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Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David compares the drivers in this year’s rookie class to the rookie seasons of active NASCAR competitors.
There isn’t an age limit for rookies in NASCAR. Greg Biffle was a 32-year-old rookie. Joey Logano was 19. Both were participants in last year’s Chase. In terms of development and readiness, there isn’t one right answer. Because of this, comparing drivers in style, traits and results can be tricky.
This year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie class has completed eight races and gets a well-deserved weekend off. Now might be as good of a time as any to reach for the always-loved, yet harder-than-you’d-expect-to-make driver comparisons.
For the sake of the exercise, I’m throwing out age, style and traits and focusing solely on the results our current rookie crop has amassed through the first eight races. The drill is to find an active NASCAR driver with a similar first eight races in their rookie season. While I don’t believe one driver’s start foreshadows the career of another, I do think it represents an individual benchmark of sorts for the rookie in question. Also, it’s fun. Sometimes we should just write, say and do things because they’re fun.
Kyle Larson is 1993 Jeff Gordon
A lofty comparison, but the two former USACers started their Cup Series careers in similar fashion. In 1993, Gordon burst onto the mainstream racing scene with a win in his qualifying race at Daytona and four finishes of eighth or better in his first eight points-paying races (the other four races ended with a crash or a mechanical failure). Gordon did two things well: qualify and pass. Larson, who earned four top-10 finishes in his first eight races — only one ending with a crash — hasn’t had the qualifying chops (16.4-place average start), but is certainly displaying an elite passing ability, with an adjusted pass efficiency of 53.07 percent that ranks fifth in the series.
Ironically, a 42-year-old Gordon currently ranks first in adjusted pass efficiency.
Austin Dillon is 2006 Clint Bowyer
Bowyer’s highs were a bit higher and lows a bit lower, but his initial eight-race slate is similar to Dillon’s in that he was finishing races, all the while emerging as a darkhorse Chase contender. Qualifying proved troublesome for both. Omitting his best two qualifying efforts in the first eight events, Bowyer averaged a 29th-place start, while the same drill for Dillon results in a 24th-place average. Interestingly enough, it was Bowyer’s crew chief, Gil Martin, who helped him close out races — he finished sixth, 14th and 15th after being non-factors in his first three starts. Martin is now Dillon’s head wrench and helps comprise the best closing unit in the sport.
Justin Allgaier is 2000 Dave Blaney
Both drivers cut their teeth on dirt — Blaney is actually better known for his dirt accolades than his stock car effort and was 37 years old when he made the full-time leap to the Cup Series — and both were mid-20s fixtures through the first eight races of their rookie season. Allgaier averaged a 25.4-place finish in his first eight races, roughly two positions better than Blaney’s effort in seven of the first eight (he failed to qualify for the second race of the season at Rockingham). They had one highlight race in the span of races in question; Blaney scored a 20th-place finish at Atlanta and Allgaier finished 17th at Bristol.
Unlike Blaney, Allgaier has time to develop. At age 27, he is still eight years away from the average prime production window for modern day Cup drivers (ages 35 to 39).
Michael Annett is 2003 Casey Mears
Tommy Baldwin Racing isn’t the multi-series stalwart Chip Ganassi Racing was in 2003, so Annett’s 30.9-place average so far this season is more impressive than what Mears was able to accomplish (an average result of 28.5) early that year. Mears finished 15th at Las Vegas — his only finish inside the top half of a field in the first eight races — and sprinkled results across the bottom half of fields in his remaining starts. He crashed minimally (for a rookie), exiting just one race due to accident (a plate race at Talladega). A plate race (Daytona) was also the culprit for one of Annett’s two DNF-accidents, and he has similarly gathered finishes all across the bottom half of fields. Annett’s lone finish inside the top 21 came at Fontana.
Cole Whitt is 2008 Regan Smith
There are two major differences here. First, from a pure driver production standpoint, Smith had a horrendous rookie season (a replacement-level Production in Equal Equipment Rating of -0.306). Second, Smith’s equipment, from the post-Dale Jr. era Dale Earnhardt, Inc., was far better than anything Whitt has had to drive this year with Swan Racing. Acknowledging those differences, their numbers through eight races are eerily similar. Smith averaged a 31.3-place finish, with just one result coming in the top half of the field (a 14th-place run at Martinsville). Whitt averaged a 30.9-place finish through eight, also with just one finish (an 18th-place effort in Fontana) coming in the top 21. Amazingly, Smith went on to win the Rookie of the Year award. Whitt will be lucky to have his 2014 season remembered by even the most nuanced observers of the sport.
Couch Potato Tuesday: Moving NASCAR coverage to the web
Parker Kligerman is 2007 David Reutimann
One of the few drivers that could truly sympathize with Kligerman’s rough, unlucky and crash-filled start to his rookie season is Reutimann, who joined a revamped Michael Waltrip Racing organization with Toyota power and high hopes. In the first eight races of 2007 MWR was embroiled in the infamous Daytona jet fuel incident. Reutimann failed to qualify for three of the first eight races, crashed out of two and couldn’t finish better than 32nd. Kligerman, who has finished just four of eight races, holds a best result of 29th. Reutimann’s 35.6-place average was only two positions better than Kligerman’s 37.2.
Alex Bowman is 2008 Michael McDowell
Based on his NASCAR Nationwide Series production last season (a serviceable 1.594 PEER that could have improved this year with more seasoning) and his age (just shy of 21), one could make a convincing case that Bowman wasn’t totally ready to enter the Cup Series this year. That absolutely could be said for McDowell who, back in 2008, jumped straight from the ARCA Series to Cup with Michael Waltrip Racing. McDowell and first-time crew chief Bill Pappas (a name we haven’t heard since that ’08 campaign) struggled in their first eight races, which actually started with Martinsville, finishing no better than 26th. McDowell’s best finish that season was 20th at Richmond. It won’t come as a major surprise if Bowman and his BK Racing team (led by first-time crew chief Dave Winston) emulate McDowell’s season-long rookie results. Bowman’s best race to date is a 22nd-place finish in Fontana.
Ryan Truex is 2011 Andy Lally
Lally and Truex entered the Cup Series with relatively new race teams. Both underwent crew chief changes (Lally from Jay Guy to Paul Clapprood, Truex from Dale Ferguson to Doug Richert) in the first eight races. Both struggled to break into the top 30 of the running order. It took the Talladega draft for Lally to score a 19th-place finish. Truex didn’t even qualify for the Daytona 500, a race that could’ve padded his stat line, and Talladega is still three weeks away. Lally returned to the world of Sports Car racing following his rookie season and if Truex doesn’t register any blips on the results radar, he too might find himself looking for a new home at season’s end.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Stop if you’ve heard this before: Tennessee is looking for a high-profile coach. Since 2008, the Volunteers have needed to hire seven football and men’s basketball coaches.
And that doesn’t count the retirement of legendary women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt. Bruce Pearl, now the head coach at Auburn, is the only men’s coach since 1989 to last more than five seasons.
Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart will have his work cut out for him on a number of fronts. The departure of Cuonzo Martin to Cal in mid-April is one of the latest hires in the coaching carousel. With the deadline for players to pull out of the NBA Draft approaching and recruiting for 2014-15 nearing an end, many coaches are already preparing for next season.
And then there’s the nature of Martin’s departure. Many Tennessee players congratulated Martin on leaving for Cal as the Volunteers never embraced the coach who led UT to the Sweet 16 in his third season.
So Tennessee — again — will be hiring a coach under less than ideal circumstances. Here’s a look at potential contenders:
Tad Boyle, Colorado
Boyle has led Colorado to three consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, the first time the Buffaloes have done so in school history. Last year’s team may have been his best before point guard Spencer Dinwiddie was lost for the remainder of the season.
Rick Byrd, Belmont
The Knoxville native was a contender for the job when Martin was hired. Byrd will be 61 by the time the 2014-15 season starts, and he’s never coached above the Ohio Valley level. Still, Byrd is nearing the 700-career win mark and is considered one of the nation’s top coaching minds at any level of college basketball.
Ben Howland, formerly UCLA
Tennessee could find few coaches with the ledger of Howland, who took UCLA to three Final Fours. His name has surfaced in coaching searches in the year since he’s been out, including the Marquette position this offseason. With his resume, Holland may demand more than Tennessee is willing to spend.
Chris Mack, Xavier
Mack took a phone call for the Cal job that eventually went to Martin. The Xavier coach reiterated his commitment to the Musketeers, but his willingness to listen was nonetheless eye-opening for a coach with such deep ties to Xavier. Mack has reached the NCAA Tournament four times in five seasons at Xavier, but the last two seasons included a First Four loss and no postseason appearance altogether.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
Tennessee has looked his way twice already. Clearly, Marshall’s situation is different than it was years earlier, thanks to a trip to the Final Four and a 35-1 season. Marshall’s salary is approaching $2 million whereas Martin was paid $1.35 million at Tennessee. Wichita State also has plenty of fan and administrative support to be a national power. This may be too close to a lateral move, or worse, from Marshall’s point of view.
Archie Miller, Dayton
Miller watched his brother jump from Xavier to Arizona, and now Archie may be poised for a similar leap after reaching the Elite Eight in 2014. With the fan support and recruiting base for Dayton, Miller could build a successful program with the Flyers for several years. As with Marshall, there may be little incentive for Miller to jump to a second-tier SEC job.
Donnie Tyndall, Southern Miss
Tyndall picked up where Larry Eustachy left off at Southern Miss, leading the Eagles to back-to-back NIT appearances. Southern Miss is 25-7 in Conference USA the last two seasons, both years making a push for an at-large NCAA bid. Before Southern Miss, Tyndall twice led Morehead State to the NCAA Tournament, including an upset of fourth-seeded Louisville in 2011.
Mike White, Louisiana Tech
White is only 37, but he has plenty of SEC experience as an assistant at Ole Miss. He’s spent three seasons at Louisiana Tech, leading the Bulldogs to two NIT appearances in the last two. Louisiana Tech is 56-15 in the last two seasons.
A few names from deep range:
Tommy Amaker, Harvard
His name has appeared on coaching candidate lists before and will continue to appear as long as Harvard is rolling.
Derek Kellogg, UMass
The John Calipari disciple broke through after six seasons on the job at UMass. He also lost to Martin and Tennessee in the round of 64.
Greg Lansing, Indiana State
If not for Wichita State, Lansing’s record in the Missouri Valley would be more impressive. Even while battling the Shockers, Lansing has four postseason appearances in four seasons, including the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
Eric Musselman, former Arizona State assistant
Three sub-.500 years as an NBA head coach is still NBA experience. The ex-Sun Devils assistant was in the mix for the Cal job.
Richard Pitino, Minnesota
The 31-year-old son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino is a rising star in the business after one season at FIU and one at Minnesota, the latter resulting in an NIT championship. He’s also a former Florida assistant.
Steve Prohm, Murray State
Prohm hasn’t come close to matching his 31-2 campaign in his debut season, but the Racers have won 46 combined games the last two years.
Brad Underwood, Stephen F. Austin
The former Frank Martin assistant at Kansas State and South Carolina went 32-3 and reached the round of 32 in his first season as a head coach.
I’m giving the entire NFL a mulligan.
With about a month left before the 2014 edition of the NFL Draft, Athlon Sports looks back at last year’s first round and tries to correct some mistakes. With a year of knowledge, game tapes, awards and injuries, what would the 30 teams (sorry Seattle and Washington) do differently if they got a second shot?
Would there still be five trades during the first round? Who would go No. 1? Who would be the biggest reach? Here is how we see the 2013 NFL Draft playing out if the teams had a do-over.
1. Kansas City: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
Original Pick: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan
Andy Reid might have overthought his first pick as the Chiefs' head coach, as Luke Joeckel probably should have been the pick at No. 1 a year ago. However, after one full season, a case can be made that Richardson — a five-star recruit coming out of high school — was the best player in the draft. The NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year would likely be the top pick for any team if the draft was redone today.
2. Jacksonville: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
Original Pick: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
Joeckel was the safe and probably best pick for the Jaguars despite missing a huge chunk of the season with an injury. He should bounce back to have an excellent career. That said, Fluker proved his All-American pedigree was up to snuff. His upside at left tackle isn’t as high as Joeckel’s, but there is zero downside at right tackle. Fluker played more than 1,000 snaps in 15 games for a playoff team.
3. Miami: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
Original Pick: Dion Jordan, OLB, Oregon
Jordan was a project and all upside entering his rookie year and he played like it. He posted 19 tackles and 2.0 sacks in his first year and likely wouldn’t go in the first round based on that production. With massive OL issues swirling around South Beach all year, the Dolphins would be smart to trade up, this time to acquire Joeckel — who would be as safe a pick as there is in the 2013 NFL re-Draft.
4. Philadelphia: Larry Warford, OG, Kentucky
Original Pick: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
The Eagles needed OL help and Johnson was solid as a rookie. While he was solid in the running game, the former quarterback showed why he was considered a project in the passing game. Warford was a three-time All-SEC pick and was a stud for the Lions last season. The third-round pick would jump both Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack on most big boards at the guard position and appears to be a stalwart for the next decade in the league.
5. Detroit: Ziggy Ansah, DE, BYU
Original Pick: Ziggy Ansah, DE, BYU
The first pick that would be repeated after one season is the lanky talented pass rusher from Provo. He still has a ways to go in terms of development but he led all rookies with 8.0 sacks and proved he will be effective against the run as well. If the Lions return to the postseason it won’t be a result of the powerful passing game in Detroit. It will be because of the elite defensive line that is coming together in the Motor City.
6. Cleveland: Kiko Alonso, LB, Oregon
Original Pick: Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU
Mingo was considered a huge risk at No. 6 and that proved to be the case after 29.0 tackles and 5.0 sacks as a rookie. He has some upside but no one delivered at outside linebacker/defensive end like Alonso. He posted an absurd 159 tackles, 2.0 sacks and four interceptions.
7. Arizona: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
Original Pick: Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina
Cooper wasn’t/isn’t a bad selection here for Arizona. The Cardinals desperately need some OL help and unfortunately, Cooper missed the entire season with a broken leg. With that knowledge in hand, Johnson then becomes the pick with his upside, athleticism and versatility for a team that desperately needs help up front.
8. St. Louis: Keenan Allen, WR, Cal
Original Pick: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
Jeff Fisher knew he needed to get Sam Bradford and his offense some playmakers and that is why he traded up to get this pick. He just took the wrong guy at No. 8. Allen was clearly the top wideout in the class (after one year, granted). The former five-star recruit is a sure-fire, top-flight talent and proved why he has been a superstar at every level of play. Allen led all rookies in catches (71), yards (1,046) and touchdowns (8).
9. NY Jets: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
Original Pick: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
Milliner was a solid pick for the Jets in a class that appears to have been loaded with productive cornerbacks. The rookie from Alabama posted 56 tackles, three interceptions and 15 passes deflected in just 13 games (12 starts). He should still be the top rookie coverman off the board.
10. Tennessee: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Original Pick: Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
The All-American from Utah made his living in college stuffing the run and that is exactly what he did for the Panthers a year ago. He started all 16 games, pressured the quarterback 23 times, posted 3.0 sacks and registered 48 total tackles for a team that won its division. The Titans got a good player in Warmack but Lotulelei could be a force up the gut for the next decade and they simply cannot pass on his talent, not this time.
11. San Diego: Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
Original Pick: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
The Chargers got a ton of value with Fluker here but since he would go much higher, they will settle for another All-American Alabama blocker. Warmack started all 16 games for the Titans and would have been a solid upgrade for the Bolts as well. The rebuilt O-line was a huge part of San Diego’s trip to the postseason.
