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Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Carolina Panthers check in at No. 20.

The Carolina Panthers became an entertaining team in 2011. This year they hope to become a good one. The Panthers played and lost a lot of games of the 30–27 variety in 2011 en route to a 6–10 season. Their offense was dramatically improved thanks to quarterback Cam Newton, who won all sorts of rookie of the-year awards while accounting for an astonishing 35 touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing). It was perhaps the best rookie year ever at any position, rivaling those of players like Lawrence Taylor and Gale Sayers.

But the Panthers’ defense will need a serious upgrade this year if Newton is to lead the team into the playoffs in what will be both his and head coach Ron Rivera’s second season in Charlotte. In 2011, Carolina allowed franchise highs in points, yards and passing yards as one quarterback after another eviscerated its defense. The return of linebacker Jon Beason and the arrival of first-round draft pick Luke Kuechly offer some hope, but this is a team that still has major defensive questions.

Offense

The Panthers’ offense is led by the three players who represented the team in the Pro Bowl after last season — Newton, wide receiver Steve Smith and center Ryan Kalil.

Smith, 33, signed a new contract in the offseason after rejuvenating himself in 2011 with Newton as his quarterback (1,394 receiving yards). Still the team’s most explosive player, Smith remains the club’s primary deep threat. Has he lost a step in the past decade? Certainly. But his route-running, elusiveness and toughness remain exceptional, and he has flourished in offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s imaginative offense. The Panthers need a strong No. 2 receiver to emerge. Brandon LaFell has shown signs of doing so but isn’t great at going over the middle. David Gettis returns from injury and will be a factor.

Kalil anchors an offensive line that received a youth injection in the draft with Amini Silatolu, a second-round pick from Division II Midwestern State who may plug in immediately at left guard. Left tackle Jordan Gross is the team’s most respected veteran and still one of the NFC’s best. Right tackle is iffy as Jeff Otah has been injury-plagued and could be replaced by Byron Bell again.

Otah was traded to the Jets for a conditional seventh-round pick in late July. However, the trade was rescinded after Otah failed his Jets' physical. The 2008 first-round pick was returned to the Panthers, who terminated his contract after he failed their physical as well. Otah's fate as of the start of Panthers' training camp was uncertain.

Tight end Greg Olsen is Newton’s favorite target near the goal line and has some of the best hands on the team.

Running back is a major strength. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart — aka “Double Trouble” — share the load as primary ball-carriers. Since Newton also frequently runs, none will have eye-popping numbers, but all three went over 700 yards rushing last season (the first time that has happened in NFL history).

New fullback Mike Tolbert gives the offense one more significant weapon — he’s good out of the backfield as a receiver and also will get a few carries on quick hitters.

But Newton is undoubtedly the key. In his second season, he needs to cut down on interceptions (17 in 2011) and become a better team leader (he had a tendency to pout after bad plays or close defeats). His ability is remarkable, however — his 14 rushing TDs were a record for an NFL quarterback. Veteran backup Derek Anderson has a good arm, but the Panthers would have to run a much more conventional offense if he is forced into action.

Related: Top Carolina Panthers Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

The Panthers are counting on the return of several injured players to shore up this unit, but that’s a dangerous presumption. Linebacker Thomas Davis is trying to return from three ACL tears in the same knee — no NFL player has ever done so. Beason and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are coming back from more traditional injuries. They both missed almost the entire 2011 season, which hurt the Panthers badly up the middle. Edwards, 33, will be counted on to anchor the inside positions as a space-eater.

Kuechly’s sideline-to-sideline ability should pair well with Beason’s — one will likely play middle and one weak side. James Anderson led the Panthers in tackles last season and should provide a good third option if Davis can’t return.

But the front and the back of the Panthers’ defense remain suspect. Their best pass-rusher is Charles Johnson, who had nine sacks last season off the edge, but no one else had more than four. Out of Greg Hardy, Antwan Applewhite and fourth-round draft choice Frank Alexander, someone must emerge as a significant threat to opposing quarterbacks.

The Panthers would like to replace Sherrod Martin as their free safety starter. He’s one of the worst tacklers on the team. They signed and drafted a number of low-profile players to provide competition. Starting cornerback Chris Gamble and strong safety Charles Godfrey are probably safe — cornerback Captain Munnerlyn less so. All of them will look better, though, if the opposing quarterback doesn’t have time to look for his fifth option, something that happened all too often last season.

Specialists

The Panthers weren’t very good on special teams and invested some draft resources to get better. Fourth-round pick Joe Adams will immediately become the punt returner. He averaged a whopping 16.9 yards per return at Arkansas last season. His arrival likely spells the end of Armanti Edwards’ time with the Panthers. Edwards, a converted college quarterback, couldn’t figure out a way to break punt returns and can’t seem to get on the field as a receiver either. Kealoha Pilares will likely handle the kickoff returns after setting a team record with a 101-yarder last season.

New punter Brad Nortman will replace Jason Baker. If the punt coverage is better — and it should be, as the Panthers put a big emphasis on that in the offseason — he should do fine.

The biggest questions will revolve around veteran kicker Olindo Mare, who enters his second season as a Panther. He replaced the popular John Kasay last season and missed two critical fourth quarter field goals. Panther fans still don’t quite trust him, and the team signed Justin Medlock to compete for the job.

Final Analysis: 3rd in the NFC South

Assuming Newton stays healthy — and that’s not an entirely safe assumption given how much he runs — the Panthers’ offense may be better than it has ever been. There are playmakers everywhere at the skill positions. It’s likely Carolina will rank in the top five NFL offenses in numerous categories this season.

But will the defense hold up? The Panthers invested some resources there in the offseason but could have done more. They are hoping that the return of several key injured players helps the problem considerably. The Panthers have the talent to contend for their first playoff spot since 2008, but they are going to need to stop people to do it.

Related: 2012 Carolina Panthers Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Cam-paign 
Cam Newton really, really wanted to be on the cover of the “Madden 13” video-game franchise. Although the player on the cover is subject to the “Madden Curse” — typically falling off in production or getting hurt the next season — Newton loves to play “Madden” and campaigned for the spot. Newton filmed a seven-minute homemade video and posted it online, trying to get more votes in the fan voting that determined the outcome. Newton made it to the finals but lost out in April to Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson in a decision announced live at Times Square with both players in attendance. Some Panther fans, concerned about the curse, said they actually voted against Newton.

Kalil Country
Center Ryan Kalil was at the NFL Draft in April, cheering on his younger and bigger brother Matt Kalil — picked No. 4 overall by the Minnesota Vikings. Both Kalils showed up sporting beards that looked like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” Ryan says the primary difference between the two is that he’s better-looking.

Explosive
The NFL keeps a statistic for plays that gain 20 or more yards, calling them “explosive plays.” The Panthers led the NFL in that category with 90 such plays in 2011, or slightly more than five per game. That helped the Panthers score 48 touchdowns, second-most in franchise history (after a franchise-low 17 during their 2–14 season of 2010).
The Pres and the Panthers The Panthers’ home stadium will be used for the Democratic National Convention Sept. 4-6, most notably for an address by President Obama. Because of that, the Panthers will open the season on the road (against Tampa Bay on Sept. 9) and will likely face a number of security and logistical issues in the two weeks before their opener.

A Different Person
Panthers coach Ron Rivera made an interesting comment in the offseason about Newton. “He seems like a different person,” the coach said. “He seems more mature, in terms of ready to take some leadership roles.” Rivera wants Newton to become more of a team leader. Newton has the charisma to do so, but often took a back seat to veterans like Steve Smith and Jordan Gross last year.

14 Straight and Counting
While Newton throws a lot of deep balls, the Panthers’ offense is still built around the run. Carolina will enter the 2012 season with a franchise-record streak of 14 straight games of 100 yards or more rushing. The Panthers were third in the NFL last season in rushing yards per game (150.5) and first in yards per attempt (5.4). And you can bet they will run a ton in that opener at Tampa Bay; the Panthers rushed for 270 yards on Christmas Eve the last time the two teams played.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: Tues., Aug. 7

Order your 2012 Carolina Panthers Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Carolina Panthers Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Carolina Panthers Bucs Schedule Analysis

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<p> Carolina Panthers 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Monday, August 6, 2012 - 06:00
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The start of the 2012 college football season is just a few weeks away. However, as fall practice kicks off around the nation, plenty of unanswered questions remain, including some that will have an impact on the national title race. Athlon preps you for everything you need to know about fall practice with the 20 biggest storylines to watch over the next couple of weeks.

College Football's Top 20 Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice

1. Is Zach Mettenberger the missing piece at LSU?
National championship caliber defense? Check. Punishing running game and offensive line? Check. Quarterback? Wait and see. The biggest issue for the Tigers in recent years has been quarterback play. Although LSU made the national title game last year, having a difference maker under center could make the Tigers the most complete team in college football. Mettenberger played sparingly last season, completing 8 of 11 passes for 92 yards in mop-up duty against Northwestern State. The Tigers won’t ask Mettenberger to win many games on his own, but his emergence will allow the offense to open up more in 2012 and finally give the team a chance to stretch the field. The junior will have his share of ups and downs in his first season, but it looks like LSU finally has a quarterback that it can lean on to win games through the air.

2. Bryan Bennett or Marcus Mariota: Who will start at quarterback for Oregon?
Regardless of whether Bennett or Mariota takes the first snap, Chip Kelly shouldn’t have too much concern about his quarterbacks. Sure, anytime that you replace a starter there is bound to be a few ups and downs. However, both players are more than capable of keeping Oregon’s offense as one of the best in the nation. Bennett played in eight games last season, including one start against Colorado. He finished the year with 369 passing yards and six touchdowns, along with recording 200 yards on the ground. Bennett entered spring practice with an edge, but Mariota closed the gap. The redshirt freshman dazzled in the spring game, throwing for 202 yards and one score, while adding 99 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Both players should be more dynamic on the ground than their predecessor (Darron Thomas). It could be a mystery as to which Oregon quarterback will be in the opener against Arkansas State, and both players could play significant snaps in 2012. Regardless of whether Mariota or Bennett starts the year, it’s unlikely the Ducks will have many concerns under center.

3. Can Texas improve its passing attack?
The Longhorns have the rushing attack and defense to win the Big 12. However, in a league known for offense, Texas still has to find a way to generate more from its quarterbacks. The Longhorns finished eighth in the conference in passing offense last year, and quarterbacks combined to throw 15 picks on 357 attempts. David Ash took control of the No. 1 spot late last season but injured a hamstring in summer workouts and could be limited for fall camp. Case McCoy and true freshman Conner Brewer will get every opportunity to win the job, but Ash is expected to finish atop the depth chart. Texas doesn’t need Ash to be Colt McCoy, but the passing attack has to be better than it was in 2011. With one of the nation’s deepest backfields and the Big 12’s best defense, Texas should be one of college football’s top 15 teams. However, winning the conference title and making a BCS bowl will come down to how quickly Ash, McCoy or Brewer can jumpstart the passing game.

4. How big of a concern is USC’s defensive line?
The Trojans’ best defense in 2012 may be the offense. With Matt Barkley back under center and Robert Woods and Marqise Lee catching passes, USC will have no trouble averaging around 40 points a game in 2012 – which is important since the Trojans will have to win with offense. The defense made improvement in the second year under coordinator Monte Kiffin last season but suffered some key departures on the line. End Nick Perry and tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris depart, while end Devon Kennard suffered an injury in summer workouts and could miss 2012. With the personnel losses and Kennard’s injury, the Trojans are very thin up front. Wes Horton and George Uko are two solid building blocks, but the defense needs big contributions from freshmen Greg Townsend and Leonard Williams. USC’s issues in the trenches may not be a concern in Pac-12 play, but a national title appearance against a team from the SEC could expose the concerns up front.  

5. Will unproven commodities at wide receiver and defensive line derail title hopes at Oklahoma?
A prolific veteran quarterback, the best offensive line in the Big 12 and the return of Mike Stoops as defensive coordinator was enough to push Oklahoma in to the top five of the Athlon national rankings, but the Sooners have plenty of questions to answer if they’re going to compete for a national title. At receiver, the passing game struggled when Ryan Broyles was hurt. Now he’s gone permanently. That puts more pressure on Kenny Stills to be the No. 1 option. Meanwhile the suspension to Jaz Reynolds puts pressure on newcomers Trey Metoyer and Lacoltan Bester to perform right away. On the defensive line, seniors R.J. Washington, David King and Jamarkus McFarland have been around for a while, but they have yet to emerge as consistent factors on the defensive front. That needs to change if Oklahoma is going to be a factor in the national race.

6. How could early season suspensions hamper Georgia?
Mark Richt hasn’t revealed any suspensions other than two games for starting cornerback Sanders Commings, but a handful of other starters on the Bulldogs’ defense could miss a crucial game at Missouri in the second week of the season. Safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alex Ogletree are possibilities to miss the Tigers’ SEC debut. Rambo’s suspension could stretch into four games, which would include a home date with upstart Vanderbilt. The Commodores came within five points of upsetting the Bulldogs last season. Richt’s silence on the matter may be gamesmanship for the Missouri game, but even if Georgia’s only missing a couple of key players on defense, coordinator Todd Grantham may need to prepare his secondary to take some lumps.

7. How quickly can Alabama’s defense find replacements?
Losing Trent Richardson is a huge blow for the offense, but the Crimson Tide has capable replacements waiting in the wings with Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart. The biggest obstacle to a repeat national title will be the loss of several key players on defense, including All-SEC selections Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, Josh Chapman, Dont’a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick. Alabama has recruited well, so the cupboard is far from bare for coordinator Kirby Smart and coach Nick Saban. The secondary will have three new starters, but juniors Dee Milliner and John Fulton have experience at cornerback. Sophomore Vinnie Sunseri will likely start at strong safety. Additionally, junior college recruits Travell Dixon and Deion Belue had a solid spring and will push for time in the fall. The biggest questions on defense could be in the front seven. Jesse Williams will move from end to nose guard, while the starting linebacking corps could be composed of three sophomores. Repeating last season’s No. 1 rank in total, scoring, rush and pass defense is probably too much to ask of a rebuilt defense. However, don’t expect the Crimson Tide to suffer much of a drop in production, especially as some of the younger players get comfortable with more playing time.

8. Who’s leaving, who’s staying at Penn State?
Quarterback Rob Bolden is already gone to LSU. Meanwhile, coach Bill O’Brien says about 50 players have pledged to stay with the Nittany Lions despite ample opportunities to transfer immediately and without penalty. The biggest domino was standout running back Silas Redd with his transfer to USC. Even if Penn State starts the season without a mass exodus, players can leave any time before the start of the 2013 season without having to sit out a year. With Redd leaving, Penn State loses one of its only offensive threats. O’Brien also has to be concerned if one or two key players leave, others will follow.

9. Can Ohio State execute Urban Meyer’s spread offense?
After finishing last in the Big Ten in passing offense last season, plenty of doubts remain about quarterback Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes’ passing attack. Those concerns are amplified even more due to an offensive line that returns only two starters and a receiving corps that lacks a proven No. 1 option. Freshman Mike Thomas opened some eyes in the spring game, catching 12 passes for 131 yards. With Thomas’ emergence and the return of tight end Jake Stoneburner, the Buckeyes should have two solid targets for Miller. However, the receiving corps needs a big year from junior Philly Brown and sophomore Devin Smith. The potential is there for Ohio State’s offense to seamlessly pickup Meyer’s spread attack and emerge as one of the best in the conference. However, fall practice will be a good indicator of just how far the offensive line has come, which could hold the key to Ohio State’s season.

10. Is Marcus Lattimore fully healthy?
Reports from South Carolina indicate the Gamecocks star running back is ready to go for the season, but we won’t know for certain until we see Lattimore take the field for the first time since his Oct. 15 knee injury against Mississippi State. Steve Spurrier says the Gamecocks are protecting Lattimore in practice, so his first true game action may be the opener at Vanderbilt. Lattimore’s injury last season enabled Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles to gain experience. South Carolina could be in better shape in the backfield than it was at the start of last season, but Lattimore’s knee may be the difference between winning the SEC East or not.

11. Can Oklahoma State repeat as Big 12 champs with a freshman QB?
There’s always pressure when you have to replace a quarterback like Brandon Weeden, but Lunt is under extra scrutiny in 2012, as the Cowboys hope to repeat as Big 12 champs. The freshman was one of three candidates vying for time in the spring and edged out J.W. Walsh and Clint Chelf for the No. 1 spot. Walsh is expected to see time as a change of pace quarterback, but barring a setback in the fall, Lunt will be Oklahoma State’s starter in the opener against Savannah State. The Cowboys haven’t had much trouble producing good quarterback play under Mike Gundy, but it’s a lot to ask a true freshman quarterback to win a Big 12 title. Expect Oklahoma State to lean on running back Joseph Randle and a defense that led the nation in takeaways last season early in the year. However, for the Cowboys to win the Big 12, Lunt needs to be ready to deliver in the Big 12 opener on Sept. 29 against Texas. The freshman doesn’t have to be Brandon Weeden – but he needs to play beyond his years for Oklahoma State to repeat as Big 12 champs.

12. Who takes the lead at quarterback for Notre Dame?
If the Irish want to have any shot at topping last season’s win total (eight), they have to get better quarterback play. Tommy Rees led the team with 2,871 yards and 20 touchdowns last year but ran into off-the-field trouble and is suspended for the season opener. With Rees sidelined for the first game, the focus of the quarterback battle will shift to redshirt freshman Everett Golson, sophomore Andrew Hendrix and true freshman Gunner Kiel. Golson is an intriguing talent, as his dual-threat ability would give Notre Dame a different dimension on offense. Hendrix played in five contests last year, throwing for 249 yards and one touchdown while also adding 162 yards and one score on the ground. Golson and Hendrix figure to have an edge over Kiel for the No. 1 spot, but the true freshman will have every opportunity to earn playing time. Even if a starter doesn’t emerge, it’s important for the coaching staff to get Golson, Kiel and Hendrix as many snaps as possible, as neither of the trio have a career start.

13. Can Brent Venables fix Clemson’s problems on defense?
If Clemson’s Orange Bowl performance were an isolated incident, maybe it would be easier to accept (or maybe not, ask a Clemson fan or Kevin Steele). The 70 points allowed to West Virginia was the worst of the season by far, but Clemson’s defensive shortcomings were apparent all season. The Tigers ranked 70th or lower in six major defensive categories. Now, here comes Oklahoma’s Brent Venables to fix the Tigers’ D. Though Oklahoma fans may have grumbled, the Sooners finished in the top four in the Big 12 in total defense in each of Venables’ eight seasons as defensive coordinator. Clemson has eight returning starters on defense, but seven are at linebacker and defensive back. Inexperience and a lack of depth are major concerns on the defensive line. Venables might need to get creative while his defensive front grows up.

