.
4. SMU at Baylor
Sun., 7:30 p.m., FS1
The Bears scored at least 69 points in each of their first four games last fall. Fans in Waco — the ones who will pack the newly minted McLane Stadium Sunday evening — should expect much of the same against the in-state Mustangs. June Jones’ squad returns six starters to a defense that allowed more than 33 points and 400 yards of offense a year ago. Baylor returns Bryce Petty and Art Briles. Enough said.
5. North Dakota St at Iowa St
The Bison don’t have their three-time national championship head coach any more (he’s at Wyoming) but they do have one of the longer FBS winning streaks in college football. Ninth-longest, to be exact. North Dakota State has won four straight against FBS opponents, including two against the Big 12 (Kansas, Kansas State). Paul Rhoads has improved Iowa State's roster to the point that this game should be a win for the Cyclones. But fans in Ames should be extremely wary of NDSU — the No. 2-ranked team in the FCS entering the season.
6. Louisiana Tech at Oklahoma
After an offseason full of Bob Stoops one-liners and national roster headlines, the Sooners finally get back on the field. And will do so without Frank Shannon, Joe Mixon or Dorial Green-Beckham. Against the Bulldogs, however, Crimson and Cream fans shouldn’t be worried. Trevor Knight should have plenty of room to operate and the defense should be dominant. There is a reason OU is favored by 38 points.
7. Samford at TCU
Gary Patterson has yet to decide on his starting quarterback as Trevone Boykin and Matt Joeckel are both expected to get plenty of snaps in the season opener. This battle is really the only reason to tune in to this one as the Frogs figure to pound the Bulldogs.
8. Central Arkansas at Texas Tech
Davis Webb begins his first full season as the starting quarterback in Lubbock against lowly Central Arkansas. The Bears, who were 7-5 last fall, allowed 38 in a loss to Colorado last year so Kliff Kingsbury’s offense should have no issues cruising in Week 1.
9. Stephen F. Austin at Kansas St
Bill Snyder is a genius and has an excellent team returning, including a proven starter at quarterback. Stephen F. Austin lost nine times last year (1-6 in the Southland Conference) and should pose little threat. Sorting out the Wildcats' running game and getting new defensive starters quality reps are adequate goals for this one-sided affair.
Listen to the Week 1 Cover 2 Podcast:
Big 12 Predictions:
|Braden Gall||Mitch Light||David Fox||Steven Lassan|
|Florida St (-17.5) vs. Okla. St||FSU, 44-17||FSU, 41-17||FSU, 49-10||FSU, 48-17|
|N. Texas (+25) at Texas||Texas, 34-10||Texas, 27-10||Texas, 31-14||Texas, 34-13|
|W. Virginia (+26) vs. Alabama||Bama, 31-13||Bama, 30-13||Bama, 38-7||Bama, 38-10|
|SMU (+32.5) at Baylor||Baylor, 51-20||Baylor, 44-17||Baylor, 63-10||Baylor, 52-17|
|N. Dakota St at Iowa St||ISU, 24-21||ISU, 21-17||NDSU, 17-14||ISU, 27-20|
|La. Tech (+38) at Oklahoma||Okla., 45-7||Okla., 48-7||Okla., 52-10||Okla., 48-10|
|Samford at TCU||TCU, 31-10||TCU, 34-17||TCU, 35-7||TCU, 41-7|
|C. Arkansas at Texas Tech||Tech, 49-10||Tech, 55-20||Tech, 49-6||Tech, 60-17|
|SFA at Kansas St||KSU, 34-7||KSU, 48-0||KSU, 28-17||KSU, 44-7|
Georgia hosts Clemson in a huge non-conference game for two programs with aspirations of playing in the inaugural CFB Playoff. Several other SEC teams have key games against non-SEC foes at neutral sites — Wisconsin meets LSU in Houston, Ole Miss battles Boise State in Atlanta and Alabama takes on West Virginia, also in Atlanta. There are two games matching up two SEC teams, and they’re both big. South Carolina hosts Texas A&M in the first-ever game on the SEC Network, and Arkansas makes the trip to Auburn on Saturday afternoon.
Week 1 Preview and Predictions:
ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12
SEC Week 1 Game Power Rankings
1. Clemson (+7.5) at Georgia
5:30 ET, ESPN
This crucial Week 1 showdown features an intriguing matchup of two veteran quarterbacks thrust into starting roles for the first time in their careers. At Clemson, Cole Stoudt steps in for Tajh Boyd, one of the most beloved (and productive) players in school history. Meanwhile, Hutson Mason takes over at Georgia for Aaron Murray, who set several SEC career records. On paper, Mason appears to have more talent at his disposal, but there is a quiet confidence at Clemson that the Tigers’ offense — with Chad Morris still calling the plays — won’t take a step back despite the loss of Boyd, All-America wideout Sammy Watkins and 1,000-yard rusher Roderick McDowell. Don’t expect Georgia to abandon its passing game, but the Bulldogs will lean heavily on an absurdly deep crop of running backs that is led by Heisman contender Todd Gurley. Two key matchups to watch: Clemson’s outstanding defensive front — anchored by end Vic Beasley — against Georgia’s good but not great offensive line, and Georgia’s secondary vs. a Clemson passing attack that has specialized in the big play in the Morris era.