12. Oakland: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
Original Pick: D.J. Hayden, CB, Houston
The Raiders stayed true to their Silver and Black roots by taking an over-hyped speed guy who had no business going where he did in the draft. Hayden made two starts as a rookie, posting 26 tackles and one interception. There are half-a-dozen cornerbacks not named Hayden who Oakland should have taken with the 12th pick.
13. NY Jets: Kawann Short , DT, Purdue
Original Pick: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
Since the Jets got the steal of the draft at No. 13, the odds of Richardson falling outside of the top 2-3 picks in a redraft are slim and none. And with Lotulelei already taken, Short quickly becomes the next best nose guard on the board. The 44th overall pick in the draft played in 16 games for the Panthers' much-improved defense.
14. Carolina: Eric Reid, S, LSU
Original Pick: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
Reid was probably the best defensive back prospect in the ’13 Draft class. He was a monster hitter and physical presence patrolling the back end for the near-NFC champion 49ers a year ago. He started all 16 games, registering 91 tackles and four interceptions for one of the best defenses in the league. The Panthers would have a star safety for the next 15 years… if Reid falls to them at 14th.
15. New Orleans: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
Original Pick: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
If Reid was still on the board, most would agree he should’ve been taken ahead of the Texas safety. That said, Vaccaro posted a solid first year in NOLA. He started 14 games and collected 79 tackles with one sack and one interception. His upside isn’t as high as Reid’s, but he appears to be a dependable NFL starter for years to come.
16. Buffalo: EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State
Original Pick: EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State
The only team that really had eyes on a quarterback likely wouldn’t change that game plan if it had a re-do. Mike Glennon and Geno Smith got plenty of snaps but Manuel was obviously the most game-ready and talented signal-caller in this class. He completed 58.8 percent of his passes while averaging more than 200 yards of total offense per game in 10 starts. On a bad team, Manuel appears to be the answer under center (if he can stay healthy).
17. Pittsburgh: Alec Ogletree, OLB, Georgia
Original Pick: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
If it could do it all over again, Pittsburgh would still take a Georgia outside linebacker but it would be Ogletree instead of Jones. Ogletree started all 16 games for the Rams, making 117 total tackles, forcing six fumbles, collecting 1.5 sacks and posting one 98-yard INT returned for a touchdown. Jones has a chance to be a good player but Ogletree made a much bigger impact as a rookie.
18. Dallas: Kyle Long, OG, Oregon
Original Pick (SF): Eric Reid, S, LSU
Since Reid is already off the board, Jim Harbaugh won’t be forced to trade up to draft a safety. Instead, the Cowboys would keep this pick and even Jerry Jones would be hard-pressed to pass on the Pro Bowler Long. Dallas needed to address it O-line and did so with the 30th pick (Travis Frederick), but Long was one of the few that played as well (if not better) than the Wisconsin interior blocker.
19. NY Giants: David Bakhtiari, OT, Colorado
Original Pick: Justin Pugh, OT, Syracuse
Pugh wasn’t a terrible pick at 19th overall but Bakhtiari might have been the best value at O-line in the entire ’13 Draft. All the fourth-round pick out of Colorado did was protect Aaron Rodgers' blindside, starting all 16 games at left tackle for the Packers. He appears to be the real deal at left tackle and would be a stalwart for Eli Manning and the G-Men.
20. Chicago: Jonathan Cooper, OG, North Carolina
Original Pick: Kyle Long, OG, Oregon
Long is already off the board so the next best option is likely Cooper. There is a reason he went with the eighth overall pick last year and his fluke injury shouldn’t impact his long-term potential much. The Bears hit a home run with Long and wouldn’t be taking a big step back with Cooper.
21. Cincinnati: Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina
Original Pick: Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
Many were surprised with the Eifert pick considering the Bengals took a tight end in the first round just a few years ago. So knowing what he would get from Bernard, Marvin Lewis wouldn’t pass up the chance to secure his prized, do-everything playmaker earlier. The former Tar Heels all-purpose star ran for 695 yards, caught 56 passes for 514 yards and scored eight times as a rookie.
22. Atlanta: Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU
Original Pick: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
The Falcons would still be in the market to trade up to get a cornerback even with Trufant already off the board. With Mathieu sitting there, the Atlanta brass still makes the flip with the Rams to get a playmaker for the secondary. Offensive line and rush end also would be a possibility with this pick.
23. Minnesota: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
Original Pick: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
The Vikings still land their guy in Patterson but would have to use the first of their eventual three first-round picks to get him instead of with the 29th overall selection. The freakish athlete is as naturally gifted a playmaker as there was in the class but is still a work in progress in terms of becoming a true No. 1 target. That said, he wouldn’t make it pass the Colts with the next pick if the Vikes don’t select him here.
24. Indianapolis: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
Original Pick: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
If Patterson is still on the board, the Colts wouldn’t hesitate to take the star athlete from Tennessee. However, Hopkins is the next best option after catching 52 passes for 802 yards and a pair of touchdowns for the Texans a year ago. With an aging Reggie Wayne and little depth behind T.Y. Hilton, Hopkins would give Andrew Luck an elite target moving forward.
25. Minnesota: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
Original Pick: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
Rhodes showed a lot of growth and development over the course of his rookie year and, with elite size and speed, should develop into one of the better cornerbacks in this class. He played in 13 games and posted 48 tackles for a defense in desperate need of depth in the secondary.
26. Green Bay: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
Original Pick: Datone Jones, DL, UCLA
This one is a no-brainer as Lacy won Offensive Rookie of the Year for the Packers a year ago. Lacy probably has a short shelf life due to his physical style of play,which is why he lasts until the 26th pick. But Ted Thompson — who was supposedly targeting Lacy with this pick a year ago — wouldn’t take the huge risk of letting him slip past here again.
27. Houston: Travis Frederick, OL, Wisconsin
Original Pick: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson
With Hopkins off the board already, the Texans turn to the offensive line. Dallas’ pick of Frederick at the end of the first round was heavily criticized when it happened but the Badgers' interior blocker turned into one of the best values from the ’13 Draft. The Texans' O-line needs to be rebuilt and Frederick can play multiple positions.
28. Denver: Sio Moore, OLB, UConn
Original Pick: Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina
Cornerback and defensive line are both areas of need for the Broncos but the issues at outside rush linebacker could be solved instantly with the physical prospect from UConn. Moore played in 15 games for Oakland with 49 tackles, 8.5 for a loss and 4.5 sacks. He would be an excellent edge rusher in the Broncos' system moving forward.
29. Minnesota: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
Original Pick: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
With Patterson and Rhodes already in the fold, the Vikings again trade with New England to get the 29th pick to take what many people believed was a sure-fire top-10 pick in Floyd. Floyd was solid but uninspiring in his rookie year, yet he still boasts way too much upside to pass up (a knee injury early slowed him down). Even if the Patriots stayed put and picked, Floyd would be a likely selection.
30. St. Louis: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
Original Pick: Alec Ogletree, OLB, Georgia
The Rams and Steelers swap Georgia outside linebackers in this exercise. Fisher still gets a dynamic outside tackler, although Jones has more of a pedigree as a pass rusher rather than true linebacker. Jones has the talent to be excellent and showed signs of life later in the season but adding bulk and toughness will be key for him moving forward.
31. San Francisco: Matt Elam, S, Florida
Original Pick (DAL): Travis Frederick, OL, Wisconsin
Since the 49ers don’t trade with Dallas to move up to grab Reid at No. 18, head coach Jim Harbaugh takes the next best option in Florida’s hard-hitting safety. Elam showed maturity in his first season, posting 77 tackles in 15 starts for the then-defending Super Bowl champs.
32. Baltimore: Jonathan Cyprien, S, FIU
Original Pick: Matt Elam, S, Florida
With Elam snatched up one pick earlier, the Ravens “settle” for the next best option in Cyprien. The FIU playmaker was the 33rd overall pick in last year’s draft and he did nothing to disprove his ability with 102 tackles as a rookie.
2013 First-Rounders who dropped out: Eric Fisher, Dion Jordan, Barkevious Mingo, Tavon Austin, D.J. Hayden, Justin Pugh, Tyler Eifert, Bjoern Werner, Datone Jones, Sylvester Williams
Other potential first-rounders: Zac Stacy, Jordan Reed, Logan Ryan, Johnthan Banks, Mike Glennon, Terrance Williams, Manti Te’o, Geno Smith, Zach Ertz, Jonathan Bostic, Jamie Collins, D.J. Swearinger, Micah Hyde
The debate concerning preseason rankings has started around the Athlon Sports offices, and we’re giving you an inside look at all the things that will shape the 2014 countdown.
Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan take you inside the process of the rankings meeting as they talk through the teams in the ACC.
Will anyone challenge Florida State in the Atlantic? Will Louisville be a factor in Bobby Petrino’s return? And how do we sort out the mess that is the Coastal Division?
The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com, iTunes and our podcast RSS feed.
Please send any comments, questions and podcast topics to @AthlonSports, @BradenGall, @DavidFox615 and @AthlonSteven on Twitter or email [email protected].
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for April 15.
• Jeet, Gardy, Raccoon: A guide to Joe Girardi's nicknames for his Yankees.
• NFL WR prospect Bruce Ellington, all 5-9 of him, can thrown down 360 windmills. There's video proof.
• The Pirates and Reds hit 10 home runs in six innings before a rain suspension. The record for one game is 12.
• This is amazing: The Masters re-imagined, mini-golf style.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Every year, it seems the Pac-12 is home to some of the top quarterbacks in the nation. And it should be no surprise that narrative holds true in 2014, as the league possesses three potential All-American candidates this year.
Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is one of the nation’s top signal-callers and should benefit form a full offseason to recover from a knee injury. Mariota is a Heisman contender and should battle Florida State’s Jameis Winston for the top spot on the 2014 All-America team.
After Mariota are two quarterbacks from the Pac-12 South battling for the No. 2 and No. 3 spots in Athlon’s preseason quarterback rankings. UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly should have prolific seasons, while Hundley could be one of the top-10 picks in the 2015 NFL Draft.
The Pac-12 has plenty of quality options at quarterback outside of the top three, as USC’s Cody Kessler, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion all return from solid 2013 campaigns.
This league could get even deeper in 2014 if Utah’s Travis Wilson takes another step forward, while California’s Jared Goff and Washington’s Cyler Myles are two other passers to watch.
To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2014. This was not a ranking of quarterbacks based on accomplishments so far.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the rankings that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Writeups compiled by Braden Gall (@BradenGall) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven).
Ranking the Pac-12 Starting Quarterbacks for 2014
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon (JR)
It was painfully obvious to Oregon fans everywhere just how important Mariota was when a knee injury cost Oregon a Pac-12 championship. Mariota was clearly not at full strength when the Ducks lost on the road against both the Cardinal and Wildcats in a three-week span. When healthy, Mariota might be the best quarterback in the nation (just ask Texas). He owns the Pac-12 record for consecutive passes without an interception, is 23-3 as a starter, has nearly 8,000 yards of total offense and has accounted for 77 touchdowns and thrown just 10 picks. All in just two seasons of work in Eugene. Look for a run at Pac-12 title, playoff berth and Heisman Trophy from the dynamic Hawaiian signal caller.
2. Brett Hundley, UCLA (JR)
It’s a close call for the No. 2 spot in the Pac-12 quarterback rankings. Hundley and Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly are both deserving of this spot, but since we are projecting a bit with these rankings, a slight edge goes to Hundley. The Arizona native decided to turn down the NFL for another year in Pasadena, and UCLA is primed for a run at the Pac-12 title with Hundley back under center. In 2013, Hundley threw for 3,071 yards and 24 scores, while leading the Bruins with 748 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. In UCLA’s 42-12 Sun Bowl rout over Virginia Tech, Hundley threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 161 yards on 10 attempts. There’s no question Hundley still has some developing to do as a passer, but the Bruins have a solid collection of options at receiver, and another offseason to work with coordinator Noel Mazzone should help Hundley grow into one of the top quarterbacks in the nation.
3. Taylor Kelly, Arizona State (SR)
Kelly was one of the catalysts for Arizona State’s Pac-12 South title, throwing for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushing for 608 yards and nine scores last year. Kelly’s 28 touchdown passes ranked third in school history for a single season, and the Idaho native earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors. In two years as the Sun Devils’ starter, Kelly has thrown for 57 touchdown passes and has back-to-back 3,000-yard passing seasons. With Arizona State losing a handful of key players on defense, the offense will have to carry this team in 2014. Kelly should have no trouble eclipsing the 3,000-yard passing mark again, especially with a potential All-American at receiver in Jaelen Strong making plays on the outside.
4. Sean Mannion, Oregon State (SR)
Like Washington State’s Connor Halliday, Mannion posted huge numbers a year ago but those totals came with some struggles as well. He was fourth nationally with 37 touchdown passes and second with 4,662 yards. Yet, Mannion threw 12 interceptions in his final five games, and Oregon State won just once after the calendar flipped to November. His electric first half was erased quickly by second-half struggles. That said, Mannion has a chance to join some elite Pac-12 company with another 3,000-yard season. Only three players in league history have three 3,000-yard passing seasons under their belt (Andrew Walter, Derek Anderson, Matt Leinart) and Mannion could join them in 2014. However, Mike Riley would trade that honor for a return to the top of the Pac-12 North Division. For that to happen, Mannion will have to be more efficient and take better care of the ball.
5. Kevin Hogan, Stanford (JR)
Hogan entered his sophomore season with high expectations, and while his statistics didn’t mean the lofty preseason benchmarks, the Virginia native still led his team to a Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl berth. His completion percentage dropped significantly (71.7 to 61.0) from 2012 to 2013 but his overall production went up (147.87 QB rating to 151.64). He has the ability to win a title against high-level competition as he proved a year ago, but in order to take the next step in his development, Hogan must prove to be more consistent. He threw one total touchdown in Stanford’s three losses a year ago and had four games in which he failed to reach paydirt. If he produces in conference at a more consistent level, the Cardinal quarterback could become one of the league’s best.
6. Cody Kessler, USC (JR)
Kessler and Max Wittek were neck-and-neck for the starting job last preseason, with Kessler eventually securing the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. Kessler’s 2013 campaign started slow. In his first two games, Kessler threw for less than 100 yards in both contests and had only three touchdown tosses through the first three games. But as the season progressed, Kessler played better and seemed to benefit from the promotion of Clay Helton to coordinator. Kessler finished 2013 with 2,968 yards and 20 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. He threw for 288 yards and one touchdown in a 20-17 win over Stanford, while torching Fresno State for 345 yards and four scores in the Las Vegas Bowl. Marqise Lee is gone, but USC still has plenty of talent at receiver. With stability on the coaching staff and a solid ground game to lean on, Kessler is poised to build off his solid finish from 2013.
7. Connor Halliday, Washington State (SR)
Halliday led the nation in interceptions a year ago with 22 picks. He also led the nation in attempts (714), was No. 2 nationally in completions (449), finished No. 3 with 4,597 yards and was seventh with 34 touchdown passes. He also got Wazzu back to the postseason for the first time in a decade and set the NCAA record with 89 pass attempts in a loss to Oregon. Mike Leach will chuck it around again in 2014, and Halliday should post similar numbers once again. Over the final four games of the year, including wins over Arizona and Utah, Halliday threw 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions. If Halliday can continue to progress, he could be in for a monster season in Pullman.