14. Is EJ Manuel the right quarterback to lead Florida State back to prominence?
Florida State fans have held high hopes for Manuel since he arrived on campus in 2008. After spending 2009 and 2010 as a backup to Christian Ponder, Manuel received the keys to the Seminoles’ offense last year, throwing for 2,666 yards and 18 touchdowns. He completed 65.3 percent of his throws and tossed only eight interceptions on 311 attempts. Although Manuel’s numbers weren’t eye-popping, it’s unfair to pin Florida State’s offensive concerns on him. The Seminoles struggled to establish the run, and the offensive line never found the right combination. Manuel was also bothered by a shoulder injury throughout the year and did not play in the 35-30 loss to Clemson. With a deep receiving corps returning and experience coming back on the line, Florida State’s offense should be improved in 2012. Manuel has all of the physical tools to succeed and should be more comfortable in his second year as the starter. While the Seminoles underachieved last season, Manuel is the right quarterback to lead Florida State back to a national title – provided his offensive line and rushing attack step up in 2012.

15. How quick can Boise State reload?
With only seven starters and a new quarterback under center, the Broncos will struggle to match last season's win total (12) and compete for a BCS bowl. Replacing quarterback Kellen Moore is no easy task, but junior Joe Southwick and freshman Nick Patti should keep the offense performing at a high level. Senior running back D.J. Harper is capable of rushing for over 1,000 yards but must stay healthy. Despite the return of only one starter, the Broncos should have one of the top defenses in the Mountain West. The opener at Michigan State will be a good barometer test, but the season finale against Nevada could decide if Boise State can finish inside of the top 10 in the BCS standings. Don't count out the Broncos from making another run at a BCS bowl. However, the personel losses suggest this team is probably one year away from playing in a BCS game.

16. What will we see from John L. Smith at Arkansas?
The motorcycle fiasco that eventually cost Bobby Petrino his job seems like ancient history. John L. Smith appears to have rallied the players, and then he enjoyed a charm offensive with reporters at SEC Media Days. All of that is great for the summer, but he’ll be back under the microscope on game days. Arkansas still has some questions on offense, including the line, the health of Knile Davis and depth in the receiving corps. The Hogs have early cakewalks against Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe to iron out those issues before facing Alabama in Week Three.

17. If Stanford is going to rely on Stepfan Taylor to run the ball, who’s going to pave the way?
Wait, Stanford lost more than Andrew Luck in the offseason? Yes. David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, both taken in the first 42 picks on the NFL draft, are gone. The other three starters (left guard David Yankey, center Sam Schwartzstein and right tackle Cameron Fleming) are back to form a solid foundation for the line. There’s healthy competition among returning players for the two vacant slots. Stanford’s impressive freshman line class -- which included three linemen in the Athlon Consensus 100 -- will be worth watching as well. True freshmen rarely start on the offensive line anywhere, but we should note Martin and DeCastro both started as redshirt freshmen at Stanford.

18. Which ACC contender will find the right mix on the offensive line?
Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech are expected to be the ACC’s best teams in 2012. However, neither of the three should feel particularly good about its offensive line. Virginia Tech must replace four starters, including standouts Blake DeChristopher and Jaymes Brooks. Center Andrew Miller is a solid place to start rebuilding but there’s very little experience around him. Florida State returns a handful of experienced players, but the starting five could all be sophomores. Clemson loses three starters but returns center Dalton Freeman. The Tigers have one of the college football’s top trios coming back (Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington and Sammy Watkins), but the offense could sputter without better performance from the line. It’s possible that none of the three teams will find an answer during the year. However, whichever team can sort out its offensive line question marks the earliest could have the inside track at winning the ACC title.

19. Can Michigan find the right answers in the trenches?
Even with quarterback Denard Robinson returning, Michigan could find it difficult to repeat last season’s 11 wins. The Wolverines have a tough schedule and must replace two stalwarts from the trenches in center David Molk and defensive tackle Mike Martin. The Wolverines will likely turn to senior Ricky Barnum at center, while freshman Ondre Pipkins could play a key role on the defensive line. Considering Barnum’s experience and Taylor Lewan’s return at left tackle, the Wolverines should feel confident that the line can still perform at a high level. The defensive line is a bigger question mark, especially with run-first teams like Alabama, Michigan State and Nebraska on the schedule. It’s unreasonable to expect both units to match their production from 2011, but too much of a drop could cost Michigan a chance to win the Legends Division.

20. How will Danny O’Brien take the reins at Wisconsin?
Though O’Brien and Russell Wilson arrived under similar circumstances as graduate student transfers from the ACC, the Badgers shouldn’t necessarily expect similar results. Wilson had the best single-season for a Big Ten quarterback. Ill-suited as he may have been with the Terrapins under Randy Edsall, O’Brien did lose his starting job for a 2-10 Maryland team last season. Wilson was as accurate and efficient as any quarterback in the country, but he also took an active leadership role when he arrived on campus. O’Brien may have less on his shoulders thanks to Montee Ball, but how well he takes to his new team and new role may determine the course of the Badgers’ season.

Related College Football Content

Athlon's 2012 College Football Bowl Projections
Athlon's 2012 All-American Team

Athlon's 2012 All-Name Team
Athlon's 2012 College Football Rankings

ACC's Top 10 Storylines for Fall Practice

Big East's Top 10 Storylines for Fall Practice
Big Ten's Top 10 Storylines for Fall Practice

Big 12's Top 10 Storylines for Fall Practice

Pac-12's Top 10 Storylines for Fall Practice

SEC's Top 10 Storylines for Fall Practice

Teaser:
<p> College Football's Top 20 Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice</p>
Post date: Monday, August 6, 2012 - 05:50
Path: /college-football/big-east-footballs-breakout-players-2012
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Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task. 

Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2012 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season.

Predicting the Big East's Breakout Players for 2012

Brandon Coleman, WR, Rutgers At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Coleman is one of the most physically imposing receivers in the nation. As a redshirt freshman last year, he caught 17 passes for 552 yards and six touchdowns. Coleman was playing at a high level at the end of the season, catching six passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns against Connecticut and an 86-yard touchdown reception in the bowl win over Iowa State. The Scarlet Knights need more stability from their quarterbacks, but with Mohamed Sanu moving onto the NFL, Coleman could become Rutgers’ go-to target.

Chris Coyer, QB, TempleWith running back Bernard Pierce leaving for the NFL, the Owls will probably ask more of Coyer in the air in 2012. He played in eight games last season (four starts) and finished with 562 yards and three scores on the ground. Coyer threw only 50 passes all of last year but threw six touchdowns and tossed zero interceptions. With Coyer’s rushing ability, the return of Matt Brown and the addition of Montel Harris, the Owls should have one of the Big East’s top rushing attacks. However, if Temple wants to make a push for a bowl game in its first year back in the Big East, Coyer needs to take his performance in four starts and expand that over a full season. 

Hubie Graham, TE, PittsburghNew coach Paul Chryst is bringing a pro-style offense back to Pittsburgh, and Graham should be one of the biggest benefactors of the change in offensive styles. He caught 28 passes for 325 yards and three scores last year but should increase those totals in 2012. Chryst’s offenses at Wisconsin heavily involved the tight ends – Jacob Pedersen caught 30 passes and eight touchdowns last year – so expect Graham to be one of the team’s leading receivers once again in 2012. 

Sterling Griffin, WR, South FloridaGriffin got off to a fast start last season, catching 40 passes through South Florida’s first seven games. During that stretch, he also nabbed two touchdown catches and posted 109 yards in the loss to Pittsburgh. Griffin’s progress was slowed after a broken foot suffered in the loss to Cincinnati, forcing him to miss the next four games. As long as the junior can stay healthy, he should be the No. 1 target for quarterback B.J. Daniels and is an Athlon Sports first-team All-Big East selection for 2012. 

DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville In some ways, Parker broke out last season. As a true freshman, he caught 18 passes for 291 yards and six touchdowns. His best performance came in the 24-17 loss to FIU, grabbing four receptions for 52 yards and one touchdown. With another offseason to work with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Parker should push for the team lead in receptions. As evidenced by his touchdown total from 2011 (6), Parker is one of the Big East’s top threats in the redzone and should be Bridgewater’s go-to guy around the goal-line once again.

Marcus Sales, WR, SyracuseSales was suspended for all of 2011 due to an off-the-field incident, but his return is huge for an offense that will rely on the pass to win in 2012. In 2010, Sales finished the year by catching at least five passes in each of the final four games, including 172 yards in the bowl win over Kansas State. Alec Lemon is entrenched as Syracuse’s go-to target, but Sales should help quarterback Ryan Nassib stretch the field and could push for All-Big East honors by the end of the year. 

Rushel Shell, RB, Pittsburgh With Ray Graham recovering from a torn ACL, the Pittsburgh coaching staff won’t rush him back into a full workload. Sophomore Isaac Bennett had a solid spring and is expected to see his share of carries in 2012, but it will be difficult to keep Shell on the sidelines. He ranked as the No. 33 overall prospect in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 and will be expected to contribute early and often this season. Shell won’t beat out Graham for the No. 1 spot, but he should turn plenty of heads in his limited workload in 2012.

Marcus Smith, DE, LouisvilleThe Cardinals finished 10th nationally against the run last season, and this unit could be even better in 2012. Charlie Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford have accumulated depth and athletic ability, molding Louisville’s line into one of the best in the Big East. Smith has bounced around the field in his career, starting at quarterback and moving to linebacker in 2010. He moved to defensive end in 2011 and made five starts last season, recording 12 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Smith should be Louisville’s top pass rusher and will have an increased role in the defense in 2012. 

Walter Stewart, DE, Cincinnati Stewart certainly isn’t an unknown to fans in the Big East, but look for the senior to get some recognition on the national level in 2012. Derek Wolfe was one of the top defensive players in the Big East last season, and the Bearcats will lean on Stewart for the same type of production. He started all 13 games and recorded 44 stops, while also posting 11 tackles for a loss and six sacks. Losing Wolfe adds more pressure on the ends to produce, but Stewart is capable of pushing for the conference lead in sacks. 

Chandler Whitmer, QB, Connecticut All of the pieces are in place for the Huskies to push for the Big East title – except quarterback. Is Whitmer the answer under center? That’s the big question facing Connecticut in 2012. He started his career at Illinois but transferred after his redshirt freshman year to play one season at Butler Community College. Whitmer had a strong showing in the spring, completing 18 of 27 passes for 187 yards. The sophomore doesn’t have to throw for 3,000 yards, but has to give Connecticut’s more offense a threat through the air. Whitmer may have a few ups and downs due to his inexperience, but he should give the Huskies a much-needed boost in the passing game. 


by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

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Teaser:
<p> Big East Football's Breakout Players for 2012</p>
Post date: Monday, August 6, 2012 - 05:47
Path: /college-football/overrated-overlooked-numbers-and-trends-college-football
Body:

With college football season less than a month away, some (but hopefully not all) preseason predictions and projections will be moot. Trust us, we’ve been digesting our thoughts on the upcoming season since the end of spring practice and even the end of bowl season.

As is the case each season, some of the summer’s biggest talking points will fall flat once the season begins. And after a few games into 2012, we’ll be sure to ask ourselves “how did we overlook that?”

 

We’d like to step ahead of the curve in the final weeks before kickoff and point out a few things you may be overrating during the offseason as well as a few you may be overlooking, too.

 

How much of West Virginia’s preseason love is based on a gaudy bowl score -- and is that fair assessment? Which numbers just didn’t add up for Kansas State’s 10-3 season?

 

Conversely, how much are we overlooking statistically sound teams who simply ran into a case of bad luck or untimely injuries?

 

We’re sure you have your picks for the overrated or overlooked storylines from the summer, but here are our picks:

 

DON’T OVERRATE

West Virginia as a Big 12 contender.

We’re on the West Virginia bandwagon as much as anyone. Athlon ranked the Mountaineers 12th nationally and third in the Big 12. Quarterback Geno Smith checked in as a second-team All-American. The Mountaineers’ eye-popping win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl handed West Virginia momentum into 2012, but don’t forget to look at the whole picture. West Virginia was 9-3 at the end of the regular season, winning its final three games by a field goal or less. The Mountaineers may not have even reached the Orange Bowl had Cincinnati starting quarterback Zach Collaros stayed healthy. The Bearcats were 3-0 in the Big East and West Virginia was 2-2 when the two met at Nippert Stadium. Collaros suffered an ankle injury in the second quarter of West Virginia’s 24-21 win and didn’t return until the bowl game.

Related: West Virginia preview

 

Kansas State’s offense.

The Wildcats return 11 starters, including quarterback Collin Klein, to a team that finished 10-3 last season and 7-2 in the Big 12. That’s all good news, but there’s reason to hesitate. Statistically, Kansas State looked more like a team on the bowl bubble than on its way to the Cotton Bowl. Kansas State was outgained by every Big 12 opponent except Kansas. In those eight games, Kansas State’s opponents topped the Wildcats by an average of 142.6 yards per game. K-State also was ninth in the Big 12 in yards per play (4.9) and sixth in yards allowed per play (5.7).

Related: Kansas State preview

 

Rich Rodriguez’s debut at Arizona.

The influx of new coaches and offensive gurus has been one of the biggest stories in the Pac-12 since January, but let’s not get carried away with any of these coaches being miracle workers in Year One. Start with Rich Rodriguez -- he’s 9-32-1 all-time in his debut season at a school, including Salem College (2-8), Glenville State (1-7-1), West Virginia (3-8) and Michigan (3-9). And with the Mountaineers and Wolverines, Rodriguez took over programs with winning records a year earlier. Rich Rod may have success at Arizona, but history says it’s going to have to wait a year or two.

Related: Arizona preview

 

Michigan State’s run game.

The departure of starting quarterback Kirk Cousins combined with the return of Le’Veon Bell (948 yards, 13 touchdowns) and a veteran offensive line seems to indicate Michigan State will return to a run-first approach. That may be a good idea, but there are signs it might not be a seamless transition. Michigan State was 11th in the Big Ten in rushing (137.9 yards per game) last season and tied for ninth in yards per carry (3.95). The Spartans haven’t finished better than sixth in the Big Ten in rushing in four seasons.

Related: Michigan State preview

 

NC State’s turnover prowess.

With Florida State and Clemson struggling to get out of their own way, NC State may be poised to take advantage in the ACC Atlantic. Quarterback Mike Glennon is a game-tested senior, so the Wolfpack probably will be stronger out of the gate than it was last season. Still, we have reasons to be skeptical about NC State. First, the losses -- 30-point losses to Cincinnati and Florida State, not to mention 14-10 to lowly Boston College. Turnover margin can be a finicky statistic, too, and NC State was plus-14 in that category. The Wolfpack probably shouldn’t count on David Amerson to repeat his 13-interception performance, either. Meanwhile, NC State finished 11th in the ACC in yards gained per play (4.64) in conference games.

Related: NC State preview

 

Knile Davis as the second coming of Darren McFadden.

Don’t get us wrong: We’re excited to see an Arkansas offense featuring both quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis. But don’t forget: All our opinions of Davis are based on a seven-game stretch in the second half of 2010 before he missed all of last season with an ankle injury. It was a seven-game run that propelled him to lead all SEC running backs in rushing that season, but it was still just seven games.

Related: Arkansas preview

 

Florida’s defense.

The Gators ranked eighth in the nation in total defense last season, but they were rarely mentioned in the same breath as Georgia and South Carolina, and that’s just the SEC East, never mind the West with Alabama and LSU. The reason? An alarmingly low number of takeaways. The Gators forced only 14 turnovers last season, tied with Notre Dame for the eighth fewest nationally. That’s bad news for an offense that needs all the help in can get.

Related: Florida preview

 

DON’T OVERLOOK

Ohio State’s close losses.

A major reason Athlon ranked Ohio State sixth this season is the combo of Urban Meyer, Braxton Miller and a standout defense. Besides those factors, Ohio State was awfully close to better record than 6-7 last season. The Buckeyes last six losses all came by a touchdown or less, including four on the road or at a neutral site. All that was with an interim coach and two quarterbacks, one being a freshman and the other Joe Bauserman. Meyer was 8-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less in his first two seasons at Florida (and then 3-6 thereafter). 

Related: Ohio State preview

 

Illinois’ defense.

Illinois is the mirror image of some of the “lucky” teams mentioned above. The Illini were in the top three in the Big Ten last season in yards allowed per play, per carry and per pass attempt, leading to a top-10 finish nationally in total defense. The offense couldn’t bail out the defense, though, turning over the ball a Big Ten-worst 28 times. During Illinois’ six-game losing streak, the Illini averaged only 11 points. While Illinois loses defensive end Whitney Mercilus, the Illini have pro talent in tackle Akeem Spence and end Michael Buchanan.

Related: Illinois preview

 

Oklahoma State’s turnover trend.

The Cowboys’ defense was never as bad as its 456.8 yards allowed statistic indicated. Oklahoma State was middle of the pack nationally in yards allowed per play, a more telling statistic with so many hurry-up offenses. The Pokes also led the nation in takeaways with 44, five more than the next best team. Normally, we’d caution against getting too wrapped up in high turnover numbers, but it’s too much of a trend in Stillwater to ignore. The Cowboys have led the Big 12 in takeaways in each of the last two seasons and were tied for third in defensive coordinator Bill Young’s first season in 2009.

Related: Oklahoma State preview

 

Texas A&M’s SEC-readiness.

Don’t laugh. The Aggies may be a little more ready to compete in the SEC than onlookers would realize. No, this doesn’t mean A&M is ready to compete with Alabama, LSU or Arkansas, but the Aggies’ defense and offensive line might give them a leg up in the SEC. Texas A&M ranked 59th nationally in total defense, but the Aggies could blame part of that in a leaky pass defense and second-half turnover problems. The Aggies faced four quarterbacks (Brandon Weeden, Landry Jones, Seth Doege and Robert Griffin III) last season who ranked ahead of the SEC’s top passer (Tyler Wilson). After WilsonIn addition, the Aggies were solid against the run. Their 2.6 yards allowed per carry was better than LSU and behind only Alabama in the SEC last season -- though only Ole Miss in the SEC allowed more rushing TDs. Throw in A&M’s pro prospects at offensive tackle, Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, and the Aggies may be able to keep the SEC’s top pass rushers at bay.