2. Texas A&M (+10.5) at South Carolina
Thursday, 6 ET, SEC Network
All eyes will be on the SEC Network Thursday evening when the Johnny Manziel-less Aggies visit South Carolina for the first time in school history. Sophomore Kenny Hill will be at the controls of an A&M offense that will still score plenty of points — when hasn’t a Kevin Sumlin offense been productive? The big issue for the Aggies is on defense, where they were gashed on a routine basis throughout a disappointing 2013 season. Texas A&M allowed a league-worst 5.4 yards per carry and 221.3 yards per game against SEC opponents. That’s not good news when South Carolina is the Week 1 opponent. The Gamecocks feature one of the SEC’s top offensive lines and a running back (Mike Davis) who could be in the Heisman Trophy discussion. Davis is reportedly dealing with some minor injuries, but it will be a surprise if he doesn’t play on Thursday night.
3. Ole Miss (-10.5) vs. Boise State (Atlanta)
Thursday, 8 ET, ESPN
Boise State established itself as a legitimate player on the national scene with a string of early season wins over big-name opponents from major conferences — vs. Oregon in 2008 and ’09, Virginia Tech in ’10 and Georgia in ’11. The Broncos, however, have not fared as well in recent years, losing at Michigan State in ’12 and at Washington in ’13 (by 32 points). Expect this trend to continue. Boise State is coming off an 8–5 season — its worst since 1998 — and will not have Chris Petersen roaming the sidelines for the first time since ’05. This program isn’t likely to slip into irrelevance, but its days of flirting with the top 10 could be over. Ole Miss, on the other hand, is trending in the other direction. Hugh Freeze has accumulated top-flight talent on both sides of the ball and has his team positioned to be a factor in the brutal SEC West. The Rebels should be able to flex their muscles on both lines of scrimmage and win this game with relative ease.
Listen to Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast: Week 1 Preview
4. LSU (-5) vs. Wisconsin (Houston)
9:00 PM ET, ESPN
There’s a theme developing in Week 1: Untested quarterbacks in big games. Wisconsin, the favorite in the new Big Ten West, named former junior college transfer (and one-time South Carolina Gamecock) Tanner McEvoy as its starter over incumbent Joel Stave. McEvoy, a dual threat who is more advanced as a runner, started at safety in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1. LSU has yet to name a starter, but sophomore Anthony Jennings — the hero of the comeback win over Arkansas late last season — is expected to get the nod over true freshman Brandon Harris. The job for both quarterbacks in this game: Hand the ball off to the running backs and get out of the way. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon averaged an astounding 7.8 yards per carry en route to a Big Ten-best 123.8 yards per game last season. LSU might not list Leonard Fournette as its starter, but it will be a significant surprise if the true freshman does not end up being the Tigers’ primary ball-carrier. Some believe Fournette is the best running back prospect to enter the college ranks since Adrian Peterson arrived at Oklahoma in 2004.
5. Arkansas (+20.5) at Auburn
4 PM ET, SEC Network
The defending SEC champs open the season at home against a team that failed to win a league game in 2013. Don’t, however, assume that this will be easy for Auburn. Arkansas features some elite talent at running back and should be able to move the ball on the ground. A year ago, the Hogs ranked fourth in the league in rushing against SEC opponents, and Auburn, despite its success as a team, had trouble stopping the run. Arkansas, though, will need to do far more than run the ball to win this game. The Hogs will have to find some way to slow down what should be an explosive Auburn offense — even without quarterback Nick Marshall in the starting lineup. This game could be high scoring. Auburn will score more.
6. Utah State (+6.5) at Tennessee
Sunday, 7 ET, SEC Network
Chuckie Keeton is no stranger to SEC country, having made his first career start at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium as a true freshman in the 2011 opener. Keeton and the Aggies held a 10-point lead late into the fourth quarter but were unable to hang on, dropping a 42–38 decision to the defending national champs. Keeton returns to the Southeast as a seasoned senior who has won a bunch of games for a very solid Utah State program. The Aggies, however, only return seven starters from a team that won the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference last season. Utah State will eventually be a very good team in 2014, but it might take some time. Tennessee’s troubles are well-documented — no starters back on either line of scrimmage, suspect quarterback play, etc. — but the Vols should have enough to survive a stiff Week 1 challenge.