Related Content: Ranking the Pac-12 Coaches for 2014
8. Cyler Miles, Washington (SO)
Miles was a four-star top-100 recruit who had offers from USC, Arizona State and Arizona among many others when he signed with Washington as the heir apparent to Keith Price. And in spot duty a year ago, Miles did nothing to dispel the idea that he will be an excellent Pac-12 quarterback. He saw action in eight games last fall with a brief stint in the starting lineup and that experience could be invaluable now that he is the full-time starter. Miles completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 418 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions for the season and helped UW defeat Oregon State on the road in his only start. Miles has not participated in spring practice due to an off-the-field incident, but he is expected to return to the team in the fall. Expectations with Chris Petersen and Miles under center will be sky high entering the playoff era.
9. Travis Wilson, Utah (JR)
Assuming Wilson is 100 percent healthy this year, the California native could be one of the most-improved quarterbacks in the conference. In nine games last season, Wilson threw for 1,827 yards and 16 touchdowns, while rushing for 386 yards and five scores. Wilson delivered a solid performance in Utah’s upset win over Stanford, completing 23 of 34 throws for 234 yards and two scores. The California native needs to improve his consistency, tossing 16 picks last season and completing only 56.1 percent of his throws. Wilson should benefit from the addition of play-caller Dave Christensen in 2014. Considering the addition of Christensen, as well as another offseason to work as the No. 1 starter, Wilson is due for improvement on the stat sheet. However, his health is still a question mark. Wilson was sidelined the last three games due to health concerns but was cleared for non-contact practices this spring. Assuming Wilson is cleared to participate in game action this year, he’s a quarterback poised to move up the rankings in 2014.
10. Jared Goff, California (SO)
Zach Kline was supposed to be The Guy in Berkeley entering last season, but Goff had other ideas. The freshman beat out Kline and proceeded to attempt 529 passes for the lowly Golden Bears. There were plenty of growing pains, but Goff threw just seven interceptions over the last 11 games of the year, while getting little to no help from his defense. If he can be more proficient throwing the ball — he completed 60.1-percent of his passes — and can pull an upset or two in the league, the California native could create some actual buzz around the Cal program heading into 2015. In the short team, the goal for 2014 should be to show improvement with the football and win a couple of games.
11. Sefo Liufau, Colorado (SO)
Mike MacIntyre needs a little time to rebuild the roster, but the future for Colorado looks bright with Liufau at the helm. As a true freshman last season, Liufau finished the year with 1,779 yards and 12 touchdowns and added 43 yards on the ground. Liufau tossed eight picks on 251 attempts but averaged 11.9 yards per completion last season. The Washington native finished 2013 playing at a high level, throwing for 364 yards against California and 241 yards against Utah. Most importantly, Liufau’s touchdown total surpassed his interception rate over the final three games of the year (7 to 3). With Paul Richardson gone, Colorado needs a few receivers to emerge to help Liufau develop. However, MacIntyre and coordinator Brian Lindgren developed David Fales into a likely NFL draft pick at San Jose State, and Liufau should benefit from another offseason from working with both coaches.
12. Jesse Scroggins, Arizona (SR)
Arizona finished spring practice with uncertainty at quarterback. Scroggins, Anu Solomon, Jerrard Randall and Texas transfer Connor Brewer appear to be the frontrunners to replace B.J. Denker, but this battle is expected to extend into the fall. Scroggins did not play last season, while Solomon redshirted and Randall spent 2013 in the junior college ranks at Northeast Mississippi Community College. For now, we will pencil Scroggins into the starting role for Arizona, but this could change hands a couple of times in the preseason and even during the year. And although the Wildcats’ quarterbacks rank last in this list, we suspect Rich Rodriguez will turn this into a strength by midseason.
After Maryland’s departure to the Big Ten, the ACC maintained its 14-team setup by adding Louisville from the American Athletic Conference. The Cardinals were one of the top programs in the old Big East and went 23-3 over the last two years.
As with any team transitioning to a new conference, Louisville will face a new set of challenges, but this program is equipped to compete at a high level in the ACC.
The Cardinals return 11 starters from last year’s 12-1 team, including receiver DeVante Parker and linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin. Parker caught 55 passes last season, while Mauldin recorded 9.5 sacks and will be a valuable pass rusher in new coordinator Todd Grantham’s 3-4 approach.
Replacing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is a huge challenge, but Louisville appears to be in good hands with Will Gardner. The Cardinals are also deep at the skill positions and have four starters back on the offensive line.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
How Many Games Will Louisville Win in 2014?: Over/Under on 8.5
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I’ll take the over. Sure, Louisville has some personnel concerns and is going through a transition on the conference and head coach side. But there’s still plenty of talent on the roster, and although schedule does have some challenging games, I think this team has more than enough returning to overcome those concerns. Bobby Petrino is one of the nation’s best coaches, and his return to Louisville should keep the Cardinals in the mix to win 10 games in 2014. Quarterback Will Gardner appears to be a capable replacement for Teddy Bridgewater, and he will have plenty of help at the skill positions from receiver DeVante Parker and running backs Michael Dyer and Dominique Brown. The Cardinals also return four starters on an improving offensive line. The defense is a bigger concern with the departure of Marcus Smith, Calvin Pryor, Preston Brown and Hakeem Smith. However, former coach Charlie Strong isn’t leaving the cupboard bare, especially with names like Sheldon Rankins, Keith Brown and Gerod Holliman ready to step up in 2014. On paper, road tests against Clemson and Notre Dame, along with a home date against Florida State will be the only games Louisville isn’t favored to win. If Gardner proves to be a capable replacement, and the defense adapts to Todd Grantham’s 3-4 approach, the Cardinals could push Clemson for the No. 2 spot in the Atlantic Division.
Mark Ennis, (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com
After watching the way Will Gardner threw the ball in Louisville's spring game on Friday night, I'm much more optimistic about Louisville's chances to have a big first year in the ACC. It's never easy to replace a player like Teddy Bridgewater. Nevertheless, having receivers like DeVante Parker, James Quick, and Eli Rogers, a tight end like Gerald Christian, running backs Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer, and the entire offensive line returning should give Bobby Petrino a chance to put up a lot of points in 2014. Getting Miami, Florida State, NC State, and rival Kentucky at home should also cushion the landing in a much more difficult conference. Add to it that Petrino and company will get all summer to prepare for Miami, eight days to prepare for Clemson, and ten days to prepare for FSU, and I could see Louisville over an 8.5 win total.
Ethan Moore, (@LvilleSprtsLive), LouisvilleSportsLive.Net
I would take the under because Louisville will go through the toughest schedule in the history of its program. The Cards will travel to Clemson and Notre Dame and face a Syracuse team on the road returning a lot of experience. UofL opens the season against Miami at home and will welcome the defending champions in Florida State to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. With Petrino at the helm, the offense is sure to take off, but questions remain with a defense that will have to replace two veteran safeties. It wouldn't shock anyone to see UofL win 9 games, but given the schedule, coaching change, and replacing Bridgewater, that might be too much to ask.
Listen to our staff discuss every team in the ACC as Athlon starts to look to 2014.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
The addition of Bobby Petrino more than makes up for the loss of Teddy Bridgewater, Calvin Pryor and a host of other talented players. The major step up in competition moving from the AAC to the ACC makes returning to double digit wins for a third straight season extremely difficult. That said, nine wins is well within reach in Petrino's first season. Games against Florida State (home), Notre Dame (road), Clemson (road) and Miami (home) appear to be the toughest tests on the slate, but road trips to Boston College, Syracuse and Virginia could be tricky as well. I will tentatively take the over with the season opener against the Hurricanes at home on Labor Day night as the most important swing game of the season. Should Louisville win that game, a 9-3 record is likely. If not, the under is a much better bet. I'll take emotion of the moment to play a huge role in the Cardinals win over The U on Sept. 1.
Related Content: Ranking the ACC Coaches for 2014
John Cassillo, (@JohnCassillo), NunesMagician.com
Louisville presents one of the more interesting "how will they finish?" cases in the country, if only because of all the change they're experiencing. No more Teddy Bridgewater and no more Charlie Strong means the on-field product will certainly be different. Plus the Cardinals move to the ACC, where the competition is considerably stronger top-to-bottom than what the AAC was last season. But despite the easy schedule and perception hits Louisville took in 2013, that 12-1 record was no joke (see: the 12th-place finish in combined F/+ ratings on Football Outsiders), and even with a new coach and quarterback, there's plenty of hope for similar success. They may not be at the same level as Florida State or Clemson within the Atlantic this year, but beyond that, the Cards should find themselves at least on par with the rest of the division. Still, I see at least three losses on the slate (FSU, Clemson, Notre Dame), and I wouldn't doubt a fourth from one of Miami or Syracuse. So I'll take the under, though 8-4 is far from a disappointment for Louisville this year, and is a nice stepping stone for future success in their new conference.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
As much as Louisville is built to be a competitive ACC program, the Cardinals may struggle early in the league. If the Cardinals were still in the American or even a league like the old Big East, the over would be a slam dunk. Give Bobby Petrino that offensive line, a solid run game and a game-breaking receiver, and he could win nine games in the American. But few teams take a step up in conference affiliation and maintain pace — think of West Virginia, TCU and Utah. With only four starters returning on defense and a new quarterback, hitting the nine-win mark will be tough. Let’s not forget that this was not always a dominant team in the American last season. The Cardinals beat Houston and Memphis by seven points at home and Cincinnati by seven on the road. And that was with Teddy Bridgewater.
Ryan Tice, (@RyanTice), TheWolfpacker.com
The changes in Louisville are numerous. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is off to the NFL, coach Charlie Strong is now in Texas and that’s just the beginning. Former Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino is back after the scandal at Arkansas, the school is now in the ACC and the defense is switching to a 3-4.
However, that’s not to say there aren’t some pieces in place for the offensive guru Petrino to work with. Will Gardner put up Bridgewater-like numbers in the spring game, Michael Dyer — who broke Bo Jackson’s freshman rushing record at Auburn in 2010 — should form a solid combination with last year’s leading rusher, Dominique Brown, and DeVante Parker is back out wide after he hauled in 885 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. The margin of error might be thin, but don’t forget how great that defense was last year. They return just four starters on that side of the ball, but when combined with their offense and that schedule, I’m taking the over.
Bobby Petrino should enjoy a fair amount of success in his return as Louisville's head coach, but I certainly hope fans don't have visions of another 12-1 season in mind. Not only are the Cardinals making the transition from the American Athletic Conference to the ACC, unquestionably a much tougher, more competitive league, they have to begin the post-Teddy Bridgewater era with unproven Will Gardner under center. Charlie Strong didn't leave Petrino with a bare cupboard by any means, but there's no Connecticut, Memphis, Rutgers or Temple on the schedule this fall either. Instead, Petrino and the Cardinals open things by hosting Miami and also will welcome defending national champion Florida State to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in late October. These two games along with road dates against Clemson and Notre Dame are enough reasons to cap Louisville's regular-season win total at eight games. Throw in swing games at Syracuse and the finale against in-state rival Kentucky and I would consider 7-5 a respectable second start, if you will, for Petrino.
Matt McClusky, (@MatthewMcClusky), NunesMagician.com
You know why people say the expression "history often repeats itself"? Because...history often repeats itself! I mean, look at the Louisville, for example. Go back to the early aughts, a program led by the next "It" coach riding a wave of success from Conference USA to the Big East. Then, well, Bobby Petrino bolted and Steve Kragthorpe happened and the Cardinals football program slid right off the map.
Now? The man that led U of L back to relevancy post Steve Kragthrope has himself bolted for bigger and better things just in time for another massive conference jump for the Cardinals. Sound familiar? And, irony of ironies, Petrino is back at the helm for Louisville. Actually, the real wonder here is which history is going to repeat? The tank-dive the Cardinals did in the new Big East with a new coach or will they thrive having the football-brilliant, commonsense-less Petrino leading the charge like he did back a few years ago? Losing Charlie Strong to Texas is detrimental, but my guess is having Petrino back "home" will likely be the saving grace to avoiding any Kragthrorpian slide to the dark depths of college football.
But we'll find out a lot about this Cardinals program right away. Game one of Year One, ACC will be the most pivotal: beat Miami and 9 to 10 wins is more than feasible; lose the opener against the Canes and 6 to 7 wins may be more realistic. Of course, catching Miami so early, at home nonetheless, coupled with the excitement surrounding Petrino's re-debut, will be the reason the Cardinals win their ACC coming-out party.
And from that point forward, with Will Gardner doing his best to replace Teddy Bridgewater, and a new defensive scheme designed to handle the Clemsons and Florida States of the world, U of L will whittle its way to nine wins, beating hated rival Kentucky to cinch the over on 8.5 wins. Actually, taking FSU out of the equation, it's not a bad time for Louisville to be jumping into the ACC, seeing as how there will be a lot of change surrounding a number of programs. Nine or more wins won't be easy, but with the foundation seemingly much more solid, there's no reason to think Louisville won't be every bit as competitive as it has been over the last few seasons.
You see, expressions are expressions for a reason: there's truth in them. And everything old in Louisville this season will once again be new, especially the winning, that never gets old.
Here’s a question for you: What does Kevin Harvick have that fellow modern-era drivers, both NASCAR Hall of Famers in Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett, do not?
The answer, after Saturday night’s win in Darlington, is a victory in each of NASCAR’s “crown jewel” events. Harvick, after capturing his first Southern 500 has also won at Indianapolis (Brickyard 400), Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 and the granddaddy of them all, February’s Daytona 500. It’s part of one of the sport’s more diverse resumes, with 25 victories in 14 years spread over road courses, short tracks, cookie-cutter ovals and superspeedways.
Winning in just his third Cup start after replacing the legendary Dale Earnhardt in 2001, Harvick’s spot in the NASCAR record books was already guaranteed. But could the best be yet to come for the 38-year-old driver, paired with a new team at Stewart-Haas Racing? Harvick went packing to SHR from a cushy 13-year gig in the former No. 3 because of the one gaping hole remaining on his NASCAR checklist: a Cup Series title. He’d come close with Richard Childress Racing, but never close enough despite six career top-5 finishes in series points.
So far, despite being the first driver to score two victories in 2014, that battle will be an uphill one for Harvick, who sits 22nd in the standings through head-scratching inconsistency. Parts and pieces haven’t been a strong point, as mechanical failures and tire troubles have marred the landscape of an otherwise splendid season. But with a postseason bid under NASCAR’s new format almost a certainty with those trips to Victory Lane, pay heed to these comments from Jimmie Johnson:
“I definitely think (Harvick) has been the fastest car all year long,” Johnson said follow the Southern 500. “You look at the races that he didn’t finish — Vegas, Texas, and some tracks where they’ve been the fastest car and had issues. I think we all have been chasing them, honestly.”
Oddly enough, could Harvick still be considered the man to beat by his rivals at the moment? Just one week ago, I wondered whether his team would even stay relevant after continually stubbing its toe. But maybe we’re all somewhat misguided. Could the key to the new championship format be simply mastering enough key races to move towards Homestead, throwing consistency out the window en route to five or six wins and the best car in the season finale?
It’s an unconventional way to look at things. Then again, Harvick’s career, through its many ups and downs, has never gone the “conventional” route. It would be a wild way to put the stamp on it, with that title trophy marking a Hall of Fame-worthy career in this sport.
What has made the difference for Harvick this season? We start there while heading “Through The Gears” following the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at the Lady In Black …
FIRST GEAR: Meet a new NASCAR star in Rodney Childers
Harvick’s win at “The Track Too Tough To Tame” in South Carolina was a minor surprise simply because of the track’s ability to tame him. In 17 previous Cup starts at the egg-shaped oval prior to Saturday night, Harvick had only led just three times for 63 laps.