Related: Texas A&M preview

 

USF’s season of bad luck.

USF’s good luck ran out after Notre Dame’s turnover-filled opener, which propelled the Bulls to a 23-20 win in South Bend. After breezing through the non-conference schedule, USF did everything wrong late in the season. The Bulls’ lost seven of their last eight games, losing a fourth-quarter lead in five of those games. Blame it on poor third-down defense or turnover margin. Or blame it on a strange schedule, which included four non-Saturday games in the final eight games and only two games total in October. Before things went haywire last season, quarterback B.J. Daniels was on his way to a career year. Through the first seven games (all before top receiver Sterling Griffin was hurt), Daniels was on his way to career highs in completion percentage and pass efficiency. He also ranked ninth nationally in total offense (he finished ranked 17th). With a more predictable schedule featuring one Thursday game and one Friday game more than two months apart, USF should have some much-needed stability.

Related: USF preview

 

Jordan Wynn’s return.

Don’t forget: If not for an inexplicable 17-14 loss at home to Colorado on Nov. 25, Utah would have played in the Pac-12 title game. Most of the results last season was with a quarterback, Jon Hays, who slipped behind freshmen on the depth chart in spring. Jordan Wynn, who is 13-6 as a starter over parts of three seasons, returns after missing the final nine games following surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. Utah faces USC at home and misses Oregon and Stanford altogether, so the Utes could be in position for a winning Pac-12 record in only their second season in the league.

Related: Utah preview

 

Boise State’s schedule.

For the first time in four seasons, Boise State is lacking preseason buzz. Even teams like Louisiana Tech and Arkansas State are receiving more fanfare among non-Big Six teams. When the season is over, don’t be surprised if Boise State has one of the nation’s best records, despite heavy personnel losses. Boise State faces one major conference team, Michigan State, all season. Like Boise State, the Spartans are replacing one of their best quarterbacks in school history in the 2012 opener. After that, Boise State’s toughest games are BYU at home and Nevada in Reno in the finale. The Broncos still have an experienced offensive line, playmakers at running back and receiver, and a handful of upperclassmen players on defense despite just one returning full-time starter. Boise State is an upset over Michigan State away from being in the BCS-buster conversation again.

Related: Boise State preview

 

-David Fox 

@DavidFox615

Teaser:
<p> Overrated, overlooked numbers and trends for college football</p>
Post date: Monday, August 6, 2012 - 04:34
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Oregon Ducks, Pac 12, News
Path: /college-football/oregon-ducks-2012-qb-battle-bryan-bennett-vs-marcus-mariota
Body:

Darron Thomas’ decision to enter the NFL Draft caught some by surprise, but Oregon isn’t expecting to have much of a drop in production from its quarterbacks. Thomas threw for 5,910 yards and 66 touchdowns in his career and led the Ducks to two BCS bowls. Chip Kelly is one of the top offensive minds in college football and even with a new signal-caller, Oregon should rank among the best in the nation in scoring and total offense in 2012.

The Candidates:

#2 Bryan Bennett

2011 stats: 369 yards, 6 TDs, 0 INT, 54.3; 200 rush yards

#8 Marcus Mariota

2011 stats: Redshirted

The Breakdown:

Bennett gained an early edge in the quarterback competition last season, playing well in relief of Darron Thomas against Arizona State and starting in the 45-2 blowout victory over Colorado. In the win against the Buffaloes, Bennett completed 11 of 20 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 69 yards on the ground.

Although Bennett had the edge in experience entering spring practice, the coaching staff had an open competition, allowing redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota to fight his way into the mix. He ranked as the No. 12 dual-threat quarterback in the nation by Rivals.com in the 2011 recruiting class.

Mariota was the better quarterback in the spring game, completing 18 of 26 passes for 202 yards and one score, while adding 99 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. However, Bennett wasn’t too far behind in the throwing department, completing 19 of 32 attempts for 209 yards. The only downside to his passing numbers was two interceptions.

While it’s easy to put stock in a spring game performance, it’s important to remember the offense was divided into two teams, and Mariota had the advantage of playing with a better offensive line.

Final Verdict

There’s no question Chip Kelly has a tough decision to make. However, the news isn’t all bad, as Oregon has two options capable of leading this team to another Pac-12 Championship. And it’s not of the question that both players will be needed to play this year and a two-quarterback system could be used.

Bennett owns the edge in experience, but Mariota brings more big-play ability on the ground. Bennett is certainly a capable runner, but Mariota would seem to provide more of a big-play threat. Both players are inexperienced as passers, which could be the one area that receives the most attention in the fall.   

Whenever there’s a new starter under center, a few bumps in the road can be expected. However, expect a fairly seamless transition from Thomas to Bennett/Mariota.

Although Mariota won the spring game, this battle is a virtual dead heat going into the season opener against Arkansas State.

Predicted Winner: Mariota
 

by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

 


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Teaser:
<p> Oregon Ducks 2012 QB Battle: Bryan Bennett vs. Marcus Mariota</p>
Post date: Monday, August 6, 2012 - 04:27
Path: /college-football/secs-top-10-storylines-watch-fall-practice
Body:

Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is just around the corner. However, plenty of unanswered questions remain around the nation for every team. Injuries, quarterback battles and players that need to step up to make a run at the conference title will all be under the spotlight over the next couple of weeks. 

The SEC's 10 Biggest Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice

1. Is Zach Mettenberger the missing piece at LSU?
National championship caliber defense? Check. Punishing running game and offensive line? Check. Quarterback? Wait and see. The biggest issue for the Tigers in recent years has been quarterback play. Although LSU made the national title game last year, having a difference maker under center could make the Tigers the most complete team in college football. Mettenberger played sparingly last season, completing 8 of 11 passes for 92 yards in mop-up duty against Northwestern State. The Tigers won’t ask Mettenberger to win many games on his own, but his emergence will allow the offense to open up more in 2012 and finally give the team a chance to stretch the field. The junior will have his share of ups and downs in his first season, but it looks like LSU finally has a quarterback that it can lean on to win games through the air.

2. How could early season suspensions hamper Georgia?
Mark Richt hasn’t revealed any suspensions other than two games for starting cornerback Sanders Commings, but a handful of other starters on the Bulldogs’ defense could miss a crucial game at Missouri in the second week of the season. Safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alex Ogletree are possibilities to miss the Tigers’ SEC debut. Rambo’s suspension could stretch into four games, which would include a home date with upstart Vanderbilt. The Commodores came within five points of upsetting the Bulldogs last season. Richt’s silence on the matter may be gamesmanship for the Missouri game, but even if Georgia’s only missing a couple of key players on defense, coordinator Todd Grantham may need to prepare his secondary to take some lumps.

3. How quickly can Alabama’s defense find replacements?
Losing Trent Richardson is a huge blow for the offense, but the Crimson Tide has capable replacements waiting in the wings with Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart. The biggest obstacle to a repeat national title will be the loss of several key players on defense, including All-SEC selections Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, Josh Chapman, Dont’a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick. Alabama has recruited well, so the cupboard is far from bare for coordinator Kirby Smart and coach Nick Saban. The secondary will have three new starters, but juniors Dee Milliner and John Fulton have experience at cornerback. Sophomore Vinnie Sunseri will likely start at strong safety. Additionally, junior college recruits Travell Dixon and Deion Belue had a solid spring and will push for time in the fall. The biggest questions on defense could be in the front seven. Jesse Williams will move from end to nose guard, while the starting linebacking corps could be composed of three sophomores. Repeating last season’s No. 1 rank in total, scoring, rush and pass defense is probably too much to ask of a rebuilt defense. However, don’t expect the Crimson Tide to suffer much of a drop in production, especially as some of the younger players get comfortable with more playing time.

4. How is Florida’s offense shaking out?
Florida fans won’t have Charlie Weis to kick around anymore, but what does the addition of Brent Pease as offensive coordinator mean for the Gators’ murky quarterback situation? Sophomores Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett remain neck and neck for the starting job, but the Gators may need answers quickly. Customarily, the Gators’ first major test of the season isn’t until Week Three against Tennessee, but a Sept. 8 trip to Texas A&M probably speeds up the timetable. Driskel and Brissett have 73 pass attempts between them, but coach Will Muschamp is at least comforted they have 73 more attempts than they did a year ago. Both struggled to pass downfield, so the quarterback who’s able to stretch the field beyond 10 yards might get the early edge.

5. Is Marcus Lattimore fully healthy?
Reports from South Carolina indicate the Gamecocks star running back is ready to go for the season, but we won’t know for certain until we see Lattimore take the field for the first time since his Oct. 15 knee injury against Mississippi State. Steve Spurrier says the Gamecocks are protecting Lattimore in practice, so his first true game action may be the opener at Vanderbilt. Lattimore’s injury last season enabled Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles to gain experience. South Carolina could be in better shape in the backfield than it was at the start of last season, but Lattimore’s knee may be the difference between winning the SEC East or not.

6. Is Missouri quarterback James Franklin healthy?
Moving from the Big 12 to the SEC will be a challenge for Missouri, but the task is even more difficult with Franklin returning from a shoulder injury. In his first season as a starter, Franklin threw for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushed for 981 yards and 15 scores. Franklin missed most of spring practice due to an injury to his throwing shoulder but is on track to return by the season opener. Although the junior is expected to be ready to go by kickoff, the Tigers will have to be cautious. Franklin probably won’t handle 217 carries again, which makes the play of running backs Kendial Lawrence and Marcus Murphy even more important. Franklin will have a nice tune-up against SE Louisiana to test his arm, and it will be important to build some confidence with Georgia coming to Columbia in Week 2. Quarterbacks returning from a shoulder injury are always a concern, especially if there are any issues with lost arm strength or timing with receivers. However, all signs point to a full recovery from Franklin.

7. What happens when Tyler Bray hands the ball to a running back?
Tennessee’s rushing numbers have dropped in each of the last three seasons, bottoming out at 90.1 yards per game (116th nationally), 2.8 yards per carry (last in the SEC) and 11 rushing touchdowns. Bray and his receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers will need to be the foundation of the offense, but the Volunteers’ run game needs to provide something. Rajion Neal may have the most potential in the Vols’ backfield after averaging nearly 5 yards per carry last season, but he’s a converted wide receiver who had trouble with fumbles. A committee approach might be the solution.

8. Quarterback Battles at Auburn and Texas A&M
LSU, Alabama and Arkansas seem set as the top three teams in the SEC West. However, the rest of the division is up for grabs, as Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State could all make a case to be picked fourth. The Tigers are hoping sophomore Kiehl Frazier can emerge as the team’s No. 1 quarterback, and he left spring practice with a lead over junior Clint Moseley. New coordinator Scot Loeffler has implemented a pro-style attack, but Frazier – recruited to run Gus Malzahn’s spread – didn’t have much trouble picking up the offense in the spring. Not only is Texas A&M joining the SEC and breaking in a new coaching staff, but the Aggies must replace Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Texas A&M hopes to implement a spread attack but there will be growing pains with little experience returning under center. Sophomore Jameill Showers left spring practice with an edge over Johnny Manziel and would be a surprise if that spot changed hands in the fall. Whichever team (Auburn or Texas A&M) settles its quarterback situation first could have a chance to put some pressure on Arkansas for third place in the SEC West.

9. What will we see from John L. Smith?
The motorcycle fiasco that eventually cost Bobby Petrino his job seems like ancient history. John L. Smith appears to have rallied the players, and then he enjoyed a charm offensive with reporters at SEC Media Days. All of that is great for the summer, but he’ll be back under the microscope on game days. Arkansas still has some questions on offense, including the line, the health of Knile Davis and depth in the receiving corps. The Hogs have early cakewalks against Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe to iron out those issues before facing Alabama in Week Three.

10. Is Mississippi State ready to take the next step?
Outside of Kentucky and Vanderbilt, the toughest job in the SEC is at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs play in a brutal division and had only three winning seasons from 2000-2010. Dan Mullen has done a good job of getting the program pointed in the right direction, leading the Bulldogs to a 21-17 record in his first three years. However, it’s time for the program to take the next step. Mullen has yet to beat a team in the SEC West outside of Ole Miss. Despite the departure of quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard, Mississippi State should be able to challenge for fourth place in the SEC West this season. LSU, Alabama and Arkansas are largely considered the top teams in the division, but Auburn and Texas A&M aren’t too far ahead of the Bulldogs. Even if Mississippi State doesn’t finish fourth in the SEC West, beating Tennessee on Oct. 13 or Arkansas on Nov. 17 would be another boost to the program. The Bulldogs have the schedule to make their third consecutive bowl appearance, but climbing higher in the SEC standings is one of the top goals for Mullen this season.
 

by David Fox (@DavidFox615) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

 

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2012 Is a Make or Break Year for Tennessee's Derek Dooley

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Teaser:
<p> SEC's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice</p>
Post date: Friday, August 3, 2012 - 18:55
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/candidates-announced-johnny-unitas-golden-arm-award
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The Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award is one of college football's premier honors and is awarded to the NCAA's top quarterback for on-field performance and character. 

Below are the preseason candidates for the Johnny Unitas Award and some of their accomplishments heading into 2012. 

Check out the official site for more information on the candidates and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award.

Candidates for the 2012 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award

Ryan Aplin, Arkansas State
Aplin is one of the nation’s most underrated quarterbacks, recording 4,176 yards and 29 overall scores last year. New coach Gus Malzahn is bringing an up-tempo offense to Jonesboro, which should allow Aplin to have Arkansas State in the hunt for the Sun Belt title once again.

Matt Barkley, USC
The senior is widely considered to be college football’s best player and opens 2012 as a frontrunner for most national awards. Barkley has thrown for 80 career touchdowns and is an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2012.

Tajh Boyd, Clemson
Boyd emerged as one of the ACC’s best quarterbacks in his first season as a starter. He finished with 3,828 yards and tossed 33 touchdowns while leading Clemson to its first ACC Championship since 2011.

Alex Carder, Western Michigan
Carder has been one of the MAC’s top quarterbacks over the last two years and had five games of at least 400 passing yards last season. He also set a Western Michigan single-season record with 3,873 passing yards in 2011.

Derek Carr, Fresno State
The last name Carr and Fresno State are no stranger to success. David Carr won the 2001 Johnny Unitas Award and Derek should be the Mountain West’s top quarterback in 2012. He threw for 3,544 yards and 26 scores in 2011.

B.J. Daniels, South Florida
Daniels posted a career-best 3,205 total yards last season and should be one of the Big East’s top offensive players in 2012. The senior is one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks and expects to have South Florida in the mix for the conference title.

Seth Doege, Texas Tech
Quarterbacks at Texas Tech are no stranger to producing eye-popping numbers. Doege threw for 4,004 yards and 28 touchdowns, while leading Texas Tech to a huge upset over Oklahoma on Oct. 22 in his first full season as the starter in 2011.

Nick Florence, Baylor
Replacing Robert Griffin is no easy task, but Florence is experienced and primed for a standout senior year. He has 1,992 yards and eight touchdowns in 18 career games and started seven contests when Griffin was out due to a torn ACL.

Mike Glennon, NC State
Glennon shined in his first season as NC State’s starter, throwing for 2,932 yards and 31 scores. He closed out the year on a tear, leading the Wolfpack to three consecutive wins, including a bowl victory over Louisville. Glennon should be one of the ACC’s best quarterbacks in 2012.

Landry Jones, Oklahoma
Already the holder of 13 school passing marks, Jones has thrown for 12,379 yards and 93 touchdowns in his first three seasons. A starter since his redshirt freshman season, Jones has led the Sooners to a 22-5 record the past two seasons and is 3-0 in bowl games for his career.

Collin Klein, Kansas State
All Klein did in his first season as the Wildcats' starter was throw for more than 1,900 yards and rush for more than 1,100 while leading the team to 10 wins. He accounted for a total of 40 touchdowns, including 27 on the ground, which established a new FBS record for quarterbacks.

EJ Manuel, Florida State
A shoulder injury hindered Manuel at times in 2011 and with a full offseason to recover, should have an All-ACC caliber senior year. Manuel threw for 2,666 yards and 18 touchdowns last season and added 151 yards and four scores on the ground.

AJ McCarron, Alabama
McCarron led the Crimson Tide to the national championship last season, throwing for 2,634 yards and 16 touchdowns. Even though it was his first year as the starter, McCarron tossed only five picks. McCarron will have a bigger role in the offense in this season and should easily surpass last season’s totals.

Aaron Murray, Georgia
In his second season as a stater, Murray led Georgia to the SEC Championship Game by passing for 3,149 yards and a school-record 35 touchdown passes. He was second-team All-SEC last season and should make another bid for the SEC East title.

Ryan Nassib, Syracuse
Quarterback had long been a trouble spot for Syracuse, but Nassib has bucked that trend. In 2011, Nassib set school records for completions (259) and passing yards (2,685).

Casey Pachall, TCU
After taking over for four-year starter and second-round draft pick, Pachall improved as the 2011 season went along, completing nearly two-thirds of his passes for 2,921 yards with 25 touchdowns.

Keith Price, Washington
Despite dealing with knee injuries for most of last year, Price delivered in a big way for Washington’s offense. He threw for 33 touchdowns and 3,063 yards, while adding three rushing scores on the ground in the bowl game over Baylor. A healthy year from Price should deliver big results for Washington.

Sean Renfree, Duke
Renfree is yet another name in a list of prolific passers to play for David Cutcliffe. Renfree has passed for 6,022 yards and 28 touchdowns in his two season as a starter.

Bryn Renner, North Carolina
Renner led the ACC and finished 10th nationally in pass efficiency. Now he plays for no-huddle spread expert Larry Fedora. Renner passed for 3,086 yards and 26 touchdowns in his first season as a starter.

Denard Robinson, Michigan
With speed, athleticism and elusiveness, Robinson is one of college football’s most exciting players. He has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons on the ground and threw for a career-best 20 passing scores last season. Robinson’s play is a huge reason why Michigan enters 2012 as the favorite to win the Big Ten title.

Jordan Rodgers, Vanderbilt
The younger brother of reigning NFL MVP and Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Jordan made a name for himself after taking over as the Commodores' starter halfway through last season. After averaging 20.4 points and 244.4 yards of offense through the first five games, Vanderbilt's output increased to 31.6 points and 413.0 yards in its final seven regular-season games with Rodgers running the show.

Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois
Scheelhaase accounted for nearly 60 percent of Illinois' total offense in 2011 as he threw for more than 2,000 yards also and led the team in rushing. He capped off his sophomore season by earning Offensive Player of the Game honors as he led the Fighting Illini to a 20-14 win over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

Geno Smith, West Virginia
A year after throwing for 4,385 yards and 31 scores, Smith is poised for an even bigger 2012 season. The senior has another offseason of experience in coach Dana Holgorsen’s offense under his belt, while the move to the offensive-minded Big 12 Conference shouldn’t hurt Smith’s numbers.

Brad Sorensen, Southern Utah
Sorensen has had an interesting journey to get to Southern Utah, starting his career at BYU and playing one season at San Bernardino Valley College. Sorensen has been one of the top players on the FCS level over the last two seasons, throwing for over 3,000 yards in both years and placing as a Payton Award finalist in 2011.

Tyler Tettleton, Ohio
Last season Tettleton took the Bobcats to new heights both statistically and in terms of team success. Besides quarterbacking an offense that shattered the school single-season records for points, passing yards and total yards, Tettleton led the Bobcats to 10 wins, including the program's first-ever bowl victory.

Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
One of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, all Thomas did in his first season as a starter was break the school single-season record for total yards with 3,482. The Hokies' second-leading rusher in 2011, Thomas accounted for a total of 30 touchdowns, including 11 on the ground.

Jeff Tuel, Washington State
Injuries never allowed Tuel’s 2011 season to get off the ground. He played in only three games and finished with 276 passing yards. With Mike Leach coordinating Washington State’s offense, look for Tuel to have a monster senior season.

James Vandenberg, Iowa
The best drop-back passer in the Big Ten, Vandenberg passed for 3,022 yards last season with 25 touchdowns in his first season as a starter.

Tyler Wilson, Arkansas
Arkansas has set a handful of passing records in the last three seasons. In his first season as starting quarterback, Wilson was no exception. He became the first Razorback quarterback to be named first-team All-SEC last season after passing for 4,378 yards and 31 touchdowns. 
 

Check out the official site for more information on the candidates and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award.

Teaser:
<p> Candidates Announced for Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award</p>
Post date: Friday, August 3, 2012 - 12:34
All taxonomy terms: College Football, NFL, NBA, MLB, Olympics
Path: /college-football/athlon%E2%80%99s-essential-eleven-links-day-10
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports posts on the web for August 3.

• Several MLB Facebook accounts were hacked yesterday, and Yankees fans received a strange message regarding Derek Jeter.

• Bleacher Report’s Barrett Sallee and Michael Felder debate which powerhouse is the top dog in the SEC: Alabama or LSU?

• This Australian paper has a very interesting way of distinguishing between North and South Korea’s Olympic medal standing.

• Florida Gators recruiting coordinator and wide receiver coach Aubrey Hill has resigned. His name has been linked to the recruiting scandal at Miami that is currently being investigated.

• Here is another member of the Olympic all-name team.

• After trouncing Nigeria 156-73, USA Basketball had to play its first defense of the day — angrily denying questions on running up the score against the much-weaker opponent.

• CBS’ Danny Knobler previews this weekend’s most important MLB series.

• Justin Blackmon of the Jaguars is the only 2012 selection who has yet to sign with his new club.

• Check out this Illinois fan getting a rather interesting autograph from offensive lineman Graham Pocic.

• SB Nation has a fun look at the Olympic trampoline competition.

Will Ferrell gets extremely emotional on Conan over the breakup of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Damn Trampires.

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

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


August 2

• Check out the inspiring story of Daniel Rodriguez, who won a Purple Heart while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and will now walk on at Clemson this fall.

• Will Jets backup quarterback Tim Tebow be the ultimate touchdown vulture this season?

• Mandatory.com looks at some of the dumbest bets ever made.

• Three Oklahoma Sooners were reinstated by Bob Stoops, while promising OU center Ben Habern is ending his football career due to neck and back concerns.

• Are the Yankees still the favorite in the American League?

• ESPN Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna analyzes what the suspensions to quarterback Tommy Rees and linebacker Carlo Calabrese will mean for the Irish.

• Where did you have Dennis Rodman in the “person least likely to write a children’s book” pool?

• Kayla Harrison won the first-ever gold medal in judo for the United States.

• The Cleveland Browns have been sold for over $1 billion. Yes, those Browns.

• North Carolina might wear white helmets in a game this year.

Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully is a living legend. He has been in the Baseball Hall of Fame since 1982, and the 84-year-old is still going strong today. Hearing Scully describe Twitter on a recent broadcast was golden.

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

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


August 1

• Swimmer Michael Phelps broke the all-time Olympics record by winning his 19th career medal. An amazing 15 of those medals have been gold.

• ESPN’s Jayson Stark hands out “medals” for baseball’s winners and losers at the trade deadline.

• Check out this Olympic volleyball player’s interesting name.

• ESPN ACC blogger Heather Dinich has the latest on the dismissal of senior cornerback/punt returner Greg Reid at Florida State.

• The Pac-12 has been the beneficiary of Penn State’s top two transfers.

• If you’re looking for a new sport to follow during the Olympics, we suggest becoming a fan of the Australian synchronized swimming team.

• All-America running back Montee Ball is fine, but he experienced a scary moment on the Wisconsin campus.

• Has the Olympic ideal really come down to tanking badminton matches?

• With the announcement that Eastbound and Down is coming back to HBO, Kenny Powers’ fan are stocking up on Myrtle Beach Mermen gear.

• UCF will not be seeing the postseason for a while after being sanctioned by the NCAA for recruiting violations.

Missouri offensive lineman Elvis Fisher has some interesting and funny demands before he returns to the field. The SEC has a new sarcasm star.

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

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


July 31

• The MLB trade deadline commences at 4pm EST today, and MLBTraderumors.com will have the latest on all the deals. Many believe that Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster will end up with the Dodgers, who have already acquired outfielder Shane Victorino from the Phillies.

• NBC had a major gaffe last night, promoting the gold medal of swimmer Missy Franklin before the network showed her race.

AJC columnist Mark Bradley examines the Braves acquisition of red hot pitcher Paul Maholm and scrappy outfielder Reed Johnson from the Cubs.

• Here’s an interesting political candidate in Guam.

• The Yankees received good news on Mark Teixeira’s injured wrist, which has no structural damage. That fact may alleviate the need for New York to make a deal for a backup first baseman.

• This could be decision day for Penn State leading rusher Silas Redd, who is expected to transfer to USC.

• James Bond is back. Check out the trailer for Skyfall, which opens in November.

• Is Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale angry with management regarding the team’s offseason moves?

• A top running back decommits from Oklahoma because he wants to play in the SEC.

• The trade of offensive tackle Jeff Otah, the 19th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, from the Panthers to the Jets has been voided.

• We go back to Wrigley Field for a second straight day, where this Cubs fan has a slight tactical error with his marriage proposal. But unlike the “Loveable Losers” on the field, everything worked out fine in the end.

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

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


July 30

• NBC’s tape-delayed coverage of the Olympics over the weekend is drawing heavy criticism around America.

• ESPN Big 12 blogger David Ubben had an interesting first-team All-Big 12 vote, selecting Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein at running back.

• Did Packers tight end D.J. Williams really use cow-wrestling as an offseason training program?

• France upset the United States in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, with Ryan Lochte being passed on the last leg of the race.

• FOX’s Jon Paul Morosi thinks the Phillies and Red Sox, usually contenders who are acquiring players at the trade deadline, should sell this season.

American Pie star Jason Biggs was attacked by a monkey in Gibraltar and had to return to the United States. No word yet if the monkey was influenced by bath salts.

• Andre Johnson has already suffered a slight groin injury in camp, which has the Texans — and fantasy owners — worried.

• Mike Dyer was a star in the BCS Championship Game less than two years ago, but now he’s a runner without a team after being dismissed from another school.

• SMU players fall victim to a different type of “pay for play” scheme.

• How will Jacque Vaughn’s hiring affect the Dwight Howard saga in Orlando?

• New Illinois football coach Tim Beckman gives us a unique version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at Wrigley Field.

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

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> The best sports links from the NFL, college football and basketball, MLB, the NBA, NASCAR and the world of entertainment.</p>
Post date: Friday, August 3, 2012 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /olympics/2012-olympics-5-cant-miss-events-aug-3
Body:

Another packed day — Phelps' farewell, the all-out sprint of the 50m, the start of track and field, and much more. Here's the Fab Five for Aug. 3, which will highlight NBC's prime-time schedule starting at 8 pm Eastern:

1. Men's 100m Butterfly
One final curtain call for the great Michael Phelps in what will likely be the last individual event of his spectacular career. He's the two-time defending Olympic champion in this event and a virtual certainty to add a 21st medal to his personal collection. Later in the day, Phelps' career will officially come to a close (barring a 2016 change of heart) in the 4x100 medley.

2. Women's 200m Backstroke
American darling Missy Franklin will look to add to her medal total in her signature stroke, although countrywoman Elizabeth Beisel will have a say as well.

3. Men's 50m Freestyle
Swimming's version of the 100m dash, an all-out sprint to the finish that turns the pool into a churning cauldron of whitecaps. Americans Cullen Jones and Anthony Irvin are among the medal contenders.

4. Women's 100m Qualifying
For many, the Olympics start today with the advent of the track and field portion of the schedule. The women's 100m qualifying is an early highlight, as Americans Carmelita Jeter (the reigning world champion) and Allyson Felix (who was involved in the controversial dead heat at Olympic trials) take center stage.

5. Medals in Men's Shot Put and Women's 10,000m
Two track and field events will be awarding medals today: the men's shot put and women's 10,000m. American Reese Hoffa is the top U.S. qualifier in the shot, while Ethiopia's Tirunesh Dibaba will look to maintain her country's tradition of dominance in the 10,000.

See more 2012 Olympics coverage.
 

Follow me on Twitter @AthlonDoster

Teaser:
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Post date: Friday, August 3, 2012 - 10:33
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /olympics/neymar-will-lead-brazil-first-olympic-gold
Body:

Brazil’s 20-year-old samba sensation Neymar is a rock star in shin guards.

Clearly the premier footballer at the London Olympics, the electrifying striker entered the tournament surrounded by unchecked hype. Legendary Brazilian star Pele set the tone by declaring the Mohawk-ed wunderkind as the world’s best player — ahead of reigning two-time FIFA Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi.

“Some are saying that Messi is better than Pele. Well, he has to be better than Neymar first, which he isn’t yet,” said Pele, speaking at the centennial celebration of his former club and Neymar’s current club, Santos.

From there, Argentine icon Diego Maradona retorted: “My God, that is just stupid. … Maybe Neymar is the best player in the world, but only if you say that Messi is from a different planet.”

Despite what appeared to be premature praise for the then-teenaged talent, Neymar has since found a way to exceed expectations at the Games of the XXX Olympiad.

A yellow blur with the ball, Neymar’s pace, skill and imagination on the pitch have led to two goals, one assist and countless breathtaking runs en route to Group stage wins over Egypt, Belarus and New Zealand.

Heading into the knockout stage of the Olympics, Neymar is aiming to match Messi, who led Argentina to gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A win in the under-23 tournament (which also allows for three over-age exemptions) would be Brazil’s first-ever gold medal.

Brazil has won five World Cups (2002, 1994, 1970, 1962, 1958) and will serve as the host country for both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But the nation has failed to take the top prize in the Olympics, with only a pair of silvers (1988, 1984) and bronzes (2008, 1996) to show.

This year, the “Selecao” is on a mission to drape Olympic gold over their signature canary yellow jerseys. With Neymar leading an attack that also includes Chelsea midfielder Oscar, Real Madrid defender Marcelo, winger Hulk and defender-captain Thiago Silva, Brazil is the overwhelming favorite to win it all in London.


Olympic Schedule:

Quarterfinals (Saturday, Aug. 4)
Japan vs. Egypt
Mexico vs. Senegal
Brazil vs. Honduras
Great Britain vs. South Korea

Semifinals (Tuesday, Aug. 7)

Bronze Medal Match (Friday, Aug. 10)

Gold Medal Match (Saturday, Aug. 11)

Teaser:
<p> The best player in the Olympics, 20-year-old samba sensation Neymar aims to lead Brazil to its first gold medal.</p>
Post date: Friday, August 3, 2012 - 10:29
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /olympics/olympics-photo-day-us-mens-basketball
Body:

Carmelo Anthony of Team USA drives to the basket past Nigeria's Derrick Obasohan during a record-setting afternoon at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 3, 2012, in London. Anthony had 37 points in a 156-73 win. The 83-point margin of victory was the largest in Olympic history.

Teaser:
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Post date: Friday, August 3, 2012 - 10:09
Path: /college-football/notre-dame-football-top-5-storylines-watch-fall-practice
Body:

Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is just around the corner. However, plenty of unanswered questions remain around the nation for every team. Injuries, quarterback battles and players that need to step up to make a run at the conference title will all be under the spotlight over the next couple of weeks. 

Notre Dame's 5 Biggest Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice

1. Who takes the lead at quarterback?
If the Irish want to have any shot at topping last season’s win total (eight), they have to get better quarterback play. Tommy Rees led the team with 2,871 yards and 20 touchdowns last year but ran into off-the-field trouble and is suspended for the season opener. With Rees sidelined for the first game, the focus of the quarterback battle will shift to redshirt freshman Everett Golson, sophomore Andrew Hendrix and true freshman Gunner Kiel. Golson is an intriguing talent, as his dual-threat ability would give Notre Dame a different dimension on offense. Hendrix played in five contests last year, throwing for 249 yards and one touchdown while also adding 162 yards and one score on the ground. Golson and Hendrix figure to have an edge over Kiel for the No. 1 spot, but the true freshman will have every opportunity to earn playing time. Even if a starter doesn’t emerge, it’s important for the coaching staff to get Golson, Kiel and Hendrix as many snaps as possible, as neither of the trio have a career start. 

2. Will a receiver emerge as a clear No. 1 target?
There’s no doubt in South Bend that Michael Floyd will be missed. After catching 271 passes for 3,686 yards and 37 touchdowns over the last four years, Notre Dame will miss Floyd’s presence in the redzone and his big-play ability. The cupboard isn’t bare at receiver, as junior TJ Jones and seniors John Goodman, Robby Toma and Theo Riddick (who will play at running back and receiver this year) are capable targets. However, none are the go-to guy that Floyd was throughout his career. Freshmen DaVaris Daniels and Davonte Neal will factor prominently into the receiving corps and could be key contributors by the end of the season. Jones has been steady over his first two years in South Bend, but bigger things were expected of him when he committed to Notre Dame. Even if the catches are spread around the receiving corps, the Irish quarterbacks can lean on tight end Tyler Eifert. The senior is an Athlon first-team All-American for 2012. The Irish don’t necessarily need a true No. 1 receiver, but this unit needs Jones, Daniels and Neal to produce a few big plays and pickup where Floyd left off.

3. Can the Irish find answers in the secondary?
With three key players departing from the defensive backfield, Notre Dame will have a hard time replicating its 38th overall finish in pass defense from 2011. Cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton weren’t standouts, but both were multi-year starters. Stepping into the spotlight will be juniors Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood and most of their experience has come on special teams. Jackson was solid in the spring, putting pressure on Wood to solidify the other spot in the fall. Depth is thin in the secondary, as inexperienced sophomores Cam McDaniel and Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown will likely compose the backup spots at cornerback. The situation is a little better at safety, but Notre Dame must replace standout Harrison Smith. The good news is Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta are capable players and should help pickup the leadership void left behind by Smith.

4. Can Aaron Lynch be replaced?
At one point this offseason, Notre Dame had a strong case to be ranked among the top five defensive lines in college football. However, Aaron Lynch’s surprising decision to leave South Bend in the spring was a huge loss for the defense. Lynch was just scratching the surface of his potential, recording 33 tackles and 5.5 sacks last year. Despite losing a player of Lynch’s caliber, the Irish should still be solid up front. Sophomore Stephon Tuitt will likely slide into Lynch’s spot after recording 30 tackles and two sacks last year. Senior Kapron Lewis-Moore will man the other end spot, while 326-pound nose guard Louis Nix III will anchor the middle. The coaching staff is also excited about the potential of freshman Sheldon Day and sophomore Chase Hounshell. Although losing Lynch was a setback, Notre Dame’s defensive line has the pieces in place to be stout once again.

5. Playmakers on defense
With Aaron Lynch’s departure, the Irish not only need a big season from end Stephon Tuitt but also linebacker Ishaq Williams. The sophomore recorded only six tackles in 11 contests last year. However, Williams has the physical ability and talent to be an impact player on defense, and Notre Dame needs him to become one of the team’s top pass rushers in 2012. Junior Prince Shembo is also expected to help pickup the slack from Lynch’s departure. With concerns about the secondary, it's important for Notre Dame to find players who can get after the quarterback. 

Related Notre Dame Content

Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections
College Football's 2012 All-American Team

Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2012 Team Preview

2012 College Football All-Name Team

Teaser:
<p> Notre Dame Football: Top 5 Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice</p>
Post date: Friday, August 3, 2012 - 05:40
All taxonomy terms: NFC, NFC West, Seattle Seahawks, NFL
Path: /nfl/seattle-seahawks-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Seattle Seahawks check in at No. 21.

The Seahawks, in Pete Carroll’s third season of rebuilding, have one of the league’s most physical running backs in Marshawn Lynch. They’ve invested a number of high draft picks on offensive linemen. Their secondary is surprisingly good. They made inroads on the road last year, namely upsetting the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants in New York. Yet until Carroll unearths an able-bodied quarterback, the Seahawks are no better than the two 7–9 teams he’s fielded.

After getting nowhere — not even a courtesy interview — in the Peyton Manning quarterback sweepstakes, the Seahawks turned to Matt Flynn, hoping he’s the second coming of Matt Hasselbeck: A learned Packers backup capable of invigorating the Seattle franchise. Flynn had two starts on his Green Bay résumé, including a record-breaking 480-yard, six-touchdown passing effort against Detroit that showed he had game. Otherwise, Flynn was asked to be patient as Aaron Rodgers’ stand-in for four seasons, making him virtually untested.

Hasselbeck, pulled from the shadow of Brett Favre 11 years earlier, eventually led the Seahawks to Super Bowl XL. More patience will be required with Flynn at the helm. There are far too many defensive shortcomings to expect more than gradual improvement. 