7. Alabama (-26) vs. West Virginia (Atlanta)
3:30 ET, ABC
The most interesting news regarding this game — other than the fact that West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett claims his first kiss was with Nick Saban’s daughter — is that Jacob Coker might not start at quarterback for Alabama. Coker, the presumed QB1 since he announced his transfer from Florida State, will play, but senior Blake Sims could take the first snap of the 2014 season. It shouldn’t matter in this game — Bama is a huge favorite for a reason — but the Crimson Tide will need to get the quarterback position settled at some point before the schedule heats up in late September. West Virginia should be improved, but the Mountaineers simply don’t have the personnel to hang with Alabama — especially away from Morgantown.
8. Temple (+13.5) at Vanderbilt
Thursday, 9:15 ET, SEC Network
The Derek Mason era begins in Nashville against a Temple team that was probably better than its 2–10 record from a year ago. The Owls went 2–4 in the latter half of the season, with wins over Army and Memphis sandwiched around four losses by an average of 4.8 points. Vanderbilt’s decision to go with Patton Robinette as its starting quarterback was a bit of a surprise. Robinette went 2–1 as a starter last year and also took significant snaps in wins over Georgia and Tennessee, but he’s not considered an ideal fit for offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell’s system. Mason and Dorrell insist their quarterback will not be on a short leash, so Robinette will have ample opportunities to prove his critics wrong.
9. Southern Miss (+30.5) at Mississippi State
7:30 ET, SEC Network
The last time these two in-state schools met, Brett Favre was in charge of the Southern Miss offense. The Golden Eagles lost that day in 1990, 13–10 in Starkville, but went on to win six of their final eight games to finish with an 8–4 mark. The 2014 Eagles have more modest goals. After snapping a 23-game losing streak with a win in the ’13 finale, Southern Miss would love to flirt with a .500 mark in the second season of the Todd Monken era. Mississippi State, on the other hand, would be disappointed with anything less than eight wins. The Bulldogs must navigate through the difficult SEC West, but this could be the most complete team at MSU since Dan Mullen took over. It will be a bad sign if State does not win this game with ease.
10. Idaho (+36.5) at Florida
(7 ET, ESPNU)
The most important season of Will Muschamp’s career as a head coach begins with a visit from a really bad Idaho team. The Vandals, 1–11 last season, have not won a road game since beating San Jose State in November 2011. Idaho played seven road games last season and gave up at least 40 points six times, including 59 at Ole Miss and 80 at Florida State. Advice to Florida fans: Don’t make any conclusions on the new Gator offense based on this game. Idaho is not good.
11. UT Martin (+19.5) at Kentucky
(12:00 ET, SEC Network)
Kentucky begins Year 2 of the Mark Stoops era against a UT Martin team that won seven games in 2013. The Skyhawks, however, went 0–2 against FBS opponents, losing to Memphis 21–6 and Boise State 63–14. Patrick Towles won a hotly contested battle to start at quarterback for Kentucky. The Cats don’t quite have SEC-caliber talent on the offensive line, but they have some able bodies at wide receiver and a nice collection of running backs. We might actually see the “Air Raid” attack that offensive coordinator Neal Brown promised to bring back to the Bluegrass.
12. South Dakota State (+29.5) at Missouri
3:30 ET, ESPNU
This is the only sure thing in an otherwise tricky non-conference schedule for Missouri. After this Week 1 visit from the Jackrabbits, the Tigers travel to Toledo and then host UCF and Indiana. They should be 4–0 heading into SEC play, but none of those three games will be easy. Saturday afternoon’s game, however, shouldn’t be too taxing. South Dakota State is a solid FCS team but isn’t good enough, on either side of the ball, to make Mizzou sweat.
SEC Week 1 Predictions
|David Fox||Braden Gall||Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
Texas A&M at South Carolina
S. Carolina 38-17
|S. Carolina 38-24||S. Carolina 34-24||South Carolina 34-26|
Ole Miss vs. Boise State (Atlanta)
Ole Miss 35-21
|Ole Miss 34-13||Ole Miss 34-17||Ole Miss 34-10|
Temple at Vanderbilt
|Vanderbilt 27-13||Vanderbilt 31-17||Vanderbilt 28-13|
UT Martin at Kentucky
|Kentucky 41-10||Kentucky 38-13||Kentucky 37-10|
Alabama vs. West Virginia (Atlanta)
|Alabama 31-13||Alabama 38-10||Alabama 30-13|
South Dakota State at Missouri
|Missouri 45-14||Missouri 45-17||Missouri 41-10|
Arkansas at Auburn
|Auburn 38-21||Auburn 38-24||Auburn 37-24|
Clemson at Georgia
|Georgia 24-21||Georgia 27-24||Georgia 34-27|
Idaho at Florida
|Florida 44-3||Florida 45-10||Florida 51-0|
So. Miss at Mississippi State
MIss. State 48-10
|Miss. State 38-10||Miss. State 40-13||Miss. State 37-10|
LSU vs. Wisconsin (Houston)
|LSU 31-14||LSU 30-20||LSU 34-31|
Utah State at Tennessee
Utah State 28-24
|Tennessee 34-27||Tennessee 27-24||Tennessee 20-9|