This visit? He led 238, staving off all challengers most of the night and then charging from fifth on a final series of restarts to finish the job. Harvick’s push from behind was the perfect call from crew chief Rodney Childers, who elected to take four fresh tires while other top contenders took two. The risky play was rewarded when a series of yellows — including two green-white-checker finishes — bunched up the field enough times for the No. 4 car to charge through the pack.
“Originally when I made the call, that’s not what was in my head,” Childers said of the wild ending, in which they had to pass Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap. “It worked out good for us.”
His presence on the pit box has also worked out well for Harvick. The driver was so visibly frustrated following a series of mechanical missteps last week that he left Texas without comment. But Childers, whose even-keeled demeanor is the perfect match within an SHR organization filled with strong personalities, kept a potential sinking ship on course. Case in point? Saturday night, mid-race, when the team’s gas man didn’t get the car full of fuel during a pit stop.
“We made a mistake, and we switched gas men as soon as it happened,” Childers said. “I was like, we’re not giving this away. We had somebody different the rest of the race and did an excellent job. But the person that made the mistake I support 100 percent. We’re still a young team and still learning, and that’s something that we’ve just got to work on.”
That type of crisis management, mixed with motivation, is the reason Tony Stewart pursued him vigorously, plucking the mechanic from Michael Waltrip Racing after Childers led two underdogs (David Reutimann and Brian Vickers) to Victory Lane in the last four years. Most importantly, in running the merry-go-round No. 55 car last season, Childers had to deal with a wild variety of personalities. From the flamboyant owner, Michael Waltrip, to an aging veteran in Mark Martin, the crew chief needed to change philosophies virtually every week. That was like batting practice, the perfect prep work to handle the four-driver, “Real Housedrivers” team at Stewart-Haas.
There are other head wrenches — think Chad Knaus and Paul Wolfe — that will always earn greater fanfare. But watch out for the soft-spoken Childers. He’s gaining on the top tier.
SECOND GEAR: Caution flag controversy
For the second straight week, debris and “fluid” caused NASCAR to throw a caution late. This time, it was a broken right front hub from Joey Logano’s car that made the difference with 10 laps left — a call that was clearly open to question. There wasn’t an oil line broken; the No. 22 also had started pulling out of harm’s way. Officials seemed to reach for the flag the second they saw something worth erasing a 1.7-second lead by Harvick at the front of the pack. A few moments later, contact in the back of the pack on a frantic restart caused NASCAR to throw yet another yellow for debris.
NASCAR is hoping, erring on the side of caution that an aggressive, green-white-checker finish erases any thought of an officiating gaffe. But you can only have so many of these “iffy” calls before the close finishes begin to seem somewhat manufactured. There was no reason for Harvick to have to go through hell to score a victory he’d already earned. How could Brian Vickers have spun on pit road, 50 laps earlier and become a clear obstacle, and NASCAR did nothing by comparison? Ditto for Kasey Kahne, who slapped the wall and shattered debris only for the race to stay under green.
The sport’s insistence on using the yellow flag as a crutch late in the “fourth quarter” is equivalent to a referee calling a chinsy foul with two seconds left. Don’t you want the race to be decided cleanly, without outside interference? While the fastest car (Logano at Texas, Harvick at Darlington) still won in both cases, NASCAR is playing with fire in a year where competitive racing leaves “spicing up the product” completely unnecessary.
THIRD GEAR: Consistency vs. Aggression
At times, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth looked like they had a car to beat at Darlington. And while it didn’t work out for either, consistency reigned as both drivers came home with a solid top 10. Earning six such finishes in eight 2014 races, it’s no surprise they’re first and second, respectively, in the point standings.
But a funny thing’s happening in their trip atop the championship standings: both drivers are winless, technically without that “automatic” bid into NASCAR’s postseason. Jimmie Johnson, in fifth, also sits without a victory as all three take the approach of “slow and steady makes the Chase.” It leaves the trio looking a step behind even though on paper, they’re right on pace with past seasons.
“There towards the end, we started fading,” said Gordon, who finished seventh, afterwards. “I feel like I missed an opportunity.”
All three should break their Victory Lane droughts soon enough. But it’s also a sign that, in theory, the fastest cars this season — Harvick, Logano and Brad Keselowski — aren’t caring so much about the stats. Why bother when a win gets you in? A “boom or bust” mentality has been acquired by a handful of NASCAR’s elite, battling squarely with the “play it safe” mode run by Gordon, Kenseth and Johnson for years.
Expect that gambling to only increase as teams use the off week to study the trends. Seven winners in eight races, along with a flurry of these late cautions (see above) mean most could steal one by staying on the lead lap, then making the right gamble late. So for Gordon and Kenseth, the view on top of the mountain may be just a bit overrated. Points mean next to nothing now if you’re winless once the dust settles come September.
FOURTH GEAR: Kasey Kahne’s clunky start
Saturday night should have been a big weekend for Kasey Kahne, who was in contention to win Darlington last year until some late-race contact with Kyle Busch set him back. Indeed, the No. 5 car came charging to the front, leading 23 laps after starting 22nd before remaining a top-10 driver most of the night. The keyword, of course, is “most,” as a late wreck flattened Kahne’s right side while his three Hendrick teammates finished solidly inside the top 7.
So far, Kahne has two top-10 finishes this season, the same number of victories young Chase Elliott now has in the Nationwide Series. Sitting a lowly 23rd in points and a year away from his contract expiring, the pressure is clearly on to get it together. The good news is a win makes everything better — just like Kurt Busch’s Martinsville medicine. The bad news? Jeff Gordon, with a series-best six top 10s and in the same shop, does not look like a near-retiree. That means whatever Kahne does becomes irrelevant should Elliott start ripping apart Nationwide competition and the youngster earns a surprise place in Cup next season.
As expected, most rookies had a rough time navigating the Lady In Black. They caused three of the first four cautions, with Ryan Truex, Michael Annett and Cole Whitt all trying to knock down the outside wall. But give a call to Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. While both had their troubles, slipping back at different points during the race, each wound up slotting inside the top 11. It’s clear at this point those two are tops in the freshman class, with Larson still holding a solid edge. … Since his one-race miss at Fontana for metal stuck in his eye, Denny Hamlin has suffered from self-induced mistakes. An average finish of 17.0 in the three races since wasn’t helped when he missed Darlington’s pit road entrance under green (he wound up 19th, smacking the wall late). Did loose questions of drug use, since heavily refuted, shake the driver’s confidence inside the seat? ... NASCAR president Mike Helton, in effect said “never say never” when asked if the Southern 500 would ever move back to its Labor Day date. That said, those in the know have seen nothing to indicate such a move will happen even with some major schedule adjustments in play for 2015. Track president Chip Wile even said the track was satisfied running in April and had seen an increase in “certain segments” of its audience — strongly indicating the 18-34 crowd NASCAR covets.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for April 14.
• Bubba Watson celebrated his Masters win at Waffle House. Of course he did.
• A long-form look at Bubba and Jordan, the two stars of The Masters this year.
• Mind-blowing Bubba nugget: One-third of his career wins are Masters.
• Golf's meritocracy can pay off. 20-year-old Jordan Spieth has earned five times as much money as Super Bowl-winning QB Russell Wilson.
• Not sure what's going on here, but here's Bo Pelini holding a cat.
• The Niners' offseason gets better and better. The latest: Aldon Smith yelled "bomb" in an airport. I think that's frowned upon.
• Two Pacers tried to shoot after the whistle. Russell Westbrook was having none of it.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Bubba is no longer a curiosity. Rather, Bubba Watson has proven he’s one of the game’s great players. Bubba won his second green jacket in three years with an impressive all-around performance at The Masters. He launched one epic drive after another, bending a final-round tee shot 366 yards around the corner of the 13th hole to leave the par-5 powerless to combat another birdie. He putted with a deft touch. He manufactured iron shots, again turning them left or right depending on what the approach and green required.
If Augusta National is the ultimate shot-maker’s course, maybe it’s time we call Bubba “Mr. Augusta.” Maybe now, instead of proclaiming Tiger and Phil the perennial favorites, this has really become Bubba’s tournament to lose. He’s one of only 17 players with multiple green jackets.
Watson’s game seemed to disappear after his 2012 Masters win — he didn’t make the 2013 President’s Cup team — but he’s back.
“Learning to be a dad and then learning to have a green jacket with you is two big things to adjust to. So it just took me a little time,” he said. “ … It took me a year or so to get adjusted (to the fact) that I'm not really that good. I've got to keep practicing. Finally I got adjusted to it and here we are, another green jacket.”
Watson’s two wins this season have locked him into the Ryder Cup in Scotland in September. Bubba — being Bubba from tiny Bagdad, Fla. — still can’t believe where golf has taken him.
“I'm not trying to play golf for everybody to tell me how great I am or I'm one of the greats of the game,” he said. “I play golf because I love it. I love the game. I want to grow the game. The game has brought me everything that I've ever owned in my life.”
America’s next superstar
He didn’t win. He didn’t have to. Jordan Spieth is ready to take the throne from Tiger and Phil as America’s next great superstar.
Spieth battled for a green jacket like a veteran in his first appearance at The Masters, finishing in a tie for second with Jonas Blixt, three shots behind winner Bubba Watson.
Spieth generally kept his emotions under control. The TV crew referred to the talented 20-year-old as “an old soul.” His game is mature beyond his years.
“Oh, it was so much fun. It really was. Even if I didn't show it there on the back nine, it was,” Spieth said. “I took it all in, standing ovations for both of us to each green. It was a dream come true. Although it sits a little hard right now, I'll be back and I can't wait to be back.”
Spieth has risen to ninth in the world rankings, sandwiched between No. 8 Phil Mickelson and No. 9 Rory McIlroy. The taste of a near-victory should only fuel him further.
“I'm hungry. … I could take a lot of positives away, felt very comfortable out there,” he said. “My game felt like it will hold up and I think I'm going to go forward from here. That's a great feeling.”
Every year, there’s a new crop of rising stars in college football’s coaching ranks ready to make an appearance on the national stage. Alabama's Nick Saban, Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher are names familiar across the nation with any fanbase.
However, what about the next wave of stars that could be at BCS jobs in the next five years?
Ball State’s Pete Lembo has been on a quick ascension through the coach ranks, starting his career at Lehigh in 2001 and moving to the FBS ranks in 2011 with Ball State.
Lembo is an excellent X’s and O’s coach and has produced 12 winning seasons in 13 years as a head coach. Considering Lembo’s success at Lehigh, Elon and Ball State, it won’t be long before FBS programs are interested in the New York native. But the Cardinals are making every attempt to keep him in Muncie, as Lembo inked a new five-year agreement with the program this offseason.
In addition to Lembo, Bowling Green’s Dino Babers, UL Lafayette's Mark Hudspeth, Memphis’ Justin Fuente and Colorado State’s Jim McElwain are names to watch as coaches on the rise.
College Football’s Top 12 Coaches on the Rise for 2014
Dino Babers, Bowling Green
Career Record: 19-7 (2 years)
Babers has a wealth of experience in the assistant ranks, making stops at a handful of FBS programs, including Purdue, San Diego State, Arizona, UNLV, Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, UCLA and Baylor. Eastern Illinois hired Babers prior to the 2012 season, and he proved to be an instant hit for the Panthers. Under Babers’ watch, Eastern Illinois went 19-7 in two years and made the FCS playoffs in both seasons. The Panthers averaged a whopping 589.5 yards and 48.2 points per game in 2013 and nearly defeated MAC West champion Northern Illinois in late September. With a loaded roster returning for Babers’ debut at Bowling Green, the Falcons should be the favorite to win the MAC in 2014.
Matt Campbell, Toledo
Career Record: 17-9 (2 years)
Campbell is one of college football’s youngest coaches and a rising star in the profession. He won his debut in the 2011 Military Bowl, defeating Air Force 42-41. The Rockets are 16-9 over the last two years and played in the 2012 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Campbell received a contract extension until 2017 midway through last season and signed the No. 2 recruiting class in the MAC in 2014. Toledo should be one of the favorites to win the MAC West in 2014.
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State
Career Record: 20-6 (2 years)
Fresno State is one of the premier programs in the Mountain West, and DeRuyter has continued to add to the foundation Pat Hill built from 1997-2011. In two years with the Bulldogs, DeRuyter is 20-6 and claimed the Mountain West title in 2013. The Bulldogs have to reload in 2014 without quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams. However, DeRuyter is the right coach to keep Fresno State among the top programs in the Mountain West. If DeRuyter finds a quarterback to replace Carr, the Bulldogs could repeat as champions of the Mountain West in 2014.
Justin Fuente, Memphis
Career Record: 7-17 (2 years)
Fuente only has seven victories over the last two years, but there has been considerable progress at Memphis during that span. The Tigers went 3-21 in the two seasons prior to Fuente’s arrival and won just one conference game in that period. But Memphis went 4-8 in his first year in 2012 and finished 3-9 in 2013 in its American Athletic Conference debut. The Tigers should take another step forward in 2014, and if the offense develops with a solid season from quarterback Paxton Lynch, Memphis has enough winnable games on the schedule to push for a bowl.
Related Content: Ranking All 128 College Football Coaches for 2014
Mark Hudspeth, UL Lafayette
Career Record: 93-33 (10 years)
Hudspeth should have his pick of BCS jobs if he’s interested in leaving UL Lafayette after 2014. In three years with the Ragin’ Cajuns, Hudspeth is 27-12 overall and 17-6 in Sun Belt play. UL Lafayette claimed a share of the Sun Belt title in 2013, and the program has three consecutive bowl victories. Hudspeth’s team is also the favorite to win the Sun Belt in 2014. Prior to his stint with the Ragin’ Cajuns, Hudspeth went 66-21 in seven years with North Alabama. He also has stops in his career at Mississippi State (2009-10), Delta State and Navy. If a SEC job opens this offseason, keep an eye on Hudspeth as a potential replacement.
Curtis Johnson, Tulane
Career Record: 9-16 (2 years)
As a New Orleans native and an assistant with the Saints, there’s not a better fit for a coach at Tulane than Johnson. In two years, the Green Wave has made considerable progress under Johnson. Tulane finished 2-10 in 2012 but improved to 7-6 with a bowl appearance in 2013. Johnson is regarded as a good recruiter, which is a valuable asset for Tulane with the talent in the state of Louisiana. Moving to the American Athletic Conference will be an increased challenge for the Green Wave, and this program appears capable of handling that transition with Johnson at the helm.
Joey Jones, South Alabama
Career Record: 34-28 (6 years)
Looking for a rising star in the Sun Belt? Keep an eye on Jones. UL Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth is expected to be a target for potential BCS openings this year, but Jones could be valued by other top programs if South Alabama posts another winning record. Jones – an Alabama native – is 31-21 in five years with the Jaguars, which includes a 6-6 record in 2013. Jones built the program from scratch and has South Alabama in contention for the Sun Belt title in 2014.
Pete Lembo, Ball State
Career Record: 104-49 (13 years)
It’s pretty easy to sum up Lembo’s coaching career in this simple statement: Three different head coach jobs, three very successful tenures. Lembo’s first head coaching gig was in 2001 at Lehigh. He guided the Mountain Hawks to a 44-14 record and two playoff appearances in five years. Lembo went to Elon in 2006 and won 35 games in five seasons. Lembo was hired at Ball State in 2011, and the Cardinals have yet to record a losing record under his watch. Ball State is 19-7 over the last two years and has played in back-to-back bowls. The Cardinals have some significant holes to fill headed into 2014, but there’s little doubt Lembo will keep Ball State in the mix to win the MAC West. There’s no question Lembo is one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks and could be poised for a jump to a BCS program in the next few years.