Offense

Flynn should be an upgrade over returning starter Tarvaris Jackson, who struggled to move the team after replacing the iconic Hasselbeck. Jackson threw nearly as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns (14), and Seattle ranked among the bottom third of the NFL in most major offensive categories. The worst stat: 28th in total offense, at just 303.8 yards per game. Jackson, while highly mobile, showed a tendency to get jumpy in the pocket and struggled with his reads, whereas Flynn’s supposed strengths are his cool demeanor and field vision.

Seattle’s second offseason priority was re-signing Lynch, and that process went more smoothly than settling on a quarterback. Lynch wanted to return to a team that has helped him resurrect his career. He finished seventh in the league in rushing, churning out 1,204 yards. He further established himself as a player wholly capable of running inside and getting the tough yards. “He’s definitely one of the top two or three running backs in the National Football League,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh says. “He’s a violent runner.”

For two consecutive years, Seattle put an emphasis on upgrading the offensive line, but the Seahawks still don’t really know what they have. They used their top two 2011 draft picks on immediate starters up front, James Carpenter at right tackle and John Moffitt at right guard, only to have the newcomers tear up knees within four days of each other at midseason and head for surgery. Left tackle Russell Okung, the sixth overall pick of the 2010 draft, has been injury-prone since arriving in Seattle. He was lost last Dec. 1 with a torn pectoral muscle. Center Max Unger was the lone offensive line starter who played close to a full schedule. With so much lineup churn, the Seahawks were poor pass-protectors, which didn’t bode well for Jackson. A healthy Okung and Carpenter, guys with great feet and athleticism, will open a lot of holes for Lynch and give Flynn a chance to settle in.

The Seahawks’ receiving corps remains mediocre at best. There’s no established deep threat. There’s no draft help. Reserve Doug Baldwin, as an undrafted rookie, led the team with just 51 catches, ranking him 62nd in the league. Sidney Rice, signed as a free agent before the 2011 season, caught only 32 passes in nine games. He is coming off double shoulder surgery, putting his effectiveness in question. The team released Mike Williams, who caught only 18 passes in 12 games last season after catching 65 in 14 the year before, and signed free agent Braylon Edwards right before the start of training camp. This could be Edwards' last shot in the NFL as the No. 3 overall pick in 2005 has never played like a first-rounder, with the exception of one season (2007). He also finds himself on his third team in three seasons after wearing out his welcome with the Jets and catching a total of 15 passes in only nine games with the 49ers last season.

The tight end should become a bigger part of the offense in 2012. Zach Miller, who had a career-low 25 receptions last season, will be joined by veteran Kellen Winslow, acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay in late May.

Related: Top Seattle Seahawks Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

The Seahawks’ secondary is young and promising, not to mention huge at nearly every position, and it is the strength of this team. There are unusually big and strong cornerbacks in 6'3", 195-pound Richard Sherman and 6'4", 221-pound Brandon Browner, All-Pro selections in 6'3", 232-pound strong safety Kam Chancellor and Browner, and a reliable free safety in Earl Thomas. They were largely responsible for Seattle ranking fourth in the NFL in interceptions with 22. None of the starters has been in the league for more than two years, leaving plenty of room for advancement. The oversized corners are especially good at jamming receivers at the line and disrupting routes.

Up front, Seattle still needs help. Defensive end Chris Clemons, who had 11 sacks, was the only adequate pass-rusher, compelling the Seahawks to use their first-round draft pick on speed-rusher Bruce Irvin, who still is strictly a situational player. Seattle’s inside guys often were overmatched, leading to an urgent free agent pick-up in defensive tackle Jason Jones, another speed guy. “Jason has unusual quickness for a long, tall guy,” Carroll says.

Where the Seahawks really need help defensively is at linebacker. This is a patchwork outfit. Free agent signee Barrett Ruud is the team’s third middle linebacker in as many seasons, and a step back in talent from the departed David Hawthorne. On the outside, veteran Leroy Hill is an aging player whose coverage skills are eroding, while K.J. Wright was forced to step in as a rookie and learn under fire. Each seems to be holding down a position by default. Second-round draft pick Bobby Wagner, fast and physical and capable of playing all three positions, should become a starter fairly quickly, likely in the middle.

Specialists

The Seahawks mix the good and bad here. Returner Leon Washington, with seven career kickoff runbacks for touchdowns, and Aussie-style punter Jon Ryan, with a 46.6-yard average and more kicks downed inside the 20 (34) than anyone in the NFL, are among the league’s best. However, placekicker Steven Hauschka has limited range, and the Seattle return teams allowed three opposing scores, two on punts.

Final Analysis: 3rd in the NFC West

If Flynn can deliver consistently and the offensive line can stay healthy for a change, the Seahawks will be an improved team. A good goal for them is .500. Seattle should be able to put plenty of points on the board, especially through Lynch in a grind-it-out manner. Defensively, the Seahawks have reason to be encouraged by their secondary, but the lack of a big-play linebacker leaves them highly vulnerable. Plus, a testy schedule that includes Green Bay, New England, Detroit and Dallas as non-division opponents will keep this team from putting together win streaks of any substance.

Related: 2012 Seattle Seahawks Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Candy Man
After he scores a touchdown, Seahawks tailback Marshawn Lynch celebrates on the sideline by eating a handful of Skittles, those chewy and brightly colored candy balls. The company since has given him a free two-year supply and a dispenser for the locker room. On top of that, Seattle fans shower him with Skittles whenever he scores.

Dressed For Success
The Seahawks have the most radical uniform change of any NFL team, with Nike altering the color scheme some, adding a stripe here and there, and introducing a feather design, all changes readily endorsed by the players who will wear them and those who will try to tackle them. “Why do the Seahawks get the cool uniforms?” Buffalo Bills safety George Wilson asked.

Take A Number
In signing with Seattle, quarterback Matt Flynn asked if he could wear his college No. 15 (LSU), and Doug Baldwin, the Seahawks’ leading returning receiver, was willing to give it up and switch to 89, his college number (Stanford). “I couldn’t wear it in Green Bay because of a little guy named Bart Starr,” jokes Flynn, referring to the Packers’ Hall of Famer. Flynn wore No. 10 in Green Bay.

Return Trip
Leon Washington, second in NFL history with seven kickoff returns for touchdowns, needs just one more to tie the all-time leader, Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs. Washington had three runback scores for the Seahawks in 2010 but was held without one last season.

Secondary Role
Cornerback Marcus Trufant enters his 10th season in Seattle having started all but one of the 124 games he’s played in. However, the former All-Pro player and Super Bowl XL remnant is now a sub behind Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, and seems OK with that. “So I’ve got a role to play,” Trufant says. “I’m going to always compete, but I have a role to play and that’s what I plan to do.”

Reunion Plans
The Seahawks will host Green Bay on Sept. 24 in a Monday Night Football game, permitting Flynn an immediate opportunity to show up his old team. Three weeks later, Pete Carroll will coach against the New England Patriots for the first time since that team fired him in 1999.

Welcome
Matt Carroll, in hoping for the best from Flynn, has had pretty good luck with quarterbacks named Matt: At USC, he recruited and signed future successes such as Leinart, Cassel and Barkley — all guys with that first name.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Mon., Aug. 6

Order your 2012 Seattle Seahawks Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Seattle Seahawks Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Seattle Seahawks Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Seattle Seahawks 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Friday, August 3, 2012 - 05:20
All taxonomy terms: NFC, NFC West, Seattle Seahawks, NFL
Path: /nfl/seattle-seahawks-top-twitter-accounts-follow
Body:

Keeping up with your favorite team can be an all-consuming task. We’re here to help indulge that need to follow all aspects of the NFL on Twitter.

For all 32 teams, we’re picking the best Twitter accounts for each franchise. They run the gamut from players, coaches, executives, traditional media, bloggers or simply accounts that keep us informed and entertained.

Whether you’re a Twitter neophyte or simply trying to spice up your feed for football season, we’re here to help. And it all starts with the Seattle Seahawks official Twitter account:

@Seahawks (Followers: 92,797)

Top Seahawks To Follow:

Note: Followers as of date of publication, August 3, 2012

  Name Pos. Twitter Followers
1. Earl Thomas FS @Earl_Thomas 305,701
2. Michael Robinson FB @RealMikeRob 153,965
3. Braylon Edwards WR @OfficialBraylon 146,164
4. Sidney Rice WR @sidneyrice 92,413
5. Marshawn Lynch RB @MoneyLynch 44,819
6. Golden Tate WR @ShowtimeTate 33,847
7. Russell Wilson QB @DangeRussWilson 28,118
8. Bruce Irvin DE @BIrvin_WVU11 23,544
9. Kam Chancellor SS @Kam_Chancellor 18,452
10. Tarvaris Jackson QB @7tjackson 17,428
11. Leon Washington RB @Leon_Washington 15,778
12. Russell Okung OT @BDR76 14,979
13. Doug Baldwin WR @DougBaldwinJr 10,419
14. Richard Sherman CB @RSherman_25 8,793
15. James Carpenter OT @GotToGetIT75 7,658
16. Zach Miller TE @ZachMiller86 7,642
17. Kris Durham WR @KrisDurham16 7,578
18. David Hawthorne LB @D_Hawthorne57 7,374
19. K.J. Wright LB @KJ_WRIGHT34 7,270
20. Winston Guy SS @WinstonGuyJr21 6,793
21. Brandon Mebane DT @Mebane92 5,747
22. Jon Ryan P @JonRyan9 5,722
23. Ricardo Lockette WR @RicardoLockette 5,677
24. Bobby Wagner LB @Bwagz9_TS 5,165
25. Walter Thurmond CB @WaltThurm3 5,084

As impressive as Earl Thomas' 305,000+ Twitter followers may be, it's good for only first place among his teammates. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll (@PeteCarroll) blows away Thomas and the rest of his players as his following currently tops more than 618,000. Who says no one listens to what the head coach has to say or, in this case, Tweet?

And if following the head coach isn't enough for you, you can go straight to the top and follow Seahawks owner and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (@PaulGAllen) if you want.

The Seahawks Beat:

Danny O'Neil, Seahawks reporter for The Seattle Times: @dannyoneil (12,899)

Seahawks Update is "Your source for news about the Seattle Seahawks": @SeahawksUpdate (5,926)

Liz Mathews, Seahawks reporter on 710 ESPN in Seattle: @Liz_Mathews (4,759)

Eric Williams, covers Seahawks for The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash.: @eric_d_williams (3,480)

Curtis Crabtree, Seahawks reporter for Sports Radio KJR: @Curtis_Crabtree (2,679)

John Boyle, sports writer/columnist who covers Seahawks for the Everett Herald: @johnboyle (2,503)

Seahawks Blog Roll:

The Seattle Times' Seahawks blog is where you can find the work of the aforementioned Danny O'Neil.

Seahawks Insider is The News Tribune's 'Hawks blog.

Field Gulls is SB Nation's Seahakws blog, featuring the work of managing editor and lead writer Danny Kelly (@FieldGulls).

Hawk Blogger is the self-proclaimed "#1 Seahawks Blog" and has a decent-sized Twitter following (@hawkblogger) to support said claim.

The cleverly named Dave Krieg's Strike Beard has been "Providing Seahawks Propaganda and History Since 2008."

Seahawks Addicts, 12th Man Rising, and Seahawks Gab are some others out there.

The ESPN NFC West blog is run by Mike Sando and you can follow him @espn_nfcwest.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Mon., Aug. 6

Order your 2012 Seattle Seahawks Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Seattle Seahawks Season Preview
Related: 2012 Seattle Seahawks Schedule Analysis

- By Braden Gall and Mark Ross, published on August 3, 2012

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Seattle Seahawks Top Twitter Accounts To Follow</p>
Post date: Friday, August 3, 2012 - 05:09
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /olympics/preview-mens-100m-dash
Body:

Previewing the Men’s 100m Dash

The men’s 100m dash is arguably the highest profile event during the Olympics and the most watched 10 seconds in all of sports.  The winner earns the label “world’s fastest man” and instant stardom.  This race could very well be the most exciting 100m dash in history, with the five fastest men in history -Blake, Bolt, Gatlin, Gay and Powell- competing against each other in a well-matched field where anyone could win.

In Beijing, the only question entering the race was by what margin of victory Usain Bolt would win.  He remained untouchable in international competition until an Achilles tendon injury and lingering back pain set his training back in 2010, allowing Tyson Gay and other rivals the opportunity to catch up to Bolt.  Read as we break down the race for all five favorites to reach the podium complete with predictions.

5.  Justin Gatlin

2004 Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin still has an enormous cloud over his head following his 4-year ban from track-and-filed for testing positive for steroids.  In August 2010, Gatlin returned to competition a new man.  While posting times in the 10.1-10.2 range in his inaugural season back, Gatlin has improved dramatically since then to become a relevant force in the 100m dash despite his age. 

In 2012, Gatlin has sent a clear message to his competitors that he is 100% back and ready to win.  He won gold in the 60m at the World Indoor Championships and won the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 100m dash with a winning time of 9.80, better than the 9.85 that won him a gold medal in Athens.  He enters the London Olympics in the best shape of his life and with hopes of completing his redemption story with an Olympic medal. 

Best-case scenario:  Silver

Gatlin has been running very well this season but he’s going to need some help from his competitors if he hopes to win a gold or silver medal.  This event is still Usain Bolt’s to lose if he’s healthy (which is still a question mark).  However, if Gatlin comes out with a fast start like he did back in the Trials and at the Indoor World Championships, he will be very difficult to catch.

Worst-case scenario: 5th Place

Bolt, Blake, Gay and Powell have all posted faster 100m times than Gatlin’s annulled personal best of 9.77.  If everyone remains healthy, Gatlin will have to improve on his personal best time if he hopes to reach the podium.  Having recently turned thirty, such a performance may be out of the question.  

4.  Asafa Powell

Asafa Powell may be the greatest sprinter to never win the Olympic gold medal or the World Championship.  He held the 100m world record between June 2005 and May 2008 with a personal best of 9.72 seconds, making him the 3rd fastest man in recorded history.  His 80+ sub-10 second times in the 100m puts him at #1 all-time but this consistency has been sorely lacking in major competitions where Powell has famously choked, finishing in 5th in Athens and Beijing.  Asafa has only one major international individual title to his name, the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

In Jamaica’s Olympic Trials, Powell competed on an injured groin and was subsequently defeated by compatriots Blake and Bolt.  A lingering injury is the last thing that this aging sprinter needs as he’ll have to be at full-force to have any chance of finally matching his potential.

Best-case scenario: Bronze

Powell finally gets over his pre-race jitters and comes close to matching his personal best of 9.72 en route to a bronze medal.  Even with an ideal race, Powell will not be able to pull off the biggest upset and win a gold medal.  

Worst-case scenario: 8th Place

Powell’s groin injury is more serious than his agent let on and he barely makes it into the 100m final.  He continues his inability to translate his success onto the center stage and cement his status as one of most disappointing sprinters in Olympic history. 

3.  Tyson Gay

The second-fastest man in history (holds the American Record in 100m at 9.69s), Tyson Gay is Team USA’s best hope to win the 100m gold.  The antithesis of the boisterous, flashy Usain Bolt, Gay is introverted and allows his performance to speak for itself.  In Beijing, Gay failed to reach the finals of the 100m due to a nagging hamstring injury that purportedly setback his training.  

Gay has been plagued by injury throughout his professional career and will have to overcome last July’s hip surgery to contend for an Olympic medal.   He’s a proven competitor, and is only one of three sprinters to have defeated Usain Bolt since the Beijing Olympics.  Coming into London, Tyson is a bit of a wildcard due to the limited number of races he’s entered in 2012.  He’ll need to improve dramatically on his 9.86 at the Olympic Trials and return to his pre-injury form fast if Gay plans on winning the gold medal. 

Best-case scenario:  Gold Medal

Bolt’s injuries and reported low work ethic are worse than anticipated and his performance barely resembles the dominating display from Beijing.  Gay’s focus on training over racing pays off as he puts together a complete race and edges out favorite Yohan Blake for the gold medal.

Worst-case scenario:  5th Place

One year coming off of hip surgery, Tyson Gay is unable to regain his top form in time for the 100m final in London.  With a season-best time of 9.86 coming last month in Eugene, it may be asking too much for him to shave off somewhere between 0.1-.2 seconds to fulfill his Olympic promise.

2.  Yohan Blake

Until 22-year-old Yohan Blake bested his training partner Usain Bolt in Jamaica’s Olympic Trials last month, there was an asterisk attached to Blake’s gold medal at the 2011 World Championships where Bolt famously disqualified after a false start in the 100m final.  Nicknamed “The Beast”, Blake has worked tirelessly in preparation for the London Olympics where he hopes to emerge out of countryman Usain Bolt’s shadow.  Blake’s 9.75 100m at the Jamaican Olympic Trials solidified his place as the favorite in this event heading into London and ranks as the top time thus far in 2012. 

While Blake is the defending world champion, he was sitting at home watching back in 2008 when Bolt stole the show in Beijing by winning gold in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m.  His lack of experience and disdain for the limelight could spell trouble for this young sprinter. 

Best-case scenario: Gold Medal

In a field hampered by injuries (Bolt, Gay) and age (Gatlin, Powell), Blake’s youth works to his advantage as he is able to take control of the 100m final and win Olympic Gold.  With clear conditions on Sunday night, Blake could run as fast as the high 9.6s. 

Worst-case scenario: Bronze Medal

Blake’s youth gets the best of him and allows for him to concede both the gold and silver to more seasoned athletes.  In the six weeks between the Olympic Trials and the 100m final in London, Bolt makes tremendous strides in his training and regains his top form.  If Bolt and Gay are racing at full-strength, Blake will likely be edged out by the two more veteran sprinters who are the only two men to ever be legally timed under 9.70.

1.  Usain Bolt

Other than Carl Lewis, no 100m sprinter has ever successfully defended their gold medal in the subsequent Olympics.  Until about a year ago, the men’s 100m dash was expected to be a simple formality as the “superhuman” Bolt was expected to win in dominant fashion as he had in Beijing.  Much can change in a year however, as Bolt’s lingering back problems and technical errors have left him vulnerable for the first time since his breakthrough performance in the 2008 Olympics. 

Standing at 6ft 5in, Bolt is taller than the prototypical 100m sprinter.  He possesses rare leg speed for a man of his stature, allowing for him to achieve a similar starting speed to his shorter competitors.  After the initial acceleration phase, Bolt’s height gives him a mechanical advantage as his longer stride allows him to reach a higher peak velocity than his opponents. 

If Bolt is running at full force (with proper technique), no man on the planet will be able to touch him.  Bested by his training partner Yohan Blake at the Jamaican Olympic Trials, Bolt reportedly doubled his training efforts and has regained the top form that enabled him to demolish world records.  As the reigning Olympic champion, the race is still Bolt’s to lose.  Come Sunday, we’ll find out whether or not the superhuman version of Usain Bolt has returned.

Best-case scenario: New World Record

Usain Bolt has finally put his injury troubles behind him and puts together the greatest race in Olympic history as he demolishes the rest of the field and improves on his world record time of 9.58.  Bolt lives for the limelight so do not be astonished if he puts on another display of freak athletic prowess in London.

Worst-case scenario: Silver medal

Bolt’s injury woes and (rumored) lax training makes him just another strong competitor in a deep field in the 100m dash.  Bolt stumbles out of the blocks and is forced to chase the field from behind but cannot catch his training partner Blake. 

 

Predicted Finish

1. Yohan Blake (Jamaica)

2. Usain Bolt (Jamaica)

3. Justin Gatlin (United States)

4. Tyson Gay (United States)

5. Asafa Powell (Jamaica)

6. Christophe Lemaitre (France)

7. Kim Collins (Saint Kitts & Nevis)

8. Daniel Bailey (Antigua and Barbuda)

Teaser:
<p> 2012 Summer Olympics: Previewing the Men's 100m Dash</p>
Post date: Friday, August 3, 2012 - 04:56
Path: /nascar/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-pocono-0
Body:

This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the Pocono Mountains for the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway. When the series last hit the 2.5-mile oval in June, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Joey Logano that went to Victory Lane, leading 49 of the 160 laps and moving veteran Mark Martin out of the lead in the closing laps.

As the series heads back to Pocono, Logano is back in the rumor mill with his name being mentioned as a potential candidate for the No. 22 Penske Racing ride for 2013. While said rumor mill churns and silly season heats up, it is important to remain focused on the job at hand, and that is winning races — and for you, your weekly fantasy match up.

Last weekend at Indianapolis, it was five-time champion Jimmie Johnson that put on a dominant performance to earn his fourth Brickyard 400 trophy. The No. 48 car was the class of the field all day, with few cars even in the same zip code (to borrow a phrase).

This week, Johnson leads all drivers in average finish (8.8) and has two victories at Pocono. While he failed to lead a lap in June, the five-time series champion finished fourth. With the team looking as if it is rounding into championship form, it will be hard to pick against Johnson.

However, the two-time Pocono winner is not this week's fantasy favorite (although he is among the top five). That honor goes to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After his fourth-place finish last weekend at Indianapolis, Earnhardt took over the points lead from Matt Kenseth. Leading the championship standings for the first time since 2004, Earnhardt is enjoying his best season in years, but is still hungry for wins before the Chase field is reset for the final 10 races of the season.

In June, Earnhardt Jr. led 36 of the 160 laps at Pocono before finishing a disappointing eighth. One of the strongest cars that afternoon, crew chief Steve Letarte called his driver to pit road late in the race, concerned about making it to the end on fuel. When Logano and others on the same strategy stretched it to the end, Earnhardt understood it was too early in the season to start taking gambles and losing a host of points.

With six races left before the Chase field is set, Earnhardt is now in a position to gamble for wins. Hungry for victories and continuing his consistent ways, look for Earnhardt — who has finishes of sixth, ninth and eighth in his last three Pocono starts — to score his second victory of the season.

Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Tony Stewart 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkorses for your Fantasy NASCAR team as the series heads to Pocono Raceway for the Pennsylvania 400.</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 2, 2012 - 12:43
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /olympics/olympics-photo-day-us-rowing-team
Body:

U.S. rowers Mary Whipple, Caryn Davies, Caroline Lind, Eleanor Logan, Meghan Musnicki, Taylor Ritzel, Esther Lofgren, Zsuzsanna Francia and Erin Cafaro celebrate after winning the gold medal for the women's rowing eight in Eton Dorney, near Windsor, England, at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Teaser:
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Post date: Thursday, August 2, 2012 - 10:52
All taxonomy terms: Olympics
Path: /olympics/2012-olympics-5-cant-miss-events-aug-2
Body:

Gabby and Aly, Rafalca and our last glimpse of Lochte vs. Phelps highlight today's slate from London. Here's the Fab Five for Aug. 2, which will highlight NBC's prime-time schedule starting at 8 pm Eastern:

1. Women's Gymnastics Individual Finals
It's the Aly and Gabby show, as U.S. team star Jordyn Wieber watches the All Around finals from the sidelines thanks to the arcane two-gymnasts-per-country rule. Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas will carry the U.S. banner, with Douglas a stronger threat to medal in one of the most eagerly awaited events of any Olympic Games.

2. Men's 200m Individual Medley
Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps go head to head for the second time in these games. Round 1 — the 400m individual medley — went to Lochte, the highlight of what for him has been a slightly disappointing performance. Anything Phelps does at this point is gravy for history's most decorated Olympian, but there's no doubt he'd love another gold at the expense of the guy who came into these games riding a larger hype wave. It would be an unprecedented third gold in a row for Phelps in this event.

3. Men's Volleyball: U.S. vs. Brazil
It's a rematch of the gold medal game from Beijing, as the Americans try to take down the gold medal favorites. The Brazilians will be looking for redemption after falling to the U.S. in a thrilling upset four years ago.

4. Judo - Women's 78kg Finals
American Kayla Harrison is going for her country's first-ever gold medal in judo, but she won't have the crowd in her corner as she faces Great Britain's Gemma Gibbons.

5. Dressage
Usually, politics and sports shouldn't mix, but it's a little unavoidable tonight, as Ann Romney's horse Rafalca makes her Olympic debut, ridden by Jan Ebeling. Say this for Romney — he's certainly created more equestrian jobs than his opponent.

See more 2012 Olympics coverage.
 

Follow me on Twitter @AthlonDoster

Teaser:
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Post date: Thursday, August 2, 2012 - 10:40
Path: /college-football/big-ten-player-rankings-top-50-players-2012
Body:

As usual, the Big Ten should produce plenty of elite defensive talent this season. Ohio State's John Simon and Michigan State's William Gholston should be two of the top defensive ends in college football, while Purdue's Kawann Short should be a household name by the end of the year. The offensive side of the ball isn't bad, but the conference lost several key offensive linemen and receivers. 

Compiling the top 50 players of any conference is never an easy task. However, Athlon established a criteria to help compile the rankings. 

Here are five factors that contributed to the criteria for the rankings:
1. Projection on 2012 Performance 
2. Importance to team
3. Positional importance
4. NFL Draft stock
5. Career performance 

Athlon's Top 50 Big Ten Players for 2012

1. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
Ball emerged as one of the elite tailbacks in his junior season at Wisconsin, leading the nation with 1,923 rushing yards and an astounding 33 rushing touchdowns. His 39 total TDs last year tied the NCAA record originally set by Barry Sanders in 1988. Ball has rushed for at least 100 yards in 16 of the last 20 games dating back to November 2011. Don’t be surprised if Ball is on the podium in New York in early December accepting the Heisman Trophy.  

2. Denard Robinson, QB Michigan
The man they call Shoelace has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football over the past two seasons. Robinson has struggled at times with consistency in the passing game, but he led the nation last year by averaging 15.3 yards per completion and ranked fourth in the Big Ten in passing efficiency. Robinson does his best work on the ground, however; he has rushed for 3,229 yards on a 5.9-yard average in his three years in Ann Arbor.

3. John Simon, DE, Ohio State
Simon is the key player on a veteran Ohio State defensive line, ranked by Athlon as the best in the Big Ten. This wrecking ball is as difficult as anyone in the country to block from the outside. He’s improved each year, topping out at 16 tackles for a loss, seven sacks and three pass deflections last season. Urban Meyer’s background is on offense, but he has a knack for utilizing great pass rushers like Carlos Dunlap, Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss at Florida.

4. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State
Entering his junior season, Gholston appears to be only scratching the surface of his potential. The Michigan State coaching staff wasted no time in getting the Detroit native involved as a freshman, as Gholston played in 10 games and recorded 13 stops. In his first year as a starter in 2011, he recorded 70 tackles, five sacks and 16 tackles for a loss last season. Gholston earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season and should be in the mix to earn All-American honors in 2012. Without Jerel Worthy plugging the middle, opposing offensive lines will devote more attention to Gholston’s side. Despite a few more double teams coming in his direction, the junior is poised to have his best overall season, which could be his last in East Lansing with NFL scouts already raving about his potential.   

5. Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska
Burkhead thrived in his first full season as Nebraska’s No. 1 back, rushing for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns. He averaged 106 yards per game in Big Ten play and earned first-team all-conference honors last season. Although quarterback Taylor Martinez should get better as a passer in 2012, the Cornhuskers will lean heavily on Burkhead to win games. The senior is capable of recording 300 overall carries and will also be a factor in the passing game, as evidenced by his 21 receptions last year. Burkhead is a sleeper candidate to watch in the Heisman race and should be one of the Big Ten’s top offensive players this season.

6. Ricky Wagner, OT, Wisconsin
Entering his third season in the starting lineup, Wagner will anchor what should be the best offensive line in the Big Ten from the all-important left tackle spot. A 6-6, 322-pound fifth-year senior from West Allis, Wis., Wagner arrived in Madison as a walk-on tight end but has made a successive transition to the offensive line. He started at right tackle in 2010 but made the move to the left side last fall to replace former All-American Gabe Carimi. 

7. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue
With his combination of size and athleticism, Short is drawing attention from NFL scouts and is expected to be a first-round pick in 2013. The East Chicago native has started all three seasons at Purdue and is coming off his best year, recording 54 stops, 17 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks. Improving the run defense is one of the top priorities for coach Danny Hope this season, but Short’s return to West Lafayette should help the Boilermakers improve on last year’s statistics (9th in the Big Ten in rushing defense). Short was named Purdue’s team defensive MVP last season and is an Athlon second-team All-American for 2012. 

8. Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
Hankins is developing into the next great defensive lineman to come out of the Ohio State program. In his first year as a starter last fall, the Michigan native recorded 67 total tackles, including 14 for a loss and three sacks. The large but nimble Hankins has slimmed down to 317 pounds for his junior season. “Hank is now a little less of an immovable object and more of an unstoppable force,” says Ohio State center Corey Linsley. 

9. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
After missing most of the 2010 season with shoulder injuries, Borland returned to action last fall and developed into a big-time playmaker at middle linebacker. The Ohio native led the team in tackles for a loss (19) and forced fumbles (5) and ranked second in the Big Ten in total tackles (143). Borland was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick in ’11 and has been named a third-team 2012 preseason All-American by Athlon Sports.

10. Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State
The exodus of quality players at Penn State has just begun, but so far the Nittany Lions’ star linebacker is staying put. An outside linebacker, Hodges led Penn State with 106 tackles last season as the defense ranked 20th nationally in yards allowed per game (323.9). When the dust settles with the roster at Penn State, Hodges, who also had 10 tackles for a loss last season, might be one of the few in contention for All-Big Ten honors or more.

11. Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin
The other half of one of the most devastating linebacking duos in the nation, Taylor is entering his fourth season as a starter. Last year, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after leading the Big Ten (and ranking third in the nation) with 150 tackles. With some issues on the defensive line and in the secondary, Taylor and fellow backer Chris Borland will need to be at their best in 2012. 

12. Travis Frederick, C, Wisconsin
After starting most of last season at left guard, Frederick slides over to center to replace Peter Konz, a second-round pick by the Falcons in the 2012 NFL Draft. Frederick is not entirely new to the position, however; he started two games at center in ’11 — vs. Penn State on Nov. 26 and the Big Ten Championship Game vs. Michigan State. A 6-4, 328-pound junior, Frederick earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last fall. 

13. Johnny Adams, CB, Michigan State
A third-year starter, Adams leads the top secondary in the Big Ten. NFL scouts will watch Adams closely in his final season on campus, a year after the Spartans ranked 18th nationally in pass efficiency defense. He doesn’t have the gaudy interception numbers (though he had three in each of the last two seasons), but he’s an elite cover corner and stands out in run support.

14. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan
Lewan, a 6-8, 302-pound junior, has started 22 games over the past two seasons at left tackle. A second-team All-Big Ten pick last season (by the coaches), Lewan will be asked to be the leader of the Wolverines’ offensive line following the graduation of Rimington Award-winning center David Molk.

15. Ricardo Allen, CB, Purdue
Since stepping onto campus in 2010, Allen has been an impact player for the Boilermakers’ defense. He earned freshman All-American accolades in 2010 by starting 12 games and returning two interceptions for a touchdown. Allen followed up his standout freshman year with a solid sophomore season, recording 81 tackles and three interceptions. Allen has been picked to the Thorpe Award watch list (the nation’s top defensive back) and is an Athlon first-team All-Big Ten selection for 2012. 

16. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Based upon his performance in 2011, ranking Miller among the top 20 players in the Big Ten is probably a stretch. However, that’s where projecting for 2012 comes into play. Urban Meyer’s spread attack should jumpstart Ohio State’s offense, while turning Miller into one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks. The sophomore should have no trouble surpassing last season’s 1,159 passing yards and will top over 500 yards on the ground once again in 2012. 

17. Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
With Denicos Allen, Bullough makes up half of an elite linebacker tandem, and with the rest of the Spartans ‘backers, he’s in the middle of the best unit in the Big Ten. Bullough is a standout play-caller on the field and excelled as a run-stuffer for a unit that allowed 100.5 rushing yards per game (first in the Big Ten, ninth nationally). 

18. Michael Buchanan, DE, Illinois
At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, Buchanan has intriguing size and ability for the pro ranks, but he elected to stay at Illinois rather than follow linemate Whitney Mercilus to the NFL Draft. Back for his senior season, Buchanan will try to show he can be a team’s top pass rusher after working aside Mercilus last season. Buchanan’s 7.5 sacks were less than half of Mercilus’ total (16) but still ranked fourth in the Big Ten.

19. Jonathan Brown, LB, Illinois
In a league that features Gerald Hodges, Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, it’s easy for Brown to be overlooked for preseason accolades. However, the junior should be one of Illinois’ top players in 2012. Brown recorded 108 tackles and 19.5 tackles for a loss last season, along with earning second-team All-Big Ten honors. Look for the Memphis, Tenn. native to raise his profile even more in 2012.

20. Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Roby was a consensus three-star recruit out of Suwanee, Ga., but he must have learned something in his redshirt season in Columbus. The sophomore stepped right into the starting cornerback job last season. After finishing with 47 tackles and three interceptions in 2011, the new staff hopes to take advantage of Roby’s playmaking ability in his second season on the field.

21. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska
Martinez, who arrived at Nebraska as an athlete, has been one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation over the past two seasons. His efficiency was down a bit in 2011, but his yards passing (2,089) and touchdown passes (13) were up. He continues to be a threat in the running game, with 1,839 yards and 21 touchdowns during his career.

22. James Vandenberg, QB, Iowa
The Big Ten may have the nation’s best collection of athletic quarterbacks, so it may be tempting to overlook the league’s best dropback passer. Vandenberg was the Big Ten’s third-leading passer at 3,022 yards last season and was second only to Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins in attempts and completions. Vandenberg will be even more of a key player for the Iowa offense this season, but he’ll have to improve his play on the road and overcome the loss of clutch receiver Marvin McNutt. The concerns about the offensive line and rushing attack will only add to the pressure on Vandenberg's shoulders in 2012.

23. C.J. Barnett, S, Ohio State
Barnett missed all but two games of 2010 but didn’t miss a beat when he returned to the Buckeyes last season. He led Ohio State with 75 tackles and provided his share of thundering hits in the secondary. He also had interceptions against Miami and Michigan State.

24. Jordan Hill, DT, Penn State
With Devon Still moving on to the NFL, it’s up to Hill to become Penn State’s leader in the trenches. He recorded 59 stops and 3.5 sacks last year, while earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Hill will likely see more double teams without Still, but the 6-foot-1 senior should be able to finish his career by pushing for All-American honors in 2012.

25. Micah Hyde, CB, Iowa
Hyde has been a mainstay in the Hawkeyes’ secondary over the past two seasons, with 25 starts at cornerback and two at safety. Last season, he tied for first in the Big Ten in passes defended (11) and added three interceptions. He is a 2012 preseason second-team All-Big Ten pick by Athlon Sports.

26. Spencer Long, OL, Nebraska
A walk on from Elkhorn, Neb., Long didn’t even see any game action until last season when he started every game at guard. Long was a key blocker for an offense that averaged 217.2 rushing yards per game, which ranked third in the Big Ten and 15th in the nation.

27. Denicos Allen, LB, Michigan State
After playing mostly on special teams in 2010, Allen was one of the Big Ten’s top breakout performers last year. He played in all 14 contests, recording 83 stops, 18.5 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks. Allen doesn’t have prototypical size, but his speed and athletic ability allows him to wreck havoc in opposing backfields.

28. Isaiah Lewis, S, Michigan State
Lewis quietly earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season, recording 74 tackles and four interceptions in his first year as a starter. The junior is regarded as one of the biggest hitters in the Big Ten and will have to assume more of a leadership role in 2012 with the departure of Trenton Robinson. 

29. Chris McDonald, OL, Michigan State
McDonald has been a nearly automatic presence in the Spartans’ starting lineup, making 17 consecutive starts and 26 overall at right guard. With a new starting quarterback, McDonald may have to pave the way for running back Le’Veon Bell to carry the offense.

30. Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
A former high school quarterback, Abbrederis gives the Badgers a big-play threat in the passing game. Last season, he caught 55 passes for a team-high 933 yards and eight touchdowns, and his 17.0 yards-per-catch average ranked second in the Big Ten behind Michigan’s Junior Hemingway.

31. Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB, Michigan
The emergence of Touissant in late October took some of the pressure off quarterback Denard Robinson in the Michigan offense. He rushed for 170 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Purdue on Oct. 29 and then went on to run for 508 yards in the month of November, more than anyone in the Big Ten not named Montee Ball.

32. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
With Kirk Cousins finishing his eligibility in East Lansing, the focus for Michigan State’s offense will shift back to the rushing attack. Bell is expected to be the Spartans’ workhorse in 2012 after rushing for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. At 6-foot-2 and 244 pounds, the junior brings an intriguing blend of power and speed and should surpass 1,000 yards for the first time in his career this year.