Jim McElwain, Colorado State
Career Record: 12-14 (2 years)
Looking for a coach that could move to a BCS job at the end of the 2014 season? McElwain is a name to remember. In two years with the Rams, McElwain has made significant strides in Fort Collins, guiding Colorado State to an 8-6 finish and a bowl victory over Washington State last season. Prior to taking over the Rams, McElwain worked as the offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2008-11, made a one-year stop with Fresno State in 2007 and a short stint with the Raiders in 2006. With his experience in the NFL, along with his experience under Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa, McElwain is a rising star to watch in the coaching ranks. Colorado State loses some key pieces from last year’s team, but McElwain should have the Rams back in the mix for a bowl.
Trent Miles, Georgia State
Career Record: 20-48 (6 years)
It’s impossible to judge a coach based solely on his record. Each program has its own set of expectations, which is especially true at a FBS program like Georgia State. Miles is the perfect case study for why records can be overrated for judging coaches, as he resurrected a struggling Indiana State program. The Sycamores went 1-22 from 2008-09 but finished with three consecutive winning records from 2010-12. Georgia State went 0-12 in Miles’ first season, but the Panthers made progress and were competitive in Sun Belt play by losing three games by a touchdown or less. It’s also noteworthy that 2013 was the first year Georgia State played on the FBS level and went 1-10 under Bill Curry in 2012. Give Miles a couple of years to recruit and Georgia State will move up the ladder in the Sun Belt.
Matt Wells, Utah State
Career Record: 9-5 (1 year)
Gary Andersen left behind plenty of talent in Logan, but Wells deserves a lot of credit for getting Utah State to a 9-5 mark last year. Wells joined Andersen’s staff in 2011 and worked for two years as an offensive assistant. He called the plays for Utah State’s 11-2 season in 2012 and was promoted to the top spot after Andersen left for Wisconsin. Last year, quarterback Chuckie Keeton was lost in the first half of the season with a knee injury, and the Aggies still managed to win the Mountain Division and play for the conference title. The real challenge for Wells starts in 2014, as Utah State returns only seven starters. However, all indications point to Wells being able to continue to build on Andersen’s success with the Aggies.
Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion
Career Record: 46-14 (5 years)
Wilder had the tough assignment of building a program from scratch, but Old Dominion has recorded five consecutive winning seasons after not fielding a team from 1941-2008. Under Wilder, the Monarchs are known for their high-scoring offenses, which feature standout senior quarterback Taylor Heinicke in 2014. Old Dominion may struggle early in its debut in Conference USA this season. However, Wilder has plenty of room to grow the program, especially with a strong recruiting area (Norfolk) and a high-powered style on offense to sell to prospects.
The Big 12 has been home to some of the top quarterbacks in college football during the BCS Era. The conference isn’t at an elite level under center in 2014, but the talent is clearly on the rise.
Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty should be a candidate for All-America honors after throwing for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns last season. As if those numbers aren’t enough to consider Petty among the best in the country, consider he tossed only three interceptions on 403 attempts and completed 62 percent of his throws.
Kansas State’s Jake Waters takes the No. 2 spot in Athlon’s Big 12 quarterback rankings, while Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight and Texas Tech’s Davis Webb are close behind.
There’s plenty of uncertainty after the top four, as Texas’ David Ash, TCU’s Trevone Boykin, Iowa State’s Grant Rohach and Oklahoma State’s J.W. Walsh all have upside in 2014. However, each of the quarterbacks also has question marks, and some are still competing for a starting job.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the rankings that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Ranking the Big 12 Starting Quarterbacks for 2014
1. Bryce Petty, Baylor (SR)
From a statistical standpoint, Petty — not Manziel, Murray, Miller, Mariota or McCarron — could have been the best quarterback in the nation last year. The Baylor quarterback posted 4,409 total yards of offense at 8.9 yards per play, scored 46 touchdowns and threw just three interceptions (read that sentence again, please, so that it sinks in). He won 11 games, a Big 12 championship and embarrassed defenses along the way. Is it reasonable to expect a repeat performance in 2014? Probably not, especially with the losses on both sides of the ball. The Bears are replacing several key defenders, and guard Cyril Richardson, running back Lache Seastrunk and receiver Tevin Reese have departed from the offense. But Petty is the complete package at the quarterback position and is in one of the best offensive systems in the nation. Heisman Trophy conversation isn't a stretch at all for the Bears QB.
2. Jake Waters, Kansas State (SR)
After a successful two-year stint at Iowa Western Community College, Waters continued to perform at a high level in his first season as Kansas State’s starter. Waters started all 13 games for the Wildcats, throwing for 2,469 yards and 18 touchdowns. He completed 61.2 percent of his throws and tossed only nine interceptions on 260 attempts. Waters’ success wasn’t just limited to the air, as he added 312 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 118 attempts. Daniel Sams received some time under center last year, but he is expected to lineup at receiver in 2014. With Sams, Tyler Lockett, Curry Sexton and junior college recruit Andre Davis returning as pass catchers, Waters will be throwing to one of the Big 12’s top receiving groups. And with another offseason to work with co-coordinators Dana Dimel and Del Miller, Waters is primed for a solid year in Manhattan.
3. Trevor Knight, Oklahoma (SO)
A bowl game isn’t the best judge of a player or team, but Knight’s performance in the Sugar Bowl could be a sign of major progress in his development. Against Alabama – one of the nation’s top defenses – Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns on 32 completions. The Texas native’s four passing touchdowns against the Crimson Tide nearly equaled his total from the regular season (five). The Sugar Bowl wasn’t the only standout performance for Knight, as he totaled 253 yards and two touchdowns in a huge road win over Kansas State. Injuries limited Knight’s snaps at times last year, as he finished with only 819 passing yards and nine touchdowns, while rushing for 445 yards and two scores. Knight is still developing, so there will be a few ups and downs in 2014. However, there’s a lot of upside, and Knight is ready to build off a strong finish to last season.
4. Davis Webb, Texas Tech (SO)
Unlike in his first season as the head coach, Kliff Kingsbury and the Red Raiders enter 2014 with zero questions about the quarterback position. Webb, a sophomore from Prosper, Texas, entered the starting lineup midway through the season as a freshman and posted four 400-yard games. Among them was a Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP performance in an upset win over Arizona State. And if his excellent play in the second half a year ago wasn't enough to prove he was fully capable of grabbing the reigns to the Tech offense, his top two competitors for playing time — Baker Mayfield and Michael Brewer — have left the program. The 6-foot-4, 195-pounder did miss two games last year and his wiry, beanpole frame is in desperate need of added bulk and strength, but otherwise, Texas Tech is potentially poised for yet another 5,000-yard passer.
Listen to our staff discuss every team in the Big 12 as they start to look to 2014.
5. J.W. Walsh, Oklahoma State (JR)
Developing quarterbacks has been pretty routine for Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, so Walsh could be in for a big season as the starter in a potent offense. However, the Texas native isn’t completely secure as the No. 1 option in Stillwater, as true freshman Mason Rudolph and junior Daxx Garman are pushing for time. Walsh started five games in 2013 and finished with 1,333 passing yards and nine touchdowns. He also added 294 yards and three scores on the ground. Walsh spent the spring trying to become a better passer, as he finished 2013 by completing 59.5 percent of his throws and averaged 11.8 yards per completion last year. With Oklahoma State losing seven starters and a handful of backups on defense, the Cowboys will need their offense to carry this team early in 2014. Walsh has room to improve as a passer, but with Gundy and coordinator Mike Yurcich in control, Oklahoma State’s offense shouldn’t be much of a concern.
6. David Ash, Texas (JR)
After showing marked improvement from his freshman season (1,068 yds, 4 TD, 8 INT) to his sophomore season (2,699 yds, 19 TD, 8 INT), the question of Ash's ability to make plays and win games was answered pretty clearly. However, he missed 10 games due to ongoing concussion issues a year ago and broke his foot late in spring practice. He is expected to be healthy for the start of fall camp and is clearly the best option to run Charlie Strong's new offense. But Ash is also one big hit away from being in the hospital and questions about his ability to stay healthy loom large in Austin. There is little experienced depth behind Ash on the roster and Strong desperately needs his junior quarterback to stay healthy. Should Ash prove capable of staying on the field, this Texas team has the roster and coaching staff to compete for a Big 12 title.
7. Trevone Boykin, TCU (JR)
Boykin is far from a polished passer but he may be Gary Patterson's best bet at the quarterback position. The junior from Mesquite, Texas has the most experience of any passer on the roster by a wide margin and is the best athlete of the bunch as well. That said, the Frogs staff would like to see more balance and stability from the quarterback position, and Boykin needs to improve from within the pocket as a passer. Coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie likely won't be afraid to give chances to the rest of the depth chart if Boykin — who can be used all over the offense — can't develop as a passer. Tyler Matthews and two freshmen, Grayson Muehlstein and Foster Sawyer, should all see plenty of snaps in the summer and both Meacham and Cumbie have started freshmen under center at previous jobs.
Related Content: Is TCU a sleeper team to watch in the Big 12 in 2014?
8. Grant Rohach, Iowa State (SO)
Rohach seized control of the starting job for Iowa State late last season, and all signs point to improvement in 2014. In the final two games of 2013, Rohach threw for 631 yards and six touchdowns, while tossing only two picks on 59 attempts. Yes, those statistics came against Kansas and West Virginia, but it represented a step forward for Iowa State’s offense. Rohach is surrounded by a solid cast of weapons at receiver and running back, and the offensive line will quietly be one of the best in the Big 12. New coordinator Mark Mangino is a good hire for Iowa State, and he should help mold Rohach into a much-improved quarterback in 2014.
9. Clint Trickett, West Virginia (SR)
Uncertainty surrounds West Virginia’s quarterback situation headed into the summer. Trickett missed spring practice due to shoulder surgery, which left Paul Millard, Skyler Howard and Logan Moore to compete for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. Millard seems to be the best out of the trio from the spring, but Trickett should get the nod in the fall. After transferring from Florida State last year, Trickett finished the year with 1,605 yards and seven touchdowns in eight appearances. He was the Mountaineers’ No. 1 quarterback when they upset Oklahoma State early in the year and threw for 356 yards against Iowa State in the season finale. If Trickett’s shoulder is 100 percent and he has no ill-effects from last year’s injury, he should reclaim the starting job in the fall.
10. Jake Heaps, Kansas (SR)
Heaps gets the nod here, but Montell Cozart had a solid spring and could get the nod over Heaps for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. And for Heaps, it has been an interesting journey in his college career. He was No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation and is now battling for starting time on the worst team in the Big 12. It's not what Heaps expected when he signed with BYU out of high school but that is exactly where the senior from famed Skyline High in Seattle finds himself entering his final collegiate season. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound signal caller threw for just 1,414 yards and eight touchdowns last year (11 games) and he didn't play in the lone bright spot — an upset win over West Virginia. This is why Heaps will have to hold off Cozart and sophomore T.J. Millweard if he wants to acquire the keys to the new no-huddle offense. Charlie Weis brought in coordinator John Reagan to install the spread offense and that is music to Heaps' ears as the senior ran a similar system both in high school and at BYU. Heaps has the knowledge and experience to lock down the starting spot in Lawrence early in the process. Should that happen, it would likely yield his best season to date.
The Big Ten is set to grow by two teams in 2014. Rutgers and Maryland will officially join the conference on July 1, expanding the Big Ten to a 14-team league and changing the divisional alignment once again.
Rutgers was arguably one of the biggest winners in this round of conference expansion, moving from the American Athletic Conference to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights add a valuable market in the New Jersey/New York area and have improved their on-field product in recent years.
Adding Maryland also helps the Big Ten expand its reach on the East Coast, and the Terrapins are capable of competing in their new league after finishing 7-6 in the ACC last year.
Looking ahead to 2014, neither program is expected to challenge for a Big Ten title. However, Rutgers and Maryland both have potential to play for a bowl, especially with a good chunk of talent returning for the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Maryland or Rutgers: Which Big Ten Newcomer Will Have a Better Record in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The answer to this question seems to be pretty clear: Maryland. Rutgers made a nice addition by hiring Ralph Friedgen as the offensive coordinator, and this team has a handful of young talent, including linebacker Steve Longa, tackle Darius Hamilton and receiver Leonte Carroo. But the biggest concern for the Scarlet Knights is quarterback play, and a schedule that features non-conference games against Washington State and Navy. Rutgers also went 6-7 in the American Athletic Conference last year, while Maryland was 7-6 in a tougher league (ACC). There’s a lot to like about the Terrapins for 2014, as Randy Edsall has improved Maryland’s win total in each of the last two years after a 2-10 debut in 2011. The Terrapins return 16 starters, and the offense will get a boost with a return to full health by receivers Deon Long and Stefon Diggs. The defense has plenty of promise with nine starters returning, including end Andre Monroe, linebacker Cole Farrand and cornerback William Likely. Maryland’s schedule is also more favorable in 2014, as it hosts Rutgers and Iowa, and the non-conference slate features winnable games against Syracuse, West Virginia and South Florida. With the changes on the staff, Rutgers should be a better team than it was last year. However, I think the Terrapins are also due to take a step forward and should go to a bowl in their Big Ten debut.
Brent Yarina, (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com Senior Editor
This is a really tough question. Both are coming off similar seasons (Maryland, 7-6, ACC; Rutgers, 6-7, AAC), both return a lot of starters (Maryland, 20; Rutgers, 17), both are members of the loaded East Division, and both draw grueling cross-division foes (Maryland, vs. Iowa, at Wisconsin; Rutgers, at Nebraska, vs. Wisconsin). Add it all up, and it’s hard to expect either team to match last season’s mediocre record.
All that said, I’ll take Maryland in a close race that could come down to the season finale vs., you guessed it, Rutgers. The Terps have the tougher nonconference slate of the two, which could hurt their case, but they’re working with more talent and played in the better conference a year ago.
Dual-threat quarterback C.J. Brown, who finished tied for fourth in the ACC with 12 rushing scores, is back, and so, too, are his five returning receivers, including the dynamic Stefon Diggs, who is recovering from a leg injury. The defense, while it wasn’t anything special, returns nine starters from a unit that totaled 37 sacks.
Maryland will enjoy more success in its first year in the Big Ten than Rutgers and I don't think it will be close. The Terrapins went 7-6 in the ACC in 2013, while the Scarlet Knights were 6-7 in the American Athletic Conference, but I think the former is in much better shape for 2014 than the latter. Maryland returns 16 starters from a team that possesses quite a bit of talent, it just needs key playmakers, namely quarterback C.J. Brown and wide receiver Stefon Diggs, to stay healthy. Rutgers returns 14 starters from a team that struggled mightily on offense last season and in certain defensive areas and doesn't appear to have much in the form of reinforcements on the horizon. Consider that Maryland's incoming recruiting class was ranked seventh in the Big Ten and 43rd overall by 247Sports' Composite team rankings while Rutgers' class was 12th in the conference and 60th overall. Rutgers has some talented players, like wide receiver Leonte Carroo and running back Paul James, but from an overall roster standpoint Maryland looks much more like a Big Ten team to me than its fellow newcomer. Rutgers lost to the top four teams in the AAC last year - UCF, Louisville, Cincinnati and Houston - by 24, 14, 35 and 35 points respectively. What do you think is going to happen this fall when the Scarlet Knights take on Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan or crossover foes Wisconsin and Nebraska? Welcome to the Big Ten Rutgers. I hope you enjoy languishing in the basement of the new-look Eastern Division.
Listen to our staff discuss every team in the Big Ten as they start to look to 2014.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
I’ve certainly been skeptical of the addition of Rutgers and Maryland to the Big Ten, both from the perspective of the league adding two mediocre teams and the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins being able to compete. Maybe it’s that stage of the offseason where every team has reason for optimism, but Maryland might be a competitive Big Ten program in 2014. I’d be shocked if Maryland can win the division, but a .500 record in conference play seems possible. With 16 returning starters, the Terps have plenty of experience, in part by a handful of players getting thrown into the lineup due to injuries. The Terps’ defense returns nine starters from a group that was above average in the ACC (5.1 yards per play, fifth in the league). And the offense has to be better with receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long healthy. This team has had so much bad luck under Randy Edsall, sooner or later things have to start to even out, right?
Kevin McGuire, (@KevinonCFB), CrystalBallRun.com and CollegeFootballTalk.com
While I do not think either team will do considerably well in their first season in the Big Ten, I think Maryland is better equipped to put together a better debut season in the new conference if they stay healthy. Maryland has a wide receiver unit that could be the best in the Big Ten and they have some winnable games at Indiana and home against Iowa and Rutgers. Neither team is going to come away with a winning record against division foes Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan this year, but Maryland avoids Nebraska in the cross-division match-ups. With the more talented offense and a slightly more favorable schedule (home against Rutgers in what could be the deciding game), Maryland gets the edge in year one.
When UCLA and Stephen F. Austin met in the Sweet 16, the game represented two of the success stories for first-year coaches.
UCLA coach Steve Alford, whose hire received lukewarm reviews, advanced the Bruins to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. Meanwhile, Stephen F. Austin’s Brad Underwood became one of the top first-year coaches in NCAA history by going 32-3.
Those two coaches were in the minority, though. Of the 42 new coaches on the job in Division I in 2013-14, only four reached the NCAA Tournament. The other two to join Alford and Underwood in the field lost in their first games in the Tournament — one of those losses was not a surprise (Jeff Jones at No. 15 seed American) while the other was one of the major upsets of the round of 64 (Craig Neal at New Mexico).
The NCAA Tournament didn’t tell the entire story for first-year coaches as two men making their debuts won the NIT (Richard Pitino at Minnesota) and the College Basketball Invitational (Jimmy Patsos at Siena).
These coaches shouldn’t graded completely after one season, but the new hires for 2013-14 were quite the mixed bag. Here’s how the most notable first-year coaches fared:
Brad Underwood, Stephen F. Austin
Stephen F. Austin enjoyed its best season as a Division I member in the first season for Underwood, a longtime Frank Martin assistant. Stephen F. Austin was one of the top defensive teams in the country on the way to an 18-0 record in the Southland and a win over fifth-seeded VCU in the NCAA Tournament. Underwood’s 32 wins in his first season is the third-most in Division I history and his 91.4 percent win rate ranks sixth. Underwood's next task is to maintain the foundation laid by Danny Kaspar, who left for Texas State before last season.
Steve Alford, UCLA
Alford didn’t put UCLA back where the Bruins probably should be — in national title contention — but he delivered on a number of fronts. UCLA reached the Sweet 16 and won the Pac-12 tournament, both for the first time since 2008. Meanwhile, Alford offered up a more exciting brand of basketball. UCLA ranked 13th in offensive efficiency on KenPom and topped 80 points per game for the first time since winning the national title in 1995. Now, he’ll have to add two big-time recruits, Isaac Hamilton and Kevon Looney, to a roster that will be hit by NBA Draft defections.
Tubby Smith, Texas Tech
Texas Tech went 6-12 in the Big 12, but Smith gave the Red Raiders some much-needed stability after the Billy Gillispie fiasco. The six wins in a tough Big 12 shouldn’t be shrugged off, either. That’s two more league wins than the last two seasons combined. Texas Tech defeated four NCAA Tournament teams (Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas) and put a scare into league champion Kansas.
Mike Brennan, American
Brennan engineered a 10-game turnaround from 10-20 to 20-13 in his first season. The Eagles reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009 before a lopsided loss to Wisconsin. Well-schooled in the Princeton offense, Brennan played for Pete Carril and served as an assistant under John Thompson III at Princeton and Georgetown.
Jeff Jones, Old Dominion
Old Dominion had been one of the most consistent teams in the Colonial before falling apart at 5-25 in Blaine Taylor’s last season. Jeff Jones, the former coach at Virginia and American, stepped in to rebuild in Conference USA. The veteran coach led the Monarchs to a 9-7 debut in C-USA and an appearance in the College Basketball Invitational. The roster included no seniors among its regular rotation, so Old Dominion could be back in NCAA Tournament contention in 2014-15.
Jimmy Patsos, Siena
Siena can be one of the top mid-majors as Fran McCaffery and Paul Hewitt proved during their tenures. Patsos, one of the most colorful characters in coaching, has the Saints back on that trajectory. In his first season, Patsos turned Siena from 8-24 to 20-18 and CBI champions, ending a streak of three consecutive losing seasons in the MAAC.
Chris Collins, Northwestern
The record wasn’t drastically improved from the end of the Bill Carmody era, but Collins injected some energy into the Northwestern program. The Wildcats finished 6-12 in the Big Ten, but that tally included road wins over Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, plus a win over Iowa in the Big Ten tournament. Northwestern loses only one senior, but Drew Crawford a big departure.
Bobby Hurley, Buffalo
Buffalo won between 18 and 21 games from 2008-09 to 2011-12 before slipping to 14-20 last season. Hurley, the former Duke point guard, stepped in during his first season as a collegiate head coach and led Buffalo to a first-place finish in the MAC East. Buffalo finished at No. 100 on KenPom.com, the highest ranking for any MAC team.
Will Wade, Chattanooga
Wade, a former VCU assistant, installed at Chattanooga what he calls “Chaos,” a homage to VCU’s “Havoc.” The Mocs improved from 8-10 in the Southern to 12-4 in his first season. Wade’s team gave the home crowd reason for excitement: Scoring is up by more than six points per game and the Mocs went 11-2 at home.
Casey Alexander, Lipscomb
Alexander is on his second quick turnaround in the Atlantic Sun. In his first season at Lipscomb, the Bisons improved from 7-10 in the league to 10-8 as they won eight of their final 11 games. At Stetson, Alexander led the Hatters from a 9-20 (6-12 A-Sun) season in his first year to 15-16 (11-7 A-Sun) in his second. Alexander was a player and long-time assistant at crosstown rival Belmont, so he knows how to build a winner at this level.
Richard Pitino, Minnesota
Minnesota had the same Big Ten record (8-10) in Pitino’s first season as the Gophers had in Tubby Smith’s last. The Gophers also traded a round of 32 loss in the NCAA Tournament for an NIT championship. Is that progress? Maybe. The real answer may be next season when Pitino has a veteran-laden team in a Big Ten that may have only one Final Four contender (Wisconsin).
Craig Neal, New Mexico
The Lobos quietly had one of their best conference seasons in school history, setting a school record with 15 Mountain West wins and a conference tournament title. Perhaps the passing of the baton from Steve Alford to his longtime assistant Neal was a little too smooth, down to the early exit from the NCAA Tournament against No. 10 seed Stanford.
Joe Dooley, Florida Gulf Coast
Nothing could have topped the 2013 run to the Sweet 16, but Florida Gulf Coast proved it could remain a factor despite losing its coach. The Eagles actually improved their Atlantic Sun record by one game (from 13-5 to 14-4) in Dooley’s first season and earned a bid in the NIT by winning the Atlantic Sun.
TOOK A STEP BACK
Brandon Miller, Butler
Personnel losses meant this was going to be a difficult season even if Brad Stevens were still the coach. Miller’s first team went 4-14 in the Big East and endured the first losing season at Butler since 2004-05. Miller will try to continue to rebuild around Kellen Dunham, but Butler’s foray in a major conference could continue to be rocky.
Andy Enfield, USC
The Trojans went 2-16 in the Pac-12 in Enfield’s first season, but at least USC was better than its 6-26 overall mark in 2011-12. USC will rely on newcomers Kaitin Reinhardt (transfer from UNLV) and Darion Clark (transfer from Charlotte) and two four-star freshmen to put a more competitive team.
Eddie Jordan, Rutgers
Jordan’s tenure started with the revelation that he never finished his undergraduate degree at Rutgers. It didn’t get much better from there. Rutgers finished at 5-13 in the American, the same conference record as Mike Rice’s final team in a more competitive Big East. Rutgers’ final game, a 92-31 loss to Louisville in the American tournament, was the worst offensive performance by any team during the season at 42 points per 100 possessions. Up next is the Big Ten.
So far, it has been an interesting offseason for Nebraska. Well, interesting in a good way.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini appears to be having a lot of fun since beating Georgia in the Gator Bowl, as he had a Twitter interaction with his alter ego (@FauxPelini) earlier this offseason. If you aren’t familiar with @FauxPelini, the avatar features Pelini in a sweater holding a cat.
Fast forward to the spring game, and Pelini is still having fun with the alter ego. Pelini held a cat and held it up to the crowd prior to Nebraska’s spring game.
And no, this wasn’t @FauxPelini. This was the real Bo Pelini.
Check out the video and pictures from Nebraska’s spring game:
Spring football is all about trying to build as much positive buzz as possible until the fall, and unveiling new uniforms and helmets is just one way to establish momentum for any FBS program.
Miami’s ACC rival Florida State recently unveiled a new jersey and helmet combination for 2014, and the Seminoles won’t be the only team in the conference with new uniforms, as the Hurricanes unveiled a new design before the spring game.
Here’s Miami’s updated uniform combination, which features black, green, orange and white jerseys, along with two different helmets (orange and white).
This is the uni that made the team go totally crazy yesterday... pic.twitter.com/UMCJfebEt4— Miami Hurricanes (@hurricanesports) April 12, 2014
Florida State’s jerseys haven’t changed much in recent years, but the Seminoles are getting a significant uniform overhaul for 2014. The change isn’t drastic, but the helmets, jerseys and pants were tweaked.
As with any uniform change, it’s important not to stray too much from what worked the best for the school or the most recognizable design/colors from that program.
And even though it may take a little time to adjust, it seems Nike and Florida State came up with a pretty good design and overall look for the program.
Below is a look at Florida State’s new jerseys and helmets for 2014 and be sure to check out this Nike gallery of photos for the uniforms:
The career of wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham is over at Missouri. Green-Beckham was recently suspended due to an off-the-field incident, but on Friday, coach Gary Pinkel dismissed the former No. 1 recruit from the team.
Green-Beckham was recently under investigation after an altercation at an apartment. Police were prepared to charge Green-Beckham with first-degree burglary, but the complainants decided not to press charges.
In two years with the Tigers, Green-Beckham caught 87 passes for 1,278 yards and 17 touchdowns.
There’s no question this is a huge loss for Missouri. Green-Beckham was arguably the No. 1 receiver in the nation heading into 2014 and a likely first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Missouri was already set to lose Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington in 2014, so the Tigers will have an inexperienced group of receivers for quarterback Maty Mauk. Bud Sasser, Darius White and Jimmie Hunt will have to emerge as go-to targets to help replace Green-Beckham.
Green-Beckham’s football future is uncertain. Since he has a redshirt year available, Green-Beckham could sit out 2014 and play for a FBS team in 2015. However, he may choose to go the FCS route and play right away this year.
Dorial Green-Beckham dismissed from MU football program, per release.— David Morrison (@DavidCMorrison) April 11, 2014
Pinkel: "This decision was made with the best interests of all involved in mind."— David Morrison (@DavidCMorrison) April 11, 2014
Pinkel: "We care deeply about Dorial and his well-being, but hopefully he can benefit from a fresh start."— David Morrison (@DavidCMorrison) April 11, 2014
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, a possible Denny Hamlin rebound, a surging rookie, a less-than-traditional race date and Goodyear tires are just a few of the major topics leading us into Sunday’s 500-mile race at venerable Darlington Raceway.
Darlington a nice chance for Hamlin’s rebound
For all of the positive vibes Denny Hamlin showed at Daytona by winning the Sprint Unlimited, taking his qualifying race and then finishing second in the 500, the momentum seems gone from the No. 11 team.
Hamlin messed up a strong race at Texas with a speeding penalty and finished 13th as a result. Aside from Daytona, he has just one top-10 finish (sixth, Bristol) and came home an uncharacteristic 19th at Martinsville two weeks ago. He also was forced to miss the race at Auto Club Speedway in California after a metal shard in his eye caused vision issues on the day of the race.
Darlington could be his rebound.
Hamlin has finished no worse than 13th in eight career starts at the South Carolina track and nabbed a win in 2010. He’s finished runner-up in the last two Sprint Cup series races there.
A good finish would be timely for Hamlin. Since the sixth at Bristol, Hamlin’s missed race and consecutive mediocre finishes have pushed the No. 11 to 13th in points.
Kyle Larson outperforming 2013 Juan Pablo Montoya
For Kyle Larson — just over two years removed from his first pavement stock car experience — the expectation of his first season of Sprint Cup competition featuring numerous struggling results didn’t seem far-fetched. It made his first finishes of 2014 (38th, 20th and 19th) seem very understandable.
But since then, Larson has poured it on. The No. 42 has three top-10 finishes (and two top 5s) in the last four races. More impressive? Larson’s performance in the first seven races is far outpacing the driver who he replaced in the Chip Ganassi Racing stable — Juan Pablo Montoya.
After seven races a year ago, Montoya had an average running position of 25.6. Larson, to this point in 2014, is more than nine spots better each lap on average at 16.2. The difference is even wider in the last four races year-to-year with Larson’s average running position sitting at 12.7 while Montoya’s was 28.2 a year ago.
Those numerical differences could go a long, long way toward CGR putting a car back in the Chase for the first time since Montoya’s lone appearance in 2009.
Darlington’s date changed again
Consistency and tradition had been a hallmark of NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway since it opened on Labor Day in 1950. The weekend stuck as the traditional date of the Darlington Raceway’s Southern 500 until 2003 when a massive schedule realignment sent NASCAR to California on Labor Day weekend — and left traditionalists steamed.
The track, though, began to build something of a tradition anew. Starting in 2005, it had a consistent date once again as home to a Saturday night race each May during Mother’s Day weekend. Now, it’s been changed again.
Thanks to Kansas Speedway adding lights, NASCAR and ISC swapped the dates for the sister tracks. Kansas will run a night race for the first time during Mother’s Day weekend next month while Darlington moves forward on the scheduled to April.
It’ll be fascinating to see how the shift affects attendance. Not only is the date changed, but Darlington now races the same weekend as sports events nearby including The Masters as well as spring football games for Clemson University and the University of South Carolina.
Recent winners have Darlington poised to continue NASCAR’s streak
Another race, another winner.
A late caution for debris at Texas Motor Speedway nearly ruined Joey Logano’s dominant late-race performance that had him cruising easily to the checkered flag. But Logano made a last-lap pass around Jeff Gordon after the restart to take the win — continuing NASCAR’s quirky streak of a different winner in every race in 2014.
The recent returns at Darlington suggest the streak may just push to eight winners in eight races.
Just one winner in the last decade of Sprint Cup racing at Darlington — that’s 11 races — already has a win this season: Kyle Busch. Otherwise, that list of Darlington winners includes Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Regan Smith, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle — all names (aside from the non-entered Martin and Smith) who figure to be worthy Darlington picks.