33. Jacob Pedersen, TE, Wisconsin
Pederson was a reliable red zone threat for former Badger quarterback Russell Wilson, with eight of his 30 receptions resulting in a touchdown. The 6-4, 240-pound Illinois native caught at least one pass in all but one game — with a high of six for 80 yards and two scores vs. Oregon State — and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

34. Keenan Davis, WR, Iowa
The Hawkeyes’ record-breaking receiver Marvin McNutt drew most of the attention last season, but Davis had the breakout season. Davis finished with 50 catches last year, after catching 15 total passes his first two seasons on campus. His 713 receiving yards and 14.3 yards per catch were respectable stats for a No. 2 receiver. Now, Iowa will learn how he takes to being No. 1.

35. Christian Bryant, S, Ohio State
With all four starters returning, Ohio State should have one of the best defensive backfields in the nation. Bryant emerged as a key cog in the secondary last year, recording 69 stops and one forced fumble. The junior may not accumulate many interceptions, but he should be a force against the run, while delivering plenty of big hits. 

36. Jack Mewhort, OT, Ohio State
With the departure of three starters, Urban Meyer hopes Mewhort will emerge as the offensive line's leader in 2012. Mewhort started all 13 games last season and will slide from guard to left tackle in 2012. 

37. Akeem Spence, DT, Illinois
One of three returning starters and two starting tackles on the Illinois defensive line, Spence started at defensive tackle since Day One of his redshirt freshman season in Champaign. The 6-1, 300-pounder recorded 69 sacks last season, a high number for an interior lineman, and helped anchor a defense that ranked seventh nationally.

38. James Morris, LB, Iowa
An ankle injury hindered Morris at times last season, but he still managed to finish with 110 tackles. The junior is an Athlon Sports third-team All-Big Ten selection for 2012 and will have an active year around the line of scrimmage with Iowa replacing three starters on the defensive line. 

39. Brett Maher, K/P, Nebraska
Replacing Alex Henery was no easy task, but Maher asserted himself as one of the top kickers in the nation last season. He connected on 19 of 23 field goals and averaged 44.5 yards per punt. Maher was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award last year and is an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2012. 

40. Baker Steinkuhler, DT, Nebraska
The son of the Cornhuskers’ Outland and Lombardi winner Dean Steinkuhler, Baker began to make a name for himself over the second half of last season with five tackles for a loss and two sacks in the final six games of the season.

41. Cameron Meredith, DE, Nebraska
Along with Steinkuhler, Meredith will form the core of a Nebraska defensive line that must improve against the run. A starter the last two seasons, Meredith finished last season with 58 tackles and five sacks.

42. Jake Stoneburner, TE, Ohio State
Stoneburner ran into some off-the-field trouble in the offseason but is expected to return to the roster in time for the opener against Miami (Ohio). The Dublin, Ohio native has 37 career catches for 445 yards and is expected to have a more prominent role in the offense in 2012. New coach Urban Meyer is installing a spread attack but Stoneburner’s athleticism and speed will be too attractive to keep on the bench. The senior could be Ohio State’s leading receiver in 2012. 

43. Will Compton, LB, Nebraska
The Cornhuskers’ middle linebacker improved as 2011 went along, as he averaged eight tackles per game in November (compared to 5.8 in the first eight games of the season). He’ll need to carry that into 2012 with Lavonte David gone.

44. Terry Hawthorne, CB, Illinois
Hawthorne was a highly decorated recruit in 2009, but he’d yet to live up to that billing until late last season. His 39-yard interception return for a touchdown turned the tide for the Illinois in the bowl game and prevented a losing season.

45. James Ferentz, C, Iowa
With three starters departing, Ferentz must be Iowa’s leader on the offensive line. He has started the last 26 games and was named to the Rimington Trophy watch for 2012. Ferentz will be coached by his brother (Brian) and his veteran presence will be crucial for Iowa’s offensive line. 

46. Daimion Stafford, S, Nebraska
Stafford was a huge contributor in his first year after transferring from Chaffey College. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors after recording 80 tackles in 13 games. Look for Stafford to be an even bigger contributor now that he has another offseason to get acclimated to life in the Big Ten.

47. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
With Johnny Adams and Dennard returning to man the cornerback spots in East Lansing, Michigan State should have one of the top defensive backfields in the nation. In his first year as a starter in 2011, Dennard recorded 42 tackles and three interceptions and returned one of his picks for a touchdown in the win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl. Dennard should be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors this year.  

48. MarQueis Gray, QB, Minnesota
Gray is far from a finished product, but there's also a lot of potential. He closed out 2011 by posting back-to-back 100-yard rushing efforts against Northwestern and Illinois and finished the season with 2,461 overall yards. Gray needs to become a better passer, but he should have a solid all-around senior season.

49. Chris Norman, LB, Michigan State
The rangy Norman is entering his third season as a starter for a veteran linebacker unit. He finished last season with 76 tackles despite missing two games with a shoulder injury.

50. Jordan Kovacs, S, Michigan
The Ohio native has started 33 of his 37 career games, including 12 games in 2011 and 12 in ’10. He ranked second on the team in total tackles last season with 75 and was third on the team with eight tackles for a loss. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last fall. 


Team Breakdown of Athlon's Top 50 Big Ten Players for 2012

Illinois - 4
Indiana - 0
Iowa - 5
Michigan - 4
Michigan State - 9
Minnesota - 1
Nebraska - 8
Northwestern - 0 
Ohio State - 8
Penn State - 2
Purdue - 2
Wisconsin - 7

by David Fox (@DavidFox615), Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven) and Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)


Related Big Ten Content

The Big Ten's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice
College Football's Darkhorse Title Contenders for 2012

Ranking the Big Ten's Defensive Lines for 2012

Michigan State is an Emerging Big Ten Power

Ranking the Big Ten's Offensive Lines for 2012

Ranking the Big Ten's Wide Receiving Corps for 2012

College Football Bowl Projections for 2012

Big Ten's Top 25 Heisman Contenders

Athlon's 2012 All-Big Ten Team

Athlon's 2012 Big Ten Predictions

College Football's Top 10 Impact Transfers for 2012

Urban Meyer's Arrival Has Ohio State Back on Track

Teaser:
<p> Big Ten Player Rankings: The Top 50 Players for 2012</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 2, 2012 - 05:43
Path: /college-football/pac-12s-top-10-storylines-watch-fall-practice
Body:

Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is just around the corner. However, plenty of unanswered questions remain around the nation for every team. Injuries, quarterback battles and players that need to step up to make a run at the conference title will all be under the spotlight over the next couple of weeks. 

The Pac-12's 10 Biggest Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice

1. Bryan Bennett or Marcus Mariota: Who Will Start at Quarterback for Oregon?
Regardless of whether Bennett or Mariota takes the first snap, Chip Kelly shouldn’t have too much concern about his quarterbacks. Sure, anytime that you replace a starter there is bound to be a few ups and downs. However, both players are more than capable of keeping Oregon’s offense as one of the best in the nation. Bennett played in eight games last season, including one start against Colorado. He finished the year with 369 passing yards and six touchdowns, along with recording 200 yards on the ground. Bennett entered spring practice with an edge, but Mariota closed the gap. The redshirt freshman dazzled in the spring game, throwing for 202 yards and one score, while adding 99 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Both players should be more dynamic on the ground than their predecessor (Darron Thomas). It could be a mystery as to which Oregon quarterback will be in the opener against Arkansas State, and both players could play significant snaps in 2012. Regardless of whether Mariota or Bennett starts the year, it’s unlikely the Ducks will have many concerns under center.

2. How big of a concern is USC’s defensive line?
The Trojans’ best defense in 2012 may be the offense. With Matt Barkley back under center and Robert Woods and Marqise Lee catching passes, USC will have no trouble averaging around 40 points a game in 2012 – which is important since the Trojans will have to win with offense. The defense made improvement in the second year under coordinator Monte Kiffin last season but suffered some key departures on the line. End Nick Perry and tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris depart, while end Devon Kennard suffered an injury in summer workouts and could miss 2012. With the personnel losses and Kennard’s injury, the Trojans are very thin up front. Wes Horton and George Uko are two solid building blocks, but the defense needs big contributions from freshmen Greg Townsend and Leonard Williams. USC’s issues in the trenches may not be a concern in Pac-12 play, but a national title appearance against a team from the SEC could expose the concerns up front.   

3. How quickly will Arizona, Arizona State and Washington State reap the benefits from their new coaches?
We’ve heard it enough, and we’ve said it enough: The Pac-12 had an influx of good offensive coaches this offseason. But now that it’s time for fall camp, Rich Rodriguez, Mike Leach and Todd Graham have to get down to business. As much as Jeff Tuel/Marquess Wilson may fit Leach’s system or much as Matt Scott/Ka’Deem Carey may fit what Rodriguez wants to do, they still have to learn the offense. And those are just front-line skill position players. What about developing depth and the offensive line (an issue in particular for Wazzu)? At Arizona State, Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell take over a team with an entrenched running back (Cameron Marshall), a shaky quarterback situation -- not all that different from Pitt last season.

4. Will fresh faces on defense be enough to repair Washington this season?
The Huskies could at least be thankful for Clemson. Before the Orange Bowl, Washington’s 67 points and 777 yards allowed allowed to Baylor was the most embarrassing defensive performance of the postseason (and in terms of yards allowed, it was the third-worst of 2012). Coach Steve Sarkisian responded by cleaning house defensively, adding four new assistants including defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and recruiting whiz/line coach Tosh Lupoi. The new coaches will start from scratch for better or worse -- the Huskies’ defense will be young with only a couple of projected senior starters and a handful of freshmen on the depth chart. The defense may be a long-term fix, which could be trouble with LSU, Stanford, Oregon and USC all on the schedule in the first half.

5. If Stanford is going to rely on Stepfan Taylor to run the ball, who’s going to pave the way?
Wait, Stanford lost more than Andrew Luck in the offseason? Yes. David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, both taken in the first 42 picks on the NFL draft, are gone. The other three starters (left guard David Yankey, center Sam Schwartzstein and right tackle Cameron Fleming) are back to form a solid foundation for the line. There’s healthy competition among returning players for the two vacant slots. Stanford’s impressive freshman line class -- which included three linemen in the Athlon Consensus 100 -- will be worth watching as well. True freshmen rarely start on the offensive line anywhere, but we should note Martin and DeCastro both started as redshirt freshmen at Stanford.

6. Can Utah depend on quarterback Jordan Wynn?
The Utes basically lost their passing offense after Wynn was injured in the 31-14 loss to Washington. Although Jon Hays ended the year with 12 touchdowns, Utah wasn’t able to stretch the field. Wynn was off to a solid start last season, throwing for 727 yards and six touchdowns through the first four games. However, he has dealt with shoulder injuries in each of the last two seasons and has never started a full 12-game regular season slate. If healthy, Wynn clearly gives Utah the best chance to win. The Utes have an underrated group of receivers, led by senior DeVonte Christopher, so there’s no reason for Utah to struggle like it did last season through the air. New coordinator Brian Johnson will use more spread looks, but the Utes have to find a way to keep Wynn healthy and on the field to have any shot at winning the Pac-12 South crown.

7. Will California develop other receivers outside of Keenan Allen?
The Golden Bears didn’t have much depth at receiver last season, and this unit suffered some losses with Marvin Jones and Michael Calvin expiring their eligibility. Allen was clearly the No. 1 target for quarterback Zach Maynard, catching 98 passes for 1,343 yards and six scores. While Allen should have another big season, California has to find some other weapons to help take the pressure off of him. Freshmen Maurice Harris and Bryce Treggs are intriguing possibilities, while tight end Richard Rodgers is an emerging weapon. The Golden Bears could make some noise in the Pac-12 North race, but Allen can’t be the team’s only receiver in 2012.

8. How has Jim L. Mora adjusted to the college game?
It’s no secret NFL coaches struggle in the college game -- Bill Callahan, Mike Sherman, Dave Wannstedt, Chan Gailey, to name a few. Working with 18-22 year olds with class demands and practice time limitations isn’t anything like working with professionals. Mora seems to understand some of these limitations, and he surrounded himself with a handful quality veteran college assistants. The first indications of whether he’s adjusted to the college game may be felt in fall camp. He’s already hoping to build team chemistry and camaraderie by taking the Bruins off-campus to Cal State-San Bernardino for two weeks of practice while UCLA’s practice field is renovated. And he’s pledged to bring toughness to the Bruins. Mora will have a chance to find out what he’s jumped into when the Bruins face Nebraska in Week Two.

9. Is there hope in Boulder?
Defeating Arizona at home and Utah on the road in the final three games at least gave Colorado something on which to build for 2012, but the Buffaloes still look to be grasping for answers. The Buffs likely will play a significant amount of freshmen and sophomores, a tough proposition for a team that went 3-10 and visits USC and Oregon in October. Wide receiver Paul Richardson, Colorado’s top offensive player, is hopeful he’ll make a quick recovery from a torn ACL from spring practice to play this season. Colorado can hope for that, but a bowl game might have to wait until this core group of freshmen and sophomores are juniors and seniors.

10. Can Oregon State generate a rushing attack?
For the first time since 2004, Oregon State failed to have a 1,000-yard rusher last season. Malcolm Agnew burst onto the scene in the opener, rushing for 223 yards and three touchdowns in the 29-28 loss to Sacramento State. However, hamstring injuries limited Agnew for most of last season and he managed only 200 yards the rest of the way. Jovan Stevenson and Terron Ward each chipped in just over 200 yards, and the Beavers finished with only 1,043 rushing yards as a team last year. For Oregon State to make a run back to a bowl game, the offense has to find some balance. Quarterback Sean Mannion and receiver Markus Wheaton is a dangerous combination, but the Beavers need to escape the Pac-12 cellar in rushing offense. Agnew is the team’s best option, but he also needs to stay healthy. A committee approach would not be a surprise, especially if incoming freshman Chris Brown impresses in fall practice. 
 

 

by David Fox (@DavidFox615) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Related Pac-12 Content

Predicting the Pac-12's Breakout Players for 2012
College Football's 20 Worst Coaching Tenures of the last 50 Years

Ranking the Pac-12's Linebacking Corps for 2012

Ranking the Pac-12's Defensive Lines for 2012

Ranking the Pac-12's Offensive Lines for 2012

Ranking the Pac-12's Wide Receiving Corps for 2012

Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections

College Football's Top 10 Impact Transfers for 2012

Athlon's 2012 All-Pac-12 Team

Top 25 Pac-12 Heisman Contenders for 2012

Athlon's 2012 Pac-12 Predictions

Teaser:
<p> Pac-12's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 2, 2012 - 05:28
All taxonomy terms: NFC, NFC East, Washington Redskins, NFL
Path: /nfl/washington-redskins-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Washington Redskins check in at No. 22.

Mike Shanahan believes he identified the Redskins’ biggest problem, and he tried to solve it by trading three first-round draft picks and a second-rounder to select Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III out of Baylor. Shanahan finally has at his disposal an electrifying playmaker who dazzled at the collegiate level. Not only should Griffin inject life into an offense that ranked 20th in the NFL in yards per play (5.2) last season, but he also buys Shanahan some time following consecutive last-place finishes.

It might not come to that, though. The Redskins return everyone in the defensive front seven, which was their biggest strength in 2011. Washington also upgraded a punchless receiving corps in free agency. Considering that they lost six games by only one possession last season, don’t be surprised if the Redskins compete for a playoff spot.

Offense

Shanahan normally restrains himself when praising players, but he was giddy when discussing Griffin following rookie minicamp in May. He believes Griffin’s combination of speed and arm strength will allow him to challenge defenses on the perimeter in unprecedented ways. Shanahan will trim the playbook this season and tailor it to ease Griffin into the NFL, but expect plenty of the misdirection and play-action that have been characteristic of Shanahan’s offenses over the years. The biggest questions surrounding Griffin involve his ability to master footwork and read defenses. His work ethic is as strong as it gets, though, so he’ll exert whatever effort it takes to fix any shortcomings. Consider that incumbent starter Rex Grossman turned the ball over 25 times in 13 starts last season. It shouldn’t be difficult for Griffin to improve in that category.

Griffin can’t do it alone, of course. Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the offensive coordinator, want the running game to be the offense’s driving force. Tim Hightower is coming off a torn ACL in his left knee, but he’s the best-suited running back for the outside zone scheme. His speed, vision, blocking skills and ability to square his shoulders to the line of scrimmage and burst up field give him an edge over Roy Helu, who capably filled in after Hightower was hurt last Oct. 23. Expect both to contribute significantly.

Washington’s offensive line, however, is not a strength, even though last season’s entire first string returns. Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger tore multiple right knee ligaments last Oct. 16. That could reduce the speed that makes him so valuable. Right tackle Jammal Brown, 31, resorted to yoga in the offseason to improve the range of motion in his left hip that was surgically repaired three years ago.

Griffin has some pass-catching weapons at his disposal. Coaches last season lamented a dearth of playmakers, so they signed free agent receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. Garcon’s speed provides the Redskins a deep threat and a player who can gain yards after the catch. Morgan will do a bit of everything, including play the slot in three-receiver sets. Second-year receiver Leonard Hankerson is coming off surgery to repair the labrum in his right hip, but coaches love his speed and how he uses his 6'2", 209-pound frame. Tight end Fred Davis is back following a four-game drug suspension that cost him the team lead in receptions.

Related: Top Washington Redskins Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

Shanahan wanted a formidable defense in place when he drafted his franchise quarterback, and the Redskins aren’t far off. A unit that often played from behind last season ranked 17th in yards allowed per play (5.5) but kept Washington competitive in many games.

The Redskins re-signed inside linebacker London Fletcher and left defensive end Adam Carriker to keep intact a front seven that was the team’s greatest strength. Bringing Fletcher back was essential. The defensive captain led the NFL with 166 tackles. More important, he sets the front seven after the huddle, and the Redskins had no replacement for him.

Up front, Barry Cofield promises to be a savvier nose tackle in his second season playing the position. He has seen how divisional opponents want to block him. Defensive end Jarvis Jenkins’ return should be a major boost. Before he lost his entire rookie season to a torn ACL in his right knee, he had some coaches calling him the team’s best lineman because of his speed and power.