More telling of a potential streak continuation is the top 5 from last May at the track. Kenseth drove to the win with Hamlin second, Gordon third and Johnson fourth. Kevin Harvick, already a winner in 2014, finished fifth last year at Darlington.
Voice of Vito: Win and in? Five drivers who can call their shot
Tires an unlikely concern at Darlington
The buzz before last week’s race at Texas was all about teams concerned that the supplied race tires wouldn’t last, causing crashes and unexpected trips to pit road. Drivers were feeling antsy after suffering through many issues just two weeks prior at the high-speed Auto Club Speedway.
The concerns never manifested into a substantial problem in the rain-postponed race — stopping a potential controversy in its tracks — and have reduced the focus on Goodyear as the supplier tries to stay up with NASCAR’s offseason suspension and downforce rule changes.
Darlington, of course, has a long history of working race tires to their limits. The first race ever held at the track in 1950 was won by Johnny Mantz largely because he was the only driver who opted to race heavy duty truck tires. Other competitors scrambled to find enough tires to finish the 500-mile event. The track’s official history says many drivers even bought tires off the cars of spectators just to finish the race.
Saturday night, teams will use the same left-side compound tire compound in use at the track since 2011 and the same right-side tire they used last May.
They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2014 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. We've been unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.
No. 2: Phil Mickelson
Born: June 16, 1970, San Diego, Calif. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 42 | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 3 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $5,495,793 (4th) | World Ranking: 5
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Phil Mickelson will turn 44 in June, and ordinarily one would think that a player of that age had seen his better days, but Phil seems as capable as ever — and perhaps he enters this major season hungrier than ever. Statistically, it's easy to find holes in Phil’s game; even in his much-hallowed short game, there are gaping inconsistencies. However, Phil is one of the few players — if not the only player — who cannot be summed up in statistics, so strong is his belief in himself. If anything, at 44, Phil might have a sense of how close he is to being considered one of the top 10 players of all time. Phil is tied for 14th in total majors won, having finished second six times in the U.S. Open, the only major to have eluded him. Of the 10 men who have won three of the four Grand Slam events in golf, no player has more runner-ups in the one major they are missing than Phil. Many look at Pinehurst, site of this year’s U.S. Open, where Phil finished second in 1999, as the site of a storybook conclusion to his great career. Indeed, given his runner-up to Payne Stewart there, this will be one of the biggest stories in the first half of the year.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - T54
U.S. Open - T2
British Open - 1
PGA Championship - T72
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - 1 (2006, 2006, 2010)
U.S. Open - 2/T2 (1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2013)
British Open - 1 (2013)
PGA Championship - 1 (2005)
Top-10 Finishes: 35
Top-25 Finishes: 47
Missed Cuts: 8
Athlon's 2014 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Dustin Johnson, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.
The NFL Draft is an inexact science. It always has been and it always will be.
In fact, millions of dollars are poured into travel, scouting, evaluation, interviewing, discussing and debating the merits of Prospect A versus Prospect B in every NFL war room in every NFL Draft.
And still, Tony Mandarich gets picked ahead of Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders.
So having the first overall pick is a huge moment for any franchise. But its also carries with it tremendous pressure not to screw it up — which, of course, still happens frequently.
Dating back to expansion in 1995 when Carolina and Jacksonville joined the NFL, Athlon Sports has ranked and evaluated every No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Some of the names listed below have become the greatest to ever play the game. And others are JaMarcus Russell.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis (1998)
Not only is Manning the best No. 1 overall pick in the draft between 1995-present but he might also be the greatest No. 1 overall pick of all-time. Which, of course, is extremely interesting considering there was healthy debate between Manning and No. 2 overall pick Ryan Leaf at the time of the Colts' selection. Needless to say, Indianapolis made the right choice with the Tennessee Volunteer quarterback.
2. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis (2012)
Maybe it’s something in the water in Indy, but the Colts know what they are doing when they pick atop the draft. Luck is the best pro prospect to enter the NFL since John Elway in the early 1980s and all he has done is post the best two-year start to an NFL career of any quarterback in NFL history. He has Hall of Fame ability and the question isn’t will he win a Super Bowl it's when and how many.
3. Orlando Pace, T, St. Louis (1997)
Pace started 165 of his 169 career games during his Hall of Fame career with the Rams (12 years) and Bears (one year). He went to seven Pro Bowls and was named an All-Pro five times while also leading the Rams to their one and only Super Bowl championship. Pace might be the most physically talented offensive tackle ever to play the game and is one of the league’s all-time greatest players. Kurt Warner most certainly would agree.
4. Eli Manning, QB, San Diego (2004)
Traded from the Chargers to the Giants on draft day, Peyton’s younger brother has lived up the hype of being not only a Manning but the No. 1 overall pick. He was two Super Bowl wins in which he was the driving force. Has he had some inconsistent seasons and turned the ball over a ton? Certainly — but so, too, did Brett Favre. There is little doubt that Manning deserved to be the top pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.
5. Carson Palmer, QB, Cincinnati (2003)
He was a Heisman Trophy winner in college and Pete Carroll has long claimed that if he could construct a QB from scratch, it would be Palmer. The 2005 AFC Player of the Year has throw for nearly 34,000 yards and 213 touchdowns in his 138-game career thus far — in which he's played for three of the traditionally weaker franchises. In just his third year, Palmer took the Bengals from the basement to the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades (1990). He has four 4,000-yard seasons, including one in each of the last two years. Constantly overlooked, Palmer has developed into one of the better No. 1 overall picks in recent memory.
6. Michael Vick, QB, Atlanta (2001)
Vick is quite the conundrum. He has unprecedented physical ability and wowed fans in ways no other player in NFL history ever has. He also spent two years in prison, has only played one full season (16 games) in his career and has constantly had turnover and health issues. His near 6,000 yards rushing makes him one of the most unique players in NFL history and certainly worthy of a No. 1 overall pick. That said, Falcons fans probably still wonder what could have been had he been able to stay focused off the field.
7. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina (2011)
Newton could fly past Vick and Palmer on this list in a very short period of time. Newton set records as a rookie and led his team to a division crown in his third season. He has proven his doubters wrong and as he begins to mature off the field and in the huddle, the sky could be the limit for a player of such substantial physical talent.
8. Keyshawn Johnson, WR, NY Jets (1996)
Throw him the damn ball. His me-first attitude and overall antics knock him down a peg or two in these rankings. But as the only wide receiver taken No. 1 overall since Irving Fryar in 1984, Johnson delivered a fine career. He only posted four 1,000-yard seasons but topped 10,000 yards and 800 receptions for his career to go with 78 total touchdowns. He also helped lead the Bucs to a Super Bowl title in 2002.
9. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit (2009)
Stafford has all of the physical tools to be one of the greats at his position and certainly justifies his No. 1 overall status. He also has a 5,000-yard season, the NFL record for attempts (727), led the Lions to the playoffs and won 2011 Comeback Player of the Year honors. Having said that, Stafford is 24-37 as a starter, has missed chunks of time due to injury and appears to be missing the “it factor” at times. He has a long way to go in his career and should have plenty of huge seasons in his future. Leading the Lions to the playoffs consistently and making a deep postseason run will go a long way towards silencing his doubters.
10. Mario Williams, DE, Houston (2006)
Houston was knocked for taking Williams over Reggie Bush or Vince Young but he has had a much better career than the common fan may realize. He is 13th among active NFL players in sacks with 76.5 and has forced 14 fumbles in 114 games. Williams has been to three Pro Bowls and has started every single game of his career with the exception of three games in 2010 and 11 in '11. Williams is an underrated No. 1 overall pick.
11. Jake Long, T, Miami (2008)
Long has missed just seven games in his six-year career and has started all 89 games he has played. He has been to four Pro Bowls and appears poised to have a solid career for the Rams after signing with them as a free agent prior to last season. Like Williams, Long doesn’t jump off the page as a starter but he has been an extremely solid, reliable and valuable player to this point in his career.
12. Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco (2005)
This one certainly started slowly. He managed just 19 touchdowns against 31 interceptions and an 11-19 starting record in his first three seasons for the 49ers. However, he persevered and has developed into a solid NFL quarterback. Over his last three seasons, Smith is 30-9-1 as a starter with 53 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, three playoff bids and over 8,000 yards passing (despite missing eight games over that span). His second career in Kansas City could eventually move him up this list.
13. Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis (2010)
Plagued by major injuries for most of his collegiate and pro career, Bradford will likely never live up to the hype of being taken No. 1 overall. He won NFL Rookie of the Year in his first season but has missed a total of 15 games over the last three years. He’s had little in the way of support from his O-line and playmakers on offense, so there is still plenty of time for him to improve under trusted head coach Jeff Fisher. The final verdict on Bradford is still out.
14. Eric Fisher, T, Kansas City (2013)
By default, Fisher lands directly between the players who are deemed “good” and the players who are deemed “bad.” He started 13 of the 14 games he played as a rookie for a team that made the playoffs. He has the tools to be the Chiefs' long-term solution at left tackle but only time will tell.
15. Tim Couch, QB, Cleveland (1999)
Here is where the term bust begins to surface and Couch was the “best” of the busts. He went 22-37 as a starter in 62 career games, throwing for over 11,000 yards, 64 touchdowns and 67 interceptions. He did, however, post a winning record for the Browns in 2002 when he went 8-6 and he had one 3,000-yard season in '01 for a 7-9 squad. These are his top two pro accomplishments, which at least makes him a better pick than….
16. David Carr, QB, Houston (2002)
Carr had no help from the expansion roster around him as he was sacked 76 times as a rookie and led the league in sacks three of his first four seasons. To his credit, Carr lasted in the NFL for 11 seasons (mostly as a backup) but his 23-56 record as a starter is pretty ugly.
18. Courtney Brown, DE, Cleveland (2000)
One of only two defensive players taken No. 1 overall since expansion is one of the most forgettable. Brown played in 61 career games over six seasons. His set a career high with 69 tackles as a rookie and never topped 42 tackles after that. He set a career high with 13 starts and 6.0 sacks in 2003. He finished his career with 19.0 sacks and 196 tackles.
17. Ki-Jana Carter, RB, Cincinnati (1995)
Here is all you need to know about Carter’s NFL career: He made 14 career starts in seven NFL seasons. He never reached 500 yards rushing in any season and only topped 400 once in his career. He was out of football by 2005 and finished with 319 carries, 1,144 yards and 20 touchdowns in his NFL career. No running back has ever been taken No. 1 overall since.
19. JaMarcus Russell, QB, Oakland (2007)
Nine players in the NFL threw for at least 4,000 yards in 2013. Russell barely cracked 4,000 for his entire playing career (4,083). He played in 31 games, going 7-18 as a starter with 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. Needless to say, Russell — both literally and figuratively — was the biggest No. 1 overall bust in the modern NFL expansion era.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for April 11.
• In honor of Masters week, enjoy a gallery of gorgeous girls golfing, including actual golfer Blair O'Neal (pictured).
• A man put a lot of money on Rory McIlroy to win The Masters after seeing Rory's image on a chocolate danish. I try not to take orders from breakfast pastries, but that's me.
• Once again, a pesky golf fan alerted a rules official to a violation, this one by Luke Donald. At least the fan in question was on the grounds and not calling from the couch. Golf fans are the kids who remind the teacher she forgot to assign homework.
• I've never linked to college hockey before, but here you go: Minnesota advanced to the Frozen Four with a buzzer-beater.
• Most athletic move of the day yesterday: Hillary Clinton used her cat-quick reflexes to dodge an airborne shoe.
• Fun media feud of the day: Piers Morgan vs. SI TV writer Richard Deitsch.
• Jon Stewart crushed the NCAA on the Daily Show.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
All-conference and All-American teams are a great indicator as to who are the best players in the nation. Earning first-team honors more than once is a pretty good sign that you were one of the best at your position during your career. The rare three-time All-American selection makes you one of the best college football players of all-time.
As the College Football Playoff Era begins in 2014, Athlon Sports is looking back on the last 16 years of action — aka, The BCS Era. Here is the All-BCS Era All-Big-12 team. The only stipulation (unlike other folks who have done this exercise) is that you must have played at least one season from 1998-13.
QB: Vince Young, Texas (2003-05)
Young earned Rose Bowl MVP honors following his ridiculous performance against Michigan to finish his sophomore season. It was a sign of things to come as he was named Big 12 Player of the Year in 2005. He was a consensus All-American, led the Big 12 in passing efficiency, won the Davey O'Brien, Manning and Maxwell Awards while finishing second on the Heisman ballot. His smooth running skills led to an all-time Big 12 career record 6.8 yards per carry. And no one will ever forget his second Rose Bowl MVP performance against USC in the greatest game of the BCS Era, returning the national championship to Austin.
Second-Team: Tim Tebow, Florida, Third-Team: Matt Leinart, USC
RB: Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma (2004-06)
The BCS version of Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson was the three-year star from Palestine (Texas) High. A three-time, first-team All-Big 12 runner, Peterson finished No. 2 in the Heisman Trophy voting as a true freshman in 2004. His 1,925 yards were an NCAA record for a true freshman and it earned him unanimous All-American honors. Despite missing chunks of time with injuries in each of his next two seasons, “All Day” Peterson still topped 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. His natural blend of power, speed, size and balance has never been duplicated during the BCS Era. He is the Sooners' No. 3 all-time leading rusher.
Second-Team: Ron Dayne, Wisconsin Third-Team: LaDainian Tomlinson, TCU
RB: Ricky Williams, Texas (1995-98)
The power back from San Diego had a two-year run as an upperclassman that may never be matched, as he posted back-to-back seasons with at least 1,800 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. Williams was a two-time consensus All-American, a two-time Doak Walker Award winner, a two-time Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and claimed the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award and Heisman Trophy as a senior. He left school as the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher (since broken) and he is one of four players to ever score at least 70 rushing touchdowns.
Second-Team: Darren McFadden, Arkansas Third-Team: Reggie Bush, USC
WR: Larry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh (2002-03)
After redshirting, Fitz dominated college football for two full seasons. He became the first Pitt Panther to have back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, owns the school record with 34 touchdowns (in just 26 games) and owns the NCAA record for consecutive games with a touchdown reception (18). As a sophomore in his final season at Pitt, he caught 92 passes for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns, winning Big East Player of the Year honors and the Walter Camp and Biletnikoff awards. His second-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting is the highest by any wide receiver during the BCS era and he is the only one in to finish in the top three.
Second-Team: Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech Third-Team: Percy Harvin, Florida
WR: Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech (2004-06)
Appropriately nicknamed Megatron, no player has demonstrated the combination of size and speed that Johnson brought to the Ramblin Wreck offense. The Tyrone (Ga.) Sandy Creek prospect was the ACC Rookie of the Year in 2004 before earning back-to-back All-American honors in 2005-06. He owns school records for receiving yards and touchdowns during his time at Tech and claimed the Biletnikoff Award as well as ACC Player of the Year honors in 2006.
Second-Team: Peter Warrick, Florida State Third-Team: Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State
TE: Chase Coffman, Missouri (2005-08)
It didn’t take long for Tigers fans to see what they had in Coffman as he earned first-team Freshman All-American honors in 2005. He then broke Mizzou tight end receiving records with 58 receptions, 638 yards and nine touchdowns as just a sophomore. After two straight All-Big 12 seasons, Coffman claimed the John Mackey Award as a senior as the nation’s top tight end after posting 90 receptions, 987 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2008. Missouri went 22-6 over his final two seasons in what many believe to be the best two-year run in program history.
Second-Team: Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma Third-Team: Heath Miller, Virginia
T: Bryant McKinnie, Miami (2000-01)
He only played two seasons for Miami after beginning at Lackawanna College (Pa.) but he was downright unstoppable during his time in a Hurricanes' uniform. He was an All-American in both seasons, won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman and led Miami to a 23-1 record and the 2001 BCS National Championship. He is the only offensive lineman during the BCS era to finish in the top 10 of Heisman Trophy balloting. The Pro Bowl left tackle was the seventh overall pick by the Vikings in the 2002 NFL Draft.
Second-Team: Chris Samuels, Alabama Third-Team: Jammal Brown, Oklahoma
T: Joe Thomas, Wisconsin (2004-06)
One of the few big-time recruits from the state of Wisconsin, Thomas was a two-time All-American and Outland Trophy winner for a team that went 31-7 during his three seasons as the starting left tackle. He has rare foot speed, agility and overall athletic ability — and it’s why he has been to the Pro Bowl in all seven of his NFL seasons.
Second-Team: Jake Long, Michigan Third-Team: Shawn Andrews, Arkansas
G: Steve Hutchinson, Michigan (1997-2000)
Starting for four seasons for the Wolverines, Hutchinson helped the Maize and Blue win the 1997 national championship. He capped his career with consensus All-American honors, was an Outland Trophy finalist and didn’t allow a sack in his final two seasons at Michigan.
Second-Team: Duke Robinson, Oklahoma Third-Team: David Yankey, Stanford
G: Barrett Jones, Alabama (2009-12)
No offensive lineman during the BCS Era was more decorated than the Memphis native. He started at right guard and earned freshman All-American honors for the 2009 BCS champs. He slid out to left tackle by 2011 and won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman for the 2011 BCS champs. Jones then manned the pivot and won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center for the 2012 BCS champs. The two-time consensus All-American won three national titles at three different positions while graduating with a Master’s Degree and 4.0 GPA.
Second-Team: Mike Iupati, Idaho Third-Team: Eric Steinbach, Iowa
C: Greg Eslinger, Minnesota (2002-05)
Not many centers have an Outland Trophy on their mantle at home but Eslinger does. He was a freshman All-American in 2002, a third-team All-American as a sophomore, a first-teamer in '04 and earned consensus All-American honors as a senior. He won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center and earned Big Ten Lineman of the Year honors in ’05. Minnesota never had a losing record during his four-year career.
Second-Team: Dominic Raiola, Nebraska Third-Team: Jonathan Luigs, Arkansas
DE: David Pollack, Georgia (2001-04)
The Bulldogs' defensive end is the most decorated defensive lineman of the BCS Era. Pollack is a three-time, first-team All-SEC and All-American, twice landing consensus All-American honors. He won the SEC Player of the Year award twice (2002, '04), as well as the Bednarik, Hendricks (twice), Lombardi and Lott Awards. He and roommate David Greene helped lead Georgia to its first SEC title (2002) in two decades. His highlight-reel plays — namely against South Carolina — and UGA all-time sack record (36.0) makes him arguably the greatest SEC defensive lineman of the BCS Era.
Second-Team: Julius Peppers, North Carolina Third-Team: Chris Long, Virginia
DE: Terrell Suggs, Arizona State (2000-02)
The star pass-rusher is best known as the NCAA’s all-time single-season sack master when he totaled 24 QB takedowns in 2002. Suggs was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and the inaugural Ted Hendricks Award winner that year as well. The accolades didn’t end there, however, as he also took home the Lombardi, Nagurski and Willis trophies. He led the NCAA with 31.5 tackles for a loss (still a Pac-12 record) and forced six fumbles that year. He finished his Sun Devils career with 163 tackles, a school-record 65.5 for a loss (second all-time in league history), 44 sacks (second all-time) and 14 forced fumbles.
Second-Team: Corey Moore, Virginia Tech Third-Team: Jadeveon Cloweny, South Carolina
DT: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska (2005-09)
The star defensive tackle from Portland, Ore., won the 2009 Outland and Nagurski Trophies as well as the Lombardi, Bednarik and Willis Awards. He was the first defensive player to win AP Player of the Year honors since its inception in 1998 and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in ’09. That year Suh claimed the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award and he came just seconds shy of leading the Huskers to their first conference championship since 1999. He finished his career with 215 tackles, 57.0 for a loss, 24.0 sacks and six blocked kicks.
Second-Team: John Henderson, Tennessee Third-Team: Tommie Harris, Oklahoma
DT: Glenn Dorsey, LSU (2004-07)
He helped lead LSU to an SEC and BCS National Championship in 2007 while earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors. He also claimed the Outland, Nagurski and Lott Trophies as well as the Lombardi Award — becoming the first LSU Tiger to win any of those prestigious awards. Dorsey also was ninth in the Heisman voting in his record-setting 2007 campaign. He was a two-time All-American and finished with 179 tackles, 27.0 for a loss and 13 sacks.
Second-Team: Haloti Ngata, Oregon Third-Team: Casey Hampton, Texas
LB: LaVar Arrington, Penn State (1997-99)
Arrington was an elite leader who helped Penn State to a 28-9 record during his three-year tenure in Happy Valley. He was the Butkus and Lambert Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker and was the recipient of the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player after 72 tackles, 20 for a loss, nine sacks and two blocked kicks in 1999. He was a consensus All-American who wound up as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.
Second-Team: Paul Posluszny, Penn State Third-Team: Derrick Johnson, Texas
LB: Patrick Willis, Ole Miss (2003-06)
The unheralded Tennessee native was overlooked by most of the SEC big boys and made them all pay by becoming the league’s best linebacker of the BCS Era. Rising from utter poverty to the best LB in the nation, Willis claimed the Butkus and Lambert Awards in 2006. He posted 265 tackles and 21.0 for a loss over his final two seasons, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors and All-American status as a senior.
Second-Team: Manti Te'o, Notre Dame Third-Team: Luke Kuechly, Boston College
LB: James Laurinaitis, Ohio State (2005-08)
Few players in the nation were as decorated, productive, talented and successful as the Minneapolis native. Laurinaitis won the Butkus, Nagurski, two Lambert Awards and two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards while being a three-time All-American. He posted three straight seasons of at least 115 tackles and helped Ohio State win a share of four Big Ten titles, including two trips to the BCS National Championship Game.
Second-Team: E.J. Henderson, Maryland Third-Team: Rocky Calmus, Oklahoma
CB: Terence Newman, Kansas State (1999-2002)
Newman did a little bit of everything for Bill Snyder and Kansas State. He returned kicks and punts and even played some wide receiver. The lockdown cornerback was a two-time All-Big 12 pick, a unanimous All-American, the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top DB and a first-round pick by the Cowboys in 2003. The 2002 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year also was a two-time Big 12 outdoor track champion in the 100 meters and the league champ in the indoor 60 meters.
Second-Team: Champ Bailey, Georgia Third-Team: Jamar Fletcher, Wisconsin
CB: Patrick Peterson, LSU (2008-10)
One of the most versatile, impactful athletes in the nation, Peterson scored on both defense and special teams throughout his career. He was a dynamic return man who brought a rare explosiveness to the game and led the SEC with 418 punt return yards. As a junior, Peterson won the Thorpe and Bednarik Awards and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year while being recognized as an All-American for a second time. He was taken fifth overall in the 2011 NFL Draft and finished his career with 135 tackles, seven interceptions, four return touchdowns and 1,356 total return yards.
Second-Team: Dre Bly, North Carolina Third-Team: Antoine Winfield, Ohio State
S: Ed Reed, Miami (1998-01)
The star safety is one of the greatest to ever put on the pads. He led the team as a freshman in interceptions and forced fumbles en route to back-to-back All-American seasons in 2000 and '01. He led the nation as a senior with nine interceptions for 209 yards and three touchdowns. His leadership helped a stacked Miami team go unbeaten and claim the BCS National Championship in 2001. He was named Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Reed holds the school record for career interceptions (21), return yards (389) and defensive touchdowns (5). He was a first-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens in 2002. Oh by the way, Reed was a Big East track and field champ in the javelin.
Second-Team: Eric Berry, Tennessee Third-Team: Troy Polamalu, USC
S: Roy Williams, Oklahoma (1999-2001)
He helped lead the Sooners to an unbeaten BCS National Championship in 2000 while setting the school record for tackles for a loss by a defensive back (12.0). The following year, he claimed the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back as well as the Nagurski and Jack Tatum Trophies and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was a unanimous All-American, first-round pick of the Cowboys in 2002 and will go down in Red River Shootout lore for this spectacular play in the Cotton Bowl.
Second-Team: Sean Taylor, Miami Third-Team: Mark Barron, Alabama
The Big 12 did not have a banner year in 2013, as only three teams from the conference finished ranked in the final Associated Press poll, and the bottom four teams in the league combined for just seven conference victories.
Heading into the 2014 season, there appears to be some positive momentum for the Big 12. Baylor and Oklahoma are playoff contenders, and Texas and Kansas State should be preseason top-25 teams.
While Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas and Kansas State appear set as the top-four teams in the league, the No. 5 spot seems to be up for grabs.
TCU slipped to 4-8 last year, and as a result of the struggles, coach Gary Patterson overhauled the offense for 2014. Iowa State has potential after finishing 2013 with back-to-back wins, while Texas Tech is an intriguing team to watch with Kliff Kingsbury at the helm, and Oklahoma State always seems to reload under Mike Gundy.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Who is a Sleeper Team to Watch in the Big 12 in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The bottom half of the Big 12 should be an interesting battle this year. Teams like Iowa State and West Virginia should improve, but whether or not it’s enough to make a bowl remains to be seen. I think Oklahoma State simply lost too much to pull a surprise finish among the top four teams, so it’s really down to TCU or Texas Tech as a sleeper pick for me. I think the Horned Frogs have a ton of upside going into 2014, as this team was just a couple of plays away from a winning record last year. New play-caller Doug Meacham made a difference at Houston in 2013 and helping TCU transition to a spread should help Gary Patterson’s team become a more effective offense in 2014. The Horned Frogs still need to find a quarterback, as well as develop more consistency at receiver and on the offensive line, but this team lost four Big 12 games by three points or less last year. With a better offense, TCU could easily turn some of those close losses into wins, especially with a defense that is still among the best in the nation. Another factor in the Horned Frogs’ sleeper potential is the schedule. TCU plays five conference home games, including swing matchups against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State in Fort Worth.
Allen Kenney, (@BlatantHomerism), BlatantHomerism.com
What really qualifies as a surprise in the Big 12 anymore?
Baylor has gone from plucky upstart to defending champion.
Bill Snyder working miracles in Manhattan is nothing new.
Given how much talent is on Texas' roster, would it really be a "surprise" if the Longhorns made a run at the league crown in Charlie Strong's first year?
I think the most fitting candidate here is Texas Tech. Even with the loss of all-star tight end Jace Amaro, Kliff Kingsbury will keep the Red Raiders rolling up points. Reports from spring camp say quarterback Davis Webb has made major strides since the fall, and he'll have a bevy of productive skill players at his disposal, including receivers Bradley Marquez and Jakeem Grant and running back Kenny Williams. Up front, all-conference candidate Le'Raven Clark will lead an experienced offensive line that should be one of the best in the league.
Of course, offense usually isn't a problem in Lubbock. The Red Raiders will have to continue winning shootouts until Tech figures out a way to stop people. Look for the Red Raiders to come out on top of a wild one--or two--that you wouldn't expect (Texas, Oklahoma, Baylor), finishing with eight wins in the regular season and a winning record in league play.
Listen to our staff discuss every team in the Big 12 as they start to look to 2014.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
My sleeper in the Big 12 is the team it always seems to be in this league, Iowa State. The Cyclones slipped to 3-9 last season, missing a bowl for the second time in five seasons under Paul Rhoads. That should turn around this season. While Iowa State won’t contend for the title, there are plenty of reasons the Cyclones will get back to the six- to seven-win range. After Iowa State lost a 31-30 heartbreaker to Texas on Oct. 3, the 2013 season went sour. Injuries took their toll on a team that was already going to struggle to compete. Iowa State, though, found its stride at the end of the season. In his final two starts — both wins — quarterback Grant Rohach completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 631 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. He’ll be among 10 returning starters on offense, now playing under coordinator Mark Mangino. The former Kansas coach has his faults, but he can run an offense in the Big 12. On defense, seven starters return, and linebacker Luke Knott will return healthy. That should be enough for Iowa State to double its win total from last season.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Defining a sleeper must be based on expectations and since the expectation levels for Oklahoma State heading into 2014 seem to be lower than we've seen in Stillwater in nearly a decade, I will go with the Cowboys. Mike Gundy's squad hasn't won fewer than eight games since 2007 and has only won fewer than nine once during that span. Due to massive departures to graduation and the NFL, the Cowboys likely won't be picked in the top half of the Big 12 — fifth at best — but this program is in way better shape than a team with so few returning starters. Gundy has elevated the entire Pokes program by building depth throughout his roster. This team was one drive away from winning the Big 12 championship, and I just don't see the fall from grace like many preseason prognosticators will predict. Will OSU win the Big 12? No. But can they be a sleeper who could win nine or ten games and pull a couple of upsets? You bet.
Prior to last season, TCU had won at least seven games every year since 2005. Granted, all but two of those seasons came when Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs were dominating the Mountain West Conference, but I think their 11-14 record since joining the Big 12 in 2012 is somewhat misleading. Of those 14 losses, half were by seven points or fewer. In fact, last season's 4-8 TCU team was potentially just one or two touchdowns away from maintaining the program's bowl streak, which ended at eight. As bad as the offense was (Horned Frogs were 104th in the nation in total offense), this team was still out-gained by just 6.2 yards in conference play in 2013. Eight starters return from that defense, along with defensive end Devonte Fields, the 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year when he was a freshman. Patterson also brought in former Houston offensive coordinator Doug Meacham and Texas Tech co-coordinator Sonny Cumbie to overhaul TCU's offense. A quarterback will need to be settled on and the offensive line will need to gel, but whomever ends up running the show does have playmakers to work with and it's not like it can get much worse than it was last year, right? TCU also has the luxury of hosting Oklahoma and Oklahoma State with its toughest road tests shaping up to be at Baylor and Texas. If the Horned Frogs can survive a difficult stretch of six straight conference games starting Oct. 4, then I think this team has a chance to open some eyes in its third year in the Big 12.
The Pac-12 title race is expected to be a tight battle between Oregon, Stanford, USC and UCLA.
The Ducks are considered by some to be the preseason favorite, but Mark Helfrich’s team suffered a setback on Thursday, as receiver Bralon Addison suffered a torn ACL in practice. A timetable for Addison’s absence was not announced, but it is believed he will miss the entire 2014 season.
Addison was expected to be Oregon’s No. 1 receiver in 2014, as he was the top returning statistical target – 61 receptions for 890 yards and seven touchdowns.
Addison’s ACL injury adds another layer of concerns for Oregon’s receiving corps, as this unit was already losing Josh Huff (62 receptions for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns), and running back De’Anthony Thomas left early for the NFL Draft.
Is Addison’s injury something that could derail the Ducks from a Pac-12 title? Possibly. However, Oregon still has the No. 1 quarterback in the conference returning in Marcus Mariota, along with one of the nation’s top running back stables.
In Addison’s absence, the Ducks need more from Keanon Lowe, Chance Allen, Darren Carrington, Dwayne Stanford and Devon Allen. Also, expect to see more opportunities for tight ends Johnny Mundt, Pharaoh Brown and Evan Baylis.
Here’s a look at the returning options for Oregon in the receiving corps (2013 stats)