The secondary challenges the offensive line for the area of greatest weakness. Safety is a major concern. Free safety Brandon Meriweather, a Pro Bowler as recently as 2010, is on his third team in three seasons. Oft-injured strong safety LaRon Landry, a first-round pick in 2007, signed with the New York Jets, leaving a hole that likely will be filled by committee. Josh Wilson was Washington’s best cover corner last season, better than three-time Pro Bowler DeAngelo Hall. That’s not necessarily a good thing, especially with a lack of quality cornerback depth. The Redskins need more plays on the ball from the back end.

Specialists

Kicker Graham Gano enters his third full season still needing to prove himself. Five of his 10 missed field goals last season were blocked — most in the NFL. Coaches desire improved mental toughness from him. Veteran Neil Rackers will compete with Gano in training camp. Rackers’ field goal percentage has decreased each of the last two seasons. Gano has the advantage partly because he excels at the directional kickoffs the Redskins employ. Sav Rocca last season was the best punter the Redskins have had in years. His 28 punts inside the 20 tied for the eighth-most in the NFL.

Return specialist Brandon Banks must prove his worth after failing to score last season. He suffered from the new kickoff rules and averaged only 9.1 yards per punt return.

Final Analysis: 4th in the NFC East

Too many turnovers and too few playmakers relegated the Redskins to a fourth consecutive last-place finish in the NFC East. Griffin should help both of those problems. Every rookie quarterback is going to throw picks, but Griffin only has to average fewer than 1.5 per game to improve on what Grossman and John Beck did last season. The Redskins finally have some skill-position players for whom opponents have to game-plan. If the offensive line holds up, this group could rise from the doldrums and be a pleasant surprise.

A solid defense needs to sustain the status quo in order for the offensive upgrades to make a difference. The defense was remarkably healthy in 2011, and there is formidable talent in the front seven. An improved offense must take some pressure off the defense in terms of field position and playing with a lead.

The Redskins swept the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants last season, so there are signs of quality. Shanahan is capable of coaching this group to the playoffs, but even if they fall short, expect a major step forward and a more exciting brand of football.

Related: 2012 Washington Redskins Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Run, Robert, Run
Robert Griffin III ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. More impressive, perhaps: He missed the national high school record in the 300-meter hurdles by one hundredth of a second during his junior year. He did not break it the next year because he enrolled early at Baylor.

Wise Guy
RG3’s off-the-field makeup impressed the Redskins as much as his on-field talent. He graduated high school in three-and-a-half years, finishing seventh in his class. He then graduated from Baylor in three years with a degree in political science. He’s closing in on a master’s degree in communications.

Alone At The Top
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett begins his third season in an awkward spot. He did not hire any of Washington’s defensive assistants. Line coach Jacob Burney and linebackers coach Bob Slowik are Mike Shanahan’s guys. New defensive backs coach Raheem Morris was with Tampa Bay under Redskins general manger Bruce Allen. Keep an eye on Haslett’s status this year.

Where’s Niles?
The Redskins converted second-year receiver Niles Paul to tight end during the offseason. With the numbers Washington has at wide receiver, the switch might help Paul, a fifth-round pick out of Nebraska, see the field. The move could affect the status of Chris Cooley, who finished last season on injured reserve (left knee).

Let It Rain
The Redskins in the offseason opened an indoor practice facility, a grassy turf field covered by an inflated bubble. In recent seasons, they held practices on stormy days inside a local airplane hangar or basketball gym. That’s not exactly how Mike Shanahan wants to prepare for game conditions.

Play Day
Dozens of players turned out in May for the Leukemia Golf Classic, hosted by linebacker Brian Orakpo. The fundraiser, which used to be hosted by quarterback Jason Campbell, has become something of a Redskins tradition. To encourage attendance, Shanahan gave players that day off but counted it against the number of workout days the NFL permits.

Going Old School
The Redskins will wear throwback uniforms for two home games this season as part of celebrating the franchise’s 80th anniversary. The uniforms, with burgundy jerseys and gold pants, are replicas of ones worn in 1937. The coolest touch? The helmets appear as though they’re made of brown leather.

Twitter King
Defensive end Adam Carriker has emerged as the most entertaining Redskin on Twitter. Among the gems from @BigPoppaPump94: “Boy, TSA workers sure don’t like it if you moan while they pat you down.”

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Fri., Aug. 3

Order your 2012 Washington Redskins Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Washington Redskins Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Washington Redskins Bucs Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Washington Redskins 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 2, 2012 - 05:00
All taxonomy terms: NFC, NFC East, Washington Redskins, NFL
Path: /nfl/washington-redskins-top-twitter-accounts-follow
Body:

Keeping up with your favorite team can be an all-consuming task. We’re here to help indulge that need to follow all aspects of the NFL on Twitter.

For all 32 teams, we’re picking the best Twitter accounts for each franchise. They run the gamut from players, coaches, executives, traditional media, bloggers or simply accounts that keep us informed and entertained.

Whether you’re a Twitter neophyte or simply trying to spice up your feed for football season, we’re here to help. And it all starts with the Washington Redskins official Twitter account:

@Redskins (Followers: 113,165)

Top Redskins To Follow:

Note: Followers as of date of publication, August 2, 2012

  Name Pos. Twitter Followers
1. Robert Griffin III QB @RGIII 277,348
2. Joshua Morgan WR @FeetzMorgan202 103,944
3. Pierre Garcon WR @PierreGarcon 89,476
4. DeAngelo Hall CB @Dhall23 88,869
5. Brian Orakpo LB @rak98 48,412
6. London Fletcher LB @LFletcher59 39,880
7. Ryan Kerrigan LB @RyanKerrigan91 37,840
8. Santana Moss WR @EIGHTTODANINE 28,774
9. Niles Paul WR @Niles_Paul84 23,088
10. Evan Royster RB @Evan_Royster 22,156
11. Kirk Cousins QB @KirkCousins8 21,340
12. Brandon Banks WR @speedybanks16 19,744
13. Terrence Austin WR @Terrence_Austin 19,306
14. Anthony Armstrong WR @MrArmstrong13 18,113
15. Leonard Hankerson WR @HankTime85 16,554
16. Tim Hightower RB @Tim_Hightower 16,178
17. Adam Carriker DE @AdamCarriker94 14,232
18. Jarvis Jenkins DE @Jarvis99jenkins 13,270
19. Reed Doughty S @doughty37 8,426
20. Stephen Bowen DE @stevebo72 7,958
21. Chris Neild NT @TruckNeild 5,801
22. Graham Gano K @GrahamGano 5,043
23. Chris Baker NT @cbaker92redskin 2,600
24. Richard Crawford Jr. CB @Rich_Crawford6 1,538

It's probably no surprise that even though he's yet to take a snap in the NFL, Robert Griffin III is the runaway leader in terms of Twitter followers on the Redskins' roster. What may be a little more surprising, however, is that the team's current No. 2 and 3 on the list are also newcomers — wide receivers Joshua Morgan and Pierre Garcon, both of whom who signed as free agents this offsesason.

In fact, a total of eight wideouts currently on the Skins' roster, along with running backs Evan Royster and Tim Hightower (Roy Helu where are you?) fall among the team's Top 16 Twitterers. No doubt Redskins fans are hoping the offense will be just as explosive this season as their playmakers' Twitter feeds appear to be.

If you wish to relive some of the Redskins' glory years of the past, you can follow Joe Gibbs (@CoachJoeGibbs), Joe Theismann (@Theismann7), Darrell Green (@darrellgreen28), John Riggins (@riggo44) and Brian Mitchell (@BmitchliveCSN). Alas, Albert Haynesworth doesn't appear to have an active Twitter account right now.

The Redskins Beat:

Mark Maske, NFL reporter for The Washington Post, contributor to The Insider blog: @MarkMaske (11,167)

Chris Russell, Redskins Insider for ESPN Radio 980, also can be heard on the Redskins Radio Network: @Russellmania980 (9,009)

Rich Campbell, beat writer for The Washington Times: @Rich_Campbell (7,638)

Mike Jones, beat writer for The Washington Post: @MikeJonesWaPo (6,460)

John Keim, beat writer for the Washington Examiner: @john_keim (6,369)

Barry Svrluga, helps cover Redskins for The Washington Post: @barrysvrluga (4,487)

Redskins Blog Roll:

The Insider (@Insider) is The Washington Post's Redskins blog, featuring the work of beat writers Mike Jones, Mark Maske and Barry Svrluga.

Redskins Watch is The Washington Times' online destination for all you need or want to know about the team.

Redskins Confidential is the Washington Examiner's 'Skins-dedicated online home.

Chris Russell's blog is just one part of ESPN Radio 980's Redskins Portal.

Hogs Haven is SB Nation's Redskins blog.

Real Redskins is "The Original Redskins Blog Since 2004" run by @Rich_Tandler.

The Burgundy Warpath, Riggo's Rag, Redskins Hog Heaven, and Redskins Gab out in cyberspace for your perusal.

The ESPN NFC East blog is run by Dan Graziano and you can follow him @espn_nfceast.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Fri., Aug. 3

Order your 2012 Washington Redskins Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Washington Redskins Season Preview
Related: 2012 Washington Redskins Schedule Analysis

- By Braden Gall and Mark Ross, published on August 2, 2012

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Washington Redskins Top Twitter Accounts To Follow</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 2, 2012 - 04:59
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/2012-college-football-awards-top-return-specialists
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Football is a game of field position. Other than huge turnovers and big offensive plays, special teams is the best way to tilt the field in your favor. A huge return can also get the crowd riled-up and back into the game.

Additionally, some of the most electric and dynamic players in the history of college sports were human joysticks on special teams. Devin Hester, Reggie Bush, Ted Ginn Jr., and, of course, Prime Time are just a few of the names who have made quite a living simply on special teams. Some of the most exciting and ridiculous plays each season will come from returnmen. Just ask the Tennessee Vols about trying to stop Joe Adams. And if you can perform on both the punt and kick return teams, you are that much more valuable.

So who are the college football's most exciting return men in 2012:

1. De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon (SO)

There may not be a more explosive, more dynamic player in all of the nation. Aside from playing both running back and wide receiver, Thomas excelled as a return man. He scored twice on kick returns against Washington State and then again in a clutch performance against USC. He finished with 983 yards on 36 kicks. He only had three punt returns, but averaged 17.3 yards per clip.

2. Sammy Watkins, Clemson (SO)

Another sophomore who is simply unstoppable with the ball in his hands. He runs, catches and returns kicks with ease. He returned 33 kicks a year ago for 826 yards and one huge score in the improbable road comeback against Maryland. His talents may be too great to use him in the punting game, but make no mistake, few players can take it the distance like Watkins.

3. Tyrann Mathieu, LSU (JR)

The diminutive Heisman finalist got to New York based mostly on his play as a punt returner. He is likely the top player at that position nationally and his two scores against Arkansas and Georgia shifted momentum in LSU's favor a year ago. His skills as a coverman are overrated but his ability to slide past oncoming traffic and change a game on one special teams play is undeniable.

4. Tyler Lockett, Kansas State (SO)

This freshman was hampered by injury a year ago and missed the final four games of the year. He might also have been underused to start the year or else his 35.2 yards per kick return would have ranked as the best in the nation. He also scored twice and will see more touches in 2012.

5. Tavon Austin, West Virginia (SR)

His 14.1-yard punt return average was good for sixth in the nation last fall and his 26.1 kick return average placed him in the top 20 nationally. He scored twice on special teams, taking a kick back for six points against both Marshall and South Florida. He led the nation in all-purpose yards in 2011.

6. Raheem Mostert, Purdue (SO)

As only a freshman, Mostert got 25 kick returns under his belt and he ended-up leading the nation with a 33.5 yards per return clip. He took one back to the house in Purdue first bowl win since 2007 and should return in 2012 with a year's worth of experience under his belt.

7. Quandre Diggs, Texas (SO)

Another sophomore, Diggs has NFL pedigree and NFL talent. He posted an absurd 20.1 yards per punt return on nine tries and didn't even get the job until halfway through the season. His explosive, big-play talent was evident the second he stepped onto the 40 Acres as he performs double-duty on both kick and punt returns. Special teams coaches better beware in 2012.

8. Jamal Miles, Arizona State (SR)

There were his two kick return touchdowns on 30 attempts that gave the Sun Devil a healthy 26.3 per return average. And then there was his punt return touchdown and 16.6 per return average. Had Miles qualified at punt returner (he had 14 attempts), he would have finished third nationally. 

9. Tracy Lampley, Southern Miss (SR)

Another guy who is used in every aspect of the game, Lampley performed well as both a punt and kick specialist last fall. He returned one punt for a score against East Carolina and finished with per touch averages of 11.5 yards on punts and 21.3 yards on kicks. He also got 91 carries and 47 receptions. He will be used once again in 2012 in all phases of the game. 

10. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin (JR)
Sure-handed receiver was leading the nation in PR until final weekend. Should be a bigger factor on Wisconsin's offense and special teams in 2012.

The Best of the Rest:

11. Darryl Surgent, UL Lafayette (JR)
Really came on as the year went along as dual-threat: 27 PR (11.9) and 37 KR (20.9)

12. Dustin Harris, Texas A&M (SR)
Led the nation in punt returns at 18.6 yards thanks to Kansas game (3-162-1).

13. Andre Booker, Marshall (SR)
Works double duty on both kicks (24.8) and punts (10.8).

14. Nick Hill, Michigan State (SO)
Stellar freshman season returning kicks (26.3) will add punt returns to resume this fall.

 

Others to Consider:

Branden Smith, Georgia (SR)
T.J. Thorpe, North Carolina (SO)
Ralph David Abernathy IV, Cincinnati (SO)
Nick Williams, UConn (SR)
Isaiah Burse, Fresno State (SO)
Rannell Hall, UCF (SO)
Derrick Strozier, Tulane (JR)
Christian Jones, Alabama (SO)
Adrian Bushell, Louisville (SR)
Dustin Harris, Texas A&M (SR)
Jordan Hall, Ohio State (SR)

-by Braden Gall

 @bradengall

2012 College Football Awards:

Top 25 Heisman Candidates

The Nation's Top Pure Lockdown Cover Corners

The Nation's Top Dual-Threat Quarterbacks

Ranking the Nation's Top Pass Rushers for 2012

Who are the Nation's Top Return Specialists?

Teaser:
<p> 2012 College Football Awards: Top Return Specialists</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 2, 2012 - 04:00
All taxonomy terms: Tennessee Volunteers, SEC, News
Path: /news/tennessee-fans-create-another-bad-college-football-rivalry-video
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We are all for creativity and cheering for your college football team, but sometimes it can result in some embarrassing videos. 

Remember Texas A&M's Welcome to the SEC video? That was only one of many bad college football song/cheer videos that have been released this summer.

The trend continues with the band Elevated releasing the song and video "Overcome the Tide." We give them points for creativity, but the execution and song is certainly lacking.

Our reaction? The college football season can't get here fast enough.

Teaser:
<p> Tennessee Fans Create Another Bad College Football Rivalry Video</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 - 15:37
Path: /nascar/backseat-drivers-fan-council-20
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead at Indianapolis, giving his fans something to cheer about in a season where there have been plenty of highlights. Although the points will be reset at the start of the Chase, the question becomes can Earnhardt continue his successful season and win the championship?

That was among the questions Backseat Drivers Fan Council members were asked about last weekend’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Here’s what they had to say about those issues and more:


Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the championship?
Earnhardt took the points lead at Indianapolis, the first time he’s led the points since late in the 2004 season. Fan Council members were asked if they thought he would win the championship this year:

64.5 percent said No
35.5 percent said Yes

What Fan Council members said:
• Even though I've been an Earnhardt fan all my life and have been hoping that Junior would finally win a Cup championship, I don't think this is the year. First, Jimmie Johnson served notice (Sunday) that anyone winning the championship this year will have to beat him to do it. Next, even though Junior is perhaps the most consistent driver in the sport this year, consistency, without wins won't get the job done. I think he'll win again. Ultimately, though, I think 5-Time becomes 6-Time. Jimmie is just too good.

• One win in four years. Letarte's track record in the Chase is pretty poor, especially when he got used up by Knaus in 2007. Earnhardt's record in the Chase isn't much better. There's no value in leading the points before the Chase.

• It's hard to pinpoint just why I don't think he will win. I think it's a combination of a lack of complete faith in Steve Letarte's ability to close the deal along with the feeling the luck he's had will not last. On the other hand, I do see maturity in Junior that just might supersede everything else.

• This has been his most consistent year. Consistency wins championships.

• He has yet to convince me he has the killer instinct to go out and drive beyond the car to go out and win more races and win the Chase.

• As a Junior fan, I'm just worried the team is gonna choke.

• As Steve Letarte said in a pre-race interview, “Give FIVE reasons why they won’t AND I’ll give ya FIVE reasons why they can.”

• Dale Jr. does not have the mental/emotional fortitude to win the championship. He has a tendency to get focused on and bothered by things that distract him. I believe Steve Letarte will give him the cars, and his crew will give him the performances necessary to win a championship, but I believe Junior will get distracted by something the media says, the fans want (or are saying) and he will lose enough focus to lose the championship. I believe he will learn that lesson and be a stronger contender for the championship the next time he's in the position.

• He has momentum behind him, a great owner and crew chief and crew. Plus he has Junior Nation behind him. It's his to lose.

• Even though he doesn't have the most wins this season has been the most consistent — but that isn't going to help with the last 10 races. Guys like Johnson and Stewart are going to step up and start rattling off wins and top 5s in the last 10 races. If Dale Jr. wins a couple more races before the Chase I would change my answer.

• Sorry Junior Nation, he's not going to win it. It will take multiple wins in the Chase to win it and his team is more about consistency. I also don't think he has the killer instinct it takes to win it. Until someone else wins one, I'm not sure anybody but Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart can win the title. I think it comes down to those two guys.

• Most consistent driver all year. He will win another race this year and capture that elusive championship. He is surviving the summer months well, where he typically does poor, which indicates that come fall, he will excel. I’ve never seen Junior this confident, mature and consistent.

• While he is my driver, I don't see domination. I see speed and consistency from the 88 team — and they belong in the Chase — but the winner of the Chase will dominate throughout it.

• I have to answer “yes.” I am a Junior fan and I have to have that faith. I am scared to even think it though, for fear that I will jinx him and Junior Nation! Regardless, I am so proud of his (and the entire 88 team’s) performance this year. BRAVO!
 

Teaser:
<p> Dustin Long's Backseat Drivers Fan Council grades NASCAR's visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, ESPN's broadcast of it and ponders whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. can win the Sprint Cup title in 2012.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 - 13:31

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